Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron
A prayer for daughters, for Myrto and Atalanta
τάςτεκόρας, Λιμνᾶτι, κόρᾳκόρα, ὡςἐπιεικές
Day-trip from Athens, on a day
Too fine for anyone to stay
Within the walls—and so we splurge
On time and gas, to river’s verge,
Where columns, reconstructed, stand
On tiptoes on the boggy land:
Cracked capitals—the nests of sparrows,
That, newly fledged, shoot forth like arrows
Into the blue—hold mostly pure
The stoa sometimes seems to stretch
Both upwards, and below the vetch,
In pools by wispy cirrus troubled
In which their fluted drums are doubled.
No one stands guard, or catalogs
The visitors, but belching frogs,
And from tall reeds we hear the words,
Though untranslatable, of birds.
The girls, our daughters, on the verge
Of growing up, up hillsides surge
In search of—climbing, pinecones, flowers,
Footholds, skinned knees, superpowers?
They’re near the age when other girls
Dedicated severed curls,
A tambourine or headband, ball
And brazen mirror, favorite doll,
And sometimes even jeweled rings,
Leaving behind their childish things
For Artemis, who never crosses
Age’s sill of gains and losses.
This realm of Artemis, this pool,
This temple, is just vestibule:
No mortal stays forever there,
But passes through, as “little bear.”
It is a simile that rubs
Both ways—see how they climb like cubs,
And how, on two feet, nothing wild
So much resembles a girl child!
Here in this sanctuary, here
Dropped in this spring that still springs clear,
Archaeologists have found
Bronze mirrors, toys, and jewelry drowned,
Where now, our muddy-footed daughters
Poke with sticks the tad-poled waters
Here Mneso offers, may you bless,
The votive of this frog-green dress.
The moment that seems, like the spring,
From stillness sprung, is on the wing,
As dragonflies—which are instead
Of jaded green, carnelian red
And hang like ornaments that stopped
Mid-air the instant they were dropped
Into the pool—seem in no hurry,
And yet their beating wings are blurry
With all the work of staying still,
As water weeps and flows downhill.
The two friends want of course to stay
A little longer. Call it play,
This state of being, outside time,
When it is not yet work to climb.
Goddess of girlhood, hear my prayer
For her, and my own little bear:
Lady of wilderness, grant that she
May dwell here long and happily
Before she leaves these hills for good
And crosses into womanhood,
(That busy city, where we go
With fretful list and task in tow),
Leave in her something else, unnamed,
Untrammeled, liminal, untamed.
Author’s Note: The sanctuary to Artemis at Brauron is an easy day trip from Athens in Attica, about seventeen miles away from the city center, and a beautiful spot, set near a hill in a little wetland area, not far from the sea. Here, in classical times, Athenian families would send their daughters on the edge of puberty to “play the bear” for the virgin goddess, where some sort of coming-of-age ritual was performed. The sanctuary may also have functioned as a sort of convent school for girls of good family. Here also girls would dedicate their toys and other childish things on becoming women, and women might leave dedications in gratitude for successful childbirth. The epigraph is taken from the third line of Greek anthology epigram, 6.280 (literally “these dolls, to the Lady of the Lake, a girl unto a girl, as is fitting”), which goes (in my lose translation):
Timerata, before her marriage, dedicates to You
Her tambourine, her pretty little ball, her hair band too,
And her dolls—one girl unto another—fitting gifts to make,
And also her doll’s dresses, Artemis, Lady of the Lake.
But Daughter of Leto, hold this daughter in your hand, ensure
In your purity that you keep Timerata pure.
—The Greek Anthology, epigram 6.280
This poem was commissioned by A Poets’ Agora, an annual poetry salon in Athens, Greece, for this year’s theme, “Verge.”