Unfounded Myths about Artemis of Ephesus
Many people believe that Artemis, the patron goddess of the ancient city of Ephesus, was a fertility or mother goddess. Some believe she hated men and elevated women. A few claim that ritual or sacred prostitution was part of her cult. These flawed ideas are often repeated in discussions on 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
In her 2023 book Nobody’s Mother, Sandra Glahn explores the ancient literary and epigraphic sources that mention the Ephesian Artemis, as well as evidence from ancient architecture and art, and she explains how the goddess is actually described in these sources.
Dr Glahn’s observations on the goddess (from her thorough research of ancient sources) closely match my observations (from much less extensive research) and I wanted to share them on my blog. Thankfully, Glahn and her publisher IVP Academic have given me permission to post the following excerpts from Nobody’s Mother.
My hope is that we retire unfounded myths about Artemis of Ephesus which can affect how we interpret 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
Conclusions from Ancient Literary Sources
At the end of chapter three, and under the subheading of “Conclusions from literary sources in the first centuries,” Sandra Glahn first outlines who Artemis was not and then notes how the goddess was regarded in the first centuries BC and AD.
First, Artemis is not associated with prostitution—whether empire wide or specifically in Ephesus. Baugh notes that “neither Strabo, Pliny the Elder, Dio Chrysostom, Pausanias, Xenophon of Ephesus, Achilles Tatius, nor any other ancient author speaks explicitly or even hints at cult prostitution in either the narrow or broad sense in Ephesus of any period.” […]
Second, although anti-sex, Artemis is not anti-male. She loved Orion, has plenty of male followers, and is never presented as disliking males.
Third, Artemis is not associated with mothering. She is not a mother, and she does not mother or nurture others. Artemis is not associated with human fertility; she is not a fertility goddess. The survey here reveals nothing to link Artemis with such characteristics. So who is she?
First, Artemis is so associated with chastity and virginity that one could say virginity is her most prominent characteristic.
Second, Artemis is a midwife. She can deliver safely; she also has the power—with gentle arrows—to euthanize, killing painlessly. But she also had the power to allow her own mother to deliver her without pain. As a midwife who helps with delivery, Artemis herself is never seen as the one giving birth, nursing, or caring for a child.
Third, Artemis has a connection with the Amazons. Like them, she is unmarried and wields a weapon.
Fourth, Artemis was born first [before her twin brother Apollo] in the Ephesian version of her birth story.
The literary sources roughly contemporary with the earliest Christians reflect an acceptance of the same story the ancient writers told about Artemis—down to her virginity, her physical description, her connection with the Amazons, her responsibility for midwifery, and her responsibility for sudden deaths.
Both S. M. Baugh and Richard Oster, eminent Ephesus scholars, reject any fertility associations with Artemis Ephesia because of what they observe as a compelling silence from all the primary sources. With them, we have also found none of the literary descriptions of Artemis to support such an assertion. The burden of proof is on those who would argue otherwise. Artemis is nobody’s mother.
Conclusions from Ancient Inscriptions
At the end of chapter four which is on epigraphic evidence, Glahn writes about what ancient inscriptions tell us, or don’t tell us, about Artemis but particularly what they reveal about the temple personnel involved in the operation of the goddess’s cult.
… the inscriptions are silent on these points:
They provide no evidence of cult prostitution. In addition to the literary sources, the inscriptions contain no hint of such prostitution in Ephesus. If anything, the opposite appears to be the case: virginity and celibacy dominate.
They reveal nothing suggesting an anti-male nor a woman-power mentality. The inscriptions do have a strong female emphasis. Those that mention mothers and grandmothers—perhaps because the offices were inherited from them—tend to omit the names of male family members. Nevertheless, nothing in them suggests that a feminine principle is prevalent in Ephesus nor does anything hint at attempts at switching gender roles or suggest hostility between male and female.
They do not suggest that Artemis was a sex or fertility goddess. People holding offices within her cult appear to have been, like her, almost exclusively virginal. Again, Artemis is nobody’s mother.
Glahn notes that the men and women who functioned as temple officials came from respectable, elite families. She writes especially about female officeholders.
Descriptions of Artemis’s cult and those associated with it include an emphasis on wealth and honor, with women officeholders coming from the upper classes and appearing to have some autonomy in their benevolence. These women held a variety of honorable titles, such as priestess, prytanis, lampadarchissa, kosmeteira, and gymnasiarch. Those honored are most often mentioned apart from male authority, probably unmarried, and described as making distributions, dedicating altars and statues, and financing inscriptions.
Why do Unfounded Myths Persist?
After discussing the evidence from architecture and art in chapter five, Sandra Glahn states,
The various tools of analysis reveal that the data did not align with the fertility-related description of the goddess, whether from the first century or any other era, in Ephesus or beyond. The evidence is extensive enough to support the hypothesis that the Ephesians did not see Artemis as a mother or fertility goddess in Paul’s day, if ever.
Despite the absence of supporting ancient evidence, flawed ideas such as Artemis being a mother or fertility goddess continue to be stated even by smart people. Where did these ideas come from?
… why does a Google search of Artemis + fertility goddess generate more than three-quarters of a million hits? And why would an A&E documentary on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World describe Artemis in Ephesus as part of “an ancient fertility cult”? This depiction of her comes from a confluence of several sources: conflation of her persona through the centuries, Christian polemics [against pagan idolatry], and incorrect interpretation [of ancient sources].
I recommend reading Nobody’s Mother to see the evidence that Sandra Glahn has laid out and to read why the goddess has been misrepresented by Christians since Mucinius Felix’s polemic comments in The Octavius 21:5 and Jerome’s remarks in a letter to Paula and Eustochium, if not before. Nobody’s Mother can be purchased on the IVP website, on Amazon, and from other booksellers.
All excerpts are taken from Sandra L. Glahn, Nobody’s Mother: Artemis of the Ephesians in Antiquity and the New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2023). See pages 78-80, 96-97, 113, and 104-105.
 Sandra Glahn and I see the goddess in much the same way, but we have different views regarding if and how Artemis applies to 1 Timothy 2:11-15.
 Nobody’s Mother was given to me by a friend. I was not approached by anyone to promote or mention this book on my website or on social media.
Extract of a fresco of Artemis/ Diana holding a bow and arrow, from the Villa di Arianna in Stabiae. Housed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, inventory number: 9243. (Wikimedia) CC BY-SA 4.0 DEED. This image is used on the cover of Nobody’s Mother.
The Regalia of Artemis Ephesia
Artemis of Ephesus and her Temple
The Prominence of Women in the Cults of Ephesus
All my articles on the Ephesian Artemis are here.
Celibacy, Salvation, and 1 Timothy 2:15
What does “saved through childbearing” (1 Tim. 2:15) mean?
All my articles on 1 Timothy 2:11-15 are here.
Aphrodite and Temple Prostitution in Corinth
Sandra Glahn on the Decline of Women in Public Ministry
For a scholarly critique of Nobody’s Mother, see Lyn Kidson’s article here.