My name is Atargatis (ah-TAR-gah-tis) and I am the earliest known mermaid to exist in recorded lore. In some versions of my myriad tales, I was born from an egg that fell from the stars and was pushed ashore by a fish, a creature sacred to me. Eventually, I am an ancient Syrian Mother Goddess, but I was worshipped throughout the ancient world in many cults and temples, and I was known by many names. I am often conflated with Ishtar, Astarte, Aphrodite/Venus and Aset (Isis), also known as Nina (namesake of the city Nineveh), Derketo to the Greeks, and Dea Syria – meaning the Syrian Goddess – to the Romans. Some of my images and icons even connected me to Rhea/Cybele – The Great Mother. Indeed I was often known as “Mother of the Gods”.
In some myths, I loved a mortal shepherd named Hadad, and accidentally killed him and attempted suicide in my grief. He later became known as my consort, a deity in his own rite, in many of my cults. However, as the Greek nymph Derketo I was instead ashamed of being impregnated by the mortal and that shame drove me to jump into a lake to drown. In yet another variation, as Aphrodite, I leapt into a river to escape the giant Typhon.
In both instances the blessed waters sensed both my divinity and my turmoil, and disguised me as a fish or gave me a fish’s tail from the thighs down, preserving in my upper body my feminine beauty, and thus was I reborn. My daughter became the legendary Semiramis, Queen of Assyria, who restored Babylon, founded my temple at Hierapolis and conquered much of Asia. The sacred fishes of the lake that transformed me (or, in other versions, the fishes who pushed my fallen egg ashore) were honored and turned into the constellation Pisces.
I represent Origins, New beginnings, Rebirth, Transformation, Healing and Love
My shadows are Widowhood, Undesired Pregnancy, Guilt, Despair, Suicide and Death/Endings
Symbols/associations: fish, dolphin, dove, spindle, wheat stalks, egg, crescent moon
Offerings: wheat beer, pure water, wine, bread, barley, figs, abstinence from eating fish
Triple Goddess Aspect: Crone
“…the Semitic moon goddess, who followed the course of the sun, at times manifesting herself to the eyes of men, at others seeking concealment in the western flood, was represented as half woman, half fish, with characteristics which make her lunar origin indisputable. Her name was Derceto, or Atergatis, and she was identical with Mylitta, the universal Mother, or source of life. This goddess “was esteemed by her votaries the same as Venus or Cupris;” she “was worshipped by the Phigalians, in Arcadia, by the name of Eurunome Diana; her statue was of great antiquity, and represented a woman as far as the middle, but from thence had the figure of a fish.” Macrobius makes her “the mother of the gods;” and Bryant wisely concludes that this mermaid figure was a hieroglyphic of the Ark. On the coins of Ascalon, Semiramis is represented as half woman and half fish, and at Joppa she is also represented as a mermaiden; the story being that she fled from Typhon, plunged into the sea, took the form of a fish, and thus preserved her incognito! The goddess of moisture (the Syrian Tirgata, and the Derceto of Palestine), was also depicted as a mermaid.” – Llewellyn Jewitt “The Reliquary: Quarterly Archaeological Journal and Review, Vol. XIX 1878
Being the most ancient mermaid, and an All-Mother long known and worshipped by many cultures and civilizations, I associate Atargatis with the Crone aspect of the Triple Goddess. The Crone represents the culmination of all feminine living and experience, having come full circle from the beginning to the end, and therefore continuing the cycle to a new beginning, as is all that death leads to. Of the Three Mermaids, she is the only one who was (in ways and in certain myths) widowed and who purposely sought death or transformation, both of which also closely link her to the deathly Crone.
As she originated in the literal East, in Mesopotamia, and as her rebirth in the lake as a mermaid represents a most hopeful new beginning and healing, I place her in the direction of the East. The rising Sun on the Fertile Crescent and the newly-formed goddess rising out of the sacred lake remind us that there is always a new day and another chance.
