Perhaps I should start this article by explaining the term Levant(1) since it might not be familiar to all the readers of this blog. The word comes from Middle French and means the Orient. From a geographical perspective, the Levant is that region of West Asia comprising the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. It is bordered to the north by the Taurus mountains of Turkey. It reaches the Zagros mountain range which forms the border between Iraq and Iran to the east and extends southward to the Arabian desert. The Island of Cyprus was historically, and until very recent times culturally, a part of Greater Syria, as the Levant is known to the more fervent Syrian Social Nationalists in Lebanon and Syria. Additionally, Jordan, Palestine, the Sinai Desert and parts of Iraq belong to this region as well. If you are wondering whether I accidentally omitted Israel or not, wonder no more. A sixty-two year old “country” with an acute identity crisis as to claim that it invented Hummus and Falafel, both documented to have been served in popular eating houses in Tartous in the latter part of the 19th century, does not belong here. The apartheid walls they built will mostly keep them, the Israelis, prisoners of their own guilt, further isolating them from a magical place of immense ethnic diversity.

Well now that I have passed my political message across I can focus on the more meaningful aspects of life. Among my most persistent interests in the field of Levantine history is the pursuit of Syrian deities. I find it myopic that the West traces its roots to Greek culture and mythology then stops. The Greeks were outstanding in their own right and they indeed were the catalyst behind the rise of Western civilization. But history predated them and started a little further east, not too far from where I am sitting right now behind my American branded laptop. German Archeologist, Markus Gschwind remarked that “beneath every footstep in Syria is an ancient civilization(2).” Rightly so, as merely a stone throw away from my window Phoenician ships once sailed across the Mediterranean carrying dyes and silk in their holds and the Alphabet and Gods in the language of their sailors. My story today is about one Syrian Goddess by the name of Atargatis(3).

Today Atargatis might not be a household Syrian name as other “local” deities but that does not make her any less significant. In fact, she is perhaps the most important pre-monotheist divinity of the Levant. Early evidence of her cult dates back to 1,000 BC but what fascinates me most about her is that she was in fact the first mermaid(4). Atargatis, whose followers eventually spread to Greece and Rome was the half-human / half-fish Goddess of Earth, Fertility and Water. Early on both the dove and the fish were used as symbols of her. The dove as an emblem of love and the fish representing bounty and fertility. She was also, to the faithful, responsible for motivation and inventiveness and her reign extended beyond the realm of land and sea to encompass the heavens. Zeus (The Greeks called Her Derketo, Goddess of Syria) splashed an image of a fish in the sky for her sake by creating the Pisces constellation.

Phoenician sailors brought her to Sicily. From there her  followers spread northward reaching Rome, where she was known as Dea Syria, the Syrian Goddess. She was admitted into the Roman pantheon side by side with Jupiter (Syrian Haddad :-) and worshiped as reverently. Her faith continued to grow and spread throughout the Roman Empire and the Gaul (Western Europe) and toward the end of this era she reached the status of the Great Mother Goddess of the Empire.
Atargatis is a Semitic word. She was called Athtart by the Phoenicians and perhaps that explains why she is often confused with Astarte. Strong evidence suggests that they were two different deities as their cults were very distinct from one another initially. Several other goddesses, Syrian, Greek and Roman were later identified with Atargatis, perhaps all better known than her: Ishtar, Venus Urania, Hera, Rhea, Cybele, Aphrodite and Artemis Azzanathcona. Even most Syrians today are more familiar with Atargatis' daughter Semiramis, the famous Assyrian queen who built the hanging gardens.

Early Syrian religions did not provide impetus for the rise of monotheist Judaism, Christianity and Islam only but formed the mythological bedrock of paganism in Europe. The statue of the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen(5) sculpted by Edvard Erichsen in 1913 is said to symbolize a fairy tale. Danish author and poet Hans Christian Andersen wrote about a mermaid who fell in love with a prince living on land and who came to shore everyday to see him. Is it a Viking figment of imagination or simply a Syrian story of old neglected by the sons and daughters of Atargatis?

