18. Mabbug/Hierapolis


Lucian de dea 49 describes a ritual called the pyra, the feast for the “Funeral Fire” celebrated once a year in the great temple at Mabbug in Northern Syria: a lot of logs were erected and on them were hanged a lot of live animals to be sacrificed. Statues of the gods were carried in circles round the arrangement, fire was set to the timber logs, and trees and animals would burn together in an enormous fire. The solemn title, “Funeral Fire”, was not chosen in remembrance of the poor animals burnt alive, but rather it is the funeral fire of the god. But which god? Already Fr.Münter has brought a picture of a coin from Tarsus with a god AR. AR. Dio standing like Sandan on a lion, and we remember Plato´s myth about Er coming back to life on his funeral bonfire. Considering the nearness of Mabbug to Tarsus, there can be no doubt that the god being burnt is a version of Ara/Sandan. He is probably called Hadran, as we shall see. On coins from Mabbug are seen the main gods, Hadad enthroned on bulls, and Atargatis (the goddess) enthroned on lions. And between the two a tall cabinet with a very strange device called Semeion, i.e. “sign”. It is a kind of holy standard with discs or whirls attached to it. The holy instrument is a symbol of the ascension to heaven, a symbol of ecstasy and magic like the caduceus. It is known in many variations, but as the tree of life it is a symbol of the world pillar. But it is also seen as a god, and fortunately we seem to have a picture of this god: in Hatra is found a relief of a semeion with 7 discs guarded by a god with a lion´s face[1].  He is standing with a Cerberos, the dog of hell. He is surrounded by 7 snakes: One is crawling over his feet, two are peeping out at his waist, two are coming out of his shoulders, two are coming out of his hair just beneath the two small horns. In addition to all this crawling and creeping, one is also forming the curved neck of his axe, and he is accompanied by almost the same animals as Mithras: two scorpions and a small lion crouching under the dog. In the background the goddess is enthroned on her seat of lions, also with a semeion, and between the two the double snake: one snake ascending towards the face of the male god, the other ascending towards the female god. When they are coiling around each other, they are a symbol of male and female united. Note the eagle on their heads. They are both gods of ecstasy. At the Turkish border was found the small stone sculpture[2]: the eagle wraps its wings around both man and woman, the man with a snake in his hands, the woman with a staff with the top broken off, probably the semeion. The eagle is the symbol of ecstasy uniting the fundamental polarity in all kinds of living creatures.



In the Hellenistic cult of Atargatis at the great temple in Mabbug/Bambyke there is, in front of the temple, the large Gate of the Sun, two phallic pillars erected by Dionysos on his way to the sun-country, Ethiopia (acc. to Lucian).

Lucian also tells a very important myth connected with the founding of the temple. The Syrian king gave his queen, Stratonice, into the care of the high priest Kombabos so that they could both supervise the building of the temple. Alas, the Queen was very much in love with Kombabos and spent all her time together with him. Seeing this, Kombabos cut off his male organ and preserved it in a box. When the king came back, and the poor priest was accused of taking too good care of the Queen, he proved his innocence by making the King open the box.

Kombabos is the androgynous highest numen, Kumbaba/Cybele, in Bambyke represented by ´Attar- ´atte, where ´Attar is the morning-star and ´Atte a goddess. The goddess, the power of fertility is in the hand of the sterile highgod, but given back to the king, and then something strange happens. The king's son has fallen in love with Stratonice, and finally she is given to him. (A small but very clear remnant of the motif: the goddess being liberated by the young god.)

Just as the southern pillar of the gate of the sun in Catal Huyük was a symbol of the ecstatic journey to heaven, so also one of the large pillars in front of the temple in Bambyke was now and then climbed by a man building an eagle's nest at the top. Here he had to transcend the cycle of sleep by keeping awake for several days and nights. Climbing the pillar, sitting like an eagle in its nest is ecstatic imagery. If he did not keep awake, a scorpion would climb the pillar and sting him. The scorpion climbing the phallic pillar is a symbol of the sperm coming to ejaculatio, the opposite of ecstasy created by asceticism.


