Artemis: the Goddess of Primal Instincts

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In this time of the year many of us run after the perfect gifts for our loved ones. A gift I chose for myself this week was a small silver box with an engraved stag. I saw it at a Christmas open-air market and just had to have it. The reason is obvious enough for Greek myth lovers: the lunar (silver) goddess Artemis, who had deer as her emblem. As a child, Artemis was asked by her father Zeus what she really desired:

 “The infant Artemis sat on Zeus’s lap. She knew what she wanted for the future and told her father all her wishes one by one: to remain forever a virgin, to have many names, to rival her brother, to possess a bow and arrow,…, to hunt wild beasts, to have sixty Oceanides as an escort, … to hold sway over all mountains; she could get by without the cities.”

Roberto Calasso

Her wish was granted. Artemis is this part of the psyche which is primal, wild and unbound; it is the wild hunter in us, not the domesticated farmer. She is alien to settling down, for her thrill is the endless chase. The emotion I associate with this goddess is a feeling of joy and total liberation. She brings the joy of liberation and expresses it through her delightful singing and dancing, as we read in the hymn by Homer:

“…when she is satisfied and has cheered her heart, this huntress who delights in arrows slackens her supple bow and goes to the great house of her dear brother Phoebus Apollo, to the rich land of Delphi, there to order the lovely dance of the Muses and Graces. There she hangs up her curved bow and her arrows, and heads and leads the dances, gracefully arrayed, while all they utter their heavenly voice…”

Her first instinct is to defend. Her fighting skills also resemble those of a dancer; she never attacks head-on, hacking and stabbing, but rather accomplishes a victory gracefully, as was the case in the myth of the Aloadai Giants, who in their youthful foolishness decided to raid the Olympus. The first goddesses they encountered were Hera and Artemis:

“The first twin, Ephialtes, tried to force his unwanted attentions on Hera, and the second Otos did likewise to Artemis. Artemis escaped from Otos by shape-shifting into a deer, distracting the young giants. Ephialtes and Otos decided they wanted to kill the divine deer. Artemis cunningly ran between them, and as they tried to spear her she moved too swiftly for the cumbersome giants to hit her. As a result they missed and killed each other instead, just as Artemis had planned.”

Sorita D’Este

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Michiel Van der Sommen, Artemis, via http://www.mvandersommen.com/artemis%20page.html

I have been thinking a lot about Artemis recently while researching the symbolism of the arrow and archery for my monthly installment of the Images of the Zodiac. No other weapon is so graceful, so striking as the bow, and Artemis is a master archer. Furthermore, I saw two young graceful stags crossing my path in the woods quite recently, which filled me with enormous joy. Another interesting omen was a piece of information I found out just a few days ago: apparently, the name Berne, the capital of my adopted country, Switzerland, means “she-bear” and a black bear is also the emblem of the city. I turns out that ancient Helvetian tribes used to worship Artemis as She-Bear in this area.

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That connects Artemis to the constellation Ursa Major, which in esoteric thought is believed to rule the stars and protect the World Axis (axis mundi). The axis mundi resembles an arrow, so it is fitting that Artemis should guard it. Also, the world axis, where the four compass directions meet, is equaled with the world tree, and Artemis’s home was the woods.

 “The months and seasons are determined by the revolution of Ursa Major. The tail of the constellation pointing to the east at nightfall announces the arrival of spring, pointing to the south the arrival of summer, pointing to the west the arrival of autumn, and pointing to the north the arrival of winter. … “

Barbara G. Walker

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The bear, according to Ted Andrews, is “the true last symbol of the primal, natural world.” It is naturally associated with trees, thanks to its climbing skills and also because of its love of honey. The sweetness of life can only be tasted by returning to primal nature.

As was the case with many other goddesses, also the genealogy of Artemis proves to be very ancient. Robert Graves returns to the Akan (African) roots of her myth. It is not unexpected that she is a descendant of a very ancient Moon goddess:

“In the most primitive, the Moon is worshipped as the supreme Triple-goddess Ngame, … . Ngame is said to have brought forth the heavenly bodies by her own efforts, and then to have vitalized men and animals by shooting magical arrows from her new-moon bow into their inert bodies. She also, it is said, takes life in her killer aspect; as did her counterpart, the Moon-goddess Artemis.”

