April 6, 2008 — “Artemis” — FUNB


The first reading is Callimachus’s first hymn to the Goddess Artemis, verses 1-46:

“Artemis we hymn — no light thing is it for singers to forget her — whose study is the bow and the shooting of hares and the spacious dance and sport upon the mountains; beginning with the time when sitting on her father’s knees — still a little maid — she spake these words to her sire:

”  ‘Give me to keep my maidenhood, Father, forever: and give me to be of many names, that Phoebus may not vie with me. And give me arrows and a bow — stay, Father, I ask thee not for quiver or for mighty bow: for me the Cyclopes will straightway fashion arrows and fashion for me a well-bent bow. But give me to be Bringer of Light and give me to gird me in a tunic with embroidered border reaching to the knee, that I may slay wild beasts. And give me sixty daughters of Oceanus for my choir — all nine years old, all maidens yet ungirdled; and give me for handmaidens twenty nymphs of Amnisus who shall tend well my buskins, and, when I shoot no more at lynx or stag, shall tend my swift hounds.

”  ‘And give to me all mountains; and for city, assign me any, even whatsoever thou wilt: for seldom is it that Artemis goes down to the town. On the mountains will I dwell and the cities of men I will visit only when women vexed by the sharp pang of childbirth call me to their aid even in the hour when I was born the Fates ordained that I should be their helper, forasmuch as my mother suffered no pain either when she gave me birth or when she carried me win her womb, but without travail put me from her body.’ …

“And her father smiled and bowed assent. And as he caressed her, he said: ‘…Take, child, all that thou askest, heartily. Yea, and other things therewith yet greater will thy father give thee. Three times ten cities and towers more than one will I vouchsafe thee — three times ten cities that shall not know to glorify any other god but to glorify the only and be called of Artemis. And thou shalt be Watcher over Streets and harbours.’ So he spake and bent his head to confirm his words.

“And the maiden faired unto the white mountain of Crete leafy with woods; thence unto Oceanus; and she chose many nymphs all nine years old, all maidens yet ungirdled. And the river Caraetus was glad exceedingly, and glad was Tethys that they were sending their daughters to be handmaidens to the daughter of Leto.”

[Callimachus, Hymns and Epigrams. Hymn III, vv. 1-46. Trans. A.W. and G.R. Mair. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 129. London: William Heinemann, 1921.]

The second reading are two brief myths or fables attributed to Galius Julius Hyginus, a Roman writer who lived in the first century of the common era in Spain. Since he was Roman, he calls Artemis by her Roman name, which is Diana.

Myth 180. “ACTAEON

“Actaeon, son of Aristaeus and Autonoe, a shepherd, saw Diana bathing and desired to ravish her. Angry at this, Diana made horns grow on his head, and he was devoured by his own dogs.”

Myth 181. “DIANA

“When Diana, wearied from constant hunting in the thickly shadowed valley of Gargaphia, in the summertime was bathing in the stream called Parthenius,– Actaeon, grandson of Cadmus, son of Aristaeus and Autonoe, sought the same place for cooling himself and the dogs which he had exercised in chasing wild beasts. He caught sight of the goddess, and to keep him from telling of it, she changed him into a stag. As a stag, then, he was mangled by his own hounds.”

(Galius Julius Hyginus then proceeds to list the names of the more than eighty dogs, separated as to males and females, who devoured Actaeon.)

[The Myths of Hyginus, trans. and ed. Mary Grant. University of Kansas Publications in Humanistic Studies, no. 34. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1960.]


This is the first of a short series of sermons on Greek goddesses. You may well wonder why I would preach a sermon on a Greek goddess;– let alone why I would preach a series of sermons on Greek goddesses. And I thought I had better tell you why before I actually tell you about the Greek goddess Artemis, who is the subject of this morning’s sermon. Here is why:

When I was a teenager in the 1970’s growing up in a Unitarian Universalist church, we Unitarian Universalists began to realize that, even in our denomination, women and girls were often overlooked and undervalued. We Unitarian Universalists finally figured out that sexism pervaded our shared liberal faith; and we set about changing that. We rewrote our principles and purposes. We put together a new hymnal. Many local churches went through honest self-appraisal about their attitudes towards women and girls. And to a large extent, we managed to change our selves and our attitudes, and we did eradicate a significant amount of sexism within Unitarian Universalism.

