Artemis Is the Queer Girl Goddess BFF of Your Dreams

Artemis (Diana to the Romans) is one of the queerest figures mythology has ever produced. The Greek goddess of the hunt, animals, unmarried girls and midwifery, the mythology has her securing a promise of perpetual “virginity” from her father and immediately skipping off into the mountain forests with a group of like-minded nymphs. Together she and her women hiked, swam, lived off the land and viciously murdered any man who walked in on them naked.

So, basically the 1970’s lesbian commune straight out of the Christian Right’s masturbatory nightmares.

There is some debate about what flavour of queer she actually is. There’s this great meme I keep seeing on tumblr about how Artemis’ sworn virginity makes her an aro ace arrow ace. Now like all bisexuals, my great weakness is puns (use this information wisely), which is why it makes me sad that of all the virgin goddesses (and indeed there are many) Artemis is almost certainly the only one for whom that identity label doesn’t fit.

In Ancient Greek, the word for virgin also means unmarried girl. There’s a school of thought out there that all of the virgin goddesses were, originally at least, just unmarried ones and that they could have as much sex as they liked with whomever they wanted. After all, it’s very clear that when Artemis and her sistren ask for perpetual virginity it’s the state of marriage rather than men themselves that’s undesirable. In fact, men are totally irrelevant. For Artemis marriage would have meant a loss of freedom, not just by subjecting her to her husband’s authority but by requiring a completely different lifestyle with different constraints and responsibilities from her. There’s a reason she’s the goddess of unmarried girls; while little mortal girls wouldn’t have had anything like her freedom, Artemis’ virginity allows her to escape the domestic responsibilities that marked out adult womanhood. (There’s a train of thought about lesbians and maturity here that takes us all the way to Freud, because apparently the one thing in history that never changes is men).

Sadly, though, this argument is rooted in the idea that these goddesses arose from a goddess-centric matriarchy that predated and was then overthrown by patriarchy. As much as I desperately wish this was the origin of Western society, the archaeological evidence for it as a universal phenomenon is basically nonexistent. Though the Minoans (the ancient Cretans) may have been matriarchal, the rest of Greece almost certainly wasn’t.

(I’ll give you all a moment to collect yourselves. I’m sad too.)

There’s some fairly compelling evidence that the “virgin” goddesses had no truck with men, even if they wanted to, in the existence and treatment of the goddess Demeter. Despite having an affair with Zeus and producing a child, Demeter successfully remained unmarried. If the virgin title was just given to goddesses who retained their sexual agency by avoiding marriage she’d carry it too, but she doesn’t. Probably for the various “virgin” goddesses refraining from sexual contact with men was the price they paid for freedom from the demands and constraints of marriage (think nuns, and how that was an option for noble girls who couldn’t or wouldn’t settle down with a man — girls can’t just wander around with freedom, they need an excuse). I have trouble imagining any of them were particularly sorry though, considering the tradeoff.

Just because they couldn’t have sex with men, though, doesn’t mean women were off limits to the various “virgin” goddesses. Being history’s most cisheterosexist society, the Greeks thought virginity loss required PIV penetration, which meant that women were entirely on the menu when it came to Artemis.

It’s hard to say if we’re supposed to read Artemis as attracted to women or understand that she’s sleeping with her nymphs. I suspect it varied from culture to culture. In Athens and then Rome, lesbian sex was considered to be shameful and disgusting because it involved women usurping the roles and rights of men, though this didn’t stop citizen men from hiring prostitutes to perform it for them. Probably the Athenian and Roman Artemis, at least according to the dominant culture, was a nice heterosexual girl trapped in a perpetual chaste girlhood because of her refusal to grow up and sublimate herself to a man’s desires. To lady-loving girls in both cultures I imagine the obvious subtext was known as simple truth, and in places like archaic Lesbos I imagine it was much the same.

There is at least one myth that makes it explicit that she shared a degree of physical intimacy with one of her nymphs, Callisto. Unfortunately we only have this because it’s an essential plot point in yet another Zeus rape story. Incidentally, while trying to find a suitable link for you all I realised that I’m going to need literally everyone to stop referring to Zeus’ rape victims as his “lovers;” just because the Ancient Greeks institutionalised victim blaming doesn’t mean we have to. (I also discovered that there is a support service for college rape survivors named after her which is sort of nice.)

“Quickly he took on the face and dress of Diana, and said ‘Oh, girl who follows me, where in my domains have you been hunting?’
The virgin girl got up from the turf replying ‘Greetings, goddess greater than Jupiter: I say it even though he himself hears it.’ He did hear, and laughed, happy to be judged greater than himself, and gave her kisses unrestrainedly, and not those that virgins give.”

