Astarte was a highly-regarded mother goddess who was worshiped under different names throughout the Middle East, including Ishtar in Mesopotamia and Ashtart or Asherah by the Phoenicians and Canaanites. The Greeks referred to her as Astarte and associated her to their own goddess of love and fertility, Aphrodite.
Many clay plaques featuring Astarte have been discovered in Syria and Palestine, dating back to 1700-1100 BC and likely used as fertility charms or amulets. She’s mentioned often in the Old Testament, but not in a positive light. Eventually, she became a demon and one of the fallen angels in Milton’s Paradise Lost, since it was common practice in both Christianity and Judaism to transform rival pagan gods into demons as a way to combat them.
Astoreth, whom the Phoenicians called Astarte
Queen of Heaven, with crescent horns;
To whose bright image nightly by the moon,
Sidonian virgins paid their vows and songs.From Paradise Lost
According to W. F. Albright, “Goddesses of fertility have a much more important role among the Canaanites than any other ancient people,” most likely because life in the ancient Middle East was extremely dependent on the great rivers there, which could cause both famiens in droughts and bountiful harvests when rains were favorable.
Although these goddesses had different names and were independent from one another, but they fulfilled similar roles and were essentially the same goddess. They controlled war and fertility, motherhood, and sex, and were often depicted naked with exaggerated sexual organs.
Astarte was the primary goddess of the Phoenicians
Ashtart was the primary goddess of the Phoenicians at Tyre and Sidon and they took her with them wherever they established colonies. For example, she had a temple in their colony at Memphis in Egypt and temples at Carthage.
A Phoenician alabaster statue of her was discovered at Jalera, near Granada in Spain. In the statue, she sits on a throne flanked by sphinxes with a bowl beneath her breasts. In some rituals, milk was poured into the statue’s head and flowed into the bowl through holes in the goddess’s breasts.
Asherah or Asherat, often called Asherat of the Sea, was the wife of the Canaanite supreme god El, whose name means “the god,” and by him was the mother of 70 deities.
The same goddess was also worshipped in southern Arabia and by the Amorites, the Semitic nomads who had spread north from Arabia into Palestine, Syria, and Mesopotamia by 2000 BC. An inscription to her from the 18th century BC calls her “the bride of heaven.”
In the Ugaritic texts dating from around 1400 BC found at Ras Shamra in northern Syria, the goddess Anat plays a leading role. The chief god El stays in the background and the most active god is Baal, the storm god who sends the rains that bring fertility to the earth. Anat is his sister and wife and plays a crucial part in killing the god of drought and sterility or, in other words, in reviving the life of nature.
At first opposed to Baal, Asherah, the mother of Baal and the wife of the previous supreme deity El, later allied with Anat to aid Baal. As the Baal worship expanded, it appears that devotees of both goddesses attempted to link Asherah to the fertility god.
In the 13th century BC, Pharaoh Hameses II referred to himself as “the companion of Anat” and introduced all of these goddesses into Egypt.
Ashtart or Asherah is depicted as Qodshu or Qedeshat, “the sacred prostitute,” in an Egyptian artwork.
She is nude, stands atop a lion, and holds a lotus blossom, a symbol of life, in her right hand. The goddess holds a pair of serpents in her left hand, which are emblems of new life because snakes shed their old skins every year.
Asherah was represented in Canaan by a wooden pole known as an asherah. This may even be a real tree, but it was usually a tree-trunk with the branches cut off, standing in a socket on a stone base. The upright pole may be a representation of the “tree of life,” which is a common motif in Canaanite art, and is once again a sign of life, generation, and fertilizing force.
Goddess of the Sidonians, disliked by the Hebrew priests
When the Israelites invaded Palestine they found a great many existing local fertility gods and goddesses, mostly variations of Baal, Ashtarte or Asherah.
So widespread was the cult of Astarte, she was even mentioned in the Old Testament where writers called the goddess Ashtoreth, which is a combination of her name with the Hebrew word for “shame”, bosheth as a comment on the sexual imagery of her rites. But many Jews worshipped her nonetheless:
“. . . They forsook the Lord, the God of their lathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; they went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were round about them, and bowed down to them.”
When Gideon demolished his father’s Baal altar and the asherah that stood beside it, he was “too scared of his family and the men of the town to do it by day, so he dismantled it at night.” (Chapters 2 and 6 of Judges)
The belief that the local deities held sway was understandable, and Jewish tanners who shared Canaanites’ concern for the expansion of their herds, crops, and families were drawn to the worship of the Astarte fertility goddess.
Many Jews continued to worship the Mother Goddess despite the prophets’ best efforts.
In the 10th century BC, King Solomon constructed a “high place” or sanctuary “on the right hand of the mountain of corruption… for Ashtoreth, the abomination of the Sidonians” (2 Kings, chapter 23).
Temples to Yahweh and Asherah coexisted in Mizpeh, located north of Jerusalem, in the ninth century. King Ahab and his infamous wife Jezebel were devout followers of the Canaanite gods, and sponsored 400 and 450 prophets of Asherah and Baal respectively.
Elijah fought his epic ritual war on Mount Carmel against these priests (1 Kings, chapter 18). He was able to summon fire from heaven while they were unable to, but the backlash of the people against him was so fierce he had no choice but to flee for his life.
As late as the 7th century BC, the prophet Jeremiah complained that “the children gather wood, the fathers ignite fire, and the women knead dough to prepare cakes for the queen of heaven,” but those he chastised replied that they would continue to burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour drinks to her, as they and their fathers had done, because attempts to stop her worship had resulted in calamity (Jeremiah, chapters 7 and 44 ).
Astarte and the cult of holy prostitutes
Astarte, the fertility goddess, represented both women’s and nature’s reproductive abilities. She was connected with the moon, and was frequently depicted with the crescent moon‘s horns, since the moon was believed to govern the growth, decay, and regeneration of all things as it ebbed and flowed in the sky.
The dove, a bird long associated with love and eroticism, belonged to her, and a traveler to Ascalon in the first century AD saw “an incredible quantity of doves” in the streets and buildings because they were holy and no one ever killed them. Fish were also devoted to her, possibly because of their plentiful offspring.
The Jewish prophets forbade the worship of Astarte because they regarded Yahweh as the only real god as well as the goddess’s sexual rituals, which were performed by so called sacred prostitutes. The activities of these prostitutes had a practical purpose, as their earnings funded the goddess’s cult, but the sexuality of Astarte’s cult was essentially a form ofmagic, designed to perpetuate Nature’s cycle of death and rebirth.
Worship of the Middle Eastern goddesses, with their phallic symbolism, holy prostitutes, and painted priests dressed as women, repulsed Greek and Roman writers as well.
Apuleius (born c. 123 AD), the author of the Roman novel The Golden Ass, describes the priests as having “their faces daubed with rouge and their eye sockets painted to bring out the brightness of their eyes,” who carried the image of “the Syrian goddess” around on a mule, danced to the sound of castanets and cymbals, cut themselves with knives, and flagellated themselves for the amusement of the spectators, and then went around with a box to collect donations.
Earlier, in the biblical tale of Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal, the priests of the Canaanite god were reported to “cut themselves according to their custom with swords and lances, till the blood spilled out upon them.”
Lucian, a contemporary of Apuleius and a traveling lecturer and comic, published an essay about the Astarte of Hierapolis, north-west of Aleppo, Syria. It describes how tame bulls, bears, lions, and eagles were housed on the temple grounds, and there was a pool full of holy fish that knew their names and answered when called.
A significant festival honoring the goddess was held in the early summer. Outside the temple, trees were hauled and set up, and goats, sheep, and gold and silver things were strung from them. The holy idols were placed among the trees and then torched, engulfing the animals and idols alike.
The eunuchs who tended to the temples wore white robes and pointed hats. They beat each other after cutting their arms until blood began to flow. Sometimes a young man would castrate himself to serve the goddess after being enthralled in the glorification of her. He’d then rush across the city, and the residents of the house where he’d thrown his severed limbs would provide him with women’s clothing.
Astarte becomes a demon
As a consequence of the Old Testament’s condemnation of Ashtoreth as a ‘abomination’ and an adversary of God, Jews and Christians concluded that she was a demon, but for unclear reasons, the goddess transformed into a male demon named Astaroth, who had exceedingly foul breath. When a magician summons him, Astaroth emerges in human shape, half black and half white. He knows all secrets and can reveal all past, present, and future events.
The demon Astaroth has lost any link with sex in magical literature, yet in the early 17th century, Astaroth and Asmodeus were among the devils who possessed Madeleine de Demandoix.
She allegedly performed filthy dances and songs, writhed in lewd positions, and narrated terrifying tales of orgies and cannibalism during witch-revels she had attended while under the possesion of Astaroth.
In 1673, Madame de Montespan sacrificed infants to Astaroth and Asmodeus, the “princes of amity,” in order to gain control of Louis XIV’s affections through black magic.
- Mythology of All Races by Louis Herbert Gray and John Arnott MacCulloch
- The encyclopedia of demons and demonology by Rosemary Guiley
- Dictionary of gods and goddesses, devils and demons by Manfred Lurker
- Man, Myth & Magic The Illustrated Encyclopedia Of Mythologyby Richard Cavendish
- The Original Sources Of The Qur’an: Its Origin In Pagan Legends and Mythology by W. St. Clair Tisdall
- The Oxford Companion to World Mythology by David Leeming