In modern cities when a woman goes into labor, relatives squeal, cheer, and celebrate. But in first-century Ephesus, the response would have been much different. Think terror. Childbirth in the ancient world carried legitimate fears of writhing and death—as is still true in much of the developing world today.
In Part One, I said first-century Ephesians worshiped a uniquely Ephesian Artemis whose re-built temple was the crown jewel of the world’s Seven Wonders. This Artemis was the illegitimate daughter of Leto and Zeus, sister of Apollo, goddess of the hunt, and a confirmed virgin. Yet Artemis Ephesia had additional characteristics. And one of these was her association with childbearing.
Many who hear this instantly think “fertility, mothering, and nurturing.” Yet such associations are probably unfounded. In the same way midwives and obstetricians deal only with delivery and not sex, fertility, mothering, or nurturing, Artemis was a deliverer only. In fact Artemis and Apollo shot arrows through all the children of Niobe—Apollo killing the sons, and Artemis, the daughters. Hardly nurturing!
So how did such a ruthless goddess come to be associated with childbirth?
In Homer’s Hymn to Delian Apollo (ll. 89–101) he describes the birth of Artemis’s twin saying, “Leto their mother was racked nine days and nine nights with pangs beyond wont…” Imagine! Artemis—as the myth goes—along with three other goddesses, watched her mother writhe for a week and a half. From her first day she was linked sympathetically with the birth event.
Strabo (63/64 BC – ca. AD 24) in Geography locates the place of Artemis’s birth as a grove just outside Ephesus. Perhaps this connection with her birthplace and the annual celebration of her birthday caused citizens to link Artemis of the Ephesians with birth.
Regardless of how the connection came about, we know it was well-established by the third century B.C., because in his biography of Alexander the Great, Plutarch (A.D. 46–120) refers to Artemis Ephesia’s role in childbirth saying, “Alexander was born…the same day that the [first] temple of Artemis at Ephesus was burned.” The temple, he says, “took fire and was burnt while its mistress was absent, assisting at the birth of Alexander” (italics added).
So we see the link to delivery–but sans fertility. Artemis was, in fact, immune to love, sex, and marriage. In Hymn to Aphrodite, Homer says Artemis cannot be tamed by Aphrodite. That is, Artemis remains a perpetual virgin. (Read the myth of Actaeon to find out what happens to a male who sees Artemis nude. It’s R-rated—and not for sex. ) Words such as tomboy, bodily chaste, volatile—these fit Artemis far better than mother, nurturer, and goddess-of-fertility.
Strabo (Geography 14.6) wrote, “Artemis has her name from the fact that she makes people ‘Artemeas’ meaning sound, well, or delivered.” He lists several members of the Greek pantheon including Artemis and adds, “Pestilential diseases and sudden deaths are imputed to these gods.”
It may seem strange for one persona to be linked with both delivery and death. Yet this makes more sense when we consider the sorts of prayers women offered: “Deliver me safely or kill me quickly!”
Another word that shows up when Artemis is mentioned is “save.” The ideas of “deliver” and “save” do go hand in hand. And in Pausanias’s writings we see with relative frequency references to Artemis Ephesia as “savior.” In addition to his writings, we find references to “Artemis Savior”—twenty of them!—in ancient inscription evidence.
So Artemis Ephesia is one who saves or delivers. And she is deemed to have the power to deliver a first-century woman through the most dangerous of passages—childbirth. Though not a man-hater or a radical feminist as we understand the word, Artemis was a virgin, and her priestesses and cult leaders appear to have been virgin girls, sexually inactive wives, and widows.
So what does all this tell us?
Here’s one ramification among many: The first epistle to Timothy (1 Timothy) is intended for a recipient who resides in Ephesus (1:3). So knowing what we do about the influence of the Artemis cult there, one wonders—might there be a connection between the abstinence lifestyle associated with Artemis worship and repeated mention in 1 Timothy of young widows, old widows, widows causing difficulty, widows needing to marry and have children, and people forbidding to marry (1 Tim 4:3)? And might this explain why Paul, when writing to recipients in over-sexed Corinth, suggested that widows consider celibacy (1 Cor. 7:8), yet when writing to under-sexed Ephesus, he wants younger widows to marry and have children (1 Tim 5:14)?