The similarity among the North Syrian cults is important for the understanding: the oldest name for Cybele is Kubaba, the same name as the priest who, acc to Lucian, was the founder of the temple (and the archetypal priest eunuch), Kombabos. Attis or Attês is identical with the Semitic god, Ada. In Herodot he is killed by Adra(stos). In Syria you cannot begin a name with a vowel. Ada is an old “Lallwort” for “father” (Colpe,Fauth); with reduplication it is turned into the Syrian Hadad. Adra, his murderer becomes Hadran. Hadad/Hadu is, like Attis, called shepherd, and in Mabbug he is sitting on a seat of bulls.

In Saturnalia Macrobius has a description of a statue called Apollo by the people of Hierapolis: the god has a long pointed beard and his “head crowned by a calathos… in the left hand he has a sort of flower. From the shoulders falls a gorgonic cloak…In front of his feet a woman is pictured, to right and to left of whom are put statues of women with a snake coiling around them in dreadful coils”. The 3 women at the feet of the god are identified by Macrobios as imago terra (= picture of mother earth), hyle (= “matter”), natura (= “nature”) (I,17,67). We have here in Mabbug an ecstasy-giving god with mother earth as his consort, but this mother has as her two lower aspects matter and nature, seen as female kundalini-power trying to ascend. Also the god has the snake power: He is wrapped in a Medusa-like cloak, which means snakes crawling and coiling everywhere in his clothes.

A coin from Hierapolis shows the Roman emperor Caracalla with a shield carrying the picture of an idol “of archaic form and looking very Syrian”[3]. Seyrig is right in identifying this idol with Apollo from Mabbug. Instead of legs, the idol is carrying a stiff armament or ephod whose skirt seems to rest directly on a stepped podium. This makes him very similar to the castores who accompany the god from Doliche and are personifications of the two world pillars, the split world mountain. Apollo of Mabbug is therefore also to be seen as a world pillar: on the coin he has a spear in his right hand and up the spear a snake is coiling.

That a kind of “tantric” thinking should also dominate parts of the Hellenistic religion of the Middle East might seem a very daring theory, but it could be proved quite easily by a glance at the goddess of the so called “Caldaean Oracles”. She is called Hecate and is identical with “Nature” and “Soul” (Physis and Psyche). In Greek religion Hecate is the queen of the night, the demons, and the evil spirits. Emperor Julian´s initiation into the Caldaean Mysteries was an initiation by the philosopher Maximus in an underground  temple for Hecate in Ephesos. Here the attempt was made to make a statue of the goddess come alive. The statues of Hecate pictured her with six arms carrying different weapons. She is often called “terrible”. Compared to the male god she is the opposite principle, but descends from him[4]. As Psyche she is behind the “thoughts of the Father”[5],  “the feminine Principle included in the Father”[6], but she descends and in her lowest aspect she is Heimarmene,“destiny”. In a hymn to Artemis-Hecate, Proclos brings the following description of the goddess: ”Snake that scares (men) with fire”, ”She who is wrapped in belts of snakes”[7]. Hecate is also called trimorph and “with three faces”, cf. the three women at the feet of Apollo above.

The feast of the “Funeral Fire” is mentioned just after Lucian has written about the other great feast celebrated at Mabbug, the feast of the “Carrying of Water”. At the feast of “Fire” there is high noisy music bringing the participants in the feast to the edge of ecstasy, where they often inflict wounds on themselves, and even castrate themselves. Also the feast of the “Water-carrying” has a procession of gods (down to the holy lake). When both feasts have a solemn procession of gods and are mentioned the one just after the other, it seems very likely that they have some mutual connection. In fact, they must be seen as the two climaxes of the ritual year, the two opposite poles in the year-cycle. The most important god at Mabbug was the goddess. She had her perfumed altar adorned with vegetation swimming in the holy pond of the temple. She had to protect the fish, for if the idol of the male god reached the pond before her, all the fish would die. Therefore she entreats him with many prayers to turn around and go back to his temple. This ritual drama with the goddess praying for the lives of the fish shows a clear “tantric” symbolism around male and female (dry and moist) as the two forces in nature, the killing force and the life-supporting force. And in accordance with this symbolism, the two main feasts of the year have to be understood. TO THE TEMPLE WAS ALSO TIED SOME TRADITIONS CONNECTED WITH THE FLOOD and the Greek hero surviving the flood, Deucalion. In some Syrian homilies, usually seen as the work of Meliton of Sardes, but acc to Seyrig getting their final redaction in Mabbug under Caracalla or Elagabal, it is told that the magician Zoroaster/Hadran ordered his daughter Simi to scoop water up from the sea and pour it into a well in the wood near Mabbug [8]. The female goddess must secure that the water of life, the precious moisture giving life to all living creatures in the fish-pond of the temple and in all water brooks and ponds all over Syria,is not dried out, for if the heat concentrated in the male god, the hunter, gets the upper hand, all fish must die. The semeion is a sign of balance between male and female power. It also has to secure that the sea does not start flooding the land like in the days of Deucalion. This is done with a magic ritual: many small portions of sea-water are taken from the beach and brought to the temple where it is poured into a cleft through which the mighty waters after the great flood were said to have disappeared, leaving the earth to dry. The rituals to secure balance in cosmos were said to have been introduced to the local population by the Magi. Now it is a wellknown fact that the very same Magi believed in the two primeval principles in the universe, the moist, female priciple and the dry, male, and they believed that the universe was constantly moving from flood to ecpyrosis (the world being destroyed by fire) and back again in an unending row of cycles. The ritual year of Mabbug is meant to secure balance.

Nic.Damascenus (FHG III 503 frag.3) has the following explanation to the origin of the fire-cult of the Magi: Perseus came to Mt.Silpion as the river Orontes was flooding its banks. He offered prayers and rituals, and as a result, a ball of fire fell from the sky, and it caused the flooding to stop and put a restraint on the water from the river. By the same fireball Perseus lit a flame, which is he holy fire guarded by the Magi. We are here able to see other traces of a North Syrian religion centred on securing cosmic balance between flood and ekpyrosis.                                                                                  


In the synagogue excavated in Dura one of the paintings on the roof soon became faint when exposed, but du Mesnil du Buisson was able to draw a copy of it before it disappeared. Although found far from Mabbug it could be compared with the precious stone emitting a strong light on the forehead of the statue of the goddess like a third eye (de dea 32). This Jewish symbol is very similar to the Horus-eye symbolism. The snake power in the form of male and female snake has ascended, and is united in the magic light-emitting eye, whose magic power and visio mystica is threatened by the scorpion. The kundalini power is raised, but is threatened by sexual ejaculatio. To the ancient observer, the eye was more an emitter of light than a receiver of light. Primeval totality is both symbolised by the unity of male and female snake and by the 3 columns: the world axis flanked by the split world mountain. The three columns are inscribed with the secret word for god.

Atargatis is the name of the goddess. Her name seems to be a composition of ´Athtar and ´Athe. The name must be seen as a parallel to the hunter in Dura called Bolathes of Baal and ´Athe. The goddess, ´Athe, is also found in the name Aitebelios from ´Athe and Belos/Baal; acc to du Mesnil du Buisson she is an “androgyne” [9]. Bolathes is seen on a picture from Dura of a funeral thiasos [10]. The little Eros with the lowered torch and wreath is a symbol of sorrow and death. The hunt for the wild donkeys has replaced the old hunt for the divine bull. Why this is so, we shall explain when we deal with the motif of Melqart-Heracles´s and Mithras´s hunt for the four stags. 



H.Seyrig [11] has published a material that will bring us a little closer to an understanding of the gods of Mabbug. On 16 seals from the first half of the second mill. B.C. is seen a rather extraordinary cult-device. On an upright column two faces can be seen. At the top, a face of a woman with long hair and a horn on top of the head, and sometimes also a bird getting ready to set off. Under the female face, the face of a male without a beard and a round scull-cap or turban on the head [12].