(1)Levant: also known as Al-Mashriq and Bilad Al-Sham
(2)Thaindian News
(3)The Obscure Goddess Online Dictionary
(5)The Little Mermaid


Unknown said…
How interesting! Thank you for this wonderful piece of history. The first mermaid...I love it!! :) I just realized how little I know about mythology and paganism beyond what is taught to us...mainly Greek and Roman. I've learned a little about Celtic gods and goddess and now you've inspired me to read some more! Thank you, Abufares!
Anonymous said…
I read you blog regularly with great interest and it is a very well written blog. the thing that amaze me is that although you are such an open minded intellectual you are so poorly informed about Israel. Israel have never claimed to invent niter Humus nor Falafel. It is considered the national dish (falafel) and it is very popular all around Israel but ask every Israeli and they will tell you that it is basically Arab food (I guess not all will know if it is from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria or Iraq but they will agree it was not invented in modern Israel).
I can refer you to a very good Humus blog that is being written by an Israeli to learn a bit about humus culture in Israel:
Salam alicha wa al kul il alam
Gabriela said…
I agree with Isobel: we are acquainted mostly with Greek and Roman mythology. My brother was completely nuts about those two subjects, so I kind of absorbed it when I was a little girl reading with him by my side.
Later, it was a complete surprise to discover there is Norse and Celtic mythology, just to give two simple examples from Europe.
Since I read your blog and Mariyah's, I started to get curious about that part of the Meditarranean mostly unknown to me. I must thank you for enlightening me.
BIL said…
I am glad to see you are back in the groove again :-)
I found this to be a most enjoyable and informative post. It never ceases to amaze me on how diverse your writings can be. In reading your post and the subsequent articles, I have come to realize just how little I know about the “Levant” and the people from the times described there-in. Political messages aside, I found the “history lesson” of your country to be nothing short of amazing, given that the culture goes back so far beyond one can imagine in today’s world of the Nintendo’s, VCRs, DVDs and the like. You are correct that history pre-dated the Greeks. I think I am not alone in saying too little is known about the Levant and the contributions they made to civilization. Great Post!!
Abufares said…
The first mermaid indeed :-)
We,Syrians, are terrible promoters. Discretion is an integral part of our national character. It might be argued that perhaps it is an acquired trait brought about by religious tyranny and political despotism. However, I do believe that modesty is a positive attribute for people with divergent ethnicities and cultures to co-exist in peace.
Unfortunately we live in a world where everybody's shouting and yelling fact and fiction.
If only 100 persons end up reading my posts and whether they agree with the content or not it still makes me feel good to tell my side of the story.
I'm delighted that you read me Isobel. You make it all worthwhile.
Abufares said…
I have no doubt that there are open-minded intellectuals on all sides.
My usage of Hummus and Falafel is symbolic and was meant to illustrate a point.
For Syria to declare herself as an Islamic country or Lebanon as a Christian one would be as disastrous as Israel stating that it is a Jewish state. But Israel already did that.
Before I am to be considered an open-minded intellectual I am just another humanist who think that religion is a human invention. The history of Israel is based on one book, claimed to be of divine origin. When I read about Levantine history I cannot help but feel annoyed with the insistence of the followers of Judaism, Christianity and Islam that they are absolutely right, each in their own close-minded shell. The main body of their beliefs is derived from either early Syrian religion(s) or Levantine fiction (poetry, mythology and folklore).
By claiming that it is a Jewish state Israel inflicted the greatest injury to herself.
Only time would tell but I have a feeling that history is cruelly cyclical.
Abufares said…
You are reinforcing my belief that blogging is perhaps the most important activity I have ever engaged myself in.
Before reading you Peru was just another country on the map. In the 80's, and as a Graduate teaching assistant in the US, I taught World Geography in college. I had amassed many facts about Peruvian demographic and topographic geography. You have taught me more about Peru and Lima in a couple of posts than I have learned in all the bygone years.
For this I am thankful. Always :-)
Abufares said…
Your reaction to this post humbles me. To know that my voice did not go unheard brings such an immense pleasure.
I never intended my blog to instigate change here or abroad. However, for someone interested in finding the truth behind all the hype there are always places to seek. It will bring me so much satisfaction if I learn one day that a high school student, somewhere in Minnesota, comes across my blog while preparing a term paper on Syria. Whether he likes what he finds or not is not the issue. At least he will get an idea how a Syrian, a Tartoussi no less, halfway across the world thinks. He will never learn that watching CNN or Fox News. Not even National Geographic can explain to him who a Syrian is. BUT I can!
Thank you for your great support.
Anonymous said…
This is not the first time I see you mix the jewish religion with the jewish people, and it is understandable.
The state of Israel was reborn in 1948 not to be a religious state ( it was initialy led by secular socialist people)but to be the only home for the jewish people that was scatered all over the earth at that time and was persecuted almost everywhere (yes even in Syria, the large jewish community in Haleb has practically disapeared).
I don't want to go into a political argument with you, just to set a few mistakes you might have about the "jewish state".
Abufares said…
You should read this article about the SY's of the Syrian Jewish Community in Brooklyn.

