Who is Artemis?
Artemis was the Greek goddess of hunting and the forest. While other gods lived in palaces atop Olympus, she preferred to run through the rugged mountains of Greece.
Artemis did not just hunt the animals who lived in these wild places, she was also their patroness and protector. Stags and deer were sacred to her and she was often linked to bears as well.
She was also the protectress of the nymphs that formed her retinue. As they were deities of the trees, streams, and pools of the forest, Artemis could be viewed as a protective deity for every part of the forest.
She was also a patroness of the young women of Greece. Having taking a vow to remain a virgin as a child, the goddess was believed to watch over unmarried girls to protect them from harm.
The twin sister of Apollo was his opposite and compliment. She was a moon goddess while he represented the sun who hunted while he recited poetry.
The archetype of the complimentary deities represented by Apollo and Artemis is an ancient one that far predates Greek culture. But there is evidence that Artemis herself was the deity of a cult that dated back to some of the earliest human settlements in the region.
Artemis was the twin sister of Apollo. Their parents were Zeus and the Titaness Leto.
Unlike many children of Zeus and his mistresses, Apollo and Artemis became major deities in the pantheon. They were often depicted as favorites of their father and loved by the other gods of Olympus.
In one story, Zeus offered to give the young Artemis anything she wanted. Among her requests were to remain a virgin, to rule over the forested mountains, to have a strong hunting bow, and to have a retinue of young nymphs to accompany her and care for her hunting dogs.
It was clear early on, then, that Artemis was unlike most other goddesses. She was the goddess of the hunt and the ruler of wild spaces, occupying a space that was rare for a goddess or mortal woman of the time.
The goddess was typically shown to avoid the civilized spaces of the Greek world, including the home of the gods on top of Mount Olympus. Instead, she enjoyed a freer life hunting and running through the thick forests of Greece’s inaccessible mountain ranges.
That is not to say that Artemis lived a life without rules. She held herself and her followers to a high standard of behavior and harshly punished anyone, a member of her retinue or an outsider, who insulted her by disobeying those rules.
Chief among the concerns of Artemis was her vow of celibacy. While she allowed some of the nymphs who hunted with her to leave and be married, those who foolishly abandoned their oaths to her could face brutal consequences.
Men who infringed upon their group also suffered grave consequences. Her protection of her nymphs and mortal women she favored made Artemis a patroness of young girls who believed she would watch over and protect them until they were married.
After marriage, Artemis continued to protect the women of Greece. Because she had helped her mother as Apollo was born, she was a protector of women in childbirth and was thought to ease their suffering in labor.
The Greeks widely believed that labor most often began at night, further bringing it under the purview of the virgin goddess. Artemis was associated with the moon as well.
While she protected women, she could also bring ruin to them. Artemis was believed to inflict diseases upon women who angered her or went against her wishes.
The goddess of the hunt was a protector of wild spaces, holding the animals that lived there to be sacred. The nymphs who accompanied her were the spirits of trees and water, making Artemis a protector of the forest as a whole.
As twins, Artemis and Apollo followed an established archetype of being complementary opposites. While Apollo represented the music and poetry of Greek culture, Artemis was associated with more wild aspects of life.
Together, the two deities represented balance. They complimented one another in being male and female, civilized and wild, and representing the sun and the moon.
This idea of balance and harmony is present in many cultures around the world and is often similarly shown in the form of two related but opposite deities.
Apollo was the god of young men, shown as a classically handsome beardless youth. Artemis was the goddess of girls, typically depicted with the slender frame of a young teenager.
They presided over these domains in their anger as well. When Queen Niobe insulted Leto, Apollo killed her sons while Artemis did the same to her daughters.
While the twins fit into a recognizable archetype, it is unclear where and when their worship began in Greece itself. It is widely believed that both developed from much more ancient male and female deities.
The origin of Artemis’s name is unclear, but some link it to the Greek arktos, the word for a bear.
Artemis was linked to bears in her mythology, for example turning Callisto into one for violating her vows. Young girls of Athens dedicated a year in service at the temple of Artemis, during which they were called “she-bears.”
In fact, Artemis was often known by the name Kalliste at the very temple the young “she-bears” served. The story of Callisto likely emerged from one that originally featured the goddess herself in the guise of a bear.
If Artemis was linked to bears, there is possible evidence for hers being one of the oldest religious forms in ancient Greece.
A cave in Crete, today called Arkoudiotissa or “she-bear,” contains evidence of the worship of a bear cult in the Neolithic period. The cave was later considered a sacred site to Artemis and her brother.
If worship there was continuous, it seems possible that Artemis developed out of this stone age bear cult. While aspects of later Greek culture were added to her character, Artemis may have been a nature goddess long before the development of the rest of the pantheon.
If she was worshipped there before the rise of the Minoan culture in the area, it would make her one of the region’s oldest known deities.
Artemis was the Greek goddess of the hunt and the protective guardian deity of Greek forests and mountains. One of the favorite children of Zeus, she was among the most important gods of the Greek pantheon.
Artemis and her twin brother, Apollo, fit into an ancient archetype of complimentary deities. Opposites in nearly every way, they represented balance and harmony when taken as a duo.
While Apollo was a male sun god, Artemis was a female goddess of the moon. He was the patron of civilized Greek life and culture, while she eschewed cities for the rugged wilderness.
As Apollo protected boys, so too did Artemis watch over young women. An avowed virgin goddess, she protected unmarried girls.
She was a goddess who took her vows seriously, however, and was famous for the punishments she inflicted upon anyone, male or female, who insulted them.
One of these punishments may give a clue as to the origins of Artemis’s worship. When Callisto broke her vow of celibacy, Artemis turned the nymph into a bear.
The goddess was linked to bears in cult practices and perhaps in the etymology of her name. There is strong evidence that Callisto’s story originally featured Artemis in the animal’s form.
A cave on the island of Crete, considered sacred to Artemis in ancient Greece, was also the site of a prehistoric bear cult. If Artemis grew out of this primal bear spirit, she would be one of the oldest deities in classical mythology.