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Shakespeare & Beyond

Artemis, a fierce and fickle goddess

The Greek goddess Artemis - also called Diana
The Greek goddess Artemis - also called Diana

The last major goddess we will explore in this “Shakespeare and Greek Myths” series may have been Shakespeare’s favorite, based on the frequency with which he references her. Artemis was the goddess of chastity, hunting, and the moon, often depicted with her trusty bow and arrow and a short tunic to aid in running through the woods. Her maidenly virtue—for she swore never to marry—was presented in counterpoint to the passionate and fiery Aphrodite.

Artemis is Athena’s half-sister, daughter of Zeus and Leto (herself a daughter of Titans). Artemis is an unusual deity in that she shares the Olympian dais with her twin brother, Apollo, god of the sun, music, and poetry.

For valor, is not love a Hercules,
Still climbing trees in the Hesperides?
Subtle as Sphinx, as sweet and musical
As bright Apollo’s lute strung with his hair.
—Berowne, Love’s Labor’s Lost (4.3.334-337)

Some stories have her as the slightly older twin, who then aided her mother in childbirth and so became the protector and patron of women in labor. An ancient Greek poem by Callimachus tells of a young Artemis making wishes, including having many names by which she will be set apart from her brother. This is certainly one wish that came true. In addition to Artemis, she was also referred to as Cynthia, Luna, and Phoebe—and by her Roman name, Diana.


Robert Whitcombe. Janua divorum: or The lives and histories of the heathen gods, goddesses, & demi-gods. 1678. Folger W1743a

The family bonds were strong—tragically so. When Niobe, a queen of Thebes, boasts of her fourteen children compared to Leto’s two, the divine twins avenge the slight by killing Niobe’s seven sons and seven daughters. This then leads to her husband’s death, either by his own hand from grief or killed to prevent him from taking revenge. Niobe is devastated and turns to stone, either from her grief or by the gods in pity for her condition. Her transformation was not enough to stop her tears, which ran unabated down her petrified form for eternity.

A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears . . .
—Hamlet, Hamlet (1.2.151-153)

There is a word will Priam turn to stone,
Make wells and Niobes of the maids and wives,
Cold statues of the youth and, in a word,
Scare Troy out of itself.
—Troilus, Troilus and Cressida (5.11.19-22)

Tragic though it is, there is another myth even more violent for which Artemis is famous: the story of Acteon (also spelled Actaeon). The unlucky Acteon offended the goddess in some way—in most stories, by seeing her naked while she bathed, though this varies—and his punishment was to be turned into a stag. In his newly transformed state, he was unrecognizable to his hunting dogs, who subsequently fell upon him and ripped him limb from limb. This brutal myth has proven popular with artists for centuries, and Shakespeare references it both directly and indirectly in his plays.

Saucy controller of my private steps,
Had I the power that some say Dian had,
Thy temples should be planted presently
With horns, as was Acteon’s, and the hounds
Should drive upon thy new-transformèd limbs,
Unmannerly intruder as thou art.
—Tamora, Titus Andronicus (2.3.60-65)

O, when mine eyes did see Olivia first,
Methought she purged the air of pestilence.
That instant was I turned into a hart,
And my desires, like fell and cruel hounds,
E’er since pursue me.
—Orsino, Twelfth Night (1.1.20-24)

But Artemis was not all doom and gloom. She was the patron of the Greek heroine Atalanta, a remarkably fast runner whose various myths include participating in the Calydonian boar hunt and possibly traveling with the Argonauts.

You have a nimble wit. I think ’twas made of Atalanta’s heels.
—Jaques, As You Like It (3.2.280)

Artemis’s role as goddess of chastity made her a popular figure for women to turn to in times of trouble. In Pericles, Thaisa becomes a votaress of her order, Marina invokes her, and the goddess herself appears to Pericles in a dream with guidance that leads to his family’s reunion at her temple.

If fires be hot, knives sharp, or waters deep,
Untied I still my virgin knot will keep.
Diana aid my purpose!
—Marina, Pericles (4.2.151)

And in The Two Noble Kinsmen, Emilia (sister to Hippolyta) prays to Artemis (using her Roman name, Diana) to let her marry whoever loves her best (though what she truly wishes is to remain in the goddess’s chaste service).

Given her fickle and fierce character, we can see why Shakespeare so often invoked Artemis in his works.