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.