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,