Artemis (Diana)

Category: Gods > The “Twelve” Gods

1 Diana in the Middle Ages

Diana is almost unique among the pagan gods in that Christianity never entirely succeeded in stamping out her worship. Well, perhaps that is putting it much, much too strongly. The fact is, however, that, in the 9th century CE, Italian churchmen began writing down complaints that some women (“witches”) believed they would follow a kind of queen or goddess, sometimes called Diana, on night-time travels.¹ On the face of it, this seems like a direct continuation of the ancient pagan worship of Diana (long identified with the Moon and Hekate), and the witches’ devotions to her described by classical Roman poets like Horace and Lucan.

But in fact, the queen of witches was known by many names, most commonly ‘Herodias’ (a Biblical figure), and the belief in night-time travels seems to be an innovation of the early Middle Ages. That Christian clergy called her Diana only proves that they (unlike peasant women) read the Roman poets. That they called her a goddess reflects an intention to brand these beliefs and practices as un-Christian. Neither fact allows us to conclude that early medieval women themselves were consciously or unconsciously engaging in pagan worship. Even if the name Diana survived in folklore from antiquity, independently of the literate class, independently even of her mention in the New Testament (Acts 19), it would be ill-advised to try and understand the whole folkloric complex only on the basis of this single strand.

Equally, it would be a mistake to think that, because Diana was one goddess in antiquity, she must have remained one recognizable figure in the medieval period. Her name came to designate the queen of witches and fairies in some parts of Italy. Yet “[i]n some parts of Sicily, Sardinia, and Friuli”, ‘jana’ (< lat. ‘diana’) itself meant something like ‘fairy’, roughly analogous to the Nymphs who follow Diana in ancient tradition: “janas live in caves or Neolithic shaft tombs in the mountains, are expert weavers and singers, and can interact with and even marry humans”.²

So, we may say that the name and certain beliefs related to Diana were carried forth into the post-pagan era; however, not as inert “survivals” of an original paganism, but as vibrant and everchanging parts of a larger, internally diverse and thoroughly Christian culture. Related practices like “special meals, music and trance-dancing” (Magliocco), which are characterized as “fairy cult” by modern historians and folklorists, were not generally understood as acts of worship, although we, with a better knowledge of pagan practices of worship, may be inclined to characterize them as such. “[E]ven if a group decided to enact aspects of the legend of Diana/Herodias, it would not have been a revival of pre-Christian paganism, but an attempt to act out certain ritual aspects described in the legends” (Magliocco).

1: My main source in this section is Sabina Magliocco, “Who Was Aradia? The History and Development of a Legend”, in: The Promegranate 18 (Feb. 2002), off-site link. Another excellent paper by Magliocco is “Spells, Saints, and Streghe: Witchcraft, Folk Magic, and Healing in Italy”, again in: The Promegranate 18 (Feb. 2002), which I draw on for the following section.
2: A. Liori, Demoni, miti e riti magici della Sardegna, 1992, pp. 107–111, as cited by Sabina Magliocco; cf. Peter Damian, who refers to “Nymphs, Sirens, Lamias and Dianas” in his Epistle 112.

2 The “discovery” of a holy text in the 19th century

[Charles Godfrey Leland: Etruscan Roman Remains in Popular Tradition; Unpublished Legends of Virgil; Aradia, or Gospel of the Witches]

3 The traditional Diana and her modern recasting

The churchmen’s reports and the Leland’s presentation of Diana are tied together by a shared knowledge of Latin literature from the classical and post-classical era, in which the goddess is quite consistently identified and in truth merged with the Moon, Hekate and sometimes other goddesses, and, more fundamentally, has all the qualities Greek texts ascribe to Artemis. But the 19th century also saw the emergence of a new paradigm, very much in evidence in other parts of Leland’s work, in which religion was understood through national or racial terms, and scholars were primarily interested in the supposed original forms of religious ideas, often privileging their own speculative reconstructions over the content of religious texts as they actually exist.

In this new framework, it became increasingly unfashionable to say that Diana was Artemis, although in antiquity, their names were universally regarded as mutually translatable (such that the word ‘Artemis’ was not used in Latin, nor ‘Diana’ in Greek), and every substantial ancient discussion of Diana presupposes points of Greek mythology, iconography or ritual practice. From this inextricably Greco-Roman complex, scholars worked hard to extract an “original” Diana, from an imagined period where Roman religion was pure and self-contained. In this process, they made allowances for parallelism, or for shared inheritance from even earlier stages of racial history (as they imagined it), but devalued borrowings and disregarded shared developments, focussing instead on points of difference. What historically were some local Roman peculiarities within essentially shared Greco-Roman beliefs and practices was now isolated as the only authentic parts of the Roman Diana.

The overt racism of this paradigm has long been abandoned by most, but its effects are still with us whenever we talk about Diana and Artemis as two goddesses who are only ‘equivalents’ or ‘counterparts’. In some very limited ways, these can be appropriate expressions, but as a way of understanding Greco-Roman polytheism as it was actually practiced in the historical periods we have evidence for, it is entirely misleading. In reading, in writing, and in worship, the ancients regarded Ἄρτεμις (Ártemis) as Diāna, quite literally without exception.¹

A further consequence of the move away from content to origins is that the traditional idea of Diana being the Moon – which Medieval, Renaissance and Early Modern writers accepted from the ancients – became unpalatable. Either, it seemed, Diana was originally none other than the Moon, but they were later differentiated; or they were originally distinct, and later blended into each other. But the fascinating reality, completely obscured by this way of looking at the matter, is that the ancients consciously believed in the unity and distinctness of Diana and the Moon at once – whereas they saw no distinctness at all between Diana and Artemis, and no unity at all between (say) Diana and Venus or the Sun

1: If there is any such exception after all, I am happy to be corrected.
2: Except in one or two passages that make a larger point about the unity of the gods.

4 Diana–Artemis and the false dichotomy of “hard” and “soft” polytheism

Such nuance is lost both in the “soft polytheism” of the Wiccan, which takes much inspiration from the Gospel of Witches, and the “hard polytheism” adopted by strands of paganism that have emerged in more recent decades. In both cases, overly simple theological principles have stood in for (and even obstructed) careful study of the tradition. On the “soft” end, there is a belief that all deities are one, or at least that all goddesses are one goddess, and all gods one god. On the “hard” end, each deity is seen as fundamentally distinct, and any identification of them is a matter of (secondary) syncretism.

[Work in Progress]

5 Some fundamentals about the traditional view of Diana–Artemis