Artemis (Gr. Aρτεμις; Lat. Artemis) was one of the great deities of the Greek pantheon, which would later be identified with Diana among the Romans. Daughter of Zeus and Leto, she was Apollo’s twin sister and often associated with his exploits. She is one of the twelve Olympians Greek gods. In reality, there were under this name several very different deities: the Hellenic Artemis, lunar goddess, is very different from the bloodthirsty Artemis Tauropolos.
What is Artemis the Greek goddess of?
Mistress of wild nature and animals
Born on the island of Ortygia (“the quail island”), later called Delos, Artemis made the country of the Hyperboreans her main residence, where she reigned as the mistress of wild nature and animals.
“May all the mountains be mine,” she said in the hymn to Callimachus of Cyrene. It also roams in wastelands, uncultivated and little frequented. As Jean-Pierre Vernant points out, she has its place at the seaside, in coastal areas where the boundaries between land and water are undecided.
Huntress with a golden bow
Artemis is a forest runner, a savage insubordinate and proud to be savage. Artemis belongs above all to the wild world, while her brother Apollo presents himself as a civilizing god. Alone among the gods, with the exception of Dionysus, she is constantly surrounded by a troop of wild animals, hence her epiclesis of Ἡγημόνη / Hêgêmónê, “Conductor”. She also leads a troop of nymphs (20 nymphs from Mount Amnisos, according to Callimachus) and young mortals, which she leads through the forests. The Iliad refers to it as “the agrestic Artemis […], the lady of the wild animals (πότνια θηρῶν / pótnia thêrỗn)”.
She leads her pack and pushes it with her voice. Artemis has the double face of the companion of wild animals and the Huntress. Artemis has the double face of the companion of wild animals and the hunter. The deer symbolizes her ambivalence: the beast is her favorite companion, and many representations show her at her side. Nevertheless, Artemis is also the one who is known to chase deer away with her arrows, even if few texts attest to this.
The Sagittarius goddess is finally called by Homer Artemis khrysêlakatos, “with a golden bow”, and by Hesiod iokheairê, “the archer”.
For Homer, the bow is βιός / biós is similar to βίος / bíos, “life”. That is why Artemis, also called “the radiant one”. She is also the one who guides the lost, the strangers, or the slaves on the run in the middle of the night. Artemis is therefore called “Trivia” in Latin, “the one who lights the road at the crossroads of life”.
Her bow dexterity is illustrated in the episode called “catasterism” where she mistakenly kills her lover Orion.
A fierce goddess
Her role as mistress of wild animals explains her passion for hunting but also her hostility to various hunters, including Actaeon, Orion, and Meleager whom she considers as rivals. Many hunting story legends feature a wild goddess. Since her birth, she has had many opponents and conflicts.
Divinity of borders
Armed with a bow and arrow offered by the Cyclops, Artemis assisted his brother Apollo in his fight against the Python snake and in the Gigantomachy.
During the Trojan War, she also stood by the Trojans. Like him, she defends the Niobids with her arrows. She helps him get revenge on Coronis and Tityos. Generally speaking, she sends sudden death on women, while Apollo takes care of men. In the Iliad, Hera describes her as a “lioness for women”.
Goddess of initiation
Always located on the border between the civilized world and the wild world, Artemis the huntress also presides over the initiation of young men and animals by accompaning them to the threshold of adult life.
With her brother Apollo, she is the main deity who watches over the initiation of girls and boys, their passage to the state of adults because this initiation takes place in the wild nature which is the domain of the goddess.
Like Athena and Hestia, Artemis is a “virgin” goddess. She asked her father for permission to keep her virginity forever, because of her aversion to marriage that her mother passed on to her from birth.
Artemis is the virgin who takes care of the fire, or, as Plutarch reports, the one who refrains from any sexual trade with men. She severely punishes the men who try to seduce her: “Sad weddings, those Otos and Orion sought”.
Artemis demanded from her companions the same chastity that she practiced herself. When Zeus seduced Callisto, an Artemis nymph, and got her pregnant, Zeus helped her and decided to turn her into a bear, but Artemis killed her with an arrow.
Artemis’ symbols are the golden bow, arrows, quiver or torch (Vatican statues) and the crescent moon that adorned its forehead.
Her chariot was pulled by four deer with golden antlers.
The dog, deer or deer, goat, bull, turtle were often represented at his side.