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Walt Disney, Fantasia

Her arrows are in equal measure life-giving and life-taking. She hunts wild beasts but also protects them, and can be thus regarded as a regulatory force in nature. She remains unmarried and childless but protects women in childbirth and helped deliver her own brother, Apollo. She is pure, primal and fierce. She also protects the essential, godlike feminine aspect against being raped and contaminated. In the most famous myth, Actaeon sees her naked while she is bathing in a pond, and pays with his life, for she transforms him into a stag and he is ravished by his own hunting gods. This ritual was very common in many cultures, as Graves asserts:

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Giuseppe Cesari, Actaeon and Diana (detail)

“…the ritual bath in which Actaeon surprised her, like the horned hinds of her chariot and the quails of Ortygia, seems more appropriate to the Nymph than the Maiden. Actaeon was, it seems, a sacred king of the pre-Hellenic stag cult, torn to pieces at the end of his reign of fifty months, namely half a Great Year; his co-king, or tanist, reigning for the remainder.”

To me, she is the untamed, uncivilized part of every woman and man; the part immersed in nature, living and breathing in concert with its universal rhythm. Her chariot was pulled by deer and she was called the Lady of the Beasts. Ted Andrews points out that the Anglo-Saxon word “deer” was first used as a general word denoting all animals and wild beasts. He traces it back to the Sanskrit “mrga,” meaning “wild animal.” He sees the symbolism of the deer as the lure of adventure and the call of the wild:

“The hunt of the deer is what transfers our civilization to the wilderness. There are many stories and myths of deer luring hunters or even kings deep into the wood until they are lost and begin to encounter new adventures.”

The antlers may stand for the attunement to our intuition and to acute perception in general. The senses of the deer are incredibly acute, as Andrews points out: “especially effective at detecting contrasts and edges in dim light.”

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Susan Seddon Boulet, Artemis Callisto (Mother Bear)

Gentle as a deer and ferocious as a bear, Artemis protects all that grows and develops, especially children, young animals and mothers. She is powerful but not invincible – Hera particularly hates her because she is the fruit of Zeus’s tryst with Leto. Hera’s mythical supremacy over Artemis may just be the patriarchal finger wagging at the wild and independent feminine power. But no one can destroy Artemis, much as Hera would like to get rid of yet another proof of her husband’s infidelity. As opposed to Hera, Artemis cherishes her aloneness and privacy. Aphrodite or Eros had no supremacy over her: she loved her solitude. She embodies that aspect of a woman that is non-relational and not looking for a partner or a mate. She is completely self-sufficient. When Artemis decides to spend time with a man she chooses her equals: hunters, like Orion, or other children of wild nature and ecstasy, such as Dionysus, who she fought side to side with against Hera in the Indian wars, or Pan, who presented her with a pack of wild dogs for hunting.

At Ephesus, where her famous temple and a place of cult were located, she was worshipped as a luscious fertility goddess with multiple breasts symbolizing endless nourishment. The temple of Ephesian Artemis in Ephesus was one the seven wonders of the world; it was surrounded by two streams. The temple was burnt to the ground by Herostratus, who thus wanted to immortalize his name. The burning of the temple coincided with the birth of Alexander the Great, the conqueror of Asia.

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What her temple possibly looked like

“Eastern soothsayers who visited the ruins of the temple prophesied that the day that the temple burned down was an omen predicting that a great force which would destroy Asia came into the world.”

Robert Graves

In this season of darkness, let lunar Artemis guide us with her torch to the fertile, hidden recesses of our wild hearts.

Sources:

Ted Andrews, Animal Speak

Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony

Sorita D’Este, Artemis: Virgin Goddess of the Sun, Moon and Hunt

Robert Graves, The Greek Myths

Barbara G. Walker, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets

About Symbol Reader

Life is a living book of symbols, a sacred text to be decoded. My blog's themes meander through Jungian psychology, myth, symbolism, astrology, dreams, and the return of the sacred feminine.
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24 Responses to Artemis: the Goddess of Primal Instincts

  1. renatembell says:

    I love Artemis, too. I really enjoyed reading this. Did you know that the Sanskrit “mrga” ties to the (Vedic Astrology) lunar Nakshatra called “Mrigashira”, which is symbolized by the deer, or more specifically ‘the face of a doe”. It is said that anyone with Moon in this placement has eyes that resemble a doe.

