“I have set eyes on the wall of lofty Babylon on which is a road for chariots, and the statue of Zeus by the Alpheus, and the hanging gardens, and the colossus of the Sun, and the huge labour of the high pyramids, and the vast tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the house of Artemis that mounted to the clouds, those other marvels lost their brilliancy, and I said, ‘Lo, apart from Olympus, the Sun never looked on aught so grand.”
Antipater, Greek Anthology (IX.58)
One of the most memorable and fantastic things we saw during our holiday travels was the impressive statue of the goddess Artemis/Cybele and the remains of her temple on the outskirts of the town Selçuk, not far from where we were staying in Kuşadası.
We visited the Ephesus Museum in Selçuk in preparation for one of the anticipated highlights of our trip: the ruins of the ancient city of Ephesus (Efes). It was an excellent place to get a feel for the city and what it was like in its ancient heyday.
There were many statues and artefacts, impressive images, or fragments of images, of heroes, emperors and gods carved in stone. Some are well-worn by thousands of years of exposure to the elements so that all the features have blurred and they’re now just a shadow of the original people depicted. But others are still sharp and clear, looking so life-like. You can nearly feel the presence of the individual people gazing at you through the stone, or of the artists who created such beautiful and inspired works of art. There’s still a sort of magic there, lingering through all the thousands of years that separate our lives from theirs.
For me, the crowning glory of the museum was the beautiful marble image of Artemis, the ‘Lady of Ephesus’. In Greek mythology, the goddess Artemis is the virgin huntress, a symbol of the natural world, and the goddess of childbirth, children and young women. She’s both beautiful and dangerous, and sometimes quite harsh- I suppose this mixture of characteristics makes her an appropriate symbol of the untamed wilderness. She’s an independent lady par excellence; no man or god was able to win her heart, and she protected her freedom and independence, violently when necessary. In Anatolia (the Asian part of Turkey), where ancient Greeks founded settlements along the coast, the fertility goddess Cybele was worshipped by the people already living in those parts, and, as seems to be a rather natural thing in classical religions, the two goddesses were sort of fused into one.
In the particular image of Artemis as the Lady of Ephesus, this goddess takes on a more ‘eastern’ style in her costume and stance, maybe Hittite or some other Anatolian group, rather than having a classical Greek look. The necklace she wears has all the symbols of the zodiac and I think she used to rest her hands on two snake staffs. In Mediterranean mythology and symbolism, snakes represented many things: eternity and renewal (due to the fact that snakes shed their skin and seemingly re-create themselves regularly), health and medicine, wisdom, etc. The strange looking circular objects around her waist represent a rather great abundance of breasts; these symbolise the fertility and earth-mother characteristics of the Anatolian Cybele. It’s an interesting combination: Artemis takes on the seemingly paradoxical roles of eternal virgin and nurturing divine mother. I wonder if this long standing belief in a ‘virgin mother’ had any influence on the later devotion to the ‘virgin mother’ in the new religion- Christianity. Maybe this was one bridging point that helped converts to Christianity make sense of a new spirituality and world-view. It’s just speculation, but an interesting idea.
Looking at this beautiful statue brought to mind something I recently read about a living religion – Hinduism- that involves devotion to ‘idols’ as a main focus of worship. While I don’t make any claim that classical Mediterranean religion and Hinduism are the same thing, I still think reading about a current polytheistic religion sheds some light on a topic that is so foreign to practitioners of the western Abrahamic religions. In a chapter of his book Nine Lives, William Dalrymple shares the story of an ‘idol maker’ from southern India, whose family has been creating beautiful statues of gods and goddesses for the temples of the region for 700 years. He describes the intense devotion to god and the great discipline that is required to make a proper form for the god or goddess to inhabit. The idol maker must focus solely on the divinity, do everything to perfection, and show to the best of his ability the divine beauty of the god in human form. Only with belief, love and devotion will the god come to live in the statue; without these, the statue just remains lifeless metal or stone. God is everywhere, but the statue becomes one focus point for the divinity’s energy, so that it’s easier for worshippers to approach the divine and offer their love and prayers. It’s interesting to read about the intense love and care that goes into this form of worship, and it adds another layer of meaning when looking at the statues of the Greek and Roman gods. They aren’t merely stunning works of art; they were expressions of divine beauty and love.
After the museum visit, we strolled around what remains of Artemis’s great temple in Selçuk. Now there is only one reconstructed column standing, to give at least a small idea of the former height of a building once considered to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World. According to my opening quote, the Artemisium was the most beautiful thing that the sun had ever shone on, apart from the home of the gods on Mt. Olympus. It had 121 huge columns and was bigger than the great Parthenon temple in Athens.
We wandered around in the rather marshy ruins and tried to get a feel for the place. It was definitely hard to imagine how fantastic it once looked; now it’s just white marble stones and bits of columns scattered here and there amidst the tall grasses and pools of stagnant algae-filled water. But it was a very quiet and reflective place, and the sound of the wind blowing in the grasses and the birds singing in the nearby trees provided a peaceful and slightly melancholic atmosphere.
It’s strange to think of a time when things that we read about in books of ‘Greek mythology’ were once part of a living religion, including a world-view and cosmology that grew, developed, changed and gave meaning to people’s lives for thousands of years. People, presumably from all over the Mediterranean world, would have been visiting this important pilgrimage site to make sacrifices and pray to the ‘Lady of Ephesus’ for many hundreds of years, and this devotion was still an important practice when St. John the evangelist and then St. Paul were living in the city and introducing their rival religion to the local people two thousand years ago. Now, on a nearby hill, you can also wander around the ruins of an ancient Christian cathedral, where John the evangelist is buried, and look down on this same ancient temple of a pagan goddess while listening to the call to prayer from one of the many local mosques, some of which are quite ancient themselves. Everything changes, nothing stays the same. So many layers of our rich and complex human history, all in this one spot.