The Incredible Story of Artemis: Her Myth, Symbols, and Significance in Ancient Greece
Ancient Greeks held the belief that the goddess Artemis was the one in charge of wild animals, greenery, and the moon. A member of the three maiden goddesses of Olympus (the other two were Athena and Hestia), the virgin goddess was very much loved and venerated by people living in the countryside of ancient Greece. She was also usually regarded as the protector of young girls and the goddess of childbirth and midwifery.
Unlike her fellow Olympian goddesses and gods, Artemis is believed to have preferred residing in the deep forest as compared to residing on Mount Olympus. The following contains the incredible story of Artemis, the Greek goddess of the hunt and the moon.
Artemis was the daughter of Zeus – king of Olympus – and Leto, the Titaness. Her twin brother was the god Apollo – the god of the sun, music and prophecy. Artemis birth was one plagued by a number of adversities.
When Hera found out about Zeus’ infidelity and Leto’s pregnancy, she forbade any island or mainland from taking Leto in. The decree banned the expectant mother from giving birth on any part of the world where the sun reached.
In spite of the ban, the people on the island of Delos (close to Ephesus – in present-day Turkey) took Leto in. Legend has it that the island of Delos was a floating island, and therefore the decree issued by Hera could not be applied to Delos.
Bent on making Leto’s labor as painful as it could get, Hera took the goddess of childbirth, Eilethyia, prisoner. By so doing the Elithyia could not reach Leto in time to facilitate the birth of her children. In the end, it took the pleas of several goddesses before Hera released Eilethyia.
Once Eilethyia was free, Leto was finally able to give birth to her twin children: Artemis and Apollo. The myth goes on to say that Artemis was the first to be born. Artemis would then go on to help Leto give birth to her twin brother, Apollo.
Artemis’ role in the Greek Pantheon
With the bow and arrows procured from Hephaestus and the Cyclopes, Artemis’ major responsibility was to cater for wild animals and the wilderness.
Artemis was also the patron goddess of childbirth and midwifery. She picked up this role because she helped her mother Leto give birth to her younger twin brother Apollo. It seems a bit odd for Artemis to have this role considering the fact that Artemis herself was a life-long virgin.
Another very influential role of hers was to protect young children, especially young girls and young women. In many Greek city-states, girls that were about to enter their pubescent years were sent to temples of Artemis. Over there, they would serve for about a year or so.
Like many Greek gods and deities, Artemis did have quite a hot temper. She was known for having the ability to give diseases to young women who disobeyed her instructions. Conversely, she had the ability to heal young girls that were ill.
Artemis and the River God Alpheus
According to one particular account of Artemis story, the river god Alpheus falls madly in love with Artemis and goes ahead to capture Artemis. Because she had sworn to be chaste all her life, Artemis evades Alpheus’ advances by rubbing mud all over her face.
A similar account of the story states that it was Artemis’ temple attendant Arethusa rather. After Artemis found out about Alpheus’ intentions to rape Arethusa, Artemis places a spell on Arethusa, turning her into a water fountain at the Temple of Artemis.
Artemis struggle against Niobe, the queen of Thebes
Niobe was a very proud and powerful queen of Thebes. It is believed that she once directed series of insults against Artemis’ mother, Leto. Niobe boasted that she was better than the the Titanese Leto because she only had two children while Niobe had a staggering fourteen children (the Niobids) – seven girls and seven boys. When news of Niobe’s irreverence reached Artemis, the goddess banded with her twin brother Apollo and meted out a severe punishment to Niobe. The twin siblings killed all 14 children of Niobe. The myth states that Artemis murdered the seven daughters of Niobe with poisoned arrows; while Apollo killed all seven sons of Niobe.
Artemis and the Aloadae Giants
The Aloadae giants were twin sons of Iphidemia and Poseidon. They were called Otos and Ephialtes. Legend has it that the brothers had a rare ability to perpetually grow in size and power. Feeling threatened by the growing powers of the two brothers, the gods on Mount Olympus decided to act fast. Artemis took it upon herself to eliminate the two giants.
