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Hunting and Mythology: Artemis

There are plenty of hunting and mythology connections, and they start with Artemis.

As the old saying goes, a bad day fishing (or hunting) is better than a good day at the office, right?

We have the luxury of such nonchalance because there's not much riding on the outcome of our trips; if we don't get some fish or a deer, nobody is going to go hungry back home.

For much of history, of course, this was not the case; hunting and fishing were an important part of survival. Even after the advent of agriculture and husbandry, hunting and fishing still had an economic and social immediacy that we, today, have a hard time appreciating.

The importance of these activities is attested by their prominence in many religions and myths the world over. There's almost always a patron god or goddess of hunting or fishing, and they often represent an important source of power and knowledge in the mythic landscape that must be placated or exhorted for a successful outing.

In this space, we'll examine some of the more common mythical hunters from around the world. Each entry will be, of course, brief and by no means comprehensive, but it will offer some of the more interesting or striking examples of hunting and fishing divinities from a smattering of cultures.

And maybe the next time you're having a hard time, sitting out in the cold rain with nothing to show for your patience and hard work, you could offer up a little prayer to one of these guys and see what happens. Can't hurt, after all!

Today's divinity: Artemis

Roman Statue of Artemis, from Versailles, 1st to 2nd century CE (image from Wikipedia)

Given our own culture's historical Greco-Roman bias, this goddess of the hunt is probably the most familiar to you and consequently, the most boring. Sure, she's a lady with a bow, a crack shot, a patron of wildlife, the woods, and particularly fond of deer. But what does she do, exactly? Well, like a lot of the Greek Gods, she was also apparently quite jealous, at least twice killing rival hunters under somewhat ironic circumstances (befitting cultured Greek sensibilities).

The best of these episodes is the story of Actaeon. There are several versions of the story, but they all revolve around Actaeon, a great but mortal hunter. In some versions, ol' Actaeon ends up boasting that he, in fact, is a much better hunter than Artemis, like he'd totally nailed that twenty-pointer from 700 yards through the heart, and that was nothing, you oughta see the rack he got last year, it was this big, and his dad totally has a lodge up in the mountains and he's going to take him out hunting for bear one of these days. Artemis, understandably annoyed by his bullshit, transforms Actaeon into a deer, and his own hunting dogs turn on him and tear him to pieces.

Apparently, Adonis, another Greek dude with hubristic delusions of grandeur, didn't get the memo, because one day he totally pulls the same nonsense, boasting that in addition to his killer abs and chiseled jawline, he's also a way better hunter than the Goddess of the Hunt.

I guess Artemis felt that her previous magical murder of Actaeon might have been a bit too subtle, because she eschews irony for effectiveness in her handling of Adonis. Rather than transforming him into anything funny or wry or symbolic, she just straight up sends a wild boar to kill his dumb ass. Crude, but effective.

Fountain sculpture of Actaeon devoured by his hounds (image from Wikipedia)

Classical allusions to Artemis occur in the Grandaddy of all Western Literature, The Illiad, where Homer refers to her as "Artemis of the Wilderness, Mistress of Animals," which is a pretty cool thing to have on your business card. Hunting was for the Greeks (as well as other cultures) a primary source of early military training, teaching coordination, cooperation, and flexibility in the face of adverse conditions and events. This is attested to her role in Spartan religious rites, where she was one of the divinities to whom Spartans made offerings before the beginning of military campaigns.

She was the sister of Apollo, another god associated with archery, and the daughter of Zeus who, in the shape of a swan, wooed their mother, Leto; Greek myths are kinda weird that way. Myths associated with her often place her in the role of a patron to famous mortal hunters; Orion, of constellation fame, had been a part of her posse before getting killed (either accidently, or by another god he pissed off, or by Artemis herself); similarly, Atalanta, a badass Amazon, was saved as an infant when Artemis sent a bear to suckle the abandoned child, who eventually grew up into a moral version of her patron goddess, tough and athletic and seriously good with a bow.

While the image of the hunt played an important part in Ancient Greek Art, it is interesting to note that hunting was probably almost exclusively pursued by men. Ancient Greek culture was pretty firmly patriarchal, with women relegated to a clearly second-class status. Similarly, hunting, as celebrated in the art of the Greeks, was also exclusively the pastime of the wealthy, a rural amusement that was considered to teach bravery and fortitude to the hunters.

Of course, since the silent majority of human history is made up of the poor, we don't know too much the role of hunting among the less well-to-do rustic peasantry. However, the popularity of Artemis, her importance in ancient Greek religion and culture, and her continued representation in renaissance art indicate that, on some level, she represents an archetypal fascination with hunting prevalent in human culture.

Mazzuoli's "The Death of Adonis", representing Adonis having a very bad day. (Image from Wikipedia)

If you are interested in the myths of the Greeks, I can't recommend Robert Graves' two-volume collection of myths, aptly named The Greek Myths, published by Penguin in 1955. They're pretty comprehensive, and Graves produced and excellent, synoptic, and very readable translation.

Regarding the role of the Hunt in ancient Greece, there's a really neat, though somewhat technical, book on the subject: The Hunt in Ancient Greece, by Judith Barringer, 2001, Johns Hopkins University Press. It presents a really fantastic overview of a lot of the representative hunting scenes from the art from Ancient Greece, and really a fascinating read.

How much do you know about hunting and fishing mythology? Share your knowledge in the comments.


(Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

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Hunting and Mythology: Artemis