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Artemis in Ancient Greek Art

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Homer Odyssey 6.102"... Artemis, the archer, roves over the mountains, along the ridges of lofty Taygetus or Erymanthus, joying in the pursuit of boars and swift deer, and with her sport the wood-nymphs, the daughters of Zeus who bears the aegis, and Leto is glad at heart--high above them all Artemis holds her head and brows, and easily may she be known, though all are fair..."
Artemis and Nymphs

Artemis Introduction

Today Artemis is identified from Greek mythology as the virgin goddess of the hunt and the moon and the twin sister of Apollo. Artemis is the goddess of wild Nature, a virgin huntress for the other deities. She is goddess of the moon, as her brother Apollo is god of the sun. She has a triple aspect associated with the sky as Selene, the moon goddess, Artemis on earth, and Hecate in the lower world. This triple aspect is also associated with youth maturity and death. She is often represented as a lithe young woman with a bow and arrow. Her femaleness is associated with youth and birth. The bow and arrow, with which she shoots her victims, represents death, often caused by sickness. Her realm then, as conceived by her parents is wild nature, with maidenhood and the protection of nursing mothers in that realm. Death due to sickness is also included.

Ancient Sparta referred to her as 'Artemos'(cutter, cook) which is the preferred derivation. This is consistent with Indo-European 'ar-', 'To fit together' and 'tem-', 'To cut'. This is in contrast with the idea that Artemis came from the Minoan pantheon because her nature is much like the goddess pictured as Potnia Theron or Mistress of the Animals. Homer Iliad XXI, 470 actually refers to Artemis as Potnia Theron. Though the phrase 'Potnia Theron' seems to describe imagery from the Minoan Culture this phrase is clearly Indo-European. It strickly means 'lady of the beasts' from Indo-European 'poti-', 'powerful, lord' and 'ghwer-', 'beasts'. It is possible that her name comes from Minoan words we do not understand, but it is also possible she was given an Indo-European name that describes her Minoan character. There is an Indo-European root 'arkw-' which means 'bow and arrow'. If 'teme-' or 'dark' is taken as the latin meaning as 'rash or blind' then meaning like 'rash arrows' might make some congruency with the nature of Artemis. This seems close enough to suggest that the name is more likely to be Indo-European than Minoan.

The Homeric conception of Artemis is that she is the daughter of Zeus and Leto and the twin-sister and counterpart of Apollo. Artemis was born the day before Apollo on the 6th of the month. Tradition assigns them different birthplaces, Apollo in Delos and Artemis in Ortygia. Artemis is the protector of chastity and the young men and women who defy Aphrodite. Like her brother, she not only deals out death, but she is also a healing and purifying divinity.

Artemis is not one of the major players of the Iliad, but she does play her part. Along with her brother Apollo, she supports the side of the Trojans. In the Iliad, Book XXI, Apollo decides not to battle Poseidon over the Trojans. "But now he had to listen to the biting comments of his Sister Artemis, Mistress of Beasts and Lady of the Wilds, who did not mince her words to him." Later Hera tells her "'Are you proposing to stand up to me? I know your bow and arrows, and what a lioness you are to women, whom Zeus allows you to destroy at your own discretion; but if you match yourself with me you will regret it. You would find it better sport to slaughter wild deer in the mountains than to fight with your superiors." Hera then proceeds to beat Artemis with her bow and arrow. "Meanwhile the Maid herself had reached Olympus and gone to the Bronze Palace of Zeus, where she sat down on her father's lap and sobbed, with her divine robe quivering on her bosom."

She was the patroness of wild animals.

Artemis is with her dogs. She is often shown with hunting dogs as though she liked the thrill of the hunt. Once her dogs brought down the quarry she killed it. So hunting dogs are one of her symbols.

Frazer identifies Artemis with Hecate.

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Her Nature and Personality

Of all the deities Artemis has the most complex nature. She could be paradoxically compassionate and vengeful, or nurturing and destructive, or even pacific and bloody.

