Vengeful, Virgin, Huntress: The Greek Goddess Artemis

Artemis, the virgin goddess of the wilderness and hunting, was one of the most highly venerated Greek gods.

Aug 26, 2021By Danielle Mackay, BA Classical Studies and Linguistics, MA Classical Studies
greek goddess artemis vegeful virgin huntress
Diana the Huntress by Guillame Seignac, 19th century, via Christies; with Apollo and Artemis, Gavin Hamilton, 1770, via Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, Glasgow


Artemis was the oldest twin born to Zeus and Leto. The ancients believed that as soon as she was born, she assisted her mother in bringing her brother, Apollo, into the world. This story gave her a position as a goddess of childbirth. Yet, Artemis’ most prominent characterization was as a virginal goddess. From other myths, we can glean more information about this Greek goddess who was so revered among the rural populace. This article will explore these myths and how they shaped the goddess’ representations.


The Origins of Artemis

Apollo and Artemis, Gavin Hamilton, 1770, via Glasgow Museums Resource Centre, Glasgow


As with most Greek gods, the etymological roots of Artemis’ name are disputed. For some scholars, the goddess has a pre-Greek origin, and attested to in Mycenaean Greek. For others, the name suggests a foreign origin, from Phrygia. However, there is no convincing etymological root for the goddess’ name in Greek.


In ancient Greek literature, Artemis is first mentioned by Hesiod. In the Theogony, Artemis is found as the twin sister of Apollo born to the God Zeus and the Titaness Leto. Upon hearing of Zeus’ extra-marital relationship with Leto, Hera set out to prevent the birth of Leto’s children. Hera declared that the Titaness was barred from giving birth on land. Once she entered into labor, Leto managed to find her way to the island of Delos. The island was not anchored onto the mainland and therefore did not challenge Hera’s decree. On Delos, Leto gave birth to her twins, first Artemis and then Apollo.


Artemis also possesses a prominent role in Homer’s Iliad. According to the epic, the girlish Artemis favored the Trojans, which caused a great deal of animosity with Hera.


Artemis’ Spheres of Influence

Diana the Huntress by Guillame Seignac, 19th century, via Christies

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There are not many myths about Artemis’ childhood, unlike Apollo. There is however, a hymn by Callimachus (305 BCE – 240 BCE) which illustrates the young goddess’ relationship with her father, Zeus. In the hymn, the Greek goddess asks Zeus to let her keep her maidenhood forever and be known by many names.


Indeed, chastity was one of Artemis’ most well-known attributes and as a virgin huntress, she was the protector of young girls and women. In addition, she was known by many names and titles related to her divine functions. She was called Agroterê (of the hunt), Pheraia (of the beasts), Orsilokhia (helper in childbirth) and Aidoios Parthenos (most revered virgin). Like her brother, Artemis too possessed the power to bring disease upon the mortal world and to remove it once her wrath had been sated.


In Callimachus’ hymn, the young goddess also asks her father for a bow and arrows, made for her by the Cyclopes. In this way she may become the female equivalent of her brother, the archer Apollo. She requests an entourage of chaste nymphs to accompany her in the woodlands. In the hymn, Callimachus succinctly establishes Artemis’ realm as the wilderness, in which the goddess will live.


Her Sacred Symbols and Animals

Detail from The Calydonian Boar Hunt, Peter Paul Rubens, 1611-1612, via J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


In iconography, the goddess was often represented along with her sacred animals and symbols. Artemis’ sacred symbols are the bow and arrows. The goddess was also often equipped with a quiver, hunting spears, a torch, and a lyre.


Although Artemis was the queen of beasts and all animals belong to her realm, her most sacred animal was the deer. Many ancient depictions presented the goddess riding a deer-drawn chariot. The boar was another of Artemis’ sacred animals and often a vehicle of her divine wrath. The notorious Calydonian boar was one such instrument. Another sacred animal was the bear and in particular, the she-bear. The animal was sometimes even present at festivals in honor of the goddess.


Artemis had many sacred birds, such as guineafowls and partridges. Her sacred plants included the cypress tree, amaranth, asphodel, and palm tree. The goddess realm was the woodlands, where she roamed and hunted with her chaste companions, the nymphs. Whoever dared to encroach on the privacy of Artemis and her entourage would suffer her terrible wrath and vengeance.


Artemis’ Vengeance

Diana and Actaeon (Diana Surprised in Her Bath), Camille Corot, 1836, via MoMa, New York


The vengeance of the goddess was a popular topic among ancient Greek potters and painters. One of the most well-known examples of this vengeance is the myth of Artemis and Actaeon. The most common version of the story, among ancient sources, is that Actaeon – a young Theban hunter – stumbled upon Artemis while she was bathing with her nymphs in a river. For seeing the maiden goddess in complete nudity, Actaeon was punished by Artemis. She turned the hunter into a stag and subsequently, he was pursued and killed by his own hunting dogs. This myth is an example of Artemis’ protection of sacred chastity.


