The Greek goddess Artemis, the daughter of Zeus and Leto and twin sister of Apollo, was a strict virgin without any male lover and any offspring; she was typically in the company of the nymphs, young women of nubile age. Images represent her as a young woman, often a hunter in short dress and with bow and quiver, sometimes accompanied by a stag. Her counterpart in Roman myth was Diana.
In Greek and, by extension, Roman cult, Artemis had multiple and widely varying functions, most clearly gendered. Their common denominator was her protection of human activities in marginal space and time.
In space, Artemis oversaw the uncultivated area outside the city and the cultivated land that is the space of transition between individual cities. Here, hunting, traveling, and warfare were the dominant human activities. Artemis protected hunters and presided over their prey, the wild animals; as such, she was closely connected with deer, especially the stag, and acted as "Mistress of Animals," the divine protector of wild animals.
From the Neolithic epoch onward, hunting was an exclusively male occupation, one whose performance excluded any sexual interest or activity: Sexuality belonged to the secluded space of the city and its houses. Several myths tell about the disastrous consequences of disregarding this separation. In the myth of the Calydonian hunt, the female hunter Atalanta provoked the love of Meleager, who forgot the rules of hunting and was subsequently killed by his mother. Whereas this story warns against importing sexuality into the realm of Artemis, the myth of Hippolytus warns against extending Artemis's realm into the city: The young hunter Hippolytus worshiped only Artemis and refused sexuality; Aphrodite, the goddess of erotic love, punished him by making his stepmother Phaedra fall in love with him, which caused his death through his father's curse.
Warfare is closely connected with hunting and as defense of the city's borders with the uncultivated surrounding spaces; Artemis Agrotera ("the Wild One") received regular sacrifices before a battle. In a few cases, the goddess also acted as a protector of cities under siege. At some point in time, she also was identified with Selene, the moon goddess, paralleling her brother Apollo's identification with Helios, the sun god.
A major area of Artemis's concern was the life of adolescent humans of both genders; she presided over this socially all-important transition from childhood to adulthood, to the roles of citizen, husbands, and warriors, and of childbearing wives, respectively. Many relevant cults took place in a sanctuary outside the cultivated area of the city and its fields: This combines spatial and temporal liminality and transition.
With respect to young men, two cults should be singled out. One is the festival of Artemis Tauropolos in Halae Araphenides on the east coast of Attica. During its rites, a young man received a small knife cut in his throat to draw blood, an action meant to incarnate Orestes being sacrificed to the savage Artemis of the Taurians (north shore of the Black Sea). This Artemis had the epithet Tauropolos, literally "steer herder," because the male adolescents were designated as young steers; this meaning, however, got lost early, and later Greeks understood the name as referring to the Taurians (Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris).
The other cult is the annual ritual in the sanctuary of Artemis Orthia in Sparta. In its older form, it was a contest between two groups of young men, one trying to steal cheese from the altar, the other fiercely defending the altar. Later, it was turned into the annual flogging of young men, until they bled. The priestess of Artemis carried the goddess's small image, which signaled by its weight whether the flogging was hard enough. As was the case with the Artemis Taurpolos cult, the Spartan rite was understood to replace an original human sacrifice. It was famous throughout later antiquity and even attracted Roman tourists.
For girls and young women, Artemis guarded two passages, the entry into adolescence (becoming a párthenos) and the final passage to childbearing womanhood (becoming a gunē). At the age of about ten, girls retired for some time to a sanctuary outside the city where they danced or even performed athletic contests, as in the case of Brauron on the east coast of Attica where vase paintings show footraces of naked girls. When marrying, they dedicated the toys of their childhood, such as balls or dolls, in a shrine of Artemis. The goddess also helped with childbirth (often under the title of Lochia, "Lady of Birth"). A myth told how Artemis, born a day before her brother Apollo, helped her mother Leto give birth to him. Her shrine in Brauron received the garments of women who had died in childbirth; in other shrines, women dedicated garments to Artemis to thank her for safe delivery and in the hope of further births.
A few Anatolian cults of Artemis are somewhat different from the above, most conspicuously the cult of Artemis in Ephesus. In the latter, Artemis combines aspects of the Anatolian Mountain Mother with her pan-Greek image. The famous many-breasted statue of Ephesian Artemis reproduces an archaic Near Eastern statue type. Already antiquity regarded her as many-breasted (multimamma); modern scholars agree that they are not breasts, but disagree as to what they are.
Roman Diana shared mythology, iconography, and many cult details with Artemis, although Diana played no role as protector of young males, a role given mostly to Juno or Minerva. Diana's role as moon goddess, however, was more prominent in Rome and might be original. Like Artemis, Diana was regarded as protector of women and as protector of hunters whose dedications she received; animal heads could be suspended in her sanctuaries as a trophy, and a very important shrine was in a grove in the forests around Lake Nemi (Diana Nemorensis, "She of the Grove"). Unlike Artemis, however, she also played an important political role: Her sanctuary on the Aventine in Rome was the center of an age-old alliance of Latin cities under Rome's leadership. In Christian belief, she became the demon of witchcraft because she shared, as goddess of wilderness and transitions, traits with the goddess Hecate; as such, she is still worshipped among contemporary Wiccas and neopagans.
see also Anahita.
"Artemis" and "Diana." 1996. In The Oxford Classical Dictionary, ed. Simon Hornblower and Antony Spawforth. 3rd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Burkert, Walter. 1985. Greek Religion: Archaic and Classical. Oxford: Blackwell.
Ginzburg, Carlo. 1991. Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches' Sabbath, trans. Raymond Rosenthal. New York: Pantheon Books.