"Virgin, deer-shooter, wild one, the gods call her as her name. Eros comes nowhere near her." - Sappho, translated by Anne Carson.
It is not so much Artemis herself as her divine presence that allows Leto to give birth to Apollo. It is this birth that gives Artemis the honors she holds most sacred - that of the protectoress of the young. That is her first office, and Apollo is her first charge. She never forgets that.
Leto fosters them out separately, each where they could reach their own potential. Entering into exile, their holy mother is forced to wander the Earth in punishment for giving birth to nobler offspring than Hera could bear.
They do not see their mother for lifetimes, and when she finally calls on them to avenge her on Niobe, they heed her call. Artemis has to be persuaded to kill the daughters of Niobe, but her brother is ever ready to bring swift death upon humans. She remembers that her role is to protect the maidens, but she kills them despite that. She tells herself that in doing this, she is protecting her mother -- and not straying too far from her sacred responsibilities. Even so, her fingers tremble on the bow and her hands hesitate to pull the arrows out of the quiver.
Apollo watches her closely, his eyes challenging her and she knows that their bond is stronger than what binds her to helpless mortals. So she shoots. One. Two. Three, and eventually all seven. She does not talk to Apollo and leaves at once. He calls out her name, but she can't wait to wash the blood off of her hands.
Blood is what binds them, first and foremost.
When Leto's exile ends, she takes her children to Olympus. Their father is proud to see them, and declares Artemis to be the fairest of his daughters. Artemis herself finds it hard to love a father who abandoned her mother to the anger of his jealous wife. She nods her head, but does not talk to him.
He asks her to request a boon, and she asks for all the things men do not want for women to have. She says, "I want fifty nymphs to accompany me where I dwell."
He grants it.
She says, "I want dominion over Wilderness."
He hesitates, but Artemis knows that he is being watched closely by the council of the gods. Finally, he nods.
She asks next for the power to grant swift death to those in need, and it is made hers.
Zeus laughs and says, "You know what you're after, Daughter. In addition to all that you've asked for, I will give you a coveted place among the Olympians. You will sit in the assembly of the greatest gods."
Hera flinches but does not protest. Her own daughter is a mere cup-bearer among the gods, and she knows that Hebe would never ask for more.
Artemis, however, refuses the place Zeus gives to her. Lastly, Artemis says, "I would also have you give me eternal chastity," and this request, in itself is not odd. But Artemis adds, "And I would ask that no man should ever have power over me."
Her father, she can tell, is unnerved by this, but he grants her this too, lest he be seen as grudging in the holy gathering. He gives her all she asks for, but she wants none of what he offers. Let Athena be his favorite; she wants no part of Zeus' civilized world.
She leaves Olympus then, but Apollo stays. Apollo, with his love of order and structure, fits well into the world of Olympian gods, but Artemis is an alien here, no more welcome than the furies of the underworld.
Artemis has her fifty companions, but she knows that none of these is constant. They stay with her for a while, and are too happily seduced away when Aphrodite compels them.
No gods ever pursue Artemis though. She is too constant in her wants and too independent. She is not to be tamed and they understand.
They watch her still, she knows that, and there are many of them. They can't have her, and so they take her nymphs and each girl becomes Artemis to them. In turn, each girl's lost virginity becomes an offense to Artemis' own chastity and she takes these offenses seriously and punishes the guilty.
Daphne is the first of her companions to pledge her loyalty to Artemis alone, but Artemis doubts her devotion. Apollo comes to see her in the wilds, but she refuses to go to Olympus. It is she who brings Daphne to Apollo's attention, praising her devotion to her. Apollo's visits grow more frequent, and Artemis lets herself be a silent observer to their strange courtship. Daphne, Artemis notices, is not immune to Apollo's attentions. Daphne continues to devote herself in Artemis' service, and Artemis does not complain of Apollo's visits. She tells herself that it is a test, but she does not know if she is testing Apollo or Daphne.
And then it happens, and she's entirely at fault, she knows. Apollo trespasses on her sphere, and she knows that she should punish him. But instead, she answers Daphne's prayer and transforms her into a tree.
Apollo continues to visit, and that surprises her. But she would no longer speak to him.
