The wildness of girlhood

Emily Bronte wrote in Wuthering Heights, 1847: ‘I wish I were a girl again, half savage and hardy, and free.’

Catherynne Valente wrote in Deathless, 2011: ‘She knew herself, how she had slowly, over years, become a cat, a wolf, a snake, anything but a girl. How she had wrung out her girlhood like death.’

There is a period in many little girls’ lives, around the age of ten, where they go completely wild. Not in the sense of Girls Gone Wild, which depressingly clogs up the search results, but in the most natural sense of the word – feral and free.

Not every little girl experiences this at the same time. Not every little girl experiences this at all, and some little girls don’t get to be girls when they are little – womankind is not a monolith – but enough, I think, would recognise this phenomenon. I’m talking about the girls who become obsessed with horses, or wolves, or witches, and who knew themselves to be wild creatures like those. They vanish outdoors, hiding in trees, sticking their hands in the dirt, making potions from mud and sticks. They escape into complex worlds of their own imagining, shared between other little girls or solitary kingdoms.

I was one such little girl. I stopped brushing my hair and my long braid become tangled and matted and filled with sticks, which pleased me. My mother said I’d have to cut it off, which pleased me even more. I was made of scraped knees and bare feet that were steady over sharp rocks and my heart was a bird and, for a brief moment, very little scared me.

There’s a bit of anger involved. A strange mix of anger and joy. It’s at this point perhaps that girls become aware of how little patience the world has for the unremittingly scrappy. But we are beyond the world, untouchable, unconquerable and unafraid.

Of course, it passes. We age out of wildness and straight in puberty, where our anger is on ourselves, and our bodies, and our mothers, and I don’t know what else. We’re part of the world again, and sometimes we forget being wild altogether, and sometimes we remember it fondly like Cathy in Wuthering Heights, as something we cannot recapture: an innocence killed by the stressful minutiae of adulthood.

I didn’t stay wild. I grew my hair out, started wearing shoes almost every day, and went to university, where I accidentally majored in Classics after taking one really, really good class about myth, magic, and religion in the Ancient World. It was there I learnt about the festival of Arkteia at Brauron, dedicated to the goddess Artemis.

Artemis is fairly well-known as one of the top-tier Greek Gods. The twin sister of Apollo, she is Moon to his Sun, big on arrows, not big on men, goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, and all wild things. Less well known is another one of Artemis’s domains: childbirth, children, and young unmarried women. It is this aspect that characterises the Arkteia.

Every four years or so, the young girls of Athens between ages of five and ten would go into the woods to make sacrifices to Artemis, run races, dance and live like bears. Literally. They were called arktoi, which means ‘little bears’, and they were supposed to run around pretending to be bears, wearing special bear skins or – following one of those periodic Athenian budget cuts – saffron-coloured robes. At the end of the festival, they would remove the robes and return to the city where, as women, they could look forward to not being able to vote, not owning property but rather being property – of their fathers, future husbands or other male relatives. But before that, for a moment, they got to use their legs to run fast and their voices to growl, while their bodies danced, and leapt, and were bare to the sky – belonging to no man.

One of the delights of studying history is that, in spite of the fact that the past is a foreign country, wildly alien to our modern perspective in so many ways, there are always moments where you can spot humans being humans, even four thousand years ago. Reading about the arktoi, I felt a kinship with those long-ago girls, hardly articulated. Just a pulse of recognition. A big mood if you will.

No one knows the exact purpose behind this festival, so in a very real way nothing I say can be wrong. Some historians have hypothesised that the Arkteia symbolised leaving behind childhood to enter womanhood and marriage, which doesn’t hold a lot of water – the ceremony was very specifically for girls between five and ten and Athenian girls usually didn’t marry before at least the age fifteen. This theory seems to me to be born from (male) historians struggling to conceive of something that women would do that wasn’t somehow about men. Others suggest that the ceremony could have functioned as a pressure gauge to let out the tensions that form in a fundamentally unequal and unfair society – like the traditions of masters and servants switching ranks for day.

Be that as it may, why did the Greek girls need to run wild so badly it was codified into their society? Why do girls run wild today?

Is it catharsis in the face of a world that will try to mould them in a thousand different ways? Is it a transformational stage, a cocoon, the invisible tremors of a puberty already begun? Or is it a gift, a moment of divine wisdom where little girls are seeing the world and themselves in a more beautiful light?

