Atargatis was the chief goddess of northern Syria in Classical Antiquity. Ctesias also used the name Derceto for her, and the Romans called her Dea Syriae ("Syrian goddess"). Primarily she was a goddess of fertility, but, as the baalat ("mistress") of her city and people, she was also responsible for their protection and well-being. Her chief sanctuary was at Hierapolis, modern Manbij, northeast of Aleppo, Syria.
From Syria her worship extended to Greece and to the furthest West. Lucian and Apuleius give descriptions of the beggar-priests who went round the great cities with an image of the goddess on an ass and collected money. The wide extension of the cult is attributable largely to Syrian merchants; thus we find traces of it in the great seaport towns; at Delos especially numerous inscriptions have been found bearing witness to her importance. The island of Delos near Mykonos, near the centre of the Cyclades archipelago, is one of the most important mythological, historical and archaeological sites in Greece.
Delos had a position as a holy sanctuary for a millennium before Olympian Greek mythology made it the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. From its Sacred Harbour, the horizon shows the two conical mounds that have identified landscapes sacred to a goddess in other sites: one, retaining its Pre-Greek name Mount Kynthos, is crowned with a sanctuary of Zeus.
Leto, a daughter of the Titans Coeus and Phoebe, the sister of Asteria, searching for a birthing place for Artemis and Apollo, addressed the island:
Delos, if you would be willing to be the abode of my son Phoebus Apollo and make him a rich temple –; for no other will touch you, as you will find: and I think you will never be rich in oxen and sheep, nor bear vintage nor yet produce plants abundantly. But if you have the temple of far-shooting Apollo, all men will bring you hecatombs and gather here, and incessant savour of rich sacrifice will always arise, and you will feed those who dwell in you from the hand of strangers; for truly your own soil is not rich.
— Homeric Hymn to Delian Apollo 51–60
Some of the attributes of mermaids may have been influenced by the Sirens of Greek mythology.Sirens were said to be dangerous creatures, who lured nearby sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. Roman poets placed them on some small islands called Sirenum scopuli. In some later, rationalised traditions, the literal geography of the "flowery" island of Anthemoessa, or Anthemusa, is fixed: sometimes on Cape Pelorum and at others in the islands known as the Sirenuse, near Paestum, or in Capreae. All such locations were surrounded by cliffs and rocks.
Helen in her anguish calls upon "Winged maidens, daughters of the Earth." Although they lured mariners, the Greeks portrayed the Sirens in their "meadow starred with flowers" and not as sea deities. Roman writers linked the Sirens more closely to the sea, as daughters of Phorcys. Sirens are found in many Greek stories, notably in Homer's Odyssey.
"They are mantic creatures like the Sphinx with whom they have much in common, knowing both the past and the future", Jane Ellen Harrison observed. "Their song takes effect at midday, in a windless calm."
By the fourth century, when pagan beliefs were overtaken by Christianity, belief in literal sirens was discouraged.
The theme of perilous mythical female creatures seeking to seduce men with their beautiful singing is repeated in the Danish ballad known as "Elvehøj", in which the singers are Elves.
The ballad is in the first person. The narrator, an attractive young man, falls asleep beside an elf-mound (or elvehøj). Some women (usually elf-maidens) then attempt to woo the narrator, singing so beautifully that the natural world responds (the streams stop flowing, fish dance for joy, etc., depending on the variant). The narrator, however, resists their blandishments, grasping his sword (usually in silence). The man is most often rescued by the crowing of a cock waking him, though in the Danish A-version, from the mid-sixteenth-century Jens Billes visebog (known to Grundtvig as 'Sten Bille’s Haandskrift'), he is saved by the advice of his sister who, previously enchanted, is one of the elf-maidens. The ballad usually ends with moralising advice to the listeners.
Love and light,