A few days ago, I spoke about coming of age ceremonies in ancient Athens, and referenced the Arrephoria (Ἀρρηφόρια) festival. Today, I want to take some time to discuss this secret rite to Athena Polias in more detail. The festival wasn't a state festival; young girls in the service performed a ritual for Athena Polias as a public service, but beyond those girls, their mentors, and perhaps their parents, no one was very concerned with it. As with most secret rites, I'm sure people knew a rite was being held, but knew it was not their business to interfere. As long as the rite was performed, all would be well for them.

As said in the post on coming of age ceremonies, young girls rarely had a role to play in household worship. The family only had them with them for thirteen to fifteen years, on average, after that, she joined her rightful place at the oikos of her husband, where she carried more (religious) responsibility. Outside of the home, however, young girls were placed in service of female deities quite often, especially in city-states like Athens. The girls who were selected for this were in service of Athena Polias for an entire year and were called 'Arrephoros' (Ἀρρήφορος), Arrephoroi as a group, consisting of four members.

The Arrephoroi were always girls between the age of seven and eleven, although seven and ten seem to be the ages that are mentioned most often. They were selected from the wealthy and powerful families of Athens, as those families were considered to be especially blessed. Excavations on the Acropolis have led to the discovery of their quarters, and even their playground. It seems even mini-priestesses can't be priestesses all the time. The young girls seem to have favored ball games, and were lodged near the Erechtheion in an area which was the main inhabited area on the Acropolis in Mycenaean times.

The Arrephoroi had three important tasks to perform in their term. One of the tasks the young girls assisted in was the creation of the peplos for Athena Polias, which was presented to Her during the Panathenaia. Secondly, they were almost solely in charge of grounding the meal for the honey cakes which were placed upon the altar of Athena during religious ceremonies. As a special part of their service, they performed the Arrephoria. During the Arrephoria, the priestess of Athena Polias gave the young arrephoroi sealed baskets to carry to a nearby cave. Here, the girls were supposed to enter, walk the corridor, set down their baskets at the end and pick up ones which have stood there for a year. When they returned with the baskets, it signaled the end of their year of service and they were dismissed. They were replaced with new girls who would serve the Theia. Pausanias has the fullest description of the festival described in book one of his 'Description of Greece':

"Two maidens dwell not far from the temple of Athena Polias, called by the Athenians Bearers of the Sacred Offerings. For a time they live with the goddess, but when the festival comes round they perform at night the following rites. Having placed on their heads what the priestess of Athena gives them to carry--neither she who gives nor they who carry have any knowledge what it is--the maidens descend by the natural underground passage that goes across the adjacent precincts, within the city, of Aphrodite in the Gardens. They leave down below what they carry and receive something else which they bring back covered up. These maidens they henceforth let go free, and take up to the Acropolis others in their place." [1.27.4]

Excavations on the north slope of the Acropolis have, indeed, recovered this underground passage. The man who located it was Oscar Broneer. He also discovered the passage had been in use during the Late Helladic times (from 1550 BC on) when it had artificial steps. Most likely, the tunnel led to a well, or had led to a well in the past. In Classical times (5th through 4th centuries BC), it seems the passage led to an open-air precinct of Aphrodite and Eros--the sanctuary Pausanias mentions.

It seems this ritual has ties to the ancient Athenian myth of Erichthonios (Ἐριχθόνιος), child of Hēphaistos and Athena, through Gaea, who was half man, half snake, and left in a basket by Athena, to be cared for by three of Her young attendants at the Acropolis, with clear instructions not to open the basket. They did, of course, and were scared so by the sight of either a snake in the basket, or Erichthonios' deformities, they cast themselves off of the Acropolis in terror. Yet, despite his deformities, Erichthonios became king of Athens and ruled it long and well. Myth tells us it was Erichthonios who founded the Panathenaiac Festival in the honor of Athena.

One thing in Pausanias' passage needs further explanation, namely that the priestesses of Athena themselves also did not know what the young girls carried into the passage. It seems the current Archōn Basileus, as the incarnation of the mythological kings of Athens, was in charge of selecting four Arrephoroi from a list of potential candidates. As soon as the young girls took up the service, he became a father to them, like Kékrops had been the father of the young attendants who had received the basket bearing Erichthonios from Athena. It was his ritual responsibility to make sure the girls wouldn't peak into the basket--although the actual training would have most likely be done by Athena's priestesses who took care of the children throughout the year--and to fill their baskets for the Arrephoria. Most likely, the children also took the retrieved baskets to him, or he collected and emptied them after they were presented to Athena Polias.

