Twin sister of Apollo, Artemis (Greek Ἄρτεμις) is the daughter of Zeus and Leto. Her Greek original is goddess of hunting, wild places and animals, the Moon, and chastity. Although sworn never to marry, she was worshipped as one of the main goddesses of childbirth too. Her attributes are her hunting bow and arrows, and the crescent moon, normally worn as part of a coronet or tiara. She’s also associated with the Moon more generally, deer and the cypress tree.
Her Roman equivalent is Diana, who became more complex, and known in locational variants. Sometimes she appears as one aspect of a triple deity, incorporating Luna (the Moon) and Hecate (the Underworld). She also came to be a guardian of crossroads, and, as Ephesian Diana, the great mother of nature and goddess of fecundity, with multiple breasts, an interesting concept for an eternal virgin.
Artemis is well-known in many paintings in her role as huntress.
Renoir’s Diana as Huntress from 1867 shows her in that role, without her customary coronet with a crescent Moon. This was rejected by that year’s Salon, and is one of the first of his paintings in which his model and lover Lise Tréhot posed nude.
Arturo Michelena’s Diana the Huntress, from 1896, is more characteristic. It shows her as strong, fleet of foot and a ruthless huntress who was quite happy to kill mortals with her arrows when necessary. Note the crescent moon above her forehead.
Later confusion over the Roman goddess Diana led to stranger myths. That about the Titan goddess of the Moon, Selene, transferred to Diana is a good example. Selene/Diana fell in love with Endymion when she found him asleep one day. Shen then asked Zeus to grant him eternal youth, which resulted in him remaining in eternal sleep. In spite of his somnolence, Selene/Diana still managed to have fifty daughters by him.
Walter Crane’s beautiful pastoral watercolour of Diana and Endymion (1883) shows him fast asleep in a meadow. The goddess is clearly in her role as huntress with her dogs, bow and arrows. Endymion’s flock of sheep is in the distance.
Perhaps the most famous myth about Artemis centres on the tragic error made by Actaeon, grandson of the founder of Thebes. One day he was out hunting and enjoyed considerable success early on; as it then grew hot, he called on his companions to stop. Unknown to Actaeon, Artemis had a sacred wood nearby, in which she too had grown tired after her morning’s hunting. She had just reached a cave with her favourite pool where her companion nymphs could help her bathe.
Actaeon inadvertently entered the wood and, misguided by the Fates, stumbled across the naked Artemis in her pool. The nymphs took fright, and Artemis splashed water at him, causing Actaeon to be transformed into a stag. As he stood wondering what to do next, his own hunting dogs caught up with him and started attacking Actaeon as a stag. His companions saw the dogs’ success with their quarry, and called in vain to him as he lay dying.
This popular theme for paintings has unfortunately led to most artists being distracted from its story to concentrate their attention on painting Artemis and her acolytes nude. Titian was commissioned by King Philip II of Spain to make two paintings of this myth. The first was one of a series of six works based on classical mythology. The paintings that Titian delivered include those of Danae (1549-50), Venus and Adonis (1552-54), Perseus and Andromeda (1554-56), Diana and Actaeon (1556-59), and the Rape of Europa (1559-62). Although a fine work, that of Diana and Actaeon (1556-59) succumbed to distraction.
Shortly before his death, Titian completed The Death of Actaeon (c 1559-75), which was never delivered to King Philip. This is far more narrative than his earlier version. Actaeon’s transformation is incomplete, and he is shown as a man with a stag’s head. Nevertheless, his dogs are attacking him, and his death is inevitable. Artemis is shown largely (if rather loosely) dressed, having just loosed an arrow at Actaeon, as if she had second thoughts and wished to hasten his death.
My favourite retelling of this story is Camille Corot’s Diana and Actaeon (1836) which captures the earliest moment, and is, in a subtle way, by far the boldest account. For a couple of centuries after multiplex narrative fell into disfavour, Corot uses it to excellent effect. He also achieves a perfect balance between the figures and his marvellous woodland landscape, of which Ovid would have been proud.
Most prominent are those of Artemis and her attendant nymphs, who are behaving like real people for once, climbing a branch bent over the water, and soaking up the sunshine. At the right, Actaeon with one of his hunting dogs is just about to run straight into them. Artemis, appropriately crowned, stands pointing to the distant figure at the left – which is again Actaeon, antlers growing from his head as she transforms him into a stag.
Artemis has an even stranger role in the myth of Callisto, one of Zeus’s many victims and an acolyte of the goddess. To seduce and rape her, he decides to assume the appearance of Artemis. When Callisto tells him (in the guise of Artemis) that the goddess is even greater than Zeus, he knows that his rape will succeed. Afterwards, Zeus quickly abandons her bewildered and shocked, and pregnant. When Callisto returns to the real Artemis, she is quite obviously pregnant, as becomes apparent when the goddess and her nymphs bathe together. Callisto had clearly broken the fundamental rule of chastity, for which Artemis expels her from the group.
Titian’s Diana and Kallisto from 1556-59 is arguably the finest retelling of this myth. Artemis is shown just right of centre, with her characteristic coronet, pointing down at the nymph at the left who seems to have fallen into a swoon while being undressed, and whose belly suggests that she is quite possibly pregnant. Some of the other nymphs are actually wearing robes, too.
Instead of Hera venting her wrath at the errant Zeus, she aims it at Callisto; soon after the birth of Callisto’s son Arcas, the mother is transformed into a bear. She is understandably distraught, and roams the woods alone. When her son Arcas reaches the age of about 15, he comes across his mother, still a bear, but neither knows the identity of the other. Arcas is just about to kill the bear when Zeus finally takes pity, and mother is catasterised into the Great Bear constellation, son into the Little Bear.
Hera is still not content, and to ensure that her husband cannot sneakily turn Callisto back into a human when her constellation has set below the horizon, she instructs the gods of the sea that they shall not let either constellation pass the waters (sink below the horizon). Indeed, in Greece and Italy at that time, neither Ursa Major nor Ursa Minor ever set below the horizon.
My final painting of Artemis shows her in the paradoxical role of a goddess of childbirth.
In Marcantonio Franceschini’s second painting of The Birth of Adonis from about 1692-1709, it is Artemis who has received the newborn infant, and is handing him over to another goddess. The latter could most appropriately be Aphrodite, here taking the role of wet-nurse, and Adonis’ future lover.
Sometimes classical myths are internally profoundly confused and confusing.