Another important question: what is wildness in the context of human civilisation? The word and its synonyms have an ugly history of being used against people of colour to degrade their standing as human beings and justify the cruelties and oppression of white invading forces. This, too, goes all the way back to ancient Greece and beyond – the literal translation of barbarian is ‘someone who doesn’t speak Greek.’

If wildness is behaviour outside of societal norms, it pays to remember that society is a human invention. And while we keep working on it, adding and removing elements like the world’s largest and most volatile game of Jenga, the building blocks of our society remain fundamentally racist, sexist, and unfair to most. ‘Savage’ behaviours exhibited by Indigenous peoples living in places that other people wanted to occupy could include such terrors as: having relationships with nature that were enriching instead of destructive, not living up to western beauty standards and their puritanical shame and disgust for the human body, not participating in such occupations of civilised people as advanced weapons manufacture, capitalism, or invading and colonising. Things that seem normal in Western society, like working too many hours a week in a grey box where you can’t see the sun to pay off debts, are not natural behaviours for humans. Whereas things that might feel very natural, like the desire to jump into large bodies of water or being passionately in love with the Moon, do not always seem normal.

Isn’t it understandable that people are dreaming about living outside the ways society tells us we should? Anne Helen Petersen’s popular article about Millennial burnout communicates a shared feeling that living in 2019 is killing us. The Mary Oliver quote shared widely after her death this year tells us:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

Or, as Peyton Thomas observed in their article Notes on ‘Feral’:

All our lives, we’ve been taught to be good. To control our unruly desires. To punish our bodies and whip the animal into submission. Nobody ever told us that the animal is soft. The animal is vulnerable, and tender, and kind. The animal doesn’t deserve this. We don’t deserve this.

What is wildness, then? A return to nature? Listening to our bodies? Letting our bodies be the animal that moves us instead of a semiotic representation of all that we are to the world? Throwing ourselves into our passions, even if they are awkward and strange, with the bravery of the girl I once knew who plastered every square inch of her room with dolphin-themed jetsam?

It’s hard to be a little girl. Maybe sometimes it’s easier to be a bear instead. I don’t know. I don’t have an answer about the wildness of girlhood. I miss the bravery of the feral child I once was. I have to pay rent now, and worry about career goals, and spiritual fulfillment, and the environment, and politics… And, to be honest, horses no longer hold the strange fascination to me they once did. Still, when I see children today running wild, being unapologetically weird and strange and hardy and free, my heart grows three sizes larger and quite luminescent with joy.

This one’s for the wild girls. And one more quote from Mary Oliver, a woman who got it:

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?


Image: one of the arktoi at the Archeological Museum in Brauron.

Bonnie Mary Liston

Bonnie Mary Liston is a struggling writer who lives in Tasmania. She has a BA in Ancient History, History, and Linguistics, a Master’s in Journalism, Media, and Communications, and informal qualifications from her nervous loved ones as ‘someone who reads too much about murder.’

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Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. I enjoyed reading your piece. I particularly like the idea of our wildness coming from an inner creature which can be vulnerable and soft.

  2. Stunningly written. I loved the Mary Oliver quote, I want to print it out and stick it somewhere I’ll see it every day. Thank you for writing this, it was a pleasure to read.

  3. Interesting read, I love this concept of the Arktoi. Wish our modern celebrations/rituals were more like this. Glad this piece touched on the tense definition of wildness too – I’d add that I also find it difficult to reconcile the “natural/wild” + “girl/woman” paradigm when we know that kind of biological essentialism to be quite exclusive of other groups (especially diverse genders). Anyone whom “civilised society” does not serve well can find solace in “wildness”!

  4. Great article, thanks! I remember those days in the woods, and now I see my daughter there, making houses out of fallen tree tops and jumping off of things. I try to resist the urge to think about ticks or say “careful”.

  5. Oh, how this stirs my memory.
    Days and even nights of being wild and free in the bush of Western Australia.
    Where we walked barefoot over quartz and granite, dreamed of never coming home, and roasted our potatoes in the coals of our little campfire.
    Would that our young girls today had such freedom. To be wild.
    Thank you.

