In Roman mythology, Diana was the goddess of the woodlands, of wild animals, and of hunting. She also acted as a fertility goddess, who helped women conceive and give birth to children. As Rome's contact with Greece grew in ancient times, Diana became increasingly identified with the Greek goddess Artemis. In time, Diana and Artemis became essentially identical. Most literary references to the goddess use her Roman name, Diana.
The Romans viewed Diana as a many-sided goddess associated with forests and hunting. Artists usually portrayed her as a virgin hunter, often with a bow and quiver, accompanied by maidens, hunting dogs, or deer.
As goddess of childbirth, nursing, and healing—also called Lucina—Diana held an honored place among women. As goddess of light, she represented the moon. However, Diana was also identified with Hecate, the Greek goddess of darkness and witchcraft, and served as goddess of the kingdom of the dead.
Diana's nature was as varied as her many associations. As goddess of forests and hunting, she was considered to be pure and virginal. Yet she could also be arrogant and vengeful. As goddess of the moon, she had a changeable, unpredictable nature. As goddess of the dark world of the dead, she was unforgiving and bloodthirsty.
Because of her connections with creatures of the wild, with the hunt, and with the moon, Diana earned the title of "the triple goddess." Sculptors sometimes created statues of her with three heads: those of a horse, a dog, and a boar. Such statues were displayed at places where three roads met.
Diana's High Priest . The most celebrated place of worship for Diana was a sacred grove beside Lake Nemi, at Aricia near Rome. Associated with Diana at this shrine was the Roman hero Virbius. According to myth, he was Diana's first high priest at Aricia. All the priests who followed had to obtain the position by winning a fight to the death with the current high priest. The new high priest would keep his position until he in turn was conquered in combat. To win the right to fight the high priest, a challenger had to break off a large branch of a sacred oak tree in the grove at Lake Nemi.
The ancient Greek city of Ephesus was another center for the worship of Diana. The goddess had a magnificent temple there that took 220 years to construct and was regarded as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Within the temple was a famous ebony statue of Diana. The upper body of the statue was entirely covered with breasts, symbolizing Diana's role as goddess of fertility.
It was said that the high priest had to be a runaway slave. In Rome, Diana was regarded as protector of the lower classes, particularly of slaves. In fact, the day of Diana's annual festival in Rome and Aricia was a holiday for slaves.
The Cult of Diana. The worship of Diana was widespread in the ancient world. Indeed, early Christians considered the pagan goddess their main rival. Diana's cult continued to attract followers for centuries, despite Christian opposition.
pagan term used by early Christians to describe non-Christians and non-Christian beliefs
cult group bound together by devotion to a particular person, belief, or god
In the Middle Ages, Diana was denounced as "queen of the witches" or "goddess of the heathen." Religious leaders viewed her as a leader of witches and even referred to her as the devil. Nevertheless, the cult of Diana still had some followers in England as late as the 1700s.
* See Names and Places at the end of this volume for further information.