Plato Explains Oddities of a Greek Goddess of Childbirth

The Greek goddess Artemis is at home in the forest where she, occupied with the hunt, wields her bow and arrow. She also appears to spend a fair amount of time getting cleaned, since one of the more powerful stories of Artemis tells of a fellow hunter spotting her at her ablutions. The hunter was not one of her band of virginal female followers, but a male. He, Actaeon, had to pay with his life for the albeit accidental crime of seeing the virgin goddess in the nude. A virgin goddess seems an odd choice for a goddess of childbirth, but that was one of her areas of power. Since she insisted on chastity among her followers, those who needed her services were not her acolytes. But she had responsibilities, and she was diligent in applying her skills to those in need (whether for good of for their ill). In the aspect of goddess of childbirth, she needed a different set of servants, Plato says, because a virgin isn’t fit to deal with the needs of woman in labor. A midwife must come from the ranks of those who have experienced the birthing process, Artemis selects only older women who might as well have regained their virginity since no ancient woman past her natural childbearing years could bear a child. Here is the passage from Plato

Plato, Theaetetus 149b-d (trans. Fowler) (Greek philosopher C4th B.C.) :
“Sokrates: Take into consideration the whole business of the midwives . . . For you know, I suppose, that no one of them attends other women while she is still capable of conceiving and bearing but only those do so who have become too old to bear . . . They say the cause of this is Artemis, because she, a childless goddess, has had childbirth allotted to her as her special province. Now it would seem she did not allow barren women to be midwives, because human nature is too weak to acquire an art which deals with matters of which it has no experience, but she gave the office to those who on account of age were not bearing children, honoring them for their likeness to herself . . . Is it not, then, also likely and even necessary, that midwives should know better than anyone else who are pregnant and who are not? . . . And furthermore, the midwives, by means of drugs and incantations, are able to arouse the pangs of labor and, if they wish, to make them milder, and to cause those to bear who have difficulty in bearing; and they cause miscarriages if they think them desirable.”
Theoi

This article is based on one of my Myth Mondays on the Ancient/Classical History site at About.com: http://ancienthistory.about.com/b/2012/11/26/myth-monday-how-much-do-you-know-about-artemis.htm. It was followed by the following questions about Artemis:

  1. Question: What happened to Actaeon? Answer: Artemis, Actaeon and the Bath
  2. Question: Before he could sail to Troy, what had Agamemnon done to incur Artemis’ wrath and how did he appease the goddess? Answer: The Tale of Troy
  3. Question: Who else failed to honor her resulting in a famous boar devastating the countryside? Answer: Calydonian Boar Hunt
  4. Question: On which side was Artemis in the Trojan War? Answer: Gods and Goddesses in the Iliad
  5. Question: Which baby did Artemis first help deliver? Answer: Leto
  6. Question: Which of the Homeric women asks Artemis to kill her, Andromache or Penelope? Before you look, try to figure out why she would ask for death. Answer: Transitions Goddess
  7. Question: In what general area was the virginal Artemis worshiped as a mother goddess? Answer: Cult Statue of Artemis
  8. Question: Why does Artemis take revenge on Arachne’s friend Niobe? Answer: Niobe

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Description “Artemis with a hind, better known as “Diana of Versailles”. Marble, Roman artwork, Imperial Era (1st-2nd centuries CE). Found in Italy.”

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