Peri Tes Syries Theoy
De Dea Syria
Concerning the Syrian Goddess

by Lucian of Samosata


Part Four - Ch. 28 through 49


A concatenation of the Loeb Classics edition, translated by A. M. Harmon and modernized by me, and the translation of Harold W. Attridge and Robert A. Oden.

Most of the notes are adapted from Harmon. Some are my own. Wherever Lucian gives only a Greek name, I have tried to include the Phoenician or Syrian name.

More details in the Introduction

Part Four
Ch. 28-29 - The Holy Pillar Sitters
Ch. 30-49 - The Temple of the Syrian Goddess

The Holy Pillar Sitters

28 - The place where the temple is situated is on a hill and it lies well within the midst of the city, and two walls surround it. One of the walls is ancient, but the other is not much older than our time. The entrance of the sanctuary extends out toward the Septemtryon, at least 100 fathoms in length; and in that entrance stand the pillars that Dionysos set up at a height of 300 fathoms.

Some reduce these 300-fathom emblems to 30 by conjecture, but it is in unimportant details like this that Lucian gives rein to his inclination to parody. Mandeville gives the Tower of Babel the modest height of 64 furlongs - eight miles.

A man goes up one of these pillars twice a year and stays at the top of the pillar for the period of seven days. And they say the cause of his going up is this. Common folk believe that he speaks with the gods on high and asks boons for all Syria, and the gods hear his prayers from so near.

This is evidently the true reason, and not either of the two that follow. That the gods can hear better from near at hand is good Semitic psychology; but the use of a pillar instead of a mountain-top, or a ziggurat, or the roof of a house, appears otherwise unevidenced in early Syria. "It was perhaps the memory of this strange rite (not however peculiar to Syria, but known also in India) which led Simeon the Stylite to ascend his column four centuries later at a site not very far west of the old temple of the Dea Syria" (C.R. Conder, Palestine, p. 206)

But others believe that this is also done because of Deukalion, in token and memory of that tribulation, when men went into the mountains and into the great high trees for fear of the flood. Now to me, that is not believable. I strongly suppose that they do this for worship of Dionysus, and I conclude thus. Pillars that they make for worship of Dionysus, on the pillars they always set wooden men; but I shall not say why. [Compare Herodotus 2, 48, and the hieros logos. The explanation that Lucian has in mind is probably the Prosymnos story (Clement of Alexandria, Protrept. 2, p. 30 P)]. Therefore I think, in going up, that one imitates the wooden man.

29 - The way he goes up is this. He puts a short cord about himself and the pillar, then he climbs on pieces of wood nailed on the column which are just big enough for him to set his toes on; and as he climbs he throws up the cord with both hands just as he might shake the reins of a chariot. If there are any that have not seen this thing, but have seen men climb palm trees in Arabia or in Egypt, or elsewhere, he understands what I am talking about. [alluded to by Pliny, 13, 29.]

When he comes to the end of his climb, he lets fall another cord that he has, which is long, and draws up what he needs, wood, and clothes and food, of which he frames a seat like a nest; thereon he sits and abides for the space of the aforementioned seven days. And many come, putting gold and silver or, sometimes, bronze, that they use for their coins, into a vessel that lies near the pillar, everyone saying his name. Then someone that stands beside the pillar calls it up; and when that other receives the name of each, he prays for him, and in praying shakes a thing of bronze that sounds loud and shrill when it is stirred.

Very likely the bronze sistrum; fragments of these have been found in Phoenicia (Cook 45). The object was to scare away evil spirits, which as Lucian says elsewhere (vol. iii, p. 343), take flight if they hear a chink of bronze or iron.

And he never sleeps. For if ever he falls asleep, a scorpion going up awakens him and does him piteous harm; and that is the pain that is laid on him for sleeping.

There is probably special significance in the scorpion. Not only does it occur frequently on Babylonian seals, and later become the sign of the Zodiac, but in the Gilgamesh Epic, the mountain, where the sun goes down, is guarded by a scorpion man and woman.

Now this tale of the scorpion is a holy tale and well seeming, but whether it be true or not, I do not know. Nonetheless, it seems to me that dread of falling avails much in wakefulness.

Now then, of pillar-climbers I have said enough.

