An interesting phenomenon occurred during our summer retreat. We had engaged in a lengthy exercise to get acquainted with the place we were in, the attributes of its physical existence and the spirits resident in it. We had then reconvened and told the stories that came to us as a result of this exercise. Then, before the altar of Artemis, we passed around horns of water and wine.

To all of us, the water tasted better.

freshwater spring, North Cascades
freshwater spring, North Cascades

I should point out how unusual this was for this particular group of people. All of us have engaged in Dionysian ritual and are just fond of wine in general. But in that space, in that moment, the wine didn’t taste right. The water did.

Water Goddess

This experience was not without precedent for me. Having worked with Artemis for a number of years, and doing my best to pay attention to this goddess’s nature and desires, I intuited her association with water even before I read that Artemis in Arcadia has a strong association with rivers, lakes, harbors, and fish. When drawing her down as an entity I was drawn to water, and drinking it, normally a grounding experience, instead intensified the direct connection. When I began researching her worship and manifestation in Arcadia, I found myself navigating a familiar current.

Duwamish River, spring 2012
Duwamish River, spring 2012

It was partly from this that I understood that the Artemis I was working with was the Arcadian Artemis, as distinct from the Athenian sister of Apollo, the ecstatic goddess of Tauris, or the Ephesian Artemis who shares nothing with the others aside from her name. I first achieved this connection in 2007, while working on a Greek-styled festival in which Artemis played a small but key role. The man who later became my working spiritual partner and priest was cast as Pan that year, and we had a great deal of fun portraying different aspects of these gods of the wild. That was when the seed was planted for what would become our practice: Wild Gods. I mention this because Artemis is actually not frequently associated with Pan, being instead connected with nymphs, with Apollo, or with various mortals or demigods who get on her downside, but the one place that she is, again, is Arcadia.

Our retreat site was private land bordered by a river–one that was running low. It has been an unusually hot summer, with very little rain and high wildfire danger. In fact, we had planned not to have any campfires during our stay, not wanting to risk the whole woods going up when everything around us was dry as a bone.

It rained for most of the weekend.

Rain on Pond. photo by Tim Hester.
Rain on Pond. photo by Tim Hester.

Purity, Boundary and the Liminal

Artemis appears at the borders. Her temples in Greece were often located at the edge of sacred precincts–her temple in Eleusis was to Artemis Propylaia, literally Artemis of the doorway–and also at the borders of a city’s recognized authority or influence. Those serving at the temple were often vulnerable members of society, specifically women and girls. If the temple was violated, it was taken as a sign that the city was weak. In this context Artemis’s association with other places that frequently served as boundaries, such as roads, bodies of water, and mountain passes, takes on a new dimension: not merely an elemental nymph or sprite, she signifies and administers the liminal.

This association with borders also contextualizes Artemis’s association with purity, which she enforces with fatal ruthlessness. The well-known story of the hunter Actaeon, who surprises Artemis at her bath and in punishment is turned into a stag and killed by his own dogs, describes an instance of transgression and its consequence. Bathing, the act of becoming clean, has implications beyond the physical: purification by water is one of the most common rituals in the world.

Taken together, water as border and water as purifier tie Artemis strongly to this element. From this follows her leadership of nymphs, the placement of her temples, and her association with fish, fishing nets, harbors, and torches–an attribute she shares with Hekate, with whom she is often identified and who is a guardian of borders as well.

relief of Artemis carrying a torch, from the museum at Delos, Greece
relief of Artemis carrying a torch, from the museum at Delos, Greece

Gnosis and Practice

This shared experience of water being superior to wine was of a sort that I’ve had before, in other ritual contexts, working with other deities. It’s necessarily subjective and contextual, but I’ve had enough of these types of experiences to recognize this one.

Because of where I live, I’m pretty cautious about making offerings that involve pouring out alcohol, but I’ve done so in instances where it seemed to be required (working with Dionysus, it’s often required). However, on that day I got a strong message about what offering Artemis would prefer in the future. Much of our work that day had involved getting to know the place we were in and listening to what its spirits had to say, so it is perhaps not surprising that this preference manifested so strongly when it came time to do the main ritual.

It’s a puzzle for modern polytheists, pagans, and witches: we rely to some extent on ancient practices and documents, but live in times and places far removed from the contexts in which those practices were developed, those documents created. I’ve encountered people who try to adhere as closely to their own understanding of ancient practice as possible, and people who say that since this is frankly impossible, creating a new practice is only reasonable.

For myself, I think that if we are going to act at all as though gods are real entities that exist and have agency in the world, however imperfect our understanding and perception of them, it behooves us to try to understand and adhere to what they have to say now.

I still don’t really know what a god is. But I know that Artemis likes water, and so water I will offer to her.

Middle Fork Snoqualmie River, Washington State
Middle Fork Snoqualmie River, Washington State
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