Astaroth: from Female Deity to Male Demon

Yes, it may also be Erishkigal, but sod it.

So, Hertfordshire University’s Open Graves, Open Minds unit have been running a ‘demon of the day’ campaign on Twitter this week. I’ll confess, as someone who started their interest with the Classical world and Ancient Near East, I’m rather partial to a good demon (I will, one day soon, write the article about Lilith I’ve been threatening.)

I had a rather good conversation with the OGOM project’s Twitter, and the excellent Dr Sam George on the nature of the Solomonic demon Astaroth.

I’m not too proud to admit that one of the reasons I know about Astaroth (and Baal, and Asmodeus) is because I was hoping to lay down the intellectual smack on something that irritates me: the belief that the demons of Christianity were the Gods of previous civilisations.

Which isn’t always true.

Of course… in the case of Astaroth… it sort-of… is.

Which is really fascinating, since becoming a demon isn’t the most interesting thing that happened to him.

His original name was Ashtoreth, and he used to be a goddess.

The meaning of Ashtaroth

Just as ‘God’ isn’t the actual name of the Christian god, linguist and historian H S Grey argues that the word ‘Ashtaroth’ started its life as a generic word for many female deities, probably coming from the early Syrio-Phoenician language. Other researchers, such as A L Frothingham (who wins my award for best surname in this blog post), agree, stating that Baalim and Ashtaroth signify plurals, just as ‘Ishtarati’ signified any female gods in the Assyrian language, and El/Elohim were used to signify Gods and Goddesses in Hebrew.

In fact, in line with the Christian tradition of calling their deity only ‘God’ the name Baal itself seems to be used synonymously for meanings such as ‘husband’ and ‘lord.’

Early Life of an Archdemon

The Ur-deity who would become Ashtoreth seems to have started life as Ishtar in Babylonia and Assyria, with the eldest traces of her worship being found in Erech and Agade. Even here, Grey feels that the Ishtar developed from an earlier form pronounced ‘Ashtar.’ The earliest Syrio-Phoenician worshippers of Ishtar/Ashtar/Ashtoreth (who I will refer to as ‘Ashtoreth’ from now on unless it’s a really specific mention) seem to have worshipped Baal and Astarte as the active and passive principals of nature. This early Ashtoreth was polygamous, going through a succession of husbands and lovers without any attention being paid to separation or divorce. In Agade Ashtoreth was worshipped as ‘Malkatu’, meaning ‘Queen’, and held to be the wife of both Any and Shamash.

In Babylon itself she was Ishtar, and her nature was equated with the star Venus. A surviving inscription tells us: “The star Dilbad (Venus) at the rising of the sun is the Ishtar of Agade, and the setting of the sun the Ishtar of Erech; at the rising of the sun, Dilbad is the Ishtar of the stars, and at the setting of the sun the queen of the gods.”

At other times, in Babylon, she was worshipped as Nana, and later as Zarpanit – the wife of Bill-Marduk. The Suti Ishtar cult of Eastern Babylonia worshipped her as ‘The Ishtar of the Lions’, while in the west she became called Ashtoreth.

In Assyria, she was initially worshiped as Nineveh, daughter of the moon god Sin. Here, rather than being a wife, she was the sister of the sun god Bil. It was this version of Ashtoreth who ventured for the first time into the underworld. At Arbela, she was worshipped from the times of Sennacherib as a war goddess, although she did not become prominent until the times of Esarhaddon. It was here that she had a daughter, Asshur.

Ashtoreth was named Ashtoreth most in Phoenica, where the writings of Phylo of Byblos, Lycian, Sozomen, Zosimus, Porphyry and Pausanias confirm her as Ashtoreth or Ashtart. Equivalents existed in North Africa – where she was worshipped as Tanith. Evidence from digs of the Carthaginian cemetery Bord-el-Djedid even shows the two goddesses being worshipped side by side: archaeologists found a tablet inscribed, “To the goddesses Ashtoreth and Tanith of Lebanon, two new sanctuaries.”

