In Greek mythology, Artemis is one of the twelve Olympians, the most important deities in the ancient Greek pantheon. She is the daughter of Zeus, king of the gods, and Leto, a lesser-known Greek goddess. Her brother was Apollo, god of the Sun and light.
On the contrary, Artemis is related to the moon and she is heavily identified with other lunar deities such as Selene and Hecate. She is also the goddess of the hunt, nature, the wilderness and wild animals. She carries a silver bow and quiver full of arrows made by the Cyclopes on the island of Lipari. She is also the protector of young children and a goddess of chastity and childbirth.
Her sacred symbols is the bow and arrow, hunting dogs, stags, and the moon. Artemis has the power to send plagues and to heal them.
In the Roman religious pantheon, the goddess is called Diana.
The birth of Artemis
Zeus was infamous for his constant adultery and romantic liaisons with other deities and mortals alike. Artemis and her brother, Apollo, were conceived as a result of another such affair.
Zeus transformed himself and Leto into quails when they coupled to avoid detection, but his wife, the goddess Hera, learned of the affair nonetheless. She sent the serpent Python after Leto and cursed her so that she could not give birth on either the mainland or on any island.
According to different versions of the myth, it was the island of Delos, Ortygia, or Paximadia which disobeyed Hera’s command and led to Leto’s being able to deliver her children in safety.
Artemis was born first, and, in some myths, she then helped her mother with the birth of Apollo.
The wrath of Artemis
As with many of the ancient Greek deities, several stories involving Artemis depict her vengeance and fury.
The goddess of the hunt was most famously roused to anger on occasions when men threatened her chastity.
On one such occasion, the hunter Actaeon happened upon Artemis bathing in a sacred spring. He tried to force himself upon the goddess, but she transformed him into a stag. His hunting dogs did not recognize him and tore him to pieces.
According to another myth, the river god Alpheus fell in love with Artemis and pursued her across Greece. Artemis cunningly masked her face with white mud and instructed all her nymphs to do the same. Alpheus could not tell Artemis apart from the nymphs—much to the amusement of the goddess and her followers—and he was forced to give up.
Artemis also required her companions to remain chaste. She was mostly accompanied by nymphs and hunting dogs on her adventures.
One nymph, called Callisto, broke her vow of chastity and was seduced by Zeus. Artemis noticed that she was pregnant and turned Callisto into a bear. In other versions of the myth, it was a jealous Hera who transformed Callisto into the bear.
Artemis’ hunting party would have hunted and killed Callisto in her bear form if it were not for the intervention of Zeus. Zeus snatched Callisto from the hunting party and set her constellation among the stars.
Artemis was worshipped across ancient Greece. The most well-known cults dedicated to her worship were in Delos, Brauron, Sparta, and Mounikhia. Temples dedicated to the goddess have been found in several locations, including Aptera in Crete and the island of Evia.
Animal sacrifice was a common practice in ancient Greek religion. Most sacrifices would have been domesticated animals, but since Artemis was the goddess of the hunt, wild animals were also sometimes sacrificed to her.
Pausanias, an ancient Greek geographer of the second century AD, describes how the people of Patrae would celebrate the festival of Laphria in honor of Artemis by burning a multitude of wild animals on a large bonfire.
A variety of offerings were left to appease the goddess, and temples dedicated to her in wealthier cities would have been lavishly decorated. An ornate bronze statuette of Artemis was found in the ancient ruins of Aptera. She is depicted wearing a short chiton with her bow raised and ready to shoot.
The bear was said to be Artemis’ favorite animal, so, in some temples, worshippers left offerings associated with bears. At the Arcadian sanctuary of Artemis, some devotees left bear teeth. At the Acropolis of Athens, a marble statuette of a bear was dedicated to the goddess.
A sinister goddess?
Although she was a goddess of childbirth, there is evidence to suggest that pregnant women in ancient Greece were wary of her. According to Euripides, the clothes of women who died in childbirth were offered as gifts at the tomb of Iphigenia, located just next to the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron.
This has led scholars like Kevin Clinton to suggest that women who had died in childbirth were viewed as sacrificial victims to the goddess. Ancient Greek women may have believed that Artemis was angered by their loss of virginity, and religious offerings were an effort to placate her fury and ensure a safe pregnancy.
On the other hand, she was warmly regarded by worshippers in several Greek city-states. The Athenians granted her the epithets Aristo and Aristoboule, meaning “the best” and “the best adviser.” She was also sometimes surnamed “the fairest.”
Ancient Greek deities tended to be complex and multi-faceted. Moreover, different cults interpreted the nature of the gods they worshipped differently. Therefore, Artemis’ devotees in one place may have held very different beliefs from devotees in another.
Ancient Greek mythology continued to influence art, philosophy, and culture long after it died out as a religion.
Artemis, often referred to by her Latin name Diana, has been depicted by several renowned artists centuries after her worship ceased.
The goddess has been depicted by artists such as J. M. W. Turner, Sir Peter Paul Rubens, and François Boucher.
Recently, NASA has named its Artemis Mission to establish a long-term human presence on the moon after the ancient Greek goddess.
Years ago her brother’s name, Apollo, was used to name several NASA missions.