I seriously doubt whether you know more about Syrian Jews than me, since you claim that they were persecuted. While the majority left and currently lead very successful lives in NY not in Israel, those very few who remained refuse to live anywhere but in Syria (the doors for them are open and they can leave if they want to).
The stores and shops of those who left in 1990 and chose not to sell remain closed. No vandalism, no defacement and no racist graffiti (like we see elsewhere). No physical harm had ever befallen the Jewish community in Syria. They faced one manifestation of discrimination only. They were not drafted into compulsory military service and believe me they were very happy about it.
There must be a very good reason they still call themselves SY's short for Syrians and why they identify themselves more with their old country rather than with Israel.
When they immigrated mainly in the early 20th century they did not do so because they were Jews. That period witnessed a huge wave of immigration from Syria by all faiths toward America. It's ironic that the American descendants of Jewish Syrians today have a stronger emphasis on their national "Syrian" identity than their Muslim and Christian Compatriots.
Anonymous said…
Abufares, if you ask me, when and where you wish you were born, I would say in Syria 3000 years ago, there were a lot of adventures to go after,

this is fantastic artickle ya Abufares,

Anonymous said…
Abufares just to ermined you ,the first written epic was the GILGEMISH

Abufares said…
You always bring with you a whiff of the great outdoors and memories from my past along when you visit my blog. Images of flowing rivers and green open meadows dance in my head.
I should write about Gilgamesh one day and I hope to be able to soon.
Joseph said…
I see you're busy again, Abufares. Well done. Thank you for a very illuminating insight. I feel ashamed to have forgotten... or perhaps, not to have sought the knowledge to understand our beautiful history.
Have a nice day.
AS a Pagan I found this most interesting ... and yes You Syrians really need to learn how to promote your ancient history! It's a good thing they have you my friend!!

I shall never look at a mermaid the same way again.
Abufares said…
Good day to you my friend and as always, a pleasure to see you here.
We are all guilty of neglecting our history. If I start digging in the riches of the Levant I will have enough writing material to last many lifetimes.
The Levant is the missing link of western cultural evolution. While the masses are not expected to search for furtively for their roots I find it strange that very well learned western men and women reached Ancient Greece in their quest then stopped. Homosapiens started in Africa (East Africa to be precise) as per latest scientific evidence. It is also known beyond a shadow of a doubt that the first human societies to evolve into a civilization started in the Levant.
There are far too many simple facts that will shake the very foundation of today's present pop-culture (especially religious). I'm not advocating a conspiracy theory but rather that many prefer to leave alone these disturbing truths. Why bother and look under the rocks of forgetfulness. The social sciences are in dire need of a "scientific" revolution.
Abufares said…
Now you know why I'm loud sometimes in stating what I believe is right ;-)

Atargatis the mermaid is one of the many fabulous women we worshiped in the Levant. We still do by the way, worship women. While the notion of a Levantine lover is totally obscured by the stereotyped "terrorist" for instance I plan to do something about that in my writing.

Atargatis was perhaps my first love... you should read what I have to say about my last one :-)
Karin said…
Fantastic and fascinating!! History, mythology and the stories around captured me throughout my life ... thanks so much for the great article! I have to admit I had never heard about this
"lady" or better mermaid Atargatis and the more it fascinates me!

You say you want to write about Gilgamesh as well ... the world-famous Epos describing among countless other events the great flood - I can't wait! Coming from you - it will be GREAT, no doubt!

About your political perspective ... no arguments here! I love the expression " prisoners of their own guilt" ... that's just what they are!! Time is ultimately on the side of the persecuted and forcefully expelled even it may sound strange - it is NOT on Israel's, that's for sure! A boomerang launched will inevitably, after a certain while, smack in your own face, that's a law of physics and not even THEY can change that!
Mr anon (9:01 PM) needs to get his ducks in a row ...

Kudos and a high-5 for Fares! :-)
Abufares said…
You always put a smile on my face. Not a stupid grin but heart-felt and warm laughter.
I liked your boomerang analogy... so true and... inevitable.
I need time for Gilgamesh. The research should be thorough to encapsulate and epic into a blog post but now that you're excited about the prospect I'm even more determined.
BIL said…
This comment is somewhat off the subject .... But after we talked I am glad to see you put a translation program on the Super-Kid's blog. Well Done, say Hello to everyone. You also need to tell Fares to post his next script. <;-))
Anonymous said…
Joseph said…
I admire your ability and energy, Abufares, your generosity and patience, with which you challenge, enlighten, educate, amuse and charm your readers with. Many thanks.
The unfortunate truth, Abufares, is that we, the natives and inhabitants of the Levant, less the very few, have treated our history in the same disposition the human body deals with its own dead skin...
Abufares said…
How sad and true
Anonymous said…
Abufares, 1996, visitig Aleppo my sister made me liston to one of the most beautiful melodies i´ve ever heard, NENAVA, as far as know this is one of the first , perhaps the first written MUSICAL-SCORE , at that time the note system was fifferent they used numbers, the melodies were ritual pieces, these scores were translated to the modern system , and I think the Berlin Orchestra played it, I have a very old tape, I culd not find it on you tube or CD, any way I recomend every one to listen to NENAVA, is has the spirit of MSAPOTEMIA,
Anonymous said…

