Artemis, virgin queen of the hunt, supreme maiden of the wilds, divine patron of streets and harbors, bringer of light. These are just a few of the many titles this intriguing and mysterious goddess was known by. Among the many roles she played in the Greek Olympic pantheon were those of guardian to young children and patroness of childbirth. Though renowned as the celestial virgin, she came to be venerated by many as the goddess of fertility. She played duel roles as both healer and bringer of death and disease.
Twin to the sun god Apollo, Artemis is often represented as a moon goddess, though scholars don’t agree that this was her original purpose. There are two versions of her birth, one names her parents as Zeus, king of the Olympian gods and Leto, an obscure goddess from an older pantheon, often thought to be the goddess of “the hidden” or “oblivion” as her name indicates. Another version names her parents as the earth goddess Demeter and an unknown god. Most scholars feel the first is the most reliable.
Many roles were played by this intriguing goddess in the Greek Olympian pantheon. Among many, her key roles were those of childbirth, protector of girl children and nursing infants as well as protector of vulnerable animals, goddess of the hunt and a goddess of healing. Other roles designated to Artemis were goddess of the dawn, bringer of crop killing frost, goddess of disease and sudden death bringing her duality into question as she both protected and killed infants and girl children, goddess of ritual purification, goddess of the Amazons a mythical tribe of giant warrior women, as well as being invoked as a patron goddess of many towns and as an ancestral goddess among ancient peoples.
The goddess’s key attribute was her celestial virginity which she jealously guarded. Many stories and myths about Artemis revolve around her punishment of those who took her vow of chastity lightly or attempted to undermine her decision to remain a maiden. She is known for her traits of independence and feminine confidence, both of which were qualities that were rarely stressed in women in the ancient world. Artemis is often viewed as the first extreme feminist.
As goddess of the hunt, Artemis carried a silver bow and arrow akin to the golden ones given to her twin brother Apollo which she used during her frequent forays into the wilds. She was also an extreme environmentalist protecting animals that were easily preyed upon and punishing those who abused or neglected their duty to nature.
Artemis is associated with the moon and moon worship. She, the opposite of her sun god twin Apollo had the divine responsibility of illuminating the darkness of night with that of the moon. Her most common symbol is that of the new moon. Other symbols sacred to the goddess are the quail, deer, boar, and the cypress tree. The red flower amaranth was associated with worship of the goddess and one of the plants sacred to her.
Among the several mystical artifacts associated with Artemis are her golden chariot drawn by four golden horned deer, upon which she is often depicted by artists. Her silver bow and arrow are her trademarks known as shafts of plagues for their ability to shoot disease and death with accurate force into any of the goddesses chosen enemies. She is also commonly depicted as holding a lyre and thus scholars believe she was, like her twin a goddess of music. When depicted in her hunting role she is seen wearing a knee length tunic, animal pelts and carrying either her bow and arrows or spears and hunting net. Artists often like to render her bathing or riding through the wilderness in her golden chariot.
When seen with her retinue of hunting companions, Artemis exhibits a large earth related following. Among her many companions are her pack of faithful hunting hounds given to her by the forest god Pan. She is often seen in the company of her brother Apollo and had only one great love interest, Orion the great hunter with which her affair ended in tragedy. She is attended by 60 maiden Okeanines and 20 maiden nymphs, all of whom are sworn to chastity. She was often accompanied by the goddesses Athena and Persephone on her earthly woodland visits. When traveling through the sky she is accompanied by the sister Pleiades.The “sacred circle of Artemis” also attracted the following of many mortal women as well. Companions to Artemis, they were all sworn to celibacy during their stay with her party, a hefty pledge which many had trouble following for long.
Scholars can trace the roots of Artemis worship through several ancient Mediterranean cultures and beyond to ancient Eastern civilizations where she was worshiped with human sacrifice. She is often identified with the Roman goddess Diana. She has also been closely identified with the Egyptian goddess Bastet. On occasion she is equated to the underworld goddess Hecate for her vague connections to the world of the afterlife and is often depicted carrying a torch representing her guidance through dark and desolate unknown places.
Worship of this dynamic feminine goddess seems to have varied from place to place. All signs of worship exhibit emphasis on the “virginal” aspects of various items sacrificed to please her. Flowers, boars, goats and bears seem to have been the main items that placated the goddess. In some areas women who were about to loose their virginity to marriage dedicated their virginal lingerie to her.
In Athens, girl children were dedicated to the goddess until marriage. Between the ages of 5 and 10 all girl children were designated to participate in a ritual dance during which they dressed as a bear for a ritual hunt. This ritual was so important that no Athenian women were allowed to marry unless they had performed this rite. The festival of Sardinia was a yearly celebration of worship to the goddess. The Macedonian months of May as well as the Greek month of October were dedicated to her. The hundreds of temples, shrines and statues dedicated to this mystical goddess are evidence of her extreme importance in the lives of ancient peoples throughout the Mediterranean.