I associate Atargatis with the element of the East, the warm Air blowing through the arid Syrian lands, the breath of new life. She is also the only mermaid of the Three to be associated with a winged animal, often having been depicted with a dove. In some versions of her story, she is believed to have been hatched from an egg that fell from the heavens into the Euphrates and was incubated specifically by a dove. The dove also came to be held sacred by Aphrodite, for whom it is believed that Atargatis served as the direct inspiration.
Atargatis is a very complex goddess who appeared in different forms and stories in many cultures, and the amount of both ancient and recent texts and research we have regarding her only ironically help to compound her mystery and the daunting task of trying to define her and sort out her legends, varied and intercultural as they all are.
It’s very intriguing and significant to me that so many goddesses – Astarte (this association is sometimes considered inaccurate but their similarities are undeniable), Anat, Ishtar, Aphrodite, Isis, Hera, Cybele – would all be identified with each other and even be considered just slightly different forms of or names for the same supreme goddess, one Great Mother, who was also considered to be a mermaid or in the form of a fish.
I think this proves the very sacred and apt symbol of the mermaid as the ultimate representation of the feminine divine, and the mother and nurturer that water itself is to all life, hence the watery and fishy associations with Atargatis and so many other of the highest and most ancient goddesses (and gods).
In fact, the letter “M”, as in “mother” and “mermaid”, comes directly from the Egyptian hieroglyph depicting water –
This is also the glyph (two stacked one on top of the other) for the zodiac sign Aquarius – the Water Bearer. What is any woman but a true water bearer, with her life-growing womb?
(Aquarius is frequently and understandably mistaken for a Water sign because of its very name, but it is an Air sign.)
The French words for “mother” and “sea”, mère and mer respectively, are virtually and very appropriately the same. This is also echoed in names of other primordial mother and creator goddesses who are actually the ocean itself, and whose names literally mean “sea” or “ocean”, such as Tiamat, Thalassa and, slightly less directly, Yemaya.
Yet in most ways Tiamat and Thalassa (like the frigid Norse Ran) are not often considered especially maternal in the warm and approachable sense that most anthropomorphic mother deities are. They are massive, wild forces and elements of nature that destroy as frequently and readily as they create. However we find in Atargatis, as with many nurturing mother goddesses (many of whom still have their dark sides), a more humanized and approachable representation of the divine feminine and the creative, healing and restoring powers of water.
We also find in her much more empathy and sympathy than we might find in the changeable, salty sea herself. The distinction in fact can be found in the kind of water to which Atargatis or any other water goddess is linked – freshwater or salt. While salt water supports and creates life in many ways, we humans rely more on fresh, potable water ourselves to survive.
Like the others of the Mermaid Triple Goddess, Mélusine and Lí Ban, Atargatis is associated with freshwater, specifically the sacred lake which changed her into her fish or mermaid form. Likewise is Lí Ban a freshwater mermaid, having been transformed in a lake, and Mélusine was a freshwater sprite who dwelled by a forest spring and in Avalon before her transformation.
Sedna, on the other hand, is not the mother of any human or even half-human, but of marine mammals and is the transformed guardian of the salty ocean. This is another reason why she fits with the others in terms of the four directions, but decidedly not as an aspect of a nurturing Triple Goddess. She is far more concerned with her domain and her ocean children than with the humans above who have absolutely desecrated the sacred seas.
We learn from Atargatis the completion of the cycle and of finding and accepting our place in the circle of life. She is at once all aspects of the goddess, as indeed is the Crone as the culmination of all a woman’s life and experience. By the time she becomes the aged, wise grandmother and even harbinger of death, she has been all three – Maiden, Mother and Crone.
Atargatis represents the abundance and cycles of nature, the necessity of hope and the blessing of renewal after loss and endings. She represents all mothers and their love for both their partners and husbands, and for their children. She is the perfected beauty of the divine feminine and the personification of nourishing freshwater that wells from deep within the earth, rises through the equally life-giving air, forms the shading clouds and then falls again to the Earth as merciful, quenching rain that sustains the endless cycle of life, growing and transforming all that it touches. She is life.
Water is every form and stage of life and this is the spirit and the message of the Mermaid Triple Goddess.
© 2019 Meredith Everwhite – All Rights Reserved