Later, when he trespasses on her world again, she seeks him out. It's the first time she has allowed herself inside his world, and the structure she finds him in is as removed from her world as Olympus from Hades. She's at a disadvantage here, she knows this. The temple has been built on the grave of a forest and this offends her, but she knows that her presence here is also an offense. She deliberately left herself impure before entering. Her robes are soiled from the bloodied water, and her hands are covered in dried blood from Callisto's womb.
Before she can find him, he materializes before her. "You should not be here," he says and takes a hold of her arm, "Not like this." He starts pulling her out of the temple and towards the lake outside where she might purify herself.
She knows that if she gives in to him now, there will be no confrontation today. She stands her ground, and slowly, he lets go of her arm. And he waits for her to say something.
Finally, she asks, "Why must you always go after what you can't have?"
When he doesn't answer and doesn't seem to understand, she says, "I killed Callisto. I had to," she says. She could've forgiven her, could've let her walk out from the forest and live out her life with her son. She almost did, knowing that banishment would've been punishment enough for Callisto, who loved the company of the goddess and her nymphs. But she also remembers that Callisto had told her that Apollo was responsible for her transgression. So she had struck her with an arrow. Afterwards, remembering that Callisto was with child, she had delivered the child safely into the world.
"I had nothing to do with her," Apollo says. "It was Zeus who violated her."
"She seemed to believe it was you."
"It was Zeus," Apollo says again, "Disguised as me."
"Then I was mistaken in coming here," she states and turns to leave.
Apollo reaches out and takes a hold of her arm and asks, "Where are you going?"
"To pay our father a visit."
"It's one to thing to come in here and confront me, but quite another to challenge the God of gods," He says. "Zeus wouldn't be so accommodating of your rebellion."
"He should not have deceived Callisto," she says. "He shouldn't have come into my forest."
"And he shouldn't have abandoned our mother to wander the earth alone. But he is the King of Gods. You cannot do anything against him. Neither can I."
She considers his words and reads their implications. She realizes also that she has been resenting Apollo for giving into their father's wishes so completely, for becoming a part of his kingdom. She lets go of some of that contempt now, understanding that while Apollo's nature is closer to Zeus' than hers, he still belongs more to her world than to his, even if he wouldn't see it that way.
"There are other ways you can punish him for his transgression," Apollo points out, and Artemis lets herself be persuaded by his reason and lets herself be pulled outside towards the lake. She's tired of having blood on her.
There's an odd truce between them now, Apollo and Artemis. Having remembered their common heritage, they're able to overlook their differences for brief interludes. She still won't go to see him on Olympus, though he keeps coming to see her.
Once, he finds her in the fields where she's playing with her nymphs and some goddesses, and his eyes linger too long on Persephone's dancing form. She feels a tiny, twisting pang in the pit of her stomach and refuses to call it jealousy, but she places herself between Persephone and his gaze. She asks him why he's here.
"I need your help," he says, and already, she knows that this will not be something easily done.
"It's Coronis," he says, and she understands. Lovely Coronis who had courted Apollo with a ceaseless devotion that he had been unable to resist. Human Coronis, who had been unable to remain faithful to Apollo.
"No," she says simply, and then, "Do it yourself."
She starts to turn away, but he says, "I can't. I love her."
"Then let her go," she says.
"I can't do that either."
"I will not kill for you, Apollo. Ask someone else," she tells him.
"I don't want her to suffer. And you're the only one who can make it painless. My arrows bring pestilence and a slow death, but yours are merciful."
And she understands. He would do it himself if he has to. So she says that she would do it. And she says, "I am not doing this as a favor to you. Leave. I will find Coronis myself when time comes."
But Apollo stays and she's the one who has to turn away and walk back to the open fields.
She finds Coronis with her new lover, and that, at least, makes this a bit easier. She turns away from them, letting them finish. And when he leaves her sleeping, she reaches for an arrow inside her quiver and lets her hand linger on it for a long time before taking it out.
She takes time stringing her bow and placing an arrow at the ready. Her aim set, she waits.
"You know, it will be less painful if you make it quick." Apollo says, coming up behind her, and she knows that he's not referring to Coronis.
She doesn't answer him, but steadies her hand. He comes to stand close behind her, and she tightens her fingers on the string. Closer, and she forgets to breathe. She shoots. And misses.
