Artemis: Goddess of the Hunt
Hunting is often seen as a masculine pursuit, and in the ancient world it was most often the job of men. Whether for food or for sport, tracking animals through the forest wasn’t seen as the proper thing for a woman to do in most circumstances.
The Greeks, however, made an exception to this assumption, at least when the hunter involved was a goddess.
Artemis, the daughter of Zeus and the twin sister of Apollo, was the Greek goddess of the hunt. An avowed virgin who cared little for cities and culture, her domain was the wild forests and mountains that covered most of Iron Age Greece.
With her signature bow and faithful hunting dogs, Artemis and her retinue of young nymphs ruled over the wilderness. The game animals of the forest belonged to her, and she protected them with all her might.
As a compliment to her cultured brother, Artemis represented all the joys and dangers of the wild.
Artemis was one of the twin children of Leto and Zeus.
Zeus had originally sought Leto’s sister, Asteria, but when she rejected the god he turned his attentions to her beautiful sister.
While Zeus was an infamous philanderer, his wife was equally well-known for her jealousy. When Leto fell pregnant she became the latest target of Hera’s ire.
Hera struck back at her rival by trying to make her pregnancy impossibly difficult. She banned Leto from giving birth on solid ground.
Leto wandered the earth, searching for a safe place for her labor. The mainland and islands rejected her because of Hera’s curse.
Eventually, Leto found the floating island of Delos. Because it was not affixed to the ocean floor it did not count as solid ground and provided her with a refuge.
Hera went so far as to kidnap Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, to make Leto’s life more difficult. Leto was forced to go into labor without the help of Eileithyia.
Other goddesses attended the birth however, acting as witnesses much as would happen in a royal court. While Hera was notably absent, Leto was attended by Themis, Amphrite, Rhea, and Dione.
Leto gave birth to twins. Her daughter Artemis was born first.
A hymn from the 3rd century BC says that from the moment of her conception Artemis was charged by the Fates to help women in childbirth.
In some stories, Leto carried her and gave birth to her easily and with no pain. In others, her labor took nine full days and nights.
As soon as Artemis was born, she acted as her mother’s midwife. She helped Leto deliver her twin brother, Apollo, the day after she was born.
When her twins were safely delivered, Leto blessed the floating island and said that it would one day grow rich. Delos would become a place of pilgrimage to honor her children.
The poet Callimachus, writing in Ptolemaic Egypt, imagined Artemis as a child who amused herself in the mountains with archery. That characterisation of Artemis would remain throughout her stories.
From the beginning, Artemis was connected to the wild. She and her brother Apollo were jointly credited with the invention of the bow and arrow, although she always excelled at it more.
As a child, Artemis already enjoyed hunting. Her brother built an altar with the bones and horns of the animals she had killed.
Together, the two became staunch defenders of their mother. When Hera sent both the vicious Python and the giant Tityus after Leto, Artemis and Apollo slew them.
Their defense of their mother included insults against her.
Niobe, a queen of Thebes, once boasted that she was a better mother because she had seven sons and seven daughters while Leto claimed only one of each. The twins murdered twelve of Niobe’s children, leaving just one son and one daughter, so that she could never make such a claim again.
Zeus seemed particularly pleased with his latest daughter. Callimachus also describes a scene in which the young Artemis sits on her father’s laugh as he grants her any ten wishes she desired.
With a child so lovely, Zeus said, he didn’t care how angry his wife became at their birth.
Many of Artemis’s wishes related to her love of the wilderness. For example, she asked that her golden tunic only reach her knees so she could more easily chase after her quarry.
She also asked for mastery of the mountains, but cared little for the cities. She said she would only go into them when a mortal woman required her assistance in childbirth, as her mother had.
In this version of the story, Artemis acquired her bow and arrows from the Cyclopes. Despite being only three years old, she showed no fear of the monstrous giants.
In fact, she was so unafraid that she grabbed the chest of one and pulled out the hair there.
In order to become a great huntress, Artemis next received a gift from Pan. He gave her thirteen hunting dogs, six strong enough to pull down a lion and seven swift enough to outrun a stag.
To care for her dogs and clean the animals she killed, she was given a retinue of young nymphs. All nine-year old virgins, they would be her constant companions.
As Artemis received her gifts, she came upon a herd of deer with golden horns. Four of them she chased down on foot, without even the assistance of her dogs.
The fifth escaped, perhaps helped by the always-jealous Hera. Capturing the last of these deer, the Cerynitian Hind, would become one of the twelve labors assigned to Heracles.
Artemis held deer sacred and gave the four great animals the job of pulling her golden chariot. When Heracles was sent to capture the Cerynitian Hind he begged Artemis for forgiveness.
