A Who's Who of World Mythology : Astarte

The origins of Astarte (Asherah, Asherat, Ashtart, Ashtareth, Ashtoreth, Ashtaroth. Atargatis, Athar, Attart) stretches back into antiquity. Inscriptions trace her earliest incarnation, Aserah, back to the third millennium BCE, Astarte gaining dominance around 1500 BCE. Aserah of the Sea (or Asheratian) was co-consort with Anat to El. She began as an Amorite goddess, then Canaanite and possibly Phoenician. As Aserah, she was the mother of seventy gods and goddesses, including Baal, Anat, Kathar-Wa-Hasis, and Athar. As Astarte, she was considered the consort of Baal.

Among the Semites, Ashtarte was a fertility goddess, her center of worship, the entire Middle East. She was a sea goddess of the northern Semites and was equated with Allat, Elat, and Mut. Lucian called her the Syrian Dea, or great goddess. Her animal was the sphinx which was typically depicted on either side of her throne. Among the Babylonians, she became Ishtar. The Greeks equated her with Aphrodite, and both were goddesses of the planet Venus. In fact, Astarte (and most of her other names) means “star,” though it is sometimes translated as “womb” or “that which comes from the womb.” Temple prostitution was practiced among her devotees.

As Ashtoreth, she was a goddess of war and sexual love in Egypt from 1800 BCE until the coming of Christianity. Known as the Lady of Horse and Chariots, she was depicted with the head of a lioness and mounted on a quadriga in a possible mistaken combination with Anthat. Most usually depicted in the nude, she is shown Egyptian style, with a crown of cows’ horns enclosing a sun disc. In Egyptian myth, she was given as either the daughter of Ra or Ptah through the goddess Neith. According to one story, in the early days the gods were required to pay tribute of gold, silver, and precious stones to the sea. This they did, but the sea wanted more. So they sent Ashtoreth to the sea bearing more offerings. Instead of giving these however, she proceeded to mock the waters. The sea responded by demanding her as a gift. The great gods covered her in jewels and sent her back to the sea, accompanied by Seth. Though the end of the story is missing, it is assumed that Seth fought the sea and saved her.

As Aserah, she gave her name to the hilltop shrines under the trees which were so vilified by the writers of the biblical prophetic books. Translated as “grove” in the King James Version of the Bible, the aserah seems to have been a carved wooden pillar, representing the mother goddess and forming the focal point of worship in conjunction with the stone massebah. Worship by early Israelites at the aserah became one of the major irritations of the masculine oriented Semitic groups. Many Semites viewed her as the queen of heaven and wife of Yahweh. Among the SUmerians however, her husband was Martu (or Amor, god of the Amorites). In fact, Solomon was said to have built a temple near Jerusalem in her honor. This conflict between patriarchal worshippers and their more matriarchal tolerant brethren is possibly how she was denigrated to the male Christian demon Astaroth in later times.

Atargatis (Derketo -Greek) is a variation of the Babylonian Atar’ate (found inscribed on coins), itself a contraction of Ashtart-Anat. She is the equivalent of Astarte. As a Syrian fish-goddess, she acts as the fertility goddess of Ascalon (her chief temple) and is usually depicted as a type of mermaid. In Rome, she was called Dea Syria. Worshiped at Hierapolis, northeast of Aleppo, along with her consort, Hadad, she was depicted adorned with a crown and carrying a sheaf of grain, and her throne was supported by lions, suggesting her power over nature. Merchants and mercenaries carried her cult throughout the Greek world, where she was considered a form of Aphrodite.

Atargatis is mentioned in the Apocrypha, and Judah Maccabeus defiled the temple at Carnaim. Without consideration for the sanctity of her temple, Judah slew the inhabitants that had fled there for refuge. Then he set fire to the temple and all its sacred relics.