We were able to change our selves, but we could not change several thousand years of religious history. We could not change the culture which surrounds us, a culture which assumes that God is male. We could not change the sacred texts of the Western religious tradition we claim as our own, sacred texts which mention men far more than they mention women. Because of this, we Unitarian Universalists try to keep up with Biblical scholarship which points out where women appear in the Bible, and which tells us that women may have written parts of the Bible. But we can’t change the fact that Western religious tradition depicts God as male.

Why is this such a problem? Well, as an adult I find I can distance myself from the surrounding culture, and hold on to my own opinion that the divine does not have a specific gender. But what about our children? God is like sex and Santa Claus –they’re going to hear about it on the playground — we can say that we won’t tell the children that God is male, but they’re going to hear about it anyway.

I think about the girls that troop out of here to go to Sunday school each week — Sophia and Amanda and Jessica and Asia and Stephanie and Tahlia. I want them to know that God can be pictured as male or female. Not that I want them to believe in any particular goddess or god — as far as I’m concerned, they don’t have to believe in any god at all — but I do want them to know that the divine can be female just as well as it can be male.

As it happens, many children go through a stage where they are fascinated by stories of strong, powerful beings. Early on, they love dinosaurs, especially Tyrannosaurus Rex and other huge saurian carnivores. A fascination with strong powerful dinosaurs is often followed by a fascination with gods and goddesses:– I remember when I was nine or ten, my favorite book was D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths. At this age, many children are fascinated by tales of gods and goddesses.

And many of us who were fascinated by Greek goddesses and gods when we were children find that those old stories have sunk deep into our religious consciousness. To this day, when I hear people talking about the feminine aspects of the divine, I immediately think of powerful Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. The Greek goddesses and gods are just as much a part of our Western cultural tradition as are the figures in the Bible; alhough we are unlikely to worship the Greek gods and goddesses, as Christians still worship the God of the Bible, still those Greek goddesses and Gods live deep in our cultural consciousness.

Thus I believe in teaching children about the Greek goddesses and gods — especially teaching children about Greek goddesses. Our girls, and our boys, deserve to have some knowledge of these strong, powerful religious figures; not least so that our children can begin to understand that women can be fully valued in religion, despite the fact that the dominant Western religious traditions tend to devalue and overlook women.

Now that you know why I want to preach about Greek goddesses, let me tell you about Artemis, my personal favorite Greek goddess; and tell you why I think our children, girls in particular, might want to know about Artemis.

At the most literal level, we might wish to tell our children about Artemis because Artemis choose as her followers nine year old girls. Admittedly, these nine-year-olds were not ordinary human children; these were sixty daughters of the old ocean god Oceanus, and thus had the blood of an immortal god running in their veins. (I suspect that there are some ordinary human girls who may well be disappointed to find out that they are not themselves eligible to join Artemis’s band.)

But I do think it’s worth telling children, especially girl-children, that there is at least one goddess who so values girls that she deliberately chooses girls to be her followers. I am glad that the Christian scriptures specifically mention that Jesus wanted the little children to be able to come to him. However, much of the Western religious tradition basically ignores children. That being the case, I think it’s worth telling girls that Artemis did value their contributions.

And Artemis really is a good alternative religious role model for girls. Artemis in no way represents the standard stereotyped roles that are pushed onto girls by the surrounding culture. In a culture like ours that promotes sexualized clothing for pre-pubescent girls; in a culture where you can buy Lego kits for girls which are packaged in pink and advertised as less difficult to assemble; in a culture where it has been documented that girls’ self-esteem plummets as they approach puberty — it’s not a bad thing for girls to know about a powerful goddess who is strong, self-assured, and competent.

Artemis is in no way a stereotypical girl. She wears sturdy outdoor clothing appropriate for the slaying of wild beasts; and I really doubt that she wears anything that is pink. She is adept with her bow, and she is the best of hunters. She lives on her own in the mountains, and while she has female attendants she is not dependent on any man. Indeed, Artemis is not impressed with the males who do fall in love with her, feeling no need to soothe wounded male egos:– when the river-god Alpheius fell in love with her and pursued her, she easily eluded him and sent him on his way, pursued by the mocking laughter of her attendants. Artemis is quite capable of taking care of herself.

We don’t have to encourage girls to grow up to be exactly like Artemis, of course. Not every girl is going to want to live in the mountains and hunt wild game. But we do need to offer girls a wider range of religious figures whom they can have as possible role models. The Christian tradition offers girls precious few good role models: Miriam, Esther, Ruth, and a few other strong capable women. And look how many more role models the Christian tradition offers to boys! So while we’re not going to encourage girls to be just like Artemis, nevertheless she is a goddess in the Western tradition who can be an alternative role model for our girls.

