I sing of the brilliant Artemis with her golden arrows, the
venerated virgin, the Archeress who strikes deer with her
arrows…she who, in the shadows of the mountains and on the mountaintops whipped by the winds, stretches her bow of pure
gold, and, in the joy of the hunt, shoots the arrows that make
her victims groan. The peaks of the mountains tremble. The
forest in its darkness screams with the frightened clamor of
the animals of the woods. The earth trembles, as does the
—Homeric Hymn to Artemis
(Photo credit: http://www.123rf.com/profile_malchev)
Contemporary American stereotypes, resulting from fixed and rigid typologies, reveal cultural beliefs and psychological truth. Evolving out of a faulty understanding of hunting and farming mythologies, and patriarchal and feminist assertions, one such stereotype is the belief that by nature men, and not women, are hunters. By extension, the binary fantasy that men are aggressive and women are nurturers is a testimonial to the lost archetype of woman as hunter within our everyday life. Denial of feminine aggression has rendered Artemis, a feminine archetype of the Hunt, to an unconscious and split-off position—she has been stripped of her arrows. Drawing upon my own life and with a specific focus on women’s experience, this article examines both the psychological consequences of the lost archetype and the transformation offered by a present day practice that facilitates a conscious re-integration of aggressive instincts.
According to Depth psychology, myths are timeless and eternal stories that contain and reveal essential patterns, and archetypal instincts, that underlie all human experience. The ancient Greek myth of Artemis provides an opportunity to re-examine contemporary cultural assumptions about feminine aggression. Turning to the myth of Artemis challenges inaccurate beliefs that women are not aggressive by nature and provides a new context for understanding how aggressive instincts positively impact psychological development and the ability to defend self.
To understand the positive aspects of aggression, as well as the psychological consequences of denied natural instincts, the discussion begins with an examination of the pertinent archetypal energies that are contained within the ancient Greek Goddess mythology. From there it will be argued that repression of the hunter instinct has rendered women, myself among them, powerless. Through my own story, I will describe how a structured modern day ritual, which draws upon aggressive instincts, activates and empowers women to reclaim lost parts of self.
Artemis: The Virgin Huntress, Protector, Solitary Goddess
Opinion varies: some say, Goddess Seems Too Rough! Others praise: Virginity Demands It!
—Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 55
Fierce, uncompromising, and self-determined, Artemis, known as Diana to the Romans, is the Eternal Virgin, the Huntress, the protector of all that is wild and vulnerable, and the guardian of childbirth and the wilderness. Mostly depicted as a beautiful adult, Artemis comes to represent the stage of life just prior to marriage. The goddess bespeaks of all that is pure, untouched, untamed, and solitary. We learn what is important to Artemis through the gifts she asks of her father when just three years old. According to Callimachus, Artemis wishes to carry a bow and arrows, to wear a short tunic, to live in the mountains with the companionship of 80 nymphs—all nine years of age, and she wants to remain forever a virgin.
To know Artemis, we must understand the ancient concept of the virgin. Virginity, as Ester Harding writes, refers not to a physiological fact but “to a quality, to a subjective state, a psychological attitude”(179): the virgin “belongs to herself alone, she is one-in-herself ”(180). As the Virgin, Artemis remains self-sufficient, and does not derive identity through relationships. Although she loves her brother and the nymphs, and is a friend to some men, Artemis is not the possession of another. Above all else, Artemis passionately values the self and a “monogamy of soul” (Downing, 183). She models not simply the rejection of another, but rather, the active decision of choosing self. Thus, Artemis will not allow for any violation of the untainted essence of being.
In ancient Greece, an annual initiation rite took place in Brauron that venerated Artemis. The participants of the Artemis cult were called the parthenia; nine to eleven-year-old girls in the stage just prior to marriage and the entanglements offered by Aphrodite. During the ritual, the young girls dressed up as bears, imitated the goddess and participated in aggressive play. The image of the bear symbolizes both what is hunted in the wild, and the she-bear who wildly protects her young. The maidens were given the opportunity to play with the paradox of being the hunter and the hunted. Karl Kerenyi describes the significance of the ritual in the following passage:
In the figure of the great huntress the little human bears met
a new aspect of their feminine nature. It was a meeting with
something wild and vigorous which would enable them, if the
unwritten laws of the all too patriarchal cities would permit, to
compete as siblings with the ephebes [their male counterparts]…(44).