In several of her forms, she was addressed in concert with Baal – a tradition we can see in the habitual pairing of male and female gods through the Near East: Ninlil and Enlil of the Sumerian pantheon, Ishtar/Chemosh of the Moabites, and the Semitic equating of Baal with a female counterpart Baalah.

Certainly, in certain Phoenician cults, the evocation of either Ashtoreth or Tanith (who were at some point worshipped simultaneously, as we have seen from the Bord-el-Djedid inscription) held equivalent weight with a direct invocation of Baal, with one inscription being most naturally read,’“Ashtoreth, Name of Baal’ and another, ‘Tanith, Face of Baal.’

As late as 9 BCE, an inscription states that amongst the semi-monotheistic Moabites, the only god worshipped apart from Chemosh was, by then, the male Ashtoreth analogue Ashtar – about whom we shall read more later.

Certainly, in Biblical sources, Ashtoreth and Baal are counterparts. They are classed together in Judges 2:13 and 1 Samuel 7:4 where the Isrealites abandon God and take up – then abandon – the tradition of Baal-Ashtoreth worship… although, as previously mentioned, some of these references may refer to gods and goddesses in general, rather than those deities themselves.

Amongst the Isrealites themselves, 2 Kings describes statues to Ashtoreth outside the high places in Judah. Ashtoreth was also a goddess to the Zidonians/Sidonians, with Isrealites joining her cult by the period of the book of Judges. They faded in and out of Yahweh worship, with Solomon’s temple to Ashtoreth surviving until the time of Josiah – and her worship continuing until the time of Ezekiel or possibly Isiah.

The Portfolio of Ashtoreth

While some researchers feel that Ashtoreth began as a sheep goddess or goddess of the fold, not enough evidence exists – certainly not in any breadth across all the various forms of Ashtoreth in the Near East – to say this with any sense of conclusively. Certainly, the word ‘Ashtoreth’ was used for sheep by some groups, but that alone isn’t evidence the goddess herself represented Ovines.

Early versions of Ashtoreth and Baal were worshipped as gods of nature. 2 Kings 18:4 describes the statues above Judah as being made out to Asterah, a fertility Goddess. Certainly, the male Ashtoreth analogue Ashtar (worshipped in pre-Islamic Arabia) was a fertility god: associated with the supply of water and bounty of crops.

Ishtar/Ashtoreth as a Goddess of Sexuality

While later versions of Ashtoreth also usurped her mythological father’s portfolio of being a moon deity, one of the most noted is as a goddess of love and sexuality.

We see this in two works of Ancient Near Eastern literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh, and The Epic of Ishtar and Izdubar.

In both epics we see Ishtar in her form as a goddess of love and sex. In both she is tempestuous and frightening: when refused, she unleashes the Bull of Heaven on Gilgamesh, and sends Izdubar on a series of increasingly trying adventures, all the while hurling horrors at him. In the Epic of Ishtar and Izdubar she is described in especial detail as being beautiful, sexually proficient and uncommonly aggressive.

Whether true or not, there is certainly a tradition of male authors portraying the worship of Ashtoreth/Ishtar as involving sacred sex. Both Heroditas and Strabo wrote that Babylonian women would go to the temple of ‘Aphrodite’ “to have intercourse with some stranger.” We see the same thing depicted amongst worshippers of Babylonian gods in Jeremiah 42 and 43.

Other contemporary writers follow the same trend: Lucian describes both conventional games and religio-erotic unions taking place at Byblos after the ceremonial funeral of Adonis. Hosea 4:13 tells us: “They sacrifice upon the tops of the mountains, and burn incense upon the hills, under the oaks and poplars and terebinths, because the shadow is good; wherefore your daughters commit whoredom, and your brides commit adultery.”

Even when Augustine wrote of obscene rituals in de Civitate Dei, he was possibly describing North African rituals connected with Tanith: men and women acting out ‘obscene speeches and actions’ before the celestial virgin and the mother of gods, Berecynthia. Similar descriptions of rites can be found in the writings of Efrem Syrus, who describes the ancient ‘Ashtoreth’ cultists playing games and engaging in rites of sacred sex.

