Like Dionysos, Artemis embodies much that stands in opposition to Greek cultural ideals: she is an untamed, powerful female, a deity of the wilds more than of the city, and her personality includes a savage element which must be suppressed in the making of a civilized society. Both deities are so challenging to cultural norms that they are sometimes presented as “foreigners,” gods who have arrived from strange and savage lands. This was the case in a number of cities, including Athens and Sparta, which attributed the founding of their Artemis cults to Orestes and his sister Iphigeneia.7
Attic myths about Artemis tell of an angry goddess who must be appeased. At Aulis in nearby Boiotia, Agamemnon is said to have outraged Artemis by killing a sacred stag, causing her to demand the sacrifice of his daughter Iphigeneia. In some versions of the story, Iphigeneia perished at the altar, but in others she was saved by Artemis and made immortal, or spirited away to a distant land. Herodotus (4.103) tells of the barbarian Tauroi on the shores of the Black Sea, who sacrifice strangers to a goddess they call Iphigeneia or Parthenos (the Maiden). His account may have inspired Euripides’ Iphigeneia in Tauris, in which Orestes discovers his sister serving as priestess of Artemis in the land of the Tauroi. Obeying an oracle, they escape the barbarians and bring the barbarian statue of Artemis Tauropolos (Bull Tender) to Attica, where it is installed in a temple at Halai Araphenides. There a strange rite of bloodletting takes place: a sword is held to a man’s throat in order to draw a small amount of blood, “so that the goddess may have her proper honors” (Eur. IT 1459-61). This practice may have been an attenuated form of human sacrifice, though there is no additional evidence for this. What it does demonstrate is the uncanny and savage aspect of the goddess and the belief that she desired such sacrifices. While it is unclear whether the Greeks ever actually practiced human sacrifice, the concept was deeply embedded in their culture. Instead of recognizing their own fascination with the topic, they disavowed it by giving the practice, and even the goddess herself, a barbarian origin.8
At Sparta, a bloody ritual was again linked to the putative origin of the goddess’ image in the land of the Tauroi. Spartan boys underwent a series of trials designed to toughen them and to produce ideal warriors worthy of inclusion among the ranks of citizens; one of these tests took place at the altar of Artemis Ortheia. According to our earliest source, Xenophon (Lac. 2.9), it was a sort of war game between two teams. One team attempted to steal cheeses piled on the altar, while the other wielded whips against them. Later sources speak of a simple test of endurance in which boys were whipped so that blood fell on the altar, while the priestess of Artemis stood by holding the ancient statue. If the men wielding the whips were too lenient, the statue became heavier in her hands. The boys who withstood the most punishment, called “victors at the altar” (bfOmonikai), were greatly honored. In Roman times this ritual became a popular spectacle, and an amphitheater was built around the altar to accommodate tourists.9
Ortheia seems to mean the Upright Goddess, and folk etymology derives the name from the discovery of the statue tangled in the boughs of the agnus castus bush, which held it upright.10 In the cult legend related by Pausanias (3.16.9), the strange character of the goddess was immediately manifested when the men who found her went mad. The early inscriptions speak of Ortheia, who was probably an independent goddess, only later syncretized with Artemis. Known as the Limnaion (the Marsh), the sanctuary was founded in the late eighth century, and originally consisted of a pavement and altar located in a hollow beside the river Eurotas. An Archaic temple was added and restored after a flood destroyed the original installation. The excavators found an unbroken series of votive objects from the late Geometric period to Roman times; among these the sanctuary is famous for its ivory and bone plaques inspired by Phoenician models, more than one hundred thousand lead figurines, and an array of unusual terracotta masks.
Found immediately north and south of the temple, the masks are votive copies of wood or cloth masks worn during ritual dances in the Archaic period, and depict a variety of stock characters: grotesque demons, youths, warriors, satyrs, and gorgons. The most numerous are the masks covered with wrinkled ridges, featuring gaping toothy mouths. The iconography of these rather fearsome-looking masks, based on Phoenician models, can be traced back to the male Babylonian monster Humbaba. Most modern scholars, however, think the masks represent grotesque females, for an ancient authority speaks of Spartan dances performed by males wearing female masks and clothing. Such dances, described as “funny and obscene,” were a regular part of the Dorian and Peloponnesian worship of Artemis, and were probably related to rites of passage.11
The ivories and the far cheaper molded terracotta and lead figurines include numerous images of a winged goddess, holding animals in the heraldic Mistress of Animals pose or grasping a wreath in each hand. Initially, Artemis’ favorite animal, the deer, is absent from the animals depicted, but becomes increasingly popular after 600, suggesting that the syncretizing of Ortheia and Artemis took place in the sixth century. The lead figurines, including many hoplite warriors, are characteristic of Peloponnesian sanctuaries but little known elsewhere. Among the early votive gifts, limestone sculptures of heraldic lions and bronze double axes show that artistic motifs from the Mycenaean period were still remembered here.12