When I try to explain You, words fail me.
You are a steward, I say.
You are a protector.
Once I called You the ultimate forest ranger.
These are not sufficient.
I try to explain why You protect, and also kill.
Why You are a doula, and never give birth Yourself.
Why You are virgin, as though being a woman in this world were not sufficient explanation.
Perhaps the fault lies in attempting explanation in words.
The forests are explanation.
The mountains are explanation.
The burst of feathers where a quail was killed, the pile of bones where an elk was killed, the tracks of deer and wildcat and coyote and bear…
These are the explanation.
Follow the trail, and understand.
Speak to me in the language of
Stone and Moss: the brook and
Fox-den know well my mother-tongue.
Let us be clear:
This Moor-language sings sweeter
In my ear than all the songs
I ever heard from angels,
Clear and beautiful as they were.
I tell you no lie,
Engaging with the gods of the wild means engaging with wildlife, as a part of the natural world which is not human–though we as humans have no inherent separation from that world, even though we often act as though we do, there is nothing like an animal encounter to bring home both our kinship with these nonhuman intelligences, and the differences between us and them.
The ancient Greeks had a different relationship to wilderness than those of us who have grown up with it as a form of recreation do. There are reasons that Artemis patrols the liminal, Pan incites panic, and Dionysus’s entrance into the city from the wild mountains is a time of upheaval and terror as well as joy and celebration. We push back the wilderness for our own safety and comfort, but it will come in, as sure as a dandelion pushing up through a sidewalk or a squirrel invading your attic.
Wildlife are pursuing their own stories: food, shelter, reproduction, play. Seeing them at
these pursuits is an unusual occurrence, one that few besides hunters, wildlife scientists, or determined backwoods adventurers experience. But in tracking, you can learn something of the stories that passed through a place before you came there.
Among other more practical reasons, this is why I study tracking. Realizing that the seemingly undisturbed landscape along the logging road or hiking trail is actually awash in activity is a humbling and eye-opening experience. The wild isn’t something that occurs out there. It’s going on all the time, all around us, in the most unlikely places. Knowing that an elk or a bobcat or a bear or even something as humble as a wood rat or a deer mouse was right here, perhaps just a few hours ago, brings home how we are not the only inhabitants of this world.
It’s not just for us, and it is of this that the gods of the wild remind us. Artemis is both
hunter and steward; delighting in slaughter as the hymn says, but also concerned with sustenance and renewal. Thus a goddess of violent death is also a goddess of birth. Pan is the wild, the will toward life of all that is, both the deer mouse trying frantically to escape the coyote’s jaws, and the coyote in desperate need of this tiny meal. Dionysus is both our footsteps on the earth, and the mountain lion’s; He brings the wilderness into the city, and brings us out into the wild.
When next you are in the forest, stop and sit. Breathe. Imagine who else might have been here, as recently as a few hours or minutes ago. What sign did they leave of their passing? What sign will you leave behind you?
Notoriously difficult to cultivate, the madrona tree thrives when it roots where it chooses, and does better in community with its fellows. It survives wildfire when mature and can be found in company with Douglas fir, a tree whose regenerative cycle also incorporates wildfire. Ironically, forest management techniques involving wildfire suppression have led to a decline of this tree.
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.