The Incredible Story of Artemis: Her Myths, 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 who predominantly resided on Mount Olympus, Artemis is believed to have preferred residing in the deep forest. What else is this Greek goddess most known for?
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 Greek god Apollo – the god of the sun, music and prophecy. In the myths, Artemis’s birth was one plagued by a number of adversities.
When Hera (wife of Zeus) found out about Zeus’ infidelity and Leto’s pregnancy, she forbade any island or mainland from taking in or offering Leto any kind of help. 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 Elithyia could not reach Leto in time to facilitate the smooth 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’s mother Leto
Hera’s murderous hatred of Leto, Artemis and Apollo did not go abated, even after Leto had given birth to her children. The Queen of the gods is said to have used punishment to threaten anyone that tried to offer help to Leto. One time the inhabitants of a village tried to prevent Leto from drinking from their wells. Leto responded by turning the villagers into frogs.
Artemis’ role in the Greek Pantheon
Armed with very powerful bow and arrows procured from Hephaestus and the Cyclopes, Artemis’s major responsibility in the Greek pantheon 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 ancient 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 deities, Artemis did have a flaming hot temper. For example, she was believed to have 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 kidnap 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. And after Artemis found out about Alpheus’ intentions to rape Arethusa, she placed a spell on Arethusa, turning her into a water fountain at the Temple of Artemis.
Did you know: In regard to hunting and childbirth, some ancient mythologists have drawn parallel between the ancient Egyptian goddess Bastet and the Greek goddess Artemis?
Artemis’s 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 to Leto reached Artemis, the goddess banded with her twin brother Apollo and meted out a severe punishment to Niobe. The twin sibling gods 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 then ducked, causing the brothers’ arrows to unintendedly hit each other in the torsos.
Artemis and her hunting companion Orion
Orion was Artemis’s 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 her 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 Orion tried to force himself on Artemis; hence, the goddess killed Orion in self-defense.
After Orion’s death, the king of the gods, 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 behavior 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, desperately seeking her hand in marriage, 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 during the Trojan War
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 injury by bragging that he was a better hunter than Artemis.
The goddess punished Agamemnon by sending a series of misfortunes the way of his army. Artemis first unleashed a host of plagues upon 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 ancient Greek poet, Artemis took pity on the Mycenean king and pardoned him. The goddess quickly whisked Iphigenia away before the blade could land on her head. She then provided a deer to be sacrificed in place of Agamemnon’s daughter. As a sign of appreciation, Iphigenia committed herself to the worship of Artemis and became 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. Often times standing beside her is a deer, or a stag, or a hunting dog.
Modern depictions of Artemis show her grabbing the antlers of a stag. The most famous of such depiction is a sculpture called Diane de Versailles, which can be found at the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.
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 her weapons had the power to bring death and diseases to young girls and women.
Artemis’s 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 Greek god of the forest and shepherds.
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 believed that Auro even killed and ate one of her own children.
Artemis and the Nymph Callisto
Being a goddess who was vowed to remain chaste, Artemis encouraged her companions and the nymphs around her to take vows of chastity and remain unwed. She was ruthless in punishing companions of her that broke their chastity vows. One such incident came when she turned the nymph Callisto – daughter of Lycaon, king of Arcadia – into a she-bear after finding out that the nymph had an affair with Zeus. Fate was still not done with Callisto, as the nymph was killed during Artemis’s hunting expedition. Artemis is said to have mistook the nymph for a bear in the wild.
The son that Zeus bore with Callisto – Arcas – was then put in the care of the Greek Titaness Maia. Like the hunter Orion, Callisto was placed in the sky as the constellation Ursa Major (also known as Great Bear). Arcas would later join his mother Callisto in the sky. Arcas became the constellation Arctophylax (also known as the Little Bear or Ursa Minor).
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 and were called little she-bears (Arktoi), a name in honor of Artemis.
Family Tree of Greek goddess Artemis
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Facts about Artemis
- Due to the fact that she helped her mother deliver her brother 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 Turkiye) – 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.