I have said that Artemis breaks down the gender-role stereotypes that so pervade the surrounding culture. One of these stereotypes is of enough importance that it deserves special mention.

In the first reading this morning, we heard how Artemis got Zeus, her father and the leader of all the other gods and goddesses, to promise that Artemis would never have to marry. Generally speaking, Western culture tells girls and women that, no matter what else they might do with their lives, marriage should be one of their ultimate goals. Even today, when so many more jobs and professions are open to women, the old feeling still persists that women should think of marriage before a career.

That’s why Artemis is such a good alternative role model for girls. Marriage simply doesn’t interest Artemis; she has other things to do with her life. Mind you, I think it’s a fine thing for people who want to get married to go out and get married;– but there are those girls and boys who would rather not get married. There is nothing in our religious views that demands we get married; marriage is a choice for us, it is a covenant into which we may enter voluntarily. Therefore, it behooves us to offer role models for those among us who choose not to get married. In the Christian tradition, Jesus never gets married, so boys have at least one powerful role model of an unmarried male religious figure. Perhaps we could offer Artemis to girls as a possible unmarried role model. True, she is not as central to our religious tradition as is Artemis; but then, Artemis is a goddess while Jesus in our view is simply human.

There’s another reason why Artemis can be a good role model for those among us who may not choose to marry. Although Artemis does not marry herself, she values children. She is the goddess of childbirth; and she likes children enough to want to have sixty nine-year-old girls for her attendants. It’s not that she hates children or marriage, it’s just that she has made a conscious choice not to have children of her own, nor to be married. In a culture that can push girls to want to be married and mothers first, and everything else second,– it’s good for girls to know that they can be feminine and be a woman without having to get married or have children.

I have one last thing to say about why Artemis deserves our attention. In the second reading this morning, we heard two different versions of the story of Artemis and Actaeon. In essence, the story goes like this: Actaeon, who is a man, is out hunting when he happens upon Artemis and her attendants skinny-dipping in a river. Actaeon is pretty creepy. When he sees Artemis and her nine-year-old nymphs attendants bathing, the obvious and polite thing would be for Actaeon to leave as quickly as possible. Depending on which version of the story you choose, Actaeon either stands there are stares at Artemis, or he tries to rape Artemis.

Women in our culture obviously have to put up with this kind of male behavior on a regular basis. In 2000, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report which said that 17.6 percent of American women said they “had been the victim of a completed or attempted rape at some time in their life.” Worse yet, all too often the woman is made to feel that somehow she is to blame for being attacked.

But Artemis doesn’t feel that she is to blame. Whether Actaeon was trying to rape her, or was invading her privacy by staring at her, Artemis assumes that he is to blame. She takes immediate action against him: she turns Actaeon into a deer; and then she gets his dogs to bring him down and devour him. We may not like the violence that ends this story. But nevertheless it is a powerful story because it helps to counteract the message that a woman who is sexually assaulted or even just stared at is somehow to blame. The story makes it clear that Actaeon should have know better; and he has to pay the price for his inability to control his momentary impulse. Personally, I would not try to explain this story in this way to children. But I do believe it is worth telling children this and other stories about this powerful and self-reliant goddess.

I believe in telling children stories about the goddess Artemis, just as I’m telling you stories about Artemis, so that we can have a religious role model of a strong, powerful, independent woman. As with any religious story, we need not take it as literal truth; we understand that it is poetic truth. As with any religious story, we know it is not the only religious story out there; it is one among many stories that we value for their poetic truths. But it’s good for us to know that our Western religious tradition, our own cultural inheritance, has strong female role models.

One of the nice things about being a Unitarian Universalist is that we can open ourselves up to religious influences like these. I told you that when I was nine or ten, I loved the Greek myths, and I read D’Aulaires’ Book of Greek Myths over and over again. I told you that because I was fascinated by Greek goddesses and gods when I was a child, now that I’m an adult I find that those old stories have sunk deep into my religious consciousness. So it is today that I have firm and very distinct images of the feminine aspects of the divine. Nor am I unique in this:– whether we come across the Greek goddesses in childhood, or when we are adults, we religious liberals know that we can accept the wisdom and the insights in these old stories;– we do not have to take theses stories literally, but still they can be a part of our religious lives.

I’m glad that Artemis is a part of my religious consciousness, so that I have an example of a strong, self-reliant woman who stands up to sexual harrassment, who doesn’t worry about gender stereotypes, and who loves living in the mountains. As we continue to work together to reshape our understandings of gender, as we work together to build a land where women and men can truly be equals, Artemis is a good goddess to have on our side.