Lovely Artemis of the forest, the virgin goddess of the Olympian pantheon, was the protectress of the hunt, guardian of the unspoiled wilds, and champion of mothers and maidens. The twin sister of Apollo, the god of reason and bringer of order, “arrow shooting” Artemis was often depicted with her bow and arrow, signifying the wild and untamed aspects of human life.

Where gregarious Apollo reveled in discourse and sought mastery of the civilized arts, Artemis lurked in the woods and hills, consorting with animals and generally shunning the company of the other Greek deities.

Like her brother, Artemis had a unique combination of characteristics that made her very popular among the Greeks. Worshipped across the Hellenic world—with important centers in Delos, Sparta, Ephesus in Anatolia (present day Turkey) and Brauron in Attica—Artemis was celebrated at a number of festivals spread across the sacred calendar. She was also commemorated in monumental architecture, such as the famed Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Appealing to those looking for something wild or pastoral, Artemis offered something for everyone.

Among hunters and rustics, Artemis was the source of cyclic growth. It was she who controlled the rhythms of untrampled nature and explained the whims of the creatures in it. For maidens and the young, she was a beacon of innocence and chastity; for mothers, she was a symbol of fecundity and health, as well as (like the goddess Eileithyia) a midwife to their babes.

Etymology

In the Cratylus, Plato traced the etymology of the name “Artemis” to the Greek word artemḗs, meaning “pure” or “unblemished.” Though this was a tempting theory—with the similarity of the words and the quality of purity so nicely capturing the nature of Artemis—it was likely not correct, as the name “Artemis” likely had roots in pre-Greek origins and thus predated the first known use of artemḗs.

While there was no widely agreed upon etymology for “Artemis,” several theories nevertheless gained popularity. One theory suggested that the name was of Persian origin, descending from the prefix -arta meaning “great,” “magnificent,” and even “holy." Another held that “Artemis” was related—though probably not descended from—the Greek word árktos, meaning “bear.” Artemis was closely associated with a bear cult in Attica, and was often depicted alongside bears (as well as a number of other animals, such as deer, boars, and hunting dogs).1

The Diana of Versailles, also known as Artemis with a Hind, Louvre Museum, Paris. Carved from marble, this is a Roman copy from the first or second century CE, based on a Greek original. As is common in depictions of Artemis, she is featured with a deer and is wearing a quiver of arrows. She is also seen here with the knee-length tunic, usually worn by males and young children, for hunting.

Family

For obvious reasons, the virgin goddess’ family history was simpler than those of her counterparts. Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and the Titan Leto. Being a daughter of Zeus meant that Artemis had dozens of half-siblings, though her only full sibling was her twin brother Apollo. Though she was at times associated with innocence, Artemis had no children.

Mythology

The Birth and Coming of Age of Artemis

One of the most eventful of mythic births, the origin of Artemis and Apollo was full of the drama that so characterized Greek mythology. Artemis’ mother Leto—herself the daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe—was the sixth wife of Zeus. Their marriage proved short lived, for the ever restless Zeus soon found another wife—his sister, the goddess Hera.

Although he did not know it at the time, Zeus had impregnated Leto prior to leaving her. Leto’s condition aroused the fury of Hera, who was ever jealous of her husband’s lovers and his many children by them. In her rage, Hera threatened any group that harbored Leto, and she forbade the Titan from having the children on the mainland. Hera also spawned a sea serpent called Python to chase Leto as she skipped from island to island searching for refuge.

Abandoned by the gods, Leto wandered until wise Apollo, whispering to her from inside the womb, suggested they find shelter on an island called Delos, a small and mostly uninhabited place. There Leto readied to have her twins, but Hera was not yet done with her. When Leto went into labor, Hera prevented Eileithyia, her daughter and the goddess of midwifery, from attending to Leto. The Titan persisted through the pain and soon gave birth to the first of her twins: Artemis. Already grown and quite capable by the time she was born, Artemis served as the midwife to her mother and delivered the infant Apollo, who emerged from the womb clutching a bronze sword in his hand. As Hesiod wrote:

And Leto was joined in love with Zeus who holds the aegis, and bore Apollo and Artemis delighting in arrows, children lovely above all the sons of Heaven.2