The giants had very few, if any, weaknesses. However, Artemis found out that the only way to kill them was for the brothers to kill themselves.
Artemis transformed herself into a deer and hopped between the two giants. Instantly, the two brothers picked up their bows and arrows and fired shots at the deer. Artemis ducked, causing their arrows to mistakenly hit the two brothers.
Artemis and her hunting companion, Orion
Orion was Artemis close friend and hunting partner. Sadly, Artemis accidentally killed Orion during one of their hunting expeditions. In a different version of the story, Artemis killed Orion because he seduced one of Artemis’ servants, Opis. Some ancient mythologists claim that Orion was rather killed by the primordial goddess Gaia – goddess of the earth. A darker version of the story states tried to force himself on Artemis, hence, Artemis killed Orion in self-defense.
After Orion’s death, Zeus placed Orion in the heavens, thereby forming the Constellation of Orion.
Artemis versus the boastful Chione, princess of Pokis
Chione, princess of Pokis, was indeed a very beautiful woman. Unfortunately for her, her mouthy and boastful behaviour ended up being her downfall. The Choine allowed her beauty get into her head and once boasted that she was far prettier than the goddess Artemis. Chione claimed that she had several suitors (including Greek gods Hermes and Apollo) lined up in front of her door, and that she could even make girls fall madly in love with her.
For her transgressions against the goddess of the hunt, Chione’s tongue was struck, making her dumb. Artemis then went on to kill her with an arrow.
How Artemis punished Agamemnon and his Greek army
Just a few days before the start of the Trojan War, the legendary king of Mycenae, Agamemnon, incurred the wrath of Artemis after he killed an animal that was sacred to the goddess. As if that was not enough, Agamemnon rubbed salt in the injury by bragging that he was a better hunter than Artemis. The goddess punished Agamemnon by sending a series of misfortunes to his army. Artemis first unleashed a host of plagues on Agamemnon’s army. After the plagues, she saw to it that there were no winds on the sea, hindering Agamemnon’s army from sailing from the port of Aulis to Troy.
In order to appease Artemis, the religious leaders and prophets advised Agamemnon to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia to the goddess Artemis.
Agamemnon obeyed the instruction of the prophet Calchas and sacrificed Iphigenia to Artemis. Once the sacrifice was made, Artemis lifted the curse from Agamemnon and his Greek army.
However, Hesiod’s account of the story differs a little bit. According to Hesiod, Artemis took pity on the Mycenaen king and pardoned him. Artemis quickly whisked Iphigenia away before the blade could land on her head. The goddess provided a deer to be sacrificed in place of Agamemnon’s daughter. Iphigenia would go on to become a priestess at one of Artemis’ temples.
Depictions and Symbols
Artemis’ typical portrayals see her as a winged-goddess with a beautiful and slender body. In an upright position, Artemis can be seen holding a silver bow and arrow. In some cases, she is seen holding a spear. Beside her, a deer, or a stag, or a hunting dog can be found.
Modern depictions of Artemis show her grabbing the antlers of a stag. The most famous of this sculpture is called Diane de Versailles.
Similar to her brother Apollo, Artemis had an all-golden chariot that was pulled by four golden-horned deer.
The myth has it that, Artemis’ virginity went a long way in reinforcing her power and independence. As for her golden bow and arrows, ancient Greeks believed that they had the power to bring death and diseases to young girls and women.
Artemis’ hunting dogs (six male and seven female dogs) were fierce creatures that could hunt many wild animals, including lions. The hunting dogs came from Pan, the god of the forest.
Artemis’ Wrath and Punishment
Artemis did not take kindly to anyone who dared compare a mortal’s beauty to her beauty. In the case of the virgin huntress, Atalanta, Artemis dispatched a bear to terrorize her simply because folks in Atalanta’s city compared Atalanta’s beauty to Artemis.
