Mystery of Myrtis: Ancient Athenian Girl Turned Global Ambassador

Myrtis, 11-year-old Athenian girl
Myrtis, 11-year-old Athenian girl

The National Archaeology Museum in Athens, Greece, opened an exhibition entitled Myrtis: Face to Face With the Past, on view until November 30 of this year. The centerpiece of the exhibition is a reconstructed face of an eleven-year-old girl. Scientists gave her the name Myrtis, a common Greek name that refers to an evergreen shrub used in offerings to the goddess Aphrodite.

Myrtis’ body was actually found in the mid-1990s during an excavation for a new Athens metro station. She was one of approximately 150 bodies excavated from tombs dating to 430 BCE. As I read all the entries on the facial reconstruction and the exhibition, I found one thing lacking. Who was Myrtis? It’s amazing to see what she looked like–though some scholars say her eyes, hair, and skin should be much darker. But I wanted to know who she was. What was her story? And how did her bones end up in a mass grave of 1,000 tombs?

The year 430 BCE was critical for Ancient Athens. Let’s back up and put it into context. It was fifty years after the Spartans were defeated by the Persian Empire at the Battle of Thermopylae. The Persian War was supposed to unite all the Greek City/States in order to defeat the invading empire. But, fifty years later, they were back to warring amongst themselves in the Peloponnesian War. 430 BCE was the year of the Great Athenian Plague that lasted for two years, with a couple of flare-ups the following years.

The plague is attributed to a defense decision the Athenian General Pericles made to safeguard his people from the Spartans during the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. As the Spartans advanced, Pericles pulled all the countryside population into the city walls of Athens. This dramatically increased the population of an already over-crowded urban center, and Athens became a petri dish for disease.

The Greek Historian Thucydides, who suffered and survived the epidemic, offers us the only eyewitness account. Today, scientists attribute the plague to typhoid, typhus, smallpox, anthrax, or the bubonic plague…to narrow it down a bit. One-third of the population of Athens died from the plague, including Myrtis and the famous general-leader Pericles.

So who was Myrtis and what was she doing in Athens right before the plague hit and took her life?

Myrtis was eleven at the time of her death. She was about two to three years away from reaching puberty and therefore eligible for marriage according to Ancient Greek culture. Up until this point, she spent time with her mother learning the domestic sphere and household. If she were of the upper class, she would have been married to a man in his early thirties selected by her father. From there, her life would have consisted of running the household and producing legitimate heirs. Typically, she would live with her husband and run the house and servants. She would go out in public for religious festivals, but always accompanied and never for more than several hours at a time.

Weaving, shown here, was a primary duty of Greek women. Detail of Pyxis Vase, School of Douris (Hiketes group). 460 BCE.
Weaving, shown here, was a primary duty of Greek women. Detail of Pyxis Vase, School of Douris (Hiketes group). 460 BCE.

If she were of the lower class, a servant, or peasant, her life would be much different. She is still on the verge of matrimony, but this time she may be able to select someone herself from the fields. If she were a servant, she would run the errands for the mistress and could be out in public.

It’s also possible that Myrtis was a young girl in a cult. Athenian girls played important roles in religion, assisting priestesses and living in temples. The largest religious cult for a young Athenian girl was the cult of Athena, patron goddess of Athens. Their role was to weave and tend to the ceremonial clothing for the sacred Peplos statue on the Acropolis. During the year, they lived in shrines and temples carved into the sides of the Acropolis rock.

Another ritual designated for young Athenian girls was the aiora, or swinging ritual. Myth goes that Erigone, a legendary Athenian girl, killed herself when she came across her murdered father. Her suicide caused Dionysus to wreak havoc on Athens and peer-pressured other mythological Athenian girls to commit suicide. To atone for this sin and prevent real-life suicides, every spring ancient Athenian girls were placed on swings in trees (Erigone hanged herself). The idea being that instead of killing themselves, they would swing safely in the air.

Depiction of aiora swinging festival. Vase, Penelope Painter. Mid-fifth century BCE.
Depiction of aiora swinging festival. Vase, Penelope Painter. Mid-fifth century BCE.

Who knows which one of these lives Myrtis lead. All that we know for certain is one day she got sick.

According to Thucydides’ eyewitness account, it would have started in the head with flashes of high fever, inflamed eyes, bleeding tongue, and foul breathe. Soon, it spread to the chest causing coughing, sneezing, and chest pains. From there, it moved to the stomach and caused vomiting and violent spasms. Ulcer breakouts on the skin would follow, along with insomnia, confusion, and high fever. Thucydides reported that those infected were so hot that they took to wearing no clothes and jumping into public water sources to cool down. This lasted for about seven to eight days until death or recovery.

Archaeologists believe the grave where Myrtis was found is the mass burial site for the victims of this epidemic. Many of the bones and teeth recovered from the site were DNA tested for disease, and that research shows they died of typhoid fever. The site dates to 430 BCE and the placement of the bodies lead scholars to believe that it was used in a state of panic with cheap ceremonies performed. Ancient Greeks had a strict burial process, much like the modern one used by Westerners today. For such a large grave, with haphazardly placed tombs and bodies absent of the typical funerary rites, scholars can only conclude it was made in a hurry to accommodate and dispose of the infected bodies.

The grave where Myrtis’ body was found was in the Kerameikos cemetery, located in an area northwest of the Acropolis. During classical times, the majority of burials were for the upper class. If this were the case during the plague, then at the time of her death, Myrtis might have been a priestess’ assistant…or her dad was busily seeking out a thirty-year-old man for her to marry in three years.

However, if the mass graves were a repository for victims and the hastily buried, which evidence points to, its possible Myrtis was of the lower class or even one of the countryside population brought into the city walls. I can only imagine if Myrtis’ family had been part of the population that was brought into the city walls for protection, only to die this violent death.

Myrtis’ life may have come to a tragic end, but her story lives on. While the science behind facial reconstruction is impressive, it is her story that is enduring. Myrtis has become a representative for the United Nations Millennium Development Goals. Of their many goals, one includes raising awareness of childhood disease. If Myrtis died of typhoid fever or typhus, these diseases are avoidable and the UN is making sure developing nations that are susceptible to these epidemics have the basic medical care they need to combat them. Hopefully, her story will inspire others to take action and ensure these tragedies are avoided in the future.

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