Atargatis, in Aramaic ‘Atar‘atah, was a Syrian deity, "the great mistress of the North Syrian lands" Rostovtseff called her, commonly known to the ancient Greeks by a shortened form of the name, Derceto or Derketo and as Dea Syria, "Goddess of Syria", occasionally rendered in one word Deasura. She is often now popularly described as the mermaid-goddess, from her fish-bodied appearance at Ascalon and in Diodorus Siculus — a widely accessible source — but which is by no means her universal appearance.
Her consort is usually Hadad. As Ataratha she may be recognized by the self-mutilation of her votaries, recorded in a perhaps sensationalist Christian passage from the Book of the Laws of the Countries, one of the oldest works of Syriac prose, an early-third-century product of the school of Bar Daisan (Bardesanes):
At Ugarit, cuneiform tablets attest a fecund "Lady Goddess of the Sea" (rabbatu at̪iratu yammi), as well as three Canaanite goddesses — Anat, Asherah and Ashtart — who shared many traits and might be worshipped in conjunction or separately during 1500 years of cultural history.
At Hierapolis Bambyce, on coins of about the fourth 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", The full name ‘tr‘th appears on a bilingual inscription found in Palmyra.
This name ‘Atar‘atah is a compound of two divine names: the first part (Atar) is a form of the Ugaritic ‘Athtart, Himyaritic ‘Athtar, the equivalent of the Old Testament ‘Ashtoreth, the Phoenician ‘Ashtart rendered in Greek as Astarte. The feminine ending -t has been omitted. Compare the cognate Akkadian form Ishtar. The second half (atis) may be a Palmyrene divine name Athe (i.e. tempus opportunum), which occurs as part of many compounds.
Alternatively, the second half (gatis) may relate to the Greek gados "fish". (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".
As a consequence of the first half of the name, Atargatis has frequently, though wrongly, been identified as ‘Ashtart. 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 and 1 Maccabees 5:43 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 she appeared repeatedly with her consort, Hadad, and in the richly syncretic religious culture at Dura-Europos, was worshipped as Artemis Azzanathkona. 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; 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.
At her temples at Ascalon, Hierapolis Bambyce, and Edessa, there were fish ponds containing fish only her priests might touch. 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."
From Syria her worship extended to Greece and to the furthest West. Lucian 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; in a third (influenced, no doubt, by Chaldean astrology), the power of Destiny.
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.
A goddess of the Syrians.
1. Derceto is mentioned indirectly in 2 Macc 12:26, where it is related that Judas in his expeditions came ἐπὶ τὸ Καρνίον, καὶ τὸ Ἀταργατεῖον, or ᾈτεργατίον. This latter word designates the sanctuary of the goddess ᾈταργάτις, and an abridged form of the name is Δερκετώ, which is used by Diodorus ("Sicius," ii. 4) and by Lucian ("De Syria Dea," xiv.). The same name is mentioned in the Talmud ('Ab. Zarah 11b, line 28) in the form (image) (Tar'atah). It is true that some have connected this Talmudical form with the Aramaic (image) ("door"), and have therefore supposed that it contained a reference to the female pudenda. But although Hesychius gives the equivalent Σαλάμβω, derived from σαλάμβη ("hole"; Hitzig, "Bibl. Theol. des Alt. Test." 1880, p. 20; but compare Hoffmann in "Zeit. für Assyr." 1896, p. 245), it must be remembered that the consonant ע had also the sound of γ, as may be seen in (image) ('Azzah = Γάζα, Gaza). Consequently the Talmudic "Tar'atah" (for "Targatah") might be an apocopated form of ᾈταργάτις. The full form, "Tar'atah," has recently been found.
2. (image) ('Atar'ateh) has been proved to be the name of a goddess in a bilingual Palmyrene inscription (De Vogué, "Syrie Centrale," 1868, iii. 4) of the year 140, (ᾈταρ)γατες being there used as the Greek equivalent. The same name, (image) , is found on coins, probably minted in the Syrian city Hierapolis. Hence this name is composed of the following two parts: (1) (image) ('Athtar), as the goddess of fecundity and of wells is called in the South Arabian inscriptions (compare Robertson Smith, "Rel. of Sem." i. 97, note; Winand Fell, in "Z. D. M. G." 1900, pp. 245 et seq.); (2) (image) , probably signifying "time" (compare (image) ), perhaps more definitely "favorable time," "favorable circumstances," or "favorable destiny." When combined the two names may signify "'Atar, the daughter of 'Ate," or "'Atar, the mother of 'Ate," for 'Athtar is the all-producing divine power, and a son of Atargatis is mentioned by Athenæus (see Baudissin in Herzog-Hauck, "Real-Encyc." i. 173).
Hoffmann's assertion (in "Zeit. für Assyr." 1896, p. 249) that "'Ateh" is a diminutive of "'Atar" is not demonstrable.
3. "Atargates" may perhaps be compared with "Ashteroth Karnaim" ("Ashteroth of the Double Horn"; Gen 14:5), whose temple is mentioned as late as 1Macc 5:43 (τὸ τέμενος ἐν Καρναΐν); for the τὸ Ἀταργατεῖον of II Macc. xii. 26 is also mentioned in connection with τὸ Καρνίον. Lucian ("De Syria Dea," xiv.) says: "Many people are of the opinion that Semiramis the Babylonian, of whom there are many memorials in Asia, also founded the sanctuary of Hierapolis in Syria, but dedicated it not to Juno, but to her mother, Derceto." Lucian himself doubts this, however, for he continues: "I have seen the image of Derceto in Phenicia: a strange sight! The upper half represents a woman; the lower half, from the hips down, the tail of a fish. The goddess at Hierapolis, however, is entirely a woman." Nevertheless, the goddess worshiped in Hierapolis was probably identical, in idea if not in form, with Derceto, who had a temple in Askalon (Philistia).
The people of Hierapolis avoided eating fish, "and they do that, according to their belief, for the sake of Derceto." Though Lucian says "There are people in Egypt who eat no fish, yet not to please Derceto," it is doubtful if this is decisive. In 'Ab. Zarah 11b, also, "Tar'atah shebe-Mapeg" ("Mabug" = Hierapolis) is combined with "Ẓerifah shebe-Ashḳelon." Finally, the fish may have been made the symbol of the goddess Derceto on account of its fecundity. A calendar preserved in the Louvre represents the lower half of Derceto's body in the shape of a fish. An excellent copy is to be found in Vigouroux, "La Bible et les Découvertes Modernes," iii. 355.