Professor Morna D. Hooker
I was on holiday, and for the first time in many years, I had taken no work with me. There were no half-written lectures in my case, no books that needed to be reviewed, no proofs requiring urgent correction. I was determined to forget about work, and to enjoy exploring the ancient cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. And so I did. But then, on the final day of my holiday, I visited the Museum in Naples, where artefacts from those cities are displayed. Wandering through a room full of statues, on the way to the galleries I had come to visit,
I found myself confronted by a striking alabaster statue of Artemis of Ephesus, and suddenly I understood the significance of an obscure saying of St Paul that had puzzled commentators for centuries. So much for escaping work!
Artemis is the Greek version of the Roman goddess known as Diana, the goddess of hunting. Artemis was a somewhat fiercer figure, however. She, too, was the goddess of hunting, and is sometimes depicted with bow and arrows. But she was believed to have power over all the wild beasts, and is described in the Iliad as ‘Mistress of the Beasts’. She did not just subdue them, however. No, she used them to establish her power. The supreme goddess Hera describes her as a lioness to women, whom Zeus allows her to destroy at her pleasure. The tragic cases in recent times of children being mauled to death by dogs, or larger animals trampling grown-ups to death, or sharks eating helpless swimmers, remind us of the damage that untamed animals can cause. A goddess who has power to unleash them on her enemies was, indeed, to be feared. It is hardly surprising if poets described invading armies, slaughtering their luckless victims, as wild animals. Psalmists and prophets in ancient Israel referred to the nation’s enemies as ‘wild beasts’ – an image picked up by Lord Byron centuries later, when he described how ‘The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold’.
Artemis, then, was a goddess to be feared, rather than loved. If she was on your side, all was well, but if she was against you, that was another story. Take a look at the picture of that statue in the museum at Naples. Some of its features are hard to decipher, but from the head hangs a veil which bears the heads of lions and griffins, and round her neck are the signs of the Zodiac. On her bust there are four rows of what have been described as ‘rounded protuberances’, which look like breasts, but which many scholars now argue are not breasts at all, but the scrota of bulls which have been sacrificed to the goddess. Certainly this would seem to be more in keeping with her character than breasts, which suggest the tenderness associated with a nursing mother. It seems that Artemis was believed to have the strength of at least fifteen bulls. The bottom half of her body is covered with rows of animal heads – lions, griffins, horses, bulls, and bees. These are some of the beasts whom Artemis controls and who are ready to do her will. She is a goddess of power and of aggression.
In the story we heard from Acts of the disturbance in Ephesus, stirred up by the silversmiths, Demetrius reminds the Ephesians that Artemis was worshipped throughout the Roman Empire. She was, however, associated particularly with Ephesus – so much so that the statue in Naples museum is labeled ‘Artemis of Ephesus’. The great temple of Artemis in Ephesus was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and she herself was in effect the city’s patron goddess. Her worship was identified with the city to such an extent that on coins struck to commemorate treaties with other cities, Ephesus was represented by an image of the goddess. She was honoured by regular processions through the city. All this meant, of course, that her cult was the source of the city’s wealth. Woe betide anyone who challenged that cult!
And it was to Ephesus that Paul, the great Christian evangelist of the first century AD came, and in Ephesus that he spent two or three years, because the opportunities for preaching there were enormous, though the dangers were real; as he wrote to the Corinthians, ‘a wide door for effective work has opened to me, and there are many opponents’ (1 Cor. 16:9). It was hardly surprising if Paul came up against opposition, for in proclaiming Jesus, rather than Artemis, he was, as we would say, putting his head into the lion’s mouth.
The story told in Acts of the riot caused by his preaching came as the climax of his stay in the city. He had preached the good news of Jesus to the people, and had had the audacity to tell the Ephesians that, as Demetrius puts it, ‘gods made with human hands are not gods at all’. Paul’s mission had met with considerable success – so much so, that the trade in the silver representations of Artemis on sale outside the temple plummeted, to the fury of the silversmiths. Visiting Ephesus in the first century must, I think, have been something like visiting twenty-first century Lourdes, except that the knick-knacks on sale would have been of a higher quality, made of silver rather than plastic. And now trade was drying up.
Paul’s gospel was inevitably regarded as an attack on the goddess, but since it was her worship that attracted the crowds to the city, it would have been seen also as a threat to the livelihood of the inhabitants. The silversmiths’ real problem with Paul was that his success was undermining their trade, and so damaging their income, since those whom he converted to ‘the Way’ would no longer wish to buy shrines devoted to the goddess Artemis. They were able to present the danger, however, as an attack on Artemis herself, and it was this rather than the threat to their own livelihood that gained them public support. As the town clerk remarks, when he tries to subdue the riot, Ephesus was thought to have been entrusted with the task of acting as the guardian of the great image of the goddess. If they defended her, she would defend them. Paul was seen, then, as attacking the welfare of the city’s citizens.
Last week we heard about Athena, who was regarded by the Greeks as the embodiment of wisdom. Artemis can be seen as the goddess who was the embodiment of both aggression – the ability to rule the world by force and gain one’s desires by imposing one’s will upon others – and the wealth which came as the result of plunder; a goddess, then, who symbolized the attitude of those whose only real concern was with themselves, and who were prepared to ride rough-shod over others in order to gain power and riches. And just as the worship of Athena stood, as we saw, in stark contrast to the message of Paul, who preached a God whose wisdom was revealed in the folly of the cross, so the worship of Artemis stood in contrast to Paul’s message of a God whose power was seen in the weakness of the cross, and whose riches were revealed, not in silver or gold, but in the poverty of a homeless Galilean preacher. No wonder there was a clash!
So who won? We might well say ‘Paul’, since the gospel he preached is still proclaimed today, whereas Artemis is no longer worshipped. But is that true? The Temple in Ephesus may have been raised to the ground by the Goths in AD 268, but looking round the world today I wonder whether most of our rulers and leaders are not still worshipping her, as they pursue power and riches. Certainly she seems to be providing a role-model for many who are rampaging today in the Middle East.
But what of my Damascus Road experience in the museum at Naples? Seeing that statue of a goddess dressed with the trophies and images of wild animals,I suddenly understood the meaning of Paul’s words when he wrote to the Corinthians describing how he had ‘fought with wild beasts at Ephesus’.
How,it has been asked, could Paul have fought with wild beasts? Later in the first century, some Christians were indeed dragged into the Coliseum in Rome, where wild beasts were set loose, to the amusement of the crowds. But Paul was a Roman citizen; he would never have suffered such a fate. And even if he had, he would certainly not have survived to tell the tale. No, his words must be a metaphor. Imagine Paul, preaching in Ephesus, confronting worshippers of a goddess who was symbolized by wild animals. Imagine him there when the theatre filled with people shouting ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians’. Paul’s friends refused to let him enter the theatre, but for two hours he had to listen to the crowd baying for his blood. Confronted by that statue of Artemis, her body clothed with images of wild beasts, I realized the significance of his image. He might well describe his experience in Ephesus as ‘fighting with wild beasts’. And if Christians, down the ages, have described themselves as ‘fighting the good fight’, it is because the cult of Artemis has not been destroyed, and because the forces of aggression and the desire for wealth are still rampant, even though the goddess herself may have long since been forgotten.