'Artemis was the image of a woman moving
through her life and assuming different roles at
different times; she was a veritable encyclopedia
of feminine possibility.'
- from The New Book of Goddesses and
Heroines by Patricia Monaghan
The Goddess Artemis is one of the longest lived of
divine beings, with a presence in life and religious
thought since the Neolithic. Her portrayal as a rather minor Goddess who was asexual, and not really a part of the community of deities she supposedly belonged to does not match her true nature. In fact, deeper research soon reveals that what Greek mythographers wrote down did not even match what ordinary Greeks believed of her. This is an example of how differently 'scholarship' can remember the past versus what is often condescendingly referred to as 'folklore'. It helps to remember that most scholars (this author included) have their own beliefs and purposes, which are bound to be expressed when they set down myths and narratives. Folklore is a body of knowledge passed down from generation to generation, often by word of mouth. It also tends to be conservative, maintaining details and events that may seem foolish or unneccesary to outsiders.
Artemis (or her ancestress) first appeared in the Neolithic.
Already she was the Lady of the Beasts
and Great Mother, portrayed with animals and wings. Symbols like the whorl and the snake rising to the sky were often placed with her or on her clothing, suggesting the encouragement and creation of the flow of energy. A fish with her or in her womb was also a common image, consistent with her
connection to water bodies and triangles. Artists in Archaic Greece portrayed her in this way in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE, thousands of years after the Neolithic.
Written mythology still records these associations
and areas of concern. Lakes, marches, and rivers
were consistently connected with her, as was the ocean. Like Jesus (interestingly also strongly
associated with fish) she could walk on water. Despite claims that she had no sexual relations, she was called the Mother of the Muses, and was concerned with midwifery. The proper continuance of the cycle of life in the forests, helped by her nymphs (priestesses) was always a priority, keeping her too busy to spend her time at Mount Olympus, fawning to Zeus or interfering in the lives of mortals.
The worship of Artemis spanned time, space, and vast
differences in culture, as can be expected of a Goddess who had developed
into a complex, widespread figure so early in time. Parts of her mythology
and ceremonies came from Anatolia, North Africa, and later Crete. Accordingly,
she was worshipped at Rhodes, in Sicily, Pontius in Galatia, Ephesus, and
North Africa. The Etruscans called her Artini, while the Celts called her
Agdestis and Art... the same Art who was mother of obin, god of witches
in medieval times. The Amazons built her shrines at Ephesus in Anatolia
and Pyrrhichus in Greece. The Grove of Nemi was sacred to her in Latium,
under the name of Latone. It was a place where the sacred king was sacrificed
or killed in a duel by his rival, in order to continus the cycle of the
year. An interesing version of this ritual is preserved in tales of King
Arthur's court. (At one time, a grove called by the same name may have
existed in Greece.) However, literal sacrifices were a later, violent addition
Memory of her power and freedom persisted despite attempts
to blur and fade it in her naming as
Megale Artemis, the Great Artemis. Myths called her a chaste virgin, unnecessary now, but not then,
when to be a virgin meant to belong to oneself, to have no outside restraints. As originally conceived of, a virgin could and did have sex. Her followers were remembered as her nymphs and Amazons,
roaming free in the forests and mountains. All wild animals seemed tame around her, since they
understood that she too was wild, and had no desire to cage them. Artemis' very throne was covered
with a wolfskin. She was commonly considered the midwife of her supposed brother Apollo.
In fact, his origins are with a different people, in
a different part of the world. It is not without good
cause that he is associated with regions far to the North as well as West. The great attempt to remove powerful Goddesses in general from human memory has also gutted folklore of details of gods like him. The gods remain stubbornly sketchy where Goddesses can still be fleshed out. He is a stock figure among stock figures, a 'typical god.' He does not relate to a man's entire life cyce, the range of roles and interests a man may have in his lifetime. Artemis and Goddesses like her can do so for women, even after centuries of censorship.
Today, Artemis is still seen, especially in the place
she started from, ancient Greece and Anatolia, now Greece, Turkey, and
the Aegean islands. On Zakynthos she appears as a tall woman, while on
Chios and Sopolos she is still called the Queen of the Mountains. The caves
and mountains of the Aegean islands and Crete are still places she makes
appearances. At times she is even seem swimming in the sea. Present day
bits of folklore have trickled from these places to the rest of the world,
including the nine lives of the cat, derived from the sacred number of
her daughters, the Muses. The cat was sacred to her as a beast of the wilds,
and as a stubbornly independent animal even when considered a pet. It also
connected her to the Egyptian Goddess Bast.
