Artemis – Goddess of the Outside World
By: Mary Zeiss Stange
Mary Zeiss Stange is the author of Woman the Hunter (Boston: Beacon Press, 1997), the first cultural history of the relationship of women and hunting. She has gained international recognition as the primary scholar working on the subject today. In 2014, she was a Senior Scholar at the Center for Humans and Nature, co-directing their “Questions for a Resilient Future” project on the question, “Does Hunting Make Us Human?” Stange serves as a member of the Board of Directors of Orion, the Hunters Institute. Recently, she has been consulting, in the US and Europe, on the complex relationship between hunter/conservationism and “green” environmentalism. She and her husband Doug operate the Crazy Woman Bison Ranch in Ekalaka, Montana.
We humans have very little control over the ultimate trajectories of our lives. That truth has gripped me most poignantly in the frosty pre-dawn moments spent in my favorite deer stand, nestled behind a brushy juniper on the edge where field meets forest. The autumn sun slowly breaking the horizon, the world awakens. I am keenly aware that something—or nothing—amazing may happen at any moment. This is an Artemesian awareness, grounded in the inarguable fact that it is hunting that marks us human animals as predators—kindred spirits to cougar and wolf, grizzly and great horned owl. That we do, indeed must, meditate on the implications of our predation also distinguishes us (at least as far as we know) from those other nonhuman predators. We human hunters have both the capacity and the responsibility to reflect upon the impact of our actions—our very existence—on the world about us.
I don’t come from a hunting background. Yet my academic work in religion and culture studies led me, early on, to a fascination with the Greek goddess Artemis, “She Who Slays.” At first, something inside me wanted that fascination to remain abstract. When a country cousin offered me the chance to go out and “plink” a few tin cans with his .22, I declined because, astonishingly as I heard myself saying, “I might enjoy it.”
Then I met and married a life-long hunter. I found compelling the ecological continuity between the meat he brought home and the vegetables and herbs I harvested from my garden. It wasn’t long before I too was devoting my time and energy to sharpening my tracking and shooting skills, and to thinking and writing about Artemis the Huntress, the goddess of women and of the ecosystem, and about the women who follow her.
I tell my own story because for me any meditation on the one the Greeks called the Goddess of the Outside World (Agrotera), she who crosses boundaries and lives quite literally on the edge, can only be a deeply personal one.
Three decades ago my husband Doug and I purchased land in southeastern Montana and established our Crazy Woman Bison Ranch. This move afforded us experience that has become far too rare in our culture: the opportunity to become native to the place where we live. This landscape speaks a language of hoof prints and game trails, of rubs, spoor and calling crows, of flashes of liquid motion glimpsed too quickly and gone too soon. Hunters speak and hear this language of Artemis with a particularly acute inflection.
Like Artemis, I am primarily a deer hunter. The whitetails and mule deer with whom we share this wild space have become almost “familiar” . . . not in the sense of tameness, but rather of co-habitation. This is especially true of big older bucks. I’ll see one of them at sunset, at hunting season’s end, and I smile. That wily fellow made it through another season, living to see another year. He’ll fade back into the forest now, shedding those big antlers to assume relative anonymity to the human eye until the following summer. He’s not merely a lucky buck, he’s a smart one, with great survival instincts.
If only that were the happy end of every story Artemis whispers to those devotees who are paying attention!
Late one summer, I was walking a fence line, looking for breaks. That fence marks an ecotone, an “edge” where one kind of habitat gives way to another—in this case, sparsely wooded rolling grassland dropping off to densely forested ravine. The monotony of the chore was broken when I spied up ahead a snarl in the wires, something caught in them. A storm-blown tree branch, perhaps?
Closer inspection painted a more grisly picture: here were the remnants of a deer’s hind legs, horribly entangled, still joined at the pelvis. A few feet away lay more skeletal remains, including the skull of a superior whitetail buck. The bones bore mute testimony to how, exactly, he met his end here. Had his struggle to free himself from the wire been itself the cause of his entrapment? Did he die of exhaustion? Or was he by the time he reached the fence—one graceful leap away from the sanctuary of the forest—already struggling for his life, outwitted by a pack of coyotes or ambushed by a cougar? Perhaps he simply misjudged the way over or through the fence, in the rut and in mindless pursuit of a doe?
The precise circumstances of his awful death are better left just outside the boundaries of imagination. However it happened, he died horribly. That in the natural world such deaths are happening all the time, blunts but does not assuage the sting in the fact that, for this one, we humans bore some responsibility. Never mind rifle season. A magnificent whitetail was done in by a few feet of smooth high-tensile wire. The irony hardly ends there; that fence was a “conservation” measure, built to government specifications to mark a “livestock exclusionary area.”
Fences are never as simple as they appear—especially those we erect to mark off such boundaries as domestic and wild, culture and nature, rationality and instinct, human and nonhuman, death and life—all of them the territory Artemis roams with her attendant nymphs and hunting hounds. I wish I had encountered that buck the season before he met his end. I wish I had been able to train the crosshairs of my rifle scope just behind his shoulder, gently squeeze the trigger, and give him the good death that he deserved.
But then I do not control the ultimate trajectory of my life any more than did that hapless whitetail. Mindful of our mutual mortality, I continue to hunt the edges, both literally and metaphorically. And I trust my sister Artemis to lead the way.