Artemis had asked his father to have as many nicknames as his brother Apollo and indeed no deity has more and it is not without reason that Callimachus calls her polyônymos. In addition to nicknames related to its attributes or functions, many others recall its presence in many places.
Celebrate Artemis with a golden arrows. Sister of Apollo with a sparkling sword, she loves the hustle and bustle of the hunt, and full of joy she pierces the deer with her arrows. On the mountains, on the peaks beaten by the winds, enjoying all the happiness of hunting, she stretches her brilliant bow and shoots arrows in the distance, the blows of which are deadly. The high mountains are shaken to their peaks, and the halls of the forest tremble with horror at the voice of the fierce beasts; the earth and the sea of fish tremble at them; the goddess, filled with a noble courage, flies from all sides and overthrows the crowd of fierce monsters.
She is the daughter of Zeus and Leto, daughter of Titan Coeus and Titanide Phœbe. His twin brother is Apollo. Victim of the jealousy of Hera, Zeus’ wife, Leto had to hide in order to give birth to his twins.
There are several versions on childbirth:
The story goes that one night Zeus cheated on Hera with Leto. Hera knew what had happened and cursed Leto, forbidding her to give birth on land and at sea. Leto, determined to give birth to her children, took refuge on a very small island, where she gave birth to Artemis and Apollo. In other versions, Hera asks all places to deny her but forgetting Delos, a small island lost in the waves.
She is said to have taken refuge on the island of Delos to give birth to the twins.
Poseidon, (god of the seas and oceans), is said to have created a liquid vault above the island to better protect her.
The birth was difficult because Ilithyia, (goddess of childbirth) was forbidden by Hera to help her. Iris begged her to wear a necklace of gold and amber to help her. She accepted and eventually assisted him after 9 days and 9 nights of torture. The first of the twins was Artemis who, immediately after birth, helped his mother to give birth to Apollo.
As a result of this ordeal and unconditional love that binds them, the children Apollo and Artemis will be devoted to their mother. Dictated by love, they massacred the sons and daughters of Amphion and Niobe, following her insolence against Leto. They also killed the giant Tityos who tried to rape her. It is rumored that as soon as they were born, they would have killed a dragon coming to attack them.
This difficult childbirth, which lasts nine days, explains the name of her hypostasis Iphigenia “born of strength”. The relationship with childbirth is based on the homology between birth and the production of fire by friction: the new fire is assimilated to a newborn child. Artemis would thus be an ancient Fire divinity as various aspects of his cult seem to prove.
One day, according to Callimachus, when she was still a very young child, her father Zeus asked her what gift she would like to receive. Artemis, who had probably already thought about the question, immediately drew up this short wish list:
- An eternal virginity that she protected with great vigour,
- As many names and nicknames as his brother Apollo,
- A bow and arrow similar to his own,
- The function of bringing light,
- A short hunting coat that goes to the knees,
- Sixty young ocean nymphs as servants,
- Twenty nymphs to take care of his things and feed his dogs,
- All the mountains in the world.
- Finally, the city that Zeus would choose especially for her, specifying that only one would be enough because she intended to live outdoors in the mountains and woods most of the time.
Zeus was stunned for a moment but granted him all his wishes and even beyond. Thus Artemis began to gather objects and people who would serve her from an early age.
