Artemis is the daughter of Zeus, King of the Greek gods, and Leto, one of his many mistresses. According to the legend, Leto was in labour nine days and nights, all the time pursued by Hera, Zeus’s jealous wife. Then, on reaching Delos, she gave birth to Artemis who, astonishingly, helped Leto deliver her own twin brother, Apollo. The pair became goddess and god of the moon and sun. Artemis is the maiden goddess of the new moon, and the sixth day from the new moon is sacred to her. She rides her silver chariot, pulled by silver stags, across the sky and shoots her arrows of silver moonlight to the earth below. When Artemis was a little girl, Zeus, her father, wanted to give her a gift and asked her what she wanted. The goddess replied “I want to run forever wild and free with my hounds in the woods and never, ever marry”. She is one of only three beings who are immune to the enchantments of Aphrodite the goddess of love (the other two are Hestia and Athene). She is normally depicted as tall and slender, wearing a short tunic and carrying a bow.
Behind this classical myth, however, there was an older Artemis, reflected in the stories of the goddess as the free spirit who rejects the company of gods and humans, preferring instead to roam the solitary woodland grove and the bare mountainside, dancing and singing in the company of her nymphs. She is a huntress and, carrying her silver bow, delights in the reckless pursuit across the countryside, running with the Alani, her pack of hounds, a gift from the nature god Pan.
She is the patroness of hunters, who would gratefully hang the skin and horns of their prey in her temples. She is also the protector of wild animals and knows all their ways, from the elusive bird and the timid deer, to the savage lion and fierce bear. She binds the hunter and the hunted, since she is the goddess who both gives and takes life. The Greeks called her the Huntress of Souls.
Artemis is the goddess of wild and remote places, unsullied land far from the reach of man. Her nymphs are the spirits of its trees, streams, rocks and flowers, the souls of nature embodied, while Artemis herself is the imminent goddess of Nature in its raw and untamed state. She is a maiden, chaste, eternally young and virginal, called ‘Artemis the undefiled’ in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon. Those men who defiled her mysteries she ruthlessly hunted down and killed. One such was Actaeon, a hunter who caught sight of Artemis while she was bathing. The goddess, thus profaned, punished him by turning him into a stag whereupon his own hounds, not recognising their master, tore him to pieces.
She is the patroness of unmarried girls and was served by virgin priestesses; when women married, they had to leave her service forever. Yet no marriage took place without her. Young girls considering matrimony went to dance at her festivals. On the night before the wedding, they dedicated their tunics on her altar, and left behind their childhood memorabilia. She is the protector of all women, swift in her defence of those tormented by men, always coming to the aid of those who called upon her, punishing the wrongdoers. It is this aspect of Artemis that women in labour called upon since, despite being a virgin, Artemis is the goddess of childbirth. It is in her power to spare both mother and child, or to take them. It is part of her mystery that a woman in travail must surrender herself to her animal side, nature at its most raw, uttering that last savage cry at the moment of birth. In Ephesus she was called Dea Anna and “many-breasted”, the patroness of nurturing, fertility, and birth.
Artemis is the least civilised of the Greek goddesses, and perhaps the oldest, dating from a time before the land was cultivated. She is also the wild and untamed part of ourselves. While her brother Apollo, is logical, dignified, lord of the sun and daylight, she is animal instinct, impulse, intuition, freedom, the lady of the moon and night. They represent the two sides of human consciousness, both necessary in balance. Artemis is the soul of the wilderness, uncivilised and untamed. She is the goddess imminent in manifest Nature: untamed energy. She calls upon the wildness in your heart.
Remember too, that Artemis is the goddess that women call upon when they are in trouble or abused. She befriends the abused and punishes the abuser. Within every woman (and every man) the spirit of Artemis exists, independent, confident and, like her warrior maidens the Amazons, not needing a romantic partner to make her life complete. She goes where she wants and does what she wants without having to seek the approval of another. She doesn’t deny her own nature to satisfy another.
Text © Anna Franklin, The Oracle of the Goddess, Vega, 2003
Illustration © Paul Mason, The Oracle of the Goddess, Vega, 2003