  6. Thanks for this article. It was inspiring to read as a fellow writer and to remember the days when I was about 7-10 and how my imagination took off, boundless. Too often, our society only focuses on sexual ‘wildness’ or ‘freedom’ concepts for women used to sell cosmetics and other things, but is still threatened by female autonomy while oddly pretending to celebrate it. Ironically it is this autonomy which would contribute to all freedoms.

    1. Great observation Vega. Sadly, experiences and feeling close to our hearts often end up being exploited and used as marketing tools.

  7. I’m a wild old man living in a shed in the forest but I have a young daughter who is with me here at weekends – because she likes it here. I confess I dunked her in the creek when she was a week old. She didn’t seem to mind: one womb to another. She accepts that she’s a little weird in her school friends’ eyes but seems content with the way she is. She will find comfort in this story ‘for the wild girls’,thank you Bonnie Mary Liston, as did I.

  8. Thank you for this. It is a lovely article and makes me so happy to read it. During my wild period, I was very close to Artemis. I found my way to Her when I was very, very young. I wrote this chant for Her years ago and intent to turn it into a ritual.

    Off in the forest, running free
    The Arktoi of Athens come running with me.

    Come little bears, wild little girls
    Wind in your hair, come dance with me!
    Come little bears, wild little girls
    Run like the wind through the ancient trees!
    Come little bears, wild little girls
    Wind in your hair, come dance with me!
    Come little bears, wild little girls
    Hide a part of your heart where you’re always free!

    Grown women shackled to their lives
    Hide a door in their heart, if they’re very wise
    Cross that threshold, and find me there
    And return to your life as a little bear!

    Come little bears, wild little girls
    Wind in your hair, come dance with me!
    Come little bears, wild little girls
    Run like the wind through the ancient trees!
    Come little bears, wild little girls
    Wind in your hair, come dance with me!
    Come little bears, wild little girls
    Hide a part of your heart where you’re always free!

    1. Three small granddaughters, out little bears… where can they run wild And free, so little place for this now, even in what we call Bush’, always someone watching…, but the bare feet, the climbing, the wind, it helps, and that door in the heart, that too…this old bear one is hibernating in the cold wet, curling in and slow, feeling her warm breath keeping her company… thankyou too

  9. Thank you for your thought-provoking and generous writing. I am 54 and still longing for arktoi solace from this world . This touches me

  10. thankyou for the reminder to remove shoes and disengage from adulting….. Im off up the hill to the horizon

  11. Thank you for writing this piece. It carried me back to that time and space when over 60 years ago I was a horse running free, neighing, whickering, prancing and galloping with my friends in our herd and we ran, wind in our hair in the fields and woods near our homes. How precious! Then the next day, in those same woods to be fairies, invisible ones who could sit up in trees and imagine. Maybe it did not carry me back to a time and place but showed me the door to that is still right here and now. I am almost wanting to practice my neighing again but it’s 2:30 am.

  12. Terri Windling shared this article on her Facebook page. It means so much to me. Thank you. I got a chance to be a wild little girl again for a couple of hours last week, and it filled a pool inside me, somehow.

  13. Such a wonderful article. Thank you for addressing so many real time issues along with the magic that is constant and yet eludes us.

  14. I was one of them too and though in my eighth decade it is still close to me. Growing up in Scotland a land of stories kept me a healthy girl and still allow her a free reign whenever I can usually the Indian Ocean. Lovely writing Bonnie and on this day it means much to me. I have the poem that quote is taken from in my vista every day.

  15. I love this, and I’m so glad I happened to find it today. I’ve been reading Drawing Down the Moon and thinking about what it means to be a woman for days while I wait for a hurricane aboard a sailboat. I was a wild girl, and then I was a tamed woman. I’m fortunate that I’ve had the opportunity to come full circle and be a wild girl once again – while experiencing perimenopause no less. One of my favorite quotes on girlhood cake from Simone de Beauvoir:

    The young girl throws herself into things with ardor, because she is not yet deprived of her transcendence…

  16. Thank you for putting the words of my hearts song together so eloquently. Wish I could read it to every young girl and boy in the Universe.

  17. Loved this piece, beautifully written. When my daughter was around 7 or 8, she stopped letting me brush her hair. It was long and tangled and stayed that way for a couple of years, I think! I remember a vivid imaginary life at that age filled with ghosts and friendly werewolves and all sorts of magic within easy reach. Thanks for this essay, and the reminder of that time. Your “accidental” major has served you well…

  18. thank you I am still trying to remember what it was like to be ten years old. am 69 this year……

  19. I still feel this, still experience it as a large thread of my being. Need to be in the wild a lot of the time, make art about it and have recently recovered my love and fascination for horses. Am grateful for this article, thank you.

