First City, New Delhi, Mythos, Nov 2007
Just after midnight on August 31, 1997, in Paris, a car carrying Diana, Princess of Wales, went out of control in a Paris tunnel and crashed. She died in a hospital soon after. The world reacted. In his emotionally charged eulogy, Diana’s brother, the 9th Earl Spencer referred to the irony of the situation: she who was named after the goddess of the chase ended up being killed in a chase.
Known in Greek mythology as Artemis, the Roman goddess Diana was the goddess of the chase. Armed with a silver bow she ran free through the forests with her hunting hounds chasing stags and bears. She represented freedom of the wilderness. She would never be chased. She would never be tamed. She was therefore a virgin goddess, with no male companion who would tie her down. Unlike Aphrodite, known to Romans as Venus, this goddess was not sexy or romantic. Unlike Athena, known to Romans as Minerva, she was not an intellectual. Unlike Hera, known to Romans as Juno, she was certainly not homely or maternal.
Among the epithets given to Artemis are: Potnia Theron (mistress of wild animals) this title was mentioned by the great poet Homer; Kourotrophos (nurse of youth’s); Locheia (helper in childbirth); Agrotera (huntress); and Cynthia (taken from her birthplace on Mount Cynthus on Delos).
Artemis was worshiped in most Greek cities but only as a secondary deity. However, to the Greeks in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey) she was a prominent deity. In Ephesus, a principal city of Asia Minor, a great temple was built in her honor, which became one of the “Seven Wonders of the Ancient World”. But at Ephesus she was worshiped mainly as a fertility goddess, and was identified with Cybele the mother goddess of eastern lands. The cult statues of the Ephesian Artemis differ greatly from those of mainland Greece, where she is depicted as a huntress with her bow and arrows. Those found at Ephesus show her in the eastern style, standing erect with numerous nodes on her chest. There have been many theories as to what they represent. Some say they are breasts, others that they are bulls testes which were sacrificed to her. Which is the true interpretation remains uncertain, but each represent fertility. Perhaps, she celebrated female fertility (multiple breasts) and was in favor of control of male fertility (castrated testicles), the very opposite of ancient Greek and Roman societies where the onus of remaining chaste fell on women more than men.
Artemis/Diana was the elder twin of Apollo. He was the god of the sun; she was the goddess of the moon. He was a feminine man; she was a masculine woman. He was the classical Greek god whose beautiful body still inspires male models. She was the classical goddess whose attitude inspires all feminists. Their mother was Leto, daughter of the older gods, the Titans and their father was Zeus, king of the latter gods, the Olympians.
Zeus’ wife, Hera, was not amused when she learnt that her husband was the father of Leto’s unborn child. So she forbade all land that had been touched by the sun from allowing Leto to deliver her children on them. A desperate Leto cried out to Zeus who caused an island, later named Delos, to rise from under the ocean. Untouched by the sun, this island could allow Leto to deliver her children on it, without incurring Hera’s wrath.
Leto gave birth to Artemis/Diana without any pain. When Hera saw Leto’s newborn child, she was so furious that she abducted Eileithyia, the goddess of childbirth. As a result, Leto’s second child, Apollo, took a long time to be born. Leto suffered the delivery pain greatly until Artemis/Diana, born just a day earlier, came to her rescue. Holding her hand, Leto give birth to her son. Some say, having witnessed her mother’s suffering during childbirth barely a day after her birth, Artemis/Diana decided never to become a mother. That is why she remained the virgin goddess. At the same time, she was not against marriage and went out of her way to help women in labor.
After the birth of the children, Hera sent a python to eat the twins. The python had earlier chased Leto out of all lands touched by the sun. The twins were not afraid of the monster; though children, they were able to raise their bows and shoot the python dead.
Not much is known about Leto after she gave birth to her famous children. But she was most unhappy when a queen called Niobe mocked her saying that Leto had borne only one boy and one girl while she, a mere mortal, had given birth to six sons and six daughters. To please their mother, Apollo and Artemis/Diana attacked and killed all of Niobe’s 12 children. A distraught Niobe wept so much before she died that her tears gave rise to a river.
Soon after her birth, Artemis/Diana asked her father, Zeus, that she get a silver bow, hunting hounds, a chariot pulled by a stag and nymphs as companions. Like her, they were all sworn to chastity. Some say the band of women who accompanied this goddess were not sensuous nymphs but stern amazons, warrior women who held men in great contempt.
Artemis/Diana did not like her female companions mixing with men leading to conjectures that she was a lesbian goddess. According to one story, she killed Orion who tried to rape one of her companions. Another time, she caught Actaeon ogling at her from behind bushes as she bathed. She turned him into a stag that was chased and killed by his own hunting hounds. For the same crime of ogling at her secretly, the goddess turned another man called Siproites into a woman who then joined her band. One companion called Callisto once let herself be seduced by who she thought was Artemis/Diana (a tale which reaffirms the comfort of the goddess with same-sex affection and intimacy). But it was actually Zeus himself who had tricked her thus. An angry Artemis/Diana turned Callisto into a bear. Zeus, to make amends, placed her in the sky as the Great Bear constellation.
The maternal side of Artemis is revealed in the tale of how she saved the infant Atlanta from dying of exposure after her father abandoned her. The goddess sent a female bear to suckle the baby, who was then raised by hunters. Atlanta became a great runner; she could run so fast that she could sprint over waves of the sea. She was also a good hunter; part of many a hunt and adventure. Many believe, that though raised as Artemis/Diana’s daughter, she was also one of Artemis/Diana’s many female companions, and probably her lover.
Artemis/Diana was very touchy in the matter of her hunting abilities. Adonis, the beautiful lover of Aphrodite, goddess of love, once boasted he was a better hunter than Artemis/Diana. The goddess sent a boar that gored the handsome man to death. She was also very possessive. When Agamemnon killer a deer in her forest, she caused a great storm that prevented Agamemnon’s ships from sailing to Troy. Only when Agamemnon apologized by sacrificing his daughter, who became priestess to the goddess, did the sea calm down again.
When young Greek girls reached puberty they were initiated into her cult; but when they decided to marry (which Artemis was not against) they were asked to lay all the paraphernalia of their virginity (toys, dolls and locks of their hair) in front of the altar. They then left the domain of the virgin goddess.