Syrian perspectives: Lucian of Samosata on The Syrian Goddess in full (mid-second century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Syrian perspectives: Lucian of Samosata on The Syrian Goddess in full (mid-second century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 12, 2024,

Ancient author: Lucian of Samosata, The Syrian Goddess, full work (link; link to Greek).

Comments: This detailed description of the customs associated with the temple of Atargatis and Hadad at Hierapolis in Syria (about 80 km northeast of Aleppo) is provided by an author (likely Lucian of Samosata himself) who claims to have participated in the rites and expressly identifies himself as “Assyrian” (often interchangeable with “Syrian” in this period). Lucian’s home town of Samosata (modern Samsat) was about 300 km away from Hierapolis, also known as Bambyke (modern Manbij). Lucian self-identifies as either Syrian or Assyrian in several spots in his writings, but he also self-identifies in a subversive way as a “barbarian” in some cases. He was heavily trained in Greek culture nonetheless.

Coin from Hierapolis / Bambyke (342-331 BCE) depicting a bust of Atargatis / “Atarateh” in Aramaic wearing a crown with a crescent and circle to her side (left) and king Abdahad driving a chariot (right) (source: Classical Numismatic Group under a CC 2.5 license)

In fact, the last line of this work reminds the reader about Lucian’s intimate identification with the Assyrian goddess and her temple by referring to his dedication of his own hair when a young man. So this provides an excellent example of an insider within an ethnic group explaining the customs of his people in a positive manner to a wider Greek-speaking audience. Even the customs of the self-castrating galloi, who toss their genitals into someone’s house after the act, are described without negative comment. In the process of his discussion, Lucian identifies Assyrian or Phoenician deities with their rough Greek equivalents. We know from other evidence that the two main deities in question at this temple in Hierapolis were Atargatis (Hera) and Hadad (Zeus), but El (Apollo) may be involved as well. Lucian’s descriptions also illustrate well how different peoples or locals might relate alternative or competing stories, in some cases reflecting competition among different ethnic groups as well. So there is plenty that is relevant to the issue of interactions between ethnic groups in this writing.



1 In Syria, there is a city not far from the river Euphrates [ancient Hierapolis, modern Manbij, about 80 km northeast of Aleppo]. It is called “Sacred”, and is sacred to the Assyrian Hera [i.e. Atargatis]. As far as I can tell, this name was not conferred on the city when it was first settled. Rather, originally it had another name. As time passed, the great sacrifices were held there, and then this title was bestowed on it. I will speak about this city, and of what it contains. I will also speak about the laws which govern its holy rites, about its popular assemblies and about the sacrifices offered by its citizens. I will also speak about all the traditions associated with the founders of this holy place, and about how the temple was founded. I write as an Assyrian who has witnessed with my own eyes some of the facts which I am about to narrate. Some other facts I learned from the priests. These events occurred before my time, but I narrate them as they were told to me.

[Egyptians as the first and Assyrians as the second people to build temples]

2 The first men on earth to receive knowledge of the gods, to build temples (hiera) and sanctuaries (temenē), and to summon meetings for festivals are said to have been the Egyptians. They were the first, too, to pay attention to holy names and to repeat sacred traditions. Not long after them the Assyrians heard from the Egyptians their tradition regarding the gods, and they set up temples and shrines (naoi) and placed statues and images in them.

[Survey of Syrian and Phoenician temples and alternative stories about them]

3 Originally the temples of the Egyptians possessed no images. And there exist in Syria temples of a date not much later than those of Egypt, many of which I have seen myself, such as the temple of Herakles [i.e. Melqart] in Tyre. This is not the Herakles of Greek legend, but a much older Tyrian hero.

4 There is also in Phoenicia a temple of great size owned by the Sidonians. They call it the temple of Astarte. I hold this Astarte to be none other than Selene [the Greek moon goddess]. But according to the story of one of the priests this temple is sacred to Europa, the sister of Kadmos. She was the daughter of Agenor, and on her disappearance from Earth the Phoenicians honoured her with a temple and told a sacred legend about her: how Zeus was enamoured with her for her beauty and, changing his form into that of a bull, carried her off to Crete. This legend I heard from other Phoenicians as well, and the coinage current among the Sidonians represents Europa riding Zeus as a bull. So they do not agree that the temple in question is sacred to Europa.

5 The Phoenicians have also another sacred custom that is derived from Egypt, not from Assyria. They say this came from Heliopolis [in Egypt] into Phoenicia. I never witnessed this myself, but it is important and ancient.

6 At Byblos I also saw a large temple, sacred to the Byblian Aphrodite [perhaps Baalat Gubal, the “Lady of Byblos,” sometimes identified with Astarte]. This is the scene of the secret rites of Adonis: I mastered these. They assert that the legend about Adonis and the wild boar is true, and that the facts occurred in their country, and in memory of this disaster they beat their breasts and wail every year, and perform their secret ritual amid signs of mourning through the whole countryside. When they have finished their mourning and wailing, they sacrifice in the first place to Adonis, as to one who has departed this life. After this they allege that he is alive again, and exhibit his image to the sky. They proceed to shave their heads, too, like the Egyptians on the loss of their Apis. The women who refuse to be shaved have to submit to the following penalty: that is, to stand for an entire day in ready to sell their bodies for hire. The market is only open to foreigners, and the proceeds pay for a sacrifice to Aphrodite.

