She’s been on my mind a lot since the Women’s Marches on January 21st. Apollo, whom I most readily associate with, as he is patron of the arts and culture and poetry, is the literal light that illuminates our lives and spirits. But sometimes it is appropriate that he yield to Diana, whose overriding impulse is not to yield. She resists. And right now, I’m finding her message pretty compelling.
I have a very literary view of classical gods. My understanding of them comes through years of studying literature—some more “authentic” texts than others (if we regard Apollodorus and Hesiod more authentic than Ovid, and Ovid more authentic than Chaucer or Spenser or Rick Riordan). The gods have a tradition and a history as archetypes and characters, and I think about them fairly regularly for a 21st century American.
Diana/Artemis came up recently in my Chaucer class, for instance. When I teach “The Knight’s Tale,” we talk about the gods whom the characters pray to for support. The two young men who are in love with the Amazon Emelye pray to the god they think will help their suit—Arcite prays to Mars, since there will be a battle for her hand, and he wants to win. Palamon goes straight to Venus, asking for her help in his love suit. Emelye, on the other hand, prays to Diana. She wants above all to remain a virgin, and if that doesn’t pan out, to marry the man who loves her the most.
Chaucer’s Diana condescends (very literally) to explain things to Emelye. This almost never happens. When one prays to a classical god, a flame flickers or a sweet odor wafts in to say yes. The gods don’t chit-chat. But Diana does here, and it is remarkable. Perhaps because Emelye is an Amazon, a virgin who wishes to stay chaste, an obvious candidate for Diana’s troupe of nymphs in the forest–whatever the reason, Diana speaks.
Diana is the goddess of the moon. As such she is associated with women’s cycles and with childbirth (the waxing moon representing the growing belly of a pregnant woman). She is also the first midwife, helping her mother Latona deliver her twin Apollo moments after she herself is born. She is a virgin goddess, yes, but because of these associations, she is also the patron of childbirth—of that moment in a woman’s life when she is her least rational, most wild.
Diana defends the wild, as well. She lives in the forest, eschewing the bright light of civilization and knowledge and patriarchy that Apollo represents. She is the protector of animals, especially of their young, and of the wild in general. She is the huntress, and the slivered moon is her bow. She keeps balance in the forest by hunting, so one species doesn’t overrun another, and she is the goddess of instant death: if a woman dropped dead instantly (say, of a heart attack or a stroke), she was said to have been struck by Diana’s arrow. She shares that appellation with her brother, who is the god of instant death (he shot men; she shot women).
In fact it is well to understand her in light of her brother. They share the archer role, but they contrast in far more ways. She is the moon; he is the sun. She is wildness and soft, reflected light; he is the bright, illuminating planet by whose rays we see wisdom, prophecy, the arts, medicine, civilization in all its various facets. He is the polis, the body politic. She, though, she is wild.
Diana turns her back on the civilization Apollo offers. She leaves. No man will rule her; no sun will drown out her softer light. She lives in and becomes the wild. She is fierce. She can be ruthless. Actaeon stumbles across her bathing, and she lashes out at him, transforming him in to a stag who is immediately hunted and ripped apart by his own dogs. She is resistance to the established, straight and narrow, well-lighted path. She is the crooked path through the dark forest. She can be violent and is always subversive. She lights but dimly, and she roars in the darkness.