Anonymous said…
I was spot reading your blog today. I love the transformation you underwent. From declaring yourself a Muslim in "Nothing to
prove" to the argument you made above in your response to anonymous where you denounce religion including Islam. your blog is full of these contradictions. I wonder if they are contradictions or a symptom of your transformation. If you have settled on secular humanist I can tell you as a fellow SH and an atheist that No country should be founded on a promise given by a non
existent god to a non existent prophet regarding a group of people who claim racial purity that was never substantiated. It is
unfair to cry apartheid while Syria isolated its jews, locked them up at sundown, barricaded their quarters every night,denied
them passports and singled them out as "Moussawi" on their national ID card while nobody else had their religion declared.
Syria's expatriat jewish sons and daughters stayed loyal and proud of their motherland although Syria mistreated them.
I can assure you Abu Fares that your argument that you know syrian jews better than most will not apply in my case. I understand
your passion and dedication to Syria but only with honesty and realism Syria can move into a better future. I came to your blog
accidentally while searching for an authentic Arak distillation recipe and I enjoyed your intellectual prowess and expansive
knowledge. I would love to follow your posts if you don't mind me challenging you once in a while.

Arak seeker signing off.
Abufares said…
@Arak seeker

Such a delight to read your "challenging" comment.

I definitely went through a transformation over the last 4 years and I think that writing (blogging) has in fact been an effective catalyst in the process. I have always, in a way, been a contradictory person. In fact, human contradiction has been a fascinating driving force in my personal development and was my chosen topic for my master's thesis.

I am a secular humanist with a Syrian and Muslim heritage. At least I was born with these two inherited social traits and rather than deny them I try to come to terms with them. Presently I find it easier to embrace being Syrian. However, that should in no way blind me from believing and seeking to be a true citizen of the world.

I disagree with you that Jews were maltreated in Syria in the absolute sense. Some of the details you listed are true. Jews had "Moussawi" stamped on their national ID card and their travel out of Syria was closely monitored. The rest is unfounded and untrue. I had my first encounter with a Jewish person in Damascus in 1977. He was my barber and for several months I came to know him and to enjoy his hobby (training canaries to sing) He sold them after training for a good price :-) He was not locked up at night. Neither were "their quarters" barricaded. Besides only after the creation of the State of Israel were some of these alleged "governmental" actions imposed. I strongly believe that Jews were better treated in Syria than they were in Europe and in the US at certain times. In WWII the US government locked up Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and most European countries (not only Germany) persecuted Jews.
I do not want to defend the actions of the Syrian government(s) but the truth of the matter is not only Jews were persecuted in recent Syrian history!!!

What is humanly wrong is universally so and as a secular humanist today I consider open and public display of religiosity, be it Jewish, Christian or Muslim, offensive to my values. I am an avid defendant of freedom of speech and expression but I truly have no faith (presently) in the intentions of religiously indoctrinated people.

You are always welcome here, please give yourself a name instead of Anonymous, any name will do:-)
Rocco said…
Thank you for accepting my challenge I intend to take you up on it. I congratulate your intellectual honesty and welcome you as a fellow SH and will eventually embrace you when you declare your atheism. You are too smart not to do so eventually. I will not be surprised if this will be your 2010 manifesto of personal transformation. I should probably quit banging my head against the wall when I read what you believe one day and it's opposite the next. Since you plead personal growth and your old self has been already committed to paper (blog) the contradictions are going to be abundant. The new you is what counts. Abu Fares 2.0
I want though to probe your feelings on religious indoctrination, since we are not normally born muslims jews christians but we are made that way through indoctrination by our parents. Is the new you going to repeat the tradition? The pictures of small kids praying on your Flickr are probably old and do not fit your current outlook on things, or do they?
I am not done with the Syrian jews issue yet, I am short on time now but rest assured I will be back to address it.

Previously known as Arak Seeker
Anonymous said…
This is quite interesting...
Anonymous said…
this is not entirely correct but Aphrodite and many other names all the same comes from many ages and places

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