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Myth Summary

Chapter 10: Artemis


Zeus mated with the goddess LETO [lee'toh] (LATONA) and she bore ARTEMIS [ar'te-mis] (DIANA) and APOLLO [a-pol'loh] on the island of Delos. In some accounts, Artemis was born first and helped in the delivery of her brother. Thus she revealed at once her powers as a goddess of childbirth, which she shares with Hera and Eileithyia.
The birth of the twin deities Artemis and Apollo links them closely together from the very beginning. Lovely Artemis will on occasion join her handsome brother in supervising the dances of the Muses and the Graces, and they both delight in the bow and arrow.

Birth of Aphrodite

Death of the Children of Niobe, Attic red-figure krater ca. 460 B.C. Artemis is shown drawing an arrow out of her quiver to kill the Niobids below.


The skill in archery of Apollo and Artemis is exemplified by their defense of the insulted honor of their mother, Leto. The women of Thebes greatly honored Leto and her two children. Their tributes seemed excessive to NIOBE [neye'o-bee], who boasted that she was better than Leto because she was not only rich, beautiful, and the queen of Thebes, but had borne seven sons and seven daughters, whereas Leto was the mother of only one son and one daughter. Leto complained to her children about Niobe's hubris and they exacted a swift vengeance. With unerring arrows, Apollo killed all seven sons of Leto, and Artemis all seven daughters. As Artemis was about to shoot the youngest, Niobe attempted to shield the girl and begged that this last one be spared, to no avail. Niobe herself was turned to stone and brought by a whirlwind to a mountaintop in her former homeland, Phrygia. There, tears trickling down wear away her face.


ACTAEON [ak-tee'on], or AKTAION, was an ardent hunter. Once when he wandered off alone, away from his companions, he stumbled upon, by accident or fate, a woodland cave with a pool of water, where Artemis (or Diana, in Ovid's version of the tale) was bathing accompanied by her attendant followers, as was their custom. When they saw Actaeon entering the cave, they screamed and Diana, outraged that a man had seen her naked, took swift revenge. She splashed water in his face and immediately horns began to grow from his head and he was transformed into a stag, completely except for his mind. He ran away in fear and was sighted by his own hunting dogs who turned on him and tore him to pieces.


CALLISTO [kal-lis'toh], or KALLISTO (“most beautiful”), was a chaste huntress, just like the goddess Artemis whom she followed so devotedly. Zeus (or Jupiter, as Ovid tells it) no sooner saw Callisto than he fell in love with her and was determined to win her. He disguised himself as Artemis, knowing full well that in this transformation he could best win her confidence and affection. When Zeus pressed his attentions too ardently, his deception became only too clear to poor Callisto, who struggled in vain. Callisto rejoined Artemis and her companions but eventually, when they bathed together, she could not disguise the fact that she was pregnant. Artemis was furious with Callisto for her betrayal and expelled her from the sacred group.
Hera (or Juno) had long been aware of her husband’s guilt, and when Callisto gave birth to a son, named ARCAS [ar'kas], or ARKAS, she took her revenge. She turned Callisto into a bear, but her mind remained intact; thus alone and afraid, she wandered the forests.
In his fifteenth year, while hunting, Arcas encountered his mother, Callisto, a bear whose human and relentless gaze frightened him. As he was about to drive a spear through her body, Zeus intervened and prevented the matricide. He brought the pair up to the heavens where he transformed them into constellations.
Callisto became the Great Bear (Ursa Major); Arcas perhaps became the Little Bear (Ursa Minor) or the Bear Warden (Arctophylax, or Arcturus, or Boötes).


