Mistress of beasts,
Whether weighty and waddling
Loping and lean
In the darkness of the slow-rising dawn
I call to you
The bears enter town here
The trash bins have locked lids
When I walk to class the forest presses up against the breaking spear tops
Of the Canadian Shield
And it whispers about the onset of frost
“There are women
In Cypress Grove
And if they catch ya
You don’t go home…”
— Clutch, “Cypress Grove”
We know the story of Actaeon, or think we do. A hunter in the forest with his dogs stumbles upon Artemis bathing. In retribution for his intrusion on Her privacy, the goddess transforms Actaeon into a stag. His own hounds, not recognizing him, pursue him and tear him to pieces.
But there are many versions of the story besides this one. Actaeon boasts that he can best Artemis as a huntress. Or, the hounds belong to Her, not to him. Or, he is no stranger to Her, but a frequent and familiar companion, and thus his spying on Her is no accident. Or, what he tries is far more intrusive, violent, and violating than mere spying.
As a goddess of the liminal, Artemis enforces boundaries: between the sacred and the profane, and especially ascribing borders around purity. Like many deities, Her enforcement of Her prerogatives are dramatic and frequently violent; lest one think Her punishment of Actaeon uncharacteristic or, well, overkill, consider the fate of Callisto, turned into a bear for violating her vow of chastity to the goddess. Artemis’s retribution is most especially evident in response to such violations. The emphasis here is not on who ultimately is to blame for the violation, but the fact that the violation occurred.
But the version of the story of Actaeon that has come down to us makes the goddess seem unusually petty and vindictive, even for the Olympic pantheon. Yet, if we consider other and older versions of the story, Her retribution seems more fitting in light of the violation that Actaeon attempts in these versions. Taken in that light, the story of Actaeon is one of consequence.
(I posted an earlier version of this invocation back in 2012. This past weekend, two additional lines came to me.)
I am the woman racing down the hill with her hound at her heels
I am the boy lagging ten steps behind his father looking everywhere but at me
I am the wind in the trees, my fingers are the wind
I am a shadow walking between the stars and the earth
And the earth rolls under my feet
“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.
“I’d tell him that being solo in the backcountry is one of the only times in my life that I’ve been able to exist as a body and a person without worrying about how other people might try to claim my body as their own. Crossing frozen rivers on my hands and knees, curling up in my sleeping bag, waking at dawn in a bed of dew—these are the moments when the shadow of that vulnerability fades, and the only thing that exists is the beautiful, indifferent landscape and my own strength and skills. Going alone into the wilderness is one of the ways I reclaim myself. It is an act of joy and an act of self-defense.”
— read the rest in Outside Online