Don’t Mess with the Chaste Huntress and Greek Goddess Artemis
The ancient Greek goddess Artemis was many things to many people. A huntress, virgin, midwife, twin, independent woman, protector, plague-bearer… the list goes on and on. Her appearance did not change much but the story of Artemis the goddess changed across time and space. Wild animals and humans alike were thought to both cherish and fear the chaste and determined goddess. There were many facets to Artemis, some of them contradictory.
The Drowning of Britomartis from Scenes from the Story of Diana, from a tapestry probably designed by Jean Cousin the Elder. Artemis may be an adaptation of the story of Britomartis. ( Public domain )
Artemis’ Realm of Influence
Most scholars would say that Artemis was a major deity in the Greek pantheon , but there is some evidence that she may be a Greek adaptation of an earlier goddess, such as Britomartis. If true, it would not be too surprising, since many cultures have adopted and adapted the deities of their predecessors.
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Plato wrote that her name, Artemis, is a nod to her virginity and purity, and was derived from the ancient Greek word artemês, meaning “unharmed” or “pure.” She certainly was depicted as a healthy, vigorous, chaste being in much of ancient Greek myth. But more recently, scholars have suggested that Artemis’ origins probably predate ancient Greece and may even be Persian.
Earlier images of the goddess Artemis from 650 BC, Staatliche Antikensammlungen, Munich. (Carole Raddato / CC BY SA 2.0 )
Regardless, the image of Artemis that has been passed down through the ages is one of a goddess of hunting. The Greek goddess Artemis was understandably a favorite for people living in the rural areas and undoubtedly a prominent deity for the Greeks. As a female deity and Greek goddess of the hunt, Artemis ruled over wild beasts, plants, virginity and childbirth, one who danced with nymphs and roamed through mountains, forests, and marshes.
Artemis was a Mistress of Animals, both protecting the young and hunting the old. This goddess demanded respect and granted favors as well as sought vengeance. She was determined, independent and a strong figure. She was also sometimes called a goddess of the moon .
The Various Cults of Artemis: Who is Artemis?
Artemis was worshipped in many ways and by many people in pre-Hellenic times. Crete, the Greek mainland, and several Greek-influenced cultures all felt and identified with her presence. Thus, Artemis gained and lost facets of her personality as her followers adapted her to their worldviews. For example, the Arcadian Artemis was a goddess the people imagined surrounded by nymphs, and dancing across the lands and near rivers and lakes.
In this version, the strong ethical side of Artemis was downplayed, and some even saw as absent from this wild huntress who rode in a chariot drawn by four stags with golden antlers and used a bow and arrows made by the gods’ best smith, Hephaestus. Lusty Pan provided this version of Artemis with her hunting dogs and Apollo was apparently unconnected to her story.
Diana was the Roman adaptation of the Greek goddess Artemis, seen here bathing with her nymphs in an 18th century painting by Jean-François de Troy. ( Public domain )
Temples and sanctuaries to Artemis were more prevalent in Arcadia than any other region, and they were often built alongside lakes or rivers. Sacred wells were an important feature in many of these holy sites built to honor the goddess locals called Limnêtis or Limnaia (Lady of the Lake). At these temples, maidens danced as if they were tree nymphs ( dryads) and water nymphs ( naiads) following their leader across her wild lands. It’s said some of the dances were pretty wild.
In comparison to the devil-may-care style of the Arcadian Artemis there was the bloodlust of the Taurian Artemis. Over time sacrifices (of boars, dogs, stags, or even humans) and orgiastic rituals became major features of the cult to this interpretation of Artemis. She was seen as a mystical being who could turn men insane and crave blood.
Many scholars believe that the Taurian and Brauronian Artemis (the Artemis worshipped in Athens and Sparta) were altered versions of earlier goddesses with a more violent streak. This version of Artemis also had a stronger connection to the moon than some others.
