In Acts 19:35, the secretary of the city of Ephesus speaks to a crowd who are angry with the apostle Paul. The secretary tries to quieten the mob and he reminds them of the city’s unique relationship with the goddess Artemis. The last phrase of his statement in verse 35 is translated into English in various ways.
“People of Ephesus! What person is there who doesn’t know that the city of the Ephesians is the temple guardian of the great Artemis …
… and of the image which fell down from Zeus?” (NKJV cf. KJV, etc)
… and of her image that fell from heaven?” (CSB cf. NASB, NET, NIV, etc)
… and of the statue that fell from heaven?” (NRSV cf. ISV, etc)
… and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky?” (ESV cf. CJB, GNT, etc)
The last phrase in the Greek is kai tou diopetous. The word diopetous (from diopetēs) is used with a particular sense. It does not specify what the object is―it could be an image or statue, or a stone such as a meteorite― but the word’s etymology indicates that it fell from Zeus, that is, it fell from the sky or heaven.
Whatever this object was, it was an object of veneration housed within the temple complex of Artemis in Ephesus.
In this article, I look at other ancient texts that use the word diopetēs or that use a phrase which means “fell from ‘heaven/ sky’ (ouranos),” and I mention a few stones that were objects of veneration in the Greco-Roman world. These other texts and objects may help us to understand the nature of the object in the Temple of Artemis.
IMAGES OR STATUES THAT FELL FROM HEAVEN
Athena of Athens
The geographer Pausanius (110–180 CE) mentions a legend of the goddess Athena; namely, that her image (agalma) “fell from heaven/ sky” (pesein ek tou ouranou).
But the most holy object . . . is the image of Athena which is now on the Acropolis, but then was called the Polis. It is said that it fell from heaven. I won’t discuss whether this is true or not. (Pausanius, Descriptions of Greece 1.26.6. My translation.)
Pallas Athena of Troy
The Palladium of the Trojans, that is, a statue of the goddess Pallas Athena (also known as Pallas Minerva), was believed to have fallen down from heaven. Virgil (70–19 BCE) writes about this palladium and its shrine in book two of his Aeneid.
We can see what this statue looked like. It’s on top of a column in this image on Wikimedia here.
Ceres of Sicily
Similar ideas are attributed to the life-like statue of Ceres (the goddess of agriculture) of Sicily.
Writing in 60 BCE, Cicero stated,
… [the statue] was a work of such beauty, that men, when they saw it, thought either that they saw Ceres herself, or an image of Ceres not wrought by human hand, but one that had fallen from heaven (sed de caelo lapsam arbitrarentur) … (Cicero, Against Verres 5.187).
Artemis of Tauris
The fifth-century play Iphigenia in Tauris, written by Euripides, features a statue of Artemis of Tauris. The Tauric Artemis, not to be confused with the Ephesian Artemis, is said to have fallen from heaven.
In this piece of dialogue, the character Orestes explains his mission to take the Tauric goddess, which is a wooden statue, to Athens.
And you told me to go to the boundaries of the Tauric land, where Artemis, your sister, has an altar, and to take the statue of the goddess, which is said here to have ‘fallen to this temple from heaven’ (es tousde naous ouranou pesein apo); and, taking it by craft of some stroke of luck, to complete the venture by giving it to the Athenian land … (Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 88–90).
Later in the play, Orestes says that he was sent to the Plain of Phoebus “to get the image fallen from Zeus/ heaven (diopetes labein agalm’), and set it up in Athena’s land. … the ‘wooden statue/ image’ (bretas) of the goddess … ” (Euripides, Iphigenia in Tauris 977–980 cf. 1291 and 1315–6)
There are no known similar stories involving a statue of the Ephesian Artemis.
THE BLACK STONE OF CYBELE
Some suggest the diopetēs in Acts 19:35 is the famous black stone associated with the Phrygian mother goddess Cybele. It is possible that aspects of Cybele’s mythology were conflated with the Ephesian Artemis in archaic times. However, the two goddesses and their cults were quite different, and in the first century, the Ephesian Artemis and the Phrygian Cybele were distinct.
Cybele’s stone is mentioned in several ancient texts. Arnobius, writing around 250–300, described it as,
… not large, which could be carried in a man’s hand without any pressure—of a dusky and black colour—not smooth, but having little corners standing out, and which to-day we all see put in that image instead of a face, rough and unhewn, giving to the figure a countenance by no means lifelike. (Arnobius, Against the Heathens 7.49)
The historian Herodian (170–c. 240) recounts some of the stone’s history.
They say that this statue of the goddess fell from the sky; the exact material of the statue is not known, nor the identity of the artists who made it; in fact, it is not certain that the statue was the work of human hands. Long ago it fell from the sky in Phrygia (the name of the region where it fell is Pessinus [“place of the fall”], which received its name from the fall of the heavenly statue); the statue was discovered there. (Herodian, Roman History 1.11.1)
Livy also mentions Cybele’s black stone which was taken to Rome from Pergamon in 204 BCE and may still have been in Rome in the first century CE.
