Artemis: Her Many Faces
by Katharina Woodworth / Mythica Art & Vision
Artemis is one of the most ancient goddesses of the Greek pantheon. She was
a goddess in her own right - that is, she emerged from the matriarchal line.
Unlike Athena, who was born of Zeus’ head after he swallowed her mother,
Metis, or Aphrodite, who was born of sea foam and Uranus’ sperm, or Hera,
who emerged from her father Cronus’ innards, Artemis was born of a woman,
Leto. These "male birthings" suggest that these deities developed much later
in history, after patriarchal values had been imposed and popularized.
Symbolically speaking, these other goddesses have never known mother-love
nor was a woman necessary - or valued - in giving birth. Aphrodite, Hera and
Athena all display characteristics that are dependent upon men, whether it
is for their desirousness, their loyalty or their camaraderie. Artemis was
completely independent of men - for their companionship or their approval.
Since Artemis is one of the most ancient of goddesses, there are
contradictory legends surrounding her. Like Kali, she was a triple goddess who
displayed all three aspects of women: the maiden/virgin, the mother, and the
crone. Artemis ruled over birth, life, love, death, time, and fate.
Originally, Artemis was depicted as the "multi-breasted goddess" at her
popular shrine (which is the most ancient shrine of all the gods and
goddesses known to date) at Ephesus, which indicates that she nurtured all
Later, she became more popular in her virgin/maiden and crone aspects
(Artemis brought death with her arrows), and no longer gave birth herself,
but protected those who did. She was often seen throughout mountainous
forests and uncultivated land with her attending nymphs, hunting for lions,
panthers, hinds and stags. She was sometimes depicted with the crescent moon
above her forehead.
Artemis is the archetypal wild woman, the woman who "runs with the wolves."
She is goddess of the hunt, the moon, fertility, childbirth, young women,
pregnant women, wild animals, the bear, wolves, dogs, deer, and the forests.
She has been called Diana, Selene, the Mother of Creatures, Cynthia, and
Artemis valued virginity - not the definition of virginity we puritanically
view as "not engaging in sexual intercourse" - but virginity in that she was
whole and complete without relationship. She didn’t require partnership with
another (as did Aphrodite, Hera, Persephone) in order to rule her dominion.
In Greece, a cult to the bear goddess - Artemis of Brauron - flourished.
Young pubescent girls were sent to these bear societies where they could
behave, according to Marie-Louise von Franz in The Feminine in Fairy Tales,
"like tomboys - neither washed nor cared for themselves in any way, spoke
roughly, and were called bear cubs…In this way, the feminine personality
could develop unharmed by the problem of sexuality and go into life with a
certain amount of maturity, gained in security under the ugly bearskin.
Otherwise, often only half-developed girls would fall into sex life and at
thirty would be old and worn out." If and when the young girls wanted to
marry, they were asked to lay all their symbolic paraphernalia of their
virginity at the altar - they had to sacrifice their toys, dolls, locks of
hair. They then left the domain of the virgin goddess forever.
In one legend, Artemis was 3 years old when she asked her father to grant
her eternal virginity. She required no less of her followers - and was
vengefully angry if they vowed loyalty but later had secret liaisons with a
man. She was protective of their purity and proved cruelly punitive of any
man who attempted to dishonor her or her counterparts. If a man was caught
spying on Artemis and her nymphs while they bathed, Artemis released her
wild dogs, which would rip the person apart. When Acteon spied on her, she
first changed him into a stag and then let her wolves hunt him down.
One legend is strikingly different. Artemis betrayed her own values when she
fell in love and became engaged with a "great hunter," Orion. Apollo, her
twin brother, was appalled. He believed that a goddess should not lower
herself by being with a mortal. So one day, while the three were visiting
the sea, Orion walked out into the water. He walked so far from shore that
only his head bobbed along the surface. Apollo dared his sister to hit the
small speck that lay far out on the ocean’s horizon. Proud of her hunting
ability, Artemis aimed and hit the target. The speck was Orion’s head.
Artemis realized her grave error when his body bobbed above the surface
minutes later. In grief, Artemis honored Orion by casting him in the
heavens, giving him a place in the night sky.
Artemis was the daughter of Leto and Zeus, and the twin-sister of Apollo.
Several legends relate that Zeus raped Leto. Hera, Zeus’ wife, was greatly
angered and jealous. She therefore decreed that Leto be forbidden to give
birth on land or in the sea. So Leto gave birth on a floating island,
Ortygia. Artemis emerged first. She felt great compassion for her mother -
her labor pains, Zeus’ violent & abhorrent transgression, her banishment.
Artemis became Leto’s midwife and helped her mother over the straits to the
island of Delos, where Leto gave birth to Apollo.
According to Barbara Walker in The Women’s Encyclopedia of Myths and
Secrets, "male gods turned against these attributes in opposing the cult of
the Goddess...Apollo made birth illegal on his sacred isle of Delos;
pregnant women had to be removed lest they offend the god by giving birth
Artemis is a fitting goddess for the modern-day feminist. Unlike her fellow
warrioress Athena, Artemis was protective and supportive of women. She
abhorred the patriarchy as much as the patriarchy despised and felt
threatened by her. Artemis was always rooting for and aiding the underdog.
One can see the Artemis archetype breathing through every woman who knows
her own power but does not wield it in a power-hungry way, who needs to do
things her own way, not because the status quo deems it so, and who has
empathy, compassion, and a tenacious protectiveness towards those who are
vulnerable - be it pregnant women, children, animals or nature. Artemis
inspires us to be independent, strong, to trust our instincts & intuitions,
and to love and understand the wild and vulnerable around us and inside us.
Katharina Woodworth is an artist & writer living in the lush forests of
Northern California. She’s inspired by dreams, archetypes, myths & the
divine feminine. You can enjoy her mystical watercolors and more of her
essays & fiction at her web site, Mythica Art & Vision or email her at email@example.com.
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