Artemis – Mistress of the Animals

byDr Kostas Vitkos / αγγλικά / αρχαιότητα

Artemis, the daughter of Leto and Zeus, and the twin sister of Apollo, is one of the twelve Olympians and one of the three virgin goddesses, along with Athena and Hestia. When she was still only three years old and on her father’s knee, Zeus asked her what presents she would like. Without hesitation, she asked:

Pray give me eternal virginity; as many names as my brother Apollo; a bow and arrows like his; the office of bringing light; a saffron hunting tunic with a red hem reaching to my knees; sixty young ocean nymphs, to take care of my buskins and feed my hounds when I am not out shooting; all the mountains in the world; and, lastly, any city you care to choose for me, but one will be enough, because I intend to live on mountains most of the time … (Callimachus, Hymn to Artemis 5-20)

Armed with a silver bow and arrows, made by Hephaestus and the Cyclopes, and wearing her short tunic and flat-heeled sandals, Artemis roams mountain forests and uncultivated lands with her virgin nymphs in attendance: hunting for lions, panthers, hinds and stags. She is also depicted with a crescent moon above her forehead, sometimes being identified with Selene (the moon).  As goddess of the moon (Phoebe), she rides her silver chariot across the sky and shoots her arrows of silver Moonlight to the earth below.

In what follows we will be looking at various aspects of this goddess, the ‘mistress of animals’, such as her name, hers attributes, the rituals surrounding her, the magnificent temple in Ephesus, the coinage struck in her honour,  and, of course, her dark side – Artemis the killer.

1. Name

Modern scholars have encountered etymological problems with the name Artemis.  For Burkert, the name is ‘obscure’ and whether or not it is found in Linear B scripts is still a matter of dispute.  However, he suggests that the goddess has a close connection with Asia Minor .[1] Eliade is of the same opinion, when he writes: ‘The name Artemis, documented in the form Artimis in an inscription found in Lydia , indicates her Oriental origin’.[2] Kakrides also holds the view that this goddess is taken from Asia Minor , because no Greek etymology can be given for the name Artemis.[3] Yet, despite the fact that the first records of the name Artemis appear among the gods of the Lydians and of the Lycians, Burkert speaks of a probable borrowing from the Greek.[4]

Herodotus (2.156) tells us that the tragedian, Aeschylus, regarded Artemis as the daughter of Demeter, thusly identifying her with Persephone. On the island of Crete, Artemis was called Britomartis (daughter of Zeus and Carme); in Thrace she was  identified with Cybele (often called ‘the Great Mother’); in Cappadocia , with Ma.  So, it appears that is it not possible to determine the time and place that saw to the goddess coming to be known as Artemis.[5]


2. Birth

Of all the major Olympian goddesses, Artemis is the only one to have a mother – Leto.  Her father is (who else?) Zeus.  Hera, Zeus’ legitimate wife (and sister), was furious upon learning of her husband’s infidelity and forbade anyone to give refuge (a terra firma) to Leto for her to give birth to her twins, Apollo and Artemis.  Leto wandered about and finally settled to the island of Delos to deliver her children.  On this little ‘floating island’ Artemis was born first, and almost immediately she helped her mother to deliver Apollo.[6] This established her role as guardian of women in childbirth; yet, her arrows also brought sudden death to the women while giving birth.

Another version of the twins’ birth tells us that Artemis was born one day before Apollo, and the birth took place on the island of Ortygia (‘the quail-island’).  The next day Artemis helped her mother to cross to the island of Delos , and aided her with the delivery of Apollo.

3. Attributes
In the Homeric poems Artemis is represented as the chaste huntress – the most beautiful among the nymphs who accompany her – as the twin sister of Apollo, and as the goddess who sends a gentle death to women.  This description reflects not the early (primitive) but the later (more refined) representations of her character.  If we want to see an earlier and different testimony than the one attested by Homer, we may look to the rites and legends of Athens and Arcadia.  From these legends we learn that Artemis was not a goddess of chastity, nor the twin sister of Apollo, nor a goddess of the moon, but a divinity connected with wild vegetation and beasts (see below).  This makes sense, considering that the livelihood of her early worshippers was mainly secured by hunting and fishing, not by agriculture and commerce or other means available to societies of more developed political and economic structure.


[1] Greek Religion ( Cambridge , 1985) 149.

[2] A History of Religious Ideas, vol. I ( Chicago , 1978) 278.

[3] Ελληνική Μυθολογία, vol. II ( Athens , 1986) 162.

[4] Loc. cit.

[5] Eliade, op. cit. 279.

[6] See Athena 4 (2001) 21.