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Part 2: Goddess Atargatis and the Mermaid Myths and Legends

Tales of beautiful half woman, half fish, have been told over millennia. One myth originated in ancient Assyria circa 2000 BCE. The writer Lucien describes the Goddess legend in text during the 1st millennium BCE. He writes of the mother goddess Atargatis, mother to the Assyrian queen Semiramis, who was in love with a mortal shepherd boy. Unintentionally killing him devasted her.

The goddess was so distraught after the death of her beloved that she threw herself into a lake and took the form of a fish. The powers of divinity ruling the lake waters would not accept her death and conceal her magnificent divine beauty, so they persuaded her to take on the form of a beautiful, bare-breasted woman with the tail of a fish.

Divine love story

The beautiful heavenly goddess Atargatis was walking along the coastline of the Mediterranean, picking up shells to make a bracelet and necklace to hang around her beautiful, graceful neckline. As she walked admiring the azure blue waters, she heard a lamb bleating and walked towards the crag, where she listened to where the sound was coming from. She looked down into the bluff and saw a white lamb that had lost its footing while grazing and had fallen into the gap between the rocks.

Hearing a gentle voice calling to the lamb, she looked up and into the face of a handsome shepherd. Atargatis had never seen such a beautiful face before. His dark hair hung shoulder-length, and he had the most mesmerizing eyes. She wondered who this handsome young man was that would care for an animal as small as a lamb.

“Goddess, please be careful! This is a dangerous area’, said the handsome young man. “Please give me your hand to help you up while I tend to the little creature.”

Atargatis reached up and took hold of his strong hand. She noted how soft his skin was to touch. He pulled her to safety. He was able to reach the bleating lamb.

Syrian Goddess Atargatis

Gently lifting the lamb to safety, the shepherd turned to face Atargatis. He had a strong jawline and a thick brow the same color as his hair. Atargatis had never seen such a magnificent man. She fell in love at first glance, and although the shepherd felt the same way, he would never be so bold as to say anything. He simply said in his gentle voice,

“Thank you, gracious goddess, and thank you for your blessings on all creatures and mother earth. Your blessings give my sheep grass to eat and the ability to have lambs”.

Atargatis and the shepherd made plans to meet the next day, the following day, and every day. They had fallen in love. One day goddess Atargatis invited her beloved to the palace quarters where she resided. After drinking wine made from local grapes, they made love.

Divine child

After months of bliss in the arms of her beloved, the goddess Atargatis noticed her breasts were becoming fuller. One of her royal attendants mentioned that she might be with a child. Atargatis went to see the medicine woman who cared for the people of the city of Ascalon.

The medicine woman confirmed that the goddess was with child. The goddess was ecstatic. She had never known that it was possible for a mortal and a divine being to have a child. She knew she had to hide her growing belly until she and her beloved had made plans for the future. Perhaps they could move to an island in the blue Mediterranean waters and become a family. She dreamed of a happily ever after with her beloved and started making plans. She sent scouts to the island of Cyprus, Egypt, and islands off the coast of mainland Anatolia to find the perfect location for a new palace.

Early Depiction of the Syrian Goddess Atargatis

Once the scouts returned with details of the foreign islands, they visited Atargatis and decided to move to Cyprus as it was centrally located in the seas and had naturally fertile soil, olive groves, and vineyards.

Due to her growing belly, the Heavenly Goddess had not been to their secret meeting place to tell her beloved that she was with child or that she had found an island for them to live together as a family.

Divine tragedy

Atargatis had her closest attendant go to the shepherd’s dwelling and bring him to her quarters, saying that the goddess had wonderful news to share with him.

The shepherd was relieved to hear that his beloved was safe and wanted to see her. He felt sad as he thought his love had found another. He longed to lie in her arms but could not enter the palace grounds. The shepherd immediately gathered his sheep, put them in a pen, and set off to the palace with the attendant. 

It was dusk when they arrived at the palace, and the shepherd entered the goddess’ quarters as the orange rays of the sun glistened and created a divine light emanating from behind the goddess. She looked so beautiful and ethereal, almost untouchable, but he took her in his arms and kissed her lovingly.

As a divine being, the heavenly goddess had never allowed herself to be so overcome by passion before. Their lovemaking was so intense that the shepherd’s heartbeat became too fast, so his heart failed, and he died.

Atargatis was so distraught that she ran out of the palace and threw herself into the palace lake to drown.

Divine powers that ruled the waters wouldn’t accept the death of such a beautiful goddess as Atargatis and suggested to her that she should change into a half woman and half fish creature, and she would gain divine powers over the water. They told her she could guide people who found themselves in peril on the sea to the safe passage using her beautiful voice in song.

She thought of her unborn child and decided to accept their counsel. Her child was a daughter who eventually became a famous queen of Assyria.

And that is how the first mermaid came into being.

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