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Subject: Niha Bekaa, Hellenistic religion, Baal, Manbij, El (deity)
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Fertile Crescent
myth series
Near Eastern Religions
The Levant

Atargatis or Ataratheh (; Aramaic: ‘Atar‘atheh or Tar‘atheh‎) was the chief goddess of northern Syria in Classical Antiquity.[1][2] Ctesias also used the name Derceto for her,[3] and the Romans called her Dea Syriae ("Syrian goddess"). Primarily she was a goddess of fertility, but, as the baalat ("mistress") of her city and people, she was also responsible for their protection and well-being. Her chief sanctuary was at Hierapolis, modern Manbij,[4] northeast of Aleppo, Syria. She is sometimes described as a mermaid-goddess, due to identification of her with a fish-bodied goddess at Ascalon. However, there is no evidence that Atargatis was worshipped at Ascalon, and all iconographic evidence shows her as anthropomorphic.[5]

Michael Rostovtzeff called her "the great mistress of the North Syrian lands".[2] Her consort is usually Hadad. As Ataratheh, doves and fish were considered sacred by her: doves as an emblem of the Love-Goddess, and fish as symbolic of the fertility and life of the waters.[6]

According to a third-century Syriac source, "In Syria and in Urhâi [Edessa] the men used to castrate themselves in honor of Taratha. But when King Abgar became a Christian, he commanded that anyone who emasculated himself should have a hand cut off. And from that day to the present no one in Urhâi emasculates himself anymore."[7]

Name and origin

The name Atargatis derives from the Aramaic form ‘Atar‘atheh, which comes in several variants. At Hierapolis Bambyce (Manbij) on coins of about the 4th century BCE, the legend tr‘th appears, for 'Atar'ate, and tr‘th mnbgyb in a Nabataean inscription; at Kafr Yassif near Akko an altar is inscribed "to Adado and Atargatis, the gods who listen to prayer";[8] and the full name ‘tr‘th appears on a bilingual inscription found in Palmyra.

‘Atar‘atheh is seen as a continuation of Bronze Age goddesses. At Ugarit, cuneiform tablets attest the three great Canaanite goddesses 'Aṭirat (Asherah) — described as a fecund "Lady Goddess of the Sea" (rabbatu at̪iratu yammi) — ‘Anat (Anat, Anath), and ‘Ațtart (Astarte), who shared many traits with each other and may have been worshiped in conjunction or separately during 1500 years of cultural history.[9][10] The name ‘Atar‘atheh is widely held to derive from a compound of the Aramaic form ‘Attar, which is a cognate of ‘Ațtart minus its feminine suffix -t, and ‘Attah or ‘Atā, a cognate of Anat.[11][12] (Cognates of Ugaritic ‘Ațtart include Phoenician ‘Aštart — Hellenized as AstarteOld Testament Hebrew ‘Aštoreth, and Himyaritic ‘Athtar. Compare the cognate Akkadian form Ištar.) Alternatively, the second half may be a Palmyrene divine name ‘Athe (i.e. tempus opportunum), which occurs as part of many compounds.[13] It has also been proposed that the element -gatis may relate to the Greek gados "fish".[14] (For example, the Greek name for "sea monster" or "whale" is the cognate term ketos). So Atar-Gatis may simply mean "the fish-goddess Atar".

Cult centers and images

The reverse of a coin of Demetrius III depicts fish-bodied Atargatis, veiled, holding the egg,[15] flanked by barley stalks
The reverse of a coin from Cyrrhestica depicts Atargatis riding a lion, wearing a mural crown, and holding a sceptre

As a consequence of the first half of the name, Atargatis has frequently, though wrongly, been identified as ‘Ashtart.[16] The two deities were probably of common origin and have many features in common, but their cults are historically distinct. There is reference in 2 Maccabees 12.26[17] and 1 Maccabees 5:43[18] to an Atargateion or Atergateion, a temple of Atargatis, at Carnion in Gilead, but the home of the goddess was unquestionably not Israel or Canaan, but Syria itself; at Hierapolis Bambyce she had a temple in her name. At Palmyra she appears on the coinage with a lion, or her presence is signalled with a lion and the crescent moon; an inscription mentions her. In the temples of Atargatis at Palmyra and at Dura-Europos[19] she appeared repeatedly with her consort, Hadad, and in the richly syncretic religious culture at Dura-Europos, was worshipped as Artemis Azzanathkona.[20] Two well preserved temples in Niha, Lebanon are dedicated to her and to Hadad. In the 1930s, numerous Nabatean bas-relief busts of Atargatis were identified by Nelson Glueck at Khirbet et-Tannûr, Jordan, in temple ruins of the early first century CE;[21] there the lightly veiled goddess's lips and eyes had once been painted red, and a pair of fish confronted one another above her head. Her wavy hair, suggesting water to Glueck, was parted in the middle. At Petra the goddess from the north was syncretised with a North Arabian goddess from the south al-Uzzah, worshipped in the one temple. At Dura-Europus among the attributes of Atargatis are the spindle and the sceptre or fish-spear.[22]

