A Goddess whose day has come

A proper woman should have no interests outside the home. Her whole life is defined by her relationships to others. As a child she is to be chaste and obedient to her parents, dutifully performing her chores and learning the skills she’ll need to be a good wife and mother. After marriage she is to be an efficient caretaker of the home, keeping it neat and orderly, having the food ready when her man returns after a tough day at work, being supportive and attentive to all his needs. One of the most important of the man’s needs, of course, is offspring and should she happen to prove infertile she will be seen by all as a failure and only half a woman. When the children come it will largely be the woman’s responsibility to raise them, teach them, nurture and care for them. And she is to be content with all this and only this. Women who want more, who crave a different sort of fulfillment, who think that they have something other than their wombs to offer society are treated with scorn and distrust since they are encroaching on the territory of men and threatening to unravel the very fabric of society. Grudgingly they may be accepted if they forsake their own femininity. It’s possible, after all, for a woman to compete in the world of men if she is willing to make herself into a counterfeit man but a woman who wants to be both worker and mother – that is an extreme aberration of nature. Who will care for the children while she’s away, even if those children are in school during the hours of her absence? How can she give her full attention to the job when her thoughts so frequently drift back to the home she’s left empty, the chores she’s left neglected? Won’t there be conflict between her and her husband whom she’s rendered impotent by emphasizing in inability to properly provide for his family?

These notions may strike some as absurdly comical and antiquated today since we’ve made so much social progress and most households cannot function on a single income anyway, yet working women are still under great pressure and constantly bombarded with harmful messages like these. Often their most vocal critics claim a religious basis for their condemnation. Christianity in particular has long had an antagonistic relationship with women. The Bible is full of disgustingly misogynistic passages and admonishes women to remain in the home and keep silent in the church, relying on their husbands for proper instruction. Though women were among the first converts to the new faith they were limited to supportive roles, caring for the apostles and making financial contributions to the cause. They couldn’t preach, they couldn’t hold positions of authority and they couldn’t dispense the sacraments. When some movements within the early church like the Montanists attempted to deviate from this pattern they were condemned and persecuted. The only exception to this were Virgins, Nuns and Martyrs – but to gain any sort of acceptance they had to renounce everything that made them women. Once the Christians gained sufficient power in Rome they waged war on uppity Pagan women like Hypatia of Alexandria:

“And in those days there appeared in Alexandria a female philosopher, a pagan named Hypatia, and she was devoted at all times to magic, astrolabes and instruments of music, and she beguiled many people through Satanic wiles…A multitude of believers in God arose under the guidance of Peter the magistrate…and they proceeded to seek for the pagan woman who had beguiled the people of the city and the prefect through her enchantments. And when they learnt the place where she was, they proceeded to her and found her…they dragged her along till they brought her to the great church, named Caesareum. Now this was in the days of the fast. And they tore off her clothing and dragged her…through the streets of the city till she died. And they carried her to a place named Cinaron, and they burned her body with fire.” (John of Nikiu, Chronicle 84.87-103)

Sadly this was just the beginning of Christianity’s war against women. I hardly need detail the atrocious legislation, pogroms, inquisitions and witch-trials that have taken placed over the last thousand years and more, nor do I have to chronicle how this campaign is still going on in the church and many Western societies today. All you need do is turn on the nightly news to see renewed attempts to repeal women’s hard-won rights and curtail their basic human freedoms.

In stark contrast to this stands the Pagan religions which honor the divine feminine, value women’s contributions and even grant them positions of power and authority. There are whole Pagan sects open only to women or which grant leadership roles to women alone – though I tend to think such groups are just as unhealthy and unbalanced as Christianity. Hellenic Polytheism has always struck me as far more sensible in this regard. The position of women in Classical Greek society may not have been ideal – though things did improve significantly during the Hellenistic era – in the realm of religion they had an equal footing with men, as Euripides (Melanippe Captive Fr. 13) attests:

“Men’s criticism of women is worthless twanging of a bowstring and evil talk. Women are better than men, as I will show …. Women run households and protect within their homes what has been carried across the sea, and without a woman no home is clean or prosperous. Consider their role in religion, for that, in my opinion, comes first. We women play the most important part, because women prophesy the will of Loxias in the oracles of Phoibos. And at the holy site of Dodona near the Sacred Oak, females convey the will of Zeus to inquirers from Greece. As for the sacred rites of the Fates and the Nameless Goddesses, all these would not be holy if performed by men, but prosper in women’s hands. In this way women have a rightful share in the service of the Gods. Why is it then, that women must have a bad reputation? Won’t men’s worthless criticism stop, and men who insist on blaming all women alike, if one woman turns out to be evil? Let me make the following distinctions: there is nothing worse than a bad woman, and nothing better in any way than a good one.” 

Indeed, a significant portion of the divine realm that the Greeks honored was female and served by female priests. One of the most important of those female divinities was the Goddess Artemis, who I think has a valuable message for the working women of today. She affirms that it is possible to be independent, powerful, driven to succeed – and yet also nurturing, protective and concerned with raising the young.

