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Who Was Artemis and Why Does It Matter?

By May 19, 2009January 10th, 2022Gender & Faith, Life In The Body, Women

Artemis of the Ephesians. Most commentators refer to her as a fertility goddess. Yet that’s probably incorrect. So in this two-part series we’ll explore her identity.

In Acts 19 we read that Paul’s evangelization of the Roman Empire threatened the Artemis silver workers’ trade in Ephesus. In Paul’s day Artemis’s temple in Ephesus stood as the most preeminent of the Seven Wonders of the World. People came from all over to see it.

Ancient images of Artemis, the virgin goddess, abound. Yet on coins and paintings that depict “Artemis of the Ephesians,” we often find an altogether unique image from that of the typical short-skirted Artemis carrying a bow. The Ephesian goddess is covered with animal faces, has tightly encased legs, and possesses a midriff decorated with bulbous objects. Experts disagree as to the identification of these objects, but theories include breasts (though they have no nipples and a statue of Zeus also has them); bull testicles (a late theory that some now label misogynistic and created by those seeking  to find images of male power); olives; date palms (Artemis Ephesia is said to have been born under a date palm tree); eggs; bee ova; grapes; nuts; acorns; amber stones; and deer canines.

Pausanias, the second-century author/geographer, mentioned finding statues of the Ephesian Artemis in cities other than Ephesus. For example he described an “Artemis of the Ephesians” that he saw in Corinth (Geography 2.2.6). In the same sentence Pausanias referred to the god Dionysus with no city attribution or other surname. One might expect Pausanias to have described the Corinthian Artemis statue as simply “Artemis” with no surname, or “Artemis of Corinth.” So we conclude that the “Artemis of the Ephesians” had a unique personality compared with other Artemises. One look at her and the viewer knew she was the distinctly Ephesian Artemis.

Further, a glance at the index to Pausanias’s ten volumes reveals many single references to Artemis with varying surnames, but for “Artemis of the Ephesians” we find five lines of page references. In other words, he found Artemis surnamed “Ephesian” throughout the empire with some regularity.

And not only do we find his written evidence; we also find inscriptions referring to the Ephesian Artemis outside of Ephesus in places such as Epidaurus, Cyclades, Smyrna, Macedonia, and Caria.

Artemis and Artemis Ephesia were the same goddess, yet different. And perhaps an analogy will help us understand how:

Hundreds of crafters worldwide have produced replicas taller than thirty feet high of “Liberty Enlightening the World,” the statue given to the United States by France’s citizens. Whether replicas of this gift show up in Paris or Taiwan or even near Forney, Texas, viewers recognize them all as Lady Liberty. Yet in one location the statue’s presence evokes an added association—immigration. And that statue is the New Colossus in New York Harbor. Standing adjacent to Ellis Island, Lady Liberty evokes more than thoughts of freedom. She also welcomes tired, poor, huddled masses from distant shores who yearn to breathe free.

And in the same way Lady Liberty is one personality with an additional—and distinctly different—characteristic in a specific city, Artemis of the Ephesians was the same and yet a different Artemis from the one found throughout first-century Asia Minor and Greece.

The analogy breaks down, though, when we consider appearance, as Artemis Ephesia actually looked different from the generic Artemis—so much so that when the mummified-looking image of Artemis Ephesia appeared in Athens, people recognized her as “Artemis of the Ephesians.” Still, in the minds of those referring to her, Artemis Ephesia had the same “back story” as all the other Artemises. That is, she was the virgin daughter of Leto and Zeus, sister of Apollo, and goddess of the hunt.

But Artemis of the Ephesians was especially associated with childbearing, which is not to be confused with mothering, nurturing, or fertility. Think obstetrician or midwife. One who “delivers.”

Next time we’ll talk about the ramifications of this characteristic. Because knowing who this goddess was helps us understand the uproar in Acts 19. And it also helps explain why Paul would encourage those in Corinth to stay single for the sake of the kingdom (1 Cor. 7:38), yet in Ephesus he wanted young widows to marry and have children (1 Tim 5:14).

For more, read Part 2.

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