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Les Femmes et la Ville : histoire des femmes à Marseille des origines à nos jours

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Aristarchè, vers 600 av. J.C.

Aristarchè was a figure of Greek mythology and is thought to be the legendary founder of Marseilles, first religious leader of the Phocaean colony of Massalia and first priestess of the Ephéseion (temple of Artemis). We know of her existence through a single reference to her in Geography (IV, 1, 4) by Strabon, a contemporary of Augustus: « They say that, when the Phocaeans left the shores of their homeland, they heard a voice telling them to choose as the leader of their expedition the man that Artemis of Ephesus would provide for them. They wondered how they would find the guide promised by the goddess. And it was Aristarchè, one of the most respected women of the city, who saw the goddess standing before her in a dream and ordering her to board ship with the Phocaeans and take with her everything required for building a temple. Her orders were followed and, when the colonists reached the destination of their venture, they built the sanctuary and gave Aristarchè the highest rank by making her its priestess... »

This text describes the foundation rites of a colony and the name of Aristarchè, which means « excellent beginning », is heavy with symbolism. It is also one of the names attributed to Artemis at Elis. Without consultation of the oracle which was the usual procedure before any attempt at founding a new colony, a prophecy tells the Phocaeans that Artemis of Ephesus would designate someone to act as their leader. However, the goddess chooses a woman by appearing to her in a dream. Strabon does not say whether Aristarchè was already a priestess in Ephesus, but informs us that she was one of the most prestigious women. Respecting the vision, Aristarchè takes ship with the Phocaeans with all the necessary supplies, taken from the altar of Artemis, for founding a religious centre. What could be more natural than the Phocaeans accord her the highest honours, when they arrived safely at their destination, when her great moral and religious value had been recognized by the goddess herself?

We have no other indication of Aristarché's existence or of her role in Ephesus before the arrival of the Phocaeans or in Marseilles, even though the story of the foundation of the city can be found in the writings of Aristotle and Trogue Pompey. The story of Aristarchè appears in the Strabon text immediately after references to the Ephéseion in Marseilles, perhaps to explain its existence. In Phocaea, the principal goddess was Athena, but here the prevailing goddess is identified as Artemis and the divine prophecy sent the Phocaeans to Artemis of Ephesus. This town thus played an important role, at least with regard to religion, in the foundation of Marseilles.

A fragment of a relief found in 1804 at Jonquières, near Martigues, is thought to refer to the legend of Aristarchè and is now part of the collection held by the Academy of Marseille. It shows a woman carrying a wrapped statue on her shoulder and being welcomed onto a boat by a man. This statue could perhaps be the sacred object taken from the temple of Ephesus. A recent study of the fragment has identified the person as Iphigenia, who was also a priestess of Artemis, when she left the Taurica. Of course, one legend is just as good as another, but it is unfortunate that, as a result, Marseilles no longer has a picture of its founder.

Vassiliki Gaggadis-Robin

Refs.: Pralon Didier, «  Les fondatrices » in Marseillaises, les femmes et la ville, Coté-femmes, 1993. Gaggadis-Robin V., « Iphigénie à Marseille. Note sur un fragment de sarcophage mal connu », Monuments et Mémoires, Fondation E. Piot 75, 1996.