Artemis, Liminal Goddess

A statue of the goddess Artemis

Since my childhood, I have felt a deep affinity with the goddess Artemis. Her stories have woven themselves into my personal mythology, her bold and independent body adorning my altars over the years.

Her wild nature — as a goddess of the hunt and protectress of wild animals — gave her a unique status in ancient Greece. She held gender roles typically relegated to Greek men (hunter, warrior), yet her symbols — the moon and the bear, especially — were associated with female bodies, the cycles of menstruation, and motherhood.

She appears to me as a Gender Bender, an edge walker, a liminal deity. In ancient Greece, she specifically oversaw the transition of young girls into womanhood and acted as protectress of childbirth, guarding the threshold of life. (It’s even said that immediately after her birth, she helped her own mother give birth to her twin brother, Apollo.)

But Artemis is a paradox. On one hand, she safeguards young children and wild animals, acting as a midwife and protectress of life. On the other hand, she is a bringer of death. She exacts unflinching violence on those who break the sacred rules of her forest, hunting them down and killing them with her bow and arrow.

She is a guardian of the wild creatures, acting much like a mother bear would protect her cubs. Her sanctuaries seem to be located on the edges of towns or villages, built on the boundaries between cultivated, “civilized” areas and the wilds of nature.

She is a virgin goddess, and by virgin I don’t mean sexually chaste, I mean that she was unmarried, unowned, literally untamed by any man (in ancient Greece, they often described married women as “tamed” or “yoked.”) She is often surrounded by a retinue of virgins and young women.

One of her festivals, the Arkteia (“Festival of the Bear”) held in Brauron, served as a rite of passage for young girls transitioning from childhood into adulthood. The young girls would dress up as tiny bears (arktoi) and dance or run naked around the altar in a parody of being chased — quite possibly as a symbolic rite of transitioning from wild, untamed, virgin animals into their new status as yoked wives and soon-to-be mothers.

Edge walker. Boundary Facilitator. Protectress of the Untamed, Wild Ones.

When I was in university, I worked for two years as a research assistant to a professor of ancient Greek iconography. We were exploring the artistic representations of the “unowned,” virgin goddesses (specifically Artemis, Athena, and Aphrodite) to gain insight into the gender norms of the ancient world.

As part of my research, I had the privilege of cataloguing ancient artifacts from a private collection in order to write descriptive labels for an exhibit in the Smith College Museum of Art. One of my favorite of the pieces I catalogued was a statue of a young girl dressed as a bear, dancing on her hind legs, just like bears sway in the wild.

The piece was tiny — only 3.75 inches — but I held it in gloved hands and nearly wept. To hold an item from the mid-fourth century BCE in my hands — an item that had once been dedicated to the goddess Artemis…it was a very powerful experience.

And thirteen years later I was able to finally go to Artemis’ temple — where the Arkteia festival was held for hundreds of years in her honor. It felt like a full circle, to be able to walk where the ancients walked, to imagine the young ones in procession or running wild in her sanctuary…my heart was so full.

If you’d like to read about my journey there, I’ve posted more photographs and notes from my excursion to her temple — as well as a hike I took through the marshlands of her sanctuary — here.


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