This short story by Jeanette Winterson was first published in 1988. It dramatizes contemporary gender wars by retelling one version of the myth of Orion, a mighty hunter, in which Orion meets Artemis, a mythic female hunter, rapes her, and is killed by her with a scorpion.
Sounds like a feminist revenge fantasy, or at least a representation of an ancient, and ongoing, gender power struggle. But it’s more than that.
Winterson knows the mythological literature in which heroes are typically male, often hunters or warriors, on a quest for an object or place in the world, or, in the case of religious heroes, for eternal life in another world. Women in mythology, though they might be goddesses, are typically objects of desire (distractions from the quest), mothers, wives, or helpers to the male heroes. While the men are out performing feats of strength and courage, women are more often at home tending the hearth.
Winterson explicitly presents the story of Orion and Artemis as “the old clash between history and home. Or to put it another way, the immeasurable, impossible space that seems to divide the hearth from the quest.”
If it’s a simple feminist revenge fantasy, then why is the story entitled after the male “hero,” and why is it Orion who gets immortalized in a constellation, where to this day “he does his best to dominate the skyline”?
If it is simply a representation of the ancient gender binary between quest and hearth, then how is it that Artemis rejects marriage, childbirth, and home-making in order to be a great hunter? While the original story itself challenges this binary, it also reinforces the polarity as an either-or choice.
By invoking the myth Winterson also reinforces the ancient difference between male and female social roles, but she challenges it by having Artemis, not simply reject the traditional female role, but redefine it in terms of self-knowledge:
“She found that the whole world could be contained within one place because that place was herself… What would it matter if she crossed the world and hunted down every living creature as long as her separate selves eluded her?”
Artemis comes to realize that “Leaving home meant leaving nothing behind. It came too, all of it, and waited in the dark.” Quest and hearth are one. The ultimate quest is the journey to the self.
This wisdom eludes Orion. For him the quest is all about hyper-masculinity, power, and domination. Thus his rape of Artemis.
Yes, Artemis kills him in his sleep, and while this act of revenge suggests a struggle between feminist power and masculine power, it is more than that. After Orion rapes Artemis, he falls asleep, but after Artemis murders Orion, she wakes up:
“Artemis lying beside dead Orion sees her past changed by a single act…She is not who she thought she was. Every action and decision has led her here. The moment has been waiting the way the top of the stairs waits for the sleepwalker. She had fallen and now she is awake.”
When she sees Orion’s body becoming food for lizards, she covers him with rocks to create a high mound, which, when she views it from a distance looks like a monument.
By rejecting the social norms of her day, Artemis begins to awaken to self-knowledge and to recognize the false binary of quest and hearth. The gender power struggle overtakes her, but, again, she awakens to new self-knowledge. Her “burial” of Orion demonstrates respect for his humanity, despite his cruelty to her. This act of redemption takes her to a new level: “Finally, at the headland, after a bitter climb to where the woods bordered the steep edge, she turned and stared out, seeing the shape of Orion’s mound, just visible now, and her own footsteps walking away. Then it was fully nigh, and she could see nothing to remind her of the night before except the stars.”
The story offers three larger contexts in which to view the myth and the story that Winterson draws out of it.
First there is the context of history: the ancient myth transformed into a modern feminist story in 1988. What future transformations will unfold in history? “Monuments and cities would fade away like the people who build them. No resting place or palace could survive the light years that lay ahead. There was no history that would not be rewritten…”
Second is the context of medieval alchemy: “Tertium non data. The third is not given. That is, the transformation from one element into another, from waste matter into best gold is a process that cannot be documented. It is fully mysterious.” Artemis’s transformations from gender rebel to self-conscious individual to stargazer could not have been predicted, nor can future transformations to come.
Third is the context of astronomy: “Every 200,000 years or so the individual stars within each constellation shift position. That is, they are shifting all the time, but more subtly than any tracker dog of ours can follow. One day if the earth has not voluntarily opted out of the solar system, we will wake up to a new heaven whose dome will again confound us. It will still be home but not a place to take for granted.” For now, Orion still dominates the skyline (though “he glows very faint, if at all, in November. November being the month of Scorpio.”) But what of that “new heaven” to come?
This past November it seemed a new transformation was on the horizon, but it was not to be. Orion still dominates the skyline. But what of that “new heaven” to come?