Minuscule: Astarte or Ashtartoth

Swinburne’s poem Dolores is a hymn to longing. This passion he gives the form of the titular Lady Of Pain; but he uses other gods and goddesses as examples of the passion of which Dolores is patroness. In doing so he draws from historical accounts, particularly the same stories as they vary over time. The poem is, not of history, but histories; not of goddesses, but of deity; not of people, but of personhood; it is, in short, meta as fuckall, and I love it, and respect it, as well as I am able.

There are three ways, Swinburne says, for a goddess to be. She can be alive, which mean she is worshiped, “the hair of the sacrifice braided/ and the blood of the sacrifice spilt.” She may be “fled, and her footprints escape us” – yes all trace of her is gone, and so she is unmade. Or we can “appraise [her], adore, and abstain” – not worshiping her, but simply knowing of and how she was worshiped, so that she is neither alive nor unmade, but dead on a beir.

Yet even in his own dichotomy does Swinburne find opportunity for transgression; even in this rigid hierarchy can their be subtle tragedy, which is of course the demesne of the Lady Of Pain. There are goddesses, he says, who are neither dead nor undone, but rather a combination thereof. We mourn a body that is only half theirs; not only are they not allowed to know the fire of life, but neither can they know the respite of death, nor the peace of being forgotten.

Swinburne provides a clarion example of this phenomena when he asks: “Where are they Cottyto or Venus/ Astarte or Ashtartoth, where?” For these four deities are all of them the same, and all of them different. They are bound far closer to each other than Jesus to Mithridates or Isis to the Virgin Mary. Yet they are not identical, because the imaginations of men change with time, and time is never lacking for a goddess.

It is difficult, by nature, to trace the evolution of her name and nature. We know that she was worshiped in Sumeria as Attart, or that at least is the best transliteration we can make from the Ugaritic. We can infer that she was associated with the evening star, and by astronomical means with the bounty of the harvest. As trade and terror carried men and ideas, her religion found its way to the Levant, where the Phonecians knew her as Ashtart. Here she became a favored deity, for her star gave the Phonecians navigation, and thus their empire.

The Phonecians took her from port to port; and as sailors did they began to associate their ports, and their goddess, with love and lust.  As time passed by first kings and then kingdoms, the successors of Sumeria (what is generally called Babylon) changed her name to Ishtar: she became male, and took on the aspect less of love than of fucking, and from there war-making. The Hebrews knew her as Ashtartoth, and decried her most often as a Gentile cult.

The Greeks called her Astarte, and combined her with their native love-goddess to create the equally sea-borne Aphrodite; it was no coincidence that the Phonecians brought her to the Greeks from out of the sea, nor the Greeks tended to find her in sea-places such as Cyprus and Malta, “Lampsacus fervent with faces” and “Aphaca red from [her] reign.” The Etruscans had their deity Cottyto, of love and the harvest, and this they seemed to have little difficulty combining with Astarte or Aphrodite to create Venus.

The Roman conquests included the co-opting of local deities, such that every Astarte or Ashardu or Asherah they encountered became but a manifestation of Venus. Christianity destroyed much of these worships, incorporated others; Islam, in essence, finished the job. At this point Atagartis is remembered in Syria as the Goddess of the Syrian Sands, reflecting nothing but her desert origins; in Christian demonology she takes the aspect of a demon, nothing but a footsoldier to Satan all hideous and evil; in the modern aspect, when she is worshiped, it is most often as a demon, and therefore done with either sweet irony or gothic naivete.

How could these goddesses ever come back to life? Who would we worship, Cottyto or Venus, Astarte or Ashtartoth? Would we claim them, as the conquering Romans did, all aspects of a selfsame Deity; eschew one in favor of the other; declare a syncretism of our own devising, thus to add yet another deity to this pageant, lose another name amongst the “tyrannous secrets of time”? No, indeed, it can only be accepted that to stay alive, one must change: but after a time one wakes to find that one is no longer what one was – an entirely different deity, or person of any sort – so that one’s instinct for self-preservation is inexorably betrayed, and in living on finds that one as well has died.


~ by davekov on 13 May 2011.

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