Here are revealing quotes from the Iliad:

"The Curetes and the Aetolians were fighting and killing one another round Calydon- the Aetolians defending the city and the Curetes trying to destroy it. For Artemis of the golden throne was angry and did them hurt because Oeneus had not offered her his harvest first fruits. The other gods had all been feasted with hecatombs, but to the daughter of great Zeus alone he had made no sacrifice. He had forgotten her, or somehow or other it had escaped him, and this was a grievous sin. Thereon the archer goddess in her displeasure sent a prodigious creature against him- a savage wild boar with great white tusks that did much harm to his orchard lands, uprooting apple-trees in full bloom and throwing them to the ground." (Book IX)

(Book XXI) "But his sister the huntress Artemis, patroness of wild beasts, was very angry with him and said, "So you would fly, Far-Darter, and hand victory over to Poseidon with a cheap vaunt to boot. Baby, why keep your bow thus idle? Never let me again hear you bragging in my father's house, as you have often done in the presence of the immortals, that you would stand up and fight with Poseidon."

(Book XXIII) "...and Artemis slew the daughters, because Niobe had vaunted herself against Leto; she said Leto had borne two children only, whereas she had herself borne many- whereon the two killed the many. Nine days did they lie weltering, and there was none to bury them, for the son of Saturn turned the people into stone; but on the tenth day the gods in heaven themselves buried them, and Niobe then took food, being worn out with weeping."

One of the daughters of Niobe shot with an arrow by Artemis. Artemis was the goddess who caused death though her arrows normally referenced a death by disease.

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History of Artemis

The myths of Artemis appear to have begun in Anatolia with a fertility festival. Following the suggestions of Jane Ellen Harrison the fertility festival appears to have involved the mating of a divine pair who have been selected perhaps for their beauty. Because of the fact that the divine pair will be married they are to undergo an initiation ceremony. The initiation of the boy involves his conversion from a thing of woman to both a warrior and a father. To prepare the boy a dance of men occurs to welcome him to their group and a visit with an older woman occurs who educates him in the way of sex. This has all the trappings of a death and rebirth, the death of the boy as part of a woman and the birth of a warrior as father and warrior. Likewise there is a dance of women to welcome the girl. She dies as a virgin and maiden to be reborn as a mother. This is truely the sacrifice of the virgin. Finally the two are united as a married pair. The fruitfulness of this pair assured the fruitfulness of nature. At first the festival involves real young people with totem animals that are seen to unite. As a part of the festival examples of the totems are sacrificed so that the power of the totem can be passed to those who partake. Later the festival is interpreted as dramatizing the same activity by divine beings. The sacrifice is then interpreted as a gift of influence to the gods in return for their favor and power. Because the object of the festival is the fertility of all nature the range of sacrifice increases.

Initially the focus on death probably related to the cycle of the seasons and the death of many things in the winter with their rebirth in the spring. But the notion of sacrifice is also related to the transitions that occur with maturity. The emphasis on virginity seems to have been a development associated with the recognition of the male role in the birth of a child. This came with the desire for the father to be able to identify his own children. His marriage to a virgin seems to be desirable in this case. The concept of the chase that Artemis pursues seems a development from the original festival with its ritual dancing. The idea of Artemis as a youthful virgin hunter may be a role reversal. The truth is that the male must engage in a hunt to find his mate, a suitable virgin. The true activity of the virgin is not as the hunter but rather as the hunted. The desire of the male hunter is to shoot his semen into the virgin to impregnate her. So the symbols of Artemis may reflect more of a male concern rather than a female one. Yet the notion of the female as hunted may be to painful to consider. Thus the role reversal. Now we have the virgin female Artemis resisting the advances of the male and chasing animals in the wood. The concept of virgin sacrifice fits here but is also an aberration. We have the difficult association of sex and death. The desire of the male is to impregnate the virgin so she can give birth. The death of the virgin in a sacrifice is non-productive. Yet the virgin sacrifice in Ancient Greece is most often associated with Artemis and is consistent with the literal reversal of roles. Instead of being impregnated with shots of semen, she shoots her arrows and kills her victim. Thus the sacrifice of virgin girls seemed appropriate as they are in her realm.

In Anatolia Artemis was probably associated with the older woman and mother. The young man became her consort and was probably associated with the god that became Apollo. In this form Artemis was associated with mother earth much like Gaea. She was a nature goddess that provided the good things of the earth.

