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In one of the endings of Orion's myth, Apollo challenges Artemis' skills and tells her to shoot at Orion, who is swimming in a lake. Artemis, who can't see that it's Orion, shoots and unknowingly kills him. Why did Apollo do that?

From what I know about Greek mythology, the twins seem to have a pretty solid relationship, so why did Apollo force his sister to kill her lover? Is this somehow related to the vow that Artemis took to never fall in love with a man?

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Most writers ascribe Apollo's trickery to jealousy.


This particular version of the Orion myth comes from the poet Istros, as preserved by Hygnius in his De Astronomicon. The original Latin text is as follows:

Istrus autem dicit Oriona a Diana esse dilectum et paene factum ut ei nupsisse existimaretur; quod cum Apollo aegre ferret et saepe eam obiurgans nihil egisset, natantis Orionis longe caput solum videri conspicatus, contendit cum Diana eam non posse sagittam mittere ad id quod nigrum in mari videretur. Quae se cum vellet in eo studio maxime artificcm dici, sagitta missa, caput Orionis traiecit.

Here's a slightly paraphrased translation by Joseph Fontenrose, who was a classics professor at UC Berkley:

In Istros' version, Artemis killed Orion with her arrows, though she had no intention of doing so - she loved him and intended to marry him. The jealous Apollo often chided her to no avail about her love for Orion. One day when she stood with her beside the sea he noticed Orion swimming far out; only his head was visible, a mere speck on the distant sea. Knowing well his sister's skill with the bow, he cunningly expressed a doubt that she could hit the distant black spot with an arrow. Artemis accepted the challenge and thus killed Orion.

He then summaries:

Apollo's jealousy of Orion seems motivated by his own love for Artemis.

Fontenrose, Joseph Eddy. Orion: the Myth of the Hunter and the Huntress. University of California Press, 1981.

Make of this how you will, but one interpretation is that:

Her brother, Apollo, was jealous of Artemis' love for Orion, a great hunter . . . This pictures how relationships can be destroyed in the Artemis woman through the jealousy of the spiritual animus, here signified by Apollo. It is as if the woman already has a partner within her own psyche which wants no competitors from the human realm.

Edinger, Edward F. The Eternal Drama: The Inner Meaning of Greek Mythology. Shambhala Publications, 2001.

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  • +1 I look for Bible-Mythology connections and the above interpretation could connect with "return to the wife of your youth" (Mal. 2:14, et al). Males and females seemingly already have 'spiritual mates' within. Wonder why Apollo could identify the bobbing figure but Artemis could not - vision problem or did emotion of the challenge cloud her vision?
    – tblue
    Dec 6 '18 at 13:34
  • Worth mentioning: "jealous" in this context doesn't necessarily mean "I want what you have," it can also mean "fiercely protective or vigilant," as in "a jealously guarded treasure." Apollo's jealousy of Artemis can be read as not wanting to share her attention, but it can also be read as the protectiveness of a brother who doesn't trust his sister's new boyfriend. In this case, the "jealously guarded treasure" would be Artemis's virginity, which she vowed to maintain but was considering abandoning for Orion. Still a jerk move, but a slightly different motivation.
    – Nerrolken
    May 1 at 0:16
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Artemis represents the untamed and wild, on the fringe of civilization. Animals are mortal and must die eventually as part of the cycle because humans must eat animals and sometimes animals must eat humans. She hunts because humans must eat but she kills within proscribed limits and boundaries. Her actions support the cosmological order.

Orion like Artemis is wild and untamed but in a destructive way. He drinks, rapes, and kills just for fun, senseless killing, he is the uncontrolled extreme next to her. Apollo on the other hand, the product of Zeus' union with Metis, is committed to using his male and female sides to maintain the cosmological order [see the Homeric Hymn].

Orion in a union with Artemis could represent a threat to that order so he had to go, but if Apollo did the deed himself it would create conflict, so its better that Artemis do it. That is the wisdom Apollo acquires from Zeus' union with Metis, cunning.

This is essentially a paraphrasing of Jenny Strauss Clay.

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