The Brauron festival suggests that the vigorous nature of the feminine is related to masculine aggression; they are siblings. Psychologically, it is the attitude, energy and state of being of the parthenia that Artemis so fervently nurtures and defends.
Powerful stories within Goddess mythology depict Artemis’ unwavering intolerance for betrayals of the virginal state. One such tale recounts how Acteon happens upon Artemis while bathing with her nymphs. When the goddess discovers that he has spied their nakedness, Artemis transforms Acteon into a stag, leaving him to be hunted down and devoured by his own hunting dogs. Artemis is also quick to punish women who do not protect their own virginity, as exemplified when Callisto, unable to resist Zeus’ seduction, is cruelly banished from the goddess’ entourage.
On first appearance, Artemis appears impulsive and irrational, but as Ovid suggests, virginity demands a ruthless protector. All of Artemis’ actions occur within the bounds of necessity, driven by the unquestioning urge to aggressively defend the self.
Within the Artemis archetype, we find a dual expression of both guardian and destroyer. In her role as helper of women in childbirth, Artemis facilitates new life, as well as, brings death when appropriate. As a huntress, Artemis protects the weak or feeble, young and old, but actively and keenly kills those who are strong like herself. Artemis takes pleasure in her aggressive impulses, while also demonstrating a nurturing instinct. She is the defender, the hunter and the hunted. Pursued by those who seek to penetrate her inviolability, Artemis passionately flings her protective, yet destructive arrows. Separate, independent, and fully one-in-herself, Artemis demonstrates that both nurturing and aggression are female impulses, and that self-protection is a divine and necessary act.
The Lost Goddess: Psychological Consequences
In Western society during many centuries, man was considered to be dominant and superior, while woman was relegated to a position of dependence and inferiority. Consequently the feminine principle has not been adequately recognized or valued in our culture. And even today, when the outer manifestations of this onesidedness have undergone considerable change, the psychological effects persist and both men and women suffer from a maiming of the psyche, which should be whole.
—Ester Harding, 181
With the rise of patriarchy, which many scholars link with the increase innagricultural societies, the Goddess lost power and influence. In Woman the Hunter, Mary Stange argues that hunting cultures were characterized by a balanced view of the relationship between humans and nature and between men and women. With the rise of agriculture, hierarchical systems introduced notions of ownership and domination. Stange asserts that with agriculture came the domestication of land, animals and women; no longer the hunting partner, women became dependent on and subservient to men (47).
Stange also courageously, and correctly I believe, argues that along with patriarchal beliefs, eco-feminism has also fostered the denial of feminine aggression by arguing that women are non-violent. In other words, women have “too good a heart to be a killer” (62). Men and women have suppressed awareness of the aggressive feminine into the deep unconscious recesses of psyche. Is it no wonder that there has been such a negative outcry against the Facebook postings of a pink-arrowed cheerleader, posing over her big game kill? While Artemis would celebrate this young teenager’s strength, our culture shudders at her boastful pride.
The forwarding of the belief that it is not feminine to be aggressive does, as Harding suggests, maim the psyche. As a young girl growing up within this faulty ideology, I have distinct memories of the oppression of my assertive and aggressive impulses. During my grade school years, I was often found in physical tussles and athletic endeavors with the neighborhood kids and my four older brothers. Being smaller and younger only fueled my competitive instinct as I fought ferociously to defend myself. With hindsight, I recognize the Artemis energy that surged through my youthful body. However, I would soon fall prey to the cultural norms that define femininity.
Leaving grade school and entering puberty brought an abrupt end to my spirited nature. I remember being inundated with messages that pathologized my natural instincts. Not only was I told that my aggressive behavior was “unlady-like,” I was given direct messages to down play my strength and athletic prowess so that the boys would like me. I always took great pleasure in defeating males, however social graces taught me to “let the boys win.”