Sanctuary to the goddess Artemis at Brauron. (Nefasdicere / CC BY SA 3.0 )
Yet another face of the Greek goddess Artemis was the ancient Ephesian Artemis. Legends say that worship to this goddess began with the mythical Amazons. However, most modern scholars believe that the Greeks who established Ionia saw some relation between their goddess Artemis with an ancient Asiatic deity.
This modified goddess Artemis was most connected with the nourishing powers of nature. In this version, the Artemis symbol was the bee, representations of her depicted a female form with many breasts, and her priests were all eunuchs.
Detail of a statue of the Ephesian Artemis. (Len Radin / CC BY NC SA 2.0 )
In general, the virginal interpretation of Artemis presided, and she was believed to expect her priests and priestesses to live pure and chaste lives as well. Severe punishments were dealt if one of her followers broke their vows of abstinence.
In a private household, the goddess Artemis was likely looked to for help with agriculture and livestock. People thought that a happy, honored Artemis would bless them with fertile land, bountiful harvests, and healthy and fertile animals. But if Artemis was not pleased, they thought she would curse them with poor crops and decimated livestock.
The Mythological Family Tree of Artemis and Apollo
Most of the ancient sources state that Artemis’ family tree included some big names. In fact, it is said she was the daughter of Zeus and the twin sister of Apollo. Artemis’ mother is often named as the Titaness Leto (a daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe).
Not everyone agreed on who Artemis’ mother was though. A tradition in Aeschylus says Demeter was her mother and in an Egyptian myth Artemis was said to be the daughter of Isis with Dionysus (Leto was named as her nurse in that Artemis story). Most people would agree that these versions were created when Artemis was adapted to local beliefs.
Following the most popular version of Artemis’ birth, we learn how this famously chaste goddess got linked to childbirth. That tale begins with Leto becoming pregnant by Zeus and seeking safety from the jealous, enraged Hera (Zeus’ wife). As a punishment to Leto, Hera forbade her from giving birth anywhere on solid earth. Leto eventually found a safe haven on the floating island of Delos and she precariously gave birth to Artemis while balanced on an olive branch.
Hera learned of the event and forbade her daughter, Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, from helping Leto anymore. But her twin brother Apollo was on his way, so there was the problem of finding someone to help Leto give birth. It turns out that Artemis, at just a day (or some say nine days) old, had miraculously discovered midwifery and helped her mother bring her twin brother into the world.
Tondo of an Attic red-figure cup depicting Apollo and Artemis. ( Public domain )
From then on, Artemis and Apollo were united and the fierce protectors of their mother. They killed Niobe’s children when they heard her brag that she was better than their mom. And they shot down Tityus with their arrows when he tried to rape her.
In Greek mythology, the twins Artemis and Apollo are often seen as very much alike. For example, the goddess Artemis protected, cured, and sent harm or death to girls and women and Apollo did the same for boys and men. They both used bows and arrows as their weapon of choice. And Apollo was linked to the sun, so naturally Artemis gained association with the moon. However, there are some ways that Artemis and Apollo differ as well. For example, the cult of Apollo included oracles and it seems Artemis’ cults did not.
Artemis the Chaste? The Personality of the Greek Goddess Artemis
Being a goddess of nature, it is natural to believe that Artemis was an outdoorsy, athletic, environmentalist, with a love for animals and adventure. Most stories say Artemis requested her father Zeus to grant her eternal virginity when she was just a girl. From this and her violent reactions towards any who tried to encroach on this purity, it is evident that Artemis was determined, headstrong, proud, mature, and independent.
There is, however, the suggestion that the tales of Artemis’ nymphs who get themselves ‘into trouble’ with men were actually originally created about the goddess herself, suggesting that the pure, chaste Artemis may not have always been so. It seems the virginal Artemis may have been created around the time of Homer and took hold since then.
