De Dea Syria

De Dea Syria

De Dea Syria ("Concerning the Syrian Goddess") is the conventional Latin title of a work, written in a Herodotean-style of Ionic Greek, which has been traditionally ascribed to the Hellenized Syrian essayist Lucian of Samosata. It is a description of the various religious cults practiced at Hierapolis Bambyce, now Manbij, in Syria. Because of its supposed connection to Lucian, whose reputation as a civilised witty scoffer is well born out by his many genuine essays and dialogues, the value of De Dea Syria as an authentic picture of religious life in Syria in the 2nd century has been unnecessarily diminished, as Lucinda Dirven demonstrated.[1]

De Dea Syria describes the orgiastic luxury of the sanctuary and the tank of sacred fish, of which Aelian also relates marvels. According to De Dea Syria, the worship was of a phallic character, votaries offering little male figures of wood and bronze. There were also huge phalli set up like obelisks before the temple, which were ceremoniously climbed once a year and decorated. The story begins with a re-telling of the Atrahasis flood myth where floodwaters are drained through a small cleft in the rock under the temple.[2]

For the rest the temple was of Ionic character with golden plated doors and roof, and much gilt decoration. Inside was a holy chamber into which only priests were allowed to enter. Here were statues of a goddess and a god in gold, but the first seems to have been the more richly decorated with gems and other ornaments. Between them stood a gilt xoanon, which seems to have been carried outside in sacred processions. Other rich furniture is described, and a mode of divination by movements of a xoanon of Apollo. A great bronze altar stood in front, set about with statues, and in the forecourt lived numerous sacred animals and birds (but not swine) used for sacrifice.

Some three hundred priests served the shrine and there were numerous minor ministrants. The lake was the centre of sacred festivities and it was customary for votaries to swim out and decorate an altar standing in the middle of the water. Self-mutilation and other orgies went on in the temple precinct, and there was an elaborate ritual on entering the city and first visiting the shrine under the conduct of local guides.


The temple had been sacked by Crassus on his way to meet the Parthians (53 BC), but in the 3rd century the city was the capital of a province and one of the great cities of Syria. Procopius called it the greatest in that part of the world. It was, however, in ruins when Julian collected his troops there before marching to his defeat and death in Mesopotamia, and Khosrau I held it to ransom after the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I had failed to put it in a state of defence. Harun restored it at the end of the 8th century and it became a bone of contention between Byzantines, Arabs and Turks. The crusaders captured it from the Seljuks in the 12th century, but Saladin retook it (1175), and later it became the headquarters of Hulagu and his Mongols, who completed its ruin.


  1. ^ Lucinda Dirven, "The Author of De Dea Syria and his cultural heritage", Numen 44.2 (May 1997), pp. 153–179.
  2. ^ Dalley, Stephanie (1998). Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others. Oxford University Press. p. 97. ISBN 9780192835895. 


  • Herbert A. Strong, John Garstang (1913), The Syrian Goddess
  • J.L. Lightfoot (2003), Lucian On the Syrian Goddess: Edited with Introduction, Translation and Commentary. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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