She's grateful for his silence as she reaches for another arrow and takes aim again. Wordlessly, he places his hand over hers to steady her bow. Again, she shoots. And kills. This death surprises her, as does the blood on her fingers from the pressure of having held on to the bow so tightly and for so long. Feeling the pain in her hands, she closes them into tight fists and lets the blood trickle out from between her fingers. She closes her eyes tightly, refusing to watch her die.
Apollo doesn't leave her, and doesn't let go. His hands reach down and close over her fists, and she can feel his fingers trying to pry hers open, making her let go.
And she does. She lets him hold her, but this moment of comfort is short-lived. There's a tightening in her chest, and a pressure in her head that releases itself as a prayer. She hears Coronis' voice in her mind, "Deliver my child safely into the world, Holy Artemis. Don't let it die with me."
She pushes herself away from Apollo with such force that he staggers. Without another glance at him, she runs across the forest to reach the clearing where Coronis lies. Apollo chases after her, but she reaches her first.
"Coronis," she whispers her name and knows that she's still alive. Once again, she finds herself pulling a child out of the womb of a woman she herself has killed. The blood on her hands mingles with Coronis' blood, and there's no doubt that the small, and not yet fully formed child belongs to Apollo.
Apollo finds them in the clearing, and the look of shock and pain that crosses his features makes Artemis less angry. She asks, "Did you know about this?"
He shakes his head and starts to reach for his child, but turns away when Coronis calls out to him.
"Forgive me, Apollo," she says, and he comes to sit beside her. "I know you'll look after him." He holds her hand, and she says, "I did not want to betray you. I was...afraid that you would turn away from me when I grew old. So I turned away first."
"Coronis," Apollo says softly and strokes her hair.
Artemis turns away and leaves them alone, taking the child with her. She knows what Coronis hadn't, that Apollo, unlike the other gods, is constant in his loves. It's always they who turn away from him first.
Later that day, he comes to collect his son from her, and leaves in silence. He does not come to see her after that. But she has her visits from other gods.
She returns from her forest one day to find Aphrodite waiting for her inside the small, wooden dwelling she keeps in the forest.
"So this is the place you've abandoned Olympus for," Aphrodite says, and it is not a question.
"If you dislike it so, perhaps you should've stayed on Olympus," Artemis says.
"On the contrary, I'm beginning to see why you prefer this place to Olympus," Aphrodite replies, "Olympus lacks a certain sense of...privacy."
"I have no need of secrecy."
"Of course not."
"Why are you here?"
"To tell you about Persephone."
And that is all Artemis needs. This is the way it always is, between her and Aphrodite. Their domains are necessarily separate and removed from each other's. To enter Aphrodite's is to leave Artemis', and Persephone, she knows, has left. Left when she had promised to stay.
Aphrodite steps closer to her, and places her hands on her shoulders, "Artemis, Artemis..." Aphrodite says, her name rolling off of her tongue, soft and pliable and so Artemis herself becomes under Aphrodite's touch. She melts and Aphrodite smiles. "Don't fault her too much. Chastity is a hard-kept virtue, and eternity is a very long time."
She closes her eyes for a fraction of a second, savoring the feel of Aphrodite's touch, and then she shrugs her shoulders with force and steps back from Aphrodite.
"Don't you have some innocent maiden to lead astray?"
Artemis turns away and leaves her behind to go back to her forest and the hunt.
It's dark in the forest now, and too late, she remembers that she did not bring her bow and her arrows. That brings her to a halt. Sensing movement ahead, she goes after her prey, forgetting her lack of weapons. She finds that she does not mind killing with her hands as much as she thought she would.
She sits in the forest, in the dark, and does not go back. Moments go by, hours even, and she hears footsteps behind her. She reaches for her arrows, and remembers. She stands up and turns around to find Apollo there.
She has not seen him for such a long time, but now, everything comes back and there's no sense of time having passed. She notices the ashes in his hair, on his clothes, and on his face. She reaches to wipe it away from his face and is surprised to find that the blood on her own hands is still wet enough to stain his face.
He takes a hold of her hands and looks at them, and seeing that the blood is not hers, lets go.
"Where have you been?" She asks.
