Who Was Artemis and Why Does It Matter? Part II

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)?

Sandra Glahn, who holds a Master of Theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary (DTS) and a PhD in The Humanities—Aesthetic Studies from the University of Texas/Dallas, is a professor at DTS. This creator of the Coffee Cup Bible Series (AMG) based on the NET Bible is the author or coauthor of more than twenty books. She's the wife of one husband, mother of one daughter, and owner of two cats. Chocolate and travel make her smile. You can follow her on Twitter @sandraglahn ; on FB /Aspire2 ; and find her at her web site: aspire2.com.


  • Kelley Mathews

    fun stuff!

    I love context! It adds such richness and depth to our understanding of scripture. the information you’ve given here at the very least increases our understanding of the culture in which some of Paul’s letters were written. Certain phrases have new, or maybe deeper, meaning.

    • Terri Moore

      Did someone say 1 Tim 2:15?
      Did someone say 1 Tim 2:15? I’ve done some work with that verse (Master’s thesis and another paper) and I think Sandra’s on track in her comment below….

  • Sue Bohlin

    FINALLY–“The rest of the story.”

    Great Part Deux, Sandi! There is something so richly satisfying about knowing the cultural context for scriptural details.Thank you for all the research and time that went into this two-fer!

    I loved Kelley’s insight question about the "saved through childbirth" verse in chapter 2. Oh, so maybe women will be "delivered through delivery" NOT by Artemis Ephesia, but through faith in the Lord??? Seems appropriate. . . . I mean, how many times have those attending women in labor heard the phrase, "OH GOD!!"? (No irreverence meant, I promise!)

  • lisa

    Great Part Deux, Sandi!
    Great Part Deux, Sandi! There is something so richly satisfying about knowing the cultural context for scriptural details.Thank you for all the research and time that went into this two-fer! 4ME

  • Rebecca

    Artemis vs Anatolia?
    Very interesting. Here is a thought, though. We were in Ephesus in December 08 and learned that Artemis of Ephesus was actually a replacement for Anatolia, the Mother Goddess who predated the Roman occupation of Ephesus. The curious thing is that Anatolia was clearly associated with fertility and childbearing. She is often depicted with many round items all over her chest, which are thought to be some sort of fertility symbol (either breasts, bees’ behinds or bull testes – no one is quite sure). So this juxtaposision of fertility/ childbearing vs chasity may have come from the merging of the two deities. The Ephesian Artemis, the one who replaced the ancient Mother Goddess, probably retained some of her earlier persona even after the Romans renamed her. I am not sure how this all ties in with the discussion, but it is probably relevant.

    • Anonymous

      Anatolia becomes Artemis becomes Diana?
      Yes, the "art" depicted on Ephesian Artemis idols in the first and second centuries A.D. is completely unlike other Greek art, and it harkens back to an earlier time. We see a link in other places such as Sardis with Artemis and the earlier Cybele. People in "Asia" back then often morphed gods and goddesses. Artemis is called Diana, but instead of carrying a bow and wearing a mini-skirt, as we see Diana depicted in other places, in Ephesus she’s got mummified legs covered with animals and carries no bow . Sometimes Nike and Athena are two different goddesses; but then in Athens we find on The Acropolis a temple to Athena Nike, and the two goddesses are one and the same. The challenge for someone studying something like Acts 19 is to discern what the mentality was in a certain city in the first century. And by the first century, it appears that the Ephesian Artemis was not a fertility goddess, but she was a pro-chastity, pro-female goddess associated with assistance in childbirth. The fertility vs. childbearing distinction is an important one. Being fertile-Myrtle is not exactly the same as being a midwife. One is sexually active; the other is not necessarily.

  • Wendy C

    Thanks for the two posts.  

    Thanks for the two posts.  I write sermon-based study questions for our church's small groups, and these posts helped me flesh out the whole Artemis/women should be quiet topic from our pastor's sermon series on Galatians (i.e. 3:28).  

    I wish growing up biblical context had been a part of the sermons I heard from the pulpit–sad to leave out beneficial understanding when trying to teach people God's word!  Some happily included context and historical background around now-considered squeamish things–multiple wives, stoning, drinking wine, losing track of your twelve-year old child for an entire day, and perhaps more.  

    But there are other areas of the NT ripe for well-rounded discussion, not blatant acceptance through limiting understanding.  All of scripture is God-breathed, but is every word applicable ONLY if I am physically and rigorously applying it?  Shall I study how to name the animals so I may do it?  Shall I attend church only where two or three prophets speak each time we gather?  Shall I greet all brothers with a holy kiss?  

    Instead I praise God for placing me where I am and surrounding me with those who seek His will and freely admit when we fail to do so, to pick ourselves up and try again.

  • Sandra Glahn

    Context Matters

    Thanks, Wendy. Good point about application and how we don't study to name animals or stay home if no prophets are slated to speak. The flip side is true, too, don't you think? Somebody could read Peter's exhortation about beauty not being in "pearls," and stop wearing pearl costume jewelry that cost $9.99, yet still drive a luxury car to church. How's that for ignoring the context and how the background informs application?   

  • DawnMoon


    Hello, I was just passing by, as I am researching Artemis cults. I would just like to say the great goddess Artemis was NOT ruthless at all!!! She was kind and nurturing! Apollo and Artemis killed Niobe's children, because she boasted she was greater than their mother Leto, because Niobe bore more children. It's hubris in a way. And that was the way of teaching Niobe a lesson. We can never understand fully the ways of the gods. Just as your god killed people and destroyed them. There is no difference. That's the problem with you Christians. Instead of saying disrespectful things about others religion, maybe you should find out the actual reason!

    Blessed be…..

  • Sandra Glahn


    Folks, let this reader's comment demonstrate that in what I have to say about Artemis of the Ephesians, I am in no way aligning myself with those who are part of the goddess movement. As you can see, I have hacked one of them off.  


    To the person who wrote the comment, I have this to say:


    You're serious? Really? Really??? Because I didn't "find out the actual reason"? Wrong. I know precisely why Artemis killed the Niobid children–because Niobe insulted their mother. So not only is your accusation of me false, but what is much worse, you extrapolate in such a way as to accuse all Christians ("That's the problem with you Christians…") because of what you view as my failure to do enough research.    


    We'll have to agree to disagree that somene who participated in murdering a bunch of children because their mama bragged is "kind and nurturing." And BTW, I was referring to not just any Artemis, but Artemis of the Ephesians. 


    Your unfair accusation and apparent bias against Christians aside, I meant no insult by the word "ruthless." I would also describe Yahweh Elohim as ruthless at times–ruthless against sin and without pity when executing justice, especially on behalf of the helpless. So I was not intending the word as an insult; I was using it only in contrast with nurturing. 


    >> Just as your god killed people and destroyed them. There is no difference.


    Um, actually, there's a huge difference. And the difference is in why. Take, for example, the most extreme case of the Almighty's ruthlessness. The God of the Bible, maker of heaven and earth, sent an innocent man to die, to bear the penalty of sin for the world. But the motive was love–not revenge or to teach "a lesson" to someone who got too big for her britches. The goal was to reconcile all mortals, including you and me, to God.


  • Timofey

    how interesting

    Wow it is amaizing how even to this day people that live in a total ignorance of their creator and God can be seriously serious about Artemis and Zeus and Areios and all the rest of them.  Please give yourself a huge favor , read second half of 17th chapter Acts. And pray for God to reveal Himself to you. Or you will just keap on believing in Artemis and trust in her "nurturing"

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