Nonetheless, the most popular version of the Greek goddess Artemis was dedicated to the hunt and protection of women during childbirth and young girls. Artemis found her passion in those areas of life and showed little concern for seeking the pleasures of love or marriage (with one possible exception as we’ll soon see).
Painting depicting Diana, the Roman equivalent of the Greek goddess Artemis, over Orion’s corpse (1685) by Daniel Seiter. ( Public domain )
Artemis Myths and the Death of Orion
The most popular Artemis stories tend to stress her reaction to men trying to harm her pure nature. For example, the giant Orion, who was Artemis’ hunting partner and possibly the only man she may have loved, tried to act on his desire for her by removing her robe.
There are several different versions of the story of how Orion was killed. One version recounts that he was killed by Artemis, who was angered by his advances. Another claimed that Artemis shot him by accident. Other stories claim that the earth goddess Gaia sent a scorpion to kill him (perhaps protecting Artemis from herself), or that Apollo was the culprit when he jealously tried to protect his sister. Most versions of the tale say Artemis was deeply saddened by Orion’s death and she placed him amongst the stars.
At least two more males were said to have trespassed on Artemis’ chastity and their punishments were severe. The first was a hunter named Actaeon who saw her bathing at a spring. In retaliation Artemis turned him into a stag and had his hunting dogs tear him to pieces. The second was a boy named Siproites, who accidently saw her nude and was turned into a girl for his mistake.
Staying pure was also a requirement Artemis had for her nymphs and hunting attendants and she didn’t hold back if they didn’t live up to her expectations. For example, when one of her nymphs, Callisto (Kallisto), was tricked and seduced by Zeus, Artemis was livid.
Painting of Diana and Callisto (circa 1566) by Titian. ( Public domain )
When Callisto gave birth to a boy named Arcas, Artemis sought revenge. As punishment, the goddess contrived with Hera to transform the girl into a bear. Most stories say she either exiled or killed her, or had Arcas kill her. However, some versions say that Zeus intervened and sent Callisto and Arcas into the heavens as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Adonis also met with Artemis’ fury when he boasted he was a better hunter than she. The goddess sent a wild boar to kill him for having the nerve to disrespect her. She also punished Agamemnon for disrespecting her by killing a stag in her sacred grove. His punishment was the goddess stopping the winds when he was about to set sail to the Trojan War.
The wrath of the Greek goddess Artemis was extreme. Statue depicting the Death of Adonis by Giuseppe Mazzuoli. (Yair Hakli / CC BY SA 2.5 )
Trying to please the angered goddess, Agamemnon chose to sacrifice his daughter. But most versions of the story say Artemis substituted the girl with a deer just as Iphigenia was about to be sacrificed. Afterward, she took Iphigenia with her in Tauris and made her a priestess of her cult. Once there, Iphigenia met up with her brother Orestes.
A statue of the goddess Artemis as the mythological Roman huntress Diana. ( Evdoha / Adobe Stock)
Artemis’ Symbols in Her Appearance in Art
Classical literature provides only a few brief descriptions of Artemis’ physical characteristics. Some write that she was tall, had great posture, and was beautiful. In ancient art, Artemis is most often depicted as a young, tall, attractive, huntress carrying a bow and arrow with a stag, doe, or hunting dog at her side.
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Typically, she is dressed in a knee-high tunic. A cloak or sometimes a deer pelt is draped over her shoulders and the goddess often wears some kind of headgear (a crown, tiara, headband, bonnet or animal-pelt cap), or with her hair mostly tied up.
When she is presented as a moon goddess, Artemis sometimes is dressed in a longer robe and wears a crescent moon as a crown. Although the bow and arrow are the most common symbols of Artemis, she is sometimes presented with a quiver, hunting spears, a torch (as the moon goddess Artemis), a lyre, or water-jug instead.
Top image: Representation of the ancient Greek goddess Artemis in the wood hunting. Source: gilitukha/ Adobe Stock
By Alicia McDermott