Artemis is the Greek goddess of the hunt, wilderness, and childbirth. She is the daughter of Zeus and Leto and the twin sister of Apollo. Artemis is often depicted as a young and athletic woman, carrying a bow and arrows, and accompanied by hunting dogs.
Artemis was widely worshiped throughout ancient Greece, and various temples and sanctuaries were dedicated to her. She also held importance in Roman mythology, where she was known as Diana. Today, her legacy continues to be present in various forms of art, literature, and modern culture.
Table of Contents
Who Was Artemis in Greek Mythology?
As the guardian of young children – especially young girls – Artemis was believed to cure those afflicted with diseases and curse the people who sought to harm them.
The etymology of Artemis was speculated to be of pre-Greek origin, a singular deity forged from a multitude of tribal divinities, although there is reasonable evidence attesting to the goddess of hunting being related to the Phrygian religion – an example being the extensive worship of Artemis of Ephesus.
What Were Some Symbols of Artemis?
All Greek gods and goddesses had symbols associated with them. Much of these are related to a specific myth, though some may be following broader identifying trends in ancient history.
Bow and Arrow
A prolific archer, Artemis’ preferred weapon was the bow. In the Homeric hymn to Artemis, the goddess is declared to draw “her golden bow, rejoicing in the chase.” Later in the hymn, she is described as the “huntress who delights in arrows.”
The use of bows and arrows in both hunting and warfare was incredibly popular in ancient Greece along with other hunting weapons including a spear and a knife, known as a kopis. On rare occasions, both spear and knife are associated with Artemis.
It is said that Artemis traveled by a golden chariot pulled by four huge golden-antlered deer named the Elaphoi Khrysokeroi (literally “golden-horned deer”). There were originally five of these creatures pulling her chariot, but one managed to escape and become known individually as the Ceryneian Hind.
What are Some of Artemis’ Epithets?
When looking into ancient Greece, epithets were used by worshippers and poets as complimentary descriptors of the gods. Their most prominent qualities, or other things in close association with the god in question, were used to make references to the gods. For example, an epithet could be wholly regional, reference an outstanding personality trait, or capture a notable physical characteristic.
Amarynthia was a specific epithet used on the Greek island of Evia in the coastal town of Amarynthos. Artemis was the patron goddess of the city, and a large festival would be routinely held in her honor.
Given the rural lifestyle that dominated Amarynthos, worship of the huntress was a vital aspect of many peoples day-to-day life.
READ MORE: City Gods from Around the World
Used commonly in the goddess’ worship in the capital city-state of Athens, Aristo means “the best.” By using this epithet, the Athenians are appreciating Artemis’ expertise in hunting endeavors and her unparalleled skill in archery.
The epithet of Artemis Chitone is tied to the goddess’ affinity for wearing the chiton garment. A chiton in ancient Greece could have been long or short, with the length depending on the sex of the wearer.
One thing to note is that the style of chiton worn by Artemis in art may have varied depending on the region of origin. Nearly all Athenian statues of the goddess would have her in a long chiton, while those found around Sparta would likely have her in a shorter one, as was customary for Spartan women.
READ MORE: The Life of Women in Ancient Greece
Roughly translating into “willow-bond,” Lygodesmia points to a myth of discovery by the Spartan brothers Astrabacus and Alopecus: a wooden vestige of Artemis Orthia in a sacred grove of willows. Artemis Lygodesmia was worshiped throughout Sparta while Artemis Orthia is a more unique epithet employed by a handful of Spartan villages.
Willows play a prominent role in many Greek myths, from infant Zeus’ loving nursemaid to Orpheus’ ill-fated descent into the Underworld, and remains one of Artemis’ sacred plants with the Cypress tree and Amaranth flower.
How Was Artemis Born?
Artemis is the daughter of Zeus and the goddess of motherhood, Leto. Following the myth, her mother attracted the attention of the King of the Immortals once he noticed her previously hidden beauty. (Etymologically, Leto’s name could be derived from the Greek láthos, or “to be hidden”).
Of course, this also meant Leto was spurned by Zeus’ jealous wife – the goddess of marriage – Hera. And, the aftermath was far from pleasant.
Hera forbade the pregnant Titaness from being able to give birth on any solid earth. As a result, Zeus reached out to his big bro, Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea, who luckily had taken pity on Leto. He formed the island of Delos as a safe haven.
Delos was special: it was a floating land mass, completely disconnected from the sea floor. This little fact meant that Leto could safely give birth here, despite Hera’s cruel curse. Unfortunately, though, Hera’s wrath didn’t end there.
According to the scholar Hyginus (64 BCE – 17 CE), Leto gave birth to her children in the absence of the goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia, over the course of four days. Meanwhile, Hymn 8 (“To Apollo”) of the Homeric Hymns suggests that when Leto had a painless birth with Artemis, Hera stole away Eileithyia, which resulted in Leto having a traumatic 9-day-long birth with her son.
The single mainstay that remains in this legend is that Artemis, born first, helped her mother have Apollo in the role of a midwife. This natural skill Artemis had eventually elevated her as the goddess of midwifery.