Ovid’s Metamophosis Bk II:417-440 Jupiter rapes Callisto

What we have here is Zeus (Jupiter) deciding that he really wants to have sex with his daughter’s girlfriend, shapeshifting so that he looks like his daughter, and only changing back after he has Callisto close enough that she can’t escape from him. There’s a titillating grotesqueness in the way Ovid addresses this, as well as a reassurance that their relationship doesn’t go past kisses. Not content with pioneering the doomed lesbian storyline, he’s also giving us softcore lesbian fanservice with the traditional assurance for the reader’s manhood that they’re not really into each other like that. The thing is though, this myth only works if Callisto and Artemis normally kiss each other in distinctly non-platonic ways, and if there’s an expectation for romantic touch and closeness between them. Artemis is clearly at least attracted to women, and as it doesn’t violate her oath of virginity there’s no reason to assume she wasn’t acting on that attraction — or at least understood to be by many of her followers over time.

It is possible to make the argument that Artemis is bisexual and that she had feelings for both Orion and Hippolytus, but I find it to be a weak one as it’s based on one variant myth and one frankly bizarre modern interpretation of another. In the case of Orion, the usual version of the myth frames the two of them as friends and rivals, engaged in a dangerous contest that might wipe out every animal on earth. There Orion’s death is a consequence of their refusal to stop, the only way that the other gods could put an end to it. In the romance version, however, there’s no sign of that; instead, Apollo (Artemis’ twin) is jealous of the fact that the two of them are in love and tricks her into murdering Orion, robbing her of her agency and assigning her a reassuring desire for men in one single, tiresomely patriarchal act. In the case of Hippolytus — sworn virgin, expert hunter, dedicant of Artemis and actively sex repulsed — male academics are always seeing in his sex repulsion a repressed desire for Artemis and, in her avenging of his death, a return of that desire. Gods were always avenging their favourite’s injuries, but somehow in a goddess dedicated to the sexual rejection of men this becomes a sign of secret sexual interest.

Artemis, regardless of whether or not she feels or acts on sexual desire, is so very clearly a lover of women. Not just in a “she loves and appreciates women in the bonds of sisterhood” way, but in the desires romantically and seeks out life partners to start an earth friendly granola business way. More than that, she models an alternative way of existing to the dominant capitalist-patriarchal model, with women prioritising each other, the environment and their community of choice over the nuclear family and amassment of wealth. Like the Morrigan, she’s more relevant than ever.


Are you following us on Facebook?

Profile gravatar of Siobhan

Siobhan has degrees in information management and medieval history making her lots of fun at parties. She's written for Dirge, Biscuit and Diva and is currently working on a book on the supernatural women of Ireland for Wolfenhowle Press (and if you want to help feed her while she works on it you can check out her patreon here.

Siobhan has written 19 articles for us.

38 Comments

  1. I knew there was a good reason for, first, an insistent Vicar christening me Diana, which apparently at the time, was against my parents wishes, and second, the fact that I couldn’t ever get enough of Greek and Roman myths and legends as a child.

    Thanks for this series Siobhan. It’s been very interesting so far and as something of a thwarted historian, just the stuff to get me in.

  2. My name comes from Callisto!

    Her story goes on: She gets pregnant from Zeus’ rape, and when she starts to show she is kicked out of the nymph club (supposedly for breaching the ‘chastity’ the nymphs were meant to uphold, which is an awful, victim blaming reason. I’d say actually her and Artemis were so traumatised by events that they couldn’t face each other any more and broke up).

    Hera, Zeus’s wife, reacts with jealous rage at another infidelity (rather than, say, horror at the rape and deception). She wants to kill Callisto but fears angering Zeus. After Callisto has given birth to a son, Hera turns her into a bear, meaning her and her son are forever separated.

    16 or so years on, the son, Arcas, is hunting in the woods. He encounters a bear (Callisto), and is about to kill her with his javelin. Zeus intervenes… but instead of turning Callisto back into a nymph, he turns Arcas into a bear too and places them both among the stars as the Great Bear and the Little Bear (Big Dipper and Little Dipper, for you North Americans).

    On a personal level, what I enjoy most about my name is that my parents just thought it was a pretty girly name, literally meaning ‘the most beautiful’. But as I grew up and realised my queerness and researched my name I realised I was named after a GAY BEAR NYMPH. Foreshadowing.

    • That’s because Greece was a homosocial institutionally bisexual society. Everyone was presumed queer and so all of the male gods were written that way. Goddesses were more variable because female sexuality was required to revolve around men and so the female deities were presented that way.

      • I don’t think that is true at all. This may be a theory but if we use what is popular today on television and what gets canceled as a basis it may shed light on the past. Think of it this way, perhaps the myths created were not the ones that some author came up one day. It could be a series of stories created that just proved viral in Greek society. They may have their start around a campfire and every person added more until it what was popular was passed on.

  3. “As much as I desperately wish this was the origin of Western society, the archaeological evidence for it as a universal phenomenon is basically nonexistent. Though the Minoans (the ancient Cretans) may have been matriarchal, the rest of Greece almost certainly wasn’t.”

    The Minoans predated Greeks. Their culture affected later Greeks (who came after Thera eruption that ended Minoan civilisation) heavily, so technically they are the origin of Western society. Even the matriarchal aspect is still visible, since as it’s been discovered few years ago Mycenaean Greeks surprisingly (as they were very patriarchal) had women rulers too, and the recurring theme in Greek myths to the point it’s almost obsessive was the fear of the society run by women.