  20. I loved this article so much (& sent it to all of my childhood girlfriends that I used to run around in the woods with). Not only that, but all of your literary references are exactly to my taste (Mary Oliver *and* Cat Valente?! Come on!). How do I read everything you’ve ever written? Can I subscribe to *you*???

  21. Love this – thank you – reminded me of me back then, describes my two girls beautifully and encourages me to reclaim my wildness now xxx

  22. Exquisite, particularly to the nature born, timeless ones, who never could understand what they meant by calling me a girl. Like a lesser angel, a smaller creation than other humans. Global child, citizen of many cultures, and owned by none. This resonated so deeply.

    mahalo nui loa.

  23. Through the trials and turmoil of being molested as a child, being socially inept, motherhood, a fierce protector of children, failing at marriage(s), etc. I finally came to healing and joy by embracing my wild self and calling her Bear. Now, so many years later, I find out others are also rising to their wild identity and healing. A friend said, “… we need the Bear to heal the planet.” I agree,

  24. Oh the wonders a little girls heart holds, for she grows into a wise old wolf if she is lucky she keeps it, thankyou for the the medicine a soul needs, somehow we think we must be the only ones that miss it, i wrote a poem the wild in me back in my early years when feeling confined by social norms, the old trees are calling x

  25. Thank you for this piece of writing. It encapsulates so much that is often hard to articulate. You rock!

  26. I remember my 13th birthday, I was so unhappy that whole day. I knew that things were gonna be different, that things were gonna be expected of me. I’m just now realizing what those things were (performing femininity, being more organized and responsible, etc.). I didn’t want anything to do with those things and I’m still trying to regain some of the ferality of my preteen years, if possible.

  27. Thank you for a beautiful story. I grew up in Tasmania and loved being a wild and free girl. I still love getting out in nature bushwalking and kayaking. I write about my adventures

  28. I find this writing to be so evocative and so primal.
    I have to say that it applies equally to little girls AND little boys. Unfortunately it should also apply to both adult sexes!
    We are all conceived and born this way but along the way through our childhoods we lose this primal nature.
    These true human attributes are not only frowned on by society but unfortunately and unknowingly worked against by society’s agent; our own in most cases loving parents!
    The completely unconscious child rearing processes of most parents leaves children feeling rejected and hurt . This is the pursuit of teaching good behaviour and conforming to others norms!
    This parental behaviour stops and in most cases completely negates child self esteem, self worth and sense of self even though the intention is totally loving and honourable!
    Children learn not be children and even not to be! But throughout their adult lives the child still lives on but repressed, hidden and still controlled by a perceived lack of love and fear of rejection; by society itself!
    Until we all come to grips with this truth and society does as well, the WILD CHILDREN will remain hidden forevermore!

  29. This is truth. Reading this article bought it back to me. There was a period between a violent and abused baby and childhood followed soon after by the chains of puberty with its heavy social restrictions where I was free and wild and it bought it back. A germ or a seed of it remained inside me. I am still fearful but, from the outside, I feel it as part of my foundation.

  30. I remember this time in my own life and often miss it. Thank you for articulating what I couldn’t. Beautiful.

  31. This article is a breath of revitalizing air, validating light cutting through shadows of oppressive doubt. Yes, we must grow up, pay rent and navigate the strange labyrinth of society’s expectations, but this article reminds me there’s still a thread of wildness that can lead us back to a sense of self that once defied the expectations of others.
    I saved this article over a year ago and keep coming back to read it. Thank you for your insights.

  32. ‘What is wildness, then? A return to nature? Listening to our bodies? Letting our bodies be the animal that moves us instead of a semiotic representation of all that we are to the world?’

    Did we ever really leave nature, other than in a worse mess than when we first found it?

  33. This is absolutely breath-taking, thank you. I am currently writing my honours thesis about reclaiming gender and sexuality in two revisions of Little Red Riding Hood, and have dedicated a chapter to describe the liberation and power of our ‘wildness.’ That childlike, feral and wonderful innocence. How we can reclaim this aspect in the construction of girlhood etc… Thank you for inspiring me. I’d love to chat more about these ideas.

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