What Was Artemis’ Childhood Like?
Artemis had a tumultuous upbringing. With Apollo at her side, the inimitable twins fervently protected their mother from men and monsters alike, most of which were sent – or at least influenced – by Hera.
While Apollo slayed the fearsome Python at Delphi, establishing the worship of his sister and mother in the town, the twins together vanquished the giant Tityos after he attempted to assault Leto.
Otherwise, Artemis spent much of her time training to become a superior huntress. The Greek goddess sought out weapons forged from the Cyclopes, and met with the god of the forest, Pan, to receive hunting hounds. Experiencing an exceedingly eventful youth, Artemis transformed slowly before worshippers’ eyes into the Olympian goddess they revered.
What Were Artemis’ Ten Wishes?
The Greek poet and scholar Callimachus (310 BCE – 240 BCE) described in his Hymn to Artemis that, as a very young girl, Artemis made ten wishes to her illustrious father, Zeus, at his behest:
- To remain a virgin forever
- To have many of her own names, to make a distinction between her and Apollo
- To be given a reliable bow and arrows forged by the Cyclopes
- To be known as “The Light Bringer”
- To be permitted to wear a short chiton (a style reserved for men), which would allow her to hunt without restriction
- To have her personal choir be composed of sixty of Oceanus’ daughters – all nine years old
- To have an entourage of twenty nymphs to watch her weapons during breaks and care for her many hunting dogs
- To have domain over all mountains
- To be granted the patronage of any city, so long as she doesn’t have to travel there often
- To be called upon for births by women experiencing painful childbirth
The Hymn to Artemis was written originally as a piece of poetry, yet the event of the young goddess making wishes of her father is a revolving idea that was generally accepted by many Greek scholars of the time.
What are Some Myths and Legends Involving the Goddess Artemis?
Being an Olympian goddess, Artemis is the central character in a number of Greek myths. Readers can expect to find her in forested lands surrounding her primary home on Mount Olympus, hunting and generally living her best life with her entourage of nymphs, or with a favored hunting companion.
Wielding her signature silver bow, Artemis left her mark on many Greek myths by way of her competitive spirit, swift punishments, and unshakable dedication.
This first legend revolves around the hero, Actaeon. An amateur hunter with an impressive collection of dogs to join in his hunts, Actaeon made the fatal mistake of stumbling across Artemis bathing.
Not only did the hunter see Artemis naked, but he didn’t avert his eyes.
Unsurprisingly, the virgin goddess didn’t take kindly to a strange man gawking at her nudity in the woods, and Artemis turned him into a stag as punishment. Upon being inevitably discovered by his own hunting dogs, Actaeon was promptly attacked and killed by the very animals he adored.
Death of Adonis
Continuing on, everyone knows Adonis as Aphrodite’s idyllic young lover that was killed in a terrible hunting incident. However, not all can agree on the circumstances of the man’s death. While the blame falls on a jealous Ares in most tellings, there may have been other culprits.
In fact, Artemis may have killed Adonis as revenge for the death of a fervent worshiper of hers, Hippolytus, at the hands of Aphrodite.
For some background, Hippolytus was a devout follower of Artemis in Athens. He was repulsed by the idea of sex and marriage, and found comfort in the worship of the virgin huntress – though, in doing so he neglected Aphrodite completely. After all, he genuinely had no interest in the romance of any degree – why worship the goddess of the very thing you wish to avoid?
In turn, the goddess of love and beauty had his stepmother fall head-over-heels in love with him, which eventually led to his death.
Angered over the loss, rumor has it that Artemis apparently sent the wild boar that gored Adonis.
Misunderstanding of Orion
Orion was a hunter in his time on Earth-side. And a good one, too.
The man became a hunting companion of Artemis and Leto, achieving the admiration of the former. After exclaiming that he could kill any creature on Earth, Gaia retaliated and sent a giant scorpion to challenge Orion. After he is killed, the goddess of hunting implored her father to turn her beloved companion into a constellation.
On the other hand, Hyginus suggests that the death of Orion could have been caused by the protective nature of the goddess’ twin brother. The scholar notes that after becoming concerned that the affection between Artemis and her favorite hunting companion could prompt his sister to abandon her vows of chastity, Apollo tricks Artemis into slaying Orion with her own hand.
After seeing Orion’s body, Artemis transformed him into stars, thus immortalizing the adored hunter.
Slaughtering of Niobe’s Children
So, once there lived a woman named Niobe. She had fourteen children. She was exceedingly proud of them – so much so, in fact, she bad-mouthed Leto. Flaunting that she had many more children than the goddess of motherhood herself, Artemis and Apollo took the offense to heart. After all, they spent their younger years safeguarding Leto from physical danger. How dare a mortal insult their mother!
For revenge, the twins devised a gruesome plan to slaughter all fourteen children. With their bows in hand, Apollo took up killing the seven males, while Artemis killed the seven females.
