To every story there is a message…..
Artemis, Aphrodite, and Revenge
Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and Leto. She was the goddess of chastity, of the hunt, of the harvest, and of the moon. Later, she also was identified as the goddess of childbirth. Artemis took pleasure in roaming wild places and in hunting wild animals.
Like Aphrodite, Artemis figures in the Trojan War. The story is that Agamemnon, king of Greece, shoots a deer, and brags that Artemis herself could not have been more skillful with the kill. Enraged, Artemis determines to punish Agamemnon’s arrogance. When Agamemnon’s warships prepare to depart for Troy, Artemis bids the winds be still until Agamemnon sacrifices to her his daughter Iphigenia. One version of the story says that Agamemnon complies and sacrifices Iphigenia; another that Artemis exchanges a deer for Iphigenia and saves her life.
This story illustrates an aspect of Artemis repeated in her other myths—revenge against mortals who have offended her. One of the most well known “revenge” myths is about Actaeon, a young man who, while out on the hunt, accidentally encounters Artemis while she is bathing. Artemis, furious at being seen naked by a mortal, changes Actaeon into a stag—who is then pursued and killed by his own hounds.
In the play Hippolytus (by Euripides, a fifth-century B.C.E. Athenian tragedian), the capacity of Aphrodite for revenge is illustrated. Artemis is pitted against Aphrodite through a young mortal called Hippolytus. Out of devotion to Artemis, of whom he is a follower, Hippolytus has refused entirely to worship Aphrodite or recognize her divinity—in other words, he has refused to have anything to do with women. In revenge, Aphrodite causes Phaedra, Hippolytus’ stepmother, to all in love with him, a circumstance which leads both to her suicide and to Hippolytus’ violent death when cursed by his father.
That is the context in which the many stories about Aphrodite’s and Artemis’ usually unpleasant encounters with mortals should be understood (hint: in ancient Greece, you wanted to steer clear of the gods!). These are two divinities who, while possessing the power to do good, will not suffer mortal foolishness gladly. Hippolytus is an example of what happens when mortals transgress against these divinities (that is, by worshipping Artemis alone, he implicitly insulted Aphrodite). It does not matter whether they knew what they were doing or not; it is the fact of the transgression that counts, not necessarily the circumstances.
In this sense, divinities like Aphrodite and Artemis possess a power rather like that of Zeus; and in this sense, too, these apparently contrasting divinities have something in common. While we often think of both of these goddesses in rather benign terms—Aphrodite as the charming “goddess of love” or Artemis as the spunky huntress—the fact is that they can mete out punishment with the best of them, in the process demonstrating that their power may often be as extensive and as potentially lethal as that wielded by “the father of the gods.”