Interestingly a Phoenician inscription depicts not only women involved in sexually liberated activities, but also men. While this isn’t something I have yet had time to look into, it does remind me of 2 Kings 23:7 on the practises that had to be rooted out of Yaweh worship: “…and he brake down the house of the sodomites that were in the house of Yahwe, where the women wove hangings for the Ashera.”

To close this section, though, I feel it worth restating that having studied the Witch Trials for a sizable portion of my adult life, it makes me uneasy to accept the idea of Ashtoreth cults as places of free sexuality. Evidence certainly exists for feminine mystery religions and possible ritual eroticism – sites in Crete, Cyprus and Sicily where archaeological investigations are ongoing – but the liable of promiscuity and sexual deviancy has been used to stigmatise and disempower the ‘other’ since humany’s very dawning.

Ashtoreth to Astaroth

Both the name ‘Astaroth’ and the idea of Ashtoreth as a male deity seem to have existed since long before the demon Astaroth began appearing in magical books. The Yale Genesis Fragment, a papyrus section of the Book of Genesis from no later than 100 CE describes a place called Astaroth: “They cut down the giants in Astaroth Carnain…”

Also, male Ashtaroth (that being the plural of Ashtoreth) are nothing new. As previously mentioned, the Moabite Ashtor was ostensibly male, as was the Ancient Arab Ashtar.

Where, then, did Ashtoreth become Astaroth?

Certainly, by the 15th century, depictions of a male figure using the name ‘Astaroth’ existed. The 1350s Czech Play of the Merry Magdalane depicted Astaroth as the demon prince of the West. The 15th century Czech ‘Infernal Novel’ Sud Astarotov pitted the demon Astaroth as the Devil’s advocate in a trial against humanity. The same male demon appears other Czech works such as Solfernus and Belial.

In other 15th and early 16th century works, Agrippa’s Three Books of Occult Philosophy depict Astaroth as the name of a demon, although Agrippa does seem aware of Astaroth being a place name, in addition to including the demon ‘Astarath’ as prince over the eighth order of evil spirits.

Magical books seem a popular source of the demon name Astaroth. Both the Vulgate Bible and the Luther Bible referred to her as Ashtoreth, with Wycliffe’s incomplete English Bible calling her Astarte.

In contrast, manuscripts from the ‘Keys of Solomon’ family cleave to the name Astaroth. The name is present through most versions of the Hygromanteia group: starting with the English 15th century Harleianus 5596, and continuing through Atheniensis 1265 and older, 16th to 17th century versions of the book. In the Keys of Solomon themselves, even the newly translated Hebrew edition, Ashtoreth is Astaroth.

Where, then, does the name Astaroth come from? Certainly, it made enough of an impression that the 1530 Coverdale Bible – dedicated to Henry VIII – used the name Astaroth, which possibly gave the name a reason for continued usage in any manuscript before the reign of Mary Tudor (although Ashtoreth returns for the King James Bible.)

One possible explanation is de Voragine’s The Golden Legend, a collection of saints’ lives written in 1275, translated into English in the 15th century. The most popular book in Europe until 1530, de Voragine’s ‘Life of St. Bartholomew’ depicted the monk journeying to India, where locals worshipped a demon named ‘Astaroth’ who took residence in a statue and performed ‘lying miracles.’

Whatever influence led to the creation of the male demon Astaroth, thinkers of the 17th century were certainly aware of the paradox. In a letter to Ben Jonson, John Selden wrote a meditation on the idea of Astaroth-Ashtoreth as a gender-fluid deity who could be worshipped as either sex. Something echoed by Milton in Paradise Lost:

“Of Baalim and Ashtaroth those male,
These Feminine. For Spirits when they please
Can either Sex assume, or both…
Came Astoreth, whom Phoenicians call’d
Astarte, Queen of Heav’n, with crescent Horns;
To whose bright Image nightly by the Moon
Sidonian Virgins paid thir Vows and Songs,
In Sion also not unsung, where stood
Her Temple on th’ offensive Mountain, built
By that Uxorious King, whose heart though large,
Beguil’d by fair Idolatresses, fell
To idols foul…”

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