Quite similar to Atalanta’s case, Artemis punished Aura – daughter of Lelantos and Peribola – because the latter made a statement that doubted the maidenhood of Artemis. The goddess was enraged by Aura’s claim. She allowed fellow Greek god Dionysus to defile Aura. Owing to this, Auro descended into madness and went about killing people. It is belived that she even killed and ate one of her own children.
Where and How was Artemis Worshiped
The goddess of the hunt, Artemis, had several famous worship centers across ancient Greece. Examples of those places were in Western Anatolia (present-day Turkey), Perge, Brauron, Tauris, the island of Delos, Attica, Mounikhia, and Sparta.
In Sparta for example, the soldiers generally prayed to Artemis during their preparation for battle. The Spartans called her the “Huntress of Chamois”. Both the Greeks and Spartans worshiped her as Artmis Agrotera.
As the goddess of midwifery and childbirth, the ancient Greeks showered enormous amounts of sacrifice to Artemis whenever a baby was born. And once a girl entered her pre-pubescent years, the girl was sent to the Sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron. The girl stayed there for about a year. Over there, the girls were called little she-bears (Arktoi), a name in honor of Artemis.
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Facts about Artemis
- Due to the fact that she helped her mother deliver Apollo, Artemis stayed true and loyal to Apollo. She was always there to protect him and guide his path.
- For centuries, the Temple of Artemis – located at Ephesus (present-day Turkey) – was a famous place for the worship of Artemis. Many ancient historical descriptions of the temple state that it was a truly magnificent building. It was not surprising that the Temple of Artemis made its way to the list of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
- The bow and arrows that Artemis used in hunting were made by the Greek master of fire and forgery, the god Hephaestus.
- When it came to maintaining her chastity and purity, Artemis went at lengths to eliminate anyone who dared threaten her.
- Whenever a pregnant woman passed away during pregnancy or childbirth, the ancient Greeks believed that it was Artemis’ doing.
- Although many myths state that Leto’s pregnancy was the result of Zeus’ infidelity. However, Hesiod’s Theogony states that Leto was pregnant way before Zeus and Hera even got married.
- Artemis’ birthplace was said to be on Mount Cynthus at Delos. Because of this, Artemis was sometimes called Cynthia.
- The Roman equivalent of Artemis was the goddess Diana.
- Some accounts of Artemis’ birth state that the goddess was born at either Ortygia or Paximadia.
- Once Leto got pregnant, it is believed that Zeus took a drastic action to conceal his transgression from Hera by turning Leto into a quail.
- After she was born, Artemis implored her father Zeus to grant her some wishes. Examples of those wishes involved her getting the ability: to forever stay a virgin; to have dominion over the mountains; to properly use and handle a bow and arrow; and to be venerated in a different fashion and names as her brother Apollo.
- Ancient Greeks associated her with midwifery because she helped her mother in giving birth to Apollo.
- Adonis was killed by Artemis after the former bragged to all his friends that he was a better hunter than the goddess of the hunt, Artemis. The myth states that Artemis dispatched a wild boar to murder Adonis. In a separate myth, Adonis was in fact killed by Apollo.
- Although Artemis and Apollo were twin siblings, close to two weeks passed between Artemis’ birth and Apollo’s birth.
- Artemis killed Bouphagos (a descendant of the Titan Iapetus) because he had unclean thoughts about raping her.
- After Aeneas was injured by Diomedes in the Trojan War, Artemis and her mother Leto picks him up and tends to his wound.
- Slightly angered by the skilled hunter Acteon, Artemis went ahead to turn Acteon into a stag. She then made Acteon’s hunting dogs (50 of them) feast on him. Actaeon’s crime was that he accidentally saw Artemis while she was bathing on Mount Cithaeron.
- During the legendary Trojan War, Artemis gave her support to Troy. She did this because her beloved brother Apollo was Troy’s patron god. During the war, Artemis and Hera came into a direct confrontation. Hera supported the Greeks. It is believed that Hera struck a painful blow on the ears of Artemis. The goddess of the hunt then run away, sobbing bitterly as she made her way to seek comfort in her father Zeus.