Mara Dabrishus

Oxford Readings in Greek Religion

Locrian Maidens (by Fritz Graf)

"Every field of research raises certain problems that are debated vigorously for a while, often because their relevance to some other matter, and are then left in peace, without anyone in fact having arrived at a satisfactory solution."

I. Literary Sources

A. Lycophron

i. In Alexandra Cassandra foretells the consequences of the crime (the rape of Cassandra on the alter of Athena) of the lesser Ajax, which affect his descendants, the Locrians.

ii. For 1,000 years the Locrians must send unmarried maidens to the temple of Athena at Ilion where they will stay until they die. When they die they will not be given a decent burial.

iii. For each maiden that dies, another must be sent into the temple by night, and will be stoned to death if seen.

B. Callimachus

i. A plague fell upon Locris three years after the Trojan war, which led to the beginning of the tribute at the command of the Delphic oracle.

C. Apollodorus

i. Ajax's crime brings the plague to Locris and leads to the Delphic oracle commanding a tribute of maidens. Two were sent to Ilion, and their duty was to clean the temple. After their death, they were replaced.

ii. After a thousand years the tribute ends with the end of the Phocian War, which destroyed the city Naryca, which supplied the maidens.

D. Aelian

i. The oracle demands a yearly tribute that the Locrians failed to send, and then the plague came on Locris.

II. Problems and Contradictions

A. Discrepancy between sources that say the maidens had to remain at Ilion until they died and those that speak of annual tributes.

i. Ilion's temple of Athena could not hold a large group of maidens.

ii. The Locrian inscription calls for a return of two maidens.

iii. Perhaps the original arrangement called for the maidens to stay in Ilion until their death, and then the requirement was relaxed, although this is contradicted by Aelian, Strabo, and Servius. Also it is contradicted by the fact that the god of Delphi was upset with the Locrians.

iv. Lycophron and Apollodorus were writing at the same time, possibly drawing on an earlier source in myth. Callimachus and Aelian were drawing on local traditions.

B. The events in Ilion immediately after the arrival of the maidens

i. Could have been waylaid and killed when they were caught or were left unharmed.

ii. The more gruesome version of events is probably based on myth or a local epic related to the Epic Cycle.

III. Appearance

A. Locrian maidens went barefoot, had only one garment, and their hair was loose or cut.

i. This is the same appearance Greek mourners take.

ii. Hair is loosened or cut in other cults such as to Demeter and Dionysus. Witches wear their hair loose. Cut hair symbolizes maturity for both sexes and plays a part in marriage rituals. Other certain mystery cults require bare feet, and bare feet are also a sign of a witch.

IV. Marginal Beings

A. Locrian maidens were not given proper burials.

i. Most were burnt on a pyre of barren branches and the ashes thrown to the sea.

ii. A pyre of barren branches was used in Greece to burn monstrosities, such as criminals.

iii. Barren wood or trees (arbor infelix) was used to burn portents and prodigies and guilty criminals were hanged from these trees.

B. Locrian maidens were seen as marginal beings, separated from normal life.

i. Marginalization is a feature of rites of passage

ii. Three stages of rites of passage are separation, marginalization, and reincorporation. Maidens leave for Ilion, spend a year there, and are returned home.

iii. Puberty rites such as other rites elsewhere in Greece.

V. Locrian Maidens as Scapegoats

A. Greeks saw the ritual as expiation for the outrage committed by Ajax.

i. The maidens are associated with the pharmakos ritual, in which scapegoats are driven out of the community.

ii. Maidens in Epizephyrian Locri were prostituted as a reminder and punishment for a certain act. Ancient basis for prostitution: girls would marry earlier than their coevals and foreigners would complete the rites. The completion of the rites enhances the status of girls

VI. Time Period

A. The tribute must occur later than the Trojan war.

i. Troy VII was destroyed after the Bronze Age and remained fairly unpopulated until the eighth century when an Aeolian colony settled there.

ii. Demetrius of Scepsis knows that the maidens were sent for the first time "when the Persians were already in control" i.e. after 547 BCE.

B. Athena Ilias

i. The recipient of the tribute, receiving maidens into her sanctuary at Ilion.

ii. Ilias is not necessarily derived from Ilion. It also comes from the family deity Oileus, the father of Ajax and the ancestral hero of the Locrians.

iii. The goddess could have protected the maidens during their period of initiation.

VII. End of the Tribute

A. Middle of the sixth century the cult became more epic focused

B. Became more centered on the expiation for the crimes of Ajax.

C. Later generations forgot the significance of the cult and put an end to the tribute that seemed increasingly foreign.

Return to Main Page: CLST 4003H. Colloquium on Greek Religion.