The Island of Sacred Deer

Sacred Deer

The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (Asia Minor, now Turkey) was a massive cult site which served a variety of community functions. Moreover, like other temples in antiquity, the physical space of the Temple of Artemis was designated as sacred. Nevertheless, such spaces weren’t always used for sacred purposes. For example, sacred land could be rented out to farmers, and sacred ponds could be accessed by fishermen for a fee (Dignas, 175-177). In other words, the goddess was a landlord.

According to Beate Dignas, the temple of Artemis also owned an island which teemed with sacred deer (Dignas, 176). Here’s what the geographer Strabo had to say about this island:

μετὰ δὲ Κολοφῶνα ὄρος Κοράκιον καὶ νησίον ἱερὸν Ἀρτέμιδος, εἰς ὃ διανηχομένας τίκτειν τὰς ἐλάφους πεπιστεύκασιν.

After Colophon and Mt. Coracius, there is a sacred island of Artemis; they believe that her deer enter [the island] for the purpose of giving birth.

(Strabo 14.1.29, translation mine)

I teased you a bit here. We don’t actually have too much information about the sacred deer. Making matters worse, this passage can be interpreted in several ways. Maybe these deer are just garden variety deer. Maybe they belong to the goddess and are used in her rituals or processions.

Dignas seems to interpret this passage as meaning that the island is used for raising sacred deer and that these special animals reside on the island (176). Although this meaning is not entirely clear, I tend to agree with her due to the use of the article τὰς. Such an article is not necessary (see how Strabo omits it when referring to Colophon and Mt. Coracius). Moreover, when the article is used, it can denote emphasis or possession. I am going with the latter use here and taking this as a possessive which gives a nod to Artemis, who is mentioned in the previous clause. Of course, that deer were sacred to Artemis is something that also bolsters this interpretation.

Careful readers of this blog will notice a theme emerging: the connection between sacred animals and sacred spaces which are kept pure of mortal interference. Indeed, we saw this earlier with the prophetic horses of the Germans, which were kept in a sacred grove that wasn’t contaminated by mortal concerns. If this interpretation of Strabo is correct, a case is slowly building for the quartering of sacred animals in similarly sacred spaces. This would make sense within the ancient context. Just as persons might be subject to strict purity regulations when participating in some rituals, it seems such places might have served a similar function for holy animals. The deer of Artemis being one such example.


Photo by Kev Chapman.