Artemis of the Greeks
by Steve Moore
How do modern Pagans interact with the ancient deities? It seems to me that there is a range of approaches: at one end of the spectrum a desire to make the deity revelant to our own times and circumstances, at the other a wish to understand the deity as known to the ancients. I’m not implying that either approach is right or wrong, and many people steer a middle course; but for the sake of discussion it’s easier to talk about the extremes. This piece was prompted by Lynne Morgan’s article on Dianic Crafte (She Speaks, May ‘92), so I want to concentrate mainly on Artemis. To me, this seems to be both typical of a lot of Dianic writing, and tending toward the ‘goddess fbr our times’ approach. I hope I won’t do Lynne an injustice by summarising her view of the Goddess as follows: Artemis is the Goddess of the hunt and the Moon; being virgin, she personifies women as seually autonomous and independent of men; she’s concerne for victimised women and wild creatures; and she’s connected with the Moon, lunar cycles, and magic. This may be fine as far as it goes, and Lynne is perfectly entitled to her interpretation. But it’s a view heavily influenced by the Jungian theory of archetypes, which is psychological rather than mythological, and doesn’t appear to pay much attention to the historical data. So, very briefly, I want to eal with two questions: how was Artemis understood by the ancient Greeks, and how does this relate to the modern ‘Goddess for our times’ model’? Given the choice, I’d rather refer directly to original Greek authors, but it’s not the PN style to overload things with footnotes and the material I want to look at first can be found in any decent mythological dictionary anyway. I’m using Pierre Grimal’s Dictionary of Classical Mythology (Blackwell, 1985), which includes the original source-references if anyone wishes to check further; and I really only need brief summaries to make my point. So, concentrating on the mythology first, this is Artemis as the Greeks saw her. Artemis and Apollo were Olympian deities, the twin offspring of Zeus and Leto. Artemis is a virgin and a huntress of both animals and mortals, and her arrows bring pain to women who die in childbirth. She and Apollo were responsible for killing the children of Niobe, who’d insulted Leto by boasting about her own offspring: Apollo shot the six boys, Artemis the six girls. Apollo and Artemis also killed the giant Tityus, who had tried to violate Leto. Acting alone, Artemis continues in the same vein. Several reasons are given why the huntsman Orion offended her: he challenged her at throwing the discus, or he tried to kidnap one of her male companions, Opis, or he tried to rape her. All the versions end the same: Artemis kills Orion. When Actaeon saw Artemis bathing naked, she caused his own hounds to tear him apart. When Oeneus forgot to sacrifice to Artemis, she sent the Calydonian boar to ravage his country. In pursuit of the boar, several huntsmen were killed, and the affair led eventually to the death of Meleager. When one of her Nymphs, Callisto, became pregnant by Zeus, Artemis killed her. When Agamemnon offended Artemis by boasting of his hunting skills, she becalmed his fleet; the wind could only be raised by sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia to the Goddess. In one version of the story, he did so; in another Artemis substituted a doe and carried off Iphigenia to Tauris, where She presided over an Artemis cult that practice human sacrifice. This has been very abbreviated, but here we have all the major myths of Artemis. Virtually all relate to hunting (and little else), and every single one has resulted in the death of other individuals. Whether we call her vindictive, justify her actions by saying she was jealous of her priviliges, or say that in some cases she was correctly avenging wrongs, the simple fact remains: Artemis kills, and she kills women as well as men. This aspect is entirely absent from Lynne Morgan’s portrait of her. Turning to ancient Greek religion we find a similar picture. This time I’ll use Walter Burkett’s Greek Religion (Blackwell, 1985) as a handy reference, as it too contains the original sources. To save space, I’ll pass by identifications with Asiatic Goddesses like Artemis of Epheseus and concentrate on the purely Greek context. In Homer, Artemis is known as Potnia Theron - the Mistress of the Animals, and by extension the whole of wild nature. she protects animals, but she also kills them, and is worshipped by hunters. She was offered animal sacrifices, and worshipped by both men and women. In Attica, blood was drawn from a man s throat at the festival of Artemis; in Sparta, young men were scourged in her honour until the blood flowed. Whether these practices, together with the myth of Iphigenia, point to a very ancient practice of human sacrifice to Artemis is a moot point; but perhaps not to be discounted entirely.