The Arrephoria was a rite of passage for a select few girls, but it was not a coming of age rite. The Arrephoria taught these children, often no older than ten years old, the most important aspects of the work of women; weaving (through the peplos), baking (through the cakes), and caring for children (through the carrying of the baskets in secret). They were taught responsibility, and service to the divine. After they were dismissed, the girls were too young to partake in the next step phase of their lives--marriage--and so they went back home, where they waited to be old enough to perform for Artemis and leave their childhood behind.

The rite itself, where the girls journeyed into the cave, was most likely celebrated at the start of Skirophorion. The date of the rite would most likely have varied, although we place it on the third of the month--Athena's sacred day--for convenience sake. The date in ancient times would most likely have changed because of the function it had, a function we have not yet discussed. It seems that there was a certain fertility aspect to the rite, not for humans, but for the olive tree. Erica Simon, in 'Festivals of Attica: An Archaeological Commentary' describes (p. 45-46) that the rite was most likely performed when the first dew settled on the sacred olive tree on top of the Acropolis--very near where the girls were housed--or when dew was about to settle onto it. The theory is based upon the work of Deubner, who first made this connection.

My knowledge on olive trees is limited to the mythical, but it seems that they at least need some water to come to fruition. In climates as dry as Hellas, dew was needed to produce rich fruit. The months following Skiraphorion are crucial to the olive crop, and in ancient times, olive trees--and Athena's sacred olive tree--were vital to the survival of Athens. Olive oil was a main export product, it was used in nearly everything, from cooking to sacred rites, and Athena's olive tree atop the Acropolis had been her gift to the city, which led to her patronage over the city, instead of that of Poseidon. It is said that the sacred olive oil gifted as a reward for winning the Panathenaia te megala was harvested from that very tree. Its survival, and the bearing of good fruit, were therefor essential.

There are a variety of links to dew surrounding this rite; 'arrhephoros' can be translated as 'dew carrier', two of the sisters who were charged to care for the basket were named after dew--Pandrosos and Herse. In some versions of the myth, only two of the sisters opened the basket; Herse and her second sister Aglauros. Pandrosos remained faithful to the Theia's wishes and was rewarded the care of the sacred olive tree. A sanctuary was raised in Pandrosos' honor, the temenos of which encircled the sacred olive tree. It was called the Pandroseion and occupied the space adjacent to the Erechtheum and the old Temple of Athena Polias.

The Arrephoria was performed to appease Athena and to assure the best possible (divine) conditions for the sacred olive tree--and, by proxy, all olive trees--to grow and bear fruit. These young girls performed a vital part of this rite to make up for the failings of Herse and Aglauros, and this would also explain why Pausanias describes only two girls made the journey, while most accounts attest four Arrephoroi were selected each year. I must also make note of the location of the underground tunnel--leading into a sanctuary of Eros and Aphrodite--which strengthens the assertion that this rite was a fertility one, and Aphrodite was asked to take care of the growth of the olive trees, just as much as Athena was. Based on Pausanias' statement alone, the suggestion Aphrodite was involved in the festival at all is shaky, at best, but it does make a lot of sense.

The Arrephoria is an intricate rite, which has lost much of its meaning today, now Athena's sacred olive tree is long gone. Yet, many olive trees remain, and Athena's dominion over them, and us, is still strong to this day. If there are kids in your thaisos, you might turn this into an activity where the oldest male member of the group fills two small baskets, and two female children (preferably) take them to a previously dug pit in the ground, where they bury them. Next year, these can be swapped out for new baskets. A vital part of the rite would be for the children not to look into them, of course. If your thaisos is childless, the two youngest female members of the group could perform the rite. Alternatively, or secondly, libations of wine and/or water can be made to Athena and Aphrodite, who presided over the the growth of the olive tree, and the prosperity of the city that came with it. Requests for good fortune for yourself of the thaisos you belong to can be added, and would be a beautiful modern twist to an ancient rite.