I was traveling over the holidays, hence the dearth of content recently. Here is the nearly-full moon over Yunnan, China the night of January 1st.
The association of Artemis with the moon depends on what period of Greek religious history you’re talking about, and also geographic region to some extent. When I first dedicated to Her my devotional activities had little to do with the moon, either in terms of visualizations or symbolism, or in terms of moon phase. But the Greek ritual month is timed according to the moon; the two major devotional activities that I do for Artemis are likewise, and one of them is in fact on the full moon. The ritual I’ve been performing lately, from Labrys’s Hellenic Polytheism: Household Worship, incorporates devotion to Selene, Artemis, and Hekate into a single ritual.
The more time I spend in the outdoors, the more attention I find myself giving the lunar cycle. At or near full, it is bright enough to see by, the brightest thing in the night sky when in the forest or mountains at night, far from sources of light pollution. When I first came to paganism, and from that to polytheism, the moon and the lunar cycle featured prominently–but many of the books I read abstracted those lunar associations from the physical satellite that I saw in the night sky.
Wild Gods is concerned with wilderness–not just a poetic or metaphorical wilderness, but the real wilderness that exists in the real world. Every month, that moon waxes and wanes over the wild, and humans are not the only ones influenced by it.
Someone I knew who was working with Artemis for a ritual event described the frustration they were experiencing in cultivating connection to the goddess. They said that it felt like chasing after something that was always a step ahead of them, grasping or glimpsing some slight presence before it was gone again.
Yes, I said. That’s what She’s like.
Back then, that was so. And to some extent, it still is. Artemis is a liminal deity par excellence, concerned with the borders and edges of things, with uncertain places and uncanny occurrences. The ancient Greeks regarded the wild as dangerous, justifiably so; today, this is still the case, though we humans have managed to kill off many of its dangers. The main one we haven’t is ourselves.
That conversation took place a decade ago, but I still remember it, because it marked the beginning of a shift in my own work with this goddess. That shift led me to re-cultivate outdoor skills I’d largely neglected since childhood, and acquire new ones, such as wild edible plant identification and animal tracking. Instead of an unknown world through which my goddess moved largely unseen, I found a world bursting with things to tell me about itself. And accordingly, She grew far more present in my consciousness.
An important aspect of Artemis is stewardship. Stewardship goes hand in hand with hunting: if you don’t take care of your hunting grounds, if you destroy them or hunt them to exhaustion, there’ll be nothing left to hunt. Early colonial explorers in North America were under the impression that they were looking at untamed wilderness, unaffected by human activity. They did not understand what they were seeing.
When I acquired some undeveloped land earlier this year, my relationship to Artemis changed yet again. Before, I had been pursuing Her. Now, I asked Her to draw near to me, to aid me in restoring a land damaged by commercial activity, to present whatever aspect of Herself was extant in that place so that I could open communion with it.
The response of that place was, we’ll see.
Artemis is not an easy goddess to approach. Every deity is challenging in their own way, but Artemis’s especial challenge is that she is not concerned with civilization, but with its edges. Like Potnia Theron, the Mistress of Animals to whom She is closely aligned, She is concerned with entities that are not human, that have their own lives and concerns, that do not exist for our sole use and benefit and all too often are harmed thereby.
For all that paganism professes connectedness to the Earth, it is rare that I meet another adherent of Artemis. One who I met last summer, an enthusiastic hunter, described the intimate connection that exists between hunter and prey. It is, at its most essential and most intense, the truth that lies at the heart of the gods of the hunt: for one thing to live, something else must die. The way we live, in America in the early 21st century, is designed to separate us from this essential truth: we do not see the things that die to feed us, and we do not see the detritus we leave in our wake.
That is what Artemis is. She is kind, but it is the brutal kindness of the quick death. Whether we embrace reciprocity or not, ultimately it will enforce itself, and the wild will not care whether it is too late for us or not.
I can say that Artemis is a goddess of wilderness, of hunting, of stewardship, of young children, of virginity, of childbirth, of borders, of harbors, of rivers, of lakes, but none of these things is an explanation. There is none; you will understand Her only by seeking Her.
“On 6 Mounychion, the spring month named after Artemis Mounychia, a procession of girls walked to the Delphinion. Each girl carried an olive twig bound with white wool, the hiketeria (‘suppliant’s twig).” — Erika Simon, Festivals of Attica
Lady of the Wild
Lady of Beasts
Leader of Nymphs
I come to you now as I do every month at this time With offerings of evergreen branches Of water and flame I ask your protection on my path, torch-bearer, illuminer And protection for the wild young on the edge of winter And protection for my family’s children, my friends’ children, for all children And those taken untimely by illness or violence or accident Take them in your train Lead them on safe paths Let them find good water and a place to rest and peace
This I ask of you, O Goddess of the grove and of the childbed And I will remember you again.
Hear me, O queen,
Zeus’ daughter of many names
Titanic and Bacchic,
revered, renowned archer,
torch-bearing goddess bringing light to all,
Diktynna, helper at childbirth,
you help women in labor,
though you know not what labor is.
O frenzy-loving huntress,
you loosen girdles and drive distress away
swift arrow-pouring goddess of the outdoors,
you roam in the night.
Fame-bringing and affable,
redeeming and masculine in appearance,
Orthia, goddess of swift birth,
you are a nurturer of mortal youths,
immortal and yet of this earth,
you slay wild beasts, O blessed one,
your realm is in the mountain forest,
you hunt deer.
O revered and mighty queen of all
many-shaped lady of Kydonia,
come, dear goddess,
as savior to all the initiates,
accessible to all, bringing forth
the beautiful fruit of the earth,
and fair-tressed health.
May you dispatch diseases and pain
to the peaks of the mountains.
Recently I read Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. It was recommended by a teacher in ethnobotany and edible and medicinal plants who I’ve taken a few classes from. Within a few chapters I understood why she praised the book so highly.
On some level many of us know that something is wrong. We know that the way we live isn’t sustainable–unfortunately “sustainable” has become a buzzword, ironically robbing it of meaning–and that we damage the Earth in ways that will take a long, long time to recover from…while meanwhile, the damage continues.
This is something that either bothers you or it doesn’t. If it does, Braiding Sweetgrass comes as close as anything I’ve read to laying out another path. Because everyone who agrees that there’s a problem is largely in agreement about what the problem is. It’s solving it that’s challenging: because, first, finding and articulating a vision of what that solution is, of what that other way looks like, is hard.
In general we have some notions about getting back to the land, about eating local and consuming less. These are generally good things to do because they help develop awareness of the bigger problem, the one that individual choices cannot solve because it is systemic.
Braiding Sweetgrass makes its case via the sciences of botany and ecology, the interdependencies of spirituality and religion, and the grief and passion of people who have seen their land ravaged and their way of life all but destroyed. It’s facile to observe that much of the argument for saving the planet is really about saving ourselves: the planet will continue to exist, probably even with life on it, long after our species has worn itself out.
Kimmerer, though, points out that in devouring our world, we are also devouring ourselves. I see it not only in industrial agriculture that produces more than we could ever use, then wastes it due to market forces; the determined glutting of markets for everything from oil to timber in pursuit of profit; but also in the grinding poverty from which people living in the richest country in the world cannot escape; the stress, anxiety, and rage within even those who by any standard are doing well; the rampant paranoia of a nation as unable to come to terms with its past as with its future.
Wild Gods is dedicated to living in partnership with the world that birthed us. This isn’t just a nice idea, but essential. Kimmerer herself asks the question: who will arrive at Hekate’s Crossroads first? Those who will save the world? Or those who will destroy it?