The history of ancient mermaids

This week we celebrate  laugh at Christopher Columbus’s discovery of mermaids. He notes that on January 9th his crew spotted them. Later it is assumed he saw Manatees.

To celebrate Columbus’ discovery, ah mistake I thought I would offer my readers the history of ancient MermaidsUntitled1

 A Ugarit cuneiform tablets attest to a fecund “Lady Goddess of the Sea”

The first mermaids in ancient cultures were worshiped as goddesses and appeared in mythology between 1200 B.C.E. to 49 A.D. Stories in ancient Canaan, (dates of which are hard to pin down) we find reference to a sea goddess who is clearly the consort of the god El. For it is written (in part):

As soon as El saw her, 
he opened his mouth and laughed;
… he raised his voice and shouted:
“Why has Lady Asherah-of-the-Sea arrived?
why has the Mother of the Gods come?

It is interesting to note that the above lines come from writing that will eventually make their way into the Old Testament. Though the story of El and Asherah are plentiful and easily accessible no mention of her is in the Bible though the spread of civilization in the ancient East is also attributed to Ashera. It is is said to have taught the people social and religious practices.

Amman, Citadel Archaeological Museum Tyche or Atargatis, Nabatean Goddess of Fruits and Fertility
Amman, Citadel Archaeological Museum Tyche or Atargatis, Nabatean Goddess of Fruits and Fertility

The Greek historian Diodorus Siculus referenced the mermaid myth in his Bibliotheca Historica (Universal history). From Syria to Greece references to a mermaid named Atargatis can be found.  And it seems no matter which culture mentions Atargatis her story is always the same.

Atargatis was in love with a human shepherd but accidentally killed him.  Out of guilt, the goddess flung herself into the ocean hoping to become a fish.  But her beauty was so great, that she never could fully become a fish.  Instead she became half goddess, half fish, with a tail below the waist and human body above the waist.   

The worship of Atargatis began in ancient Assyria and spread as far as Rome and Greece.  She is also known as Derketo in Greek mythology and is thought to have been the inspiration for the worship of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.  Atargatis is considered to be Great Mother and Goddess of Fertility of the earth and water.

Doves and fish were her sacred animals, doves symbolizing love and fish symbolizing that she was the fertility of the waters.  Fish were so sacred to her that in the Syrian town of Ascalon, people were forbidden from eating fish from a lake near Atargatis’s temple.  These fish were very well kept, had jewels on their head and were as affectionate as pets when they were approached by people from the town. Her close ties to the conservation of fish and water fertility explain why the ancient goddess was depicted as a mermaid.

Now Atargatis is used as a New Age symbol of fertility and wisdom. Some even celebrate the February 21 as the Feast day of Atargatis. It is said The Feast of Atargatis, is a strange but true surreal visionary adventure of psychic communications across time and space, of haunting past lives and the battle between a mermaid fish Goddess and a dark sea monster from another dimension. No mention if fish is served during the celebration. One would hope not!


 Readings from the Ancient Near East: Primary Sources for Old Testament Study

 ASH Magazine. Dedicated to Folklore. Earth Mysteries. Esoterica.

Sea-thos Foundation

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

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