The cult of Artemis seems to have moved from Anatolia to Crete. Though there is no written evidence of Artemis in Minoan culture Artemis is identified with Potnia Theron. Even Homer makes this connection. There are a number of Minoan images that can be identified in this way. In addition "Potnia" turns up on Linear B tablets. On the Francois Vase dated ca. 570 B.C. - 560 B.C. Artemis appears as identical to Potnia Theron. Clickhere There is no text associated with the Boeotian vase. Artemis (c. 680 B.C.). This image even appears on a Minoan seal stone: Click here. The concept of Artemis fits well with the profusion of animal nature present in Minoan art.

With the advent of a more patriarchal religion, possibly associated with the conquest of Minoa by the Mycenaeans, Artemis became associated more with the younger girl and less with the older one. Apollo became the brother rather than the consort. This may reflect the changed emphasis on the role of the male in the production of babies. To Neolithic families babies were extremely important and women were placed in a higher status because they produced them. But when the role of males became more recognized there was a concern that the lineage of the male be maintained. Virginity became much more important as a way of guaranteeing male lineage. Chastity also became important for this reason. Also the emphasis on the safe birth of the babies may reflect the safe delivery of the baby into the hands of the male. These seem to be severe restrictions placed on the female by the male. Some celebrations of Artemis seem to reflect the transition of the carefree girl to the restricted maiden as she achieves the age of puberty and maturity. The popular image of Artemis seems to present a fusion of the carefree girl and the restricted maiden and so may represent the point of transition from one into the other.

Some have argued that the profusion of nature justifies sacrifice as a proof of this profusion. But the transition from a situation where the power of a totem animal was assimilated to one where the same power was achieved by a gift to the goddess seems more likely. It is Artemis in the past that seemed to demand sacrifice in exchange for some power or other. Even human sacrifice was called for by Artemis in the form of Iphigenia to let the ships sail to Troy. This seems strikingly related to the initiation of the maiden in the original fertility rite.

Because her cult did not come to Greece until about 1500 BCE, some have concluded that Artemis was a recent addition to the Greek Pantheon. Though she may have acquired new aspects at that time her worship is much older. Around 125 AD her cult died in Greece and she was no longer worshipped there.

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Symbols of Artemis

A number of wild animals are sacred to her: hind, bear, boar, goat, zebu, and lion. She is often shown with bow and arrow, mural crown, and a torch. In the classical period she is shown with the crescent moon in her hair.

Robert Graves says that the silver fir is a female tree with leaves closely resembling the yews, sacred in Greece to Artemis, the Moon-goddess who presided over childbirth, and it is the prime birth-tree of Northern Europe. He also says that cranes were sacred to Artemis.

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Powers of Artemis

The realm of Artemis is not easy to delineate. She seems to be a goddess of the cycles of nature, birth, life, death, and rebirth. More definite is her role in death by disease and the protection of children and suckling animals. Her virginity seems to relate to this more indirectly in that it seems related to the value of virginity to a maiden before marriage.

Some quote examples of these aspects:

Surely one power of Artemis is the power to kill. Another power relates to protection. She may also relate to the power to grow though she seems confused with Demeter in this regard. Her image is of a girl but it is not clear that his is related to her power. But as a girl she is related to an athletic ability.

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Worship of Artemis

A poem from the Anthology:

"Maid of the Mere, Timarete here brings.
Before she weds, her cymbals, her dear ball
To thee a Maid, her maiden offerings,
Her snood, her maiden dolls, their clothes and all.
Hold, Leto's Child, above Timarete
Thine hand, and keep her virginal like thee."

This presents a ritural of a rite of passage.

There is this, another reference to a rite of passage, in Pausanias, Description of Greece, 3.16.9

9] I will give other evidence that the Orthia in Lacedaemon is the wooden image from the foreigners. Firstly, Astrabacus and Alopecus, sons of Irbus, son of Amphisthenes, son of Amphicles, son of Agis, when they found the image straightway became insane. Secondly, the Spartan Limnatians, the Cynosurians, and the people of Mesoa and Pitane, while sacrificing to Artemis, fell to quarreling, which led also to bloodshed; many were killed at the altar and the rest died of disease.

