The Cult Statue of Artemis of Ephesus

Statue of Artemis, from the temple of Artemis at Ephesus

levork / Flickr / CC

Statues of the Ephesian Artemis are recognizable for their form. There are specifics to look for, although you may not find each of them on every statue:

The sarcophagus-resembling stance on a tapered body, two animals (stags) by her side, bees, perhaps around her feet, animal bands on the torso, outstretched arms, a neckpiece reflecting the zodiac, a mural crown (corona muralis) as she does also in this Attic amphora featuring Heracles) or a large cylindrical headdress called a kalathos [Coleman] or turret crown [Farnell] like that worn by the Phrygian mother goddess Cybele, and, most crucially, grape clusters or polymastoid (mammary-like) globules on her body.

Today, many believe that such globules do not represent breasts, but, rather, sacrificial bull testicles/scrota, an idea LiDonnici. LiDonnici argues that Seiterle's position is less grounded in evidence than its popularity would suggest. It is certainly easier for me to visualize and understand the feminine analysis, but the great mother goddess (Cybele) and Artemis Tauropolos were associated with bull sacrifices, if not also detached scrota. If the topic interests you, please read the articles, for starters.

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The Location of the Cult of the Ephesian Artemis

Ephesus, on the western coast of Asia Minor, was home to one of the seven wonders of the ancient world: The Artemision or temple of Artemis and its statue. Like all the ancient wonders except the Egyptian pyramid, the Artemision is gone, leaving only rubble and a tall column. Greek travel writer Pausanias, who lived in the second century A.D., tells why it was so wonderful. In sum: the renown of the Amazons, great age, size, the importance of the city and the goddess. Here is what he wrote, according to the 1918 Loeb translation, by W. H. S. Jones:

" [4.31.8] But all cities worship Artemis of Ephesus, and individuals hold her in honor above all the gods. The reason, in my view, is the renown of the Amazons, who traditionally dedicated the image, also the extreme antiquity of this sanctuary. Three other points as well have contributed to her renown, the size of the temple, surpassing all buildings among men, the eminence of the city of the Ephesians and the renown of the goddess who dwells there."

The Ionic temple was the first edifice of its size to be created entirely from marble [Biguzzi]. Pliny the Elder in XXXVI.21 says it took 120 years to build and was situated outside the city walls on marshy land, perhaps to withstand an earthquake, or to withstand the crowds that would attend events [Mackay]. It was 425 feet long by 225 feet wide, with 127 60-feet high columns [Pliny]. It was rebuilt more than once, partly as a result of such natural events as floods, and expanded over time. The legendarily wealthy king Croesus dedicated many of its columns. Despite such ongoing need for repairs and renovations, the Ephesians politely refused the offer of Alexander the Great to rebuild it. In his Geography, Strabo (1st century B.C. to 1st century A.D.) tells what caused the Artemision's fire damage and why the Ephesians refused Alexander's self-aggrandizing offer to pay for repair:

" As for the temple of Artemis, its first architect was Chersiphron; and then another man made it larger. But when it was set on fire by a certain Herostratus, the citizens erected another and better one, having collected the ornaments of the women and their own individual belongings, and having sold also the pillars of the former temple. Testimony is borne to these facts by the decrees that were made at that time. Artemidorus says: Timaeus of Tauromenium, being ignorant of these decrees and being any way an envious and slanderous fellow (for which reason he was also called Epitimaeus), says that they exacted means for the restoration of the temple from the treasures deposited in their care by the Persians; but there were no treasures on deposit in their care at that time, and, even if there had been, they would have been burned along with the temple; and after the fire, when the roof was destroyed, who could have wished to keep deposits of treasure lying in a sacred enclosure that was open to the sky? Now Alexander, Artemidorus adds, promised the Ephesians to pay all expenses, both past and future, on condition that he should have the credit therefor on the inscription, but they were unwilling, just as they would have been far more unwilling to acquire glory by sacrilege and a spoliation of the temple. And Artemidorus praises the Ephesian who said to the king that it was inappropriate for a god to dedicate offerings to gods. "
Strabo 14.1.22

The Ephesians' goddess was their protector, a goddess of the polis ('political'), and more. The Ephesians' history and fate were intertwined with hers, so they raised the funds needed to rebuild their temple and replace their statue of the Ephesian Artemis.

