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Misguided Mythology

Diane Chasseresse

The painting at the left illustrates the problem. It's a 16th century painting entitled Diane Chasseresse, or "Diana the Huntress." We don't know the name of the artist, but the painting is from the School of Fountainebleau, a colloborative effort by several of the 16th century Italian masters. The painting may be named for Diana, but we see much more of Artemis here than we do of her country bumpkin cousin in the perplexing pantheon of Greco-Roman mythology.

Throughout popular mythology, the Roman goddess Diana is often confused with the more noble, and much more ancient, Greek goddess Artemis. In this painting, we see many of the trappings of Artemis that give Her a superficial resemblance to the Roman Diana -- the hunting bow, the curly golden hair so characteristic of Greek mythology, and especially the moon on Her forehead signifying her role as goddess of the moon. But that's where the resemblance ends, and even these characteristics seem to have been grafted on to a coarse, neurotic troll from ancient Italian mythology.

Reverse-Engineering the Oral Tradition

The original stories of Artemis and Diana and all the other ancient Mediterranean gods and goddesses began as oral tradition among illiterate tribes where a prince was the man with the largest manure pile. Over the centuries and the millenia, people met and exchanged ideas, and among those ideas were their notions of religion.

We have some clear examples of a dominant religion attempting to absorb the religions of conquered cultures with us today. Most of the symbols of Christmas, including the day we celebrate it, come from older religions: Saint Nicholas (Santa Claus) derived from the elven character Kris Kringle; the Yule Log and Christmas Tree imported directly from the older religions of northern Germany; the date picked to coincide with celebration of the winter solstice. The Roman Catholic Saint Brigid owes her roots to the character Brigid in old Norse mythology.

Even the English names for the days of the week are a mixture of cultures: Sunday and Monday for the sun and the moon. Tuesday for Tiu, Norse god of war. Wednesday for Woden, Norse god of wisdom. Thursday for Thor, Norse god of agriculture and blacksmithing, who obviously had a better publicist than the long-forgotten Tiu. Friday for Freyja, Norse goddess of love. And Saturday for Saturn, one of the chief Roman gods.

With these examples still alive in modern western culture, we should reasonably expect that similar culture clashes have occurred throughout human history; and indeed, they have. The tricky part is sorting out the ancient stories from two millenia of writers, each with his own cultural bias and some with a definite desire to revise the history of religion.

Prior to the popularization of the World Wide Web around 1996, Bullfinch was probably the worst criminal in destroying our knowledge of ancient Greek and Roman cultures. The Catholic church and the Renaissance painters, and no doubt Roman theologians long before them, all took a shot at it; but Bullfinch popularized these notions even to the extent of hyphenating the names of gods from cultures separated by centuries. The mess he created lives today in our schools as the most popular reference work for teaching ancient mythology.

Now that we have the web, we see an explosion of writers copying each other and propogating their own notions of mythology around the world. To date, we have not been able to find a source anywhere on the web that presents an internally consistent story of ancient mythology, or even a web site free of errors in mixing up Greek, Roman, and other gods.

One of the most tragic cases is the University of Michigan's Windows to the Universe web site, where we find Artemis confused with a primitive Ephesian earth-mother figure.

Diana, She's Not

Ancient stories portray Roman Diana as a vicious, vindictive character; scheming and warlike. She was neurotic about her modesty to the point of murdering a man who saw her bathing, and a man-hater who lavished her attentions on her female servants.

Stories about Artemis, in contrast, portray Her as a more rounded character. Still a huntress, she was gentle and benevolent. While Diana demanded human sacrifices, Artemis refused them. Where Diana was a man-hater obsessed with Her virginity, Artemis was much devoted to her father Zeus and watched over young wives and mothers.

To be sure, both goddesses had their kinks; but they weren't exactly the same. Diana's obsession with modesty is not reflected in pre-Roman stories about Artemis; that characteristic shows up later in history when Romans start rewriting Greek mythology to adapt it to their own less developed Pantheon. This seems to have been reverse-engineered into the story of why Artemis turned Actaeon into a stag when he came upon Her when she was taking a bath.

Diana's sexual preference for her maidservants somewhat reflects the behavior of Artemis in the early stories, but apparently Artemis's bent toward the animals she hunted -- especially the stag -- were a bit much for the Romans. So when later Roman scholars penned the stories of the Greek gods, they cleaned up Artemis to fit their culture in the same manner that Christian historians have attempted the expurgate from human knowledge the real reason King Minos had for locking up the inventive Deadalus and his ill-fated son, Icarus, in the tower.

The Roman Diana apparently dates at least to the 6th century BC, starting Her career even centuries before that as the animistic Diana Nemorensis, or Diana of the Woods. Her early origins present her as more of a wood nymph than a goddess, and a particularly brutal one who demanded human sacrifices from those who would traverse Her territory. This might be the orgins of the more violent nature that Artemis took on after She was absorbed by the Roman culture.

The story of Diana Nemorensis also might explain why, although the family tree of Artemis is well-documented (father Zeus, mother Leto, brother Apollo), the origins of Diana are lost in the mists of time.

When Artemis showed up a few centuries later, with her bow and her deer and her attendant nymphs and wearing the moon for a tiara, the trollish Diana had to adapt and take on a much larger role as goddess of the moon and the hunt. That may have been the origin of the morass of misguided myths surrounding the namesake of the Artemis Project, and explain how the stories of the noble, empathetic goddess of the moon took on the crude characteristics of Roman culture.

For centuries, artists and writers have promulgated this self-contradictory concept of the ancient Greek goddess; however, the mistakes of lazy historians rewriting history for simpletons do not place us under any obligation to accept these notions of our namesake. And, frankly, we don't.


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