1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Atargatis
ATARGATIS, a Syrian deity, known to the Greeks by a shortened form of the name, Derketo (Strabo xvi. c. 785; Pliny, Nat. Hist. v. 23. 81), and as Dea Syria, or in one word Deasura (Lucian, de Dea Syria). She is generally described as the “fish-goddess.” The name is a compound of two divine names; the first part is a form of the Himyaritic ’Athtar, the equivalent of the Old Testament Ashtoreth, the Phoenician Astarte (q.v.), with the feminine ending omitted (Assyr. Ishtar); the second is a Palmyrene name ’Athe (i.e. tempus opportunum), which occurs as part of many compounds. As a consequence of the first half of the name, Atargatis has frequently, though wrongly, been identified with Astarte. The two deities were, no doubt, of common origin, but their cults are historically distinct. In 2 Macc. xii. 26 we find reference to an Atargateion or Atergateion (temple of Atargatis) at Carnion in Gilead (cf. 1 Macc. v. 43), but the home of the goddess was unquestionably not Palestine, but Syria proper, especially at Hierapolis (q.v.), where she had a great temple. From Syria her worship extended to Greece, Italy and 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 its 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. In many cases, however, Atargatis and Astarte are 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 Astarte at Ashtaroth-Karnaim.
Atargatis appears generally as the wife of Hadad (Baal). They are the protecting deities of the community. Atargatis, in the capacity of πολιοῦχος, wears a mural crown, is the ancestor of 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, she becomes ultimately a great Nature-Goddess, analogous to Cybele and Rhea (see Great Mother of the Gods); in one aspect she typifies the function of water in producing life; in another, the universal mother-earth (Macrobius, Saturn, i. 23); in a third (influenced, no doubt, by Chaldaean astrology), the power of destiny. The legends are numerous and of an astrological character, intended to account for the Syrian dove-worship and abstinence from fish (see the story in Athenaeus viii. 37, where Atargatis is derived from ἄτερ Γάτιδος “without Gatis,”—a queen who is said to have forbidden the eating of fish). Thus Diodorus Siculus, using Ctesias, tells how she fell in love with a youth who was worshipping at the shrine of Aphrodite, and by him became the mother of Semiramis, the Assyrian queen, and how in shame she flung herself into a pool at Ascalon or Hierapolis and was changed into a fish (W. Robertson Smith in Eng. Hist. Rev. ii., 1887). In another story she was hatched from an egg found by some fish in the Euphrates and by them thrust on the bank where it was hatched by a dove; out of gratitude she persuaded Jupiter to transfer the fish to the Zodiac (cf. Ovid, Fast. ii. 459-474, Metam. v. 331).