On Delos and Olympus, young Artemis came of age in the shadow of Hera. She still had the love of her father Zeus, however, and formed in his company many of the traits that would define her as an adult. A poem by Callimachus from the third century BC featured a young Artemis on Zeus’ knee telling him of her goals, among them eternal virginity, solitude, and action:

“Give me to keep my maidenhood, Father, forever: and give me to be of many names, that Phoebus may not vie with me. And give me arrows and a bow – stay, Father, I ask thee not for quiver or for mighty bow: for me the Cyclopes will straightway fashion arrows and fashion for me a well-bent bow. But give me to be Bringer of Light and give me to gird me in a tunic with embroidered border reaching to the knee, that I may slay wild beasts. And give me sixty daughters of Oceanus for my choir – all nine years old, all maidens yet ungirdled; and give me for handmaidens twenty nymphs of Amnisus who shall tend well my buskins, and, when I shoot no more at lynx or stag, shall tend my swift hounds. And give to me all mountains; and for city, assign me any, even whatsoever thou wilt: for seldom is it that Artemis goes down to the town. On the mountains will I dwell and the cities of men I will visit only when women vexed by the sharp pang of childbirth call me to their aid even in the hour when I was born the Fates ordained that I should be their helper, forasmuch as my mother suffered no pain either when she gave me birth or when she carried me in her womb, but without travail put me from her body.”3

The Wrath of Artemis—Orion

Though known for her innocence and purity, Artemis had a great capacity for violence and cruelty. She fiercely guarded her virginity and defended her reputation as the greatest of hunters against all comers. Her destructive potential was on full display in the stories surrounding the fate of Orion. While there were many variants of this myth, most agreed that Artemis slew her companion and possible love interest.

Orion was a great hunter who often prowled the woods with Artemis and—most variants agreed—fell in love with the dashing huntress. In some versions, Orion attempted to seduce Artemis, who was unwilling to surrender her chastity and instead shot him with her arrows. In others, Orion physically attacked Artemis, who fended off the mortal hunter’s attempts and slew him.

Still other versions claimed that Artemis summoned a mythical creature called the Scorpion, a giant beast with a massive stinging tail, which killed Orion for one of the above transgressions. (Adding to the confusion, other tales told of the Scorpion being created by Hera or Gaia to test Orion’s boasts that he could kill any living creature.)

A more nuanced variant had Apollo inciting the clash between Artemis and Orion. In this version, Apollo was worried that Artemis’ budding love for Orion would overcome her will to preserve her chastity. When Orion went swimming in a large lake and had swum so far away that his head was a mere speck on the horizon, Apollo challenged Artemis. Questioning her skill with the bow, he claimed that she could probably not even hit the speck floating at a great distance in the length. Taking the bait, Artemis immediately drew the bow and scored a perfect shot, killing her lover in the process. So great was her anguish that Artemis implored Zeus to memorialize him with a constellation in the stars.

The Aloadae, Actaeon, and Niobe

Like the other gods, Artemis would not hesitate to punish hubristic boasts and slights directed at her and her family. Otos and Ephialtes, known as the Aloadae, learned this lesson the hard way. The Aloadae were the twin children of Poseidon and Iphidemia. Brutal and mean, Otos and Ephialtes were giants and hunters who never stopped growing. Boasting that they would soon grow large enough to reach the top of Olympus, they promised to abduct Hera and Artemis and take them as their wives. Clever hunter that she was, Artemis turned herself into a beautiful doe and jumped out between the brothers, causing them to eagerly throw their spears at her. Artemis deftly avoided the spears, however, and they went hurtling into each of the brothers instead, killing them.

Another great hunter, Actaeon, met a similar fate for similar reasons. Like Orion, Actaeon was a hunting companion of Artemis. One day, Actaeon happened to see her nude in the baths. Suddenly bewitched by the charms of the goddess, he tried to force himself on her (in some variants, simply seeing her unclothed was violation enough.) In response, Artemis turned him into a stag. Some versions of the myth claimed that Artemis’ hunting dogs then caught Actaeon in stag form and devoured him; others claimed that Actaeon’s own dogs, no longer recognizing their master, performed the act.

The Death of Actaeon (1559-75) by Titian, National Gallery, London. In this neoclassical rendition of the famous mythic scene, Actaeon is a humanoid with the head of a stag.