Even greater damage was done when I began to hear that girls should never fight with boys, even if in self-defense. As an adolescent I actually remember attending a “girl’s assembly” when a policeman told us that females should become passive if ever assaulted, thereby, increasing the chances of living through an attack. In this culture, females, like Artemis, invite violation by the very reality of being desired; yet unlike the goddess, we must not defend ourselves or exact revenge. Subliminally attached to this lesson is a deeper suggestion that perhaps women deserve to be violated. This message, further supported in the cultural voice of media and advertising, penetrated my psyche leaving me with an incredible sense of paralysis and vulnerability. I internalized the following: to survive and be loved by the opposite sex, I had to surrender my bow and arrows, shrink in posture, deny my natural and necessary instinct, and rely upon men to protect me.
My experience is not unlike those of other women. The denial of feminine aggression creates learned helplessness and dependency while also fostering inner confusion and mistrust of natural urges. Women’s aggression has been traditionally pathologized by both men and women. While assertive or angry women are called “ball busters,” “castrating females,” or just plain “bitches,” an aggressive male is likely thought to be strong, successful, and perhaps heroic. Lacking an affirmative container, women often experience aggressive impulses and fantasies as disturbing, frightening and abnormal. Thus, an empowering and necessary aspect of the feminine psyche becomes denied and despised. Although split-off from consciousness, aggression does not die, but rather arises in destructive and convoluted expressions of anger or internalized feelings of self-loathing and powerlessness.
The cultural stereotype that it is acceptable for only men to be aggressive has resulted in a destructive division between the sexes. Men are unable to place women’s anger and assertiveness within a natural context, while women come to resent the men they depend on. Taught to rely upon the masculine for protection has created a paradoxical condition: women must find safety in the very force that someday may assault them. Inherent to this faulty typology is an internal and external psychological split: natural feminine urges become unconscious and deemed inappropriate, while an “us versus them” polarity persists between men and women. Men and women have all suffered personally and collectively from the denial of the Artemis archetype.
Reclaiming Aggression: A Modern Day Ritual
Perish the thought that women might take up arms, become skilled in
their use, and become thereby simultaneously able to defend themselves
and to fend for themselves! Woman the Hunter—as macho men grasp perhaps more readily than most feminists have to date—is a profoundly
unsettling figure, her wildness a force to be reckoned with.
—Mary Stange, 76
After decades of feeling physically vulnerable and frightened of the dark, I took up arms. Completion of a three-day, full-contact self-defense course, called Model Mugging, armed me not with weapons, but rather with a new attitude and capacity to fend for myself. The course facilitated a remembrance of my aggressive instinct, and provided invaluable training in both emotional and physical self-defense. I liken my experience to the Artemis ritual at Brauron; playing the she-bear awakened me to my wild and ferocious desire to protect self.
Although I had always been a very powerful athlete, I lacked the internal permission and know-how to use my strength in a self-protective mode. I grew to despise the personal knowledge that if I were to be face to face with violence I would collapse. As stated before, by the time I was 13, I was seduced into believing that it was not in my nature to defend myself. The passage of years dissolved memories of my once youthful courage and determination; I could not channel my anger in a powerful self-affirming posture. Worried about being “inappropriately masculine,” I was fearful of being assertive, boundary setting was confusing and agonizing, and self-protection was a foreign concept. As many other women have testified, my inability to stand up for myself eventually permeated all areas of life, and most importantly, eroded my self-esteem
I discovered Model Mugging after attending a public graduation in which I witnessed wild, howling women fighting off assailants with full force blows. Impressed, terrified, and overwhelmed by the feminine fury and strength displayed, I enrolled in the course. Model Mugging was originated by a highly merited martial arts instructor named Matt Thomas. The idea sprung when tragically a skilled female blackbelt was brutally raped. Following the rape, the student apologized to Matt feeling that her inability to defend herself was an affront against his training. Matt, initially unforgiving, came to realize that he was the one who had failed his student. This realization instigated years of research and development of a self-defense program that realistically re-creates high adrenaline assault situations and teaches full-contact defense.
Over a three-day period, eight other women and myself were carefully led through a series of exercises that utilized voice, boundary setting and physical defensive maneuvers. Mimicking the words and actions of true assailants, the fully padded “muggers” subjected all of us to our worst fears. Each step of the volatile way, we began to discover the power that lay waiting in our voices and bodies. By the end of the weekend, we had learned to not only defend against, but also to subdue the attackers. Although Model Mugging calls upon physical power, it does not advocate violence. Instead, the training adopts an Artemis-like attitude that the self is worth protecting. Like the Greek she-bears, Model Mugging initiates discover a previously unknown source of power: feminine aggression.