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The Temple of the Syrian Goddess

30 - But concerning the temple, it looks toward the rising sun, and the form and making thereof is just as they build temples in Ionia. A large platform rises from the earth 2 fathoms [12 feet] in height, whereon the temple sits. The ramp up to it is made of stone, and is not very long. And when you have ascended, the sight of the temple shows you a thing of great marvel, for it is adorned with doors of gold. And within, the temple shines with much gold and the ceiling is all golden. And a heavenly fragrance comes out of it, such as they say comes out of the land of Arabia. As you approach, even from afar it sends toward you a wonderful sweet breath; and as you depart, it never leaves you, but your clothes retain that scent for a long time, and you shall remember it forever.

31 - And within, the temple is not a single room, but in it is another chamber, and another ramp up which is quite short. That chamber does not have doors, but on the front it is completely open. All enter into the large temple, but into the little chamber only priests go, and not all the priests, but only they who are closest to the Gods and who govern all the service of the temple. And in that chamber are enthroned the idols; one is Hera [Atargatis] and that other is Zeus although they call him by another name.

The other name, the right one, is Hadad, or Ramman, god of lightning and of waters (rains and floods), known from very early times to the Semites, to the Mitani under the name Teshub, and to the Hittites, upon whose monuments he is conspicuous, with axe and thunderbolts for attributes. He underlies not only Jupiter Heliopolitanus but Jupiter Dolichenus.
Both are of gold, and both are seated, but lions bear Hera [Atargatis], and the god sits on bulls.
Lucian's statement is borne out by the coins. Atargatis is seen sometimes riding on a lion, sometimes enthroned between two of them; Hadad (not Baal Kevan) is seated between two oxen. "On an inscription from North Syria (eighth century) Hadad has horns, and with this agrees the association of the bull with the god . . . we may conjecture that the small heads of bulls unearthed by the excavations are connected with his worship" (Cook, 90; cf. Schrader-Zimmern, p. 778). Compare Tobit, 1,5. The lion appears also in connection with Ata, with "Qadesh," who stands upon a lion in an Egyptian representation of her, and with several Babylonian deities, as well as with Cybele.

Certainly the statue of Zeus resembles Zeus in every respect, such as head and garments and throne; and you would not liken him unto anything else, even if you wanted to.

32 - But when you look upon Hera [Atargatis], she presents great diversity of details; for although the whole could truly be considered Hera [Atargatis], nonetheless it contains something of Athena, Aphrodite, Selena, Rhea [Kybele], Artemis, Fortune [Nemesis] and Parcae [Moirai] [The Fates].

Compare Plutarch, Crassus, 17, 6: "And the first warning sign came to him from this very goddess, whom some call Venus, others Juno, while others still regard her as the natural cause which supplies from moisture the beginnings and seeds of everything, and points out to mankind the source of all blessings. For as they were leaving her temple (where, Plutarch says, he had been taking an inventory of the treasures, first the younger Crassus stumbled and fell at the gate, and then his father fell over him." The identification with Aphrodite, which occurs on inscriptions from Delos, is due to her Astarte side; to Lucian in this case it is of course particularly suggested by the famous cestus. What suggested the other goddesses is not clear to me in the case of Athena or of Nemesis; the rays indicate Selene, the distaff Artemis, and the scepter the Parcae, or Moirai (Fates).

For in one hand she holds a scepter, and in that other a distaff; and on her head she bears rays, and a tower, and that cestus/girdle with which men array Celestial Aphrodite alone. And about her she has more gold and costly gems, some white, some watery, many like wine, and many like fire; and there are sardonyx without number and beryls [yakinthos/jacinth] [sapphires] and emeralds. These stones are brought by men of Egypt and India and Ethiopia and Mede and Armenia and Babylon. But I shall advise you of a thing that is worth more to speak of. She bears on her head a stone that is called Lamp [a ruby light] and named after that which it does. That stone shines in the night with great clarity and illumines all the temple, just as if it were a lamp. In the day its glow is feeble but it still has quite a fiery aspect.

Compare Herodotus 2, 44, on the great emerald pillar in the temple of Melqart at Tyre. Diodorus (3, 39, 8) credits the topaz with this power.

And there is another marvel in that idol. If you stand opposite and look directly at her, she looks straight at you, and if you move, her gaze follows you; nonetheless, if another beholds her from the other side, she does just the same to him.

