Framed against blue sky in modern Turkey, the ruined stronghold of Syrian goddess Atargatis (ah-TAR-gah-tis) still stands. She is the known world’s first mermaid. This center for her worship is Hierapolis, a once-thriving holy city in Classical antiquity. Founded about 4,000 years ago, its greatness peaked then declined during the 3rd century BC, but its legendary goddess is still first in the world pantheon of water maidens.
Where did Atargatis come from, and what transformed her from deity to mermaid?
That story begins in the 21st century BC, when the city-state of Assyria was a rising regional power, on its way to becoming the dominant empire by the 14th century BC. Along the way, a nature deity rose to prominence in northern Syria. Worshipped as the goddess of fertility, protector of her city and people, and guardian of their well-being, she was called Atargatis. Sacred to her were doves and fishes.
In the beginning, Atargatis was female in form and very beautiful, with long, flowing hair. In time, she gained a powerful consort, Hadad, an early Semitic god of rain, storms, and thunder. Together, they reigned as chief gods of Hierapolis during the Hellenistic period (323 BC–31 BC) and were worshipped equally. Then, as time and culture moved towards the rising Roman Empire, worship shifted towards the goddess alone.
It is Hadad’s diminishing role that perhaps led to later myths in which Atargatis is transformed from goddess to mermaid.
In these stories, she falls in love with a handsome young shepherd named Hadad. Being mortal, he does not survive their union and dies, but not before leaving Atargatis with child. She bears a daughter named Semiramis, who Greek historian Ctesias reports “was raised by doves… married the king of Assyria and gave birth to a son called Ninyas.”
But Atargatis is unable to rid herself of grief and guilt over the death of Hadad, and in despair, throws herself in a lake near Ashkelon (also known as Ascalon), an ancient seaport. The lake waters, however, sense her divinity and refuse to hide or destroy her great beauty. So, the goddess is transformed into a dual-natured being. No longer does she have legs, but the tail of a fish. In recorded lore, she is the first of her kind.
The cult of Atargatis spread far beyond Hierapolis, and her stories became more complex, often blending with the stories of other deities. The Greeks identified her with the moon goddess Derketo, and she may been the inspiration for the goddess Aphrodite. To the Romans, she was Dea Syria, the Syrian goddess. She also showed kinship with Astarte, her Phoenician equal, as well as goddesses Isis (Egyptian) and Ishtar (Mesopotamian/Babylonian).
Wash away all the complexity, what remains is the beginning of a rich body of myths, folklore, and fairytales. With their timeless ability to excite, enchant, and frighten, mermaid tales continue to stir the imagination of people everywhere.
🐬 The beauty and mystery of mermaids in on display here, in Mermaid Spirit.
🐬 For a visual dive into a mermaid’s world, visit Mermaid Realms.
BTW: Some contemporary stories associate Atargatis’ daughter, Semiramis, with Babylon’s famous Hanging Gardens. Research turns up quite a different story, which you can read here: Naqia-Zakutu: Assyria’s Last Great Queen—Part 1 and Part 2.
For further reading :
Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante
Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Atargatis”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 13 Aug. 2013, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Atargatis.
Mark, Joshua J.. “Semiramis.” World History Encyclopedia. World History Encyclopedia, 18 Aug 2014. Web. 11 Nov 2022.