7 Some of the inhabitants of Byblos maintain that the Egyptian Osiris is buried in their town, and that the public mourning and secret rites are performed in memory not of Adonis, but of Osiris. I will tell you why this story seems worthy of belief. A human head comes every year from Egypt to Byblos, floating on its seven days’ journey there: the winds, by some divine instinct, blow it on its way. It never varies from its course but goes straight to Byblos. The whole occurrence is miraculous. It occurs every year, and it came to pass while I was myself in Byblos, and I saw the head in that city.

8 There is also another marvel in the region of the Byblians. A river, flowing from Mount Lebanon, discharges itself into the sea. This river bears the name of Adonis. Every year regularly it is tinged with blood, and loses its proper colour before it falls into the sea. It dyes a large part of the sea red, announcing to the Byblians it is time for mourning. Their story is that during these days Adonis is wounded and that the river’s nature is changed by the blood which flows into its waters, and that it takes its name from this blood. Such is the generally accepted legend.

But a man of Byblos, who seemed to me to be telling the truth, told me another reason for this marvellous change. He spoke as follows: “This river, my friend and guest, passes through the Lebanon mountains. Now the Lebanon mountains abound in red earth. The violent winds which blow regularly on those days bring down into the river a quantity of earth resembling vermilion. It is this earth that turns the river to red. And so the change in the river’s colour is caused not by blood as they say but by the nature of the soil.” This was the story of the Byblian. But even assuming that he spoke the truth, it still certainly seems to me that there is is something supernatural in the regular coincidence of the wind and the colouring of the river.

9 I also went a single day’s journey up from Byblos into the Lebanon mountains, as I had heard that there was an ancient temple of Aphrodite there founded by Kinyras [a legendary king of Cyprus]. I saw the temple, and it was indeed old. These then are the ancient great temples of Syria.

[Temples of Hierapolis, particularly the temple of Atargatis, as the best]

10 Of all these temples, and they are numerous indeed, none seems to me greater than those found in the sacred city. No shrine seems to me more holy, no region more hallowed. They possess some splendid masterpieces, some venerable offerings, many rare sights, many striking statues, and the gods make their presence felt very clearly. The statues sweat and move, utter oracles, and a shout has often been raised when the temple was closed. This has been heard by many. And there is more: this temple is the principal source of their wealth, as I can confirm. For much money comes to them from Arabia and from the Phoenicians and the Babylonians. The Cilicians and the Assyrians also bring their tribute. I saw with my own eyes treasures stored away privately in the temple: many garments, and other valuables, which are exchanged for silver or gold. Nowhere among humankind are so many festivals and sacred assemblies instituted as among them.

[Origin stories of the Hierapolis temple]

11 On inquiring about the number of years since the temple was founded and who they considered the goddess to be, many tales were told to me, some of which were sacred and others common knowledge. Some others were absolutely fabulous; still others were mere barbarians’ tales; and others again aligned with Greek accounts. All these I am ready to narrate, though I withhold my acceptance of some.

12 The people, then, allege that it was Deukalion the Scythian [perhaps an error for Sisythes, an alterative spelling of Xisouthros, the Babylonian flood hero] who founded the temple. I mean the Deukalion in whose time the great flood occurred. I have heard the story about Deukalion as the Greeks narrate it from the Greeks themselves. The story runs as follows: The present race of men was not the first to be created. The first generation perished to a man; the present is a second creation. This generation became a vast multitude, owing to Deukalion. Regarding the men of the original creation they tell this tale: they were rebellious and willful and they performed unholy deeds, disregarding the sanctity of oaths and hospitality, and behaving cruelly to suppliants. It was for these misdeeds that the great destruction came upon them. Immediately the earth discharged a vast volume of water, and the rivers of heaven came down in streams and the sea mounted high. So water was everywhere, and all men perished. Deukalion alone was saved for another generation, because of his wisdom and piety. The manner of his salvation was as follows: He placed his children and his wives in a massive boat, and he himself also entered in. Now, when he had embarked, there came to him wild boars and horses, and generations of lions and serpents, and all the other beasts which roam the earth, all in couples. He welcomed them all. Nor did they harm him, and friendship remained among them as Zeus himself arranged. These, one and all, floated in this boat as long as the flood remained. This is the legend of Deukalion as told by the Greeks.

