Just when you think that you're beginning to understand the ancient Greeks, you encounter something like the cult of Artemis at Brauron. According to legend, Agamemnon's ill-fated daughter Iphigenia served as a priestess here -- and was buried here after her ritual sacrifice on the eve of the expedition to Troy. Little girls in modern times dress themselves as bear cubs for a quadrennial festival here to honor Iphigenia and Artemis. According to one story, the custom began when an epidemic broke out after a youth killed a bear that had attacked his sister. An oracle suggested that a purifying ceremony take place in which young girls dress like bears; this practice continued every 4 years throughout antiquity. As you sit on a shady slope, you may want to imagine the bearlike antics of the little girls as they parade here in bear masks and saffron-colored robes. To confuse matters further, these ceremonies were believed to assist women in childbirth.
The most striking structure at Brauron is the stoa, restored in 1961. The stoa was built in the shape of an incomplete Greek letter P facing south toward the hill. Six rooms on the stoa's north side contained 11 small beds for the children, with stone tables by the beds. Four rooms on the stoa's west side may also have been used as bedrooms for the children. The foundations of the 5th-century Temple of Artemis are located here as well, along with a cave called the Tomb of Iphigenia. There's also a sacred spring and two chapels at this altogether delightful spot.
This small, well-lit museum has some charming displays, including marble portrait heads of the little girls, plus bear masks, handsome geometric vases from the nearby cemetery at Anavyssos, and grave markers found in the surrounding area.