Artemis: Hellenic Practice and Connecting with the Goddess

Artemis: Hellenic Practice and Connecting with the Goddess


Text / transcript from a workshop presented at Starfest 2007.

“How traditional Hellenic practice can help connect modern pagans of any type to this popular goddess. We will explore some of the myths, some of the misconceptions and Her relationship to the Roman Diana. We will discuss how She was worshiped by the ancients and how we can best honor Her today. We will end the workshop with a small ritual in Her honor.”

Artemis: Hellenic Practice and Connecting with the Goddess

So, first of all, who is Artemis? As many of you probably know, Artemis is a goddess of the pantheon of Ancient Greeks. More than just this, She is a complex and multi-faceted goddess, but I feel that to help understand how to approach Her better, you must first learn about Her background.

It is unknown when Her actual worship originated, though some sources suggest that it could have been as ancient as 1300 BCE with the Mycenaeans, who along with their predecessors the Minoans, actually worshipped archaic forms of the Greek gods we know today. In fact, Artemis in particular is often associated with the Minoan Potnia Theron or Mistress of Animals – an association that later became an epithet of Artemis in Greek’s Classical Age.

Just before this Classical Age, in the first myths that were recorded – many of them from the oral traditions of Homer and Hesiod — we find Her emerging as the twin sister of the god Apollon and daughter to Leto and Zeus. It was told that Artemis helped Leto with Apollon’s birth just after She herself was born and it was this action that associated Her with childbirth, specifically as a protector of infants. This is sometimes viewed with a bit of irony as She is a virgin goddess and never has or will give birth herself.

She is generally depicted as a maiden, mostly due to Her virginity and close association with young girls. It is told that Artemis asked Zeus when She was young if She could remain a virgin forever and He granted Her request. This added to Her association with young maidens and Her role as protector of young girls from infancy to marriage. Upon marrying, girls would cut off locks of their hair as an offering to Artemis, along with their “virginal lingerie.” It is then that they rededicated themselves to Hera and Aphrodite for love and marriage. Before that though, Artemis was often a central force in their lives. For example, in ancient Athens, young girls between the ages of five and ten were sent to the sanctuary of Artemis at Brauron to serve the Goddess for one year. Unfortunately, anyone who dedicated themselves to Artemis and served Her in Her temple as an adult often met with a horrible end if she did not remain chaste.

Artemis is often also known as a goddess of hunting, often bearing a bow and arrows in artistic representations. She was given a bow and arrows from Her father Zeus as one of Her wishes, according to the poet Callimachus. She is very skilled with hunting with a bow and it is one Her favorite pastimes. Titles such as Artemis Iokheaira, meaning “delighting in arrows”, and Theroskopos Iokheaira, meaning “the huntress who delights in arrows”, are very common descriptors of Her. She was also very confident in Her abilities and considered herself the best at hunting. Several mortals lost their lives to Her due to foolishly bragging they were more skilled.

On the other side of the token from hunting, Artemis is also associated with the animals of the wild themselves – especially deer, bears, and dogs. Many myths tell us that Artemis often protected female animals, especially if they were pregnant, and these animals would often find their way to Artemisian sanctuaries to have their offspring in safety. If killed in these sacred places, hunters would often incur Artemis’ wrath.

Artemis also eventually became associated with the moon, displacing the Greek Moon Goddess Selene, but this was later in Classical Greece and, from some sources, possibly more perpetuated by future scholars than was the case in Ancient Greece itself. The interesting thing is this is probably one of the most common modern associations with Her, but in reconstructing the religion of Ancient Greece, studies have found that Artemis only had a few very vague lunar associations in actuality.

One aspect of Artemis that is not commonly known is Her association with dancing and music. First there were dances for Artemis, usually done by young girls, at Her festivals. The dancing at the festivals was usually done to mimic a bear because of a myth where a young girl caused the death of a sacred She-bear in Brauron and Artemis sent a plague as retaliation. Oracles said that the only way to appease Artemis and get rid of the plague was to have all young girls “dance the She-bear” (called the Arkteia) in honor of Artemis and the deceased She-bear. All ancient Athenian girls were expected perform the Arkteia at some point before marriage. These girls danced in a festival made in the honor on the bear that was killed called the Brauronia, which we discuss more later.

Artemis was also a dancer herself. According to Homer She was often leading the dances of the Muses and the Graces and sometimes also leading them in song. It was even said by the ancient poet Callimachus that the reason for the summer solstice was because once as the Sun God Helios was crossing the sky in his chariot, he caught a glimpse of Artemis dancing and found it so beautiful that he stayed his chariot so that he could watch Her dance, thus causing the light of the day to be lengthened. It is therefore thought that this dance is repeated yearly at the same time so that Helios may watch Artemis and the Muses dance again.

