This post originally appeared as a GirlSpeak podcast episode.
In Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, the character of Cathy states “I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free.” This quote illustrates a nostalgia for girlhood, and the wildness and freedom associated with it. This is something that is often seen in history, culture and literature. Today, I’m going to explore this connection between wildness and girlhood, what it means and why it persists.
I’m going to look back, all the way to Ancient Greece, and talk about the festival of Arkteia at Brauron, which is a sanctuary near Athens. This is a festival in celebration of the goddess Artemis. Artemis was the Greek goddess of hunting, wild animals, the moon, chastity and, most interestingly, girlhood. She was a protector for women and girls, and had a key role in childbirth and disease. She was very important and not a goddess you wished to offend.
Unfortunately, this is exactly the origin of the Arkteia festival. There are two myths which explain the presence of this rite. Firstly, we have the story of Iphigeneia. Iphigeneia was the daughter of King Agamemnon, a well-known figure from Homer’s Iliad. In the myth, a sacred stag of Artemis had been slain by the Greeks and Artemis punished them by sending winds so unfavourable, they couldn’t set sail for Troy. In order to make amends, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter. When the terrible sacrifice occurs, Iphigeneia sheds her robes and tries to plead with those who try to sacrifice her. This symbolic shedding of robes is something we’ll see later when we look more closely at the activities in the festival.
The alternative origin myth involves the slaying of a bear, sacred to Artemis, in Athens. Therefore, the goddess threatened to send a plague to the city, unless every 4 years they dedicated their daughters to her in a festival. Despite their differences, in both myths, the Arkteia festival is a symbolic way of appeasing Artemis.
During the Arkteia festival, girls aged between 5-10 took part in various activities in honour of Artemis. We know about these from ancient literary sources, like in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, Callimachus’ Hymn to Artemis and Hesiod’s Theogony. In terms of archaeological evidence, the temple of Artemis at Brauron from 500BC has been found near the supposed tomb of Iphigeneia. We also have a lot of pottery, called Krateriskoi pottery. On these pieces, scenes from the festival are shown, with girls in processions, running, dancing and worshipping. Through all these sources, we have been able to reconstruct an idea of what happened during these rites, though the question of why is still unanswered.
As part of the Arkteia, these young girls dressed up as bears by putting on masks and saffron robes known as the krokotos. They would tend the shrine to Artemis, dance, race and, most importantly, ‘act the bear’. They would imitate she-bears to please the powerful huntress. There are some variations on the pottery and within the literary sources. Some say all girls in Athens had to perform this rite, others say only a select few did in a more representative ritual. The ages of girls are also up for debate, as are what they wore and who was allowed to watch. It’s a very mysterious ritual with no conclusive evidence. At one point in the ritual, the girls shed the saffron, Krokotos robe. This is meant to recall Iphigeneia shedding her robe before she was killed. Therefore, this forms a link between the ritual and the myth.
There are lots of debates today about what the function of this festival was, besides the obvious of worshipping Artemis.
Some scholars believe the Arkteia was a kind of ‘maturation rite’, a purging of wildness before these girls became mature and ready for marriage. Some scholars argue that ‘marriage is to girls what war is to boys’ in the ancient world, and therefore there needed to be a kind of initiation and transition into it. It was necessary to purge their wildness, which was seen as inappropriate behaviour for women, in order to mature and proceed into the world of marriage and domestic life. They believed the krokotos (the robe) was meant to be seen as ‘sexually ambivalent’ and feminine. The shedding of this robe was some sort of rehearsal for their future wedding nights. This activity was taking place under the protection of Artemis. Therefore, this wildness and sexuality was codified, ritualized even, and therefore ‘safe’.
This interpretation is up for debate, especially in modern day. One of the main reasons that people don’t agree with this anymore is due to the ages of the girls participating. They are aged 5-10. And whilst girls did marry at a younger age in 5th century Greece, usually around 15, this is still inappropriate for pre-pubescent girls, children! This interpretation could be due to the majority of research being carried out by male scholars in the-20th century, who assumed a female-orientated ritual had to be related to marriage in some way. Also, we know the robe-shedding element is more likely linked to Iphigeneia and her sacrifice instead.
Instead, it seems more likely that this ritual is about appeasing Artemis, not so much the girls and their maturation. As Artemis happens to be patron protector of girls, it makes sense that they are involved! Scholars argue that it is about pleasing Artemis, both for the sake of the city (as the origin myths show) and for the girls futures. It could indeed be a purge of wildness to make sure Artemis blessed their future marriages and protected them during childbirth. However, there is nothing inherently sexual about this and it is not about ‘maturing’ or transitioning into womanhood. In Ancient Greece, girls were raised with the goal of marriage in mind, so it formed a huge part of their upbringing and socialization.
This ritual raises the questions of what is wildness, really? Why is it seen as a bad thing, something to be purged, especially when shown by girls?
We see this wildness in other parts of the ancient world. For example, the Greek god Dionysus was the god of wine and partying. His followers were called Maenads and were primarily women. They would exist outside the social norms and be seen as inappropriate, shameful and wild. It’s interesting that wildness often existed in ritual settings, where it could be controlled and ‘safe’.
Within the Dionysian cult, there was a ‘Tarantella’ dance, which formed part of their worship. This was a fast dance, used to purge madness or illness. For example, a bite from a spider (hence the name). Again, we’re seeing this idea of purging wildness through being wild – dancing, running or acting. As if it is something that must be gotten rid of.
In more modern contexts, there are lots of examples in literature of girls mourning their childhood and the freedom they had, whilst in the adult lives they are constrained and expected to behave in a domestic, ‘tamed’ way. For example, Cathy in Wuthering Heights, Jo in Little Women, Cassandra in I Capture the Castle, and most Disney princesses share a song or two about fearing the unknown, growing up and feeling trapped. In fairy-tales, girls are often warned not to enter the forest alone, not to stray from the path and to be wary of wild animals.
So, why is wildness in girls something that has to be lost? Why is this something so frequently commented on when displayed by girls but not boys? Is it because girls, until relatively recently (at least in the Western world) were expected to lose that wildness and behave in ways society saw as acceptable? Why do we have such a sense of loss and nostalgia for our childhood selves? Can this wildness, this sense of freedom, ever be regained?
The Arkteia festival to Artemis can teach us that girls are not meant to be tame. They are not born to be quiet, restrained or subdued. Even in the ancient world, this seemingly innate wildness was always there. It was always acknowledged. It didn’t necessarily align with society’s values, so was ‘purged’ or only allowed to exist in childhood, and even then under the careful eye of a deity. But this proves that it is natural and not something bad. It has only been deemed undesirable by society. Wildness, freedom and playfulness are things that should be celebrated and encouraged in girls and should not be lost as we grow up.
-Harriet Kent, Junior Girl