In the days that followed my training, I felt uncertain in my transformed body and psyche. Although Model Mugging does not teach to kill, I was newly aware of my killing capacity. Stunned by the joy and exhilaration that comes from physically beating another; I was unrecognizable to myself. I felt newly uncomfortable leaving the house, not because I was frightened of being hurt, but because I was flooded with visual fantasies of fighting off every stranger I saw. Had I known then what I know now about Artemis, I would have felt contained by the archetype. Instead, on my own I worked hard to integrate my new psychophysical stature.
Eventually, my anxiety subsided and the great rewards of my transformation became conscious. For the first time in my life I had choices about how to handle emotionally or physically threatening situations. Although I have never used the defensive strikes learned in the course, awareness of my physical aptitude has given me a psychological confidence and certainty that I am worth defending. Since the course I am better at setting boundaries, asserting my feelings and needs, and when necessary, saying “NO!”
Learning how to say “no” is paramount to being able to say “yes” to life. For women like myself, discovering, understanding and learning to channel aggression in healthy ways mends not only an intra-psychic split, but facilitates a more trusting relationship with the outer world, and particularly with men. Because I can defend my self, I no longer need to derive a sense of personal safety from an outside resource. As well, the imagined male assailant in the dark no longer threatens me. Knowing my own aggressive nature also helps me to understand and respect my masculine counterpart.
As Stange suggests in her discussion of hunting societies, cultural actualization and awareness of aggressive instincts reduce subject-object dualism and “us versus them” mentality. When we recognize that women do not own the market on nurturing, and men are not always expected to die defending their helpless women, issues of dominance, dependency, and subservience may greatly diminish. My experience in Model Mugging allows me to grasp the wisdom demonstrated in the Brauron cult of Artemis—making aggression conscious is a necessary preparation for mature love; sacred marriage comes about when a psychological union between the opposites occurs. No longer expectant of being victimized frees me to surrender to the dance of intimacy.
Artemis also whispers to her little she-bears that they, too,
are wild nature. The eternally youthful Huntress might stand
for the crossing of gender-boundaries that a male-dominated
culture would like to keep as clearly as its towns and farm fields.
The unleashing of female energy impacts the patriarchal imagination
like a boar tearing through fences and trampling crops. Indeed,
the history of Western patriarchy might be said to be the history of attempts to kill, or bridle that energy, or to trick it into submission.
—Mary Stange, 149
The denial, repression and rejection of feminine aggression has wounded the individual and collective psyche. A return to the Goddess of the Hunt demonstrates an ancient wisdom that aggressive energy is instinctive to men and women. As the Eternal Virgin, Artemis provides a provocative model for the necessary and divine nature of self-defense. However threatening the archetype may be to the American imagination, Artemis, and practices such as Model Mugging, offer a vision that aggression and nurturance, violence and love are opposites that form a unified whole.
Callimachus: Hymns, Epigrams, Select Fragments. (1988). Trans. Stanley Lombardo and Diana Rayor. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP.
Downing, Christine. (1996). The Goddess: Mythological Images of the Feminine. New York: Continuum.
Harding, M. Ester. (1991). “The Virgin,” in Mirrors of the Self: Archetypal Images That Shape Your Life, Christine Downing, ed. Los Angeles: Tarcher.
The Homeric Hymns. (1987). Trans. Charles Boer. Dallas: Spring.
Kerenyi, Karl. (1980). “A Mythological Image of Girlhood: Artemis,” in Facing the Gods. James Hillman, ed. Dallas: Spring.
Ovid’s Metamorphoses. (1989). Trans. Charles Boer.Dallas: Spring.
Paris, Ginette. (1986). Pagan Meditations: Aphrodite, Hestia, Artemis. Woodstock: Spring.
Stange, Mary Zeiss. (1997). Woman the Hunter. Beacon: Boston.
Betsy Hall, Ph.D., LCSW is the Assistant Dean and Professor in the Division of Counseling and Family Therapy at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Betsy earned her doctorate in Mythological Studies with Emphasis in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute. She has also practiced as a depth psychotherapist for nearly 30 years. Betsy and her husband live in Boulder, Colorado, where they share a deep affinity with nature.