« Asylum, Right of Atargatis Athanasian Creed »


ATARGATIS, at-ār-gê´tis: A word which does not occur in the canonical Scriptures; but in II Macc. xii, 26 mention is made of “a temple of Atargatis” (Atargateion) as a place of refuge sought by the Arabians’ and Ammonites who were defeated by Judas Maccabæus. This temple was situated in Carnion (cf. I Macc. v, 43–44), which is probably the same as the Ashteroth-Karnaim of Gen. xiv, 5. The supposition is natural that the place was an old seat of Astarte-worship, and some have even identified Atargatis directly with Astarte.

Support has been found for this view in the fact that a principal seat of the cult of Atargatis was Ascalon, and that Herodotus (i, 105) places there a temple of “the heavenly Aphrodite.” This is not conclusive, for there may have been shrines of both goddesses in the same city, or—which is far more probable—the Aphrodite of the days of Herodotus may have been succeeded by Atargatis. She had there a famous shrine for several centuries before and after the Christian era. Mabug or Hierapolis, on the Euphrates, was an equally famous seat of her worship.

In connection with both temples fishes were kept sacred to the goddess, and at Ascalon she was represented as a sort of mermaid—a woman with the tail of a fish (Lucian, De dea Syria, xiv; cf. xlv). Various reasons are given for these customs. According to one form of the legends in Greek and Roman writers, Derceto (the name Atargatis modified), having thrown herself into the water, was saved by a fish (Hyginus, Astronomia, ii, 30); according to another version she was turned into a fish (Diodorus Siculus, ii, 4). The dove, which was sacred to Astarte, Aphrodite, and Venus, also figures in the same legends.

The only question of present importance is the connection between the cult of Atargatis and that of Astarte. That the connection was close is indicated prima facie by the fact that the Atar of 338Atargatis is the contracted form of ‘Athtar, the Aramaic equivalent of Ishtar or Astarte (see Ashtoreth, § 2). Presumably Ataris here confounded with the name of another deity. A certain Palmyrene god Ati or Atah is supposed to be the one in question, but his attributes are not sufficiently known to make the combination certain.

Although a wholly satisfactory explanation of the compound name is lacking, a plausible hypothesis as to the leading motive of the complex cult may be offered. After the political extinction of Semitism, and the consequent depreciation of Ishtar-Astarte (along with the decline of the complementary Baal-worship), it was found necessary to perpetuate some of the leading features of such a wide-spread and deep-rooted cult. The fertility and life-giving power of water was one of the most familiar of the conceptions of the world of thought and fancy of which Astarte was the center. This idea was in large measure suggested by the mysterious origin and fecundity of fish, the chief of water animals. These consequently figure very largely, along with other elements, in the cult of Atargatis, which replaced but did not supersede the worship of Astarte. See Ashtoreth.

J. F. McCurdy.

Bibliography: J. Selden, De dis Syris, ii, 3, London, 1617; F. C Movers, Die Phöniser, i, 584–600, Bonn, 1841; K. B. Stark, Gaza und die philistäische Küste, pp. 250–255, Jena, 1852; Derceto the Goddess of Ascalon, in the Journal of Sacred Literature, new series, vii (1865), 1–20; P. Scholz, Götzendienst und Zauberwesen bei den alten Hebräern, pp. 301–333, Regensburg, 1877; J. P. Six, in the Numismatic Chronicle, new series, xviii (1878), 102 sqq.; Hauvette-Besnault, in Bulletin de correspondance hellénique, vi (1882), 470–503; L. Preller, Römische Mythologie, vol. ii, Berlin, 1883; W. Robertson Smith, in the English Historical Review, ii (1887), 303–317; F. Baethgen, Beiträge zur semitischen Religionsgeschichte, pp. 68–75, Berlin, 1889; R. Pietschmann, Geschichte der Phönizier, pp. 148–149, Berlin 1889; Schürer, Geschichte, ii, 23–24, Eng. transl., II, i, 13–14 and iii, 91–92; DB, i, 194–195; EB, i, 379; Smith, Rel. of Sem., 172–176.

« Asylum, Right of Atargatis Athanasian Creed »
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