Let’s now turn to Artemis as a Goddess of women. Her role of easer of childbirth depends mainly on her identification with the extremely ancient Cretan birth-goddess, Eileithyia; but we have also seen that she causes pain and death in childbirth. In her own right, Artemis presided over initiatory festivals for young girls who were reaching marriageable age. Now, a girl of marriageable age was known as a nymph; the literal meaning of the Greek nymphe is ‘bride’. Obviously, to be a bride implies the presence of a husband, and the sexual relations to follow. This explains why the Nymphs, as a general order of beings (with the exception of those in the train of Artemis) were extremely heterosexually active. We can also understand why the festivals of Artemis were regarded as important social occasions and opportunities for young men to meet girls. So, while the image of Artemis as sexually autonomous and independent of men may make a fine psychological archetype and role-model for independent women, it doesn’t give a true picture of her major religious function, which is that, while remaining virginal herself, Artemis actually presides over the ending of virginity, and the beginning of sexual relations with men.
It hardly needs pointing out that nowhere in any of this is there an identification with the Moon. This is simply because Artemis was not originally the Greek Moon-goddess. The ancient Greeks already had lunar and solar deities, Selene and Helios, with their own mythologies, but from around the 6th century BCE they were superseded by Artemis and Apollo, largely as a result of scholarly speculation. Thereafter, the names Selene and Helios came to refer more to the physical Moon and Sun, as seen in the sky, rather than to the deities. There seem to be two aspects to this change. Firstly, Apollo became identified with the Sun, and as a result his sister Artemis was made Moon-goddess, almost as an afterthought. Secondly, Helios and Selene were not Olympian, but of Titan stock. There appears to have been a move to replace them with Olympian deities; which means that (if we wish to use the terminology) it’s the patriarchal religion which is entirely responsible for making Artemis the Moon-goddess.
It can also be pointed out that the original Artemis had no connection with magic. This aspect came about because of her identification with Hecate. But all the varying aspects of the Goddess (Moon, magic, huntress, virgin, childbirth, etc.) appear to have been in place by the time Artemis was identified with the Italian Diana, again in the 6th century BCE and probably through the Greek states of southern Italy. And from all this developed the Diana of late antiquity, who in turn has carried through to today.
Which brings us back to Lynne Morgan and the view I’ve taken as her representing. I have no quarrel with that view if it’s presented as an archetype, a role-model, or (to some extent) as a ‘Goddess for our times’. But it does seem to me that it’s been selectively distorted from the original, and I don’t think it would be a picture of Artemis that was familiar to the ancient Greeks, especially before the 6th century BCE. It lacks any sort of historical perspective, and it omits a great deal. But what worries me most about it is that it’s just too nice. It omits all the darker aspects of the deity.
Now, it seems to me that however we regard the ancient goddesses and gods (as aspects of the psyche, role-models, self-existent deities, or whatever), we really ought to look them full in the face and aceept them as they are, not just take them as we’d like them to be. We may, for instance, prefer to see Hermes as the messenger of the gods and guide of souls, but we also have to aceept that he was a liar and a thief. And we have to accept that Artemis wasn’t exclusively a goddess of women, and that she was a savage deity who hunted and killed. If we can’t face the fact that our deities have their darker sides as well as their light, then surely we run the risk of constructing ethereal and meaningless fairylands. And if we can’t accept the reality of our deities, how are we supposed to deal with the realities of our everyday lives?
Steve Moore is a contributing editor to Fortean Times, and author of ‘The Trigrams of Han: Inner Structures of the I Ching’ (Aquarian Press 1989).
This essay was first published in Pagan News, August 1992.