Friday, March 13, 2015

Artemis: Ancient Mother and Lady of the Wilderness

Homeric Hymn to Artemis

I sing of bright Artemis with her golden arrows;
The sacred maiden, deer-huntress, showering arrows
I bless you, holy Virgin, great sister of Apollo
He with his golden sword.
In the mountain of shadow and peaks of wind
She delights in the chase, she arches her bow of solid gold
She lets fly arrows that moan
The peaks of lofty mountains tremble,
the forest of darkness screams
with the terrible howling of wild beasts
Fleeing in terror. 
The whole earth shakes;
Even the teeming seas,
In and out she darts, her heart undaunted
Killing, killing, killing—
Animals of every kind.
Then, when her great appetite is satisfied,
Her love of the chase appeased,
She sets aside, unstrung, her mighty bow.
Now she seeks the grassy slopes of Delphi,
Her brother, dear Apollo’s splendid hall
And there calls up the Graces and the Muses:
Her bow unstrung, her arrows put aside,
She dons a lovely dress,
And now she leads a sacred dance
With songs to Leto of the fair ankles—
Leto, who bore such children
As the world has never seen!
Supreme in act, supreme in wisdom.
Eminent of gods.

Homeric Hymn to Artemis
(Jennifer and Roger Woolger, Trans)

While the Greeks have given us a picture of Artemis as a lithe young woman, master archer and hunter, ever young and virginal, leading the dance of the Muses, her origins go back to before the founding of Greece.

Artemis seems to be the embodiment of a form of the goddess from Paleolithic times, the cultural Stone Age period (the earliest chipped stone tools) stretching from 2.4 million years ago to around 15,000 to 11,500 years ago in western Asia and southern Europe.

This means she is a very ancient goddess indeed!  She probably originated as a hunting goddess before there were agricultural centers in Asia Minor. 

Hunting cultures are very in tune with the cycles of Nature and of the animals they follow.  They have to know the animals’ habits and migration patterns. They live in Nature’s rhythms.  Ancient hunters achieved a state of consciousness called participation mystique in which they had a mystical connection to nature and the animals they hunted.  This connection helped them in their hunting.

The Huntress

Just as the hunters knew themselves to be part of the great round of nature, they believed that they also participated in the death of those they hunted.  In those times, killing an animal was a disruption of the primal unity of nature and the sacred bond had to be restored so the people could continue to live in harmony with Nature and with their own being. 

This helps us understand how Artemis can be Mistress of Animals and yet also take great delight in hunting and killing them.  She is both life and death, and ancient hunters knew that they participated in this play of hunter and hunted, that they could also find their death on the hunt.  In living so close to the natural world, they felt the unity of life and death, and were always respectful toward the animals they hunted and were sustained by. 

In many stories, Artemis seeks vengeance against people who have transgressed her natural order.  It reminds us that she is a deity of both light and darkness.  Not to be trifled with!

Artemis as Bear Mother

Artemis is especially associated with the bear; the root of her name is ‘art’ which is the Indo-European root word for bear.  In the very earliest Greek stories about Artemis, she is a she-bear with her cubs.  Bears are known for their fierce protection of their cubs as well as their tenderness for them.  At some point, Bear became a very ancient form of the Great Mother.

In Greece, Artemis was worshipped as the Bear Mother in her sanctuary at Brauron.  Young Athenian girls below the age of 9 were dedicated to Artemis and called her bear-cubs.   As children, they went to live in the wilderness, dressed in bearskins and danced in the goddess’ temple.  This was probably a time when the girls were given their freedom to follow their own wild nature as well as to learn about the blood mysteries of hunting associated with death, sacrifice and renewal. By this time, hunting and gathering had given way to an agricultural society and a civilization that in many ways had lost touch with Artemis’ wildness and her wilderness.

As with any image of the Great Mother, we look first to her loving and sheltering embrace, often forgetting that this ancient Mother also embodied the dark aspects of the Divine Feminine as well. Her rules were Earth’s laws.  Sacrifice and death were preludes to new life.  Even though Homer and later Greeks tried to make her a passive young girl who obeyed her daddy and played with her bow, the truth is that Artemis was the most popular Greek goddess, more so than Aphrodite, Demeter or Athena.  Patriarchy always puts down power harshly as we see in our politics today.  But the women remembered who Artemis really was and went to re-connect with her energies. 

“Artemis was the most popular goddess in Greece, but the Artemis of popular belief was quite a different person from the proud virgin of mythology, Apollo’s sister.  Artemis is the goddess of wild Nature; she haunts the woods, the groves, the luscious meadows.  There the ‘rushing Artemis’ hunts and dances with her attendant nymphs.  She protects and fosters the young of animals and growing human children.  In her cult occur orgiastic dances and the sacred bough. … A favorite subject of archaic art is the figure … called the ‘Mistress of Animals’ a woman holding in her hands four-footed animals or birds of different kinds.” (A History of Greek Religion, p. 28.)  

