The Tale of Priestess-Architect Aristarcha And Her Dream Blueprints


Greek settlers from the city of Phocaea colonized southern France, founding the city of Massilia (modern Marseilles) in 600 BCE or earlier. Folklore, legend and myth about the city and its foundation abound, and the Roman geographer Strabo (64 BCE-21 CE) was one of the many authors to write down a folkloric story about Massilia’s creation. His tale, however, did not focus on the colonial expedition’s leaders, or the political intrigue that the Greek sailors found themselves in once they reached the French coast. Strabo, instead, presented a story about a woman who was chosen by the goddess Artemis (or Diana for the Romans) as the architect for one of the first temples in the fledgling colony of Massilia.

According to Strabo, the Phocaean colonizers of Massilia were approached by an oracle before they departed from their original Ionian homeland. This oracle reportedly encouraged the settlers to stop by Ephesus before they left the Aegean Sea. The oracle claimed that a person was living in the city whom the goddess, Artemis, wished would accompany the Phocaeans on their journey. Heeding the advice of the oracle, the expedition from Phocaea stopped by the city of Ephesus, but upon their arrival they realized that they did not know how to locate Artemis’ champion. Evidently, Artemis took matters into her own hands. According to Strabo, “The goddess appeared in a dream to Aristarcha, one of the most honourable women of the city, and commanded her to accompany the Phocaeans, and to take with her a plan of the temple and statues” (Geography, IV.1.4). Pious Aristarcha (a name that might be an early cult title or honorific) gathered the materials that Artemis directed her to bring and then presented herself to the loitering Phocaeans. After convincing them of her authenticity, Aristarcha joined their expedition and journeyed with them into the Mediterranean.

When the settlers reached the site where they would build Massilia, they soon began constructing a temple to Artemis based on Aristarcha’s blueprints. This temple, with its ties to Ephesus, was eventually called the Ephesium, and Aristarcha reportedly became the temple’s first priestess.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Diana the Huntress painted by Guillaume Seignac (1870–1924), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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