Diana and Callisto, Titian, 1556-9, via The National Gallery, London


Another common cause of Artemis’ vengeance was betrayal. Callisto, one of Artemis’ virginal companions, committed such a crime. Callisto was seduced by Zeus, undetected by the other Greek gods. It was only when Callisto was already with child and was seen bathing by the goddess, that the deception was discovered. As a punishment, Artemis transformed the girl into a bear and in this form she gave birth to a son, Arkas. Because of her relationship with Zeus, the god transformed Callisto into a star constellation – the Bear or Arktos.


Another type of vengeance unleashed by Artemis is found in the story of the Niobids and is related to the protection of her mother’s, Leto’s, honor. Niobe, a Theban queen of Boeotia, had twelve children – 6 boys and 6 girls. She boasted to Leto that she was the superior mother for bearing twelve rather than two children. In an act of retribution against this hubris, Artemis and Apollo visited their godly vengeance upon Niobe’s children. Apollo, with his golden bow, destroyed the six sons, while Artemis, with her silver arrows, destroyed the six daughters. Niobe was thus left with no children after her brash boasting to the mother of the godly twins.


Associations and Depictions of the Goddess

Greco-Roman marble statue of Diana, c. 1st century CE, via The Louvre Museum, Paris


Since the Archaic period, Artemis’ portrayals in ancient Greek pottery were linked directly to her position as Pôtnia Therôn (the Queen of Beasts). In these depictions, the goddess is winged and surrounded by predatory felines, such as lions or leopards.


In the Classical period, Artemis’ portrayal shifts to include her position as the virginal goddess of the wilderness, wearing a tunic with an embroidered border extending to her knee, just as she was described in Callimachus’ hymn. In vase-painting, the goddess’ headgears include a crown, a headband, a bonnet, or an animal-pelt cap.


In ancient literature, Artemis is portrayed as exceedingly beautiful. Pausanias described the Greek goddess as being wrapped in a deerskin and carrying a quiver of arrows on her shoulder. He further adds that on one hand, she carries a torch and on the other two snakes. This description is linked to Artemus’ later identification with the torch-bearing goddess, Hecate.


Diana the Huntress, Giampietrino (Giovanni Pietro Rizzoli), 1526, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Regarding her associations, Artemis would become known as Diana during the Roman period. In later antiquity, she would be equated with the moon, Selene. This identification perhaps coincided with the introduction of the Thracian god Bendis into Greece.


The connections established between Artemis, Selene, and Hecate became a popular triad of goddesses in the Roman era. Roman poets, such as Statius, include the triple-goddess in their poetry. Furthermore, the goddess was similarly linked with other female deities such as the Cretan Britomartis and the Egyptian Bastet.


The Worship of Artemis

Artemis (to the right of the image) depicted on a red-figure amphora, c. 4th century BCE, via The Louvre Museum, Paris


Due to her relationship with the wilderness and position as a bow-wielding maiden, Artemis was considered to be the patron goddess of the mythical Amazons. Pausanias, who reports this connection, states that the Amazons established many shrines and temples to the goddess. Similarly, the goddess, along with Apollo, would become the patroness of the mythical Hyperboreans. Throughout Greece, Artemis was widely worshipped as the goddess of hunting and wild animals, as well as the protector of women and girls. Her shrines and temples were located throughout Greece, particularly in rural areas.


The worship of Artemis was most popular in Arcadia, where there was the largest number of shrines and temples dedicated to the goddess than anywhere else in Greece. Another popular cult site was in Athens. This was the temple of the mysterious Brauronian Artemis. Some scholars believe that this version of Artemis came from an orgiastic mystery cult of Tauris – a goddess of Greek legend. According to further legend, Iphigenia and Orestes brought her image to Greece and landed first at Brauron in Attica, from whence Brauronia Artemis took her name. In Sparta, she was named Artemis Orthia where she was worshipped as a fertility goddess and huntress. This is based upon evidence of votive offerings left in the Temple of Artemis Orthia.


The image of Artemis shifted throughout antiquity and the goddess held many roles and divine duties. Her realm of power and influence extended from the unknown wilderness to childbirth. Admired for her skill in hunting and command over animals, she was worshipped by young girls and women, to whom the goddess represented freedom from society.

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By Danielle MackayBA Classical Studies and Linguistics, MA Classical StudiesDanielle is currently completing her MA in Classical Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa. She earned her BA degree in Classical Studies and Linguistics and completed her studies of the Ancient Greek language as well as Latin. Her research focuses on Ancient Greek Religion and Mythology, specifically found in Late Antiquity Egypt, with a focus on the god Dionysus.