Artemis of Ephesus
We still see remnants of this more ancient powerful Mother Goddess in the statue of Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey.  There is a huge statue of her with many breasts as well as images of animals on her skirt.  This was the Great Goddess of the New, Full and Waning Moons: Maiden, Mother and Crone.

So what should we make of the Greek version of Artemis?  I’ve found that many myths retold from a patriarchal point of view still provide us with an understanding of the energies being invoked.  So let’s take a look.

The Virgin Huntress

When patriarchal thinking broke up the many aspects of the Great Goddess into separate goddesses, the Greek Artemis became the slender, maidenly Moon goddess, with her hunting dogs and her great bow. While she no longer symbolized the entire lunar cycle, Artemis came to represent the New Moon, the beautiful crescent of light than hangs in the western sky.  The other two phases of this Triple Goddess became Selene as Full Moon and Hekate as waning Moon. 


One of only three ‘virginal’ goddesses (Hestia and Athena), Artemis is seen here in relationship to her twin brother, Apollo, god of Light and the Sun. So even though Artemis is still a Virgin (which really means belonging to yourself/self-aware), she is continually connected with her twin brother. 

As the Moon, she gets her light from the Sun, connecting both to the monthly lunar cycle.  They make a strong pair, both sure of themselves, both attuned to their own realms while still connected.  Artemis’ consciousness is our wild right-brain knowing while Apollo definitely represents left-brain functioning. Two lights in the sky—two types of consciousness to process life with. 

Artemis’ mother was the Titan, Leto, meaning she was an ancient goddess before the Greek pantheon took over.  So Zeus was from a newer generation of gods, and he wanted Leto’s power, so he pursued her (some say raped her) and got her pregnant.   Leto means "the obscure" or "concealed," meaning not a physical power but a quiescent and invisible divinity, from whom issued the visible divinity with all its’ splendor and brilliancy.  ‘Leto’s whole legend seems to indicate nothing else but the issuing from darkness to light, and a return from the latter to the former.’ (  

She had some power that Zeus wanted.  In a general way, Leto sounds like the description of the quantum field, the field of possibilities that gives rise to form—the realm of the archetypes or natural laws of life.  Which once again shows how deep-seated an archetypal presence Artemis is for humanity.  She symbolizes our wild nature and our deep connection to Earth and her cycles. 

As our deep connection to Nature, Artemis embodies the energies of the wild and remote, lonely places of Earth: the solitude of the forests and mountains, the tumbling stream weaving its way down a mountain, the secret meadow blooming with a thousand colors, rough bare land and rocks which harbor deep caves.  She knows ecstasy and death, delight in her body and hardship, quiet and movement.

As an ancient feminine archetype, Artemis is the archetypal energy of Nature’s flowing rhythms.  As the Crescent Moon, she is the energy that sets us hunting for the new impulse of life growing within us, that gives us joy in the pursuit of our goals, and who is there at the end of the hunt as we give birth to our new life, for she is also the Midwife.

As the Divine Huntress, Artemis can help us direct (her arrows) our energies to the new possibilities arising around us; she can kill off those animal instincts that won’t serve us at this stage.  She protects those animals and instincts that are needed to sustain this new life.

As she protects the new life in us, she is also around when we’re ready to birth it into the world.  Artemis is also the Goddess of Childbirth.  The birth is never certain, and women died.  But others lived and thrived.  

In the ancient story of her birth, her birth is painless and then she assists her mother in delivering her brother Apollo after 9 days of hard labor.  Leto, the unseen and unformed, gave shape to a new masculine energy.   We know that 9 is the number of completion, of the end of a task or cycle; so this goddess’ labor brought forth not only Artemis, Nature’s perfect child but after 9 days of cooking and shaping and spelling, these two goddesses were equally responsible for the transformation of the masculine energies into a new form—Apollo, god of the Sun, of the rational, of Delphi’s oracle.  The best form they could create to carry on life at that time.  A more rational consciousness began to take shape in Greece over time.  Perhaps birthed by these Goddesses?

Artemis is goddess of the Hunt, of childbirth, of Wild Places, of the Moon; she is the goddess who leads the dance, whether out in wild nature, where she roamed with her nymphs and danced through the forests and meadows or at her brother Apollo’s prophetic Temple of Delphi.  She dances the rhythms of Nature that she learned out in the wilds.  She brings another rhythm to the music of her brother.  She doesn’t let women forget our wildness, our huntress, our caretaker—she holds the space for our wild knowing.

Artemis is certainly the goddess who calls us to protect our national parks and wild places.  May she come to our aid as we stop the energy companies from ruining our pristine wilderness.  So Mote It Be!

Here is a summery of Artemis’ story.   If you like her, please spend some time with her, studying her stories and embodying her energy. 