In the centre of the scene is seen the highgod enthroned with the drink of life. Above the cup is seen the mystical rosette resting in what must be the bowl of the crescent moon (or perhaps the bird of ecstasy), the double-horned animal is a heraldic symbol of totality. The man approaching the throne is dressed much like the hunter in kilt and turban, behind him is the symbol of creation: the tearing apart of the divine goat. The man is seen coming from the world of "splitting up" to the world of primordial totality and the stepping stone into the world of divine unity is the contemplation of the cult-device. Above the lions he is seen naked adoring the cult-object. This semeion is the symbol of an ascension to androgynous consciousness, from the disintegrated ("torn apart") world to the consciousness of the divine bull symbolised by the holy unicorn at the top of the column. During this ascension man's personality (face) is changed into that of a woman, and the result is ecstasy: the bird lifting its wings to fly. That the cult-device is closely connected to the cult of the great hunter is seen from the second seal [13] where it stands on the back of a lion and is venerated by the female goddess and where the male hunter, naked, with a triple belt, is seen taming a lion and a sphinx. The next picture shows the hunter taming the sphinx that guards the tree of life, next a row of 5 heads of the hunter-type, the kundalini-symbol, and finally the cult-device, but without the male face. Obviously the male face is represented by the 5 heads. On the top of the female head a bird taking off [14]. If we compare with the next seal [15] we will at once notice that this column also carries only the female face, but in addition 5 crossbars. The male god must be represented by the first 5 steps to heaven, on the 6th plane there is a change into female nature, and on the 7th the ecstatic take-off of the bird.

The change into the role of woman and even bird are well known features in the cult of Mabbug as it is described by Lucian.



The 3rd seal above[16] shows the cult-object (here only adorned with the woman´s hair) standing on the back of a composite animal with a horn on top of the forehead and the typical curling braid of hair waving from the neck. The other column is seen as the typical tree-of-life symbol with the two divine goats eating from it. Here the Heracles columns are seen as opposites, one belonging to the high god and his goats, the other belonging to the hunter and his demonic animal. Seyrig has seen this cult object as an illustration of what is told by Lucian about the Semeion: “Between the two statues (of a god and a goddess) stands a third made of gold, which in no way is similar to the picture of the other (gods). It has its own form, but carries the pictures of the others. It is called Semeion – also by the Assyrians, and they have not given it a name of its own and neither do they tell anything about its origin and shape… it carries on the top a dove of gold” (de dea 33).

In Mabbug it seems that the goddess has taken over the role of the bull or stag as the symbol of the life-giving waters. But not completely. On one of the small tesseres from Palmyra the goddess and the fish are shown on one side, but on the reverse there is the normal picture of the lion killing the stag. Under the stag a fish is seen, and in the opposite corner over the back of the lion the mystical rosette in the bowl of the crescent moon as a symbol of light in its concentrated form threatening the moisture.


H.Ingholt-H.Seyrig, RTP no. 432.


A traveller visiting the ruins of Mabbug in 1699 saw carved in the rock by a well the relief of a naked woman sitting between two sirens, who, with their fish-tails, formed a seat for her[17]. About the lake by the temple it was told that Derceto fell into it, but was saved by Ichtys (= “fish”), who lived there[18]. Venus and Cupido were pursued by Typhon and came to Euphrates, where they changed into fish[19]. Atagatis was caught by Mopsos, but sprang into the lake near Ashkalon together with her son Ichtys, and both were eaten by the fish (Xanthos Lyd. ap.Athen.8,37 [20]). The numen of the goddess is in a very intimate manner tied to the water and the fish. It has become one with this element. Perhaps it is not mere coincidence that the name of the Anatolian goddess, Tanais, bears a name identical with the name of the river Don [21].

In the Syrian capital Anthioch was also served a goddess intimately tied to the element of the Sea. On the Antioch Mosaic Pavements published by Doro Levi [22] she is surrounded by fishing erotes and on one of the mosaics named Thetis. Note the snake coiling around her as she rises from the sea (cf. the snakes coiling around the two women at the feet of Apollo in Mabbug).



Once she is accompanied by Oceanos, but by far the most dominant male god is the “hunter” acting in many different variants as Adonis, Melager, Narcissos, Hippolyt, Apollo of Daphne, Actaeon, Theirisias. One mosaic shows the hunter with throwing club and leopard's skin over his shoulder leading a lion by a leash [23]. On another, the lion is released, and in the same room Lycourgos with the double axe fallen out of his hand. He is naked only with the broad belt of the hunter round his waist[24]. The picture below shows the many different variants of the hunter, but notice that the panther and the lion killing stag and bull are also part of the hunting-theme.