Another constellation myth linked to Artemis concerns the hunter ORION [oh-reye'on], whose story has many variations. He wooed Merope, the daughter of Oenopion (“wine-face”), king of the island of Chios, famous for its wines. While clearing the island of wild beasts, he encountered Artemis and tried to rape her. Enraged, the goddess produced a scorpion out of the earth that stung Orion to death. Both are seen in the sky. Others say Orion pursued the PLEIADES [plee'a-deez] (daughters of the titan Atlas and Pleione, an Oceanid), and they were all transformed into constellations, with SIRIUS [sir'ee-us], Orion's hunting dog, who became the Dog Star.


Artemis became predominantly a vehement virgin, as the stories above make terrifyingly clear. Yet she also possesses characteristics (e.g., her interest in childbirth and the young of both humans and animals) that suggest the fertility goddess. Also at Ephesus, a statue depicts her with what seem like multiple breasts. As a moon-goddess she was worshiped by women who linked her with the lunar cycle and their menstrual period. Nevertheless, above all, Artemis is the virgin huntress, the goddess of nature itself, not concerned with its teeming procreation (like Aphrodite) but with its pristine purity. Artemis, like the moon, appears as a symbol, cold, white, aloof, and chaste.

Hecate’s Suppers. As a moon-goddess, Artemis is linked with SELENE [se-lee'nee], another earlier goddess of the moon (see MLS, Chapter 3). She is also linked with her cousin HECATE [hek'a-tee], or HEKATE, a fertility goddess of the Underworld who is depicted like a Fury (see MLS, Chapters 14 and 15) with a scourge and blazing torch, and accompanied by fierce hounds. In particular she is a goddess of the crossroads, a place thought to be the center of ghostly activity in the dead of night. Skilled in the arts of black magic, Hecate is invoked by sorceresses and murderers (e.g., Medea and Lady Macbeth). Offerings of food were made to her (called Hecate’s suppers) at triple-faced statues, erected at crossroads and depicting three aspects of the moon: Selene in heaven, Artemis on earth, and Hecate in the Underworld.


HIPPOLYTUS [hip-pol'i-tus], or HIPPOLYTOS, is the son of Theseus by the Amazon HIPPOLYTA [hip-pol'i-ta], or ANTIOPE [an-teye'o-pee]. Theseus married Phaedra, the daughter of Minos, and Hippolytus grew up to be a young man troubled by his illegitimacy and obsessed with maintaining his virginity. Aphrodite, in a typically Euripidean prologue, describes her great power and her vehement anger against Hippolytus, a hunter who hubristically rejects love and prefers to follow Artemis. Aphrodite exacts her revenge by making Phaedra fall desperately in love with her stepson, a passion impossible to fulfill, which could only lead to tragedy. Phaedra first saw Hippolytus while he was being initiated into the Mysteries and was smitten by a hopeless lust. For two years Phaedra has suffered and now she lies ill, overcome by her guilty secret and determined to die because she is a noble woman and cannot commit this abominable adultery, unlike other unfaithful wives who could be false to their husbands under any circumstances. She desperately desires to preserve her own honor and also that of her sons, Theseus’ legitimate heirs. Her faithful nurse wrests the truth from her, and the solution that she takes upon herself determines the tragic outcome.
The nurse has Hippolytus swear an oath of secrecy, but when she tells him of Phaedra’s passion, he is enraged and cries out that his tongue swore but not his mind. Phaedra overhears the angry exchange and fears Hippolytus will tell all to her ruin (but he never does violate his oath). She hangs herself, but before doing so leaves an incriminating note to save herself and her children by claiming that Hippolytus violated her. Theseus too quickly believes her accusation against the protests of his innocent son, whose purity and religious fanaticism he had always resented. With a curse given him by his father, Poseidon, he orders his son into exile. Poseidon sends a bull from the sea which frightens the horses of Hippolytus’ chariot, entangling the youth in the wreckage. As he is dying, he is brought back to his father for a heartbreaking reconciliation, engineered by the deus ex machina Artemis, who explains to Theseus the truth and promises Hippolytus honors after his death for his devotion and that she will get even with Aphrodite.
(In one version of Adonis’ death, Artemis causes the boar to kill him.)

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