33 - Between the two stands a statue of gold, not in any way like the other statues, that has no character of its own but bears the qualities of the other gods.. And the Syrians themselves call it Token [semeion], for they have not given him any proper name; in truth they do not speak of its origins nor what manner of thing it is. But some attribute it to Dionysos, and others to Deukalion, and still others to Semiramis. Indeed, a dove of gold rests on his head, and so they say that it is a Sign of Semiramis. And twice each year it journeys to the Sea to fetch that water aformentioned.

It is clear from the passage in Melito quoted above that Lucian's "token" (semeion) rests upon a misunderstanding of the name of a goddess, Simi, Simia, Semea . The name also figures in the Semiramis-Derketo myth, for the royal overseer is called Simmas. Note also that the figure has a dove on its head. A Talmudic gloss cited by Drusius says: "Samaritanus circumcidit in nomine imaginis columbam referentis quam inventam in vertice monti Garizim certo quodam ritu colunt" (Selden, de Dis Syris, p. 275) See Montgomery, Samaritans, p. 320.

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34 - In the temple itself on the left side in entering is first a throne of Helios the Sun, but no image of him sits thereon. For of Sun and Moon only they display no statues, and I learned why they follow this custom. They say it is lawful to make statues of other gods, because their shapes are not visible to all. But Sun and Moon are completely visible and all behold them. So why make statues of things that appear in plain air.

35 - And quite near this throne is set a statue of Apollo, not like he is usually formed. For all others think of Apollo as young and form him as a youth, but these people alone display a statue of Apollo bearded. In doing this they pride themselves and reprove Greeks and all others who worship Apollo as a child. And they reason thus, for it seems to them great folly to make the forms of gods imperfect, and they consider youth imperfect. And here Apollo has another novelty; for they alone array him with clothing.

Apollo is Nebo, whose statue, bearded and clothed, erected at Kelach by Adad-Nirari III, son of Semiramis, may be seen at the British Museum. The inscription that it bears implores long life for Adad-Nirari, king of Assyria, and for Sammuramat, the Lady of the Palace. Nebo was highly favored by Semiramis, and also, in later days, by Antiochus Soter, who rebuilt his temple at Borsippa in 268 B.C. At Edessa, near Hieropolis, his worship continued until the coming of Christianity. Contemporary testimony to its existence at Hieropolis is furnished by Melito; see above, about Nebo. The statue at Hieropolis that we find described in Macrobius seems to be a later one; for though it was bearded and clothed, as in Lucian's day, there was a calathus on the head, a spear topped with a little figure of Victory in the right hand, a flower in the left, a breastplate on his body, and over it a snaky aegis; also two eagles near by (Saturn, 1, 17, 67-70).

36 - Now of the wonders that he does I could say a great deal, but I will describe only what is most marvelous; and first I shall mention the oracle. There are many oracles among the Greeks, many among the Egyptians, some in Libya, and many, too, in Asia. But none of these speaks without priests or prophets; but this one moves by himself and by himself accomplishes his forecastings, the manner is just so. When he in willing to make predictions, first he moves on his throne, and the priests immediately lift him up; if they do not lift him, he sweats and moves even more. And while they carry him on their shoulders, he drives them, turning them in all directions and leaping from one to another. Finally the High Priest meets him and asks him all sorts of things; and if he does not want a thing done, he draws them backwards; but if he approves a thing, he drives the bearers forward just as if he were driving a chariot.

At Heliopolis, Jupiter Heliopolitanus, who had absorbed "Apollo," gave oracles in much the same way (Macrobius, Saturn, 1, 23, 13 sqq.). So also did Ammon at his great Libyan shrine (Siwa); the description of the procedure when Alexander consulted it (Diodorus, 17, 50-51), somewhat blind in itself, is clear in the light of these parallels. The ikon of the Virgin at Phaneromene, Salamis, is credited with similar powers do-day (Capps).

So they assemble the divine predictions, and without this rite they conduct no business, neither religious nor mundane. And he speaks of the year and of its seasons, even if they do not ask; and he speaks of the "Sign", - 37 - when it should go on that journey aforesaid. And I shall tell you another wonder which he did in my own presence. When the priests were lifting him up to carry him, he left them down on the earth and flew in the air all by himself.

38 - There behind Apollo is a statue of Atlas, and behind that, of Hermes and one of Lucina [Eileithyia].

