The Virgin Goddess
In ancient Greece, Artemis was known as a virgin Goddess. Today, as modern Hellenes attempt to revive ancient Greek religion and apply it to the modern world, we must reassess the meaning of Artemis’s virginity, and attempt to understand why She chose this state.
It’s important to clarify that ‘virginity’ was a very different thing in ancient Greece than it is for us in the modern world. To them, sexual abstinence was an after effect of virginity, not the definition of the word. The ancient Greeks did not believe the hymen existed, and virgin births were a regular occurrence rather than a rare miracle (see Giulia Sissa’s Greek Virginity). Parthenos is the Greek word that generally gets translated as “virgin”. Determining what it actually meant to be a parthenos is incredibly complicated, and one is likely to come up with a different answer for every polis. Luckily for Hellenes and modern scholars, the vast majority of what we know of ancient Greek myth and culture comes from Athens. Furthermore, the other Greek city-states were tremendously influenced by Athens due to its early victory over Persia and its subsequent financial and cultural success. So, while what we conclude about ancient Greek virgins based on Athenian social structure might not apply to all city-states (Sparta being the classic example), it will hold true to most of them, and will be at least relevant to all of them.
So what did it mean to be an Athenian parthenos? Ideally it meant an unmarried young woman who still lived with her father and never had sex. Athenian men wanted to ensure that their wives would bear legitimate heirs, so daughters were kept under strict supervision and seclusion to ensure that they had not been exposed to any other men before meeting their husbands. The one interesting exception was at certain festivals for Artemis, where unmarried women performed dances that the men watched, and this was often men’s only opportunity to see their future brides.
There are many situations in which this ideal wasn’t quite the same as the reality. Lower class families, for example, often couldn’t afford to have their daughters spinning and weaving in seclusion, and so these young women would work the land with the rest of the family. However, even these women were still supposed to remain virgins. In the cases where a young woman did have sex, that did not necessarily end her parthenia, or virginity. Sissa writes, “Penetration by a male organ deflowered a virgin, yet the event existed only if it was found out by family and society or revealed by its consequences: the parthenic state depended on sexuality, hence on the body, yet was also a purely negative fact.” Thus, if no one knew a woman had sex, she was still a parthenos, in contrast to the modern idea where once you’ve had sex, you’re no longer a virgin, regardless of whether or not other people know about it. Unmarried women who managed to conceal a pregnancy, were allowed to give birth under other strange circumstances (usually only applicable in myth), or who bore a child without anyone having discovered the circumstances under which the child was conceived, were said to have had a ‘virgin birth’, and their sons were known as partheniai, or sons of virgins (Sissa, Greek Virginity, 79-83).
All these details considered, the fact remains that the ideal parthenos was a virgin in the modern sense of the word. Men wanted to know their children would be theirs, and not sired by some other man their wife had lain with in secret. If we keep in mind the fact that almost all ancient Greek myths we have to study today were written by men, and that the Greeks believed their Gods, especially the Olympians, to be perfect – that is, they embodied ideals, then we can assume that the variety of parthenia intended in the myths of Artemis we are familiar with would be the Athenian man’s ideal model of a parthenos. Therefore, according to ancient Greek myth, Artemis doesn’t have sex, never has, and never will.
Assuming that ancient Greek myth is valuable to modern Hellenism despite the overwhelmingly male point of view from which it was written, the important question becomes why. Why would Artemis choose to be a virgin? She asked Zeus of Her own will to remain a parthenos forever, so there must be some reason that She desired to abstain from sex and marriage. What is that reason?
The answer to this question can be found by studying the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. The Pythia was a virgin priestess of Apollo who gave prophecies from the God in His temple at Delphi. Sissa tells us (again in Greek Virginity) that vapors coming from a crack in the earth induced a hallucinogenic trance in which the Pythia delivered these oracles. The fumes entered the Pythia’s vagina as she sat on a tripod perched over the chasm. Sissa goes on to explain how the significance of this lies in the ancient Greek perception of symmetry in the human body: the ancient Greeks believed the body to be symmetrical not only horizontally, but vertically as well. Thus the vagina and the mouth corresponded to one other. Therefore, when the essence of Apollo, in the form of fumes emitted from the earth, entered the Pythia through her vagina, it was logical to the ancient Greeks that this essence would then exit her body through her mouth in the form of divine prophecies. In order for the Greeks to be absolutely certain that all the words escaping her lips were sent by the God Himself and only Him, the Pythia must be completely pure and devoid of outside influences, i.e. chaste. In this way the authenticity of her oracles were guaranteed, because the only things coming out of her mouth were the same things that went into her ‘mouth.’
The implications of this are tremendous. This relationship between Apollo and His priestess echoes a widely held belief about ancient Greek women and their husbands: Not only did a woman belong to her husband, but his essence permeated her. His influence entered her during sex, and so every word she spoke was his word channeled through her. This basic concept also applies to the ancient Greek understanding of men and women in general. Men were considered purely projective (as their penis spews forth their essence, so must their mouths when we apply vertical symmetry) and women were considered purely receptive. Furthermore, a woman’s individuality is somehow contaminated by a man’s spirit during intercourse. Once he spills his essence into her, everything she says and does has his essence in it.
This is where we find the reason behind Artemis’s virginity. As a Goddess of both freedom, independence, and the untouched purity of wild nature, Artemis must preserve an identity that is completely uninfluenced by any other being. She could not allow anyone else to cloud Her individuality. The ancient Greeks believed that the only way for a woman (or Goddess, in this case) to remain purely herself and not have her identity influenced by anyone else was to abstain from sex. In the minds of the ancient Greek men who wrote down the myths we are now familiar with, the only acceptable way for Artemis to avoid intercourse permanently was to remain a parthenos eternally, and thus never be bound by the responsibilities of a wife to bear children.
To take all this information one step further and ask how Artemis would manifest Herself in modern society, or if She would still require Her followers to be virgins today (as they were in ancient Greece) is effectively unsolvable. The answer would be dependent not only on the individual person in question, but also on their personal approach to reconstructing ancient Greek religion. For example, for a woman determined to be as authentic to ancient Greek culture as possible in every aspect of their worship, perhaps they would need to abstain from sex with men. Having sex with women is arguably acceptable, for if this woman is working with the ancient Greek understanding of men and women, then two women, both being purely receptive beings, are incapable of contaminating each other’s identities. If this were a man instead, the answer might be entirely different. Perhaps they could have sex freely without needing to worry about contamination of their identity, for if men are only projective, then they have no receptiveness with which to receive the identity of another. However, one could also look at the myth of Hippolytos and assume that virginity is the best way to stay close to Artemis regardless of one’s own gender, although I would caution anyone determined to abstain entirely from sex, and suggest they take a good look at what ultimately happens to Hippolytos and why. On the other hand, this same question could yield a very different answer for someone who wishes to use a modern understanding of gender and sex. Perhaps sex is less binding to them, and it is instead relationships which have an unquestionable influence on their independence and individuality, or perhaps they are one of those rare and unique people who can keep their individuality and freedom in tact while being romantically or sexually involved with someone. The point is that there is no longer a set rule in this matter. In the modern world it is up to each individual who wishes to be closer to Artemis to approach Her and discover which path is best suited for them.