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  • By Kara Newcastle

Myth Monday: Atargatis, the Mermaid Goddess of Phoenicia (Middle Eastern Mythology)

Myth Monday: Atargatis, the Mermaid Goddess of Phoenicia (Middle Eastern Mythology)

By Oosoom at en.wikipedia from Wikimedia Commons

The divine fish goddess Atargatis (also known as Ataratheh) had an unusual beginning; thousands of years ago, a large egg slowly descended out of the heavens, lowering gently into the dark waters of the ancient Euphrates River. There, a surprised school of fish discovered the egg, and nudged it ashore with their heads. There on the coast of ancient Phoenicia, the egg hatched, and the beautiful goddess Atargatis—possessed of a human woman’s upper body, though her lower body was that of a fish’s tail—came into being.

Athanasius Kircher, Oedipus Aegyptiacus, 1652

In time, Atargatis fell in love with a handsome youth and married him. Together they produced a baby girl, but Atargatis was so distraught at seeing her daughter’s wholly human appearance (perhaps realizing that her daughter was mortal, not divine) that she abandoned the baby in the forest in the care of a flock of doves, then retreated back into the sea. Some versions of the myth claim that Atargatis developed her mermaid-like appearance then, while others say that she had been cursed by a rival to fall in love with a mortal, and after giving birth to her daughter Atargatis was ashamed that she had debased herself with a lowly human man and fled into the sea. Other say that she accidentally killed her husband and went into the sea out of shame or grief, while still others claim Atargatis fell in accidentally, and was saved by a huge fish.

Nike bearing the seal of Atargatis, photo by Michael Gunther, Cincinnati Art Museum


Whatever version of the story, Atargatis was worshipped by the Phoenicians as their supreme goddess, the ruler of the seas and fish, a goddess of fertility and love, and represented in the form that we would recognize as a mermaid. The center of Atargatis’s cult was in the city of Hieropolis (as it was called by the Greeks) northeast of Aleppo, but it soon spread outward throughout the Middle East, Israel and Greece, where she was referred to as Derceto (it should be noted that the early Greek goddess of the seas was called Ceto) and was known as “Dea Syria” by the impressed Romans. Her followers abstained from eating fish or dove meat, as the animals were sacred to Atargatis, while her priests would emasculate themselves in her honor. One story recounts how the Assyrian queen Stratonice had a dream that she must rebuild Atargatis’s temple and hired a man named Combabus to help her. Knowing how the queen like the sleep around—and how much her husband the king hated that—Combabus castrated himself (and, gross as it may sound, sealed his pieces in a box of honey and sent it to the king, asking him not to open it) to prevent Stratonice from trying to take advantage of him. Even so, Stratonice still wanted Combabus, and when the irate king ordered his execution, Combabus proved he never slept with the queen by … well … opening the box for the king to see. Cleared of all charges, Combabus went back to the temple and became its priest.

A Mermaid, by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann 1819-1881

Atargatis was an incredibly important and powerful goddess, and we frequently find artifacts and sites dedicated to her; in October 2017, archeologists discovered a temple to Atargatis in Thouria (Southern Greece) that had held tanks of her sacred fish within.

And in case you’re wondering what happened to her daughter, don’t worry; after being cared for by the doves, the baby was rescued by some shepherds and then grew up to be the badass warrior queen of Babylon Semiramis, whom you can bet money I’ll be writing about in the future.

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