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Cults of Artemis in Ancient Greece



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Rangos, Spyridon 


Artemis was a cruel and wild goddess. Her mythological apparatus was replete with blood and death. Her cults displayed awe-inspiring elements of primitivism. Together with Dionysus, to whom she is mythologically and ritually related, she presents a riddle for the student who tries to understand her place in the Greek pantheon. In accordance with the modern alertness to the dangers of oversimplification lurking behind sweeping general accounts, I have chosen six particular Artemisian cults in three places of mainland Greece (at Sparta, Athens and Patras) upon which to focus my attention. In the aetiological legends of their foundations the Spartan and Athenian cults share a common origin (located by ancient writers in the distant Black Sea), the supervising deity being identified as Artemis Taurike. They also display remarkable signs of remote antiquity or, as has been proposed, of an archaizing process. Cruel rituals and beliefs associated with primitive magic are conspicuous in these cults but also feature prominently in the two cults in Achaia.

The cult of Artemis Ortheia is comprehensively studied. All the existing ancient evidence, both literary and archaeological, is taken into account in an attempt to give a unified picture of the goddess without neglecting the di versity of disperse elements. By contrast, in the exploration of the three Attic cults selectivity prevails. Here again the emphasis is on what was common among the rituals enacted and the aetiological myths of their foundation, but not all ancient testimonies are considered to be of equal value. Consequently some sources are omitted and others overlooked in the discussion, for the additional reason that the Attic cults have been satisfactorily explored in recent publications. From the aforementioned local cults the focus is then shifted to the Homeric epics. The distinctive feature of Homeric religion is found in the endowment of divine powers with precise Forms and in the understanding of divine forms in anthropomorphic terms of Beauty. The contrast with the Artemisian cults at Patras is striking. There are of course signs in Homer showing that the gods are conceived as Powers, but the heroic epic tradition seems to have opted for the adoration of beauty as an indication of Excellence. How are we to combine the adorable divine maiden of the Homeric epics with the wild power manifested in local cults? Artemis vacillates between virginity conceived as maidenly exquisiteness and celibacy symbolizing natural wilderness.

My hypothesis is that in the eyes of the Greeks, virginity, far from being 'absence' or lack of sexuality (as has often been supposed), was indeed the precondition of fertility. The dynamism of procreation was considered to reside in virginity; hence the strengthening of virginity was regarded as the intensification of procreative power, in much the same way as, in an image drawn from applied physics, the energy to be gathered from a water-stream is enhanced by the use of a dam that arrests the stream's natural course. Such a hypothesis may well be supported by the ancient evidence, and may also account for the second characteristic trait of the Archaic Artemis, namely her wildness. For in wildness, symbolically crystallized in 'forests' and 'hunting-activities', the ancient mind saw, rather than merely a stage antecedent to, and indispensable for, 'civilization' (as the most popular theory assumes), awe-inspiring powerfulness and mighty detachment calling for religious veneration. In the diptych of the complementary Contrariety between the Heavenly and the Earthly, the local cults, with their special emphasis on ritual enactment, stressed the maternal side of existence, whereas the Homeric m.vthology chose to emphasize the masculine principle that is operative in the world. This latter principle when applied to a pre-existing feminine deity, assumes the form of potential fecundity, hence of virginity, as opposed to the actual fertility of motherhood. The most recent theory on Artemis is that of 1.-P. Vernant (and his so-called Paris School). The French scholar claims that Artemis is a goddess of marginality, a deity at home where ambivalence, ambiguity and liminality prevail. This, however, relates more to the modern milieu where marginality and the concomitant ambiguity are conceptual missiles of great heuristic value than to the goddess herself. Artemis was primarily manifested as natural Dynamism. Given the amoral character of natural dynamism she could be munificent or malevolent depending on the circumstances of her manifestation (implied intervention orfully-fIedged epiphany). But such a duality does not entitle us to speak of marginality in her case, because in the eyes of the worshippers themselves her being was perfectly well circumscribed and very clearly defined. In contrast to the modern deeply-felt insecurity vis-a.-vis the clarity of beings, a distinctive feature of ancient polytheism was the clear-cut delineation of the beings aspiring to the divine order.






Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge