Hunters in Mythology

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Hunters in Mythology

Theme Overview

Hunters appear in the mythologies of many different cultures. Hunting animals for food was an essential part of life in most cultures during their early development, and remains important in some regions even in modern times. Hunters in mythology are sometimes shown in conflicting ways, which reflects the act of hunting itself: to succeed as a hunter, one must understand and appreciate nature; at the same time, however, the end result of hunting involves destroying a piece of nature.

Major Myths

Myths about hunters or hunting can be divided into two basic categories: myths about hunting as a way of obtaining food or other resources, and myths about the hunting of a specific creature—usually to destroy it.

Most myths in the second category involve very little actual hunting because the location of the creature is already known, and the “hunters” are generally heroes on a quest; for this reason, the myths covered below focus mainly on those who hunt as a way of life.

Myths of Artemis and Her Companions The Greek goddess Artemis (pronounced AHR-tuh-miss), known to the Romans as Diana, is one of the best-known deities related to hunting. She was the daughter of Zeus (pronounced ZOOS) and twin sister of Apollo (pronounced uh-POL-oh); because she was born to a woman other than Zeus's wife Hera (pronounced HAIR-uh), Artemis was raised not on Olympus (pronounced oh-LIM-puhs), home of the other gods, but in the wilderness on an island Zeus called up from the sea. This led to her early exposure to wild animals and hunting, and she came to be known as an expert at archery, or hunting with a bow and arrow.

Many of the myths of Artemis center on her vengeance against humans, in some cases because they believe themselves to be better hunters than the goddess. The hunter Actaeon (pronounced AK-tee-uhn) was transformed into a deer by Artemis, either because he saw her nude while bathing or because he boasted that his hunting skills were superior to hers. As a deer, Actaeon was killed by his own hunting dogs. The handsome young man Adonis (pronounced uh-DON-is) was killed by a wild boar sent to attack him by Artemis; in some versions of the myth, Artemis sent the boar after Adonis bragged about his superior hunting abilities. The Greek leader Agamemnon (pronounced ag-uh-MEM-non) also boasted of his own hunting skills, though his punishment was for another hunting-related act: he killed a deer in a grove considered sacred to Artemis. Because of this, Artemis kept his Greek fleet from leaving port on its way to fight the Trojan War. In order to appease Artemis, Agamemnon had to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia (pronounced if-uh-juh-NEYE-uh).

Another myth shows Artemis using her abilities to defeat two giants , both of whom were zealous hunters. The giants, brothers Otus (pronounced OH-tuhs) and Ephialtes (pronounced ef-ee-AL-teez), were jealous of the gods of Olympus and decided to attack them. They captured Ares (pronounced AIR-eez), the god of war, and kept him as their prisoner. The Olympians could not destroy the giants, each of which possessed strength equaled only by the other. Artemis, knowing the giants loved to hunt, transformed herself into a doe and passed directly between them. They both grabbed their spears and threw them at her, but she leapt out of the way and the giants were struck by each other's spears, killing them both.

Another hunter well known to Greeks was Orion (pronounced oh-RYE-uhn), a companion of Artemis. According to one account, Orion was out hunting with Artemis when he announced that he could hunt and kill any living thing on earth. The goddess Gaia (pronounced GAY-uh), also known as Mother Earth, objected to such a boast, and sent a giant scorpion to kill him. In another version of his demise, Apollo became jealous of Orion's close relationship with his sister Artemis. One day, while Orion was swimming in the water with just a portion of his head visible, Apollo challenged his sister to hit the small moving target with an arrow. She did, and discovered afterward that she had been tricked into killing Orion. After his death, Orion was preserved in the night sky as a constellation, or group of stars.

According to myth, Artemis was also connected to the popular Greek huntress Atalanta (pronounced at-uh-LAN-tuh). As a baby, Atalanta was abandoned in the forest by her father. Artemis happened upon the infant and arranged for a she-bear to suckle her until a group of hunters took her in and raised her. A favorite of Artemis, Atalanta was the first member of a large hunting party to draw blood from a giant boar sent by Artemis as vengeance against a disrespectful king. Atalanta's prize, awarded against the wishes of many of the male hunters in the party, was the skin of the beast.

The Wild Hunt The myth of the Wild Hunt was found throughout Europe in various forms. The gods associated with it vary depending upon the region, though the Norse god Odin (pronounced OH-din) and the Celtic god Cernunnos (pronounced kur-NOO-nohs) were common. Odin, leader of the gods in Norse mythology , was renowned as a hunter. In Celtic mythology , Cernunnos was the god of hunters and master of all animals. He was usually depicted with a long beard and the horns of a deer growing from his head.

In the various myths of the Wild Hunt, several elements remained the same. A hunting party made up of gods, ghosts, or even fairies appeared in the night sky, or sometimes hovering just above the ground. Their prey was not known, but they were thought to be seen just before the occurrence of a tragic event or terrible storm. Humans who witnessed the Wild Hunt either died or were taken up by the hunters to join them. The only way to avoid such a fate was to cover one's eyes as the hunting party passed.

Kokopelli Among the Pueblo people of the American Southwest, Kokopelli (pronounced koh-koh-PEL-ee) is a fertility deity who is also closely associated with wild animals and hunting. He is a kachina (pronounced kuh-CHEE-nuh), or nature spirit. Kokopelli oversees the mating of wild animals, and ensures there will be enough for the people to hunt. He carries a most unusual hunting instrument: a flute, which he plays to attract the sheep he hunts. Some scholars believe that his flute— visible in early drawings of the character—may have originally been a similarly shaped weapon such as a spear or blowgun.