    And fun fact – the names of most Greek godesses are not of Greek origin, like for example “Zeus”. They are thought to be from Minoan language and those goddesses were probably quite directly transplanted into a new pantheon. Would explain how such women-haters like Greeks had a deity like Athena, goddess of wisdom and war.

  4. This is my favorite column maybe ever. Seriously, Siobhan. You continually make my day.

    Has anyone else read the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan? Because there’s a mortal character named Zoe who wears combat boots and has short spiky black hair who eventually joins Artemis’s gaggle of lady companions and I’M JUST SAYING SHE WORE COMBAT BOOTS AND HAD SHORT SPIKY HAIR.

  5. So the creepiest deity of all time award should go to Zeus. An excellent article and a good read for my commute home. Thank you for brightening my day Siobhan.

  6. I always read Hippolytus as asexual and a fan of badass women because his mother was an Amazon. In my Greek mythology headcanon, he was raised by the Amazons and when he went to Greece to live with his father Theseus he was like, “WTF is this why are you all such misogynistic asshats?” And then he ran off to serve Artemis because she reminded him of his many moms.

  7. I love this column so much.

    Ovid’s Metamorphoses is my favorite book. I have kept it by my bedside and read from it every day now for close to 8 years. Still never gets old.

    My name isn’t Greek, but has a cool Norse mythology story/history ^__^

    Short versions of a very long history: Saga was the Norse goddess of poetry and history. Her name means “seeress” or “to see” or “omniscience”. She lived in a place called Sökkvabekkr (sinking beach), which was a mystical land of waterfalls. There she sat with Odin drinking from a golden chalice filled from the stream of memory and “The well of Urdr (well of fate)”.

    In her role, Saga was believed to have prophesized Ragnorok. Others believe that because of this prophecy, Saga was actually an aspect of Frigg/Freeya (which are the same person but way too complicated to explain). While Saga represents the past form/memory of Freeya/Frigg (goddess of love, fertility, and beauty), Freeya/Frigg represents the present form/memory.

    So….

    Did I know all this before today? No. Not a damn word of it. I looked it all up after reading this amazing article ^__^

    The coolest part of all this? Saga was not my given name. One very amazing privilege of being transgender is that we can choose our own names.

    I wish I could say I choose Saga for some deep meaning, or because of the awesome history above. My family has some Nordic blood, but no, I just liked it because it was fucking badass like me. And because wherever I go and introduce myself, people agree, “Damn! That is badass!” ^______^

  8. Finally, a chance to share my Artemis story! When I was in marching band in high school, my flute section would always make t-shirts to wear to rehearsals on certain days. The designs changed each year, but we always had nicknames on the backs. The other flutes decided to call me Artemis because I was a competitive archer. I privately thought this was hilarious and came out to them during my senior year. They responded by giving me an “Artemis necklace” that consists of a glyph of a naked woman between two crescent moons. I still keep it on my nightstand.

  9. I read Artemis as a homoromantic asexual. Shortly after I converted to Hellenic Polytheism, I did actually try to read Artemis as a lesbian because I was just starting to come to terms with sexual orientation &c. I always had the sense when I was giving offerings that she was barely tolerating me, which made me feel bad because Apollon was my primary deity of devotional practice at the time, and I didn’t precisely understand what I was doing wrong.

    Then, I read this extremely sexy piece of lesbian erotica, the one in which one of the main characters develops breasts like the nodules on the Artemis of Ephesus statue. Ironically enough, it led me to the realization that Artemis is actually asexual. The theological reasoning behind the asexuality is related to some structures in Platonism, but, yes, also to patriarchal ways in which the Ancient Greeks interpreted female sexual agency. Athena would be more likely in my mind to have sex with women just due to the way in which the mythological image of the goddess is structured.

    That said, I do pray to Aphrodite all of the time related to queer things, very queer things, the queerest of queer things.

    😅

  10. For me, Aphrodite has always been my favourite Greek goddess – especially after I played her in “Argonautika” my senior year of high school. She’s the Goddess of Love, for Olympus’ sake! She’s 100% polyamorous and pansexual. No doubt about it. As a lesbian, she means so much to me.

    Artemis is for sure cool and queer, too.

  11. I hope this doesn’t come off as too arrogant, but I kinda disagree that an aroace interpretation of Artemis is invalid. I went and read Metamorphosis, and I just don’t see how it implies that they had kissed before. Like, I get that Zeus’s ability to kiss Callisto as much as he wants as Artemis could imply that they had, but that could also mean that Callisto had always wanted to kiss her and jumped at what she thought was an opportunity to. Not to say the analysis is wrong, just that it might not be the only one. Plus, Hippolytus is mentioned, here but not the play about him, in which Artemis is used as the natural opposite of Aphrodite, which seems like the most aroace thing possible. I don’t know, I just kinda feel like the mythology isn’t clear in any direction really, and there are just multiple possible interpretations.

Contribute to the conversation...

You must be logged in to post a comment.