Doe with antlers were not known in Greece, but a female deer that could also be harnessed may refer to reindeer. These northern animals could have become known to Greeks through trade with Germanic tribes.
Artemis practiced with her bow, and soon became exceptionally skillful. First she shot at trees, then wild animals.
With her weapons and her dogs, Artemis became the greatest hunter in existence. And she did not hesitate to defend that title.
When the hunter Achaeus, for example, boasted that he was a better hunter because he was a man, Artemis caused the animal he was hunting to attack him before he could strike a blow. He was disemboweled by the great Caledonian Boar.
The boar itself had been sent to the region as a punishment from Artemis when the king there had neglected to give her proper sacrifices.
Even those she favored learned to never compare themselves to the goddess.
Atalanta was abandoned at birth, but Artemis took pity on her. The goddess sent a female bear to nurse the baby and as Atalanta grew she taught her to hunt, fight, and run.
Atalanta became one of the few great heroines in Greek mythology, sailing with Jason’s Argonauts and being given credit for slaying the Caledonian Boar. Even though she was blessed by Artemis, though, the goddess sent a bear to injure her when she compared their skills.
Artemis was more than just a huntress. She was also a defender of wildlife.
Bears were often associated with the goddess of wildlife, and killing a bear without her approval could be disastrous.
Near Athens, a cult centred their most important ritual around the memory of Artemis’s anger.
Local legend said that two Athenian men had once killed a wild bear that was under the goddess’s protection. Enraged, she sent a plague that devastated the city.
Artemis told the Athenians that she would lift her curse if their daughters were consecrated to her every five years.
The rite of arkteia became a coming-of-age rituals for young girls in the region. They went through a period of wildness, wearing bearskins and masks in honor of Artemis.
Many of the temples and sanctuaries of Artemis are described by ancient sources as being near water. Lakes and streams attracted the animals she was closely associated with, so her holy sites were founded where the animals congregated.
As a goddess closely identified with her weapon, it’s no surprise that Artemis features heavily in legends of war and fighting.
War was not one of her official domains, but as an archer she was linked to a key aspect of the Greek military structure.
Furthermore, as a hunter she was accustomed to using stealth. While Athena thought of brilliant strategies and Ares possessed strength and blood-lust, the archer could attack quickly and quietly from a distance.
As a protector of girls and women, she was also turned to by the defenders in war. They hoped that, should they be overrun by their enemies, she would come to the aid of the most vulnerable members of their population.
Along with the other gods and goddesses of Olympus, Artemis fought against an onslaught of Giants. She took down at least one of the monsters with her arrows.
Later, when the two Aloadae giants tried to storm Olympus, Artemis used a trick of the wild to stop them.
She darted between them in the form of a deer. When the giants tried to hit the animal with javelins, her speed and agility caused them to strike and kill each other instead.
Sometimes, the gods turned against each other. This was the case in the Indian Wars of Dionysus, in which the god of wine was sent to prove the might of Olympus in foreign lands.
In the epic poem that describes this war, The Dionysiaca, Hera’s infamous jealousy over Zeus’s children drives her to oppose Dionysus and his supporters in every way she can. Eventually, the gods themselves wage battle.
Apollo and Dionysus had always been closely linked, and Artemis joined her brother in the fight. When Hera unleashed her full anger on her opponents, Artemis was bested.
Hera seized one of Zeus’s storm clouds, gathering it around her to use as a shield. Artemis shot arrow after arrow, but all were blocked.
The two circled each other in a great maelstrom of thunder and arrows. Finally, Hera grabbed a frozen bolt of hail and threw it, piecing Artemis in the breast.
Like many of the gods, though, the most often recounted battles of Artemis were fought in the Trojan War.
Her involvement began before the war had even kicked off. From the very beginning, she was at odds with the Greek army.
The Greek leader, Agamemnon, had committed to cardinal sins against the goddess – he had not only killed a stag within a sacred grove, but had then bragged that his hunting skills were better than those of Artemis.
As the Greek fleet was preparing to set sail for Troy, Artemis becalmed the winds and kept them from leaving. A seer told Agamemnon that the only way to appease Artemis was to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia.
At the last minute, Artemis took pity on the blameless princess. She pulled Iphigenia from the altar and put a deer in her place.
Iphigenia became, depending on the telling, either a priestess of Artemis or one of the goddess’s immortal companions. Agamemnon tried to appease Artemis by building a temple at the site of his daughter’s aborted sacrifice, but it was not enough to win the Greek army her full support.
When the Greeks reached Troy, her involvement in the war had not ended. The goddess was revered in the city, which her twin brother was the patron of, and sided with the Trojans against Agamemnon’s people.
When Zeus gave the gods permission to fight amongst themselves as part of the war, Apollo declined to go against Poseidon. His sister was less inclined to avoid the battle.
