Atargatis or Ataratheh was the chief goddess of northern Syria in Classical antiquity, the period of cultural history between the 8th century BC and the 6th century AD centered on the Mediterranean Sea, comprising the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome, commonly termed as the Greco-Roman world. Although primarily described as the goddess of fertility, she was also regarded as the guardian, the great mistress of Assyria and was responsible for their well-being.
She was known to be closely connected to the sky and the sea. Atargatis has often wrongly been identified as Astarte, as the two deities were probably of common origin and have many common features. However, their cults are completely different. Atargatis is a Semitic name and is a form of the name Athtar or Astarte or Ataratheh. Dove and fish are considered sacred to Ataratheh, doves as an emblem of the Love-Goddess and fish as symbolic of the fertility and life of the waters.
There are instances where Atargatis was represented as a mermaid, upper part of a human female and fishtail in the lower. The reason behind it is a mythical story, which states that Atargatis with her charming beauty fell in love with a human shepherd boy called Hadad and had sex with him. Unfortunately, she could not imagine that as a mortal, Hadad would not be able to survive her divine lovemaking. As he died, Atargatis became sad, shattered and repentant. In the meantime, she was pregnant with Hedad’s child. After giving birth to a daughter Semiramis, Atargatis left her on the shore and threw herself deep into the sea.
However, the Gods did not let her die for her great beauty and the sea refused to take away all of her magnificence. Instead, she became a mermaid with long and flowing hair. Probably, she was the first mermaid, at least one of the first mermaid stories ever told. It may be noted here that, a coin of Demetrius III was found with Atargati in the form of a mermaid engraved on its reverse side.
Atargatis was mainly worshipped in the city of Ascalon, a coastal city in the Southern District of Israel on the Mediterranean coast, later called Hieropolis or Bambyce by the Greeks. According to the description of Lucian, a Syrian writer of the first century AD, the ancient temple of Atargatis was richly adorned with a golden ceiling and doors, which housed a huge statue of the deity, also made from pure gold and studded with diamonds. In the statue, she was shown as sitting on two lions, like Astarte and holding a scepter in one hand and a distaff in the other. Around her waist was a girdle, the magic belt, which made her irresistible. Her crown signifying her rule over a city was in the form of a tower, embellished with a great red jewel that lit up the room, along with the heavenly rays gleaming behind her head.
Near the temple, there was a sacred lake, filled with varieties of fish, with an altar in the middle. The worshipers of Atargatis were supposed to swim through the lake to get into the altar to make offerings. The temple, rebuilt in 300 BC by Stratonice, the wife of Seleucus I, was plundered by Antiochus IV and by Crassus, but was still there, during the days of Lucian, the Assyrian satirist and rhetorician and was regarded as one of the greatest and holiest in Syria.
Much like the way the eunuch Galli priests worshipped Cybele, the ancient Phrygian Mother of the Gods, with orgiastic rites in the mountains of central and western Anatolia, the image of a fishtailed woman housed in the shrine in Hieropolis was also served by the eunuch priests. As a matter of fact, young males castrated themselves to become cross-dressing priests at the temple. The worship of Atargatis was performed with song, dance and music of flute and rattle, while the priests shouted and danced wildly to the music in an ecstatic frenzy.
Atargatis was also said to have a temple in Carnion in Gilead, modern North West Jordan. Her worship spread to other parts of the Mediterranean, mostly brought by the Syrian slaves. The Romans considered her temple in Ascalon as the temple of their Venus Urania or Heavenly Venus and called Her Dea Syria, the Syrian Goddess. Her story was a source of inspiration for many cultures. She appeared as a cult figure in many other cultures under different names and her story was used to give additional powers and characteristics to existing goddesses like Aphrodite, Rhea and Cybele.