Essay: Apollo and Artemis Go to the Zoo
The interplay of civilization with the wild fascinates me.
It makes me think of the relationship between the god Apollo and his twin sister, the goddess Artemis.
Archetypally, Apollo is the god who prizes his intellect over all things. He is rational and loves building grand, shining cities where people can congregate to build even grander, shinier things—sciences, language, universities. In order to build his cities, he destroys nature and paves over it.
Archetypally, Artemis is the goddess who lives wild in nature. The forests and deserts and mountains are her home. The animals are her family. She’s so Pocahontas (and yes, Apollo is so John Smith).
Artemis doesn’t care for cities or pavement—in fact, she’ll destroy them if she gets a chance, the way abandoned buildings are soon overgrown with shrubs; the way termites can set up shop in the structure of your house; the way an earthquake can tumble tall buildings like they were made of Jenga blocks.
Apollo and Artemis are gods not because they are superior to other beings, but because they are undeniable principles and drives that exist in human nature.
The drive to build things and shape our environment cannot be denied. It’s very human. Neither can the call to be wild and free with the natural world. These two things exist side by side within us—each so powerful and undeniable that ancient peoples saw them as gods that must be served—and yet these archetypes seem opposed to one another.
But we live in a very Apollo culture. We value our intellect over our intuition—I even know some people who say intuition isn’t really a thing—and civilization over nature.
Our intellect, some would say, is the factor that sets us apart from, or even above, the rest of the animals and the natural world. It means we can build cities and factories and tame nature as we please. And it obviously means we have the right to dominate and use other animals as we please . . . right?
We don’t see Artemis as a goddess worthy of respect.
So with all this in my head, I went to the San Diego Zoo.
I wandered around the place—one of the most highly respected and top-ranked zoos in the world for many reasons—dumbstruck by how explicit an example it was of Apollo and Artemis interacting in our society.
Artemis’s family was all there: the tiger, the polar bear, the peacock and elephant and common tufted deer. Her palace was all around: trees and bushes and flowers of more species than I could recognize hugged every trail and paved path; towered over the exhibits like a forest; offered shade to animals and visitors alike.
And Apollo had put all this together: he had gathered the animals from the far corners of the globe, studied them, categorized them, and penned them. He had built aviaries for the birds and paved paths (even escalators!) to move people from here to there conveniently. He had built a sanctuary for the giant panda and even helped this endangered species to breed in captivity.
On one hand, it was gorgeous and overwhelming. I felt like I was in the heart of humanity’s love for the wild and civilization at the same time—the natural and the civilized working together and supporting one another.
On the other hand, Apollo’s destroying the polar bears’ fucking ice caps. Really considerate of him to offer them a cheap enclosure to live in instead.
The only reason he has to save the endangered giant pandas is because he’s cutting down their damned bamboo forests.
Apollo just doesn’t get it.
It’s not that he doesn’t love his sister, the wild Artemis. He does. The spectacular San Diego Zoo was enough to convince me of that. It is an ode to the beauty and majesty of the natural world. It is a love song. But at the same time, it is not the natural world.
So yes—Apollo loves his sister. But I don’t think he understands what it means to love her.
I don’t think we, as a culture, understand what it means to love nature. We don’t know what it means to stop trying to control and subdue it, and to love it for what it is. (We might even fear it, in its natural state.)
That’s why I’m one of those people who’s ethically opposed to zoos.
I’m aware of the pros that zoos have. They educate people about animals and help us feel more in touch with how expansive and rich our world is. They help to preserve endangered species (and in some cases, even to breed them), and many zoos have wonderful conservation programs. The San Diego Zoo certainly filled me with a sense of connection and responsibility for all the life that exists in this world that I call home.
So I get it. I get all those logical, rational, Apollo reasons why zoos are good things.
But I just can’t shake this Artemis feeling . . .
What gives us the right to imprison these wild creatures for our own entertainment, or even education? It’s just wrong.
It’s not inevitable that humanity would treat nature this way. Apollo has been a driving force in every civilization’s psyche, but he doesn’t always get so out of hand. The Native Americans, for example, had him pretty well balanced with Artemis.
But the more I think about this, the more hopeful I am. Apollo is a smart guy. He’s obviously noticed that trying to subdue his sister is having some negative effects on the world. So he’s using his intellect to educate himself on how to treat her, and the natural world, better.
He’s started conservation programs, environmental protection programs, recycling programs, and the Discovery channel. He’s building amazing zoos.
This part of the Apollo archetype, the intellect and drive to build things, can’t love. The intellect doesn’t feel. But it can definitely think about feeling. It can Google “how to love” and then do all the things it finds on the lists that come up. It’s a little sociopathic, but it’s reliable enough.
There is no right or wrong answer here. I do think zoos serve us, and even serve the natural world in that they educate us about it. I just hope that they’ll educate us enough so that someday we don’t have to have them.
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PS: I know this article’s been published before online, but I wanted this it on Mythraeum too. It’s a good fit. Also, I’m trying to not stress myself out too much while putting together HEAT (Mythraeum’s first film!), and this piece offered some ready content for me to share here so I don’t fall too behind in posting about the myths and archetypes themselves.SUBSCRIBE