Looking Towards Ephesus

Looking Towards Ephesus September 19, 2011

Patheos’ blogger Mark D. Roberts is looking at Ephesus through the lens of the New Testament. I’m finding this fascinating, because Ephesus is an ancient city that Christians and Pagans look at very differently. Today it’s in ruins, a historical curiosity in present-day Turkey. When we think of Ephesus today, unlike Rome or Alexandria which have evolved and remained multi-faceted over the years, we think of religion.

Christians think of Ephesus in terms of the Ephesian church, whom Paul addressed in one of the epistles he wrote while imprisoned in Rome. Most scholars don’t think Paul actually wrote the letter, but it certainly makes better mythos to say he did. Ephesians is where the church is described as the body of Jesus, and contains the infamous passages requiring women to submit to their husbands, and for slaves to submit to their masters. Needless to say, Pagans don’t think of any of this when they consider Ephesus.

How a Pagan views Ephesus can be summed up in one word: Artemis.

The Ephesian Temple of Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

I have gazed on the walls of impregnable Babylon along which chariots may race, and on the Zeus by the banks of the Alpheus, I have seen the hanging gardens, and the Colossus of the Helios, the great man-made mountains of the lofty pyramids, and the gigantic tomb of Mausolus; but when I saw the sacred house of Artemis that towers to the clouds, the others were placed in the shade, for the sun himself has never looked upon its equal outside Olympus.

Antipater, Greek Anthology

Artemis, sister of Apollo and often considered identical and/or equivalent to the Roman Diana, was a virginal huntress associated with the moon. Which makes Ephesian Artemis all the more intriguing, because she is depicted as a bountiful mother, yet the Ionian Greeks saw their moon Goddess in her. What names the Ephesians gave her prior to Hellenization is lost, but it’s known that the site of the temple was of religious importance since the Bronze Age.

What makes the Temple of Artemis in Ephesus unique is that it was destroyed repeatedly, by floods and earthquakes over the centuries. Each time it was rebuilt Ephesus became even more prosperous. There is a false idea held by non-Pagans that it was the buildings and statues themselves that were Divine. The Ephesian Artemis is proof that the Gods were not mere idols. It was her worship that was important, the temples were symbols of that devotion and it was the devotion that kept the city prosperous. It’s not believed that the temple was restored to it’s former glory after being damaged, or even destroyed, by the Goths in 263. Constantine tried to restore the city, but in 406 what was left of the Temple of Artemis was ordered destroyed by John Chrysostom. The temple was cannibalized for the construction of new churches, including the Hagia Sophia. An earthquake rocked the city in 614. Repeatedly sacked thereafter, it became no more than a small village, and was finally abandoned entirely by the 15th century.

The temple, repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt even greater over thousands of years, was no longer considered worth the effort in 263. Why? The Ephesians were a proud people, who took great pride in their temple. They even refused funds from Alexander the Great for rebuilding the temple, preferring to foot the costs themselves. The temple was the heart of Ephesus. They guarded their Lady jealously, despising any who dared claim her and her protection for their own. She was the Lady of Ephesus, the Anatolian Artemis, and she brought glory and prosperity to them for centuries.

I can’t help but wonder if there is a moral here. Religious practice, the creation of devotional objects and buildings, their maintenance and their use in rites, are all merely outwards symbols of internal devotion. If the internal devotion is gone, the practice becomes rote superstition, and who is willing to invest in maintaining rote superstition? Are temples an investment in our devotion? A reminder of what we already hold true and a sign to ourselves and others that we are faithful?

For the ancients, temples were a sign of devotion and prosperity. It was an investment in their own culture, values and future. Worth thinking about as our numbers grow.

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