And he says, "Asclepios is dead, struck by lightening, reduced to ashes."
Only gods live forever, they both know that. But Asclepios, born from the god of healing, could bring back the dead, could give eternal life to mortals if he desired to. That was his downfall, and he could be Apollo's. She does not have to ask which god it was who brought Apollo's son down, so she asks, "What are you going to do?"
He shakes his head slowly, but would not tell her. This scares her.
"You cannot hurt Zeus," she reminds him. And that is true. But they both know that there are other ways to hurt Zeus. Hera has perfected the art, and the gods know to follow her example when retaliating against their king.
"I know," he says. "I'm not going to."
She doesn't believe him, so she says, "Don't go back to Olympus. Stay here for a while."
He remains silent for a long moment, and then he nods his head and says that he would stay.
And for now, she's relieved. So when he tugs on her arm, she lets herself be pulled into an embrace. She pulls back to find him staring at the carcass of the deer, bloodied and devoid of its glory. His eyes turn to her and his hand reaches over to wipe blood off of her cheek. He pulls her closer and kisses her forehead. And then kisses her lips.
She pulls back and pushes him back with force, and he stumbles, and takes a hold of her wrist and holds on. She pulls again, but this time, she draws him in and their lips meet again.
Blood is what binds them, first and foremost. But it is not the only thing.
There is no thunder, earthquake, or even an eclipse to mark this collision of their two worlds, and she's surprised to realize that if she wants this, it can happen without a sound.
It is always in his presence that she returns to herself so completely, and everything that has happened since they were first together and alone seems to disappear. But everything that came after was a result of that first bonding and cannot be forgotten. It is always in Apollo's presence that she remembers herself - her roots, her domain, and her pledge. And remembering, she can never do this.
So she pushes him away again. This time, more gently, and says, "No."
He lets go of the wrist he's still holding, and stands there silently, holding her gaze. And she's the one who steps back, staggers, and turns away. She leaves him behind and leaves behind her forest, too.
When she stops running, she finds herself in a clearing with a lake, and she realizes that she's covered in blood and ashes. So she tears at her clothes and steps into the clear, cool liquid.
Blood and ashes slip away, but she can still feel the memory of his hands on her skin. Can feel also the memory of Callisto's blood trickling down on her hands and down her wrists. She remembers the betrayal, but more importantly, she remembers the punishment for no one is allowed to leave her realm without sacrifice.
She's taken out of herself - her sphere and her thoughts - by a feeling of another presence. She wonders if Apollo followed her, and does not want to think what might happen if he did. So she turns around and the water stills at her silent command, letting her single out the presence and it is not Apollo.
As her eyes meet the hunter's, he gasps in fear and wonder, but fool that he is, he does not turn away and does what no man - god or human - is allowed to do: he gazes at Artemis.
She has not her arrows, so there will be no mercy shown, and he hasn't proved himself worthy of any. So she spares no cruelty in designing her punishment. With the sound of her hollowed words, he's turned into a stag. And having turned into an animal, he shows the first signs of human understanding: he realizes the extend of his transgression, and turns away to race out of the water and out the forest. But he's caught by his hunting dogs before he even leaves the lake and she watches as they tear him apart. His blood contaminates the water, and her sense of purity is gone.
She returns to the forest to find Apollo gone, and too late, remembers why he'd come to her in the first place.
Afterwards, she waits for him, but Apollo does not return to her and she knows that something has gone wrong.
She tries to forget about him, about herself, about them. But the forest reminds her of her straying and the hunt only increases her longing for him. She even considers going to Olympus, but her mother comes to her before then.
Weeping and pleading, Leto tells her that Apollo has slain the Cyclops who had fashioned the thunderbolt that struck his son and Zeus is going to banish him to Tartarus.
Among the deathless gods, punishments for betrayals rarely last for eternity, but an exile to Tartarus is worse than death for a god.
And again, it is not Artemis herself as much as her unflattering resolve that allows Leto to go to Zeus and plead for their son's life. So the punishment is reduced to an exile from Olympus for the duration of a human lifetime, to be spent in thrall to Admetus, a mortal king.
He does not come to see her nor to say goodbye. And so the duration of a human lifespan seems to become a lifetime for her as well.