Perhaps the hunting has here faded into an ethical ideal, a picture of courage: the woman in the centre is called Megalopsychia, “magnanimous” [25]. The most common scene is the orgiastic “sea-thiasos” and drinking contests.



Thetis is a Greek goddess, the mother of Achilles, but she certainly has Near Eastern roots. Before she yielded to Peleus, she tried to wrestle with him, changing herself into a snake, a lion, an octopus, water, and fire. She is unformed matter able to assume any kind of shape. Her name is the typical “Lallwort”. She is kundalini in its darkest, lowest, most frightening aspect: like Medusa, by glowering balefully, with protruded tongue she is able to turn a wolf into stone (Antonius Lib.Transform. 38.)

On a Roman vase from 30 B.C. she is seen with the snake rising from her lap [26].



18.a. The Uraeus-snake


Has an original connection to the Horus-eye and the “sea of flames”. It is seen as a female goddess, the female goddess: its hieroglyph stands as the determinative for a goddess. She often appears in sevenfold appearance on the royal costume, for her ascension was, already in prehistoric time, seen as an ascension through 7 steps. A crown with an uraeus-application is known from Byblos, and in the Punic necropolis grotesque masks with chakra-like symbols on the forehead have often been found [27]. A similar goddess is the Greek Medusa with the double snake coiling as her belt. She is a symbol of kundalini raised to mystic vision in its most frightening aspect as reintegrating the visionary in primordial inertia, the primordial massive mountain inside which she is thought to have her lair. As a symbol of mystic vision her head can also be seen in the centre of the mystical flower[28].


[1] H.Ingholt, Parthian Sculptures from Hatra,1954,pl. III,3 and VII,2. Foto N.al Asil.

[2] H.Seyrig, SYRIA 14,1933,p.257,fig.4a.

[3] H.Seyrig, "Sur une idole hiérapolitaine",SYRIA XXVI,pp.18-28.

[4] H.Lewy, Chaldaean Oracles and Theurgy. Nouvelle ed. M.Tardieu,1978, pp.48f. & index under Hecate

[5] ibd. 85n70.

[6] ibd.p.87.

[7] Psellus Ep. 187,Bidez CMAG VI 62,5, cf. pyridrakontozône, Pap.mag.IV,1404.

[8] J.Bidez & J.Cumont, Mages Hellénisés,II,p.94.

[9] Tess.,p.183.

[10] ibd.pp.468f.

[11] Antiquités Syriennes, SYRIA 37,1960,pp.233-52

[12] First pic. is taken from B.Hrozny, Inscript.cunéif.de Kultépé,I,1952,pl.LXX, second from Moore Collection, here reproduced after Seyrig

[13] Seyrig.pl.IX.no.3.

[14] Seyrig, fig. 2.

[15] Seyrig, fig. 8.

[16] Seyrig, fig. 14.

[17] Early Travels in Palestine, ed. Wright,1848, p.507.

[18] Ctesias ap.Eratosthen.Cataster 38

[19] Diognet.Erythr. ap.Hygin.Astrnom. 2,30

[20] The tradition about Derceto-Atagatis and Ichtys is collected in Corpus Cultus Deae Syriae,I-II,1972 ed. Paul-Louis van Berg

[21] J.Przylusky, "Les noms de la Grande Déesse", RHR 105,1932,pp.185-92.

[22] I,1957.pl.VI; XXXVa; XXXIXb; LXIIa; LXXVI; LXXXI

[23] LXIIIa.

[24] XXXVIIIb.

[25] Levi,p.324.fig.136.

[26] The Portland Vase,  Brit.Mus. JHS XCIX, 1979,p.23.fig.2, article by J.Hind.

[27] A.Parrot, Chebab, Moscati, Les Phéniciens,1975, fig. 30,180f.,255,328, cf.103. A sevenfold raised uraeus is crowning two stelai, fig.249f.

[28] The material is gathered in the article "Gorgo-gorgones" in Lex.Icon. by I.Krauskopf & S-C. Dahlinger from which the two pictures above are reproduced - no.65 & 224 in the article.