Unmentionable

07 21 artemis of ephesus 2Today, I want to tell you something that is, on the face of it, not brilliant. On this day in the year 356 BC, the temple of Artemis at Ephesus was burned to the ground. But it does give me a chance to tell you about the Artemis of Ephesus, and she’s quite unusual. Here she is, on the right. The Greeks were a bit like the Romans. As they expanded their territories, they met with new gods. But rather than try to replace them with their own, they chose a god from their own pantheon that they thought it most resembled, and renamed it. Artemis was their goddess of the hunt, of animals, of the wilderness and also somehow of both childbirth and virginity. There are certainly lots of animals in this image, but I can’t see her doing much hunting in that frock. Having a column instead of legs isn’t really that uncommon in Greek statues, but those things all around her torso are a bit more mysterious. They have been interpreted variously as breasts, eggs, bulls testicles or some sort of elaborate jewellery. But we don’t really know what they’re meant to be. We know nothing about her cult before the arrival of the Greeks. I can’t even tell you her name.

Artemis, like the two saints I mentioned yesterday, did not have much time for men. It seems she was once in love with Orion, but then accidentally killed him. The river god, Alpheus, loved her but she didn’t love him. He tried to capture her, but she disguised herself by covering her face in mud. There are a couple of other stories about mortal men who tried to rape her. One, she shot with poisoned arrows and the other, she turned into a little girl.

The temple of Artemis was huge and it was famous. It was the most magnificent building in the city and possibly the first Greek temple ever built from marble. It had been built to replace a previous temple which was destroyed by a flood some time in the seventh 07 21 amazons 1century BC. The first temple was reputed to have been built by the Amazons. Not the ones from South America though the, possibly mythical, tribe of warrior women. It was dedicated to their goddess, who later became identified with the Greek goddess Artemis. Little has been found of the original temple, but some gourd shaped drops of amber have been recovered, which may be the breast shaped ornaments that decorated her original statue.

The site was certainly an important one, as archaeological evidence shows that it has been occupied since the Bronze Age. Also, people kept building there despite the fact that it was clearly prone to flooding. The building of the new temple began around 550 BC and held a wooden effigy of the goddess. If you’re wondering, as I was, how a marble temple got burned up in a fire, I understand the roof beams were also made from wood and it possibly contained a library. The whole building was about 377 ft long and 115 ft wide. It was an impressive building that was visited by sightseers, merchants and kings, many of whom paid homage to the Artemis. Ephesus was a large and prosperous city, and it was all due to the protection of their goddess

So when it burned down, it was a disaster. But, even worse than that, someone had set fire to it on purpose. Worse still, he wasn’t sorry. He set fire to his city’s splendid temple because he knew it would make him famous. Afterwards, he went around telling everyone he had done it. He was sentenced to death for his crime, but that was not his only punishment. The Ephesians didn’t want him to be remembered at all. They forbade anyone to ever mention his name again, on pain of death. I’m rather with the Ephesians on this. People who do such things are still a problem to us nearly two and a half thousand years later. Someone who does something spectacularly wicked just so that they will be raised from anonymity deserves to have that snatched from them. Mentioning them over and over and putting them on the front page of every newspaper only encourages others. Unfortunately, not everyone was governed by the laws of Ephesus and it’s perfectly easy to find out his name, but I’m not going to tell you it.

Instead, I’ll tell you that the Ephesians built themselves an even bigger temple. It was around 450 ft by 225 ft and 60ft high. They commissioned a new statue of their goddess from a sculptor named Endoeus, who was a apparently a pupil of Daedalus, the man who built a labyrinth for the Minotaur and made a pair of wings for his son Icarus. So there’s one in the eye for the unmentionable pyromaniac. The new temple was so magnificent that it became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

07 21 temple of artemis

Of the Seven Wonders, all are now gone, except the Great Pyramid at Giza. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria were all destroyed by earthquakes. The statue of Zeus at Olympia was taken to Constantinople and perhaps lost in a fire. No one is completely sure whether the Hanging Gardens of Babylon really existed. The Temple of Artemis seems to have fallen into disuse with the arrival of Christianity. Perhaps it was destroyed by the Goths. If we believe early Christian sources, it was John the Apostle. He prayed there and cast out all the demons. The altar exploded and half the temple fell down. But if we’ve learned anything in the last year, it is to take the stories told to us by the early Christians with a pinch of salt.

Ephesus, which had once been a thriving port, became less important after the river there silted up. By the fifteenth century, it had been completely abandoned. It is now far from the coast. The temple was probably dismantled to build other things. Some of its columns were taken and used in the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople in the sixth century. So they became part of a Christian church which was made a mosque in 1453. The temple of the Lady of Ephesus, whoever she was, has time travelled from the ancient Greeks, through the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman one. The Hagia Sophia is now a museum.

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Yesterday, I wrote about the Pied Piper legend, a story in which a whole village full of children disappear inside a mountain and are never seen again. Today I have another story about people who vanished into an underground cavern. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. In Germany, June 27th is known as ‘Siebenschläfertag’ (Seven Sleepers Day). The weather on this day is meant to determine the weather for the following seven weeks. On this basis of that, I predict a little bit of sun, not very warm and looks as though it might rain in a bit. So no change there.

Siebenschläfer is also the name for an edible dormouse, which is a pretty sleepy animal. ‘Seven sleeper’ is also a term which had been used across Europe to describe a person who sleeps much longer that is considered necessary. The Seven Sleepers of Ephesus slept much longer than either a sleepy human or a hibernating dormouse. They were seven young Christian men who faced persecution from the Emperor Decius. They refused to worship what they saw as false idols and ran away to hide in a cave. In some versions of the story, they were walled up there by the emperor and left to die.

Many years later, their cave was opened again, by a shepherd who was hoping to use it as a shelter for his sheep. Or by a landowner who wanted it for a cattle stall. After he had gone away, the sleepers awoke but thought they had slept only one night. They sent off one of their number to buy bread in the city. Expecting to have to hide from his persecutors, he was surprised to find that the sign of the cross had been placed at the city gate and that there were churches everywhere. When he took out his money to pay for the bread, the baker was also very surprised. The coin he wanted to pay with was so very old that he thought the young man must have found some ancient treasure. It turned out that they had all slept for years and years. In some accounts it is 300 years, in others 208 or 180. The Emperor was now a Christian called Theodosius II and Christianity was now the dominant religion. Everyone was very excited, and crowds of people rushed to visit the cave and its newly woken inhabitants. There was, at that time, a debate about whether the promise of the resurrection could really be true. Here was living proof that God could raise people from the dead. The sleepers emerged from the cave and, after telling their story to the Bishop of Ephesus, they all died immediately whilst praising God. Of course a church was built over the spot, and you can still visit the Grotto of the Seven Sleepers today.

As you’ll gather from the discrepancies, there are many versions of this story and not all of them are Christian. There is a version of it in the Qur’an which is pretty vague about the number of sleepers, perhaps there were seven, but maybe five or three. The men fall asleep as Christian Berbers, but wake in a land that had converted to Islam. They too, convert to the new religion and can then die happy. This story also includes a sleeping dog who guards the cave entrance. In the Islamic version, only Allah knows how long they slept, which is a neat way of side-stepping the discrepancies between the various accounts. The location is not always the same either. Some place the cave in Jordan and there are several contenders in Tunisia. I think my favourite is at Chenini in southern Tunisia. There, if you visit the Mosque of the Seven Sleepers, you will find very large tombs which are about four metres long. The legend there tells us that the men continued to grow whilst they slept and awoke as giants.