In this lifetime, Orion comes to her to plead for mercy. Orion, the hunter, whose only passions are the forest and the chase. Struck blind, he's deprived of both.
Artemis restores his sight and in return, he can do nothing but love the goddess who showed him such benevolence.
He follows her and hunts with her and when this silent courting does not move Artemis, he does the only thing that would: He shows his devotion by dedicating his life to her service alone and swears to remain faithful to only her. And this, finally, flatters Artemis and she finds herself enjoying his company more than that of the ever departing nymphs.
And so this lifetime goes by more quickly than previously thought, but still, Apollo does not return to her. It is from the mouth of another that she hears the news of his return. Khione, beloved of Apollo and Hermes, is eager to let Artemis know that she herself is more favored by the Sun God than his own sister.
When he does come to her, it is to warn her about Orion, to tell her that it's not good for gods to become attached to mortals.
"Why not?" She asks him.
And he says, "Because they die."
"No, we kill them," she says.
"Small price to pay for the love of gods."
And she says, "I do not love Orion."
"He'll betray you," he says. "They always do."
He leaves her, and she knows that there's something different about him, but he does not say a word to her about his exile.
She feels safe with Orion, despite the light pull of desire she feels when in his presence. It is because he's human that she allows herself to feel this, knowing that he'll be gone before desire can win her over.
One night, she finds herself in Delos, away from the forest and is not surprised to find Apollo here. He talks to her about the kindness of his keeper, and about his death. He tells her about the wondrous walls of Troy that he erected while there. Tells her also about the Trojans' skill in archery and all that he learned from them.
In this place where they existed before they were taken with their domains, she finds that while their worlds may never merge, not every meeting has to be a collision. So she keeps coming here, night after night, and sometimes, he's there and sometimes, she's alone. Sometimes, Orion asks to come with her and she always says no.
Once Apollo offers to show her what he learned from the Trojans and shows her what he can do with his arrows and shoots a target that seems smaller than a speck of dust from their distance. His arrow shoots, hits, and stays.
They usually only shoot to kill, so Artemis likes this game, and says that she can shoot something even further away. Apollo smiles, and points to a target and she nods and shoots even though she cannot see it. When it hits, there's no protest or sound, but the invisible speck she shot at spreads in waves of red. And she knows at once who it is, but Apollo, she thinks, knew it all along.
She inhales sharply at this realization and can feel Apollo's hands on her shoulders now, supporting her. She shrugs with force and lets herself fall to the ground. Her anger, he knows how to placate, so she does not give him that satisfaction. He calls her name, but she does not respond. Finally, he sits down beside her and touches her face, and she lets him but she does not respond to his touch.
His hands rest on her temples and she closes her eyes. He touches them and she sees what was always known to him and she sees, in this one death of Orion, all his other fates.
And in every one of these, she sees him dead by her own hand, sees also the methods of these deaths. She falls in love with him, and he dies; he betrays her and she punishes him, as is fit; he tries to overcome her, and she kills him. All these deaths exist in this one death. And every time, it is her fault.
Apollo leans closer and says, "You can blame me, if you like." And then, "He was doomed the moment you loved him."
And she knows this - always knew this - that humans don't outlive gods, and often, they don't survive gods.
She remains silent and does not deny loving Orion. Let Apollo think that Orion is the one she loves.
She closes her eyes and tears drop from her eyelashes. Apollo pulls his hands away as they touch his fingers. She weeps now for the loss of Orion, but she will only be able to mourn for so long. Orion's life was short, and Artemis has an eternity to live. It's her anger at Apollo that will linger.
Orion's body washes on the shore, still bleeding. Still, she remains silent, and seeing that she would not speak to him, Apollo leaves her to wash away Orion's blood.
Blood is what binds them, first and foremost, but she wonders if it will ever be enough.
Later that day, she buries Orion's body and places his image in the night sky, close to the moon, but always facing away from the sun. She's surprised to find herself relieved at having been absolved of a greater transgression: she would not have not been able to live with killing Orion the way Apollo can live with destroying everything he loves. But still, she would not allow herself to be grateful to him, nor to forgive him.
She is grateful for the reminder that desire can never enter her realm without consequences and sacrifices. But she remembers also that chastity is a hard kept virtue, and eternity is a very long time.