Friday Hoyden: Artemis

Black and white portrait of Elizabeth I with moon headdress, bow and arrow and hound.

Cornelius Vroom's portrait of Queen Elizabeth as Diana

With Katniss and Merida currently ruling our movie screens, this is a great year for women with a flair for archery. Certainly time, then, to give some love to the prototype arrow-wielding woman, the Greek goddess Artemis.

Goddess of the moon, the hunt and chastity (the back off, I’m not into it kind, not the faithful wife kind), Artemis has always been there for women in all phases of their life, and has held particular significance for those who rebelled at the idea of marriage and submitting to the control of men. Patron of virgins, especially those who wished to remain in that state, girls continued to invoke her long after Christianity supplied meeker figures, such as St Agnes, as models.  However, just as the moon changes her body and moves through cycles of fullness, she is also the one who will accompany you through pregnancy and childbirth. Cold when she chooses to be, she can just as easily be nurturing, fulsome and abundant.  Her other names include Diana (no coincidence that this is Wonder Woman’s at-home name), Phoebe, Selene and Cynthia, as well as Luna when she is full and pregnant, and Lucina when she is the goddess of midwives. Even Hecate, patroness of witches can be thought of as the same goddess in crone form.

Power and skill are the words that come instantly to mind in seeking to describe her. The usual specious explanations for a woman’s achievement of something difficult, luck, looks or manipulation, are never applied to her victories in chasing down prey. She continually upends conventional gender narratives. Even in the one tale of her emotions stirring for a man, Artemis claims the role of desiring subject that a woman doesn’t usually get to play. The object of her desire was Endymion, a mortal shepherd far beneath her in status. The gods gained his agreement to put him to sleep in a mountain so she could visit him when she wished to gaze upon his lovely form (word is she continues to look after his sheep). When Actaeon violated her boundaries by applying his male gaze to her body, he wound up torn to pieces by his own hounds (probably the only situation in which I feel I can get away with saying payback’s a bitch). Her home is the forest, its creatures under her protection; and those who care for them are in turn beneficiaries of her affection.

Surrounding herself with maidens who loved the things she did, they formed an all-female community without the Amazons’ imperialist ambitions, asking only to be left in peace in one another’s company. For centuries Artemis has been a figure that girls could call upon for an idea of what a life unconfined would look like. She is nobody’s servant, but might be willing to be your guide or mentor if you endeavor to live in harmony with other women.

Early 20th Century painting of a woman in a blue medieval dress firing a bow, with other hunters behind her.

Artemis by William Russell Flint


Categories: Culture

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6 replies

  1. What a fantastic Friday Hoyden!

  2. Thank you for this post. Artemis means a lot to me. Wonderful!

  3. One of my favs of that parthenon. Artemis was top of my list for our daughters, I got vetoed twice.

  4. Orlando, I’m re-reading the Faerie Queene and as you’d know there’s several characters inspired by Artemis (and/or Queen Elizabeth). Just read this stanza yesterday and it’s got lots in it – renaissance symbolism (hunting the hart), a long catalogue detailing the virtues of the huntress Belphoebe, a speech in favour of ladies being at court, a speech rejecting same, and more. Such a fabulous poem; really enjoying my re-reading.

  5. Thanks for adding that, Tim. Of course Elizabeth I loved to be identified with Artemis, because of her virgin queen schtick. Sir Walter Raleigh even wrote a poem to her as Cynthia. I have inserted the Vroom portrait of the queen as Diana into the post above (because I haven’t figured out how to put a picture in the comments) so people can see how explicitly the connection was made through the imagery.

  6. [tangent]
    I am unreasonably tickled by learning that there was an artist surnamed VROOM. I think today I am about 8 years old at best.

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