  2. An enjoyable piece to read, Monika, and very well written.

  3. I really enjoyed reading this, especially liked the etymology references, I discovered Archery in summer camp at age 12 and loved it! This is before I had seen my own complete chart ad discovered my venus in sag and sag midheaven :) Something about that bow and arrow. Natural to me, and low tech.

    enjoy your gift :)

  4. Great post Monika! I definitely learned a few things about Artemis today.

  5. So much information you have given us Monika, thank you for a really great post…. love and Blessings dear one, and thank you for your Yuletide Blessings, they are returned 10 fold.. Sue xox

  6. jeanraffa says:

    Thank you. This post brought so much warmth, affirmation and recognition to me, a longtime Artemis lover. Her image has been of enormous help in connecting my conscious, spiritually oriented perfectionist side with my dark, unconscious and instinctual wild side. I’ve visited the site where her temple stood in Ephesus. It’s still just an open park/field. I’m so glad there are no other buildings on it. That would feel intrusive and irreverent.

    I do have one bit of fascinating information about her many “breasts.” There are some who now believe they’re not breasts, but bull testicles. As Artemis was the wild twin feminine counterpart to her oh, so civilized brother, and as every soul contains both sides, so the bull testicles, if that’s what they indeed are, (and the images of the horned bulls beneath them suggest the same) over her own breasts are the counterpart to her femininity. They suggest her openness to masculinity and her recognition that it is partnership and union between the feminine and masculine which creates new life in both body and psyche, and not just reverence for one at the expense of the other. I choose to believe this interpretation!!

    Thanks again, and blessings on your wonderful contributions,

    Jeanie

    • Dear Jeannie,
      Thank you so much for such an extensive comment. I am happy to have discovered your writing.
      I have already encountered the bull testicles theory while I was writing about the astrological sign of Taurus and the symbolism of the bull. I love your interpretation that she can heal the dramatic split between the feminine and the masculine.
      She is also one of my beloved goddesses.
      Warmest regards and thank you again,
      Monika

  7. Loved your post and imagery! I love powerful, independent goddesses :)
    Wishing you magical holidays xox

  8. H3nry J3kyll says:

    One of the blogs that I MUST get caught up on ever so often. You really do share wonderful stuff Monika. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

  9. ptero9 says:

    I missed this one Monika. I’m happy to have found it now though. When I first read about Artemis I really felt a kinship with her, but you give me a lot of insight into her relationships with the other gods/goddesses. I love her independence, wildness and ability to run with the “boys.”

    “Artemis is this part of the psyche which is primal, wild and unbound; it is the wild hunter in us, not the domesticated hunter. She is alien to settling down, for her thrill is the endless chase. ”

    Yes, the endless chase, which has never seemed monotonous to me, and if anything I acknowledge a fear of endings, completion and I love life because there’s an endless variety of people, things and places to explore.

    Here’s to Artemis!
    xxx
    Debra

    • Thank you so much for finding it. That quote, which I now corrected, should have said “the domesticated FARMER” instead of “hunter.” You are right about her fear of fixed structures. I agree – she is awesome!