13 But a further story is told by the people of Hierapolis, and a wonderful one it is. They say that in their country a mighty chasm appeared which received all the water, and that Deukalion on this occurrence set up altars and founded a temple to Hera above this chasm. I have actually seen this chasm. It lies beneath the temple and is of very small dimensions. If it was once of large size, and was afterwards reduced to its present small dimensions, I do not know. But the chasm which I saw is certainly very small. They maintain that their tale is proved by the following occurrence: Twice every year the water comes from the sea to the temple. This water is brought by the priests, but besides this all Syria and Arabia and many from beyond the Euphrates go down to the sea. Everyone brings its water which they first pour out in the temple. Then this water passes down into the chasm which, even though small, holds a vast amount of water. They act in this way, and they declare that the following law was passed by Deukalion in that temple, in order that it might be an everlasting remembrance of both the visitation and of its alleviation.

14 Still other people maintain that Semiramis of Babylon, who has left many mighty works in Asia, founded this building as well. nor did she dedicate it to Hera, but to her own mother, whose name was Derketo. Now, I have seen the representation of Derketo in Phoenicia, and a wonderful sight it is. one half is a woman, but the part which extends from the thighs to the feet ends in a fish’s tail. The image, however, which is at Hierapolis is a complete woman. The reasons for this story are plain to understand. they consider fishes holy objects and never touch them, while of birds they use all but pigeons for food. The pigeon is in their eyes sacred. It appears to them then that what we have described was done in honour of Derketo and Semiramis. The former, because Derketo has the form of a fish. the latter, because the lower half of Semiramis takes the form of a pigeon. I, however, should probably conclude that the temple in question belongs to Semiramis. That the shrine is Derketo’s I can in no way believe, since even amongst the Egyptians there are some who will not touch fish as food, and they certainly do not observe this restriction in favour of Derketo.

15 There is, however, another sacred story which I heard from the lips of a wise man: that the goddess was Rhea, and the temple the work of Attes. Now this Attes was a Lydian by descent group (genos), and he first taught the sacred mysteries of Rhea. The ritual of the Phrygians and the Lydians and the Samothracians was entirely learned from Attes. For when Rhea deprived him of his powers, he took off his men’s clothing and assumed the appearance of a woman and her dress. Roaming over the whole earth, he performed rites (orgia), narrating his sufferings and chanting the praises of Rhea. In the course of his wanderings he travelled to Syria as well. Now, when the men from beyond Euphrates would neither receive him nor his rites, he set up a temple to himself on this very spot. The signs of this fact are as follows: she is carried by lions, she holds a drum in her hand and carries a tower on her head, just as the Lydians make Rhea do. He also affirmed that the galloi [special initiates] who are in the temple in no case castrate themselves in honour of Hera, but of Rhea, and this in imitation of Attes. All this seems to me more false than true, for I have heard a different and more credible reason given for their castration.

[Greek stories about the temple’s origins with Dionysos]

16 I approve of the remarks about the temple made by those who in the main accept the theories of the Greeks: according to these the goddess is Hera, but the work was carried out by Dionysos, the son of Semele. Dionysos visited Syria on his journey to Ethiopia. There are in the temple many signs that Dionysos was its actual founder: for instance, barbaric costume, Indian precious stones, and elephants’ tusks brought by Dionysos from the Ethiopians. Further, a pair of large phalluses are seen standing in the vestibule, bearing the inscription, “I, Dionysos, dedicated these phalluses to Hera my stepmother.” This proof satisfies me. And I will describe another curiosity to be found in this temple, a sacred symbol of Dionysos. The Greeks erect phalluses in honour of Dionysos, and on these they mount this sort of thing: little wooden men with enormous penises. They call these puppets. There is this further curiosity in the temple: as you enter, on the right hand you encounter a small brazen statue of a sitting man with a monstrous penis.

[Stories circulating about the second temple building and Stratonike’s involvements]

17 These are the legends concerning the founders of the temple. I will proceed to speak about the edifice itself and its position: how it was built and who built it. They affirm that the temple as it exists now is not that which was built originally: the primitive temple fell to pieces in the course of time. They say the present one was the work of Stratonike, the wife of the king of the Assyrians. This I take to be the Stratonike whose step-son fell in love with her. The skill of a doctor detected the intrigue: for the lover, being overpowered by the ailment and confused by the thought of his shame, lay sick in silence. He lay sick, and though no ache was in any limb his colour was still gone and his body was growing frailer day by day. The doctor, seeing that he was suffering from no particular disease, perceived that his illness was nothing other than love. Many are the symptoms of secret love: dull eyes, change in the voice and complexion, and frequent tears. The doctor, aware of this, acted as follows: he laid his hand on the heart of the young man, and summoned all the domestics in the household. The patient remained tranquil and unmoved on the entrance of the rest, but when his stepmother carne in he grew pale and fell to sweating and trembling, and his heart beat violently. These symptoms betrayed his passion to the doctor.

18 The doctor proceeded to adopt the following cure: summoning the young man’s father, who was racked by anxiety, he explained to him that the young man’s ailment was no normal ailment. Rather it was caused by a wrongful action: “He has no painful symptoms. He is possessed by love and madness. He longs to possess what he will never obtain. He loves my wife, whom I will never give up.” This was the trick of the wise physician.

Then the father immediately begged the doctor by his prudence and professional skill not to let his son perish. “His ailment depended not on his will; it was involuntary. Please do not let your jealousy bring grief on the whole realm, and do not, dear doctor, draw unpopularity on your profession.” Such was the unwitting father’s request.

