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Tragic Artemis: Between Homer and Cult

Sarit Stern

Johns Hopkins University

This paper investigates the gap between the position of Artemis in the Athenian religious life, where she was an important and powerful deity, and her depiction in the Athenian tragedies, where her presence is considerably diminished. I argue that this derives from the fact that the tragedy-writers, who drew heavily from the Homeric corpus, also incorporated into their work the Homeric biases according to which Artemis is a weak and marginal goddess who, unlike her brother, does not belong in the battlefield and who punishes heroes rather than helping them (Herbillon 1927; Jensen 2009; Petrovic 2010). There is no complete study of the overall presence of Artemis in tragedy. Petrovic addresses this issue, yet she only dedicates one and a half pages to it. Most scholars either focus on one play (e.g. Kyriakou 2006; Zacharia 2003; Zeitlin 2005), or one writer (e.g. Hartigan 1991; Mikalson 2012; Nicolai 1990).

In this paper I demonstrate that Artemis is consistently portrayed as relatively weak and passive, especially when compared with her twin-brother, who is much more present and active in the plays than her. Additionally, as in Homer, Artemis is frequently associated with the feminine sphere while her other, more masculine sides, are regularly ignored. Her depiction in the Seven Against Thebes, where she is invoked in order to protect the Theban wall, is a rarity (447-450).

Additionally, while Apollo appears in all of our surviving tragedies but one, Artemis is present only in nineteen and in most of them she is only mentioned once or twice, with the exception of Iphigenia in Aulis, Iphigenia in Tauris, and Hippolytus. Artemis’ presence in plays associated with her brother is very small. She is either mentioned once or twice (e.g. Oedipus Tyrannus, Agamemnon, Ion) or is completely absent from them (e.g. Eumenides, Orestes, Alcestis). On the other hand, in both Hippolytus and Iphigenia in Aulis, Apollo is hardly mentioned. Thus, when Artemis is not under the shadow of her brother and when she is only facing mortals or another weak goddess, she may be portrayed as strong. Yet this also means that her strength is always relative and never absolute. After all, she is unable to save the dying Hippolytus, and this too echoes her Homeric portrayal, as a goddess who does not help heroes. Another example of her weakness comes in Iphigenia in Tauris, where her voice is never heard and she is completely passive. It is Apollo who sends Orestes to rescue her image, and it is Athena who descends ex machina to assist the heroes and to one-sidedly establish her half-sister’s Attic cults without inviting her to Athens or offer her incentives to come, as she does with the Erinyes in Eumenides (804-891).

I conclude by arguing that the Homeric portrayal of Artemis as a weak and marginalized goddess has established, if not canonized, her literary character and has affected her depiction in Athenian drama, even though it did not correspond with how she was perceived and worshipped in Athens. The playwrights did not preserve the negative attitude towards Artemis, yet nonetheless they maintained and replicated, at least to some degree, her Homeric portrayal. On the other hand, when the playwrights describe daily religious activities such as prayers, hymns, and invocations, i.e. expressions of devotion which represent true Athenian customs, then Artemis is hailed, worshipped, and honored. These few mentions represent some of the religious perceptions regarding Artemis and allow us to see the religious world and perceptions of Athens in the fifthcentury BCE glimpsing behind the epic façade.

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Drama and the Religious in Ancient Greece

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