This is very likely the same triad of Semitic deities under another set of names, and in slightly different manifestations. For Atlas I would suggest Hadaranes, who according to Melito was worshipped here; a sign of the Zodiac would have sufficed to suggest the supporter of the heavens. Hermes should be Nebo at bottom, because that planet is the planet of Nebo; but the Heliopolitan Mercury who took the place of the Hieropolitan Apollo-Nebo in the triad is thought to have been called Simios. Eileithyia (Lucina), the helper in childbirth, is Myletta, though here they may not have called her by that name (sf. Schrader-Zimmern, 423, note 70.

39 - Now have I advised you how the temple is arranged within. Outside stands a great altar of bronze, and near by are other statues of kings and priests without number; and I shall tell you of those that be most worthy of mention. At the left side of the temple stands a statue of Semiramis indicating the temple with her right hand, which was set up for this reason. She made a law for all who dwell in Syria that they should worship her as their goddess, doing nought for the other gods, including Hera [Atargatis] herself. And they did just so. But later, as much sickness and tribulations and pains were laid on her by the gods, she ceased of that folly and admitted that she was mortal and commanded all her subjects to turn again unto Hera [Atargatis]. Therefore she still stands like this, advising to all who come that they should worship Hera [Atargatis], confessing that she is no longer a goddess, but that other is.

[There may be some truth in this legend, for Semiramis actually received worship in Charchemish, just north of Hieropolis.]

40 - And I also saw there images of Helen and Hecuba and Andromache and Paris and Hector and Achilles. And I saw Nireos image, son of Aglaye, and Philomele and Procne, when they were still women, and Tereus himself as a bird, and another image of Semiramis, and of Kombabos who I spoke of, and a very beautiful image of Stratonike, and one of Alexander as if it were the very man, and there beside him stands Sardanapalle in unusual shape and unusual apparel. [That is, with the figure and clothing of a woman]

41 - And in the courtyard wander freely large bulls, horses, eagles, bears, and lions; and they do no harm to men, for everyone of them is holy and tame. [Sacred animals were a common feature of temple-closes in Greece]

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42 - Numerous priests have been appointed for the inhabitants, some of whom slay the sacrificial animals, some bear the libations, some are called Fire-bearers, and some Altar Attendants. When I was there, more than 300 assembled for the sacrifice. They were clothed in completely white robes, and they had a pointed cap/pilos on their heads. Every year a new high priest is set over them, who alone wears a robe of purple and is crowned with a corona of gold.

For the pointed cap, see Cumont in Daremberg-Saglio, Dict. des Ant., s.v. Syria Dea, fig. 6698, and the reference to Abd-Hadad. Coins of Hieropolis, of the fourth century, B.C., show the high priest Abd-Hadad in the dress here described

43 - And there is another great multitude of holy men, flute players, pipers, and Galloi, as well as women who are frenzied and out of their wits.

44 - Twice each day sacrifice is performed to which all come. To Zeus they sacrifice in silence, neither singing nor playing on the flute; but when they present offerings to Hera [Atargatis], then they sing and flute and shake rattles. And concerning this they could not tell me anything certain.

45 - There is also a lake there, a little ways from the temple, in which holy fishes are raised, very numerous and of diverse kinds. Some of them are very large, and these have names and come when they are called. And when I was there, amongst them was one that was golden. On his fin was fastened a jewel of gold; and often times I saw him, and he always had that decoration.

"At Hierapolis in Syria, in the lake of Venus, they (the fish) obey the spoken commands of the aeditui; when called, they come with their golden ornaments; they show affection and let themselves be tickled (adulantes acalpuntur), and they open their mouths for people to put in their hands" (Pliny, Nat. Hist. 32, 17). According to Aelian (Nat. Hist. 12, 2) they swan in regular formation, and had leaders. The pond still exists, but the fish are no more (Cumont, …tudes Syriennes, p. 36 sq.). There were similar ponds at Ascalon, Edessa, and Smyrna; see the interesting inscription from Smyrna in Dittenberger, Sylloge Inscr. Graec., No. 584. The custom was transmitted to modern times (Baudissin, Studien, ii, pp. 159 and 165; Hogarth, l.c., p. 189). On the fish tabu in Syria, see Xenophon, Anab. 1, 4, 9; Menander, fragment 544 Kock; Cicero, de Nat. Deor. 3, 39; Diodorus 2, 4, 3; Plutarch, Moral. 170 D, 730 D; Ovid, Fasti 2, 461 sqq.; Athenaeus 4, 157 B; 8, 346 C sqq.; Clement Alex., Protrept. 2, 39, p. 35 P; Hyginus, Fab. 197; Astron. 2, 30.

