Scholar speaking Saturday in Venice says ancient pop culture conflated Greek goddess with the mother of Jesus

By Michael Aushenker

Artemis_webBefore the Virgin Mary there was Artemis of the Ephesians — a goddess of the people whose image and likeness strongly resemble those attributed in Christianity to Jesus’ mom.

The Artemis cult in Ephesia was “considered one of the most important belief systems in the Greco-Roman world,” says Dr. James Rietveld, who discusses his recent book “Artemis of the Ephesians: Mystery, Magic & Her Sacred Landscape” on Saturday at Venice Branch Library.

Rietveld, who teaches in the comparative religion and history departments of Cal State Fullerton, draws on both religious and archaeological scholarship for his book. He received his master’s in history from Fullerton in 1998 and a PhD in religious studies from Claremont Graduate University in 2006.

In 2012 Rietveld published “London in Flames,” a book about the 1666 fire mistaken for the Apocalypse.

The Artemisian religion — wherein the Greeks worshipped Artemis, mother goddess of the moon and the hunt — ran a solid 500 to 600 years, from the classical Greek era to late antiquity. Rietveld, who over the years has joined archaeologists with the Institute of Archaeology in Vienna on digs uncovering an abundance of Artemisian artifacts and inscriptions, says the cult was ritualistically a precursor to Christianity.

“There’s a devotion there that’s so unusual. Artemis appears to people. She weeps tears for people who suffer,” he said, noting that images of Artemis can be found “from Britain to the steppes of Russia, around the Persian Gulf.”

The religious details begin blurring after the conquering Croesus replaced an Artemisian temple with one celebrating a virgin mother figure “deliberately to bring [disparate] populations together,” Rietveld said. “Now they’re worshipping the virgin mother, and 500 years later comes Christianity. Many of the ideas of the Artemisian cult transfer into Christianity.”

On coinage and other artifacts predating Christianity, the virgin mother assumes poses and gestures later associated with the Catholic Mary.

“Popular culture doesn’t know better. They replaced one with the other,” Rietveld said.

While the Greek literati celebrated the goddess Isis with monumental artworks, Artemis “is popular with the people on the street, so we’re finding more images of her,” he continued. “Amulets bearing her likeness were considered magical enough to quell bad weather, rough waters, plagues and disease.”

The Artemis cult was progressive, too: “Women [held] leadership positions, elected by men. That’s unusual in ancient times,” Rietveld said.

Rietveld launches the Joseph Campbell Roundtables lecture series, co-sponsored by Dr. Karen Tate.

“I understand the value of continuing adult education. It’s important for people to understand how mythology shapes our culture and society,” longtime Venice resident Tate said.

Next, Cal State Northridge anthropology professor Dr. Sabina Magliocco, discusses “Animals and the Spiritual Imagination” in May, followed by Tate (“Reawakening Our Earliest Sacred Stories”) in July.

Rietveld speaks from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at the Venice Branch Library, 501 S. Venice Blvd., Venice. Free. Call (310) 821-1769 or visit