[10] Whereat an oracle was delivered to them, that they should stain the altar with human blood. He used to be sacrificed upon whomsoever the lot fell, but Lycurgus changed the custom to a scourging of the lads, and so in this way the altar is stained with human blood. By them stands the priestess, holding the wooden image. Now it is small and light,

[11] but if ever the scourgers spare the lash because of a lad's beauty or high rank, then at once the priestess finds the image grow so heavy that she can hardly carry it. She lays the blame on the scourgers, and says that it is their fault that she is being weighed down. So the image ever since the sacrifices in the Tauric land keeps its fondness for human blood."

What follows is a quote that reflects the worship of Artemis but also some limitations on her power:

Homer, Iliad, 16.178 "And of the next company warlike Eudorus was captain, [180] the son of a girl unwed, and him did Polymele, fair in the dance, daughter of Phylas, bear. Of her the strong Argeiphontes became enamoured, when his eyes had sight of her amid the singing maidens, in the dancing-floor of Artemis, huntress of the golden arrows and the echoing chase. Forthwith then he went up into her upper chamber, and lay with her secretly, [185] even Hermes the helper,1 and she gave him a goodly son, Eudorus, pre-eminent in speed of foot and as a warrior. But when at length Eileithyia, goddess of child-birth, had brought him to the light, and he saw the rays of the sun, then her did the stalwart and mighty Echecles, son of Actor, [190] lead to his home, when he had given countless gifts of wooing, and Eudorus did old Phylas nurse and cherish tenderly, loving him dearly, as he had been his own son."

Of first importance in this passage is the fact that Polymele participated in a choral dance on the dancing floor of Artemis. Choral dancing must have been part of the worship of Artemis in Southern Thessaly (Phthia), the realm of Achilles. The presence of a dancing floor suggests the dance was in a temple compound dedicated to Artemis. Such dancing must have involved some involvement with Artemis and related to her nature. So the chorus must have been composed of virgin maidens. Deception is the nature of Hermes so his presence is there by deception. It was the custom for the women's quarters to be on the upper floor and so it is possible that Hermes deception was that the appeared among the woman as a woman. Even though Polymele was a devotee of Artemis and dedicated to virginity she was not protected from being impregnated by a deceptive man. Polymele is not rejected or condemned for this. But her son passes to the care of her father who brings him up to be a brave warrior. Homer actually seems to praise Polymele a the mother of such a fine warrior and mentions her devotion to Artemis as a good quality. So Artemis has her role in the development of a great warrior whereas a power consistent with her might have prevented his being born.

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Myths and Stories about Artemis

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Atalanta

There may be two women named Atalanta, both who lived at the same time. One Atalanta was born in Arcadia, the daughter of Iasius or Iasion and Clymene. Her father so wanted a son that he took the baby and exposed her on a hill. Exposure was a form of infanticide. A malformed baby would be exposed to the elements and wild creatures to test its viability. If it could survive on its own it was left alone, otherwise it died. Oedipus also was a victim of exposure. After Atalanta was exposed she was kept alive by a she-bear who came often to suckle her. This makes her very much like a feral child. No mention is made of her language development so she must not have lived with the bear that long. Hunters who raised her to be a great hunter then found her. She wanted to remain a virgin, but she was attractive enough to have suitors. Thus her story is quite similar to the story of the goddess Artemis. One wonders if the two stories are related. The other Atalanta was born in Boetia the daughter of Schoeneus. She was famed as a runner, who also desired to be a virgin, but was attractive. She also could pass for Artemis. In fact, in Greek art there is no visual way of distinguishing images of Atalanta and Artemis.

Atalanta, golden apple, and a dog of the type found in ancient Greece (Porcelain from Czechoslovakia).

A picture of Atalanta: Click here.

Answer: No one knows what Atalanta really looked like. The following picture of her was painted in 540 BCE. She lived about 1500 BCE: Click here. Any of the pictures of Artemis will do quite well.

An article on Atalanta: Atalanta

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Pictures of Artemis

Images from the Ancient World

Information about Artemis and a view of the famous statue of Artemis, The Diana of Versailles, is available at: Click here and at: Or here

Later pictures of Artemis:

Images of Artemis are indexed at: Click here

Artemis by Melissa Graham: Click here

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Resources for Artemis

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Ancient Priestesses of Artemis


Ask a Question about Artemis


To ask a question about this topic note the topic (Artemis) and Click here


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Questions and Answers

Questions and Answers about Artemis, Set I

Questions and Answers about Artemis, Set II

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