At her temples at Ascalon, Hierapolis Bambyce, and Edessa, there were fish ponds containing fish only her priests might touch.[23] Glueck noted in 1936 that "to this day there is a sacred fish-pond swarming with untouchable fish at Qubbet el-Baeddwī, a dervish monastery three kilometres east of Tripolis, Lebanon."[24]

The fishpond of fish sacred to Atargatis survives at Şanlıurfa, the ancient Edessa, its mythology transferred to Ibrahim

From Syria her worship extended to Greece and to the furthest West. Lucian[25] and Apuleius give descriptions of the beggar-priests who went round the great cities with an image of the goddess on an ass and collected money. The wide extension of the cult is attributable largely to Syrian merchants; thus we find traces of it in the great seaport towns; at Delos especially numerous inscriptions have been found bearing witness to her importance. Again we find the cult in Sicily, introduced, no doubt, by slaves and mercenary troops, who carried it even to the farthest northern limits of the Roman Empire. The leader of the rebel slaves in the First Servile War, a Syrian named Eunus, claimed to receive visions of Atargatis, whom he identified with the Demeter of Enna.


In many cases Atargatis, ‘Ashtart, and other goddesses who once had independent cults and mythologies became fused to such an extent as to be indistinguishable. This fusion is exemplified by the Carnion temple, which is probably identical with the famous temple of ‘Ashtart at Ashtaroth-Karnaim. Atargatis generally appears as the wife of Hadad. They are the protecting deities of the community. Atargatis, wearing a mural crown, is the ancestor the royal house, the founder of social and religious life, the goddess of generation and fertility (hence the prevalence of phallic emblems), and the inventor of useful appliances. Not unnaturally she is identified with the Greek Aphrodite. By the conjunction of these many functions, despite originating as a sea deity analogous to Amphitrite, she becomes ultimately a great nature-goddess, analogous to Cybele and Rhea: In one aspect she typifies the protection of water in producing life; in another, the universal of other-earth;[26] in a third (influenced, no doubt, by Chaldean astrology), the power of Destiny.

Atargatis mythology

Derceto, from Athanasius Kircher's Oedipus Aegyptiacus, 1652.

The legends are numerous and of an astrological character. A rationale for the Syrian dove-worship and abstinence from fish is seen in the story in Athenaeus 8.37, where Atargatis is naively explained to mean "without Gatis", the name of a queen who is said to have forbidden the eating of fish. Thus Diodorus Siculus (2.4.2), quoting Ctesias, tells how Derceto fell in love with a youth and became by him the mother of a child and how in shame Derceto flung herself into a lake near Ascalon and her body was changed into the form of a fish though her head remained human. Derceto's child grew up to become Semiramis, the Assyrian queen. In another story, told by Hyginus, an egg fell from the sky into the Euphrates, was rolled onto land by fish, doves settled on it and hatched it, and Venus, known as the Syrian goddess, came forth.

The author of Catasterismi explained the constellation of Piscis Austrinus as the parent of the two fish making up the constellation of Pisces; according to that account, it was placed in the heavens in memory of Derceto's fall into the lake at Hierapolis Bambyce near the Euphrates in Syria, from which she was saved by a large fish — which again is intended to explain the Syrian abstinence from fish.

Ovid in his Metamorphoses (5.331) relates that Venus took the form of a fish to hide from Typhon. In his Fasti (2.459-.474) Ovid instead relates how Dione, by whom Ovid intends Venus/Aphrodite, fleeing from Typhon with her child Cupid/Eros came to the river Euphrates in Syria. Hearing the wind suddenly rise and fearing that it was Typhon, the goddess begged aid from the river nymphs and leapt into the river with her son. Two fish bore them up and were rewarded by being transformed into the constellation Pisces — and for that reason the Syrians will eat no fish.

A recent analysis of the cult of Atargatis is the essay by Per Bilde, in Religion and Religious Practice in the Seleucid Kingdom (in series "Studies in Hellenistic Civilization") Aarhus University Press (1990), in which Atargatis appears in the context of other Hellenized Great Goddesses of the East.


  1. ^
  2. ^ a b M. Rostovtseff, "Hadad and Atargatis at Palmyra", American Journal of Archeology 37 (January 1933), pp 58-63, examining Palmyrene stamped tesserae.
  3. ^ Strabo 16.785; Pliny, Natural History 5.81.
  4. ^
  5. ^ Drijvers Dea Syria LIMC. The modern repertory of literary allusions to her is Paul Louis van Berg, Corpus Cultus Deae Syriae (C.C.D.S.): les sources littéraires, Part I: Répertoire des sources grecques et latines; Part II: Études critiques des sources mythologiques grecques et latines (Leiden:Brill) 1973.
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ These instances are noted in Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter Willem van der Horst, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, (1995:s.v. "Hadad"); the name also appears in the Talmud ("Ab. Zarah" 11b, line 28) as tr‘th.
  9. ^
  10. ^ Robert A. Oden, Jr, "The Persistence of Canaanite Religion" The Biblical Archaeologist 39.1 (March 1976, pp. 31-36) p. 34; "the name of the Hellenistic and Roman goddess Atargatis was a compound of Astarte and Anat", JAB simply states in Piotr Bienkowski, Alan Ralph Millard , eds. Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, (2000:s.v. "Anat").
  11. ^
  12. ^
  13. ^ Encyclopædia Britannica (1910; Hugh Chisholm, ed.), s.v. "Atargatis", page 823.
  14. ^ Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, s.v. "Atargatis" ( on-line text)
  15. ^ Hyginus, Fabula 197: "Into the Euphrates River an egg of wonderful size is said to have fallen, which the fish rolled to the bank. Doves sat on it, and when it was heated, it hatched out Venus, who was later called the Syrian goddess. Since she excelled the rest in justice and uprightness, by a favour granted by Jove, the fish were put among the number of the stars, and because of this the Syrians do not eat fish or doves, considering them as gods".
  16. ^ Dirven's hypothesis that at Palmyra Atargatis was identical to Astarte, who functioned as the Gad of Palmyra, has been criticised by Ted Kaizer (The Religious Life of Palmyra 2002 :153f), who suggests that we "stick to the divine names actually given by the worshippers" and follow the Palmyrene inscriptions, which distinguish between them.
  17. ^
  18. ^ Simply referring to "the temple that was in Carnaim" (on-line text).
  19. ^ She is intended at Dura-Europos in the guise of the Tyche of Palmyra, accompanied by the lion, in a fresco from the sanctuary of the Palmyrene gods, removed to the Yale Art Gallery.
  20. ^ Rostovtseff 1933:58-63; Dura-Europos III.
  21. ^ Nelson Glueck, "A Newly Discovered Nabataean Temple of Atargatis and Hadad at Khirbet Et-Tannur, Transjordania" American Journal of Archaeology 41.3 (July 1937), pp. 361-376.
  22. ^ Baur, Dura-Europos III, p. 115. For Pindar (Sixth Olympian Ode), the Greek sea-goddess Amphitrite is "goddess of the gold spindle".
  23. ^ Lucian, De Dea Syria; Diodorus Siculus II.4.2.
  24. ^ Glueck 1936: p. 374, note 4
  25. ^ Lucian, De Dea Syria.
  26. ^ Macrobius. Saturnalia, 1.23.


  • Moshe Weinfeld, "Semiramis: her name and her origin." In: Mordechai Cogan/Israel Eph’al (ed.), Ah, Assyria...:Studies in Assyrian history and ancient Near Eastern historiography presented to Hayim Tadmor (series Scripta Hierosolymitana 33), (Jerusalem 1991), 99-103.
  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain

External links

  • Atargatis by Abufares
  • Jewish Encyclopedia: Derceto
  • Britannica Online Encyclopædia: "Atargatis"
  • by Johanna StuckeyAtargatis, the "Syrian Goddess"
  • Concerning the Syrian GoddessLucian of Samosata, (English translation & commentary)
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