Artemis, the daughter of Zeus and the titaness Leto was worshiped from very early times as the (sometimes winged) goddess of nature, birth, the hunt and all things wild – including young girls. Later, in classical times was added her association with the moon. Artemis is the twin sister of Apollon and is one of the few deities of Greek religion who are described by their filial relationships. Artemis was born two days before her brother on the isle of Ortygia and developed her midwifery skills early in her life helping Leto to deliver Apollon on the isle of Delos.
Artemis is best known as a goddess of the hunt, she is the manifestation of the wild and of all things in nature – alluring, beautiful and deadly dangerous – ‘nature, red of tooth and claw’. She is the protectress of young and pregnant animals and brings great punishment to any who hunts out of season, acting almost in the fashion of the earth’s game warden. Her most sacred animals were the golden hinds (possibly reindeer) which were faster the winds themselves. Artemis was able to capture four of these animals which she tamed and yoked to her chariot but even she was unable to catch the fifth which fled into the Kerynitian hills. Capturing this last hind was one of the Twelve Labours of Herakles. Artemis is the spirit of nature looking in at man mirroring her twin, Apollon who can be described as the spirit of man looking out at nature; the two, Artemis and Apollon compliment and complete each other in many ways: where he is civilized and refined, she is raw and wild; he is light, she dark; he the quest for self awareness and she is the dark subconscious that can never be fully understood.
Another of Artemis’ best known qualities is her perpetual virginity, at the age of three she begged her father to declare that she would never have to marry or be forced to take a lover; however it must be remembered that the word virgin had a far different meaning in the ancient world than in todays and it did not carry with it sexual connotations but instead the age and marital status of a woman. Artemis represents the fear of the power of female sexuality and reproductive abilities that was common in the ancient world and she also represents the fascination with it. Artemis was not portrayed as a cold and frigid goddess as Athene was, or asexual as Hestia but instead was show beautiful, alluring, mysterious and flirtations. Artemis is the power of a woman on the verge of discovering her own sexuality. There are a few hints that Artemis at one time did take male lovers such as Orion and Hipolytus (who was perhaps a transvestite priest of hers) but these affairs never ended well and there is much more evidence however of Artemis’ female lovers. Artemis was always attended by young nymphai whom she held to a strict vow of virginity as well, punishing those who – willingly or not – broke this vow, Kallisto for example who was seduced by Zeus was changed into a bear which was hunted by her own son.
Seemingly at odds with Artemis’ virginity is her qualities of ruling over childbirth but this is just another example of her protecting young and pregnant animals. Women in labour would pray to Artemis and to Eileithyia (who became an aspect of Artemis in later times) to ease their pain and bring swift deliveries. It is said that women who die in labour are killed in mercy by Artemis silver arrows and their clothing was given in offering at many of her temples.
Other rituals important to the lives of women were performed at her temples as well once of which was a pubescent coming-of-age dance of girls called Arktoi – ‘little bears’ in hideous masks representing the wildness of femininity was a very common cultic act Through out Greece when they decided to marry they were asked to lay in front of the altar all the paraphernalia of their virginity, toys, dolls and locks of their hair. There is the posibility that very early Artemis was a goddess who demanded human sacrifice (the only Greek god besides Ares to do so). The Spartan cult of Orthia-Artemis and the Taurian cult are both associated with Iphegenia (the daughter of either Agamemnon and Klytaemnestra or Helen and Theseus) who was offered in sacrifice to garentee a wind to send the Greek fleet to the shore of Troy. In the earliest myths Iphegenia was not killed but saved by Artemis to become her priestess and propolos - her avatrix - and was later imotalized as the goddess Hekate.
There are many deities, both Hellenic and non that have strong associations with Artemis. Already mentioned was Eileithyia the goddess of childbirth who was assimilated into the character of Artemis. Also assimilated into the Greek goddess was Caryatis the goddess of the walntu tree, Hekate and Selene with their lunar associations and Britomartis (who was also called Diktianna) who was a goddess of fishing nets and hunting in ancient Krete. The Near-Eastern winged ‘potnia theron’ (mistress of animals) also merged into Artemis’ worship along with Artemis of Ephesus whose temple was one of the wonders of the ancient world. Artemis of Ephesus was a great mother goddess who ruled over fertility of crops, animals and humanity. Her cult statue was covered with many breasts thought there is a modern theory that they are bull testes that were given to her in sacrifice. The most well known of the goddesses associated with Artemis is of course her Roman counterpart Diana who was in most respects Artemis double, even merging with Lucinia the Roman Eileithyia.
I worship Artemis today by honoring my femininity and the power that it brings. I honor Artemis by loving nature and doing my best to care for the environment and the world in which I live; and when I donate money to charities that deal with animals, especially the Human Society, I do so in her name.