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Goddess wearing 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 and Palmyra.

Mural-crowned and 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 ‘tr’th 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 Tar’atha. 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 Atargatis’s 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 crescent. Roman.
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).

Limestone carving 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: 45).
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Binst 2000: 126. See also Bilde 1990: 167, fig. 2.

Anthropomorphic 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 husband’s death in 267 CE. Atargatis was considered Palmyra’s 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 Artagatis’s 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, Atargatis’s cult was not very important, but there is some evidence of the goddess’s 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 (Hammond 1990).

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 goddess’s 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 2003: 59).

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 that’s 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, Germany; Könemann
  • 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: 141-151
  • Maier, Walter A., III 1986. ‘Ašerah: Extrabiblical Evidence. Atlanta, GA: Scholars. Harvard Semitic Monographs 37
  • 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 Row
  • 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

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