Sacred Texts  Classics  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

Myths of Greece and Rome, by Jane Harrison, [1928], at

p. 24


Homer, in the Odyssey, adds a fourth to the Graces, the Gift-Givers, Artemis. Penelope tells the story of the daughters of Pandareus:

"Their father and their mother dear died by the gods' high doom,
The maidens were left orphans, alone within their home;
Fair Aphrodite gave them curds and honey of the bee
And lovely wine, and Hera made them very fair to see,
And wise beyond all women-folk. And holy Artemis
Made them to wax in stature, and Athena for their bliss
Taught them all glorious handiworks of woman's artifice."

The activities of Artemis lie, indeed, as a rule, rather among plants and animals and wild things generally than among human beings. There is, however, one exception. In her aspect of the moon she watches over women in childbirth.

Artemis, undoubtedly, like her brother Apollo, is a Northerner. She was worshipped with the title of Queen in Thrace and in Pæonia, and it is there that her aspect as moon-goddess is most clearly evident. There, too, she has the title of Hekate, the Far-Darter, the feminine of Apollo Hekatos. As Hekate, as moon-goddess, she has her dark and spectral side, and is compact of magic and spells. Of this moon-magic of Artemis-Hekate we have a wondrous picture in the second Idyll of Theocritus. Simætha, slighted by her love and half-crazed with misery, invokes Hekate-Artemis and tries to draw her lover back by the incantation of a wheel, to which an iynx, a wry-neck, is bound. The incantation takes place by moonlight. Simætha sings:

p. 25

"Lo! now the barley smoulders in the flame,
   Thestylis, wretch! thy wits are woolgathering!
Am I a laughing stock to thee, a Shame?
   Scatter the grain, I say, the while I sing;
   'The bones of Delphis I am scattering;
Bird, magic Bird, bring the man back to me.'

Next do I burn this wax, God helping me,
So may the heart of Delphis melted be,
   This brazen wheel I whirl, so as before
   Restless may he be whirled about my door.
'Bird, magic Bird, bring the man home to me.'

Next will I burn these husks. O Artemis,
   Hast power hell's adamant to shatter down
And every stubborn thing. Hark! Thestylis,
   Hecate's hounds are baying up the town,
   The goddess at the crossways. Clash the gong!
   .     .      .      .      .      .      .      .
Lo, now the sea is still. The winds are still.
The ache within my heart is never still."

The moon has her frightening side, she stares down on man with her cold, pitiless eye, a spectral terror charged with magic.

"Setebos, Setebos, and Setebos,
 Thinketh He dwelleth in the cold of the moon."

But the moon has her gentler and fairer aspect. In the Atalanta in Calydon the chorus sings:

"Come with bows bent and with emptying of quivers,
   Maiden most perfect, lady of light,
With a noise of winds and many rivers,
   With a clamour of waters and with might;
Bind on thy sandals, O thou most fleet,
Over the splendour and speed of thy feet;
For the faint east quickens, the wan west shivers,
   Round the feet of the day and the feet of the night."

p. 26

And this Artemis, when she comes to slay, slays gently, mercifully. Homer, in the Odyssey, tells of a fair island, a goodly land with oxen:

                 "With oxen and with sheep
Well stored, and laden vines and cornfields deep,
And hunger never comes upon the folk,
Nor sore diseases that make mortals weep.
But to the tribes of men, when old they grow
Therein, the Archer of the silver bow,
Apollo, comes with Artemis, and thus
With shafts that hurt not strikes and lays them low."

Artemis is, of all the divine maidens, the most virginal. Perhaps because she is a Northerner she attains an austerity impossible to the warmer-blooded Southerners. While Athena refuses marriage, she is still, in very human fashion, foster-mother, guardian, and friend to many a hero. The relation of these early and husbandless matriarchal goddesses to the male figures who attend them is one altogether noble and womanly, though, perhaps, it is not what the modern mind regards as feminine. It is a relation that halts somewhere halfway between mother and lover, and has about it a touch of the patron-saint. These goddesses ask of the hero whom they choose to inspire and protect, not that he should love and adore, but that he should do great deeds. Such a relation is that of Hera to Jason, of Athena to Perseus, to Herakles, to Theseus. And, as the glory of the goddesses is in their heroes' high deeds, so their grace is his guerdon. With the coming of patriarchal conditions this high companionship ends; the women goddesses are sequestered to a servile domesticity, they become abject and amorous. By Artemis alone among the maidens this high companionship with heroes is all but renounced. She dwells apart in lonely mountains and wild, untouched forests. She is most of all the Lady-of-the-Wild-Things.

