Astarte was a goddess honored in the Eastern Mediterranean area, before being renamed by the Greeks. Variants of the name “Astarte” can be found in the Phoenician, Hebrew, Egyptian and Etruscan languages.
A deity of fertility and sexuality, Astarte eventually evolved into the Greek Aphrodite thanks to her role as a goddess of sexual love. Interestingly, in her earlier forms, she also appears as a warrior goddess, and eventually was celebrated as Artemis.
The Torah condemns the worship of “false” deities, and the Hebrew people were occasionally punished for honoring Astarte and Baal. King Solomon got in trouble when he tried to introduce the cult of Astarte into Jerusalem, much to the displeasure of Yahweh. A few Biblical passages make a reference to the worship of a “Queen of Heaven,” who may have been Astarte.
In the book of Jeremiah, there is a verse referencing this female deity, and Yahweh’s anger at the people who honor her: “Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.” (Jeremiah 17-18)
Among some fundamentalist branches of Christianity, there is a theory that Astarte’s name provides the origin for the Easter holiday - which should, therefore, not be celebrated because it is held in honor of a false deity.
Symbols of Astarte include the dove, the sphinx, and the planet Venus.
Johanna H. Stuckey, University Professor Emerita, York University, says of Astarte, “Devotion to Astarte was prolonged by the Phoenicians, descendants of the Canaanites, who occupied a small territory on the coast of Syria and Lebanon in the first millennium BCE. From cities such as Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon, they set forth by sea on long trading expeditions, and, venturing far into the western Mediterranean, they even reached Cornwall in England. Wherever they went, they established trading posts and founded colonies, the best known of which was in North Africa: Carthage, the rival of Rome in the third and second centuries BCE. Of course they took their deities with them. Hence, Astarte became much more important in the first millennium BCE than she had been in the second millennium BCE. In Cyprus, where the Phoenicians arrived in the ninth century BCE, they built temples to Astarte, and it was on Cyprus that she was first identified with Greek Aphrodite.”
Offerings to Astarte typically included libations of food and drink.
In 1894, French poet Pierre Louys published a volume of erotic poetry entitled Songs of Bilitis, which he claimed were written by a contemporary of the Greek poet Sappho. However, the work was all Louys’ own, and included a stunning prayer honoring Astarte:
Mother inexhaustible and incorruptible,
Creatures, born the first, engendered by thyself and by thyself conceived,
Issue of thyself alone and seeking joy within thyself, Astarte! Oh!
Perpetually fertilized, virgin and nurse of all that is,
Chaste and lascivious, pure and revelling, ineffable, nocturnal, sweet,
Breather of fire, foam of the sea!
Thou who accordest grace in secret,
Thou who unitest,
Thou who lovest,
Thou who seizest with furious desire the multiplied races of savage beasts
And couplest the sexes in the wood.
Oh, irresistible Astarte!
Hear me, take me, possess me, oh, Moon!
And thirteen times each year draw from my womb the sweet libation of my blood!