But his sister, Artemis of the wild, lady of wild beasts, scolded him bitterly and spoke a word of revilement: ‘You run from him, striker from afar. You have yielded Poseidon the victory entire. He can brag, where nothing has happened. Fool, then why do you wear that bow, which is wind and nothing. Let me not hear you in the halls of my father boasting ever again, as you did before among the immortals, that you could match your strength in combat against Poseidon.’
-Homer, Iliad 21. 470 ff
Hera once again beat Artemis in a fight, however. Snatching the bow and arrows Artemis carried, she beat the younger goddess with her fists.
In Homer’s version of events, the brave goddess is completely undone by her swift defeat. She flees to her father’s side, crying like a young girl.
One of her greatest contributions to the war, however, did not involve her famous bow at all. When the Trojan hero Aeneas was wounded in battle, Apollo carried him to Olympus. There, Artemis and Leto nursed the future founder of Rome back to health.
A local legend from Megara recounts Artemis using trickery to help those she favored in war.
A Thracian army, having recently overrun the city, was returning to its homeland when Artemis caused them to become lost. Camping overnight not far from Megara, they became convinced they were about to be ambushed.
The Thracians blindly shot their arrows into the forest, and Artemis caused the rocks to groan. Thinking they were hitting enemy forces, they exhausted their supply of arrows.
When the local Megarians attacked in the morning, they easily overpowered the Thracians who were left without ammunition.
As a fighting goddess, Artemis was revered in the warrior culture of Sparta. Along with Ares, sacrifices were made to her before men fought battles.
One of the most brutal rituals in ancient Sparta was the flogging of young men and boys before a cheering crowd. This ritual is supposed to have taken place in Artemis’s temple.
According to at least one later writer, the scourging on the altar of Artemis commemorated an ancient tragedy in which worshipping women were raped there. The Spartan men killed their attackers, beginning the tradition of offering blood to the goddess.
The Spartans whipped their own people afterwards, though, believing that sacrificing foreigners or enemies was a contemptible barbarian practice.
Artemis was also imagined to be a patron of the mythical Amazons. These warrior women, known for their skilled use of bows and arrows, were said to shun the company of men except to give birth to another generation of women.
As archers who maintained a society centred on female chastity, Artemis was a logical goddess to link with them. They sided with her in the Trojan War, as well.
Despite not being an official patron of war, Artemis was widely venerated as both a goddess of archers and a protector of the devout.
Among the boons she had been given in childhood by her father, Zeus, was a request to always remain unmarried. Her virginity became one of Artemis’s defining characteristics.
As a virgin goddess, Artemis took matters of chastity very seriously. This was especially true in her role as the protector of young girls.
In a mythology full of gods who chased, overpowered, and tricked beautiful young women, Artemis was a defender of chastity and virtue.
Her defense of both her own virginity and that of her followers, however, was often ruthless. She had a reputation for not only defending the virtue of the innocent, but also for taking terrible revenge on anyone whose lust displeased her.
As a strong goddess with a weapon that could strike down entire cities, those who crossed Artemis had reason to fear her. Those punished by Artemis for their lechery included:
- Orion – Once a favorite companion of the goddess, there are many versions of how the handsome giant drew her wrath. The most popular accounts were that he tried to force himself on either Artemis herself or one of her virginal followers.
- Actaeon – When he saw Artemis bathing, she turned him into a stag. She then set hunting dogs, either hers or Actaeon’s own, on him to tear him to pieces.
- Bouphagos – For his attempted rape of Artemis, he was turned into a river near Megalopolis.
- Tityus – The giant was sent by Hera to destroy Leto, and attempted to rape her. Artemis and Apollo killed him with their arrows to protect their mother.
- Alpheus – The river god fell in love with both Artemis herself and her nymph attendant Arethusa. Artemis thwarted all his attempts to win them over, turning Arethusa into a stream to keep her safe.
- Aura – When the goddess of the morning claimed that Artemis looked too womanly to truly be a virgin, Artemis punished her by causing her to lose her own virginity. Aura was driven mad, but Artemis saved one of her children from being killed by her.
- Melanippos and Komaitho – A local legend in Southern Greece said these were the names of two young lovers whose families would not allow them to marry. They had a secret tryst in Artemis’s temple, for which she punished the entire city with drought and disease.
- Aristokrates – When this king of Arcadia raped a virgin priestess of Artemis, he was stoned to death by his own subjects.
Artemis was fierce in protecting both herself and her followers. She stood up for her ideal of chaste virtue, even when it wasn’t asked of her.
For example, in some versions of the death of Adonis, Artemis sent the boar that killed him. While her own virtue wasn’t threatened she disliked that so many gods, including her brother Apollo, were driven to extremes out of desire for the beautiful human boy.
