Artemis, Huntress and Protector

Artemis turned me into a rabbit once. It was a moonlit summer night, humid and sweet with honeysuckle and multiflora rose, lit with lazy runes written by fireflies across the dark treeline.

I was sitting in the orchard thinking about Artemis, as it was one of her festival days. Contemplating the dichotomy of a goddess who rules over childbirth and protects the young, and who also brings swift and inexorable death with her arrows that never miss.

And bam. There I was in the damp grass, my nose twitching madly, my long ears swiveling, eyes wide with shock.

“What the hell?” I yelled. What came out was a sort of shrill squeak.

“Shhh,” she whispered into my tall ear. “Listen. Look around you. You’re not the top predator in this place any more.”

I moved my ears and was astounded at what I could hear. The dogs across the lane, whose snuffles made my heart wham against my ribcage, sounded terrifyingly near. Yet when I paid attention I realized that they were actually close to their house, all inside the fence for once. I could hear the mindless rush of the river, half a mile away. There were millions of tiny forest murmurs and cries between here and there.

My own old dog was out with me, but thankfully lying on the pool deck, whuffing asthmatically. It would have been too ironic to get hunted down by my own dog, like poor Aktaeon, who inadvertently saw the goddess naked in her bathing pool and was turned into a deer and then torn apart by his own hunting pack.

Not that Tramp would kill me. Probably. Just chase me until his old wind gave out.

But my cats. Oh my gods, my cats were out. My cats are hunters. I tuned in. Marley was nearby up in the cherry tree, watching with puzzled interest. Ivy the Rabbit Killer wasn’t around, but I needed to be on the alert for her. She tended to kill babies, but she’d go for me if she thought she could take me. And I had no clue how to fight as a rabbit.

I could hear furtive movement in our woods. I listened carefully, crouching still as a stone beneath the apple tree. Just deer, moving out into the front pasture.

But further away, on the far side of the big field across the lane I could hear stealthy footsteps. I raised my head slightly, my nostrils widening to catch the clues on the damp night breeze. A red fox, on the prowl. Looking for someone like me. Not close enough to be an immediate danger, but if he didn’t take another prey soon he might come my way.

A mouse scurried into the front pasture a few feet ahead of me. There was a flash in the moonlight, a thump, a tiny cry, and the owl soared off across the summer sky with its catch in its claws. I hadn’t seen it at all until it struck.

The clover under my paws smelled maddeningly sweet, but I was too afraid to lower my head and graze. Danger was everywhere.

I looked around for the goddess. She was lounging in the grass nearby, her long bow cast carelessly beside her. She had plucked a bunch of honeysuckle from the bush by the potting shed and was indolently nipping the tips and sucking out the tiny drops of nectar, discarding the spent blooms into the grass. They made a pile by her graceful knee, so red that even the moonlight couldn’t quite drain them of their color. They looked like a pool of blood.

“Enjoying the beautiful night?” she asked.

I glared at her.

“You think you understand nature, and wildness, and freedom. You humans don’t have a clue. Your beloved summer nights are filled with peril for the small ones, the soft ones, the swift little ones. And full of hunger for the hunters, who need fresh meat and hot blood, whose babies cry if they don’t kill. You’ve forgotten it all.

But you asked. So here it is.”

I turned from her and took a few tentative hopping steps. My farm looked so strange from this low perspective, the grass of the front pasture taller than my head. The deer drifted through it, unafraid of me, but their ears, like mine, constantly swiveling, taking in every slight sound. I could hear the horses grazing in the paddock out back, the hum of the air conditioner, the buzzing song of the cicadas, a distant car engine. A mosquito buzzed around old Tramp’s head up on the pool deck. A bat flitted overhead, and I could hear its sonic beep.

Wonder crept in, nestling next to the fear. Not replacing it. I hopped over to the driveway. Marley followed me with her blue eyes but didn’t make a move to chase me. I sat up and looked around. It was still my little farm, still beautiful, still beloved, but now so full of potential perils. Living like this would be possible, and even wonderful, but I would never, ever be free of fear. It would mean adjusting to the certain knowledge that fangs or talons or claws or beaks would always be looming at the back of my neck, and that the day would surely come when I wouldn’t be quick enough to escape.

I looked back at the goddess. She stood, picked up her bow, plucked an arrow from her quiver and before I could sort out my new powerful hind legs and flee, she shot me through the heart. Pain burst through me. Blood poured from my mouth and nose. I gasped, my legs twitched. Through my dimming sight I saw Marley leap down from the cherry tree and flee back toward the house. As my eyes closed I saw the goddess’s long legs stop in front of me.

I was sitting in the chilly grass, pushing my hair out of my eyes and trying to catch my breath. Artemis was sitting next to me holding a rabbit skin.

“Have fun?” she asked.

“Was that necessary?” I croaked.

She shrugged. “Probably. Anyway, it’s what I do. If you want to be coddled, don’t come to me.”

She stood, her long limbs gleaming like marble in the moonlight, and walked away into the trees. The fireflies swirled around her.

Artemis is a contradiction, a challenge, an enigma. She refuses to fit into any stereotype or conform to any society’s expectations in any way. She is the tender protector of mothers in labor and babies of all species, and she’s the unerring arrow that brings swift death. She’s a laughing girl, companion of the Kore and leader of the mountain nymphs, the oreiads. Yet this slip of a girl led the Athenians into battle, and was largely credited with the stunning victories over the Persians at Marathon and Salamis. She might comfort you, play with you, dance under the summer sun with you, or rip your throat out with her teeth.

The Virgin Goddess