Some other common epithets and associations with Artemis are:
Artemis Limnatis = “of the marshes, lakes, or liminal places” – sometimes “Lady of the Lake”
Artemis Orthia = literally “of the steep”; Her cult title in Sparta
Artemis Diktynnaia = “of the hunting nets”; associated with fishing
Artemis Daphnaiê = “of the laurel”, like Her brother Apollon

After speaking a bit about who Artemis is, it is important to take a moment to contrast Her with the Roman Goddess Diana who is often conflated with Her due to incorrect sources, such as the widely-read Bullfinch. While the Romans did adopt a lot of aspects of ancient Greek culture and attached many of the ancient Greek deities’ aspects to their own Etruscan or Italic deities, Romans had a very different culture and therefore the Greek elements were translated through a sort of “Roman filter.” In fact, it is an interesting side-note that the Greek god Apollon was the only god that the Romans adopted “whole-cloth” and even upon worshiping Him, they would refer to worship him in “the Greek style.” The other deities, though, were changed for Roman purposes.

Regarding Diana specifically, though, She was a goddess of Italic origin and may have simply been a woodland and wildlife spirit in Her early incarnation and not yet a fully-formed goddess. According to sources, Diana was “Hellenized” very early in Rome. Yet, even with Her new associations with Artemis, She did not assume all of Her characteristics. For example. She was a not a virgin. Also, any lunar associations came later (more specifically, after the late era of Classical Greece when Artemis has taken on such associations Herself) and are hypothesized to have happened due to the Roman belief in the moon being favorable for childbirth (an association that Diana had gotten from Artemis). This lunar aspect also linked Her with the triple-faced Roman goddess of Trivia or, later, Hecate Triformis (whose faces were Luna, Diana, and Hecate), which was not an association that Artemis shared in Classical Greece.

Worshiping Artemis in the Modern Age:
Despite Artemis’ heavy presence in the time of Ancient Greece, She is still a deity that is worshipped today. While many have brushed Her off as just a fairy tale from ancient mythology or even a simple Jungian archetype, She is still a palpable force in the lives of many others.

So, what do you do If you are interested in worshipping Artemis in the modern age? What do you do if She has called you to Her for worship? Honoring Her through ritual and lifestyle are two of the best ways that I have found to connect with Her.

Some lifestyle-related devotional activities that you can do outside of ritual include:

  • Work for the protection of wildlife
  • Don’t break your word or make promises you can’t fulfill
  • Be honorable, yet humble. Live a life of strength and confidence.
  • Clean up pollution and help with ecological organizations and campaigns
  • Be respectful of personal space, privacy, and of women-only spaces
  • If you are a hunter, do so legally and with care, and give thanks to Artemis for your prey
  • Spend time alone in the wilderness. Picnicking, camping, nature walks, and hiking are good ways to do this.
  • Pay honor to new mothers and women who are pregnant
  • Support athletics for young girls and women

As for ritual itself, as Hellenic Polytheists seeking to reconstruct the devotional rituals of the past, we work toward honoring Artemis through the ancient festivals of the time as well as work toward creating newer modern festivals in Her honor.

Some ancient festivals and rituals that we seek to recreate that can be useful in modern devotion are:

6th or 16th day of every month:
In the ancient Athenian calendar, along with their festival schedule, they honored particular deities of the pantheon on a monthly basis. Artemis was generally honored monthly on the 6th day (and sometimes the 16th day) of the month due to the number 6 being considered sacred to Her. In fact, you will notice with the following festivals that they are usually celebrated on the 6th day of the month as well. We unfortunately don’t have any record of the exact nature of these monthly rituals as they were generally done on an individual basis in households and therefore not written down. Still, in modern reconstruction, one can easily honor Artemis monthly on this day with a small devotional rite or libation. As to the timing of this devotion, some people will use the 6th day of the ancient Athenian calendar, which would be the 6th day after the New Moon (where the New Moon was the beginning of the ancient Athenian month) to set the day of worship, but many people simply use the 6th day of the modern calendar instead for ease. Either one is fine in my opinion as I feel the focus should be more on the monthly devotion itself and not so much calculating what we think would be the exact time the ancient Athenians would have done it. Your mileage may vary, though.

