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