“Grant, O my father! grant your daughter to remain a virgin at all times, and to bear enough diverse names so that Phebus cannot dispute him. Give me, as you did to Phebus, a bow and arrow. But no, Father, I do not want you to be a quiver or a great bow; the Cyclops will soon hasten to make features for me, to forge my curved bow. Then give me the distinctive attribute of carrying torches and putting on a fringed tunic that will only bring me down to my knees, so as not to embarrass me when hunting wild animals. Form my suite of sixty daughters of the Ocean, all of whom are at the age when you don’t wear a belt yet. May twenty other Nymphs, daughters of the Amnisos (Crete River), to serve me when I stop piercing lynxes and deer, take care of my hunting sandals and my faithful dogs. Give me the mountains. I’m only asking for a city of your choice. Diane (Artemis) will rarely go down to the cities. I will live in the mountains, and will only approach the cities at times when the women, tormented by the acute pains of childbirth, will call me to their help. You know that on the day of my birth the Fates (Moires) imposed on me the law to help them, because the breast that bore me did not experience pain, and, without work, laid its burden. »
Thus spoke the child; wanting to touch her father’s chin, she stretched out and stretched her arms again, in vain, to reach her touch. The father approved and smiled, and, stroking his daughter he said:
“May the goddesses make me such children, and I will care little for the wrath of the jealous Hera. Go, my daughter, your desires will be satisfied! Your father wants to give you even more wonderful gifts. A city is too small: I will give you thirty. Thirty who will have no god but you alone, and will have no name other than yours, while you will share with the other immortals cities without number on the continent and in the islands. Everywhere Artemis will have sacred woods and altars; it is she who will be the protector of the paths and ports. »
Callimaque, Hymns, Song V
Hephaestus invited the young Artemis and the nymphs who accompanied him to visit the Cyclops on the island of Lipari; the nymphs were seized with great fear at the sight of the Cyclops in the middle of the flames of their forges. On the other hand, Artemis did not seem to leave any fear and approached Brontes, who had received instructions to make everything she wanted, He took her on her lap, but, as her rough appearance and her cajoleries were unpleasant, she pulled out a large tuft of hair on her chest which remained glabrous all his life. She asked them to make a gold bow and a quiver full of arrows for her; in gratitude, she promised them that they would eat the first wild animal she would kill. Her first hunt took place in Attica.
Following the interview with her father, Zeus, she flew to Crete to choose her next gift: twenty nymphs. Then she returned to the island of Lipari, the island where the Cyclops forged her bow, quiver and arrows. She went to meet Pan, god of nature, who offered her six brave dogs and seven cynosuroides (dogs of the greyhound breed). At the foot of the Parrhasius, she alone captured four huge golden-horned deer that were harnessed to her chariot. The fifth deer was reserved according to Hera’s wish for future Heracles’ trials. She ended her journey by taking refuge on the Mount of Arcadia.
Artemis Goddess’ Suite
The goddess’ suite was mainly composed of Nymphs as she had asked her father, but there were also some mortals and also two famous male hunting companions: the giant Orion and the young Hippolyte.
The twenty nymphs, daughters of the river god Amnisus who looked like young girls aged of nine years old and the sixty Oceanids formed the main part of her suite, which were added the nymphs met during his hunting in the woods and fields. But Artemis is a severe goddess. She punished those of her companions who had not respected chastity:
- She transformed Callisto into a bear who had given in to Zeus, she killed one of her priestesses who had committed an intolerable sacrilege of loving in her temple; she then imposed an annual human sacrifice as an atonement on the inhabitants of the place.
- Arethusa, a Naiad of Arcadia which was a companion of Artemis before being pursued by the river god Alpheus and its transformation into the sacred spring at the Sicilian sanctuary of the goddess.
- Aura, daughter of Lelantos and the nymph Periboea, was a next of kin to Artemis until she offended the goddess, that she was too feminine to always be a virgin, and was punished by the forced loss of her virginity. She became pregnant with Dionysus, who made her the mother of twins. She went crazy, tried to kill her newborn children and managed to eat her daughter. But the other twin, Iacchos, could be saved in time by Artemis. Dionysus entrusted him to Nikaia, Cybele’s daughter, to raise him. Aura threw himself into the sea and Zeus made him the personification of the Breeze and the fresh morning air.
- Beroe, daughter of Adonis and Aphrodite, patron saint of the Phoenician city of Beruit (Beirut) who hunted with Artemis before her marriage to Poseidon according to Nonnos, who never mentions Amphitrite as the wife of the god.
- Nicaea (Nicaea), a Phrygian nymph who accompanied Artemis in the hunt, until she was raped by Dionysus.
- Pholoe, a nymph from central Italy who was a follower of Artemis, before the goddess transformed her into a source to remove her from Pan’s pursuit.
- Syrinx, Arcadian nymph which was a suite of Artemis, before its transformation into reeds to escape Pan (Ovid, Metamorphoses I, 689
- Taygete, nymph of the Taygetos Mountains (southern Greece). She was a companion of Artemis before her abduction by Zeus.
Artemis, uncompromising on the chastity of his followers, also had some problems with mortals from her procession and offended her.
- Callisto was an Arcadian princess, next to the goddess Artemis. She was made pregnant by Zeus, she tried to hide her pregnancy from the goddess. Artemis was irritated when she discovered the deception and turned Callisto into a bear. She called her pack. Callisto would certainly have been hunted down and killed by her hunting dogs if Zeus had not raised her to heaven.