Three intertwined areas fell under Artemis' power as
an elemental force in nature and the authority that demands obedience to
instinct. First was the survival of species, which she controlled by seeing
to it that each animal died at its proper time. Like Medusa, when she killed
she did so in a sacred manner, maintaining the flow of energy from generation
to generation. Those who hunted pregnant or young animals Artemis destroyed,
preventing further waste and destruction, as in the case of Orion. According
to most ancient authors, she did this with arrows of 'sudden, swift' death.
Considering that the cyclops Brontes ('thunder') was supposed to forge
her weapons, this may be a poetic description of lightning. Artemis was
also connected with sex, reproduction, and birth, three of the most instinctual
experiences humans have.
Second was her aspect as destroying crone and waning
Moon, connecting her with Hecate. In this role she could be seen wearing
the Mask of Hecate, better known as the Mask of Medusa. Leading the nocturnal
hunt for the souls of the dead and dying, she was joined by priestesses
representing hunting dogs. She was at once a more natural, constant law as opposed to that of the
violent society her worshippers in ancient Greece lived in, and a force for change and transformation
that affected that society. Carrying souls from one world to the next, she also carried the memory of a different basis for society than violence and oppression. This was often expressed in literature as the memory of a Golden Age, and the belief that human life could be better.
Third, she was concerned with water and weather, like
her Taoist counterpart Ma Tau P'o. Sailors still, in many cultures, carry
tokens that can be traced to her as charms to maintain their safety while
at sea. For example, beating the bow of the boat with willow branches before
going out to sea for the first time that season. On land, any city dweller
or farmer knew the necessity for rain and water from streams and rivers.
People can live for considerable periods without food, but will die within
days without water. On a clear night, when the Moon's light has the greatest
strength corresponds to conditions of low saturation point in the atmosphere.
In other words, water vapour is not held in the air when the temperature
falls, causing a large amount of dew to condense before sunrise. This is
one possible explanantion of the association of the Moon and water, and
of one of the etymologies for Artemis' name.
Artemis could seem cruel, although not often as a war
Goddess for Greek mythographers. Part of this is a reflection of how the
cycle of life-death-life can seem arbitrary and frightening. A frequently
repeated claim was that Aphrodite, the force of love, had no power over Artemis. While later this was interpretted as meaning Artemis had no affairs or intimate contact with men (note that this doesn't exclude women), this may originally have been a more subtle point. No matter how strong love may be, it is not strong enough to call the dead back to life, or prevent death.
Other authors have commented on a problem that makes
untangling Artemis' mythology even partially challenging, if not impossible.
Her titles can be explained in two ways: as a Great Goddess to whom titles
were given to specify roles she had in life, areas of talent and concern,
and so on, or as a result of the cultural imperialism of the invading Greeks.
Since the Greeks are not native to the peninsular country now referred
to by their name1., they found many groups of people, with differing names
and images for the powers Artemis embodies. A means to take over the religious
life and therefore political power among these peoples was to give the
name of a local Goddess to theirs as a title. Varying myths around the
acquisition of the title then reflected the destruction of a priestess
and/or followers of the Goddess, or at least their subjection. Both processes
have a role in the many titles Artemis has, with a preponderance of the
second, which makes sense considering the main sources of present knowledge.
Artemis' titles connected to animals, the Moon, the
Sun, and instinct based behaviors can probably be
assigned to the first process with confidence. Still others are clearly connected to 'Goddess absorption,' especially when the process was unsuccessful. A particularly interesting example is the title 'Limnaea' meaning Lady of the Lake, which does indeed belong to Artemis. 'Lacone' meant the same thing, and was originally a title of Britomartis.
Another example is Despoena, the daughter of Demeter.
A wild young woman who was free of any
male overseers, she was a hunter and expert with the bow. She often wore a stag's skin mantle and
was accompanied by hunting dogs. Pictures of her also showed her holding two snakes in one hand and a torch in the other. Greek mythographers explained that this was Artemis as a youth, and that
Poseidon was her father. Demeter and Poseidon had mated while in the form of horses, so Despoena was also associated with them. This never caught on, since it assumed implicitly that Artemis would grow out of being a mere nubile forest dweller, which ptriarchal Greeks disliked, and forced a parentage for Artemis that was not broadly accepted by ordinary people, patriarchal or not. Needless to say, the worshippers of Despoena probably didn't find it convincing either.
South Laconia, the region of Greece that includes Sparta,
was home to several Goddesses, including
Carya and Helen. Carya's totem was the walnut tree. Greek invaders referred to her as a mortal
woman who had died. Artemis was supposed to have carried word of this further south, and been given the title Carya or Caryatis as a reward. A succinct, if disturbing account of the social upheaval
instigated by invasion. It also helps explain the existence of many myths which seem strange or
ridiculous, which in fact were crude attempts to cover up knowledge of social change.
