I had enjoyed watching the Coney Island Mermaid Parade last year, and had been considering going again, but didn’t think to look up when it was. As it turns out, it was last weekend, and I missed it. Oh, well. I can still use its proximity as an excuse to write about a mermaid in this week’s mythology post, specifically the Assyrian goddess Atargatis, who came to be known as Derketo by the Greeks. She’s a well-established deity, whose cult spread into Phoenicia and eventually to Rome. While her name was similar to that of Astarte, and probably had the same linguistic roots, she appears to have been considered a different individual. That said, the fish-bodied goddess worshipped in the city of Ashkelon might also not have been Atargatis.
Religion and mythology change over time, however, and the name Atargatis came to be associated with a deity who was human on top and fish on the bottom.
Picture by Virginia Lee
I’ve also seen conflicting sources as to whether Dagon was ever portrayed as part fish by his early worshippers, or that was just a later development. Regardless, Atargatis definitely appears to have been associated with fish, as well as doves. Her temples had sacred ponds containing fish that only her priests were allowed to touch, and which are said to have been quite friendly. I’ve also seen mentions of how her Assyrian followers refrained from eating fish, although I don’t know how strict this taboo was. Her worship has also been said to have involved ritual self-mutilation.
Atargatis appears to have primarily been a fertility goddess, and as such her association with fish is symbolic of how the seas teem with life. One myth, related by the Roman Hyginus, has it that she was born from an egg that landed from the sky in the River Euphrates. Fish pushed it to the bank, and then doves hatched it. The most famous myth of Atargatis, which might well have actually been Greek in origin, says that she had an affair with a mortal shepherd, which resulted in a child. Her human lover died, and the child was the legendary queen Semiramis. In shame, Atargatis jumped into a lake or the sea, intending to drown herself, but just ended up as a woman with the body of a fish.
Picture by HC-IIIX
She was sometimes regarded as the consort of the storm god Hadad, but I don’t know whether she was already married when she messed around with Semiramis’ father.
The Greeks and Romans associated Atargatis with Aphrodite or Venus, who was popularly regarded as having been born from sea foam. The confusion of Atargatis with Astarte, who was considered the equivalent of Aphrodite, might also have had something to do with this. Ovid wrote of Venus and Cupid jumping into the Euphrates to escape from the monster Typhon, with the nymphs turning the deities into fish to aid in their flight, an account likely inspired by the tale of Atargatis. The constellation Pisces, two fishes swimming in opposite directions, was intended to honor this event.
Picture by Corina Chirila