Heimdall and the Gjallarhorn In Norse mythology, Heimdall (pronounced HAYM-dahl) was the guardian of the Norse gods. Although not known specifically for myths related to hunting, one of Heimdall's most important possessions was the Gjallarhorn (pronounced YAHL-lahr-horn), a hunting horn. Hunting horns were used to call other members of a hunting party when locating prey during a hunt. For Heimdall, however, the Gjallarhorn had a different purpose. Heimdall stood—indeed, still stands—as the guardian at the entrance to Asgard (pronounced AHS-gahrd), the home of the Norse gods. His job is to watch for the coming of the giants, a group of creatures led by Loki (pronounced LOH-kee) who are the enemies of the gods. When the giants attack Asgard, Heimdall will blow the Gjallarhorn loud and clear, a signal to all the Norse gods that their final battle is about to begin.

Myths about the Hunting of Specific Creatures There are many other myths from various cultures that deal with the hunting of a specific animal or monster. Most of these fall under the category of heroic feats or battles, but some actually involve tracking or hunting.

The Greek hero Heracles (pronounced HAIR-uh-kleez), as punishment for accidentally killing his wife and children during a fit of madness, was tasked with performing twelve labors. The majority of these tasks were centered on capturing or killing certain mythical animals. The Cerynean (pronounced ser-i-NEE-uhn) Hind, for example, was a sacred deer that was so swift it could outrun a hunter's arrow. Heracles had to capture it but not kill it, which would bring the wrath of Artemis upon him. He tracked the animal on foot for a year, finally capturing it when it at last grew tired or when it stopped to drink. His next task involved capturing the Erymanthian (pronounced air-uh-MAN-thee-uhn) Boar, a giant beast that wandered the wilderness of Arcadia. Heracles, after seeking the advice of a centaur (a half-man, half-horse creature) on how to capture it, drove the boar into deep snow so it could not run away. Heracles later had to hunt and kill the Stymphalian (stim-FAY-lee-uhn) Birds, vicious creatures with sharp bronze feathers that they could use to cut their enemies. The birds hid in a dark forest where Heracles could not see them; Hephaestus (pronounced hi-FES-tuhs), the god of blacksmiths, created for Heracles a set of crotala, or bronze clappers that rang out loudly when clanged together. Heracles used these clappers to scare the birds out of their roost, and he shot them down with arrows as they flew.

Another myth related to hunting a specific creature is found in the legends of King Arthur. The Questing Beast was described in two dramatically different ways: in one version, it was a ferocious creature with the head of a serpent, the body of a leopard, the rear legs of a lion, and the feet of a deer; in another version, it was a small white creature whose beauty contrasted with the horrid barking sound that came from within it. It was sought by the knights Perceval (pronounced PUR-suh-vuhl) and Palamedes (pronounced pal-uh-MEE-deez), as well as King Pellinore (pronounced PEL-uh-nor). According to legend, Pellinore spent much of his life searching for the beast, without success. Palamedes then took up the search, and was unsuccessful until he joined Perceval on his quest for the Holy Grail. The two came across the beast and were able to slay it after driving it into a lake, where it could not escape.

Mythological Hunters in Context

Myths related to hunters and hunting can reflect a culture's views about the relationship between human beings and the natural world. The myths of the Greeks focus on the goddess Artemis (pronounced AHR-tuh-miss), whose relationship with animals is marked by respect and knowledge of their sacred nature. In many myths, Artemis punishes those who kill needlessly or who kill animals considered sacred. Similarly, many American Indian cultures focus on hunting as a part of the cycle of life, performed only as necessary and always with respect for the animals killed, since they are giving up their lives to provide continued life and comfort for their hunters. In cultures where hunting is approached with reverence or respect for nature, female mythical characters such as Artemis are often present.

By contrast, in the tales of the Norse and other northern Europeans, hunts are often waged like wars; the relationship between humans and nature is less harmonious, and more like the clash of enemies. Similar tales can be found in Greek myths—such as the tales of the labors of Heracles—but the hunts in these cases are generally for unnatural beasts or monsters, creatures clearly not meant to represent a part of the natural order. In tales where the hunt is treated as a battle, male characters are usually the focus.

Mythological Hunters in Art, Literature, and Everyday Life

The act of hunting as part of a quest is common in art and literature. Tales of the Questing Beast, for example, appear in many versions of Arthurian legend, including Thomas Malory's Le Morte D 'Arthur and T. H. White's The Once and Future King. A famous painting of the Wild Hunt, titled Asgardsreien, was made by Norwegian artist Peter Nicolai Arbo in 1872.

Mythological hunters still make appearances in modern culture. Herne the Hunter, a specifically English version of Cernunnos, appears at the climax of the fantasy novel The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper. Artemis and Atalanta appeared as characters on the television show Xena: Warrior Princess, while Cernunnos appeared on Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and in the PlayStation 3 video game Folklore. A silhouetted image of Kokopelli has become a popular symbol of the Pueblo people and of the American Southwest as a whole, and is one of the most popular decorations on souvenir items from the region.

Read, Write, Think, Discuss

For many centuries, hunting was an essential part of human survival. In modern times, however, the domestication of livestock and other animals for food has eliminated the need for hunting in many cultures. In these societies, some view hunting as an unnecessary and cruel act, of killing simply for the sake of killing. Others see it as a way of getting back to nature and connecting with the roots of their culture. Which view do you support, and why? Do you think the rise in domesticated meat animals has caused a shift in the way modern society as a whole views hunting? If so, how?

SEE ALSO Artemis; Atalanta; Cernunnos; Orion

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Hunters in Mythology

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