Two other children of Zeus rose to take their place among the greatest of Olympians. These were the children of Leto, the beautiful daughter of the original Titans Coeus and Phoebe. Hera was tormented with jealousy of Leto. So the Queen of the Gods sent a serpent after Leto to vex her and to prevent her from finding a place to deliver her babies.
Leto frantically went from place to place, but found no welcome anywhere, since everyone feared incurring the wrath of Hera. She finally found refuge on Ortygia, the island of her sister Asteria.
Ortygia means “quail island.” Asteria, Leto's sister and the mother of the goddess Hecate, had escaped the lecherous pursuit of Zeus by turning herself into a quail and diving into the sea. The island of Ortygia appeared on the spot. After the births of Artemis and Apollo, the island's name changed to Delos, which can mean “famous.” It was renowned as one of the holiest places in ancient Greece.
 This is where she gave birth to Artemis, with no pain or trouble.  Immediately after her own birth, the newborn Artemis helped her mother through nine days of hard labor before she delivered her brother Apollo. Themis, Leto's aunt, took care of the young gods and nourished them on ambrosia and nectar—the food and drink of the gods.
Artemis and Apollo cherished their mother, who had gone through such an ordeal to bring them into the world. Not long after their birth, the giant Tityus attempted to rape Leto in a sacred grove near Delphi. Leto called out the names of her children, who quickly rescued her by showering arrows upon the giant, killing him instantly. For Tityus's offense, Zeus consigned the giant (who was his own son) to eternal torment in the Underworld.
Artemis and Apollo also defended their mother's honor (and perhaps their own pride) when Niobe, the daughter of Tantalus, boasted of having more and better children than Leto. The two killed most (or all) of Niobe's children, leaving Niobe to weep eternally.
Artemis and Apollo remained close to each other forever. Both siblings would become associated with the skill of archery, and they enjoyed hunting together. In addition, both had the power to send plagues upon mortals.
Wild Queendom: Artemis
Artemis grew to become the virgin goddess of the hunt, of wild animals, and of childbirth (due to her participation in the birth of her brother). She and her brother also became the protectors of young children.
When she was just three, Artemis was asked by her father, Zeus, to name any gifts she wanted. Among many others, she named:
1.     A bow and arrows (just like her brother's)
2.    All the world's mountains (as her home and playground)
3.    Just one city (for she preferred to live in the mountains)
4.    Eternal virginity

Zeus gladly provided her with everything she wanted and more. He ordered the Cyclopes to forge a silver bow and fill a quiver with arrows for her. He promised her eternal virginity. Zeus gave her all the mountains as her domain. And he presented her with 30 cities—and named her as guardian of the world's roads and harbors.
Artemis, constantly attended by nymphs, could almost always be found in the mountains she loved. Though she was the guardian of wild animals, Artemis enjoyed nothing more than hunting. Orion, a giant hunter, joined both Artemis and her mother on many of their hunts.
Like most of the Olympians, Artemis reacted strongly whenever she did not receive the honors due her as a goddess. After Apollo had helped Admetus win Alcestis as his bride, for instance, the groom neglected to sacrifice to Artemis at his wedding. Imagine his horror that night when he found his bridal bedchamber teeming with snakes! Admetus quickly followed Apollo's advice and made the necessary sacrifices to the god's sister.
The hunter Orion greatly offended Gaia by boasting that his hunting skill was so great he could kill all of the animals on Earth. Gaia decided to protect her domain by sending a giant scorpion after the hunter. After the scorpion stung and killed Orion, Artemis and Leto prevailed upon Zeus to immortalize him as a constellation—but with the scorpion similarly honored.
King Oeneus of Calydon similarly offended Artemis by forgetting to dedicate the first fruits of the harvest to her one season. Artemis sent a monstrous boar to ravage and terrorize his kingdom. To rid the kingdom of this vicious beast, Oeneus was forced to call on some of the greatest heroes of the age to participate in the hunt.
Actaeon, the son of Autonoe and grandson of Cadmus, offended the goddess by stumbling across her once while she was bathing in the woods. Furious that a mortal had seen her naked, Artemis transformed the hunter into a stag. His own hounds then ripped Actaeon to pieces.
The biggest penalty paid for offending the goddess was that of King Agamemnon of Mycenae, who foolishly boasted that his hunting prowess outstripped even hers. On the eve of the Trojan War, Artemis stranded the Greek fleet with ill winds. To appease her, Agamemnon sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia—though, according to some accounts, the goddess showed mercy at the last minute and substituted a deer on the altar.
Having won the right to eternal virginity from her father, Artemis sometimes found it necessary to fiercely defend it. Buphagus, son of the Titan Iapetus, once tried to rape her, but she shot and killed him. The twin sons of Poseidon, Otus and Ephialtes, also met their doom trying to violate the goddess—and Hera as well. Otus chased after Artemis while Ephialtes pursued Hera. But suddenly a deer—either Artemis herself after a transformation or a real deer sent by her brother Apollo—darted between the two brothers. Distracted, the brothers quickly hurled their spears at it, but it sped away. Otus's spear pierced Ephialtes and Ephialtes' hit Otus—and both giants died instantly.
Artemis required the nymphs who attended her to remain virgins, just as she did. But her father once raped Callisto, a favorite of Artemis's. Hoping to help her escape Hera's notice, Zeus then transformed her into a bear. But Hera—not fooled at all—tricked Artemis into shooting and killing the bear.


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