Home The Poets  Historical Roots
The Sanctuary of Artemis Zulumathabo Blog 

On the Sanctuary of Artemis Dying

by Thea Iberall


Context for "Sanctuary of Artemis Dying"

I stood inside the walls of the Monastery of St. John staring at the floor. The Monastery had been built on the island of Patmos to commemorate St. John's exile in 95 CE. In my mind�s eye was the cave I had just visited where St. John had written the Book of Revelations. Set into the side of the cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea, the round cave wasn�t as dark as I thought it would be. Taking up half the small space had been hundreds of votive candles. I could see the indent in the rock wall where St. John had rested his head. Just above, there was a three prong crack in the boulder; some say the Trinity. This was a very Christianized cave.

It made me angry. Weren't caves sacred to earlier pagan religions? I knew there were signs of millennium old worship found in caves all over the world. Wasn't the Catholic hierarchy trying to gain legitimacy by Christianizing already sacred sites?1 In a letter written to St. Augustine, Pope Gregory said "Purify the temples with holy water. Set relics there and let them become temples of the true God." It was just plain theft.

And what were these Christians doing to the ancient Goddesses? Not far from Patmos is the great city of Ephesus on the western coast of Anatolia (modern day Turkey). Founded in the 13th century BCE, it drew large masses of worshippers to its Temple of Artemis. This Goddess was worshipped as the Mistress of wild animals and nature, free of male domination. But in 268 CE, the Temple was destroyed by invading Goths. Ephesus became the third most important Christian center after Jerusalem and Antioch.2 One can argue that the pagan religions used similar strategies. During the Second Punic War, the Roman senate consulted the Sibylline Oracular books which decreed that a foreign invader "could be defeated if Cybele, the Idaean Mother of the Gods, were brought to Rome from Anatolia."3 It worked. And what evolved from that? The Christians built St. Peter's on the ground where Cybele's temple stood. Interestingly, it was on the site of Artemis' temple at Ephesus that Mary was officially proclaimed the Mother of God (Cybele's designation) in 431 CE. Beyond relics are the names and titles.

But why was "sacredness" associated with any given site in the first place? Some have argued it is the landscape that holds the key -- landscapes with symbols meaningful to the original religion.4 Eleusis, a site sacred to Demeter, the Goddess of Agriculture, was a place of worship for well over 2000 years. The annual celebration of her Mysteries began with a 14 mile procession from Athens to the sacred hall at Eleusis which was marked by the appearance and disappearance of the sacred horns of Mount Kerata.5

It is sad that we can not sense what ancient religions held sacred. We only have their remains. As I stood staring at the monastery�s chapel floor, I realized it was from an older temple of Artemis. I looked up, trying to see around me with new, and old, eyes.


1. Christ, Carol. Odyssey With the Goddess. NY: Continuum, 1995.

2. Ephesus, a museum publication, Istanbul: Keskin Color Kartpostalciuk, 1991

3. Redmond, Layne. When the Drummers Were Women, NY: Three Rivers Press, 1997. (quoting Livy, Titus Livius. The War With Hannibal, Books 21-30 of The History of Rome from Its Foundation. Aubrey de Selincourt, trans. Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1965.)

4. Scully, Vincent. The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods, NY: Frederick A. Praeger, 1969.

5. Streep, Peg, Sanctuaries of the Goddess, Boston: Blufinch Press Books, 1994.


On the Sanctuary of Artemis Dying

In a place like St. John�s Monastery
the wall she sees scales fifteen meters
juts out like a broken nose
scoured by the idled sight

of innocents incised in blackened
rededos, a flat faced John
his forehead marked, his brother
James skin broken, drawn.

And the floor, remembered from a pagan
temple, marbled slabs made numb,
aged, for a time and half a time
seemingly 2000 years or more

as endless rows have come and given
will, gray-fashioned until not
one more footfall could be taken
whether by moon or under blood.

Invisible, she stares, reflected
bowing to the sons of thunder
who unaware, not caring
have crushed the back of Artemis.


Published ONTHEBUS, September, 2004


  Click here to order "The Sanctuary of Artemis: A Collection of Contextual Poems"