As you can imagine, this particular Greek legend – dubbed the “Massacre of the Niobids” – has developed some unnerving paintings and statues over the millennium.
The Trojan War Events
During the war, Artemis sided with the Trojans alongside her mother and brother.
A particular role that Artemis played in the war involved the stilling of the wind to prevent Agamemnon’s fleet from formally setting sail for Troy. Agamemnon, king of Mycenae and the leader of the Greek forces during the war earned the goddess’ ire after Artemis discovered that he carelessly slew one of her sacred animals.
After much frustration and wasted time, an oracle reached out to the king to inform him that he must sacrifice his daughter, Iphigenia, to Artemis to appease her.
Without hesitation, Agamemnon tricked his daughter to attend her own death by telling her she would marry Achilles at the docks. When she showed up as a blushing bride, Iphigenia became suddenly aware of the harrowing event: she was dressed for her own funeral.
However, Iphigenia accepted herself as a human sacrifice. Artemis horrified that Agamemnon would so willingly bring harm to his daughter and endeared by the young woman’s selflessness, saved her. She was spirited away to Tauris while a stag took her place.
This tale inspired the epithet Tauropolos, and the role of Taurian Artemis in the sanctuary of Brauron. Artemis Tauropolos is exclusive to the worship of the virgin huntress in Tauris, now the modern-day Crimean Peninsula.
How Was Artemis Worshiped?
Artemis was widely worshiped in particularly rural locations. Her cult in Brauron viewed the revered virgin goddess as a she-bear, thanks to her fiercely protective nature, and linking her closely to one of her sacred beasts.
Looking at the Temple of Artemis at Brauron as a key example, temples dedicated to Artemis are usually constructed in significant locations; more often than not, they are isolated and are near a running river or sacred spring. Despite being the goddess of the moon and of hunting, Artemis had close associations with water – whether or not this has to do with ancient Greek knowledge of the effects the moon’s gravitational pull had on ocean tides is still heavily debated.
In later years, Artemis began to be worshiped as a triple goddess, much like Hecate, the goddess of witchcraft. Triple goddesses usually embodied the “Maiden, Mother, Crone” motif or a similar cycle of some kind.
Artemis and Other Torch-Bearing Greek Gods
In Greek mythology, Artemis is not the only torch-bearing goddess. The role is also frequently associated with Hecate, the god of fertility Dionysus, and the Chthonic (Underworld-residing) Persephone, wife of Hades, the Greek god of the underworld.
Dadophoros, as they were known, are deities that are believed to carry a cleansing, purifying divine flame. Most were speculated to originally be night deities, like Hecate, or lunar deities, like Artemis, with the torch signifying the particular god’s influence.
Who Was Artemis’ Roman Equivalent?
As was the case with many ancient Greek deities, the identity of Artemis was combined with that of a previously present Roman god to create what is now known as the Roman pantheon. The adoption of Hellenistic culture in the Roman Empire helped formally assimilate the Greeks into the Roman populace.
In the Roman world, Artemis became associated with the Roman goddess of the wilds, forests, and virginity, Diana.
Artemis in Famous Art
This goddess has been minted onto ancient coins, pieced together in mosaics, glazed onto pottery, delicately sculpted, and painstakingly carved time and time again. Ancient Greek art showed Artemis with a bow in hand, occasionally in the company of her entourage. A hunting dog or two would also be present, enforcing Artemis’ mastery over hunting and wild animals.
Cult Statue of Artemis of Ephesus
The statue of Artemis of Ephesus has its original ties to the ancient city of Ephesus in modern-day Turkey. Shown as a many-breasted figurine with a mural crown, a gown detailed with various sacred animals, and sandaled feet, Ephesian Artemis was worshiped as one of the major mother goddesses of the Anatolia region, next to the primordial goddess Cybele (who herself had a cult following in Rome).
The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus is largely viewed as one of the 7 Wonders of the Ancient World.
The Diana of Versailles
The much-admired statue of Artemis shows the Greek goddess donning a short chiton and a crescent moon crown. The antlered deer – one of Artemis’ sacred animals – that was added beside her during Roman restoration may have been a hunting dog in the original work from 325 BCE.
Far from sweeping Mount Olympus, Diana of Versailles was added to the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles in 1696 by then-king Louis XIV of House Bourbon after revolving through various owners within the royal House of Valois-Angoulême.
The statue of a smiling goddess, known as the Winckelmann Artemis, is actually a Roman replication of a statue from the Greek Archaic Period (700 BCE – 500 BCE).
The Liebieghaus Museum’s exhibition “Gods in Color” shows the statue as it would have likely looked in Pompeii’s heyday. Reconstructionists teamed up with archeologists to figure out what colors would have been used to paint the Winckelmann Artemis, drawing from fabrics of the time, and historical records, and using infrared luminescence photography. As they discovered from trace surviving samples, her statue would have had an orange-gold paint for her hair, and her eyes would have been a more reddish brown. Winckelmann Artemis stands as proof of polychromy from the ancient world, dispelling the previous belief that everything was a pristine marbled white.