  10. CavitationBubble says:

    Artemis is the sister of Apollo…Sun God…Zodiac Sign Leo. She’s the female half of Apollo as the Moon. Night and Day. In astrology, the Sun is only male because it gives off light and is, therefore, part of the material world that is SEEN. The moon is electromagnetic and controls, invisibly, the water in the ocean (emotions). It is UNSEEN power. Everything is symbolic to the four elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air. The aim is breaking down the later to become the former in more and more refined states until alchemy creates the ultimately balanced state of light & sound symmetry. Aquarius isn’t so much water as electricity. Uranus rules Aquarius so that isn’t water being poured fourth from the symbolic pot but electricity that has control over water. Water (moon) conducts electricity. Combine the Sphinx female head of Aquarius with the fire of Leo and you have the electrical embodiment of the pyramid alignments. Some say the alignment is our Sun lined up with the “cosmic vagina” or black hole of our solar system. It connects us with the “cosmic womb” or mother/divinity in other solar systems. Those aren’t breasts hanging from Artemis’s chest, those are bull testicles. The bull is Taurus (2nd astrological house), representing the value of worldly goods (physical objects). It is only male because it represents an aspect of the world that is visible. When people aim to get rich, they worship the bull. It’s represents material wealth and the physical abundance of nature. Having the bull balls dangling from her chest has dual meaning. In astrology there is a placement linked with a fixed star system called the Pleiades. It’s 29 degrees Taurus, which is Taurus in it’s detriment. It denotes material loss…or more specifically…one who doesn’t rely on material success. At 29 degree, material success is mastered but not so much needed. Anyone who hasn’t mastered this placement will of coarse greet the negative perception of “loss.” The severed bull testicles symbolically represent this idea that the material world has been mastered. That’s why she is the cult of the divinity. Having your material world taken away leaves the individual with no choice but to go within. I disagree with the “preference for being alone” part of Artemis. That is a description of her symptom and not her state. It’s indicative of her connection with divinity and the concept of going within. This placement on the Pleiades is connected with the merging of male and female halves. This just means the physical body (male) merges with dormant psychic/telepathic abilities (female). True, it can manifest as someone who is ashamed of themselves or doesn’t need to merge with other people, but it can also be the complete opposite that manifests as a sacred prostitute who has complete and utter control over both their male and female selves. They can be alone, bisexual, or homosexual but the major theme is the fact they have mastered individuation….something the ancient world (phallus worshipers) was terrified of and labeled demonic. In the ancient world, fanatic Artemis worshipers castrated themselves and worshiped the idea of dance and drums (on animal skins). Light is actually sound that has been fractured so being aware of music and it’s undertones are a big part of the Pleiades. I believe Artemis is pictured with a bow and arrow because, like the sign of Sagittarius, our animals selves are reaching for the heavens (the arrow shot into the sky). The animals selves are the original state but it is meant to be transformed into a higher one. The point of symbolizing this state as half man and half animal represents a transformation that is still in progress. Artemis isn’t so much half animal as a woman with control over animals (her lower instincts). The bow and arrow means she’s shooting for communion with this metamorphosis into the divine. The “cosmic vagina” or galactic center/black hole of our milky way just happens to be in the Sagittarius constellation so this link with the divine as a woman is a valid one. Cavitation bubbles, double torus/quasars, and internal black holes are all metaphorical descriptions of the “fracture” pressure that is necessary for enlightened transformation. Individuation just means the individual is not ruled by their environment and societal/cultural expectations. They become a black hole unto themselves through the pressure of integrated halves (positive/negative or male/female). The pressure is created within until it breaks open and merges with infinite light. I like that this idea was linked with mastering primal instincts. That is an accurate depiction but I would add that she has mastered the animals in herself and not so much mastered jungle animals in the outside world, like some fictional character. It’s metaphorical of someone who understands, in it’s unadulterated ENTIRETY, the human condition. The statue has what looks like the 4 elemental animals. Usually this means they have integrated all four aspects of life into their being in a balanced way. A crystal is perfectly symmetrical on all four sides, so when all four elemental animals are present it generally represents the state of reaching enlightenment. A dragon is a reptile (land and water) that has wings (air) and breathes fire (fire). The dragon, therefore, is the animal representation of this alchemical transformation of enlightenment. Notice the dragon is always listed as “the protector” and Artemis is “the protector” of animals and the maternal figures in life. If Artemis really is the Pleiades, then kundalini energy is the destination. Hindu’s took much of their philosophies from the Egyptians, the oldest religion on earth, and kundalini was the highest state a human being could reach. Ultimately, the purpose of kundalini was to use the body as a vessel for this higher form of energy coming from the earth that is currently inaccessible due to our undeveloped brains. From what I read, the yoga used to access it activates a dormant pineal gland in the brain until the “amrita” or “divine nectar” literally alters our brains perception. The state our brain goes into during REM sleep becomes equally as potent, while awake, with an activated pineal gland. Artemis, in astrology, is an exact pictorial description of this particular Pleiades placement in a birth chart when the placement is actually achieved correctly.

    • I have a feeling I know who you are and I’d like to thank you for taking your time to write this. It is rich and very valuable to me. From what I see, Artemis is an extremely potent goddess. I agree with your understanding of her virginity as a sign of her individuation. I was also aware of the bull’s testicles but linking them to the Pleiades is brilliant. My Moon is at 29 Taurus in conjunction with the asteroid Artemis. Also the part of thethe galactic Centre in Sagittarius is quite illuminating. I am indebted to Erich Neumann and his take on the Lady of the Beasts. I think your perspective is similar to his.
      Thank you very much,
      Monika

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