Later, Zeus included it among the stars. Callisto’s son, Arcas was saved and became the ancestor of the Arcadians.
- Polyphonte, Princess of Thrace who fell in love with a bear. Artemis, disgusted, drove her out of her procession and she sent all the wild animals against the girl. She was the daughter of Hipponous and Thrassa who had despised love since she had become an Artemis’ follower. Aphrodite, who did not like to be disdained for love, inspired her to passionately love a bear whose two monstrous sons she had, Agrios and Orios. Artemis outraged by her behaviour, delivered her to the fierce beasts.
Facts and myths about Artemis
The most important legends related to Artemis is the episodes of her birth and the perfect chastity she demanded for herself and her followers, going so far to kill the poor mortal who had surprised her naked. Other legends relate to the revenge she inflicted on all those who had upset her.
One day the river god Alpheus had the audacity to fall in love with Artemis and pursue her throughout Greece but she fled to Letrini in Elis. There she coated her face and all her nymphs with a whitish mud, so that she could no longer be distinguished from them. Alpheus was forced to withdraw, pursued by mocking laughter. The priestesses of Artemis of Letrini and Ortygie coated their faces with white clay, probably to commemorate this adventure.
She was very proud of her skill and forced Agamemnon, guilty of bragging about surpassing her in archery, to sacrifice Iphigenia, whom she saved at the end.
Chione, Princess of Phocide (Central Greece) was shot down by an Artemis arrow in punishment for claiming to be more just than the goddess (Chione perhaps believed that her two divine lovers, Hermes and Apollo, could protect her from the goddess’ wrath).
One day, under another circumstance, Actaon saw Artemis swimming in a nearby stream; he did not move away and looked at her. Learning from his companions, to whom he bragged that she had shown herself naked in his presence, she turned him into a stag and he was torn to pieces by his own pack of fifty dogs.
On the other hand, she accidentally killed Orion who, like her, had a passion for hunting. Apollo, fearing that his sister would give in to the hunter’s advances, had knowingly deceived her. That’s why she took revenge by sifting through Coronis arrows, her brother’s lover.
With an arrow, she also accidentally killed the young Cenchrias, son of Poseidon and the Pirene Nymph. Pirene cried so much that she was turned into a fountain located in the front of the gate of the city of Corinth. Next to this fountain, the Corinthians built a small sanctuary dedicated to Pirene where honey cakes were brought during periods of drought. This fountain was also famous for having been created by Pegasus with a blow of his hoof or for Sisyphus so that he could reveal to Asopus the name of his daughter Aegina’s kidnapper.
Coronis, princess of Thessaly, daughter of Phlegias, was loved by Apollo. While she was pregnant she loved another man. Artemis killed Coronis, in retaliation against Apollo for Orion’s death, but there are variations to this legend.
During the Trojan War, Artemis and his brother sided with the Trojans. When Aeneas was wounded by Diomedes and carried by Apollo to his temple, it was she who healed him. After Patroclus’ death, the gods themselves engaged in the fight; Hera rubbed Artemis’ ears and he left her crying.
The Aloadae: Otus and Ephialtes, were two giant twin sons of Poseidon who initially sought to invade Olympus by piling mountains on top of each other. Then they formed a plan to rape Hera and Artemis. The latter took them to the island of Naxos where they inadvertently killed each other.
The Calydonian Boar was a terrible beast that Artemis had sent to ravage Calydon’s land because Oeneus King of Calydon had neglected his cult. His son, Meleager, organized a great hunt in which most Greek heroes participated.
Ceryneian Hind was a superb animal dedicated to Artemis. When she was a child, had seen five deer, larger than bulls, grazing on the banks of the Thessaly river. The sun was shining on their horns. She began to run, chased them and captured four of them, successively using only her hands and harnessed them to a chariot; the fifth fled across the Celadon River to the hill of Ceryneia as Hera wanted. Hera who already had in mind the Works of Heracles and who pursued her for a year before catching her.
Artemis and Apollo came to Heracles and she accused him of mistreating his sacred animal, but he highlighted the obligation in which he found himself and blamed Eurystheus. Moreover, no blood had flowed, so the goddess’ anger subsided and she allowed him to take the living deer to Mycenae on the condition that the animal was released immediately afterward.