They came to Pergamus to the king, who received the ambassadors graciously, and conducted them to Pessinus in Phrygia, and putting into their hands a sacred stone, which the inhabitants said was the mother of the gods, bid them convey it to Rome. (Livy, History 29.9.7)
See also, Appian’s The War Against Hannibal 9.56. (Please let me know if you have more information on this stone’s whereabouts in the first century.)
MORE SACRED STONES
Because they seem to fall from the sun or heaven, there are more than a few ancient accounts of meteorites becoming objects of worship. Many of these meteorites have a black “fusion” outer crust, caused by high temperatures when the rock passes through the earth’s atmosphere. However, sacred stones that hadn’t literally fallen from the sky could also be black; they could darken and become smooth from being constantly rubbed and oiled by devotees.
Aphrodite of Paphos
On the island of Cyprus, the sanctuary of Aphrodite (or Venus) of Paphos was a centre of worship for several hundreds of years. A black stone, which apparently still survives, represented the goddess. However, this stone is volcanic basalt and not a meteorite.
Tacitus (56–c. 120) describes the “goddess.”
The representation of the goddess is not in human form, but it is a circular mass that is broader at the base and rises like a turning-post to a small circumference at the top. (Tacitus, Histories 2.3)
Several more ancient authors refer to this stone.
A Temple in Phoenicia
In his Roman history, Herodian tells of a large and lavish temple in Phoenicia that did not contain a statue of a god but “a huge black stone with a pointed end and round base in the shape of a cone. The Phoenicians solemnly maintain that this stone ‘came down from Zeus’ (diopetēs) …” (Herodian, History 5.3.4-5)
Pliny the Elder briefly relates four accounts of stones that fell from the sun or sky, including the well-known fall in Aegospotomi in 457 BCE which is also mentioned by Aristotle. Pliny states that “there can be no doubt that stones have frequently fallen from the atmosphere.” (Pliny, Natural History 2.59)
Sacred Stones Shown on Coins
A sacred stone, or baetylus, is depicted on some ancient coins. For example, on this coin, a baetylus is depicted within its temple or shrine dedicated to the Syrian sun god Elagabalus. This stone originated in Emesa, Syria, but was later taken to Rome where it was enshrined.
A coin minted in Seleucia in Pieria (Asia Minor) 98–117 shows a sacred stone believed to represent Zeus Kasios here.
A coin from Byblos, showing Emperor Macrinus on one side, and a stone-like object inside a sacred enclosure on the other, is here.
Still more ancient coins with sacred stones, including the Omphalos at Delphi, can be seen here.
What does “the thing that fell from heaven” (diopetēs) in Acts 19:35 refer to? Was it an image or statue, or a meteorite or stone? No ancient source plainly mentions a stone associated with the cult of the Ephesian Artemis, but we have evidence of statues that were housed in her temple. We can see its image on coins, for example. My best guess is that the object mentioned in Acts 19:35 was a prized statue.
Perhaps like the Tauric Artemis, the “thing that fell from heaven” in Acts 19:35 was a wooden statue. Pliny the Younger mentions a famous wooden statue of the Ephesian Artemis. He believed that it was carved from ebony by the sculptor Endoios in the 6th century BC. Despite knowing its origin, it’s possible that a legend may have developed around the statue or perhaps diopetēs is simply an idiomatic way of saying “sacred object.”
 The etymology of the word diopetēs (translated in the CSB as “fell from heaven”) gives the sense of “fell from Zeus”: dios (Zeus) + pe(t)– (fall). The Greek god Zeus, or Jupiter the Roman counterpart, was the god of the sky/ heaven. I wonder if diopetēs simply meant “heavenly object” or “sacred object.” The LSJ entry for diopetēs is here.
 More ancient quotations about Aphrodite of Paphos and even a photograph of the black stone are here. More photographs are on the UNESCO website here.
 Pliny makes these comments about the famous wooden statue of Artemis Ephesia.
As to the statue of the goddess, there is some doubt of what wood it is made; all the writers say that it is ebony, with the exception of Mucianus, who was three times consul, one of the very latest among the writers that have seen it; he declares that it is made of the wood of the vine, and that it has never been changed all the seven times that the temple has been rebuilt. He says, too, that it was Endæus [in the 6th century BC] who made choice of this wood, and even goes so far as to mention the artist’s name, a thing that really surprises me very much, seeing that he attributes to it an antiquity that dates before the times of Father Liber, and of Minerva even. He states, also, that, by the aid of numerous apertures, it is soaked with nard, in order that the moist nature of that drug may preserve the wood and keep the seams close together: I am rather surprised, however, that there should be any seams in the statue, considering the very moderate size it is. (Pliny, Natural History 16.79)
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Campana relief, made from clay in the first half of the first century CE, depicting two female dancers dancing on either side of a palladium, a statue. Cropped and slightly re-coloured. (Source: Wikimedia) (CC BY-SA 3.0)
The Regalia of Artemis Ephesia
Artemis of Ephesus and her Temple
The Prominence of Women in the Cults of Ephesus
All my articles on Ancient Ephesus are here.
Aphrodite and Temple Prostitution in Corinth
Alistair McBeath and Andrei Dorian Gheorghe “Meteor Beliefs Project: Meteorite Worship in the Ancient Greek and Roman worlds,” WGN, Journal of the International Meteor Organization, 33.5 (2005): 135–144. (Harvard.edu)