Syrian Goddess (ˁAtarˁatha / Atargatis, Tarˁatha / Derketō)

Category: Gods > ?

1 Introduction

“Coele (Syria) contains [the city of] Bambyce, which by another name is called Hierapolis, but Mabog by the Syrians. There, the marvelous Atargatis, called Derceto by the Greeks, is worshipped” (Pliny, Natural History 5.81). This is the Syrian Goddess, as she is often called in Greek and Latin, who had a great temple in the city.

There are two doublets in this short passage: Hierapolis, the ‘sacred city’, was called either Mabbog (mbg) or Manbog (mnbg) by its Aramaic-speaking Syrian inhabitants, reflected in the Greco-Latin forms Mabog and Bambyce, respectively.

The goddess was called ˁAtarˁata or ˁAtarˁatha (ʕtrʕtʔ) in Aramaic, also shortened to Tarˁat(h)a (ʕtrʕtʔ), and originally spelled with final h rather than ʔ (evidently the h sound was lost eventually). The former, full form of the name was Hellenized as Atargatis, the shortened one as Derketō; the latter Hellenization also reflects a different pronunciation of the vowels (Terˁete?).

In the Islamicate period, the Greek name Hierapolis fell out of use, and the Aramaic name of the city was adopted by Arabic-speakers as Manbīj, which is still its name today. Its ancient temple to ˁAtarˁatha was remembered as dedicated to the planet Venus, mentioned as such by the geographer al-Dimašqī around 1300 (text and German translation in Chwolsohn, Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus, vol. 2, p. 392).

2 The name and iconography of the goddess at Hierapolis

“There are many variants in names, especially in (Greek adaptations) of barbaric ones”, writes Strabo, and one of the examples he adduces is that “they call Athara Atargatis, and Ctesias calls her Derketō” (Strabo, Geography 16.4.27). But in fact, Athara is not a variant Hellenization of ˁAtarˁata, but only of the first element of this name, ˁAtar (or ˁAttar or ˁAthar), apparently an Aramaic pronunciation of Astarte (ˁAthtar-). It may be that in ˁAtar-ˁata, the first element only means ‘goddess’, hence in full, ‘the goddess ˤAta’. In any case, it appears that the second element, ˁAteh or ˁAt(h)a (spelled ʕth or ʕtʔ, respectively), was the more important one at Hierapolis, as it appears on coins from the city, which began to be struck in the late 4th century BCE.

It has been hypothesized that ˁAteh is an Aramaic form of the name ˁAnat, known well from Ugaritic literature, but this seems more convenient than persuasive to me. I prefer to take ˁAteh as a goddess of her own, unless the tie to the older name can be demonstrated clearly.

These early coins name the goddess apparently interchangeably as ʕtrʕth and ʕth; they also name hdd or hdd mnbg, Hadad of Manbog (cf. Zeus), and sometimes hdd w ʕth, ‘Hadad and ˁAteh’, together. The god is represented with the Greek iconography of Zeus, while the goddess is shown “seated on a throne or riding on a lion. There are also some profile and facing busts where the goddess wears a cylindrical head dress (topped by merlons […])” (Kevin Butcher, “Two Syrian Deities” [off-site link], p. 281).

In local iconography, it seems that actually “both wear cylindrical head dresses, and that of Atargatis is adorned with rays.” “Both are seated on thrones flanked by their appropriate animals: Hadad the bull, Atargatis the lion. Between them is an object […], a semeion, or cult ensign, which looks like a Roman military standard” (ibid., p. 280, a description of a relief that is depicted on p. 282). The last is obviously an addition of the Roman period, but the other features seem to date from before Alexander’s conquests.

Coins of the Roman imperial period are inscribed “of the Goddess of Syria/Syrian Goddess of the Hieropolitans”, and show her “either riding on the back of a lion, holding a sceptre […] or seated on a high-backed throne, holding a drum and a sceptre or a distaff […]. The lion is flanked by lions” (ibid.).

For visual examples, see Butcher’s article (“Two Syrian Deities” [off-site link]). But since the surviving depictions often lack detail, they should be taken together with the literary evidence: Firstly, a passage from Macrobius, where Hadad (spelled Adad) is interpreted as the Sun, the Syrian Goddess (spelled Adargatis) as the Earth; and secondly, Lucian of Samosata’s monograph On the Syrian Goddess, a rare surviving ancient monograph on a deity.

[Macrobius, Saturnalia 1.23.17-20
Lucian: On the Syrian Goddess 31-35; also Macrobius on Assyrian Apollon (Nebo).]

3 Her iconography at Ashkelon

[Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess 14]

4 Myths about the Syrian Goddess

Oration of Meliton: Athi, Belat(?), Simi; Nebo, Hadran, Simi, Hadad (Hadad=/=Hadran)
Simi/Semeion/Semiramis (sm‘, smy, symy): Lucian 13;33;48

(? cf. Astarte: Tertullian, Philastrius, Minucius, Cicero, Augustine)

Lucianus, De Syria dea (Derketō)

Claudius Aelian, De natura animalium 12.2

Derket-: Diodorus Siculus 2.4.2f, Ctesias (?), Anonymi Paradoxographi, Athenagoras 30.1, Eratosthenes, Aelius Herodianus, Tzetzes
Scholia on Iliad 2.461, Scholia on Aratus 239, Etymologicum magnum
Dercet-: Ampelius, Latin Scholia on Aratus; Statius, Ovid, Pliny the Elder, Hyginus,

Atargatis: Athenaeus 8.37 (Gatis), Strabo 16.1.27, Eratosthenes 1.9 (> Latin scholia on Aratus), Cornutus 6, Simplicius, Physics 9.641.34, Scholia on Iliad 2.461d

(Venus/Aphrodite and fish/doves.)

Dea Syria: Apuleius, Latin Scholia on Aratus, Florus’ Epitome, Hermeneumata Leidensia, Suetonius, Hyginus (Venus),
Syria the*: Pausanias 4.31.2, 7.26.7; Pseudo-Lucian, Asinus 35; Plutarch, De superstitione, Photius
Aphrodite Syria: Pausanias 5.77.5

(Hagne Aphrodite; eighty inscriptions mentioning Atargatis, studied by Bilde 1990, p. 161)

Corpus Cultus Deae Syriae, 2 vols.
See A Handbook of Gods and Goddesses of the Ancient Near East: Three Thousand Deities

Greek inscriptions: Atargat-, Ataragat-, Syria- the-*
Latin inscriptions: Dea Suria, Dea Syria (Deasura??)
(bilingual inscriptions!)

Syriac: Teaching of Addai, Jacob of Serugh
Aramaic: inscriptions from Palmyra (!), Hatran, others.

Armenian: Moses of Chorene, etc.?

Arabic sources on Harran mentioning her