Orphic Hymn I to Prothyrea ("Προθυραία"), identifies Artemis as the goddess of childbirth, and relegates Eileithyia to the role of "assisting goddess":

O venerable goddess, hear my pray'r,
For labour pains are thy peculiar care;
in thee, when stretch'd upon the bed of grief,
The sex as in a mirror view relief.
Guard of the race, endued with gentle mind,
To helpless youth, benevolent and kind;
Benignant nourisher; great Nature's key
Belongs to no divinity but thee.

Thou dwell'st with all immanifest to sight,
And solemn festivals are thy delight.
Thine is the talk to loose the virgin's zone,
And thou in ev'ry work art seen and known.
With births you sympathize, tho' pleas'd to see
The numerous offspring of fertility;
When rack'd with nature's pangs and sore distress'd,
The sex invoke thee, as the soul's sure rest;
For thou alone can'st give relief to pain,
Which art attempts to ease, but tries in vain;
Assisting goddess, venerable pow'r,
Who bring'st relief in labour's dreadful hour;
Hear, blessed Dian, and accept my pray'r,
And make the infant race thy constant care.

The Hymns of Orpheus, translated by Thomas Taylor

Why would the Greeks associate a virgin goddess with childbirth? Is the association limited to the Orphic tradition?

2 Answers 2


It is commonly accepted that she was born first and assisted with the birth of her brother Apollo.

Two quick sources I pulled off of Theoi:

"Of the daughters of Koios . . . Leto had relations with Zeus, for which she was hounded by Hera all over the earth. She finally reached Delos and gave birth to Artemis, who thereupon helped her deliver Apollon. Artemis became a practised huntress and remained a virgin." Pseudo-Apollodorus, Bibliotheca 1. 21 (trans. Aldrich) (Greek mythographer C2nd A.D.)

There is another explanation regarding the painless labor of Leto:

"Even in the hour when I [Artemis] was born the Moirai (Fates) ordained that I should be their helper [women in childbirth], forasmuch as my mother suffered no pain either when she gave me birth or when she carried me win her womb, but without travail put me from her body." Callimachus, Hymn 3 to Artemis 22 ff (trans. Mair) (Greek poet C3rd B.C.)

However, these two sources may be later attempts to reconcile the association of the virgin form of Artemis with childbirth. In earlier forms, most famously at the Temple at Artemis at Ephesus, she is depicted in a manner strongly associated with fertility, and may have been a mother goddess until her status changed to that of virgin daughter in the Olympian pantheon.


In terms of limitation to the Orphic tradition, I don't know if there is a definite answer in that this association was almost certainly more widely held as a folk belief.

  • 1
    I have a personal theory, based on Clytemnestra's dialogue in Iphigenia at Aulis, that the insult to Artemis by Agamemnon actually arose out of his status of "baby killer" in that he killed Clytemnestra's infant after murdering her former husband to take her by force in marriage. Euripides also probably uses this to reinforce the idea that her subsequent slaying of her husband is rooted in these acts, not jealousy over Cassandra, per Aeschylus.
    – DukeZhou
    Dec 20, 2016 at 19:02

The Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo mentions a goddess of childbirth, Eileithyia, who was delayed by Hera, forcing Artemis to help her mother birth Apollo. (She was his older sister by a minute or two, so she started in early.)

Only Eilithyia, goddess of sore travail, had not heard of Leto's trouble, for she sat on the top of Olympus beneath golden clouds by white-armed Hera's contriving, who kept her close through envy, because Leto with the lovely tresses was soon to bear a son faultless and strong.

Homer mentions Eileithyia in the Iliad as well, but she seems to have been swallowed up in the cults of Hera and Artemis over time. The story of Apollo's birth was probably a rationalization of this change of cult.

Artemis' temple at Brauron was a major pilgrimage site for women who wanted to pray for a safe childbirth, leaving various offerings to the goddess. Artemis was seen as protecting newborns, and girls up until puberty.

This may seem strange in a huntress and virgin, but since she also watched over young animals, and in a sense was eternally young herself, it's not so surpring.

PS - Eileithyia's name does appear in Myceanean Linear B tablets, so we know she was an older goddess.

  • I read somewhere that the ability of the arktoi to travel from Athens to the sanctuary both unescorted and unmolested was considered a validation of civil order. I have to wonder if Artemis' sheparding of the children is a reflection of sheparding infants from the womb to the world.
    – DukeZhou
    Dec 30, 2016 at 17:24
  • 1
    That's an interesting idea, and it fits with Stephanie Lynn Budin's idea in her book on Artemis - that she's a goddess who oversees transitions.
    – solsdottir
    Dec 31, 2016 at 0:51

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