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Billie Eilish and the Transforming Artemis Archetype


Art for Billie Eilish's 2021 album Happier Than Ever. Press photo.

A passage from the Homeric Hymns tells us of a goddess that stretches out her bow and fires her creation into the world. “The peaks of mountains tremble. The forest in its darkness screams with the clamor of animals, and it’s frightening. The whole earth starts shaking, even the sea,” the Hymn states (The Homeric Hymns, translated by Charles Boer, Putnam, CT: Spring Publications 2003, pp. 4-6). Joseph Campbell spoke about the archetypal role of goddesses as powerful creators, connecting the physical birthing process to the metaphoric role that goddesses embody (Goddesses 21-26). While Artemis was believed to have attended the physical birth of children, the creations of the archetypal goddess transcend the physical realm and encompass creative offspring such as art, storytelling, crafts, and music.


Over the summer, the much-anticipated musical album Happier Than Ever from singer Billie Eilish debuted at number one on the American Billboard Top 200 chart. Critics have been trying to define and describe Eilish’s popularity since her viral rise in 2015. Since then, she has become the youngest artist in the history of the Grammy Awards to win all four general field categories in the same year and was named to Time magazine's inaugural Time 100 Next list in 2019. Whenever a figure experiences a meteoric rise in culture, an archetypal influence is often at play. While several archetypes might seem relevant when considering Eilish, the goddess Artemis best intersects with the 19-year-old singer, as it is Artemis whose creation made such a profound impact when she shot into the world. Campbell unpacks the Hymn describing Artemis in Goddesses (109-110).


Associations with gold are found in the Homeric Hymn to Artemis, specifically mentioning her solid gold bow. A song titled "Goldwing" on Eilish’s most recent album opens with a harmonized performance of two lines from Gustav Holst’s 1907 translation of the great canonical Hindu text, The Rig Veda. The lines describe a goddess, a golden-winged messenger of the mighty gods, whose smile lifts one to the highest heavens. Eilish’s song goes on to caution a young goddess-like woman about revealing who she is to those who would crave her magic but ignore her divine nature, which could leave her torn apart. The conversation plays like a wiser version of Eilish speaking to her younger self about the pitfalls of fame. The warning is directed in such a way to suggest the woman’s innocence—a quality that was associated with Artemis, as well as a descriptor often used by critics of Eilish.

 

Later in the Hymn, Artemis unstrings her bow and goes to the house of her beloved brother, Apollo. The close relationship between Artemis and Apollo has been explored in a variety of ways by numerous mythologists with varying interpretations. Eilish has also had a famously close relationship with her brother, known mononymously as FINNEAS, who has produced both of her albums and remained her closest creative collaborator. Several of Eilish’s most popular songs were written as the two sat at home together. On Halley’s Comet, she sings of sitting in her brother’s room, unable to sleep, while contemplating her love for someone she’s come to know. Her meticulously minded musical brother is undoubtedly the Apollo to Eilish’s Artemis. 


In a final interesting turn found in the Hymn, Artemis puts away her arrows and dons a beautiful dress. Campbell tells us that Artemis manifested in several different ways (108). Here, we see the goddess changing from the huntress, clothed in animal skins that were frequently associated with the masculine, to a beautifully dressed feminine dancer. Eilish, who rose to prominence often dressed in age-appropriate, gender-neutral clothes, was criticized after appearing in more feminine and decidedly adult outfits for Vanity Fair earlier this year—a nod to her own coming of age.  Her embrace of the new aesthetic mirrors the transformation of Artemis we see in the Hymn. 


The photos generated fears that Eilish would begin to exploit her sexuality to further her commercial success. She masterfully navigated the concerns of fans and nay-sayers alike, choosing explanations that honored both her growth and maturity as well as the commitment to her core self that made her so accessible to so many. She continues to embody the murky complexity and the unabashed certainty of the goddess archetype in a manner that somehow seemed reminiscent of Actaeon’s fateful encounter with the bathing Artemis. Campbell describes Acteon’s gaze on Artemis as lustful instead of honoring, a completely improper reaction to such a deity. “Seeing that look in his eye, Artemis simply splashed him with some water and he was turned into a stag, and his own dogs then consumed him.” (Campbell 113) Campbell goes on to say that the dogs represented Actaeon’s lower appetites, which are what actually caused his demise. Billie Eilish continues to create and radiate goddess energy, firing creative arrows into the world, and instead of fighting every potential attack that arises, allowing those that would attempt to tarnish the golden properties of the goddess to be consumed by their own lesser selves. 

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