Perhaps the cruelest fate of all was reserved for the Niobe, the Queen of Thebes and wife of Amphion. Niobe was a fruitful mother who had seven boys and seven girls. In her pride, Niobe claimed that she was more fertile than Leto, who had only one boy and one girl.

Artemis and Apollo loved their mother very much, and their wrath was heavy. Using poison arrows, Artemis killed her seven daughters while Apollo claimed her sons. In some versions, the twin deities spared one of each sex while Artemis turned Niobe to stone. Devastated, Amphion committed suicide.

Artemis in the Iliad

In the Iliad, Artemis made brief yet important appearances. Like her brother Apollo, who was the patron of the city, Artemis supported the Trojans. She was initially drawn into the conflict by King Agamemnon, who boasted that his skill as a hunter was greater than her own (some folks never learn). When Agamemnon led the mighty host of Achaeans to Troy, Artemis calmed the seas and left the idle fleets to rot in punishment for his hubris.

Artemis then demanded from Agamemnon that which was most precious to him. At this demand, Agamemnon offered up his daughter, Iphigenia, as a sacrifice. Commending the courage of his young daughter, Artemis at the last moment replaced Iphigenia with a deer, taking the girl as her attendant.

Later in the conflict, Artemis fired arrows at the Achaean camp alongside her brother. Then, in perhaps her most notable intervention during the conflict, Artemis flew off to heal Aeneas, who had been wounded in combat with the great warrior Diomedes. Apollo whisked Aeneas away to one of his temples in Pergamus, and “There Leto and the archer Artemis healed him in the great sanctuary, and glorified him.”4

Today, only a single column stands of the once great Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, built in the middle of the sixth century BC. The ancients, from Herodotus to Plutarch, marveled at its size (roughly double the size of the Parthenon in Athens) and beauty. Pliny the Elder claimed that it was “the most wonderful monument of Graecian magnificence,” and Antipater of Sidon, a Hellenistic poet of the late second century BCE, ranked it as the most magnificent of ancient sites: “I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.’” (Antipater in the Greek Anthology, Book IX, 58). The temple was razed by an arsonist in the fourth century BCE, then rebuilt on new foundations, only to be ransacked by the Goths in the third century CE, and then finally and utterly destroyed as a pagan idol at the behest of the Christian emperor Theodosius in 401 CE.

Pop Culture

Artemis made regular appearances in popular culture media that depicted Greek mythology, such as the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series by Rick Riordan and the God of War video game series. She was also featured in Hercules: the Incredible Journeys.

Artemis was often remembered in popular culture as an archer and loner, and as such symbolized swiftness and accuracy (for example, Artemis Racing was a professional sailing team that has competed in America’s Cup), as well as inner strength. The Artemis archetype—a young girl, often withdrawn from life, who bravely transgresses physical and moral boundaries and who, drawing from a pool of inner resiliency, fights fiercely for what is right—became popular in media within the last decade, and was perhaps best exemplified by the character of Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels. Like her inspiration Katniss even wielded a bow in her quest for justice.

Artemis also lent her name to the Artemisia, a genus of plants whose members were used in a variety of herbal and medicinal preparations. The genus was so named because analgesics made from the plants were used by midwives, and Artemis was a goddess of midwifery. Besides the analgesics, Artemisia plants made up the wormwood used in absinthe as well as Artemisinin, a compound that was used in treatment for malaria.

References

Bibliography

  1. Callimachus. Hymns and Epigrams. Translated by Mair, A. W. and G. R. Theoi Classical Texts Library. https://www.theoi.com/Text/CallimachusHymns1.html.

  2. Hesiod. Theogony. Translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White. Internet Sacred Text Archive. https://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm.

  3. Homer. The Iliad. Translated by A. T. Murray. Theoi Classical Texts Library. https://www.theoi.com/Text/HomerIliad5.html.

  4. Wikipedia contributers. “Artemis.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artemis.

Footnotes

  1. See the Wikipedia entry for “Artemis” for a detailed discussion of the etymology with links to outside resources. 

  2. Hesiod, Theogony, 916–925. 

  3. Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams, 3.1–27. 

  4. Homer, The Iliad, Book V.