(Essay 4) The Animal Mother Goddess by Hearth Moon Rising

Excerpt from Invoking Animal Magic: A guide for the Pagan priestess

Some say the famous shrine of Artemis at Ephesus was once dedicated to Cybele. Statues of Artemis originating there do have symbols associated with the Mother of the Mountain. These symbols include flowers, sheaves of grain, the cylindrical crown, and clusters of fruit, in addition to the melange of animals such as lions, goats, bulls and bees. Worship of a goddess at Ephesus predates the first Greek settlement, so Artemis was not the first goddess worshiped at this place—nor would she be the last. Her temple site would be rededicated to Diana and then to the Virgin Mary before its eventual destruction by Christian hands.

Artemis of Ephesus. First century Roman copy. Photo Pedro Lassouras/Wikimedia Commons.
Artemis of Ephesus. First century Roman copy. Photo Pedro Lassouras/Wikimedia Commons.

Statues of Artemis of Ephesus from the Greco-Roman era depict a serene goddess with rows of animals and plants covering most of her body. Around the neck of one statue are the emblems of the zodiac, which would make Artemis of Ephesus a queen of heaven as well as earth. The multiple pendulous appendages resembling breasts on her upper front torso are meant to emphasize her all-giving nature.

In Greece the classical Artemis is more circumscribed than Ephesian Artemis, Cybele or Ishtar. Part of this has to do with the Greek penchant for distinguishing the roles and boundaries of their deities. Thus, the goddess Hera is assigned marriage, Demeter agricultural fertility, Aphrodite love and sexuality, Athena civic activity and defense, Hestia family stability, Persephone and Hades the underworld, and Artemis the wilderness and midwifery. Within her sphere, Artemis is contracted further. She is mistress of the animals but not their mother. She shuns marriage and all sexual contact with gods and men. She has no children. Of course this makes no sense. How can she be ruler of the wilderness and be infertile?

A tale about Artemis from the third century BCE gives a glimpse of the vastness behind the chastened goddess. She is a child on the knee of papa Zeus, who as head of the pantheon is dividing the world and assigning the deities their realms. Artemis asks for eternal virginity, more names than Apollo, bow and arrows, the title Bringer of Light, a short comfortable tunic coming down to her knees, sixty ocean nymphs all nine years old, twenty river nymphs to tend her hounds, all the mountains in the world, and one unspecified city, she doesn’t care which. Zeus responds that she is too modest. He will give her thirty cities and a legion of temples, shrines and groves. He will make her guardian of highways and harbors, in addition to everything else she asks for.

Let’s examine the nine requests of Artemis individually. Her virginity is not something Zeus, a late arriving deity, could have bestowed on the goddess, but it is one of her key aspects. It has nothing to do with chastity in the way the word is used today: Artemis is virgin in the sense of being inviolate. She protects her virgin forest from being altered by logging or farming, yet the forest is still fruitful and may even be visited and loved by men. She protects her virgin priestesses from rape or enslavement, yet she allows them to love and be loved.

In the Greek city states, the stronger the cult of Artemis, the higher the status of women. In some of the loosely banded tribes outside the cities, the rule of Artemis—or a goddess the Greeks identified with Artemis—was supreme, and women enjoyed rights denied to more urbanized women. They could marry or divorce at will and retained ownership of their possessions in marriage. Children belonged to the mother’s family, not the father’s. Women were allowed military roles and fought alongside their husbands or in all-female groups. Patriarchal Greeks were repelled and fascinated by these tribes and perpetuated some of the first urban myths about them. The women sawed off one breast to better hold the bow. The bones of boy children were broken so they would grow up weak enough to be bossed by women. They practiced human sacrifice so enthusiastically it’s a wonder there were any men left to boss.

The second thing Artemis requests is more names than her twin brother Apollo. This request alludes to the enthusiastic rivalry between the cults of Artemis and Apollo, which temple administrators of both sects tapped for gifts and labor. The many names of Artemis support the claim that Artemis is a greater deity than Apollo.

Artemis with quail on ivory votive offering from her temple in Sparta. Sixth century BCE. Photo Marsyas/Wikimedia Commons.
Artemis with quail on ivory votive offering from her temple in Sparta. Sixth century BCE. Photo Marsyas/Wikimedia Commons.