None of the gods and goddesses who adored Adonis were avowed virgins as she was, but the infighting and distraction caused by their lust was offensive to a goddess who scorned such vices.
At times, like when Arethusa was threatened by the advances of Alpheus, the goddess’s intervention was appreciated. But other instances, like her attack on Adonis, were unwelcome intrusions into the lives of others.
As much as she could be vengeful to those who threatened her ideal of virginal purity, Artemis also lent her aid to those who asked for it.
Some, like Arethusa, were hidden from lustful men who pursued them or transformed to save their virtue.
Britomartus the nymph threw herself into the sea to escape King Minus of Crete. Artemis saved her and invited her to be one of her companions.
Aspolis killed herself rather than be forced have sex before her wedding had occurred. Artemis turned the girl’s body into a statue and made her one of the immortal nymphs in her company.
Artemis also rewarded virtuous maidens who died before they were married, even if their death was not in defense of her virtues. Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia was just one such girl who was invited to join the goddess’s retinue.
Makaria, also called Euclea, was an unmarried daughter of Heracles who died in defense of Athens and was honored by Artemis. The two were sometimes venerated side by side as protective goddesses.
Even when women left the service of Artemis, she sometimes remained on good terms with them. Procris married after being one of the goddess’s devotees, but when her husband abandoned her Artemis helped win him back with fabulous gifts.
It wasn’t just women who Artemis bestowed her favor on. Hippolytus, a prince and descendant of the Amazons, was a devoted follower. When he was killed, Artemis made him immortal so that he could always tend to her shrine in Italy.
As a goddess, Artemis was happy to reward her followers but could just as easily destroy those who crossed her.
Unlike many other goddesses, Artemis was never renowned for her beauty.
As an Olympian, Artemis represented certain physical ideals. Her image, however, was used more to show the strongest possible form for a woman than the loveliest.
Homer and Ovid both describe her as being significantly taller than the other goddesses. She is usually described as slim, although Aura’s claim that her body was womanly implies that she was not overly so.
Artemis is usually depicted with a knee-length tunic. This was specifically mentioned as one of the gifts she asked to receive from Zeus.
This tunic enabled her to move freely through the forest, but it was also the type of garment worn by younger girls. Women old enough to be married would be expected to cover their legs.
This emphasized the virginity of the goddess, which was seen as more central to her worship than that of the other virgin goddesses.
The shorter tunic was also a more masculine garment. Tall, slim, and showing her legs, Artemis was distinctly less feminine than most goddesses.
Art sometimes emphasized this, giving her a slightly more square jaw or athletic built than was considered ideal for a woman. Later works sometimes gave her Roman counterpart, Diana, short hair as well.
All of this was in distinct contrast not only to the other goddesses, but also to her twin brother. While Artemis was portrayed as slightly more masculine than the ideal female, Apollo was given the softer features that typically signified femininity.
This was not the only way in which the twins were complementary opposites.
Many religions, both ancient and modern, rely on a concept of duality and balance.
The Eastern yin and yang show this sense of cosmic balance – light and dark, male and female, the sun and the moon.
The Greek view of balance was seen in the twins, Artemis and Apollo.
The two were compliments of each other in almost every way.
Artemis represented the wild, while her brother represented culture.
Her animals were stags and bears while his were the domesticated cattle and sheep. While she ran through the forest and climbed mountains, he played the lyre and composed songs.
Artemis was associated with the night, sometimes pictured with a crescent moon on her brow. Apollo, on the other hand, was a god of light and the sun.
While Artemis was a protector of young and unmarried girls, she was often seen as the cause of sudden death in women. Apollo had similar abilities in the male realm, but was more often associated with healing.
The twins represented the concept of duality and balance as it was seen in the Greek world. While they often worked as a pair, the two were often opposites.
While Greek culture operated on strictly defined gender roles, its pantheon had more room for individuality.
Athena was a goddess of war, the Amazons could fight against any man, and Atalante would only marry the man who could beat her in a race.
But of all the goddesses who defied gender norms, Artemis stands out.
Although she was associated with girls and childbirth, her most defining attributes were the distinctly masculine traits of martial skill and hunting.
Still, Artemis was not totally outside the Greek view of femininity.
She was a beloved daughter to her father Zeus, aided her mother in childbirth, and protected children from harm.
Although Artemis may seem unusually masculine at a glance, as a protector and model of virtue she fit into a more classically feminine maternal role.
Most Greek women could never emulate Artemis in her vow of chastity. They were expected to marry and raise children.
The luckiest would find great love like Psyche and raise strong children like Rhea. Unlucky women would have husbands who cheated like Hera or be taken from their families like Persephone.
Artemis was the goddess of youth, a time in life where girls were free of the pressures of marriage and childbearing. When they did face those demands, they could call on Artemis to protect them from harm.