Artemis of Ephesus: A goddess who represented an ideal view of blackness

Among the pantheon of deities worshipped by the ancient Greeks, Artemis of Ephesus stands out as one of the most enigmatic. Her cult arose during the early first millennium B.C., when the city of Ephesus was founded on the shores of Asia Minor by colonists journeying east from the Greek mainland. There she took on the hybrid form of the native Greek goddess Artemis, the sylvan patron of the hunt, and the hallowed Near Eastern maternal deity Magna Mater, or Great Mother.

Made at the height of the Roman Empire, this elegantly crafted work is generally thought to reproduce a Greek original of the second century B.C. The bronze elements representing the head, hands and feet were restored in the early 19th century but are based on the equivalent features of a closely related example now in Rome. This and other contemporary images of the famous Artemis of Ephesus were made not for the veneration of the goddess but as objects meant to stir the aesthetic sensibilities of wealthy Roman collectors, perhaps even the emperor himself.

Set above several rows of mythical beasts adorning her elaborate vestment, the most evident, and often discussed, feature of this work consists of the cluster of ovoid shapes hanging from her chest. Recent scholarship generally rejects the interpretation of these forms as breasts or bull scrota, arguing instead for the compact, fecund symbol of the egg. Beyond the attraction of its unusual iconographic elements, this particular embodiment of the goddess captivates the viewer by the stunning contrast between the light-colored marble and the black patina of the exposed parts of her body.

Despite their dark color, the facial features and hair of the goddess embody the classical Greek ideal of beauty. There are no traces of black physiognomic traits, as might be expected. The paradoxical concept of a light-skinned face cloaked in darkness, on the other hand, provides an ideal opportunity for the investigation of the nature of blackness in the ancient Greco-Roman world.

The importance of the black face to the Greco-Roman world is evocatively illustrated by the itinerant career of a voyager from the heavens. A small meteorite found in the area of Mount Ida, a rugged area north of Ephesus, had long been venerated as a divinely sent manifestation of Magna Mater. Pious legend held that the dark object had come from the planet Jupiter and therefore had been sent by the king of the gods himself. Facing defeat by the Carthaginian General Hannibal and guided by the advice of omens, the Romans transferred it to their capital.

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