The bow represents a significant power. With this weapon Artemis takes life—plant, animal and human. As mistress of life on earth, it is her privilege to decide when the time has come for a mortal to meet Persephone in the underworld. The story goes that upon receiving the bow, she first kills two trees, then a wild beast, then a whole city of people. City dwellers lived in fear of Artemis’ plagues. She was propitiated with both human and animal sacrifices—possibly more than any Greek deity. The dances of young girls at Artemis festivals, designed to charm Goddess, had a serious message behind them: See what sweet girls we have, Artemis! Don’t send a plague on our city. Countless myths attest to the deadly wrath of Artemis against deities, kings, families and cities. The bow and arrows are also used to defend the righteous, as Artemis fiercely protects women against rape, forced marriage and infanticide.

Artemis requests the title Bringer of Light. This refers to her role as midwife at the birth of her twin brother, the God of Light. One myth of their origin says that their mother gave birth to Artemis easily and without pain, but that she needed Artemis’ help with the longer and more difficult birth of Apollo. Again, the followers of Artemis emphasized her earlier birth as proof of her superiority over Apollo.

Artemis’ fifth request, the short tunic, is an old fashioned style of clothing long favored by female warriors. It represents the freedom of the Goddess to move however she pleases and go wherever she wants.

Zeus grants Artemis sixty ocean nymphs, which tells us Artemis’ sphere extends to the ocean, where she rules the sea creatures. Artemis and other animal mistresses are frequently shown with fish. An urn from the Greek coast shows the Mistress of Animals with a large fish on her dress. The nymphs are nine years old to symbolize their perfection, nine being the number of moons for human gestation.

Artemis asks for twenty river nymphs, and she is often depicted in Renaissance painting cavorting with these female attendants. One of the most endearing characteristics of Artemis is the favor she shows the female sex. Her devotees are not exclusively female—the hero Theseus was her most celebrated follower—but she prefers the company of women. Artemis is not asking for nymphs so she can pose for a titillating bathing scene by the riverbank, however. The river nymphs are requested to care for the dogs. Since dogs are emblematic of death and the underworld, Artemis is claiming authority at the rivers which separate the living and the dead.

Artemis asks for all the mountains in the world, emphasizing that the wild and remote places belong to her. This would mean that pantheons which reside on mountaintops, such as the Olympian one, do so at her pleasure.

When asking for a single city, Artemis mentions that she prefers the mountains and only goes to town to aid women in childbirth, a duty imposed by the Fates. Midwifery seems an odd function to bestow on a childless goddess who doesn’t like being around people, and so this is explained in the story by referring to the painless childbearing of Artemis’ own mother.

Zeus gives Artemis more than she asks for, which is significant. The nine items requested in the story represent areas of influence Artemis claims before regional domination of the later Greeks. At this time a multitude of cities, temples and shrines become re-dedicated to Artemis, and she takes on many functions and titles of other goddesses.

Notice Artemis does not ask for the moon, at least not literally. While she was worshiped at the full moon in early antiquity, she does not become Moon Goddess until sometime after this tale, possibly as late as Greco-Roman times.

Artemis is mistress of all creatures, but some animals are particularly favored by her. The deer is most often mentioned, and the bear ranks a close second; dogs, of course, and wolves. Quail are the birds she most favors. Other animals include hares, lions, pigs, goats, toads, fish and cats. There is a myth where Artemis and the other Olympians, on the lam from the monster Typhon, flee to Egypt disguised as animals. Hermes is an Ibis, Zeus a ram, Hera a cow, Apollo a crow, Aphrodite a fish, Dionysus a goat and Artemis a cat. This story is basically giving Egyptian equivalents of the Greek gods, so the Greeks evidently saw parallels between Artemis and the cat goddess Bast.

Artemis became conflated with the Latin goddess Diana in Greco-Roman times, but Diana should really be considered separately. She will be featured in the next installment.

Read part 1, part 2, part 3.

Read more of Hearth Moon Rising’s posts.

Hearth Moon Rising is a Dianic priestess and a priestess in the Fellowship of Isis. She has taught magic for over twenty years. Hearth is a licensed outdoor guide and lives in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. Invoking Animal Magic can be found in bookstores or ordered online. See http://invokinganimalmagic.com for more details.