The doctor replied: “Your request is scandalous. You would deprive me of my wife and abuse the honour of a medical man. I put it to you, what would be your conduct, since you are deprecating mine, if your wife were the object of his guilty love?”

The father replied that he would not spare his own wife nor would he hold a grudge against his son, even though his son was enamoured with his own stepmother. Losing one’s wife was a lesser misfortune than losing one’s son. The doctor on hearing this said: “Why then offer me these entreaties? In good truth, your wife is the object of his love. What I said to you was all a made-up story.”

The father followed this advice, and handed over his wife and his kingdom to his son, and he himself departed into the region of Babylonia and founded a city on the Euphrates which bore his name: and there he died. Thus it was that our wise doctor detected and cured the ailment.

[Story of Stratonike and Kombabos with respect to the origin of the galloi]

19 Now this Stratonike, when still married to her former husband, saw in a vision Hera exhorting her to rear a temple to this goddess at Hierapolis. If she neglected to obey, she was menaced by the goddess with numerous evils. The queen began by disregarding the dream. But later, when seized by a dangerous illness, she told the vision to her husband. She appeased Hera and undertook to build the temple. When she had barely recovered, she was dispatched by her husband to Hierapolis, along with a large sum of money and a large army too, partly to aid in the building operations and partly to ensure her safety. He summoned one of her friends called Kombabos, a young man of handsome presence. He said: “Kombabos, I know you for an honest man and, of all my friends, I love you best. I commend you greatly for both your wisdom and your goodwill which you have shown to us. At the present moment, I need all your confidence, and so I wish you to accompany my wife, to carry out my work, to perform the appropriate sacrifices, and to command my army. On my return great honour will fall to you. Kombabos begged and prayed not to be dispatched, and not to be entrusted with matters far above his powers—money, the lady, the holy work. Not only this, but he feared that maybe in the future some jealousy might arise in connection with his relations with Stratonike, as he would be unaccompanied if he consented to escort her.

20 The king, however, refused to be moved. so Kombabos prayed as an alternative that a delay of seven days might be granted him: after that interval he was willing to be dispatched after attending to his immediate needs. On obtaining this delay, which was willingly granted, he departed to his house. Throwing himself on the ground, he deplored his lot in this way: “Unhappy me! Why this confidence in myself? To what end is this journey, whose results I already see? I am young and the lady whom I escort is fair. This will prove a great and mighty disaster, unless I remove entirely the cause of the evil. So I must even perform a mighty deed which will heal all my fears.” Saying this he unmanned himself, and he stowed away the mutilated pudenda in a little vessel together with myrrh and honey and spices of various sorts. He sealed this vessel up with a ring which he wore, and finally he proceeded to dress his wound. As soon as he considered himself fit to travel he made his way to the king, and before a large company reached the vessel forth and spoke as follows: “Master! This my most precious treasure was stored up in my house, and I loved it well: but now that I am entering on a long journey, I will set it in your keeping. Do you keep it well: for it is dearer to me than gold and more precious to me than life. On my return I will receive it again.” The king was pleased to receive the vessel, and after sealing it with another seal he entrusted it to his treasurers to keep.

21 So Kombabos from this time forth continued his journey in peace. Arriving at Hierapolis, they built the temple with all diligence and three years passed while they were at their task. In the mean time, the event came to pass which Kombabos had feared. Stratonike began to love him who had been her companion for so long a time. Her love passed into an overpowering passion. People in Hierapolis affirm that Hera was the willing cause of this trouble: she knew full well that Kombabos was an upright man, but she wished to show her anger towards Stratonike for her unwillingness to undertake the building of the temple.

22 The queen was at first coy and tried to hide her passion, but when her trouble left her no longer any option, she openly displayed her irritation and wept the whole day long, and called out repeatedly for Kombabos: Kombabos was everything to her. At last, in despair at her inability to master her passion, she sought a suitable occasion for supplicating his love. She was too cautious to admit her passion to a stranger, but her modesty prevented her from facing the situation. Finally she came up with this plan: that she should confront him after she was drunk with wine. for courage rises after drinking and a rejection seems then less degrading and actions performed under the influence of wine are set down to ignorance. So she acted as she thought best. After supper she entered the room in which Kombabos stayed, and be sought him, embracing his knees, and she confessed her guilty love. He heard her words with disgust and rejected her advances, accusing her of drunkenness. She, however, threatened that she would bring on him a great calamity, on which he trembled, and he told her all his story and narrated all that he had done and finally disclosed to her the manifest proofs of his statement. When the queen witnessed this unexpected proof her passion indeed was quenched, but she never forgot her love, but in all her interactions she cherished the solace of her unavailing affection. The memory of this love is still alive at Hierapolis and is maintained in this way: the women still desire the galloi, and the galloi also love the women with passion. but there is no jealousy at all, and this love passes among them for a holy passion.