Artemis is one of the three Parthenoi or Virgin Goddesses of the Greek pantheon, belonging to no man and undefined by their relationships with others. As a child Artemis asks her father the king of the Gods to grant her this independent status for all time:

“One Artemis was sitting upon her father’s lap while still a maid and she spoke these words to Zeus, ‘Grant me to keep my maidenhood, Father, forever and [many other requests]’ … And her father smiled and bowed assent. And as he caressed her, he said: ‘When Goddesses bear me children like this, little need I heed the wrath of jealous Hera. Take, child, all that thou askest, heartily.’” (Kallimakhos, Hymn 3 to Artemis)

She did this so that she could pursue her own interests – hunting, athletics, spending time in the wild with the animals. The lovely 27th Homeric Hymn invokes her in this form:

“Over the shadowy hills and windy peaks she draws her golden bow, rejoicing in the chase, and sends out grievous shafts. The tops of the high mountains tremble and the tangled wood echoes awesomely with the outcry of beasts: earth quakes and the sea also where fishes shoal. But the Goddess with a bold heart turns every way destroying the race of wild beasts: and when she is satisfied and has cheered her heart, then the huntress who delights in arrows slackens her supple bow.”

She called to herself bands of young women who were similarly fierce in their independence:

“Atalante slept on the skins of animals caught in the hunt, she lived on their meat and drank water. She wore simple clothes, in a style that did not fall short of Artemis’ example; she claimed the Goddess as her model since wished to remain a virgin. She was very fleet of foot, and no wild animal or man with designs on her could have escaped her.” (Aelian, Historical Miscellany 13. 1)

That does not mean, however, that Artemis felt contempt for men and the more traditional roles of women. Indeed she is very much involved in the human lifecycle. First she is protector of pregnant women:

“We pray that other guardians be always renewed, and that Artemis watch over the woman with child.” (Aiskhylos, Suppliant Women 674)

She was also the Goddess whom women called upon to aid in their delivery:

“Labour pains are thy peculiar care. In thee, when stretched upon the bed of grief, the sex, as in a mirror, view relief. Guard of the race, endued with gentle mind, to helpless youth benevolent and kind; benignant nourisher; great nature’s key belongs to no divinity but thee. Thou dwellest with all immanifest to sight, and solemn festivals are thy delight. Thine is the task to loose the virgin’s zone and thou in every work art seen and known. With births you sympathise, though pleased to see the numerous offspring of fertility. When racked with labour pangs, and sore distressed the sex invoke thee, as the soul’s sure rest; for thou Eileithyia alone canst give relief to pain, which art attempts to ease, but tries in vain. Artemis Eileithyia, venerable power, who bringest relief in labour’s dreadful hour; hear, Prothyraia and make the infant race thy constant care.” (Orphic Hymn 2 to Artemis Prothyraia)

“Sokrates : Take into consideration the whole business of the midwives . . . For you know, I suppose, that no one of them attends other women while she is still capable of conceiving and bearing but only those do so who have become too old to bear . . . They say the cause of this is Artemis, because she, a childless Goddess, has had childbirth allotted to her as her special province. Now it would seem she did not allow barren women to be midwives, because human nature is too weak to acquire an art which deals with matters of which it has no experience, but she gave the office to those who on account of age were not bearing children, honoring them for their likeness to herself . . . Is it not, then, also likely and even necessary, that midwives should know better than anyone else who are pregnant and who are not? . . . And furthermore, the midwives, by means of drugs and incantations, are able to arouse the pangs of labor and, if they wish, to make them milder, and to cause those to bear who have difficulty in bearing; and they cause miscarriages if they think them desirable.” (Plato, Theaetetus 149b-d)

In fact, one of her first actions was to assist at the birth of her twin:

“I, Artemis, will visit the cities of men only when women vexed by the sharp pang of childbirth call me to their aid – even in the hour when I was born the Moirai (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.” (Kallimakhos, Hymn 3 to Artemis)

Nor did her concern end at birth. Artemis was honored with the title Kourotrophos which means “Nurturer of young” and she was asked to watch over children, granting them strength and health. She is especially involved in the maturation of young girls who served her as “little bears” at Athens:

“Girls playing the bear used to celebrate a festival for Artemis dressed in saffron robes; not older than 10 years nor less than 5 … the Athenians decreed that no virgin might be given in marriage to a man if she hadn’t previously played the bear for the Goddess.” (Suidas s.v. Arktos e Brauroniois)

And Artemis was one of the Goddesses invoked during marriage:

“Virgins about to have sex dedicated their virginal lingerie to Artemis.” (Suidas s.v. Lysizonos gune)

Artemis, then, is a very good Goddess for the working women of today to honor. She shows that you can, indeed, have it all – the bonds of family and independence, a fulfilling job and interests outside the home as well as being a loving partner and a nurturing mother. It may not be easy and often requires sacrifice, but that’s true of anything of value in life. And Artemis will help those who honor her for she a powerful and gracious Goddess.