p. 27

Accordingly the local cults of Artemis are not untainted by primitive savagery. At Messene Pausanias was witness of a horrid ritual in honour of Artemis Laphria. He tells us of "a hall of the Kuretes, where they sacrifice without distinction all animals, beginning with oxen and goats and ending with birds; they throw them all into the fire." The Kuretes, we know, are ministrants of the Great Mother, to whom Artemis was near akin. Pausanias again tells us, in detail, of the ritual of this Great Mother at Hierapolis: "In the court of the sanctuary," he says, "were kept all manner of beasts and birds, consecrated oxen, horses, eagles, bears, and lions who never hurt anybody, but are holy and tame to handle." But these tame, holy beasts were kept for a horrid holocaust, which Lucian thus describes: "Of all the festivals the greatest that I know of they hold at the beginning of the spring. At this festival they do as follows. They cut down great trees and set them up in the courtyard. Then they bring sheep and goats and other live beasts and hang them upon the trees. They also bring birds and clothes and vessels of gold and silver. When they have made all ready, they carry the victims round the trees and set fire to them, and straightway they are all burned."

Just such a holocaust was held in honour of Artemis at Patræ. After describing the altar, surrounded by a circle of green logs of wood and approached by an inclined plane made of earth, he tells of the procession of the virgin priestess in a car drawn by deer. Of the sacrifice itself, he says it was not merely a State affair, but popular among private persons. "For they bring and cast upon the altar living things of all sorts, both edible birds and all manner of victims, also wild boars and deer and fawns, and some even bring the cubs of wolves and bears, and others full-grown beasts. I saw, indeed, a bear and other beasts struggling to get out of the first force of the flames and escaping by sheer strength. But those who

p. 28

threw them in dragged them up again on to the fire; I never heard of anyone being wounded by the wild beasts."

Most horrible of all, among the Tauri, the local Artemis demanded human blood. In later days the conscience of Greece revolted, and Euripides makes Iphigeneia, doomed to sacrifice her brother, cry out against Artemis:

"Herself doth drink the blood of slaughtered men?
 Could ever Leto, she of the great King
 Beloved, be mother of so gross a thing?
 These tales be false, false as those feastlings wild
 Of Tantalus and gods that love a child.
 This land of murderers to its god hath given
 Its own lust: evil dwelleth not in heaven."

It is a relief to turn from these savage ceremonials to a gentler aspect of Artemis. On the Acropolis at Athens there was a precinct sacred to Artemis of Brauron. This precinct must have seen strange sights. In it was enacted the arkteia or bear-service. In one of the comedies of Aristophanes the chorus of women tell how they were reared at the expense of the State. The State wisely took them in hand early. "As soon as I was seven years old I became an Errephoros, when I was ten I was grinder to our Sovereign Lady, then, wearing the saffron robe, I was a bear in the Brauronian festival." That Artemis herself in Arcadia was a bear does not, perhaps, much surprise us, and Pausanias tells us that one of her worshippers was turned into a bear. No doubt in rude Arcadia the bear was a much-dreaded creature, whom it was wise to propitiate. But to find, in the Christian era, at civilized Athens, a hear-cult is not a little astounding, and shows strikingly how tenacious is ancient tradition. We do not know the precise nature of the ritual, though we do know that no well-born Athenian man dare marry a maiden unless she had been consecrated as a bear to Artemis. Probably these little Athenian girls, wrapped

p. 29

in yellow bearskins, would dance and crouch bear-fashion before the goddess Artemis, and the little girls were safe from marriage for the ensuing year.

It would seem that after a time the Athenians got a little ashamed of the rude ritual; a saffron robe was substituted for the bearskin, and from the time of Aristophanes we hear more of the dedication of raiment than of the dancing of bears. One maiden, we learn from an inscription in the British Museum, offers a cloak of carded wool, another her saffron robe, a third her mirror with an ivory handle. The list is a long one, and the goddess, if she wore all the dedicated raiment, must have had enough to put on. She was very gracious, and disdained nothing; here and there some cloak or shawl is noted down as a "rag."

One girl, nameless, alas! but richer and more pious than the rest, offered to the goddess an image of herself, a small stone bear. A fragment of this image I had the good fortune to find when I first visited Athens as I was turning over a heap of stone lumber. One furry paw was stuck out and caught my eye. The small bear is crouching comfortably on her hind paws. She must at one time have been set up in the Brauronian precinct.

Among the Apaches to-day, we are told, "only ill-bred Americans or Europeans would think of speaking of the Bear without employing the reverential prefix Ostin, meaning Old One, the equivalent of 'Senator.'" Long after they were full-grown and married, these well-born, well-bred little Athenians must have thought reverently of the Great She-Bear.