Eileithyia was easier to subsume under Artemis' image,
for several reasons. She was herself a
pre-Hellenic Goddess, regarded as mother of creation or the force that made it by her worshippers.
Dogs and horses were her totems, and the sacrifice of a dog to her was meant to convince her not to
curse a mother in labour. Her curse consisted of crossing her legs and clasping her hands. These
similarities to Great Artemis led to her near complete disappearance.
Britomartis, Diktynna, and Kallisto all proved indigestible,
and their worshippers successfully maintained their identities and legends.
Eventually Greek writers had to do the same, although not without changes.
What evidence is there for the difference between how
most ancient Greek writers and most ordinary Greeks and indigenous peoples
thought of Artemis? Can they really be divided from each other at all,
as has been done here?
The keys here are literacy, and how invaders perceive
the peoples they encounter.
Literacy is an obvious requirement for a writer, but
it was not a generally held skill. Instead it was
concentrated among a small number of richer, and therefore more leisured people who were also often male. Such a class usually consists of the invaders and their descendants, and the few indigenous people who have been assimilated by the invaders2.. The belief system of the people outside of this group which comes to include the poorer descendants of the invaders, tends to be conservative in terms of religion and tradition. Ideas don't flow easily between the elite and the majority of the people due to this segregation. These conditions lead to a sharp variance between scholarship and folklore almost inevitably.
Invaders typically perceive the peoples they encounter
in new lands as inferior. As such, the cultures of those peoples is looked
at in a similar light, considered important only insofar as it interferes
with the goals of the invaders. This was very much the attitude of Christian
missionaries upon meeting
Aboriginal Canadians. Such missionaries also tended to regard nature with horror, as something to be
tamed and caged. They fully expected aboriginal peoples to see the world in the same way, and wrote about how aboriginals thought and believed as if this were the case. While technology, biology, and shear numbers were not identical in the case of invasions on the Greek peninsula, a similar mindset was probably held by the people who participated in them.
Artemis was well loved by the ordinary people; her
rituals popular and well attended. Greek mothers
called upon her in labour, and to protect their children, certain that she would care for them as she did for wild animals. She was called the mother of Eros, desire. Spartans called her Korythalia, and
worshipped her in orgiastic dances, similar to the Amazons. Prior to going to war, they sacrificed to her, perhaps as the fierce mother who protects her children from danger. This is another similarity to the Amazons, who worshipped her in this aspect under the name Astateia, also using dance. Their noisy circle dances using clashing shields and swords and stomping feet garner frequent comment and mention even today. They also worshipped Thracian Artemis and Artemis of Ephesus. Greek
commentators complained that Thracian and Taurian cults were the most brutal, including the sacrifice of males. This is a questionable criticism, since these rituals are descended from Neolithic roots, which have yielded no evidence of human sacrifice. If such sacrifices were ever carried out, they were probably a much later addition.
The Arcadian city of Clitor was sacred to Artemis along
with Ephesus. Not only was the Temple of
Artemis at Ephesus one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but when Alexander of Macedon had it
restored, his popularity all over Greece soared... despite the fact that it was restored with images of
male heroes by male workers. Scythian worshippers of Artemis, whom Greek commentators referred to by the name Alani, 'hunting dogs' of Artemis, named their land Parthia 'Virginland' for her. In Cappadocia, a Goddess much like Artemis named Perasia had priestesses who could walk unharmed through sacred fires... ancient counterparts to present day firewalkers.
This fervently worshipped, ecstasy giving Goddess bears
little resemblance to the Artemis of generally known myth.
Artemis had many followers of both genders, and priestesses
who refused to live in patriarchal Greek society, mythologized as Maenads,
nymphs, and so on. The Maenads are particularly interesting because they
were meant to explain a phenomenon that Greek men simply could not understand.
Artemis controlled all mountains and the forests on them, and thirty cities
besides. It was to the mountains that Maenads went for rituals, or to live.
Greek commentators claimed that Dionysus had taken them, yet he was not
even a true presence in the places Maenads preferred. The only way Greek
men could understand the anger and frustration of the women who finally
opted out of Greek society was to believe them to be mad. Surely if society
was working for them, it must be working for everyone... a common idea
within any elite.
Nymphs, Oreads, Dryads and so on were the priestesses
of Artemis who hunted with her in the forests, dancing and 'frolicking'
with her. In fact, they often lived in the mountains as Artemis did herself.
