Saturday, 13 July 2013

Fish and goddesses

The fish pond in Urfa

In the eastern part of Turkey, not far from the Syrian border, you find the city of Şanlıurfa. It is a very old city. Before getting the prefix şanlı [illustrious], it was called Urfa. In classical times it was called Edessa and before that, Urhoy and Ruhâ. Because of the similarity in name, it was believed to be the city of Ur in Chaldea where Abraham used to live before his migration to Palestine. And not altogether without reason: at least two cities in the neighbourhood are named after relatives of Abraham, namely Harran and Suruç [Serug].
No wonder that myths and legends about Abraham have started to flourish in Urfa. When you visit the city, people will tell you how King Nimrod caught Abraham and intended to burn him on a pyre in the middle of the city. But look and behold: God turned the fire into water and the firewood into fish. And both fish and pool are still there to prove the tale.

The real history of the pool may be a lot different, though.
Not far from Urfa to the southwest, but on the Syrian side of the border, you find the city of Manbij and its the neighbourhood the ruins of the ancient Hierapolis Bambyce, a centre of worship for the goddess Atargatis, known to the Greeks as Aphrodite Derceto.

In his book De Dea Syria [The Syrian Goddess], the rhetorician Lucian of Samosata (d. ca. 180) describes the worship of Atargatis in Hierapolis.[1]He writes:

There is too a lake in the same place, not far from the temple in which many sacred fishes of different kinds are reared. Some of these grow to a great size; they are called by names, and approach when called. I saw one of these ornamented with gold, and on its back fin a golden design was dedicated to the temple. I have often seen this fish, and he certainly carried this design.[2]

A footnote to this text has the following explanation:

81:56 See also § 14, n. 28. No local tradition of this seems to survive, but Xenophon (Anabasis, I. iv. 9) records a parallel case of "tame fish looked upon as gods" in the Chalus, near Aleppo. Modern instances near Doliche, just north of Aintab, and elsewhere in Syria, are described by Cumont (Oriental Relig., p. 245, note 36) and Hogarth (op. cit., p. 188). So also near the mosque of Edessa (Sachau, Reise, p. 196); and in Asia Minor, at Tavshanli, on the Rhyndacus, sacred fish are still preserved in a large cistern (Cumont, loc. cit., ap. Munro). Atargatis, according to the form of the legend given by the scholiast on Germanicus' "Aratus" was born of an egg which the sacred fishes found in the Euphrates and pushed ashore.

Notice, please, that the pool of Edessa, or Şanlıurfa, is mentioned, not in connection with Abraham but with a pagan cult. The goddess Atargatis is said to have been born from an egg pushed ashore by "sacred fishes." The Latin author Gaius Julius Hyginus (d. AD 17) has the following tale in story number CXCVII of his Fabulae:

Into the Euphrates River an egg of wonderful size is said to have fallen, which the fish rolled to the bank. Doves sat on it, and when it was heated, it hatched out Venus, who was later called the Syrian goddess. Since she excelled the rest in justice and uprightness, by a favour granted by Jove, the fish were put among the number of the stars, and because of this the Syrians do not eat fish or doves, considering them as gods.[3]

Notice, please, that Hyginus identifies the Syrian goddess Atargatis with the Roman sex-goddess Venus. We face a case of syncretism, a process very popular in classical times. When the Greeks and Romans came to a country, they tried to identify the local gods with those of their own who resembled them the most. The Syrian Goddess Atargatis had many traits in common with her Roman counterpart. According to Per Bilde, she had names and titles such as "Atargatis and Theatos Suria, and further Sotera (Saviour, thus only in Beroia [Aleppo]), Parthenos(Virgin) and Meter ton theon. Finally there are examples of the identification of Atargatis with Aphrodite [Venus], Cybele, Hera and Isis."[4] Consequently we should not be surprised when Lucian compares her to Hera.

This way of viewing the Divine is in fact not unlike that of those in Christendom who believe in one God who sometimes manifests himself as the Father, sometimes as the Son. Those who invented the trinity-doctrine were children of their time. On the internet site The Vesica Piscis, we find an interesting observation:

A medieval hymn calls Jesus "the little fish in the Virgin's fountain." The Christ child is often shown inside a mandorla, superimposed over Mary's womb. Mary herself can be equated with the goddess Aphrodite Marina, who brought forth all the fish in the oceans; Marina's blue robe and pearl necklace, like the Christian Mary's, are classic symbols of the sea. On Cyprus, Mary to this day is worshipped as "Panaghia Aphroditessa." The connections are many: the Vesica Piscis illumines the common heritage of Christianity and the Goddess traditions it absorbed, traditions it would later vilify and all but destroy.[5]

It seems that mankind once into the rut of syncretism finds it very difficult to get up again.