The virginity of Artemis in her tenderest aspect makes her specially gentle to the very young maiden. An epigram of the Anthology shows this in very charming fashion. A young girl, Timaretê, dedicates to her local Artemis, as Lady of the Lake, her clothes and her childish toys before her marriage:

p. 30

"Maid of the Mere, Timaretê here brings,
   Before she weds, her cymbals, her dear ball;
 To Thee, a Maid, her maiden offerings,
   Her snood, her maiden dolls, their clothes and all.
 Hold, Leto's child, above Timaretê
 Thine hand and keep her virginal like thee."

Clearly here the maidenhood of the worshipper is mirrored in the goddess. The play of words cannot be reproduced in English, as korê is Greek for both maiden and doll.

The derivation of the name Artemis is not so clear as that of Hera or Athena. It seems probable, however, though not quite certain, that the goddess took her name from a healing herb much in use in antiquity, the artemisia or mugwort, known also as the Mother of Herbs and as Tutsan ( = tout saint) or All Heal. The mugwort has fallen out of the modern pharmacopoeia. In Parkinson's Herbal we are told that the mugwort or wormwood possessed the power of dispelling demons; it was used in the Midsummer ceremonials of St. John's Eve for making girdles, and was called St. John's herb. The herb doctor, Culpepper, says that a hot decoction of the herb was used to promote delivery and to remove tumours. In a word, it was essentially a woman's medicine, and was sometimes called parthenium. Another herbalist, Gerarde, notes from Pliny that the mugwort "doth properly cure women's diseases." It is specially noted that the mugwort grew in great profusion on Mount Taygetos in Arcadia, the favourite hunting-ground of Artemis. A manuscript of the eleventh century shows Artemis in the act of giving the mugwort to the centaur Cheiron, the ancient physician who dwelt on Mount Pelion in Thessaly. The reputation of the mugwort lasted on till modern days. In the last century it was reported that a girl in Galloway was near dying of consumption,

p. 31

and all had despaired of her recovery, when a mermaid, who often gave people good counsel, sang:

"Wad ye let the bonnie May die i’ your hand,
 And the mugwort growing in the land?"

They immediately plucked the herb, gave her the juice of it, and she was restored to health.

Whether, as Dr. Rendel Harris has supposed, Artemis actually got her name from the artemisia, one thing is clear, the healing herb was closely associated with her cult. This brings us to an interesting aspect of her nature that has hitherto been too much neglected. Artemis, like her twin-brother Apollo, was a healer. Apollo, Sophocles tells us, had in the North an "ancient garden," and this garden, no doubt, was not of flowers, but of healing herbs. Hekate, who was, as we have seen, but the magical moon aspect of Artemis, had a similar garden, which Medea the sorceress visited, and of which we have an account in the Orphic Argonautica. It was shady with leaf-bearing trees, and in it grew many a magic herb, black poppy, smilax, mandragora, aconite, and other "baneful plants." In the Hippolytus of Euripides Artemis, all huntress, is worshipped by the huntsman Hippolytus. In an ancient treatise on hunting we are told that hunters must pay homage to Artemis Agrotera, She-of-the-Wild. They must pour libation, sing hymns, and offer firstfruits of the game taken, and they must crown the goddess. It is pleasant to learn also that the hunters must crown their dogs, and that dogs and huntsmen must feast together. But when Hippolytus comes to pay this service to Artemis, to our surprise he finds her not as Agrotera on the mountain or in the wilds of the forest, but in a garden enclosed, a holy magical place. He thus invokes his goddess:

  "Mine own, my own desire,
             Virgin most fair p. 32
        Of all the virgin choir,
       Hail! O most pure, most perfect, loveliest one,
         Lo! in my hand I bear,
       Woven for the circling of thy long, gold hair,
       Culled leaves and flowers from places which the sun
          In spring long shines upon.
  Where never shepherd hath driven flocks to graze,
       Nor any grass is mown;
But there sound through all the sunny sweet warm days,
       Mid the green place,
       The wild bees' wing alone.
  And maiden reverence tends the fair things there,
  And watereth all of them with sprinkled showers,
      Whoso is chaste of spirit utterly
  May gather there the leaves and fruit and flowers,--
      The unchaste never.
But thou, O goddess, and dearest love of mine,
      Take and about thine hair
      This anadem entwine
      Take and for my sake wear."

Surely this holy place, this garden enclosed, was the herb-garden of Artemis the Healer.

Next: Apollo (Phœbus)