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Artemis of the Ephesians

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The Oxford Companion to the Bible What is This? Provides authoritative interpretive entries on Biblical people, places, beliefs, events, and secular influences.

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    Artemis of the Ephesians

    Artemis was the Greek goddess of the woods and hunting, as well as the patron of women in childbirth, identified with the Roman goddess Diana. The early background of Artemis of the Ephesians is hidden in legends and sources related to the Greek colonization of Ionia. It seems reasonable, however, to conclude that the original goddess was an amalgam of the imported Greek Artemis and an indigenous goddess, perhaps an Anatolian mother goddess.

    The Ephesian Artemis functioned primarily as the tutelary deity of Ephesus. Although she was the deity “whom all Asia and the whole world worship” (Acts 19.27), her central shrine was located in and protected by the city. Religious artifacts from this cult have been found as far west as Spain and as far east as Palestine, but only “the city of the Ephesians [was] the temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the statue that fell from heaven” (Acts 19.35).

    There has been much confusion and misunderstanding of the goddess, arising largely from a polemical Christian misnomer that labeled the egg‐shaped objects attached to certain depictions of the goddess as female breasts. From the epithet “multi‐breasted” it was a short, but incorrect, leap to the conclusion that the goddess was primarily a fertility goddess. In fact, there is no scholarly consensus that the egg‐shaped objects attached to the goddess represented breasts. Even if they did and this mammary/fertility symbol lay at the heart of the religion, it is difficult to explain why this depiction appeared so late in the development of the cult. In addition, the Ephesians, particularly in the Greco‐Roman era, associated their goddess with the chaste Greek Artemis rather than a mother goddess of Anatolia or one of the fertility goddesses of the East. The primary internal sources of the religion itself, such as texts, coins, statuary, and inscriptions, offer no cogent evidence for depicting this goddess or her cult as principally a symbol of sexuality and fecundity.

    The goddess was well known for her wealth, which stemmed from two circumstances. Her temple served as a bank both for the safe deposit of others' wealth and for loans at a profitable rate of interest. The goddess also owned extensive lands and fisheries that contributed to her great wealth. Others, such as manufacturers of devotional items involving the goddess (Acts 19.23–27), received income as long as the goddess's reputation flourished.

    Because of its size and wealth, the temple of Artemis was acclaimed as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. It was constructed of marble (127 columns, each 18 m [60 ft] tall), possessed an external horseshoe‐shaped altar (29 by 20 m [96 by 66 ft]) and was the largest Greek temple in antiquity (67 by 130 m [220 by 425 ft]). It was damaged by invading Gothic raiders during the mid‐third century CE and finally fell into disuse because of Christian ascendancy in the fourth and fifth centuries. The temple no longer stands, and its exact location was unknown for centuries until its foundations were unearthed in the late nineteenth century.

    Richard E. Oster, Jr.

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    Oxford University Press

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