Artemis of Ephesus & the Amazons

Throughout the rest of Greek world Artemis was imagined as a virgin huntress. But not at Ephesus. Here her cult statue was unique, as surviving copies show. Each is subtly different, but she typically wears a tall crown adorned with winged beasts and topped by a model of the city or its temple, a garland of fruits draped round her neck. On her short cape appear signs of the zodiac, and from her long tight dress rows of animals stand out in sharp relief: lions and griffins, leopards and goats, bulls and bees. But most eye-catching is the profusion of egg-like spheres which cover her from chest to waist. It is unclear what they symbolize. Some say (nipple-less) breasts, others gourds, still others bulls’ testicles. Whatever they are, they clearly proclaim Ephesian Artemis as the essence of fertility.

Why such a difference? When most ancient civilizations met, they delighted in finding similarities between each others’ gods and, where possible, merging them in a process known as syncretism. Usually the resulting deity was recognizable to both cultures. Not so at Ephesus. Here, migrating Greeks apparently discovered an ancient Asiatic goddess of wild animals (perhaps the Great Mother Goddess, Cybele), in whose essence but not appearance they saw similarities with their own goddess of wild nature. A venerated cult statue of this native goddess – which some said had fallen from the skies, a gift from Zeus – was probably already in existence at Ephesus. So the Greek settlers retained her physical attributes, but gave her the familiar name of Artemis.

They also gave her a distinct form of worship, again probably adopted from earlier cult practices. In an exception to the Greek norm, virgin priestesses were augmented by ‘Megabyzi’, eunuch priests like those who served Cybele. Curiously, sources disagree about whether laywomen were allowed into her precinct. The aptly named Artemidorus (‘Gift of Artemis’), a second-century ad writer on dreams and a native Ephesian, wrote that women were forbidden entry on punishment of death.

Ephesian Artemis had her own mythology, too. Local legends told that she was born not on Delos, but at Ephesus itself.

As for her cult and statue, Callimachus recognizes their ‘barbarian’ origins:

The Amazons, whose hearts are set on battle, set up a wooden image to you [Artemis] beside the sea at Ephesus beneath an oak tree, and Hippo [their queen] performed the sacrament. The Amazons danced a war-dance round the statue, first with shields and armour, then in a circle with the dancers widely spaced. And pipes played loud, a shrill accompaniment.. Feet beat; quivers rattled. And afterwards a great temple was erected round the wooden statue, richer and more sacred than any other which the dawn might see. It easily surpasses Delphi.

Artemis of Ephesus & the Amazons Photo Gallery

The Amazons’ association with Artemis’ temple at Ephesus was entirely logical. Like the goddess, this legendary tribe of fierce warrior women rejected sex, except when absolutely necessary to increase their numbers. And like Cybele, they were non-Greek, coming from beyond the fringes of the civilized (Greek) world. Fifth-century bc Greeks believed that their home was in Scythia (modern Crimea).

The name ‘Amazon’ was thought to derive from the Greek a-mazos, ‘without a breast’. As the Roman historian Justin explained: ‘These maidens used to exercise with weapons, on horseback and in the hunt. They burned off the right breasts of their young girls so that they would not impede them as they fired their arrows. For this reason they are called Amazons.’ However, Greek sculptors and artists never show this mutilation, and it is more likely that their name derives from the Indo-European hamazan (‘warriors’).

Encounters with Amazons often resulted in a heady mixture of romance and death. When Heracles was sent to steal the battle belt of Hippolyta, the Amazonian queen, his confederate Theseus fell in love with and abducted her sister Antiope, by whom he had a son, Hippolytus (himself an ardent follower of Artemis). In retaliation the Amazons invaded Attica, almost capturing Athens, and their defeat was a popular subject for artists. Pindar writes that it was during this expedition that they founded the temple at Ephesus, establishing its sanctuary as a place of asylum.

At other times Amazons attacked Asia Minor – both Lycia (south of Ephesus), where they were defeated by Bellerophon, and Phrygia, where they fought against Priam, later the king of Troy. In the Trojan War, however, the Amazons took the Trojans’ side against the Greeks, fighting (as Homer admiringly records) ‘like men’. Here, their queen Penthesilea was mortally wounded by Achilles, but as she died Achilles fell in love with her. The late sixth-century bc vase-painter Exekias captured the scene, while the fourth-century ad epic poet Quintus from nearby Smyrna imagined Achilles standing over Penthesilea’s body, gazing on her: in her armour, like Artemis, the huntress, child of Zeus, when she lies sleeping, tired from the pursuit of lions with arrows over all the rolling hills. In death Aphrodite of the shining crown, the bride of Ares, made her beautiful, so that Achilles might be wounded by the bitter arrow of remorseful love. His heart was broken with regret that he had killed so sweet a creature, whom he might have taken home to Phthia, rich in chariots, his queen, his bride. A daughter of the gods, she was so perfect, so divinely tall and so divinely beautiful.

Achilles stabs the Amazon queen Penthesilea, as imagined by the sixth-century BC vase-painter Exekias.

So closely connected were the Amazons with the Artemision (or Temple of Artemis) at Ephesus that many statues of them were dedicated there, including examples by the great sculptors Polycleitus and Pheidias.

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