46 - The depth of that lake is very deep. I did not test it, but they say that it is much more than 200 fathoms/1200 feet deep; and in its middle stands an altar of stone. At first glance, you would believe that it floated and drifted upon the water, and many actually think it is so; but I think that a great pile put underneath bears up the altar. And it is always decorated with garlands and has incense burning, and many swimming over to it each day to fulfill a vow they have made, bringing garlands.

Gruppe (Gr. Myth. u. Religionsgesch., p. 813) connects this "Floating" island with the holy island of Tyre, the floating island of Chemmis in the swamps of Buto, and with the Greek stories of Delos and Patmos.

47 - At that spot are wonderful great festivals take place, called Descents to the Lake, because on these occasions all the sacred objects go down to the lake. Among them Hera [Atargatis] comes first, because of the fish, for fear that Zeus see them first; for if this should happen, all the fish perish, they say. And truly he comes to see them, but she, standing before him, prevents him, and with many supplications sends him away.

"The rite of descending to the water (kat·basis, Semitic yerid) was common all over Syria. Some scholars believe its purpose was to revive the water-sources and bring rain"

48 - Wonderful great also are the festivals that are customarily observed by the sea. Of those festivals I cannot say anything certain, because I neither attended myself nor did I attempt the pilgrimage. But what they do when they return, that I saw and shall describe to you. Everyone bears a vessel full of water, and these pots are sealed with wax. And they themselves do not break the seal to pour the water out; but there is a sacred Rooster, [not, according to Dussaud, a Gallus, but an overseer] that dwells near the lake; when he receives the vessels he inspects the seal, gets a fee for undoing the bond and removing the wax. and the Cock gathers much silver for this activity. Then they themselves bring the water into the temple and pour it out; and after this they perform sacrifice, and then they return home.

49 - But the greatest of all feasts I know of is kept in the beginning of summer, and some call it Fire Fest and some Torch Fest. During it they sacrifice like this. They cut down great trees and set them in the courtyard, and after, bringing goats, sheep and other livestock, they hang them alive from the trees, and in the trees are also birds, clothes, and gold and silver artifacts. And when they have made everything ready, they bear the sacred objects around the trees, and then they throw fire in and instantly everything burns up.

Baudissin (176, 3) knows no closer parallel than the Continental Mai-Feste, and thinks that, if the Syrian custom came down from the North, a community of origin is possible. Somewhat similar is the practice at Tarsos of erecting a pyre, setting on it an image of the god Sandan, and then burning it up. Frazer (i, 126, 146) associates the two customs and ascribes their origin to the immolation of a human victim, the priest-king. For myself, I should like to know what became of the tree in the Attis-cult, that was cut down and brought into the temple, that the image of Attis might be tied to it (Frazer, i, 267). In the Gilgamesh Epic, Humbaba is posted by Bel as watcher of the cedars (Schrader-Zimmern, 570); and sacred trees still have offerings hung on them (Robertson Smith, Rel. of the Semites, pp. 185-6)

To this festival come many both from Syria and from all surrounding countries; and all bring their own holy things and all have their "Sign" made in imitation of the one here.

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Navigate "The Syrian Goddess"

Back to Part One
Ch. 1-5 - The Temples of Syria and Phoenicia
Ch. 6-9 - The Story of Adon, called by the Greeks, Adonis

Back to Part Two

Ch. 10-13 - The Holy City of the Syrian Goddess
Ch. 14 - The Story of Semiramis and Derketo
Ch. 15-16 - The Story of Kybele and Attis

Back to Part Three
Ch. 17-27 - The Story of Stratonike and Kombabos

This Page, Part Four: Back up to
Ch. 28-29 - The Holy Pillar Sitters
Ch. 30-49 - The Temple of the Syrian Goddess

On to Part Five
Ch. 50-54 - The Galloi
Ch. 55-60 - Pilgrims to the Holy City

The Qadash Kinahnu Canaanite-Phoenician Temple Directory

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