Lebanon: the lost rites of Astarte and Adonis

The Lebanon is not your average Middle Eastern country, though it embodies aspects of them all. Today it is a melting pot of Sunni and Shia Muslims, Palestinians, Druze, Maronite and Orthodox Christians, Syrian refugees and wealthy Arabs from the Gulf, but beneath the vibrant surface it is possible to discern the traces of an equally unique and rich past.

‘Astarte’ the Louvre, Paris (public domain)

For thousands of years it was the Canaanite and then Phoenician cultures that flourished in this tiny sliver of land sandwiched between the Mediterranean and two large mountain ranges. This was the time when Astarte, Queen of Heaven, was worshipped as a goddess of fertility and sexuality, bringing abundance from the sea and nourishment from the land, and ensuring together with her consort Baal, that all things were in balance above and below. She herself was derived from the older Mesopotamian goddess Inanna and it was this archetype that was worshipped throughout the Levant in various forms including Ishtar, Ashtoreth and Aphrodite.

‘Jezebel’ by Byam Shaw, public domain

Today little traces of her remain either physically or in the historical record, and what does is often recorded through the lens of disapproving historians or biblical writers. One of her most famous priestesses was Jezebel, the Phoenician princess and daughter of King Ethbaal of Tyre, who took the worship of both Astarte and Baal to the kingdom of Israel at the time of the prophet Elijah. Astarte ruled supreme in all the city states of Phoenica and in the Eschmoun temple near Sidon (named after her consort in this city), a well-preserved temple still stands to this day. She was typically worshipped in the form as a throne supported by winged sphinxes or lions, and represented by a betyl, or sacred stone. It was at Byblos, however, that her main centre of worship was located and it was there that I went to piece her story together.

Astarte’s throne, National Museum Beirut (author’s photo)

The ancient ruins of Byblos are vast and impressive and in the centre of the complex, reached by a grand central colonnade, the temple of Astarte once stood. Reconstructed images show a large open court, surrounded by cloisters, in the middle of which stood a large conical shaped stone, or betyl, that represented and embodied her essence. It was here that the famous rites of Adonis were celebrated, generally seen as the ‘offspring’ of Baal and Astarte, or sometimes as her lover. The name Adonis means ‘lord’ in semitic and though introduced at a later stage by the Greeks and Romans, nevertheless embodied a hugely powerful archetype that also went under the names of Tammuz and Attis.

These young male gods embodied the ‘rising and dying god-man archetype,’ an archaic form of a vegetation deity that has very deep roots. According to James Frazer[1], as harvest gods, they embodied the actual life essence present in the corn and were ritually slain once a year as the corn itself was threshed by scythes and cycles at harvest time. The death of the harvest god was then ritually mourned in a huge ceremony involving cymbals, flutes, and semi-naked women beating their breasts, dancing and weeping in a sacred lament, followed the burial of his wounded body, and then the celebration of his miraculous resurrection the following day.

In the Greek version of the legend, Adonis was born of a myrrh tree (confirming his status as a vegetation deity) and hidden in a box by Aphrodite in the underworld. In a story woven into the mythology of many cultures across the aeons of time, but with local varieties of gods/goddesses playing the part, he is held hostage in the underworld until permitted by an authority figure to spend part of the year above ground, thereby embodying the mysteries of the seed that lies fallow before bursting forth in the spring in the abundant glory of the corn crop.

‘Venus and Adonis’ by Titian, public domain

The next part of the legend is specific to the Lebanon, for we are now told that the youthful Adonis, who loved to hunt, was out on Mount Lebanon near a place called Afqa. He came across a wild boar, that fatally wounded him in the leg. Aphrodite herself could not save him from his injuries and he bled to death on the ground, causing crimson anenomes to spring forth and the river water to run red with his blood. This river was known as the Adonis river in antiquity and flowed from Mount Lebanon through the Aphaca gorge down to Byblos, where it emptied into the sea.

Afqa waterfall, author’s photo

According to Frazer, there was once a large temple of Astarte that stood in a grove near the source of this river, and one hot day in August, I journeyed to Afqa to see what fragments remained. Though I found no trace of the temple, I did find a place of incredible beauty. Set in the towering limestone massif of the Mount Lebanon range was a huge cavern from which a waterfall emerged. Even in August the waterfall was an impressive site forming pools of azure and turquoise water, but in the spring, when the pale sun starts to melt the snow on the top of Mount Lebanon, the frothing waters would have burst forth in torrents, cascading down the valley, fructifying and turning all the vegetation green after the barrenness of winter. It was here, according to the legend, that the wounded body of Adonis was buried, dying so that the vegetation might spring forth.

It is clear from the stories that the blood of Adonis not only fertilised the land but also turned the river red. Upon closer inspection of the waters, traces of iron can be seen and we now know that the soil around the river is rich in iron oxide. As the water levels rise, iron rich soil is washed into the water, turning it the colour of vermillion. This bloody torrent then then snaked down the Aphaca gorge, and on to Byblos where it fanned out to sea, and, in the words of Frazer, “fringing the winding shores of the blue Mediterranean, whenever the wind set inshore, with a sinuous band of crimson.’

Adonis Cavern, Afqa (author’s photo)

And that is not all. As also Frazer suggests, there was a celestial event that accompanied the torrents of water that emerged gushing like blood from the cavern at Afqa, and this could be linked to the planet Venus. According to the historian Sozomen [2] ‘At Aphaca, it was believed that on a certain prayer being uttered on a given day, a fire like a star descended from the top of Lebanon, and sunk into the neighbouring river; this phenomenon they sometimes call Urania, and sometimes Venus.’

Astarte/Aphrodite were closely associated closely with the planet Venus, and the cycles of Venus were well known to the Ancients who considered her retrograde motion then reappearance as the morning star to be mysterious and sacred. It is therefore plausible that at certain times of the Venus cycle, the star was seen from the lofty heights of Mount Lebanon to fall from the night sky and plunge into the river, turning the waters blood red. To the ancients, Astarte would have personified the planet Venus, who fell from heaven to lie in the arms of her lover Adonis, fructifying the barren Earth in a cosmic drama of great potency.

Throne of Astarte at Echmoun Temple, Sidon (author’s photo)

On an even deeper level, it is possible that these rites originally recorded a meteorite impact that occurred in archaic times. Then the falling ‘star’ would have had a physical impact on the Earth, ‘wounding’ it and causing the river to run red with blood. It could also have fructified and brought forth new life, just as the poppies used today to symbolise death and sacrifice rose from the desolate battle fields when they were first ploughed. Furthermore, Astarte herself was represented by a betyl, and the most prized betyl of all were those made from meteorites. They truly were a piece of heaven on Earth and our ancestors understood their significance in a way that has been lost today. In the stories and legends that have come down to us from antiquity, we can therefore piece together traces of a lost world view that saw heaven and earth as a unified whole, and our place in nature as sacred and wondrous.


[1] James George Frazer ‘The Golden Bough,’ Oxford University Press, 2009.

[2] See www.phenicians.com ‘The Adonis legend’

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