The festivity called Arkteia consisted of an initiation ritual for young girls that took place in Attica, at Brauron, a place where Artemis was worshipped.
Ruins of the Temple of Artemis at Brauron:
The initiation consisted in a rite of passage from prepuberty or childhood and puberty or adolescence, when the young girls experience a pronounced physical development and the appearance of the first menstrual cycle, i.e. the biological ability to procreate: the necessary condition to become wives and mothers. Not casually the Arkteia’s ceremony took place around the Spring Equinox: just like Nature returned to generate after the sterility of Winter, so the young girls celebrated their ability – which manifested itself after the “sterility” of childhood – to give birth.
Note: the coming of the first menstruation and biological puberty varies from population to population and also from individual to individual inside the same group, even with years of difference: that’s why the young girls of the Arkteia were aged between 5 and 10 years (ideally around and not beyond the 10 years), in order to have the absolute certainty that the first menarche would have occured after the rite of passage, through which they reached the social puberty whereas the biological puberty would have manifested itself even after some years.
These young girls were called arktoi, “she-bears” (from Greek “arktos”, “bear”), and Artemis herself (the Greek verb “arktéuo” means “I consacrate myself to Artemis”) was primordially considered a she-bear, as her name suggests (from the root *arto- and the PIE root *rtko, in both cases with the meaning of “bear”): indeed in the cult of Artemis at Brauron the goddess was worshipped as the “Great She-Bear” and her young priestesses originally wore, during the sacred functions and rituals, a bear mask and bear skins. Over time the bear skins were replaced by the krokoton, a saffron dress from which the young girls undressed (previously they took off the masks and bear skins) at the end of the Arkteia’s ceremony, act that coincided with the symbolic death of their childhood to which followed the rebirth as women.
Statuette portraying an arktoi of Artemis:
The symbolic relation with the bear lies in the period of hibernation that this animal faces every year: only when Spring comes and after an apparent death the bear returns to life, and the same concept was applied to the arktoi, which according to the sources had also to appease and ingratiate Artemis or they risked to incur in her rage, a vestige of the archaic initiatory ritual during which the children had to bring honey in the cave of the she-bear to nourish and placate it. We know also that these young girls, in the role of little she-bears during the rite of passage, represented the virgin handmaidens that in the Greek mythology follow Artemis in the wilderness: one of the most archaic manifestations of Artemis was indeed the she-bear and her handmaidens were nothing else than her cubs, i.e. the children that followed the she-bear in its cave to face the initiation and that for this reason were compared to the cubs that follow the mother in the lair.
Artemis and her handmaidens in animal form:
The role of wife and mother was considered sacred and honoured by our ancestors: thanks to it the eternal rebirth within the ancestry was safeguarded.