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The Founding of the City of Ephesus

Legends attribute the founding of an area sanctuary, dedicated to Cybele, to Amazons. A goddess appears to have been worshiped there by the 8th century B.C., but the representation would likely have been a carved wooden plank or 'xoanon'. A regular statue of the goddess may have been carved by the sculptor Endoios in the 6th century B.C. It may have replaced an earlier one. [LiDonnici]. Pausanias writes:

The sanctuary of Apollo at Didymi, and his oracle, are earlier than the immigration of the Ionians, while the cult of Ephesian Artemis is far more ancient still than their coming. [7.2.7] Pindar, however, it seems to me, did not learn everything about the goddess, for he says that this sanctuary was founded by the Amazons during their campaign against Athens and Theseus. It is a fact that the women from the Thermodon, as they knew the sanctuary from of old, sacrificed to the Ephesian goddess both on this occasion and when they had fled from Heracles; some of them earlier still, when they had fled from Dionysus, having come to the sanctuary as suppliants. However, it was not by the Amazons that the sanctuary was founded, but by Coresus, an aboriginal, and Ephesus, who is thought to have been a son of the river Cayster, and from Ephesus the city received its name."

The later building of the city is credited to Androclus, legitimate son of the legendary Athenian king Codrus.

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Establishing the Cult of Ephesian Artemis

The Ionian colonists substituted their Artemis for the area's existing Anatolian mother goddess Cybele, despite the virginal status of Artemis. Although little is known of her cult, and what we do know is based on a millennium of worship, during which time things changed [LiDonnici], her worship is said to have included castrated priests like those of Cybele [Farnell]. She became Artemis of Ephesus, a mix of Asian and Hellenic goddesses. Her job was to protect the city and feed its people [LiDonnici]. She was present at events in her name, including theatrical performances. Her likeness was carried in processions. Not just in Ephesus, but other Greek cities in Asia Minor worshiped her as a mother goddess, according to J. Ferguson, Religions of the Roman East (1970), cited by Kampen in "The Cult of Artemis and the Essenes in Syro-Palestine."

Looking westward, Strabo (4.1.4) says that Phocaian settlers founded a colony in Massalia, modern Marseilles, to which they brought the cult of the Ephesian Artemis said to have been introduced by a woman, Aristarche of Ephesus, and for which they build an Ephesian, a temple for the imported Ephesian goddess. From there the Ephesian goddess spread further in the Greco-Roman world so that her image became a familiar image on coins from many cities. It is from this proliferation that we are so familiar with the Artemis of Ephesus.

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History of the City

Ephesus was one of the Ionian Greek cities that came under the control of the Lydian King Croesus c. 560 B.C., who contributed two golden cows and many columns to the temple of Artemis, before he lost to the Persian King Cyrus.

[92] Now there are in Hellas many other votive offerings made by Croesus and not only those which have been mentioned: for first at Thebes of the Bœotians there is a tripod of gold, which he dedicated to the Ismenian Apollo; then at Ephesos there are the golden cows and the greater number of the pillars of the temple; and in the temple of Athene Pronaia at Delphi a large golden shield. These were still remaining down to my own time...."
Herodotus Book I

After Alexander's conquests and death, Ephesus fell into the areas the diadochi disputed, being part of the domain of Antigonus, Lysimachus, Antiochus Soter, Antiochus Theos, and the Seleucid monarchs. Then monarchs from Pergamum and Pontus (Mithradates) took control with Rome in between. It fell to Rome in through a will written by a monarch of Pergamum and then again, in connection with the Mithridatic wars. Although dedications were not always to local figures but might honor the emperor, major public building efforts -- construction, dedication, or restoration -- attributable to specific male and female benefactors continued into the early imperial period, slowing by the third century A.D. when Goths attacked the city. Its history continued but as a Christian city.

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Your Citation
Gill, N.S. "The Cult Statue of Artemis of Ephesus." ThoughtCo, Aug. 25, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 25). The Cult Statue of Artemis of Ephesus. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Cult Statue of Artemis of Ephesus." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).