They would wear masks to impersonate her hounds, or paint their faces with
white gypsum to impersonate Artemis as the Full Moon. The second practise
has long been remembered in the tale of Artemis taking refuge among her
priestesses and painting her face to match theirs, allowing her to elude
harassers. Often these priestesses were the keepers of shrines by sacred
springs, and of sacred caves or groves.
Other priestesses kept sacred hounds, as Procris kept
Artemis' hound Laelaps. Chosen at the age of
nine for service to their Goddess, the priestesses may later have undergone initiatory experiences or
prophesied with the use of mugwort or wormwood. These herbs are sacred to Artemis and deadly if
taken in high doses, while wormwood is also addictive. Other sacred plants, such as amaranth, were
used for medical problems such as menstrual disorders. Artemis' college of priestesses probably
provided healers as well as midwives. The Nine Muses may be a folk memory of the circles of
priestesses who tended the temples of Artemis and other Goddesses. The caryatids were also temple
priestesses, as well as the seven pillars carved in the likeness of women to hold up the temple.
Last, but not least are the quintessential followers
of Artemis, the Amazons. Not only did they leave
patriarchal societies to live as their Goddess did, free, belonging to themselves, many of them had never lived in such a society to begin with. They maintained viable alternatives to patriarchal organization, and their impact persists to the present day as city and temple founders. These places still exist, and the Amazons maintain a hold over popular imagination that is unparalleled by any other group.
It is important to note that the worship of Artemis
by the Amazons was informed by an older and more complete knowledge of
Her. They understood that the name 'Artemis' truly referred to an aspect
of the Goddess worshipped exclusively by women. Wmen could join Amazon
tribes permanently, or on a short term basis. To leave home to serve Artemis
for a time was once a normal, highly respected act, since the bearing of
children and the maintenance of society was the work of warriors.
Artemis was connected to many other Goddesses in myth,
often through mutual support or cooperation. She fed her horses on trefoil
grown on Hera's land, granting them good health and swiftness. Artemis
and Athena were two of the copatrons of the Amazons, Athena's focus being
the Amazons of North Africa and South Greece, Artemis' the Amazons of North
Greece and Thrace. The Amazons of Anatolia worshipped Cybele, the third
patron Goddess of the Amazons. Demeter, Artemis, and Athena all wore the
mask of Medusa, the snake haored, terrifying image of their angry or destroying
natures. Athena and Artemis have also both been named as the senders of
the golden fleece. As part of her mysteries, Aphrodite had to suffer the
loss of a lover in order to understand love as it was for mortals. Accordingly,
Artemis sent the boar that killed Adonis. Greek mythology portrays Artemis
and Britomartis as lovers.
The story of Leto as mother of Artemis is well known,
but it smacks of heavy revision. Leto is herself a Great Goddess and Lady
of the Beasts. She has occasionally been identified with the Goddess of
Ephesus. This tells against her being the mother of Artemis.
Phoebe, meaning 'Bright Moon' or 'Purifier' is a title
of Artemis as prophet and Themis as the Oracle at Delphi. Themis is the
personification of natural law, instinct. Her very name forms part of Artemis'.
These connections alone have led to the suggestion that Artemis is an emanation
of Themis. She can also be regarede as the daughter of Themis, just as
Persephone can be seen as Demeter's daughter or as Demeter's younger self.
Another translation of Artemis' name is 'high source of water.' The sacred
spring Kastalia flows from the oracular cave at Delphi down to the Cephissus
river. The cave itself is in mountainous territory, about 640 metres above
the Korinthian Gulf.
Artemis is far more than what is written here. She
is too complex to completely define, too much the
shapeshifter to present an unchanging face, and too busy growing with her worshippers to be frozen in a few pages of text. Each person's experience of her is unique, as is each person's writings of her.
'But heed now this charge I give you. Speak of
me to all your sisters who yet know me not. For
though I have come first to you, I come also to all
your sisters who dwell with men. For all are
equal in my sight and all love is equal in my
sight. So go now and tell your sisters of me that
they might also tell their brothers... that all may
know me. For I am all love and all life.'
- from She Lives! by Judith Laura
1. It should be noted that the name Hellas, an ancient name for Greece, apparently derives from the
name of a tribe indigenous to the peninsula or who had invaded much earlier. The name comes from
that of their patron Goddess Hellen, later remembered as Helen of Troy.
2. Present day examples are African countries which were once colonies, where most black people are poor, illiterate, and still living in a traditional fashion, especially where Christian missionaries were
successfully resisted. A more extreme example is shown by the caste system in India, where the
lowest caste often includes the very dark skinned Indians, who are descendants of the defeated and
subjugated indigenous people of the country.