Nicholas and the Temple of Artemis

Statue of Artemis
Statue of Artemis, 2nd Century, from Perge, Lycia, now in the Antalya Museum
Photo: Rosentha/SNC

After Constantine became emperor, persecution of Christians came to an end. All the Christians who had been imprisoned under Diocletian and Galerius, including Bishop Nicholas, returned home. In Lycia the pre-Christian religious traditions of ancient Greece and Rome were still followed. When a new religious faith takes the place of another there is often conflict, as one person's god becomes another's demon. As a defender of the Christian faith, Nicholas was at odds with these ancient practices, epitomized in the worship of the Greek goddess Artemis, the most prominent deity in Lycia. There, Artemis, a daughter of Zeus, was recognized as a particularly powerful virgin fertility goddess.

Bishop Nicholas worried that some of his people might slip back into their old ways, visiting the shrines and Artemis' temple to make sacrifices and seek protection. He believed the worship of the old gods was demon-inspired and that, as bishop, he was responsible to safeguard the people. The temple of Artemis in Myra was the most impressive and stunningly beautiful structure in all Lycia. It occupied large grounds, with beautiful plantings and an inner court with columns, an altar, and the goddess' statue.

Bulgarian stamp
Postage stamp, Bulgaria, 1966
St Nicholas Center Collection

Nicholas set about with great force and zeal to destroy these shrines, driving away demons, and bringing calm to the land. Legends tell of fierce warfare between Nicholas and Artemis, conflict which lasted all of the saint's life and even beyond. Nicholas attacked this great temple with tremendous might and vigor, absolutely determined to bring about its total ruin. The very foundations were uprooted from the ground, so complete was the destruction. It is said that the fleeing demons inspired the people's awe of God.

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