[1]. About the cult in Hierapolis, see also Jørgen Christensen-Ernst, "Simeon Stylites the Older." Antioch – The Queen of the East, accessed May 21, 2013,
[2]. Lucian, The Syrian Goddess (London: Constable & Company LTD, 1913 ), 80,81.
[3]. Gaius Julius Hyginus, "[197] CXCVII," VENUS Fabulae, accessed May 22, 2013,
[4]. Per Bilde, Religion and Religious Practice in the Seleucid Kingdom (in series "Studies in Hellenistic Civilization") (Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1990), 162. Please notice that Parthenos and Meter ton theon closely resembles titles given to Jesus' mother.
[5]. The Vesica Piscis, accessed May 22. 2013,

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Animal life in Antakya


Our yard

Seven months have passed since we moved into our old Antakya house, and during that time we have had some interesting experiences.
We have chosen to order our daily life according to the ways people years ago used to do in this part of town. This means that when you enter the courtyard from the front door, you see all the rooms, bathroom and kitchen included, have their door towards the courtyard without being mutually connected. The only exception is our bedroom on the first floor over the studio.
We like animals, so we bought some wheat to feed the birds. However, only doves (not pigeons) arrived. We always thought that the dove is a very docile animal. We were mistaken. They are having great fight over the wheat although there is enough for everyone of them. They run after one another, chasing the weakest or most timid ones of the away from the food. When possible the mount the back of each other, plucking feathers and down our of the neck of the loser.
One day a certain one of them seemed more tame than the others. When you walked up to it, it did not move but just looked up at you. However, it made some funny movements with its head as if it had a fly around it, and it went scratching its head now and then.
After we came home one noon it was lying dead in the courtyard with its legs in the air.
As mentioned, we are sleeping on the first floor with a window open towards the courtyard. One night we saw a shadow passing by. It happened to be a cat that had reached our window over the roofs and use our staircase to get down to our walled courtyard.
It may sound quite cosy, but the cats of modern Antioch are not at all like the cats of Istanbul who look like princes and princesses, so dainty and clean that they hardly touch the ground. Here in Antakya cats look like rats, and they spend the main part of their life roving around in the garbage you find on the street corners. Not a creature you want in your bedroom!
We put wire gauze in front of the window and had the traffic stopped.
Then one evening we hear a sound of something falling down from our roof. It happed to be a furry red kitten, and soon after we had the mother and father standing wailing on our wall. Fortunately they did not have the intention to get down into the courtyard to protect their child. This, on the other hand, tried to climb the wall to get up to its parents, but without success.
We let it out of the front door, and we do not know what happened to it.
One dark evening when we came back from travelling, we realised that we had an unusual guest. A hen was walking around in the darkness in our yard. It had evidently spent some time there, for it had eaten of our tulips. When we opened the door to the living room (remember that it faces the yard), the hen jumped in and we had to catch it there.
Some people in the neighbourhood keep chicken on their roof. We did not bother to find out where it came from, but put it outside the front door. The next morning it had disappeared.
When we came home from Istanbul last week, it was evident that something had happened in the studio and in our bedroom. We couldn't find out what. But the next morning we found droppings of a rat in the two rooms. We learned the one of the old forsaken houses in close to ours was being restored to its original state, and the snakes and rats living there had decided to move elsewhere. One of them was our guest. One evening while we were watching televisinon in our living room with the door toward the yard open, we realised that the rat was sitting just inside the door and watching television as well - or perhaps it was us it was watching. It was a nice looking rat, not like the ugly cats at the street corners. It was clean and friendly.
Nevertheless, rats have annoying habits. They want lebensraum and they are not housebroken. We found it advisable to get rid of it before it got a chance to bring in its clan. We found out that it was nesting in a shed outside our front door, so we poisoned it there. A pity, in fact. It was a nice animal.

These experiences have taught us a couple of things about life in ancient Antioch. People back then not doubt were living with the same experiences. All this may be commonplace for people on a farm; but this is in the centre of Antakya, even on a spot inside the original Seleucid town wall.