Artemis is the Olympian goddess of the hunt, the moon, and chastity; in time, she also became associated with childbirth and nature. No more than few days old, she helped her mother Leto give birth to her twin brother Apollo. Artemis was very protective of her and her priestesses’ innocence. Consequently, she wasn’t very nice when some of them weren’t so careful.
Even though Plato says that the name “Artemis” is related to her virginity and the Ancient Greek word for “unharmed” or “pure,” we now know that its origin is undoubtedly different and possibly even Persian. However, scholars can’t agree over its original meaning.
Sculptors, poets, and painters, however, had no such problems. Artemis is almost universally depicted as a young, beautiful and vigorous huntress carrying a quiver with arrows and holding a bow, typically wearing a short knee-high tunic and often accompanied by some animal (stag, doe, or hunting dogs). As a moon goddess, she is sometimes represented wearing a long robe and a crescent moon crown.
Homer calls Artemis either “The Mistress of Animals” or “She of the Wild.” As a huntress, she is also often referred to as “arrow-pouring” or “deer-shooting.” Just like her brother, she may be occasionally called “bright” or, even more, illustrative of her function as a moon goddess, “torch-bringer.”
Artemis is the daughter of Zeus and Leto, herself a daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe. Angered by her husband’s infidelity, Hera hunted Leto over the whole planet and forbade her to give birth anywhere on solid earth.
However, Leto got to the island of Delos and gave birth to Artemis while balancing herself on an olive branch.
When Hera heard this, she prohibited her daughter Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth, of further helping Leto. This postponed the birth of Apollo for nine days. And who knows how much more time it would have passed if the baby Artemis hadn’t miraculously learned the art of midwifery and helped Leto finally deliver her brother.
Artemis and Apollo were very protective of their mother. When Niobe – a mother of six boys and as many girls – boasted that while Leto gave birth to two gods, she delivered a whole Olympus, Apollo and Artemis killed all her children. Apollo took care of the male offspring and Artemis of Niobe’s daughters. On another occasion, Tityus tried to rape Leto. Naturally, he was killed by Apollo’s and Artemis’s arrows.
When Artemis was still a little maid, she asked from her father Zeus to keep her maidenhood forever. So – just like Athena and Hestia – she remained chaste for eternity. And she guarded this vow even more vigorously than them.
Others tried to rape Artemis; none of them lived to tell. The most famous story involves Orion, a long-time hunting companion of hers. In fact, he may as well have been Artemis’ only love interest. However, when he tried taking off Artemis’ robe, the goddess killed him. Others say that Orion was actually killed by a scorpion sent by Gaea or an Apollo’s arrow; the gods merely tried to keep Artemis’ virginity intact the only time she couldn’t.
Artemis didn’t only take care of her own purity; she also defended the innocence of her worshippers. And was merciless if any one of her priestesses ever lost it.
For example, after her hunting attendant Callisto gave birth to Zeus’s son Arcas, Artemis contrived with Hera to turn her into a bear. The plan was to have Arcas kill her/ However, just as that was about to happen, Zeus placed both of them into the heavens as the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor.
Just as she punished the transgressors of the sacred vow, Artemis rewarded those who kept it. So as to devote himself to a chaste life, Hippolytus scorned Aphrodite after which the goddess of love made his stepmother fall in love with him. This set a chain of events which led to Hippolytus’ death. However, Artemis called upon Asclepius and resurrected Hippolytus as a new man, who subsequently ruled in Italy under the name of Virbius.
In the case of Iphigenia, Artemis substituted the girl with a deer just as Iphigenia was about to be sacrificed by her father, Agamemnon. Afterward, she took Iphigenia with her in Tauris and made her a priestess of her cult.
“The Homeric Hymn to Artemis” may be short and merely descriptive, but Callimachus’ 3rd Hymn dedicated to Artemis is lengthy and rather charming. Euripides’ celebrated plays “Hippolytus” and “Iphigenia in Tauris” tell two of the most famous stories related to Artemis.
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