Artemis and Apollo were very attentive to their mother. They killed Niobe and her children because she had dared to compare herself to the goddess and brag about being superior to her because Leto had only two children. They killed, in the same way, the Giant Tityos, son of Zeus and Elara, who had wanted to rape Leto.
Comaetho was the pretty priestess of Artemis Triclaria in the city of Patras. Not only did she fall in love with the beautiful Melanippe, but they also made love in the very temple dedicated to virginity. Outraged, Artemis sent the plague and famine on the city. The oracle of Delphi was questioned and recommended to kill the two lovers and sacrificing a young girl and a boy every year, the most beautiful in the city, but the oracle specified that this sacrifice would end when a foreign king would bring a new cult. Indeed, Eurypyle’s introduct the cult of Dionysus putting an end to this horrible practice.
Byssa was a princess, daughter of King Eumelus of the island of Kos. She was as arrogant as her brother and sister. His brother Agron insulted Hermes, his sister Meropis mocked Athena, and Byssa herself insulted Artemis, disturbing the goddess’ night procession. Very angry, the gods turned the three rascals into birds and Byssa was transformed into a kind of diving seabird by Artemis.
Melanippe, nymph of Mount Pelion in Thessaly who was transformed into a black mare by the goddess, probably for having despised her cult.
Temple of Artemis
With their national Artemis, the Greeks gradually confused other deities of Eastern origin.
Names have often become nicknames of their goddess:
- the Thracian goddess Bendis
- Anaitis of Asia Minor, prototype of the so-called Persian Artemis;
- the Cretan Dictynna, patron saint of fishermen and sailors;
- the bloodthirsty Artemis of Tauride where a cruel goddess was worshipped and ridden on a chariot dragged by two bulls. The shipwrecked foreigners were sacrificed to him, but Oreste, thanks to his sister Iphigenia, was able to escape from this savage custom;
- Artemis Brauronia in Attica;
- finally the Artemis of Ephesus, a symbol of fertility.
On the slope of a mountain you can see the temple of Artemis Hymnia. This temple is common to both peoples. There is a priest and a priestess who take a vow of perpetual chastity and lead a very austere life; the use of the bath and many other things permitted to the common man is forbidden to them, and they never visit a private person. I know that the same is true of the main ministers of the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, with the difference that they only keep the rule during their year of exercise. The Artemis Hymnia festival is celebrated every year.
His temple at Ephesus was considered one of the seven wonders of the world. Eight times the Artemision was completely destroyed and seven times it was rebuilt thanks to the donations of the Greek cities. Entirely made of marble, it was the largest building in the world known with its 120 x 60 metres of sides and its 30 metres high.
Pregnant women invoked her and, after their deliverance, they used to thank the goddess with gifts, placing clothes, sandals, and belts in her temple.
Artemis in Arts
As a hunter, she wears the short tunic and a belt that climb up under her breasts. A crescent moon adorns her head, her quiver is suspended from a harness. More rarely, she is equipped with wings that symbolize the fast running of the lunar star, or it moves on its chariot. Her sporty physique give her a clear look, the hymns underline her pure and majestic beauty.
In the study of the figurative type, it is also necessary to distinguish: the Persian Artemis had wings, held a panther in one hand, a lion in the other; the one of Ephesus has a statue with a head capped with the modius, the lower part of the body tightened in a sheath with sculpted zones and the upper part of the body decorated with countless udders.
The biggest difference are about the Hellenic Artemis. The archaic type is a young and serious standing woman, dressed in a long dress from which she lifts one side, her hair falling on her back, except for a few strands on her shoulders (such as the Artemis of the Naples Museum). In the Argian School, a more alert Artemis appears, with a short tunic, with a bow and quiver.
The artists of the 4th century, especially Scopas and Praxiteles, brought new types, which were copied or imitated until the end of the Greco-Roman period. It is the Artemis huntress: sometimes on the move, wearing sandals, a short tunic tight at the waist, quiver on the back, hair raised by a headband, and followed by a dog or a deer; sometimes at rest, playing with his dog, or finishing his toilet after the hunt, and stapling his chlamys.
In sculpture, the Roman representations of Diana (Diana of Versailles, Leochares at the Louvre) generally derive from the Hellenistic iconography of Artemis. This theme inspired sculptors such as Goujon, Coysevox or Houdon.