The Virgin Artemis

Artemis was one of the most complex and compelling of Greek divinities. Like her twin brother Apollo she was the embodiment of opposites. The protectress of young animals, she delighted in the hunt. An enthusiast for mountain peaks (Homer envisages her ‘with her bow, roaming the high ridges of Tagetus’), she was associated with marshy lowlands (Euripides tells how ‘she wanders the swamps and sand-bars of the sea, and the foaming eddies of the surf’). And despite being an avowed virgin, she was the goddess whose help women most often evoked when in labour. As the elder sibling, Artemis acted as midwife when their mother Leto bore Apollo on Delos – an experience that both qualified her to preside over childbirth (helped by minor deities such as Eileithyia) and ensured she had no wish to endure the process herself.

The Virgin Artemis Photo Gallery

In his Hymn to Artemis, Callimachus describes how, a precocious toddler, the goddess sat on her father Zeus’ knee and demanded: Father, let me guard my virginity forever, and give me many titles so that Apollo can’t outdo me. Give me arrows and a bow – wait, father! I’m not asking you for a quiver and mighty bow. Right now the Cyclopes will make me arrows and a supple bowstring! No, but let me be Bringer of Light and wear a belted tunic – knee-length, with an embroidered border – so I can kill wild beasts! And give me sixty daughters of Ocean to dance with me, all nine years old, still children, still wearing young girls’ dresses, and twenty nymphs from the [Cretan River] Amnisus to be my handmaidens, to look after my boots when I’ve finished hunting lynx or stags, and to tend to my hunting dogs. And give me every mountain, but whatever city you see fit – for Artemis goes rarely down into the city!

Enchanted, Zeus agreed, giving her thirty cities and appointing her the guardian of streets and harbours. (Episkopos, which Callimachus uses for ‘guardian’, later meant ‘bishop’.)

Callimachus describes how, having visited Sicily, where the Cyclopes presented her with a Cretan-style bow, quiver and arrows, then Arcadia, where Pan furnished her with hunting hounds, Artemis discovered five hefty hinds with golden horns grazing in a meadow. Resisting her instinct to shoot them, she rounded them up, tamed them and yoked them to her chariot – all bar one, which escaped and later caused Heracles much grief when he was sent from Tiryns to capture it. Artemis then perfected her archery, firing at an elm, an oak and a boar before turning her arrows on ‘a city of unjust men’, whose cattle died and crops withered as old men mourned their sons and women died in childbirth. They were by no means the last to experience her wrath.

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