Archeologists excavating at the Athenian agora (marketplace) were shocked in the 1930s when they looked inside a well and found skeletons of hundreds of human infants intermingled with the bones of puppies and dogs. For years they were mystified, speculating on the mystery behind the bizarre discovery. Was it mass infanticide or a plague that caused the deaths?

Over the last two decades researchers are using technology to help them analyze the remains. Research published in Hesperia, an academic journal published by the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, points out that the 450 dead infants and 150 dogs and puppies as well as one adult with some serious physical deformity were placed in the area between 165 and 150 BC at the end of the Hellenistic period following the conquests of Alexander the Great.

The majority of the deaths, researchers found, were due to natural consequences, not a result of a pandemic. All infants, except three, were less than a week old. A third died of bacterial meningitis, an infection of the brain caused by cutting the umbilical cord with an unsterile object. The other babies died from many other diseases common at the time.

In ancient Hellenic times, when a child was born, it was presented to the father, who had the right to refuse it as his own. In Sparta, the child was also presented to the Elders, who could refuse it, even if the father did not. If the child was refused--usually due to deformities which would prevent the child from performing his or her duties to the hearth--the child was left out in the woods as an offering to the Gods--or, it seems, dropped into a well.

Something that's important to understand is that children in ancient Hellas were born with a different sentiment than children are born these days. Children, now, are born out of love and a need of the parents to create something of 'theirs'. A child is precious, irreplaceable. We tend to have few children and place all our eggs in their basket(s). In ancient Hellas, families tended to be as large as possible. Children could help out around the house, the farm or with sustaining the family any other way but they also tended to die. Children were made for the hearth, not the other way around, and many children died in their infancy due to illness or malnourishment.

As for the dogs, in ancient times, a dog was often sacrificed to ensure katharmos--ritual purity. During the Deipnon, for example, a dog was sometimes taken in, touched by all members of the oikos so any lingering miasma was transfered to it and sacrificed in a holókaustos. This was most likely not a monthly thing, but only performed when the household was troubled. As Hekate's sacred animal is a dog, the sacrifice also served to regain, or keep, Hekate's favor upon the household. In relation to the sacrifices in the well, these dogs were most likely also sacrificed to ensure katharmos.

Further more, Hekate was both an ouranic and a kthonic Goddess and as such could carry these babies safely down to the Underworld--like she does for Persephone every year. Hekate is also a Kourotrophos; (mostly) female deities who watched over growing children--and especially boys. Other Goddesses who are part of the Kourotropos are: Gaea, Artemis, Eirene, Aglauros and Pandrosos.

Archeology Professor at the University of California, John Papadopoulos, says that few babies are found buried in graves in ancient Greece, more often they were buried under floor boards or city dumps. This finding, along with previous discoveries, builds a case that Greek babies weren’t considered full individuals until a special naming ceremony called the Dekate, held around ten days after birth. Poor families held the naming ceremony during the Amphidromia--at five or seven days--instead. Most of the children in the well never made it to that date.