Artemis was born of Leto and Zeus, on the island of Delos, later helping with the delivery of her twin brother, Apollo. Some sources state that her actual birthplace is not Delos, but an island called Ortygia. Although the two islands could be one and the same, it is not clear. In helping with the birth of her brother Artemis fulfilled her role as a goddess of childbirth (which she shares with Eileithyia and Hera). She is the goddess of chastity, the hunt and the moon, too. But I’ll get more into those later.
Artemis was closely linked with her brother. For example, sudden death, particularly of the young, was often attributed to them (Artemis killing the girls and Apollo the boys). In fact, a rather famous legend involves both Artemis and Apollo. The story is told at length by the poet Ovid, in his Metamorphoses. The women of Thebes gave Leto great honor, often offering generous gifts and hymns to her which upset Niobe. After all, She had seven daughters and seven sons, whereas Leto merely had the twins. Besides, she was rich and beautiful, and the queen of Thebes. So Niobe claimed that she deserved the attention and honor more then Leto. Upon hearing this Leto was infuriated. She couldn’t believe such blatant hubris, and complained to her two children. To avenge their insulted mother, Apollo and Artemis went to the palace of Thebes and with their unerring shafts, they shot down all 14 of Niobe’s children (Artemis the girls and Apollo the boys). Niobe was turned to stone and placed atop a mountain. It is said that tears continue to trickle down her marble face, with the grief of her dead children.
As the goddess of chastity, Artemis is modest, pure, and virginal. One famous story depicting her chaste nature is the story of Actaeon, also told in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Actaeon was a passionate hunter. Out on his hunt, one day, he found himself lost, and stumbled upon Artemis bathing with her nymphs in a stream in the forest. Without her arrows at hand, she flung water over the surprised Actaeon. To ensure that he could never tell of seeing the modest goddess nude, she turned him into a stag. He fled but was hunted and killed by his own hunting hounds. Though severe, Artemis protected her virginal nature (even if it may have been an accident to begin with).
Another story in which her purity is protected by her ardent actions was that of Callisto, a follower of Artemis. Callisto, a sworn maid and fervent follower of the goddess, was raped and impregnated by Zeus. Ashamed of what had happened, she withdrew and hid her body. At a time when she had began to show, the goddess requested that Callisto and the nymphs bathe with her in the cool stream. Artemis immediately percieved the girl’s naked and pregnant figure, and expelled her from her group of followers; she could not be defiled by the company of Callisto. Hera, the wife of Zeus, became angry when she learned of Callisto and her son Arcas, and turned her into a bear. Callisto, later nearly hunted by her own son,– ignorant of his parentage– was saved, and Zeus whisked both into the heavens. They are now the constellations, Callisto, the great bear, and Arcas, the little bear.
Constellations also figure into another such story about Artemis. In the story of Orion, he is out hunting when he encounters Artemis. He tries to rape her, and in her fury she makes a scorpion out of the earth to sting him to death. It is said that both can be seen in the night sky now– Scorpio the scorpion and Orion the hunter. Orion’s hunting dog was also turned into the constellation Canis Major, with Sirius as the dog star.
The story of Hippolytus, written by the poet Euripides, shows a softer side of the young goddess’ nature. Hippolytus, an ardent and devoted follower of Artemis, refused to honor the sensual Aphrodite, goddess of lust and physical love. Hippolytus was pure and chaste, and wanted nothing to do with the voluptuous and sex-driven Aphrodite; he honored Artemis foremost. Enraged by the hubris of Hippolytus’ blatant disregardof her, Aphrodite sought revenge. She made his stepmother, Phaedra, fall desperately in love with him. When Hippolytus found out, he was horrified. Mortified that others might find out, and frustrated by Hippolytus’ callous and intemperate response to her feelings, Phaedra hanged herself and left a deceitful note saying that Hippolytus had forced himself on her. Hippolytus’ father, Theseus, upon reading the note found on his dead wife, cursed his son to death (by the sea god Poseidon). In the end the goddess Artemis reveals all to Theseus. Before dying, Hippolytus forgave his father, whose sorrow would haunt him for life. Afterwards Artemis honored Hippolytus with ceremonies held in his honor in Troezen each year.
Artemis is often confused with both Selene, the moon goddess, and Hecate, goddess of roads, ghosts, witches, and the moon, who is also a fertility goddess. Although Artemis is a virgin, she is depicted as a fertility goddess (Artemis of the Ephesians)– like the goddess of childbirth, already cited). The three manifestations of her character as goddess of the moon are Selene in the heavens, Artemis on earth, and Hecate in the underworld. In art, she is often shown with the crescent moon on her crown. Other attributes, not related to the moon, include her bow and arrow, an animal or two by her side, and a torch (to portray the light of birth, life, and fertility). The common perception of the goddess is that of the virgin huntress, regardless of the other conceptions of her.
As the daughter of Zeus and Leto, Artemis was an Olympian. Her main vocation was to roam mountain forests and uncultivated land with her faithful nymphs, hunting. As the goddess of childbirth, not only for humans, but for animals too, she not only hunted, but also saw that they were protected and safe, and was responsible for overseeing their reproduction.
As for other contradictions to the goddess’ chaste character, she was seen as the protectress of women in labor, the guardian of small children, and the patron of women in childbirth. But she is said to bring on sudden death while a woman gives birth, which is yet another contradiction in character. For Artemis as a divinity of healing (as was her brother Apollo), another interesting inconsistency is that she was also thought to be responsible for bringing and spreading disease (for example, leprosy, rabies, gout, etc.).
Artemis was honored all over the Greek world. In Ephesus, a great temple was even built in her honor, which was later named one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. She had two sanctuaries in Sparta as well.
Among the epithets given to Artemis were Potnia Theron (mistress of wild animals), Kourotrophos (nurse of youths), Locheia (helper in childbirth), Agrotera (huntress), and Cynthia (taken from Mt. Cynthus on Delos, where she was born).
As a goddess, Artemis was pure and divine. Though perhaps rash at times, she was an honorable representation of true chastity and goodness.
(Prime source used: Classical Mythology
sixth edition, by Morford and Lenardon)