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.
You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
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?
“All that effort, and it just takes one dog running through the shrubbery, or one group of people chatting as they push through a trail-free area, to disrupt the delicate nesting process that’s the culmination of weeks of effort, the future of that little family.”
We need to understand how delicately balanced an ecosystem is, the webs of relationships and balances that formed over thousands of years of fine-tuning and evolution. We need to know how much our actions can screw the entire system up, whether through introducing an invasive species or destroying habitat for one more golf course. We need to have our hands in the soil, watching the creek for the flash of a salamander’s belly, our eyes to the trees for the first sign of autumn’s flush of color. We need a personal relationship with non-human nature that doesn’t end with a perfectly manicured, chemical-treated lawn.
In Wild Gods we do not engage with our deities through worship only, but also through engagement with and understanding of the natural world. Even that “but also” suggests that these things are distinct, separable one from the other. But we do not exist at a time on this earth when we can afford to consider them so. Lupa explains why.