The Mysteries of Artemis of Ephesos by Guy MacLean Rogers
Book Review by Philip Matyszak
Let us begin with a description of what this book is not. If you are looking for an account of what happened at the cult ceremonies at the famous temple of Artemis in Ephesos, you will not find it here – or anywhere. The ceremonies were called Mysteries for a reason. The rites of the Mysteries, were secret and never disclosed. Likewise if you are looking for a an accessible account of ancient religious ceremonies in general, these are not described here in any detail. Instead this book is thorough and meticulous examination of the relationship between rulers, cult and polis from the Hellenistic to the Late Roman era.
Be warned that this examination is couched in language unsuitable for any but the hardened historian. The text is unashamedly academic, as demonstrated by the fact that just over 200 of its 500 pages are taken up by appendices, index and endnotes. This monograph is a 'postprocessual investigation' into a goddess 'famous for palpable epiphanies' which asks whether 'ancient polytheism, including mystery cults, can be interpreted as an adaptive epistemology.' (By inference from later argument, the answer appears to be 'yes'.) Note incidentally that the question in point is asked within a sentence of 122 words. While this is an exceptionally long sentence, it is not uncommon to find pages in the text where the average sentence consists of seventy words of densely-packed discourse.
An unexceptional sentence picked at random (from page 190) offers a flavour of the text
'Although the majority of physicians probably belonged to the plebs media, the socio-economic middle class of the polis, more successful or prominent doctors of the sunhedria of doctors in Asia Minor such as the archiatros Calpurnius Collega Makedon of Pisidian Antiocheia, could be wealthy enough to become members of the Bouletic order.'
This Ciceronian dedication to the sub-clause (and on occasion sub-sub-clause) and the development within a sentence of ideas that could be better explored using an entire paragraph makes an already complex subject particularly hard work.
This complaint aside, the content of the book repays the effort of reading it. The core of the book is an examination of lists of cult officials called Kouretes. These were carved onto temple columns and walls and give an extraordinary insight into who performed the cult rituals and why. By integrating these lists with other archaeological discoveries in Ephesos,we see the development and eventual decline of the cult of Artemis. While we never discover more than an outline of what happened at the Mysteries we can see how they were used for the profit and prestige of the city. The study of the Kouretes and other inscriptions also gives us an idea of how the ruling classes used religion to legitimize their privileges to the common people.
The author also makes the point that the followers of Artemis were dedicated empiricists who never stopped fiddling with the rituals to maximize the return of benefits from the Goddess. When Artemis apparently stopped answering prayers and protecting 'her' city, worship was promptly abandoned in favour of a different religious system (Christianity) which appeared to offer greater rewards.
The book is at its best when it describes developments such as the relationship between outside rulers and the city, and developments within the city itself. For example the re-establishment of the polis under the Hellenistic king Lysimachos is a fascinating read. The weaker sections of the book involve the torture of vague and incomplete archaeological evidence to support a particular point of view, and the fact that while the book follows a rough chronological sequence, the author happily introduces events from later or earlier periods. In terms of the discussion this is a valid technique, as the author often returns to the same evidence as it explains a different facet of a multifaceted argument. However this chronological confusion is little help to a reader already struggling with complex issues and a difficult prose style.
One of the book's saving graces is that the author shows a genuine enthusiasm for his topic and fondness for the city that he describes. His occasional descriptions of contemporary life and how the city might have looked in its prime show real feeling. This leads the reader to wish that the book had been more a history of Ephesus as a whole and less a study of a particular facet of the city's life. This leads to a final issue with this text.
Most of the book is a detailed study of archaeological and epigraphic evidence related to the development of the cult of Artemis within Ephesus. Yet from page 285 the book moves on to examine 'memetic selection', which argues that religious beliefs are composed of memes which (to make a heroic simplification of the overall argument) work as cultural analogues of genes, and which form 'memeplexes' in the form of mutually supportive cultural assumptions to create a common world view.
This sudden swerve into a universal theory of religious belief is a disconcerting change from the earlier detailed study of fragmentary evidence supporting (for example) the addition of an extra trumpeter at sacrificial ceremonies. We suddenly go from closely-argued debate over the precise meaning of minutiae, backed up with substantial references, academic papers and footnotes, to an over-arching pseudo-Darwinian theory of religious belief. While the argument itself is intriguing and certainly worth exploring, this simply cannot be done by extrapolating from the foundation of a study of certain aspects of a poorly-understood religious practice of one city in the Graeco-Roman world.
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Overall, this was a flawed but ultimately rewarding read. Yet I have a feeling that when I return to this book in the future it will be mainly for the detailed maps which take up the opening pages. Having absorbed the 'take-home' messages of the author's argument there seems little reason to plunge once more into the complexities of the evidence by which that argument is supported.
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