“But the goddess with a bold heart turns every way destroying the race of wild beasts: and when she is satisfied and has cheered her heart, then the huntress who delights in arrows slackens her supple bow and goes to the great house of her dear brother Phoibos Apollon…” — Homeric Hymn 27 to Artemis
My hairdresser and I have an ongoing conversation about hunting. She hunts, I don’t. Accreted around this difference between us, not in itself a source of contention, are various disagreements that we have concerning laws and regulations, cougars and wolves, and how humans live in and move through the wild.
Today is the Agrotera Thysia, the Sacrifice to the Huntress, in honor of Artemis’s first hunt at Agrai on the Illisos. It is also the Kharisteria, a festival of gratitude to Artemis, Pan, and Ares for the Athenian victory at the Battle of Marathon. Hunting serves a different role in a culture so much closer to subsistence as ancient Greece was than our own; while I know people who refuse entirely to participate in our industrialized processes of meat production, eating only those animals they harvest themselves, this is very much the exception to the rule. Nor could our current population support its demand for meat through hunting.
Yet hunting changes one’s relationship with the surrounding environment. Last year I studied wildlife tracking as another means of gaining this intimacy: once you know, concretely, that other beings are sharing a place with you, going about their own business and probably avoiding you in the process, you see the natural world differently. It is not solely for us; we are a manifestation of a natural world far larger and more varied than most of us ever think about. To consciously identify and pursue another living being in this larger world causes you to move through it in different way, to recognize its natural cycles. A hunter interested in continuing to hunt in the same landscape will not kill off mothers with young, nor the young themselves. Considered in this way, Artemis’s associations with death on the one hand–for She is associated with war as well as hunting, at least by the Spartans–and birth on the other make sense. I often refer to Her as a goddess of stewardship, a broader mandate than hunting and one which requires existing in harmony with one’s environment in a very concrete and pragmatic sense. The way that most of us live in 21st century America obscures this reality; most of us who eat meat will never be present at the death of something being killed so that we might live. If you ever have the opportunity, I recommend it.
Tracking wildlife brings you into alignment with hunting in another sense. At least some of the animals you track will be predators; thus, coming across kill sites is not outside the realm of possibility. A couple of fellow students recalled trailing a coyote across the dunes on the Oregon coast, to the moment when it came across a mouse. They followed the hunt, written in the tracks in the sand before them, until suddenly there were no mouse tracks anymore. More viscerally, it’s possible to come across feathers radiating from the spot where a bird was killed, or the sawdust-like remnants of a ruminant’s stomach long after whatever killed it has consumed or hauled away the rest. It’s impossible to retain any romantic notions of the gentleness of nature at such moments. In the wild, birth and death are going on all the time, and Artemis is a facilitator of both. Like Hekate, She is the guardian at a liminal gate through which beings pass from one state of existence to another.
I once described my dedication to Artemis as something like a pursuit, a hunt in itself: not only for wilderness, but for understanding of what wilderness means. The ancient Greeks understood it as a dangerous and even uncanny place, and with good reason. Today, we might be the greater danger, in either loving it to death, using it up, or both.