Folk Etymologies for Artemis from Plato

Angry goddess with projectile weapon.
Angry goddess with projectile weapon.

Like many ancient divine names, the etymology of Artemis is unclear (whether it is proto-Greek or non-Greek, etc.). When it comes to etymology in general, I have a fondness for ancient folk etymologies because, even if they make dubious claims, they do tell us something about what the Greeks thought of the deity and how they were approaching their own language. Wikipedia, as one might expect, cites many of the different etymologies for Artemis, but skimps on some of the depth and play available in folk etymology.

The most illustrative example is from Plato (Cratylus 406b) where Socrates proposes multiple spurious origins for the name but then concludes they might all work in concert.

“Artemis seems to be named due to her safe/healthy (artemés) and orderly character, and due to her love of maidenhood. Perhaps, instead, the one who named her named her because she is knowledgeable about virtue ([aretê + manthanô “to learn, know”?]) or, also possibly, because she hates the plowing of a man into a women ([aroton +misê, “to hate”]). Or, the man who gave this name to the goddess named her for all of these reasons.”

“῎Αρτεμις” δὲ <διὰ> τὸ ἀρτεμὲς φαίνεται καὶ τὸ κόσμιον, διὰ τὴν τῆς παρθενίας ἐπιθυμίαν• ἴσως δὲ ἀρετῆς ἵστορα τὴν θεὸν ἐκάλεσεν ὁ καλέσας, τάχα δ’ ἂν καὶ ὡς τὸν ἄροτον μισησάσης τὸν ἀνδρὸς ἐν γυναικί• ἢ διὰ τούτων τι ἢ διὰ πάντα ταῦτα τὸ ὄνομα τοῦτο ὁ τιθέμενος ἔθετο τῇ θεῷ.

I like this passage because it indicates—even if indirectly—the distance between what modern historical linguists do in isolating viable etymologies and how origins of words are engaged with culture and narrative in living traditions. Plato’s characters take what they know about Artemis (she protects virgins, kills some people in horrendous fashion etc.) and what they think they know about language to make reasonable (if historical impossible) proposals. And, more importantly, Socrates, here at least, is reluctant to be reductive: words can mean multiple things at the same time and in this may share their semantic origins with non-cognate roots.

The Doric spelling of the goddess’ name was ῎Αρταμις (Artamis) which is part of what likely led the LSJ to list ἄρταμος (artamos, “butcher”) as a more likely etymological connection than Plato’s indicated ἀρτεμής (artamês, “safe”). But, let’s be honest, everyone likes to argue with Plato (Aristotle especially); and we know that the LSJ is not a result of perfect judgment and absolute science.

Cats, Gods and Weasels in Ancient Greece

αἰλουροπρόσωπος: [ailouroprosôpos] “cat-faced”

αἰλουρόμορφος: [ailouromorphos] “cat-shaped”

A student in my myth class spontaneously asked about which deity would be the patron of cats in Ancient Greece. As is my custom—when I have no idea—I admitted I didn’t know but then added from my knowledge of ancient Greek (αἴλουρος, the word for “cat”, felix domesticus did not come readily to mind) and Greek literature (where cats appear rarely apart from fables) it was my intuition that cats would not have featured prominently in Greek religion and culture. (I also added that dogs appeared as close to men in Homer; whereas cats are a mostly later addition.)

Since we live in the miraculous age of information, I was fact-checked. According to the internet, since Artemis was associated with the Ancient Egyptian goddess related to cats (Bast(a)), then Artemis was a deity of cats. Alas, I responded in class, this makes some sense, but, I added, since Artemis is the potnia thêrôn (queen of wild beasts), her identification with felix domesticus was a bit incomplete. And over the weekend, a student reminded me about the subject:

The best ancient source for Athena and cats? A later Greek author Antoninus Liberalis who lived sometime between 100 and 200 BCE. In his Metamorphoses (26.7) he describes how the gods ran away from Typhon and disguised themselves as animals: Ares become a fish, Dionysus a goat and Artemis a cat. The internet also reports that Ovid describes a servant of Alcmene aiding in the birth of Herakles—the goddess, enraged, turned her into a cat and made her a priestess of Hekate. But this is not actually true. Instead, the creature in question is a weasel or polecat.

(And for good modern fun, check out Rudy Giuliani’s fear of ferrets).

It seems that in ancient Greece, a weasel (probably closer to our ferret) was domesticated and used for rodent control. In fact, in the Batrakhomuomakhia (the “Battle of Frogs and Mice), when the mouse speaks of its greatest fears, it does not, contrary to what we might expect, mention a cat.

“But I do fear two things over the whole earth:
the raven (?) and the weasel who bring me great grief
and the grievous mousetrap where a deceptive fate awaits me.
But I fear the weasel more than anything, that beast who is best
At ferreting a hole-dweller out of his hole.]”

51         πλεῖστον δὴ γαλέην περιδείδια, ἥ τις ἀρίστη,
52         ἣ καὶ τρωγλοδύνοντα κατὰ τρώγλην ἐρεείνει.
53         οὐ τρώγω ῥαφάνους, οὐ κράμβας, οὐ κολοκύντας,
54         οὐ σεύτλοις χλωροῖς ἐπιβόσκομαι, οὐδὲ σελίνοις•
55         ταῦτα γὰρ ὑμέτερ’ ἐστὶν ἐδέσματα τῶν κατὰ λίμνην.

I do appreciate the student question, because I had always just assumed that domesticated cats were a part of Greek life. While it seems that they did become much more common during the Hellenistic period and later, it is clear from the language and literature that weasels fulfilled their cultural (and poetic) roles. The overlap between the function of the animals leads to confusion: some times the word for weasel (γαλέη, galea) may actually indicate a cat. There is a good old-fashioned article laying much of this out. Cats appear in Greek imagery as early as the sixth century BCE; they are still paired with weasels by the time of Plutarch (1st Century CE) and gatta appears in Greek by the 5th century BCE.

The modern Greek for cat (Gata), in fact, represents a break with the ancient Greek Ailouros. The former, which is likely related to the same root that gives us modern “cat” (French, “le chat”; Spanish el gato; German Katze etc.), is a later addition to the language. But the latter gives us ailourophobia (“fear of cats”) and ailouranthrope (“catperson”)!

But, if the later Greeks did adopt cats and they knew the tale recorded by Antoninus, then it seems it would be fairest to let Artemis have here. Hekate gets the puppies anyway.

thanks to this post, I have the following horror in my head: