an impressive mural crown and flanked by doves, probably Artargatis
identified with Aphrodite/Venus. Relief from the temple of Adonis
at Duro-Europos. Dated to around the 1st century BCE. (Bilde attributes
it to Khirbet Et-Tannur.)
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Bilde 1990: 175, fig. 7.
Atargatis, the Syrian Goddess
In one hand she holds a scepter, in the other
a spindle. On her head she bears rays and a tower and she wears a girdle
On the surface of the statue is an overlay of gold and very costly gems,
some of which are white, some the color of water, many have the hue of
wine and many are fiery.
(Lucian, The Syrian Goddess. Attridge
and Oden 1976: 43, 45)
In his account of the Syrian cult center Hieropolis, Greek writer Lucian
called its goddess Hera. However, he added that the natives
gave her (and her consort) another name (Attridge
and Oden 1976: 43). That was almost certainly a form of Atargatis,
life-giving divinity associated with rivers and springs, motherly protector
of humans and animals. Atargatis often served as tutelary or protector
deity of urban centers the providence or luck of the place
(Semitic Gad, Greek Tyche, Latin Fortuna). Especially on coins, she often
wore the mural crown with battlements (crenellations) as representation
of the town she cared for (Bilde 1990:
159). For example, she was Gad or Tyche of both Edessa
veiled goddess as Tyche framed in a zodiac with crescent and scepter
(or torch?) and carried by a winged Victory. Probably Atargatis.
Limestone relief from the Nabataean temple at Khirbet Et-Tannur
in Transjordan. Original in two pieces. Dated to the end of the
1st century BCE / beginning of the 1st century CE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Godwin 1981: 113. See also Binst 2000: 180.
Her epithets included Pure, Virgin, Savior,
and Mother of the Gods (Lightfoot
2003: 82: Bilde 1990: 162), and her iconography connected her particularly
to Cybele, the Great Mother. Like her, Atargatis was often depicted riding
or accompanied by a lion. Often she sat on a throne flanked by two sphinxes
or two lions. Her headdress was usually topped by a crescent moon and
draped with a veil. In her hands she carried various objects: a plate
or cup, a scepter or staff, and ears of grain, but most often she held
a spindle and a mirror. Sometimes doves or fish were near or actually
on her. In some places Atargatis was associated with dolphins. At other
places, the eight-pointed star emphasized her association with the planet
Venus (Drijvers1980: 31).
Bust of a fishy,
watery goddess sculpted in high relief on a white limestone block.
Framed by a scallop design. Goddess has wavy, water-like hair, huge
fish-like eyes, and a veil topped by two fish. From the Nabataean
temple at Khirbet Et-Tannur, Transjordan, and dated to the end of
the 1st century BCE / beginning of the 1st century CE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Binst 2000: 182. See also Bilde 1990: 169, fig. 3.
The earliest evidence of this goddess comes from the site of the ancient
city Hieropolis Sacred City which
is the modern Membij and the Greek Bambyce.
Her name and image appear on a bewildering variety of coins
dating to the latter part of the 4th and the early part of the 3rd century
BCE (Drijvers in Toorn, Becking, and Horst,
1999: 114). An Aramaic form of the name was trth
Ataratha, which the Greeks transformed into Atargatis and perhaps, in
some places, shortened and altered to Derketo or Derceto (Lightfoot
2003: 37). Other spellings include Ataryatis, Attayathe, Ataryate,
and Taratha. There is general scholarly consensus that the name
derived from a combination of the names of the Canaanite goddesses Anat
and Astarte (Drijvers in Toorn, Becking,
and Horst 1999: 114), though some still think that the name also
hides the third Canaanite goddess Asherah (Maier
1986: 67; Oden 1979: 58ff.). (See my articles on the Canaanite
goddesses and goddess matters.)
A work about the goddess and her holy city, now bearing the Latin title
De Dea Syria About the Syrian Goddess, dates to the
2nd century CE and is attributed to Lucian of Samosata (Attridge
and Oden 1976; Meyer 1987: 130-141). Lucian wrote in Greek about,
among other things, his visit to the great temple at Hieropolis, a walled
sanctuary on a hill in the center of the city. As we saw, Lucian identified
Atargatis with the Greek goddess Hera, but he also connected her to several
other goddesses, for instance, Rhea (Cybele), Athena, Artemis, and Aphrodite.
In addition, he saw her as having aspects of Nemesis and the Fates. Lucian
described in considerable detail the shining magnificence of the temple,
its numerous cult objects and statues, the multitude of its priests, and
the various rituals celebrated there. Twice a day there were sacrifices,
the ones to Hadad-Zeus being performed in silence. Those to the goddess
were accompanied by flute playing and rattle shaking. In one rite, young
men castrated themselves to become cross-dressing priests at the temple
(Attridge and Oden 1976: 23, 37, 39, 55).
The obligatory lake or pond lay nearby, full of sacred fish which no one
was allowed to eat; nor could anyone eat Atargatiss sacred doves.
In the temple, the goddess was supported by lions, and she held a scepter
and a spindle. She wore on her head rays and a tower (Attridge
and Oden 1976: 43). She was accompanied by a god sitting on bulls.
Lucian identified him as Zeus, but remarked that the locals called him
by another name. Very likely he was the Canaanite storm god Baal-Haddu
(Syrian Hadad), the consort of Atargatis in the area.
Badly damaged sculpture
showing Atargatis and her bearded consort Hadad. One of Hadad's
bulls survives at his left side. He holds a staff in his right hand
and something unidentifiable in his left. She sits enthroned between
her signature lions, holds what might be a spindle in her right
hand, and probably originally had a scepter or staff in her left.
A veil floats down from her layered hat, which is topped with a
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after a photograph, source unknown.
To the north and east of Hieropolis was Edessa (modern Urfa), which,
according to Christian legend, was the first ever kingdom to become Christian.
However, well into the 5th century CE the city had a temple to Atargatis
(as Venus star). Over and over again, the Christian bishop of the period
had to forbid self-castration in honor of the goddess (Drijvers
1980: 77). A pool with sacred fish still exists at Urfa, though
the carp are now dedicated to Ibrahim. At Edessa Atargatis was guardian
of the city and especially of the springs near the citadel and the nearby
river (Drijvers 1980: ix, 8, 79, 121).
found in the courtyard of the temple of Atargatis at Duro-Europos,
still showing traces of paint. Dated 50 - 250 CE. Now at Yale University.
The deities are seated on platforms between columns. The god is
somewhat smaller than the goddess, indicating a decline in his status
with respect to her. He carries what are probably thunderbolts and
perhaps held a staff. His hat is tall, and he has snaky symbol on
his shirt (see below). A bull supports him on his right. The goddess
is flanked by lions, holds up her right hand in the blessing gesture,
and likely held a scepter or staff in her left. She wears a high
hat on wavy hair. What appears to be another bull peers over her
left shoulder. Between the deities is a standard or symbol with
a snaky design, possibly the sacred object Lucian described as "Sign"
(Attridge and Oden 1976:
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Binst 2000: 126. See also Bilde 1990: 167, fig. 2.
stone found in the Temple of the Winged Lions at Petra. Yellow sandstone.
The hole at the top in the leafy frieze above the eyebrows probably
held a sign of Isis. The eye sockets were originally set with precious
stones. The Nabataean inscription reads: "Goddess of Hayyan, son
of Nibat," indicating that Hayyan dedicated the small stele. The
decoration of the stone points to Isis, but the form of the votive
is purely Nabataean. Isis was equated with Al-'Uzza, probably the
major goddess of Petra, and so was Atargatis. A similar but less
ornate carving with a nearby inscription "Atargatis of Manbij" was
found in the Siyyag Gorge at Petra. It has been dated to the end
of the 1st century BCE - beginning of the 1st century CE. It is
interesting that the commissioner of the Atargatis carving chose
to depict the "foreign" goddess in a typical Nabataean way, with
no clues to her identity except the nearby inscription. One explanation
is that he was a Nabataean trader heading out for Syria and trying
to enlist the support of the major goddess of Syria for his endeavor.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Binst 2000: 164.
She also had temples at Duro-Europos
on the Euphrates and Palmyra (Tadmor), an oasis in the Syrian desert.
Dura-Europos was famous for having one of the oldest synagogues, almost
complete and decked with frescoes. The city was a military post on the
upper Euphrates, on the border between the Roman Empire and the troublesome
Parthians (Drijvers 1980: 3). Atargatis
shared her temple there with her consort Hadad. She might also have had
a connection with the Adonis temple (Drijvers
1980: 23, 108).
Palmyra was also famous but for another reason: Zenobia. A warrior queen,
she ruled and expanded the Palmyrene Empire after her husbands death
in 267 CE. Atargatis was considered Palmyras Tyche and identified
with Artemis (Glueck 1937:370).
She is known from two bilingual inscriptions, and her temple was probably
one of four official tribal sanctuaries (Kaizer
2002: 153ff.). In addition, there is some evidence that at Palmyra
she was equated with the ancient Arabian goddess Allat, whose iconography
was very like that of Atargatis (Kaizer
2002: 99ff. 148 note 30; Drijvers 1980: 100).
Votive stele now
in the Vatican Museum. The goddess Atargatis, named "Dea Syria"
in the inscription, sits enthroned between two lions. In the right
hand she holds a spindle, universal Eastern Mediterranean symbol
of woman, and in her left a mirror, usually an attribute of Aphrodite/Venus.
Over wavy hair her low hat is topped by a crescent and draped with
a veil. This is almost an archetypal representation of the goddess
as she was perceived in the West.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Bilde 1990: 173, fig. 6.
Further, Atargatis was worshiped in what is now Israel at Ashkalon, originally
a Canaanite city, then Philistine, then Phoenician. It was the site of
Artagatiss main temple in the southern Levant. According to the
Apocrypha, she also had an Atargateion near Qarnaim (II Maccabees
12: 26). At Ashkalon, where she was called Derketo, she seems to have
appeared as half fish, a mermaid goddess. In De Dea Syria, Lucian
reported that he saw a statue of a Phoenician goddess who was a mermaid;
he confirmed that she was called Derketo (Attridge
and Oden 1976: 21).
Atargatis was also recognized by the Nabataeans, though she was never
one of their pantheon (Healey 2001: 140-141).
Evidence suggests that the Nabataeans were originally nomadic herders
from Arabia who, in Greco-Roman times, controlled the main trade routes
between Arabia and Syria and grew rich on frankincense and myrrh. Their
kingdom flourished in the Hellenistic period (323-64 B.C.E.) and became
part of the Roman Empire in 106 CE (Taylor
2002: 8). On a hilltop at Khirbet Et-Tannur, north of Petra in
southern Transjordan, sits a small, ruined, but extraordinary
Nabataean temple dating to the first part of the 1st century CE. Its excavator
thought it was dedicated to Atargatis and her consort, but not everyone
agrees (Healey 2001: 61). Certainly
the sculpture and other decorations of the ruins suggest that the goddess
worshiped there was very like Atargatis. The sculptured reliefs include
the head of a goddess with two fish on her crown, winged Tyche figures,
a lion, goddess heads with fruits and leaves, and reliefs of a Hadad-like
god (Glueck 1937).
At the renowned Nabataean capital Petra, Atargatiss cult was not
very important, but there is some evidence of the goddesss presence
there (Taylor 2002: 132; Lindner and Zangenberg
1993). She might have been identified with the Arabian goddess
Al-`Uzza, the Venus star, who was the tutelary deity of Petra. Like her,
Atargatis had a close association with springs and water. At Petra is
a sanctuary that archaeologists named the Temple of the Winged Lions (Healey
2001: 42-44). It may have been dedicated to an Atargatis-like goddess
In the West she was usually called Dea Syria, the Syrian
Goddess. Atargatis reached Rome during the first Punic War (264-241
BCE). By the time of the Roman novelist Apuleius, around 150-160 CE, the
goddesss begging eunuch priests had become notorious. In his story
The Golden Ass, he described how a disreputable band of wandering
followers of the goddess acquired Lucius in his donkey form and used him
to carry the silk-bedecked image of their foreign goddess
(195-199). The goddess he praised
as omnipotent and omniparent [all-generating] (195),
while he dismissed the priests as lewd and very naughty fellows
(196). In the novel Lucius was
restored to human form by the great goddess Isis (261-272).
The variations in the iconography of Atargatis resulted from her being
identified with so many local goddesses, as well as great goddesses such
as the Egyptian Isis. A splendid Egyptianized statue of her, complete
with encircling snake, stood on the Janiculum in Rome in the 3rd century
CE (Godwin 1981: 158 Plate 124).
From Hieropolis in northern Syria, then, the cult of Atargatis disseminated
all through Syria, northern Mesopotamia, the Mediterranean area, and the
western part of the Greco-Roman world, even to Britain (Lightfoot
Roman statue, likely
of Artargatis, the "Syrian Goddess." As is obvious, the figure is
very Egyptianized showing that the commissioner/carver was heavily
influenced by images of Isis. The snake probably came from images
of the lion-headed god Aion of Mithraism (See Godwin 1981: 108,
plate 72, and 109, plate 74.) Found on the Janiculum Hill of Rome.
Dated to the 3rd century CE.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu,
after Godwin 1981: 158, plate 124.
So thats what happened to at least two of the Canaanite goddesses
I wrote about in my first articles for MatriFocus almost six years
ago (Anat, Astarte).
They melded into Atargatis, a world-renowned deity. As to the third Canaanite
goddess, we will find out more in the next issue of MatriFocus
when I will be exploring the Carthaginian goddess Tanit and her background.
- Apuleius. Lucius Apuleius 1965. The
Golden Ass. Translated William Adlington (1566), ed. H.C. Schnur.
New York: Collier
- Attridge, Harold W. and Robert A. Oden,
editors. 1976. The Syrian Goddess (De Dea Syria): Attributed to
Lucian. Place unknown: Scholars Press/Society of Biblical Literature
- Bilde, Per 1990. “Atargatis/Dea Syria:
Hellenization of Her cult in the Hellenistic-Roman Period.” 151-187
in Religion and Religious Practice in the Seleucid Kingdom.
Edited P.Bilde, T. Engberg-Pedersen, L. Hannestad, and J.Zahle. Aarhus,
Denmark: Aarhus University
- Binst, Olivier, editor 2000. The Levant;
History and Archaeology in the Eastern Mediterranean. Cologne,
- Godwin, Joscelyn. 1981. Mystery Religions
of the Ancient World. San Francisco: Harper and Row
- Hammond, Ph. 1990. “The Goddess of the
`Temple of the Winged Lions’ at Petra (Jordan).” In Petra and the
Caravan Cities. Edited by Fawzi Zayadine. Amman, Jordan: Department
of Antiquities, Jordan
- Healey, John F. 2001. The Religion
of the Nabataeans: A Conspectus. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill
- Lightfoot, J.L., editor and translator
2003. Lucian: On the Syrian Goddess. Oxford: Oxford University
- Lindner, M. and J. Zangenberg 1993. “The
Re-discovered Baityl of the Goddess Atargatis in the Siyyag
Gorge of Petra (Jordan) and Its Significance for Religious Life in
Nabataea.” Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 109:
- Maier, Walter A., III 1986. ‘Ašerah:
Extrabiblical Evidence. Atlanta, GA: Scholars. Harvard Semitic
- Meyer, Marvin W., editor. 1987. The
Ancient Mysteries. A Sourcebook: Sacred Texts of the Mystery Religions
of the Ancient Mediterranean World. San Francisco: Harper and
- Oden, R. A. 1979. Studies in Lucian’s
De Syria Dea. Ann Arbor, MI: Edwards
- Rostovtzeff, M. 1933. “Hadad and Atargatis
at Palmyra.” American Journal of Archaeology 37: 58-63
- Taylor, Jane 2002. Petra and the Lost
Kingdom of the Nabataeans. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
- Toorn, Karel van der, Bob Becking, and
Pieter W. van der Horst, editors. 1999. Dictionary of Deities and
Demons in the Bible: Second Extensively Revised Edition. Leiden,
The Netherlands: Brill and Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans