On Mermaids and Diodorus and Coffee

“Ten miles from Gaza” (says our countryman Sandes, an eye-witness), “and near the sea, is placed Ascalon, now of no note, anciently a venerable place to the heathen for the temple of Dagon, and the festivals of Semiramis’s birth-day.”

from The Whole Works of the Rev. John Lightfoot, Vol. X (1833: 31).

View to the beaches of Ashkelon.

Ashkelon sprawls across a sandy apron. Before it, the sea splashes. Behind it, cereal plains unfold. On the horizon, beyond the old Philistine country, the heights of Judea swell. This is how the place goes: the sea, the city, the fields, the mountains, the sunrise. 

Israeli Ashkelon dispossessed Arab Esdud. Both versions pay homage to still earlier settlements. Crusader defenses are the most obvious evidence of this; they ring the national park, teetering atop Bronze age earthworks. Inside, archaeologists excavate residues that go back to the Stone Age.

Study-tour students play in the Mediterranean surf.

Our interest in Ashkelon (for the moment anyway) is focused on less tangible remains. We are on the trail of the Assyrian Queen remembered as Shamiram by the Armenians or Semiramis by the Greeks. According to Bibliotheca Historica, the first century work of Diodorus Siculus, she was one of the most infamous women of history (note our previous post here). Her story, “from lowly fortune to fame” (2.4), begins in this place. 

For Diodorus, the Hebrew Ashkelon is Greek Ascalon and its location is in Syria. He gathers his facts from the learned men of the region, and, in turn, shares them with us. It is a Gentile construction from the land and time of Christ.

We lean back and listen.

View from the perimeter defenses to the center of old Ashkelon.

Once upon a time, a beautiful woman fell in love with a young man. However, this passionate exchange was not the result of natural causes as one might expect, but was the bitter inspiration of Aphrodite, a vain and often vindictive goddess of love. 

A child was born of this ill-inspired union. The mother was overwhelmed with shame. In a postpartum fit, she killed her lover, abandoned the infant in the desert, and threw herself into the deep waters of a lake near Ascalon. Unexpectedly, she did not drown. She was transformed by some strange magic into a goddess herself: a sad mermaid with the head of a woman and the body of a fish. For this reason, says Diodorus, the locals do not eat fish, but worship them instead.

I don't know why, but I feel a sudden urge for a coffee run.

My pause for coffee gives room for three asides. The first is scratchy. The second is curious. The third is bitter.

Here’s the scratchy. According to the Bible, the Philistines who lived in Ashkelon during the Iron Age honored a deity name Dagon. While scholarship continues to mull over the identity of this deity,* one persistent (and perhaps “folk” etymology) links Dagon to the semitic word for “fish” (dag). Obviously the Philistines were long gone by the time of Christ, but I wonder if Diodorus’s tale might contain some old aroma. After all, the Philistines were a fishy lot; they were Aegeanauts from across the sea.

Here’s the curious. Among the local contemporaries of Jesus was a group dedicated to the worship of Atargatis. This “Syrian goddess” had many features common to older Near Eastern female deities like Astarte, Anath, and Asherah (See Lucian’s On the Syrian Goddess for more juicy stuff on this one). If artistic representation is fair, it is curious that Atargatis, from time to time, is represented with fishtail! As Diodorus has it, a temple was built to the fish goddess in Ascalon. This story became the foundation myth of this Gentile city.

Bronze coin of Gaza, Antonine [BMC 192]. Obv. Antoninus Pius, facing right, laureate. Rev. Goddess (Derceto?) wearing crescent crown standing on triton facing left, wearing long chiton. Goddess holds bird (dove?) in outstretched right hand and a tall scepter in left hand. Triton holds a cornucopia aloft. Image and description from here. 

Here’s the bitter. It is drawn not from the Bible nor from coins, but from dirt of Ashkelon itself. Here, excavators found more than 100 infant skeletons. They were thrown in the sewer of the public bath. Egyptian advice in line with the time describes the practice for conscientious parents: “if it is a boy let it be, if it is a girl, expose it.”** While much of Diodorus’s story is a game of myth, the practice of infanticide is not. The bones confirm it.

The life expectancy of an exposed infant cannot be long. And yet this infant, born of Aphrodite’s hex, survives. How? We return to Diodorus.

In a manner that brings to mind Kipling’s Mowgli, Burrough’s Tarzan, or Herodotus’s Cyrus, the abandoned child was nurtured by nature, doves to be exact. The birds carried milk in their beaks to feed the child and covered it with their wings to keep it warm. As the infant grew, they brought it bits of cheese.

Franc Kavčič, “Semiramido hranijo golobi” (1810). Painting located in the National Gallery of Slovenia. Image available here.

Local herdsmen noted these cheese nibblers and were perplexed. They followed the feathered thieves and thereby found the child. They were struck by her beauty. They gave her to the keeper of the royal herds who named her Semiramis, which in the local dialect (according to Diodorus) is connected to the word for “doves.”

In this way Semiramis was conceived, raised, and named.

Who could guess that this feral child would become an Assyrian queen?

I ponder the possibility of pastry with my coffee.

A final note of only passing interest. Eusebius presents the position of one of his sources, Africanus, who suggests another luminary was born in Ascalon. See the text here. Oddly enough, his birth in 73 BC nearly coincides with Diodorus’s telling of this tale. Like Semiramis, he would establish himself as a warrior, politician, and builder. He is remembered as Herod the Great. And just in case you are wondering, he was not raised by birds.

*For a representative view, see J.F. Healey’s article on Dagon in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (1999: 216-219).

**P. Oxy. 744, as cited by E. Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity (1993:75).