23 The king was well informed by Stratonike as to her doings at Hierapolis, for many who came there brought the story about her actions. The monarch was deeply upset by the reports, and before the work was finished summoned Kombabos to his presence. Others narrate with respect to this a circumstance completely untrue: that Stratonike finding her prayers repulsed wrote with her own hand to her husband and accused Kombabos of making an attempt upon her modesty. What the Greeks allege about their Stheneboia and about Phaidra of Knossos, the Assyrians tell in the same way about Stratonike. I myself do not believe that either Stheneboia nor Phaidra acted in this way if Phaidra really loved Hippolytos. However, let the old version remain for what it is worth.

24 When, however, the news was brought to Hierapolis, Kombabos took count of the charge and departed in a spirit of full confidence, conscious that the visible proof necessary for his defence had been left at his home. On his arrival the king immediately put him in prison under strict guard. Then in the presence of the friends of the accused who had been present when Kombabos was commissioned to depart, the king summoned him into open court and began to accuse him of adultery and evil lust. Deeply upset as he recounted the confidence he had in his favourite and his long friendship, he arraigned Kombabos on three distinct charges: first, that he was an adulterer; secondly, that he had broken his trust; and, finally, that he had offended the goddess by acting in this way while engaged in her service. Many of the bystanders bore witness against him, saying that they had seen the guilty pair embracing. It was finally agreed that Kombabos was worthy of death as his evil deeds had merited.

25 He had stood up to this point in silence, but as he was being led to his fate, he spoke out, and demanded the restoration of his pledge, affirming that he was to be killed not for rebellious conduct against his king, nor for any violation of the king’s married life, but solely because of the king’s eagerness to possess what he had deposited at the royal court at his departure. The king then summoned his treasurer and ordered him to bring what he had committed to his custody. On its production, Kombabos removed the seal and displayed the contents of the vessel, and showed how he himself had suffered thereby, adding, “This is just what I feared, O King, when you sent me on that errand: I left with a heavy heart, and I did my duty, constrained by sheer necessity. I obeyed my lord and master to my own undoing. Such as I am, I stand accused of a crime which none but a man in every sense could have committed. The king cried out in amazement at these words, embraced Kombabos and said with tears, “What great ruin, Kombabos, have you brought upon yourself? What monstrous deed have you, alone of men, done to your sorrow? I cannot praise you, rash spirit, for enduring to experience this outrage. It would have been better if you had never experienced it. It would have been better if I had never seen its proofs. I did not need your defence. But since the deity has willed it this way, I will grant you, first and foremost, as your revenge, the death of the informers. Next there will follow a great gift, a store of silver and countless gold, and clothing from Assyria, and steeds from the royal stud. You will enter freely to us unannounced and none will withstand you. None will keep you from my sight, even if I was by my wife’s side.” He spoke and acted in this way. The informers were led off immediately to their execution. Kombabos was laden with gifts, and the king’s attachment to him was increased. No one among the Assyrians was considered equal in wisdom and in fortune to Kombabos.

26 On his request that he might complete what was unfinished in the construction of the temple—for he had left it unfinished—he was dispatched again. He completed the temple and stayed there. To mark his sense of the virtue and good deeds of his architect, the king granted him a brazen statue of himself to stand in the temple of his construction. Even today this brass statue is seen standing in the temple, the work of Hermokles of Rhodes. Its form is that of a woman, but the garments are those of a man. It is said, too, that his most intimate friends, as a proof of their sympathy, castrated themselves like him and chose the same manner of life. Others there bring gods into the story and affirm that Kombabos was beloved by Hera and that it was she who inspired many with the idea of castrating themselves, so that her lover should not be the only one to lament the loss of his virility.

[Ritual castration and other customs of the galloi]

27 The custom once adopted remains even today, and many persons every year castrate themselves and lose their virile powers: whether it be out of sympathy with Kombabos or to find favour with Hera. They certainly castrate themselves, and then cease to wear men’s clothing. they put on women’s clothing and perform women’s tasks. I have heard the origin of this ascribed to Kombabos as well, for the following event occurred to him. A certain foreign woman who had joined the festival, beholding a human form of extreme beauty and dressed in man’s attire, fell desperately in love with him: after discovering that he was castrated, she committed suicide. Kombabos accordingly in despair at his incapacity for love, put on woman’s attire, that no woman in future might be deceived in the same way. This is the reason for the female attire of the galloi. Enough of Kombabos and his story: in the course of my story I will make mention the galloi, their castration, the methods employed to effect it, their burial rites, and the reasons why they do not enter the temple. But before this I am inclined to speak about the site of the temple and of its size, and so I will speak.

[Description of the temple, its functionaries, and its customs]

28 The place where the temple is placed is a hill. It lies nearly in the centre of the city, and is surrounded by a double wall. Of the two walls the one is ancient; the other is not much older than our own times. The entrance to the temple faces the north, and it is about a hundred fathoms in size. The phalluses that Dionysos erected stand In this entrance, and they are thirty fathoms tall. Into one of these a man mounts twice every year, and he stays on the summit of the phallus for the space of seven days. The reason of this ascent is given as follows: the people believe that the man who is up there converses with the gods and prays for good fortune for the whole of Syria, and that the gods from their neighbourhood hear his prayers. Others allege that this takes place in memory of the great disaster of Deukalion’s time, when men climbed up to mountain tops and to the highest trees in terror of the mass of waters. To me all this seems highly improbable, and I think that they observe this custom in honour of Dionysos, and I conjecture this from the following fact: all those who bring out the phalluses for Dionysos take care to place little wooden men on the phalluses. I cannot say the reason for this, but it seems to me that the ascent is made in imitation of the little wooden man.

29 To proceed, the ascent is made in this way: the man throws round himself and the phallus a small chain. afterwards he climbs up by means of pieces of wood attached to the phallus large enough to admit the end of his foot. As he mounts he jerks the chain up his own length, as a driver his reins. Those who have not seen this process, but who have seen those who have to climb palm trees in Arabia, Egypt or any other place, will understand what I mean. When he has climbed to the top, he lets down a different chain, a long one, and drags up anything that he wants, such as wood, clothing, and dishes. he binds these together and sits upon them, as it were, on a nest, and he remains there for the space of time that I have mentioned. Many visitors bring him gold and silver, and some bring brass. Then those who have brought these offerings leave them and depart, and each visitor gives his name. A bystander shouts the name up, and he on hearing the name utters a prayer for each donor. Between the prayers he raises a sound on a brazen instrument which, on being shaken, gives forth a loud and grating noise. He never sleeps, for if at any time sleep surprises him, a scorpion creeps up and wakes him, and stings him severely. This is the penalty for wrongfully sleeping. This story about the scorpion is a sacred one with the quality of divine majesty. Whether it is true I cannot say, but, as it seems to me, his wakefulness is in no small degree due to his fear of falling. So much then for the climbers of the phalluses (phallobatai). As for the temple, it looks to the rising sun.

30 In appearance and in workmanship, it is like the temples which they build in Ionia. The foundation rises from the earth to the space of two fathoms, and on this rests the temple. The ascent to the temple is built of wood and not particularly wide. As you mount the platform, even the great hall exhibits a wonderful spectacle and it is ornamented with golden doors. The temple within is ablaze with gold and the ceiling in its entirety is golden. You experience a divine fragrance like that attributed to the region of Arabia, which breathes on you with a refreshing influence as you mount the long steps, and even when you have departed this fragrance clings to you. No, your very clothing retains that sweet odour for a long time, and it will always remain in your memory.

31 But the shrine within is not uniform. A special inner chamber is kept within it. The ascent to this likewise is not steep, nor is it fitted with doors, but is entirely open as you approach it. The great shrine is open to all; the inner chamber to the priests alone and not even to all the priests, but only to those who are considered nearest to the gods and who have the charge of the entire administration of the sacred rites. In this inner chamber are placed the statues, one of which is Hera [Atargatis], the other Zeus, though they call him by another name [i.e. Hadad]. Both of these are golden, both are sitting. Hera is supported by lions, Zeus is sitting on bulls. The representation of Zeus recalls Zeus in all its details – his head, his robes, his throne. You could not mistake him for another deity even if you tried.

32 Hera, however, as you look at her will recall to you a variety of forms. Speaking generally she is undoubtedly Hera, but she has something of the attributes of Athena, Aphrodite, Selene, Rhea, Artemis, Nemesis, and the Fates. In one of her hands she holds a sceptre, in the other a spindle. On her head she bears rays and a tower and she has a girdle like the one they adorn only Aphrodite of the sky with. She is plated with gold and adorned with expensive gems, some white, some sea-green, others wine-dark, others flashing like fire. Besides these there are many onyxes from Sardinia and the jacinth and emeralds, the offerings of the Egyptians and of the Indians, Ethiopians, Medes, Armenians, and Babylonians. But the greatest wonder of all I will proceed to tell: she bears a gem on her head called a Lychnis. It takes its name from its attribute. From this stone flashes a great light in the night-time, so that the whole temple gleams brightly as by the light of thousands of candles, but in the day-time the brightness grows faint. The gem has the likeness of a bright fire. There is also another marvel in this image: if you stand over against it, it looks you in the face, and as you pass it the gaze still follows you. If someone approaches from a different angle, the gaze follows similarly.

33 Between the two [Hera / Atargatis and Zeus / Hadad] there stands another image of gold, no part of it resembling the others. This possesses no special form of its own, but recalls the characteristics of other gods. The Assyrians themselves speak about it as a symbol, but they have assigned to it no definite name. They have nothing to tell us about its origin, nor its form: some refer it to Dionysos; others to Deukalion; others to Semiramis. For its summit is crowned by a golden pigeon, and this is why they allege that it is the image of Semiramis. It is taken down to the sea twice in every year to bring up the water of which I have spoken.

34 In the temple itself a throne for the Helios [Sun god] stands on the left hand side. But there is no statue on it, for the statues of the Helios and Selene [Moon goddess] are not exhibited. I have learned, however, the reasons for this practice. They say that it is not forbidden to make statues of the other deities, for the outward form of these deities is known to all. But Helios and Selene are plain for all to see, and all men behold them. What reason would there be to make statues of those deities who offer themselves for all to see?

35 Behind this throne stands an image of Apollo [the god El] with an unusual character. All other sculptors think of Apollo as a youth, and represent him in the flower of his age. These artists alone exhibit the Apollo of their statuary as bearded. They justify their action and criticize the Greeks and others who set up Apollo as a boy and appease him in that guise. Their reason is that it is a mark of ignorance to assign imperfect forms to the gods, and they look on youth as imperfection. They have also introduced another strange novelty in sculpture: they, and they alone, represent Apollo as robed.

36 I have much to say about his [i.e. Apollo’s / El’s] works, and I will relate what is most worthy of admiration. First I will speak about the oracle. There are many oracles among the Greeks, and many among the Egyptians, and again in Libya and in Asia there are many as well. But these do not speak without the mouths of priests and prophets. This one is moved by its own impulse and carries out the divining process to the very end. The manner of his divination is the following: When he wants to utter an oracle, he first stirs in his seat, and the priests immediately raise him up. Should they fail to raise him up, he sweats, and moves more violently than ever. When they approach him and lift him up, he drives them round in a circle, and leaps on one after another. At last the high priest confronts him, and questions him on every subject. The god, if he disapproves of any action proposed, retreats into the background. If, however, he happens to approve it, he drives his bearers forward as if they were horses. It is in this way that they gather the oracles, and they undertake nothing public or private without this preliminary. This god, too, speaks about the “symbol” (sēmeion) and clarifes when it is the right season for its travels, as I have described.

37 I will speak about another amazing thing as well, which he performed in my presence. The priests were raising him in the air, but he left them on the ground, and was hovering in the air by himself alone. 38 Behind Apollo is the statue of Atlas; behind that, the statue of Hermes and Eileithyia.

[Images of royalty in the sanctuary]

39 Such, then, are the interior decorations of the temple. Outside of it there stands a great altar of brass. It contains also countless other brass images of kings and priests. I will mention those which seem most worthy of remembrance. To the left of the temple stands the image of Semiramis, pointing with her right hand to the temple. That image was erected to commemorate the following occurrence: the queen had issued a decree that all the Syrians should worship her as a deity, adding that they were to ignore the others, not excepting even Hera, and they obeyed her decree. Afterwards, however, when disease, misfortune and grief were inflicted on her, she calmed down from her frenzied infatuation, admitted she was a mere mortal, and ordered her subjects to turn again to Hera. This is why she stands today in this posture, pointing out Hera as the goddess whose grace is to be won, and confessing that she is not a goddess, but that Hera is indeed such.

40 I saw also images of Helen, Hekuba, Andromache, Paris, and Achilles. I saw also the statue of Nireus, the son of Aglaia, and of Philomela and Prokne while yet women, and Tereus changed into a bird. There is another image of Semiramis and one of Kombabos and one of Stratonike of special beauty, and one of Alexander similar to this. Sardanapalos [legendary king of Assyria] stands by his side in a different form and in a different clothing.

41 In the great court there are large oxen, horses, eagles, bears and lions, who never hurt people but are all sacred and all tame.

42 Many priests also are in attendance, some of whom sacrifice the victims, others bring libations, others are called fire-bearers, and others altar-attendants. In my presence more than 300 of these were present at a sacrifice. All of them had vestments of white and wore caps on their heads. Every year a new high priest is appointed. He, and he alone, is clad in purple and crowned with a golden tiara. 43 Besides this there is another multitude of holy men, pipers, flute players, galloi; and women who are frenzied and fanatical. 44 A sacrifice is offered twice every day, and they are all present at this. To Zeus they sacrifice in silence, neither chanting nor playing, but when they sacrifice to Hera they sing, they pipe, and shake rattles. About this ceremony they could tell me nothing certain.


45 There is also a lake in the same place, not far from the temple in which there are many sacred fish of different kinds. Some of these grow to a great size. They are given names and approach when called. I saw one of these ornamented with gold and on its back fin a golden design was dedicated to the temple. I have often seen this fish, and he certainly carried this design. 46 The depth of the lake is immense. I never tested it myself, but they say that it is in depth more than 200 fathoms. In the midst of this lake stands an altar of stone. You would think at first sight that it was floating and moving in the water, and many consider that it is so. The truth seems to me that it is supported by a column of great size, based on the bottom of the lake. It is always decked with ribbons, and spices are there. Many people swim in the lake every day with crowns on their heads performing their acts of adoration. 47 At this lake great assemblies meet, and these are called descents into the lake because all their deities go down into this lake, amongst whom Hera first advances so that Zeus may not see the fish first, for if this were to happen they say that one and all would perish. And Zeus comes indeed intending to see these fish, but she, standing before him, keeps him at bay, and with many supplications holds him off.

48 But the greatest of these sacred assemblies are those held on the sea coast. About these, however, I have nothing certain to say. I was never present at their celebrations, nor did I undertake the journey there. But I did see what they do on their return, and I will tell you right now: each member of the assembly carries a vessel full of water. The vessels are sealed with wax; those who carry the water do not unseal the vessels and then pour out the water; but there is a certain holy cock who dwells by the lake. This bird, on receiving the vessels from the bearers, inspects the seal, and after receiving a reward for this action he breaks the thread and picks away the wax, and many minae are collected by the cock by this operation. After this the bearers carry the water into the temple and pour it out, and they depart when the sacrifice is finished.

49 The greatest of the festivals that they celebrate is that held in the opening of spring. Some call this the Pyre, others the Lamp. On this occasion the sacrifice is performed in this way: they cut down tall trees and set them up in the court. Then they bring goats, sheep and cattle and hang them living on the trees. They add to these birds, garments, and gold and silver work. After all is finished, they carry the gods around the trees and set the trees on fire. In a moment all is in a blaze. To this solemn rite a great multitude flocks from Syria and all the regions around. Each brings his own god and the statues which each has of his own gods.

[Festivals associated with the galloi]

50 On certain days a multitude flocks into the temple, and the galloi in great numbers, sacred as they are, perform the ceremonies of the men and gash their arms and turn their backs to be lashed. Many bystanders play on the pipes while many beat drums. Others sing divine and sacred songs. All this performance takes place outside the temple, and those engaged in the ceremony do not enter into the temple. 51 During these days they are made galloi. As the galloi sing and celebrate their rites, frenzy falls on many of them and many who had come as mere spectators afterwards are found to have committed the great act. I will narrate what they do: any young man who has resolved to do this strips off his clothes and with a loud shout bursts into the midst of the crowd. He picks up a sword from a number of swords which I suppose have been kept ready for many years for this purpose. He takes it and castrates himself and then runs wild through the city, carrying in his hands what he has cut off. He throws it into any house at will, and from this house he receives women’s clothing and ornaments. They behave in this way during their ceremonies of castration.

52 The galloi, when dead, are not buried like other men, but when an individual gallos dies his companions carry him out into the suburbs and, laying him out on the bier on which they had carried him, they cover him with stones and after this return home. They wait then for seven days, after which they enter the temple. If they enter before this they would be guilty of impiety.

53 The laws which they [the galloi] observe are the following: anyone who has seen a corpse may not enter the temple the same day. But afterwards, when he has purified himself, he enters. But those who are of the family of the corpse wait for thirty days, and after shaving their heads they enter the temple, but before they have done this it is forbidden to enter. 54 They sacrifice bulls and cows alike and goats and sheep. Pigs alone, which they abominate, are neither sacrificed nor eaten. Others look on swine without disgust, but as holy animals. Of birds the dove seems the most holy to them, nor do they think it right to harm these birds, and if anyone has harmed them unknowingly they are unholy for that day. So when the pigeons dwell with the men, they enter their rooms and commonly feed on the ground.

[Customs of the festival attendees]

55 I will speak, too, about what the people who attend the festivals do. As soon as a man comes to Hierapolis he shaves his head and his eyebrows. Afterwards he sacrifices a sheep and cuts up its flesh and eats it. He then lays the fleece on the ground and places his knee on it. But he puts the feet and head of the animal on his own head and at the same time he prays that the gods will receive the offering, and he promises a larger victim later on. When this is performed he crowns his head with a garland and the heads of all those engaged in the same procession. Starting from his house he passes into the road, previously bathing himself and drinking cold water. He always sleeps on the ground, for he may not enter his bed till the completion of his journey. 56 In the city of Hierapolis a public host receives him, suspecting nothing, for there are special hosts attached to each city, and these receive each guest according to his homeland. These are called by the Assyrians teachers (didaskaloi), because they teach them everything. 57 They sacrifice victims not in the temple itself, but when the sacrificer has placed his victim at the altar and poured a libation, he brings the animal home alive and, after returning to his own house, he slays his victim and utters prayers. 58 There is also another method of sacrifice, as follows: they adorn live victims with ribbons and throw them headlong down from the temple’s entrance, and these naturally die after their fall. Some actually throw their own children down, not as they do the cattle, but they sew them into a sack and toss them down, visiting them with curses and joking that they are not their children, but cows. 59 They all tattoo themselves—some on the hands and some on the neck—and so it comes that all the Assyrians wear tattoos.

[Customs performed by the young women and men, including the author]

60 They have another curious custom, in which they agree with the Troizenians alone of the Greeks. I will explain this too: the Troizenians have made a law for their young women and young men alike never to marry till they have dedicated their locks to Hippolytos, and this is what they do. It is the same at Hierapolis. The young men dedicate the first growth on their chin, then they let down the locks of the young women, which have been sacred from their birth. They then cut these off in the temple and place them in vessels, some in silver vessels and others in gold. After placing these in the temple and inscribing the name on the vessel, they depart. I performed this act myself when a young man, and my hair remains still in the temple, with my name on the vessel.


Source of the translation: H.A. Strong, The Syrian Goddess (London: Constable and Company Ltd, 1913), public domain, adapted and modernized by Harland.

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