An ancient Athenian festival in honor of Artemis Braurônia, this festival was celebrated every 4-5 years in Ancient Greece, specifically the city-state of Brauron, but can be reconstructed to hold whenever you find it most appropriate for your ritual practice. The ancient Athenians celebrated this festival to honor when Iphigenia (a priestess of Artemis and daughter of Agamemnon) and Her brother Orestes returned from Tauris with a wooden statue of Artemis and set up a sanctuary and temple there. It was also a festival that celebrated the coming of age for the young girls in Attica (and some sources say, also the young boys) between the age of five and ten. These young girls and boys would solemnly process to the sanctuary of Artemis, sacrifice a goat in Her honor, and then perform the rite of dancing the Arkteia (the “She-bear” dance and sometimes considered the name of the festival). In modern reconstruction, this festival would be a perfect celebration of not only your own children coming of age, but also wonderful for a ritual of dedicating yourself to or honoring Artemis as you set up your own shrine or altar for Her, just as Orestes and Iphigenia did. Your children or yourself dancing the Arkteia would be a great addition to your ritual.

An ancient Athenian festival in honor of Artemis Elaphebolos, this festival honors Artemis as the huntress of deer. It was held on the 6th day of the Ancient Greek month of Elaphebolion (named also for this aspect of Artemis), which is modern times translates to around late March-early April on the sixth day after the New Moon in March (around March 25th or so, depending on the year). In ancient times, festivities included Artemis being offered elaphoi (stags), which are stag-shaped cakes made from dough, honey and sesame-seeds. There is only sparse information on this festival, but in modern reconstruction it works well as a simple devotional ritual for honoring Artemis as a hunter and protector of wildlife.

An ancient Athenian festival in honor of Artemis Agrotera (the huntress), this festival honors Artemis (and, according to some sources, Ares) for the Athenian victory at Marathon over the Persians. It was celebrated traditionally on the 6th day of the Ancient Greek month of Boidromion, which in modern times translates to around late September-early October on the sixth day after the New Moon in September (around September 18th or so, depending on the year). The festival’s name, Kharisteria, means “Thanksgiving” and it was in giving thanks that the ancient Athenians sacrificed 500 goats to Artemis Agrotera. While in modern times, it would probably be pretty difficult to offer up 500 goats to Artemis, a nice “Thanksgiving” feast would be appropriate for anything that you might feel thankful for. Also, another modern reconstruction is to honor Artemis for Kharisteria on our own American holiday of Thankgiving, dedicating your Thanksgiving feast to Her and offering Her a plate of your food.

Festival of Artemis Orthia:
An ancient Spartan festival in honor of Artemis Orthia, literally meaning “of the steep”, this festival honored the aspect of Artemis sacred in ancient Sparta. There is not a lot of information about this ritual as we have more information about Athenian rituals, but we do know that all Spartan young men upon coming of age received ritual flogging (called diamastigosis) during this ritual as a demonstration of their “worthiness” as young warriors. The flogging was also done to stain the altar with human blood as was requested through an oracle reading to honor the bloodshed from the Greco-Persians wars, according to Plutarch. The priestess would do the flogging while holding up a wooden image of Artemis Orthia. This ritual is an example of some of the more violent and bloody aspects of Spartan ritual and society as a whole and therefore is not generally reconstructed in modern practice. Still, there has been talk among a few Hellenics about recreating this ritual with flogging, but on a less bloodier scale.

And finally, Mounykhia. An ancient Athenian festival in honor of Artemis Mounykhia, which was the aspect of the goddess sacred to the port of Mounykhia in Attica, it was celebrated traditionally on the 16th day of the Ancient Greek month of Mounykhion (named so in honor of the festival), which in modern times translates to around late April-early May on the 16th day after the New Moon in April (around May 4th, depending on the year). Some sources also say this festival was often also celebrated on the night of a full moon, if the 16th day did not have a full moon. This was because the festival was dedicated primarily to Artemis’ lunar aspects, but also Her role as Potnia Theron, or Mistress of the Animals, as well. In the celebration, traditionally there was a procession of young girls to Artemis’ temple carrying round cakes called amphiphontes (meaning “shining all around”), symbolizing the moon. Once in the sanctuary of the temple, a She-goat would be sacrificed, as well other offerings. In modern reconstruction, many people instead sacrifice cakes or other crafts in the shape of a goat, the ampiphontes cakes themselves, or anything else sacred to Her – for example, palm leaves. It is also common for modern practioners to dance the Arkteia when observing this festival in thanks and in honor of Artemis.

The Mounykhia is actually the ritual that we will be reconstructing today. It was chosen due to the fact that both the lunar and “Mistress of the Animals” aspects of Artemis are the most commonly known and commonly related to among many modern pagans. Unfortunately, because we wanted it to coincide with Starfest, we could not do it on its traditional date or on the day or night of a full moon. Still, we feel that these aspects of Artemis can still be honored at our ritual today despite the timing. Our ritual has undergone some modifications due to time constraints and being at an outdoor festival, but we wanted to give you a taste of how the ancients honored Artemis. We invite you to honor Her with us today.