In search for a name for the practice, I was looking for something with a history rooted in the centuries. Something connected with fertility, birth, childhood and the feminine. A name from the ancient world that would capture the complex nature of the feminine.
In the classical period of Greek mythology, Artemis and Apollo were described as the twins of Zeus and Leto. She was the Hellenic goddess of the hunt, wild animals, wilderness, childbirth, virginity and a fierce protectress of infants – especially young girls. After a girl-child was weaned from her mother’s milk, up until her consecration into womanhood, she remained under the protection of Artemis. The boy-child, by contrast, came under the protection of Artemis’ twin brother Apollo.
In later Hellenistic times, she assumed the ancient role of assisting Eileithyia in aiding childbirth. She was invoked during labour along with Hera-Eileithyia, the goddess protectress of women and labour – Artemis was the patron-protector of the infant. Artemis was born first and then assisted her mother in the birth of her twin brother as she really deeply understood the process and pains of labour and birth.
From Callimachus, Hymn 3 to Artemis 20 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.) :
“Seldom is it that Artemis goes down to the town . . . The cities of men I [Artemis] will visit only when women vexed by the sharp pang of childbirth call me to their aid – even in the hour when I was born the Moirai (Fates) ordained that I should be their helper, forasmuch as my mother suffered no pain either when she gave me birth or when she carried me win her womb, but without travail put me from her body.”
Artemis, on her third birthday was asked by her father Zeus what she wanted, she had six wishes
~ to be allowed to live as a virgin her whole life without having to be distracted by love and marriage,
~ a bow and arrow just like her brother, Apollo’s, with a hunting costume that brings freedom from having to dress like a lady
~ to be the bringer of Light to the world
~ to have a choir of sixty daughters of Okeanos (clouds), all nine years of age, to be her choir; and twenty Amnisides Nymphs as handmaidens to watch her dogs and bow while she rested
~ all the mountains on the earth to live and roam on.
~ and for the ability to help women in the pains of childbirth.
Zeus, being amused by her precociousness, granted the goddess her wishes.
ARTEMIS was one of the only three virgin goddesses of the Olympians. The other two being Athena (goddess of reason, literature, arts, intelligent activity and heroic endeavour) and Hestia (the goddess of the hearth, family, and domestic life).
An interesting paradox from the outset is to be the goddess of fertility and childbirth, but dying as a maiden herself. Her essential association with fertility, yet the resistance to embrace her own. Woman called to her in their time of childbirth, but if they were to die during labour, they were said to have fallen prey to her.
As I explored further some more paradoxes unfolded that wove through the tapestry of her life in mythology. She is one of a twin – one male, one female – starting as duality. She was the protectress of wild animals, yet delighted in the chasing and the thrill of the kill – she had deadly aim.
Every god is both frightening and alluring. What person -male or female – approaches large transitions like marriage or childbirth as an unambiguous pleasure?
As a virgin, therefore, Artemis both supports and endangers women entering maturity and assuming familial functions. Artemis, with her choir of sixty nine year olds “Okeanides” (clouds), represents the one that stands with women on the threshold of womanhood and then also on all the physical aspects of the female experience on earth – menstruation, loss of virginity, childbirth and death.
The death of the young girl as she matures and brings life into this world becoming a mother. The death of the virgin as she opens herself to love. The death of the ignorant mother as she ages and learns from her young and becomes the wise woman. The death of the Self as we know her and opening the way for transformation.
One of her symbols was the moon, representing the ‘Yin’, the darker, softer, feminine energy. That of Apollo was the sun representing the opposite, ‘Yang’, masculine energy.
The moon represents the cyclical nature of the feminine. The moon goes through phases, just as women do as we grow and mature. There is an inherent evolution for the woman as time passes. Always becoming. Always maturing. From Maiden to Mother to Crone.
This sphere overlaps, or is probably complementary, with that of Hera’s who guards the more institutional, familial, and wifely aspects of marriage. Hera was the wife of Zeus – king of the gods.
Besides her association with Hera (patroness of women) and Selene (moon goddess) she also identified with Hecate (goddess of crossroads, entrance ways, knowledge of herbs and poisonous plants). This last connection ties Artemis back into the principle of transformation and transition. During transformation we find ourselves at a crossroad having to go within, into our inwardness, and tap into the wisdom of the Self before proceeding on a new path.
One final, and often neglected, aspect of Artemis was her love of music and dance. She was known to dance in the wild woods and windy peaks with the Graces and Muses as well as the woodsy nymphs. She lead her hunting entourage in song while they hunted. Music and dance is such an integral part of expression of creativity, independence, freedom, letting go and passion. The rhythms that allows our bodies to flow in dance are just another expression of rhythm so part of the fibre of everyday life. The rhythm of sleeping/waking, of breathing of hearts beating. The sunrise/sunset, moonrise/moonset of days, months, years passing. The ebb and flow of tides. The changing of seasons. The waxing/waning of the moon. The brief moment of a life/lived/death that constitutes our time on earth. Artemis resides just beneath the skin of our being.