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Health and wellbeing in the ancient world
Health and wellbeing in the ancient world

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3.2 Girls growing up

Girls learned about growing up, and about being a mother, in several ways: from ritual, from play, and from the theories about how their bodies worked.

Very little is known about the rituals associated with becoming a woman, though it is known that girls would dedicate their childhood toys to a goddess when they married. A ritual called the arkteia was celebrated in classical Athens at Brauron, a settlement in Attica (the geographical territory centred on Athens). The ritual may have been a sort of initiation, or may have been done to appease the goddess Artemis, who was known to bring disease.

Small statues of children from the ancient temple of Artemis in Brauron, Greece.
Figure 13 Statues of children from the temple of Artemis in Brauron, Greece

The main evidence for this is a literary source: Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata lists various ritual activities performed by girls growing up, one of which is ‘playing the bear for Artemis’ (lines 644–645). The context here is that the female chorus in the play is making a case for their right to advise the city. The other evidence comes from Brauron itself: fragments of pottery on which girls seem to be dancing or running. On one fragment, an older woman – possibly a priestess – is wearing a bear mask and raising her hands as if to threaten. One of the pieces of information about bears which is given in ancient natural history is that they literally lick their cubs into shape. This could suggest that the girls who perform the arkteia – a word which comes from the term for bear, arktos – are learning how to shape their own future babies. Swaddling, as you will see in Week 6, was thought to ‘shape’ the child’s body.

Wooden doll from the second century CE
Figure 14 Wooden doll from second century CE

Nearly 500 dolls from the Roman world have been found , dating between the second and fourth centuries CE. Some, such as those made of ivory or bone, survive in girls’ burials – these may have articulated limbs – while others found in Egypt were made of cloth. Most have the proportions of an adult woman, and may also have intricate hairstyles. It is possible that playing with these dolls helped girls to think about their future roles as wives and mothers.

One medical text, the title of which could be translated as Diseases of Virgins, Illness of Maidens or Diseases of Young Girls, describes in detail the effects on a girl’s body if she remained unmarried when she was ‘ripe for marriage’. The blood will be unable to leave her body and will instead move up to the diaphragm, believed by the author to be the seat of consciousness. She will have suicidal feelings and will see visions. The writer says that girls seek assistance from Artemis, but it was not the goddess who healed them; it was when their accumulated blood flowed out of the body. The writer ends with the advice that ‘if they conceive, they become healthy’, and the warning that married women who do not have children were also likely to suffer from this condition.