Astarte, also known as Ashtoreth, the ancient Phoenician great goddess of fertility, motherhood, and war, is the counterpart of the Babylonian goddess Ishtar, and is one of the oldest Middle Eastern aspects of the great Goddess, dating to the Neolithic and Bronze Ages. Tammuz also is identified as her son/consort as he is with Ishtar. According to legend Astarte descended to earth as a fiery star, landing near Byblos in a lake at Alphaca, the site where the original Tammuz is said to have died.
Athirat, “the lady of the sea,” appears to be the consort of El, the equivalent of the Hebrew god Yahweh. Her role was restricted to fertility. Astarte, “the queen of heaven,” was almost as fierce as Anat but less remote than Athirat. The Hebrews knew her as the goddess of the Sidonians, whom they worshiped. This angered Yahweh who complained to the prophet Jeremiah. At Mizpah temples of Yahweh and Astarte were erected side by side, while in Upper Egypt the Hebrews considered the goddess the divine consort still in the fifth century BC. The same as in the temples of Ishtar and Inanna, the sacred marriage and temple prostitution were prominent features of the cult, of which Yahweh also complained. Astarte was a beautiful goddess as well as a dangerous one; although the horns of the bull that she wore represented fertility, they could appear fearsome. In her fearful aspect she was the “mistress of horses and chariots,” which might have been an Arabian variant of the god Athtar, known as the terrible god who unsuccessfully tried to oust Baal.
Astarte’s name was first recorded about 1478 BC, but her cult was firmly established by then. The cult spread westward from Phoenicia into Greece, Rome, and as far as the British Isles. Prophets of the Old Testament condemned her worship because it included sexual rituals, and sacrifices of firstborn children and newborn animals to her.
Some scholars hold Astarte was a prototype of the Virgin Mary. Their theory is based on the ancient Syrian and Egyptian rituals of celebrating Astarte’s rebirth of the solar god on December 25th. A cry was heard that the Virgin had brought forth a newborn child, which was exhibited. Sir James Frazer in the Golden Bough writes, “No doubt the Virgin who thus conceived and bore a son on the twenty-fifth of December was the great Oriental goddess whom the Semites called the Heavenly Virgin or simply the Heavenly Goddess, in Semitic lands she was a form of Astarte.” The theory that credits Astarte as being a prototype of the Virgin Mary made be given creditability by many who accept that Christ was born on December 25th; but not by those who do not believe this was the date of Christ’s birth, and say the exact date is unknown. A.G.H.
Guiley, Rosemary Ellen, The Encyclopedia of Witches and Witchcraft, New York: Facts On File, 1989, pp. 16-17
Walker, Barbara G, The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, New York, HarperCollins, 1983, pp,. 69-70
Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman’s Sons, 1980, pp. 26-27