Friday, August 12, 2005

A is for Artemis

A is for Artemis, Goddess of the hunt, the moon, wilderness, purity, and fertility, and protectress of wild things. Artemis is a hard goddess, and (reportedly) a contradictory one.

I have known Artemis for a very long time, and was not surprised to be addressed by her name when I came across the Which Greek Goddess are You? quiz in one of its guises on the web. But I think Artemis is a misunderstood goddess. In my view, Artemis is not contradictory at all (as is sometimes claimed); rather, she is the maker of hard choices. In this, she should be called the goddess of resoluteness. Artemis stands. Her integrity is measurable in terms of the costs she is prepared to endure as a consequence of standing for principle. And as a goddess, Artemis holds others to those same high, hard standards. Hence the punishment of Actaeon: Artemis is not a merciful Goddess. But Artemis exemplifies the hardest virtues, and is forged by their demands. As Edith Hamilton comments in her Mythology (Little, Brown & Company, 1942), "In her is shown most vividly the uncertainty [or, as I see it, the hard navigation] between good and evil which is apparent in every one of the divinities."

Unlike Artemis, I do not lead maidens or a pack of hounds. But I do wear a silver bracelet inscribed with Celtic hounds; it reminds me of lines from Julius Caesar: "Cry 'Havoc' and let slip the dogs of war." I began wearing it when the circumstances were appropriate; I have not taken it off since.

For the most part I am skeptical about the propensity to adopt archetypes as mirrors of the self. I think identity must ultimately be found inwardly, not by reference to external models. I found Jungian psychoanalysis intriguing for about three months during my teens. Since then, my copy of Women who Run with the Wolves (Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Ballantyne, 1995) has on a number of occasions lain under the bed for months at a time between intermittent fits of curiosity, accumulating amid a tel of dust, cat hair, and other books. Jennifer Barker Woolger and Roger J. Woolger's The Goddess Within: A Guide to the Eternal Myths that Shape Women's Lives (New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1987) appears to be well researched but imposes what amounts to a pastiche of goddess archetypes upon its readers. I browsed Thomas Moore's Care of the Soul (HarperPerennial, 1992) in the course of my doctoral research on spirituality and nature and found it, as I did Pinkola Estes and Woolger & Wollger, ultimately lacking in depth.

My knowledge of the mythical pantheon is limited, but it seems to me that the archtypes presented in these works are treated too superficially to be of much value as reflection or guide. I do not think that generic templates for the interpretation of dreams nor grocery lists of archetypes will so easily help us understand ourselves and others. Especially when such guides gloss over the harder qualities of the archetypal figures they name. I do not think we can meaningfully browse the pantheon, nor the panoply of spiritual paths open to us, choosing certain ones that taste good to us. Not unless we are also prepared to confront the full range of their -- and our own -- qualities.

Notwithstanding the above, archetypes are undoubtedly useful when treated with caution and recognised as the aggregated metaphors they are. And so if we are to look to gods and goddesses, we might do so by looking at them as metaphors rather than models. If our lives are seen as journeys through deep woods, our encounters with mythical archetypes might be thought of as moments of fleeting recognition, a familiar face glimpsed on an adjacent path. And I have met Artemis in these woods. But before I met her I was Amy, and I remain so long after she has passed.

And so. A is for Artemis, and Amy, and also for Archetype.

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