Arkteia is the name of a little known initiation ritual for young girls that took place in Attica, at Brauron, where Artemis was worshipped.
Ruins of the Temple of Artemis at Brauron:
The initiation consisted in a rite of passage between prepuberty/childhood and puberty/adolescence, when the young girls experience a physical development and the appearance of the first menstrual cycle, i.e. the ability to procreate: the necessary condition to become wives and mothers. Not casually the Arkteia’s ceremony took place around the Spring Equinox: as Nature returned to generate after the sterility of Winter, so the young girls celebrated their ability to give birth (i.e. puberty) after the “sterility” of childhood.
Note: the arrival of the first menstruation/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 were between the ages of 5 and 10 (ideally around 10 and they could not exceed the 10-11 years), to have the absolute cetainty that the first menarche occured after the rite of passage, through which they reached the social puberty while the biological puberty would have manifested even after some years.
These young girls who served Artemis at Brauron were called “arktoi”, “she-bears” (from Greek “arktos”, “bear”), and Artemis herself (the Greek verb “arktéuo” means “I consacrate myself to Artemis”) was originally considered a she-bear, as her name suggests (from the root arkt-/*arto-, “bear”, and the PIE root *rktos/*rtko, again “bear”): indeed in the cult of Artemis at Brauron the goddess was worshipped as the “Great She-Bear”, and her young priestesses originally wore bear skins along with bear masks during the rituals. Eventually the bear skins were substituted with saffron/honey colored dresses, from which the young girls undressed (previously they took off the bear masks and skins) at the end of the Arkteia’s ceremony, act that coincided with the symbolic death of the young girls as they were during childhood, death followed by their rebirth as women.
Statuette representing an Artemis’s she-bear:
The relation with the bear lies in the Bear Cult originated in the Stone Age and in the period of lethargy/hibernation that this animal faces every year: when Spring comes then the bear returns to life after an apparent/symbolic death, and so did the arktoi. According to the sources the arktoi of Brauron had to appease and ingratiate Artemis, or they risked to incur in her rage (like the child that primordially had to bring honey in the cave of the she-bear to placate her). We know also that these young girls became (by means of sympathetic sorcery) little she-bears during the rite of passage, and they represented the virgin handmaidens that in the Greek mythology follow Artemis in the wilderness: Artemis was originally a she-bear and her handmaidens were nothing else than her cubs, i.e. the little girls who followed the she-bear in her cave to face the initiation ritual and that because of this were seen as cubs who followed her mother in the lair.
Artemis and her handmaidens:
The role of mother and wife was sacred and honoured by our ancestors, it was of the utmost importance! Thanks to it the eternal rebirth within the ancestry was safeguarded!