On the 8th of June, which converts to the third of the month of Skiraphorion, two festivals were held, one in Athens and one in Erkhia. The first was the Arrephoria and, as I will explain later, was not a public festival. As such, we will not celebrate it as such. It is, however, a festival of Athena Polias who was also honoured at Erkhia on this day, along with the Kourotrophos, Aglaurus, Pandrosos, Zeus Polieus, and Poseidon. Will you join us at 10 am EDT?
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.
It seems the Arrephoria 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 honour of Athena.
It seems that there was a certain fertility aspect to the rite, not for humans, but for the olive tree. 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. 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.
The Arrephoria was performed to appease Athena and to assure the best possible (divine) conditions for the sacred olive tree of Athena on the Acropolis–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. For much more information about the Arrephoria, please see here.
So why did the ancient Erkhians sacrifice to this marry band of Theoi on this day? They are all linked to the city’s well-being and the circumstances that led to the creation of the Arrephoria festival. Athena Polias is regarded as Protector of the City (of Athens). She had a sactuary on the north side of the Acropolis, the Erechtheion. Built between 421 and 406, the Erechtheion was associated with some of the most ancient and holy relics of the Athenians: the Palladion, which was a xoanon–an aniconic cult-statue–of Athena Polias, the marks of Poseidon’s trident and the salt water well that resulted from Poseidon’s strike, the sacred olive tree that sprouted when Athena struck the rock with her spear in her successful rivalry with Poseidon for the city, the supposed burial places of the mythical kings Cecrops and Erechtheus, the sacred precincts of Cecrops’ three daughters and those of the tribal heroes Pandion and Boutes.
The sisters entrusted with the care for Erichthonios, hidden away in a basket, were Aglauros and her sister Pandrosos. For their roles in the Arrephoria rites, they seem to have been regarded as fertility deities in Athens. Aglauros had a sanctuary on the Acropolis in which young men of military age swore an oath to her as well as to Zeus and to other deities. Herse, sometimes regarded as a third sister, has no mention in the accounts of the Arrephoria and was not honoured at Erkhia.
Athena Polias and Poseidon were included because of the founding mythology surrounding Athens and Zeus Polieus was another powerful protector of the city. His inclusion might not be intirely linked to myths and practices surrounding Erichthonios, but His inclusion makes sense.
The Kourotrophos (κουροτρόφος, child nurturer) are (mostly) female deities who watched over growing children–and especially boys. Gaea, Artemis, and Hekate come to mind but Aglauros and Pandrossos were also considered Kouroptrophoi. Specific offerings to Them are known from the demos Erkhia but duplicate similar offerings on the Acropolis of Athens. Especially at Erkhia, it varied per sacrifice which Kourotrophos was/were sacrificed to. In this sacrifice They were honoured for the fertility aspect of Erichthonios being born from Athena as well as Gaea and the desired fertility of olive trees so we know at least Gaea, Aglauros and Pandrosos were honoured.
The Kourotrophos received a pig, Athena Polias a sheep, Aglouros received a sheep as well, but the remains of which were not to be removed from the bomos, which was equally true for the sheep Zeus Polieus received. Poseidon and Pandrosos also received sheep. All animals were the gender of the deity in question.