BMCR 2003.11.16

Lucian, On the Syrian Goddess

, , On the Syrian goddess. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. xx, 606 pages : illustrations, map ; 25 cm. ISBN 019925138X. $125.00.

1 Responses

Although the 60 chapters of the Greek text of De Dea Syria (DDS) take up no more than 17 pages, including the apparatus criticus, Lightfoot’s (L.’s) edition runs to over 600 pages. Very few pages are superfluous; this is a rich study, packed with information.

The work is divided into 4 sections. 1, Anatomy of a Deity (1-83), records what can be known about the Syrian Goddess from sources other than DDS. 2, Anatomy of DDS (86-221), deals with issues of style and authorship. 3, Text (222-286), provides an improved text, an English translation, and a full account of the textual tradition. The largest section is 4, Commentary (287-536). After these primary chapters, there follow two appendices (on the titles and epithets of the goddess in papyri and inscriptions and on the cult’s distinctive standard or σημήϊον), an extensive bibliography, and full indices, including passages cited and Greek and Semitic words.

The sections of the work are interdependent and their full value only becomes apparent once the whole book has been perused. After reading it in the normal sequential order, I would suggest that readers who are not familiar with DDS turn their attention first to the text and its translation, since the closely argued positions maintained in the introductory chapters, especially in section 2, depend on a fairly high level of awareness and understanding of the text. The first two sections represent material that L. judged too extensive or too complex to fit easily into the linear, chapter-by-chapter analysis appropriate to a commentary. The large dimensions of the commentary suggest that there is still other material than might have been better transferred to introductory chapters or appendices; I note especially the analyses of the narrative of Stratonike and Combabos (384-402) and of the question of human sacrifice (523-531).

L. writes with authority on the many different areas required by her topic; her use, and understanding, of non-Greek material in the original languages (Hebrew, Syriac, Ugaritic) is something which ought to be a prerequisite for serious study of the Hellenistic Near East and gives a special weight to her conclusions for classicists like this reviewer who cannot claim the same level of linguistic competence. Her range of expertise is impressive, as she moves with confidence from the iconography of various Near Eastern cults, to the manuscript tradition of Lucian, to the dialectology of Greek, to the complex mutual influences of Greek and non-Greek cultural traditions, for which a term such as “Hellenization” can be seen after this study only as a facile reduction. A case in point is the iconography of the Syrian goddess, which L. argues was influenced by Greek versions of Cybele rather than by direct contact with the Phrygian cult or a shared Anatolian or Oriental “Mother-Goddess” heritage.

Discussions of DDS have rightly focussed on issues of authorship, but L. makes it clear that authenticity is only one of many questions that need to be asked about the nature and purpose of the work. It is clearly in the Herodotean style and dialect, but is the archaic author emulated or parodied? DDS purports to be an eyewitness account of the shrine and cult of the goddess, and much of it, notably the account of the semeion and other items of iconography, have been confirmed by archaeology (213-214); yet there is also other material in the essay, such as phalloi 300 fathoms high (DDS 28), which L. is right to categorize as a “flagrant piece of fiction” (216). It is only after the nature and content of DDS are rightly interpreted (in section 2), that it is appropriate to discuss its ascription to Lucian. In terms of genre, L. demonstrates how DDS resembles the style and language of Ionian logographers and their treatment of the barbarian “other,” although its form is that of the Hellenistic periegesis, typically written by a local patriot (89-91).

There follows an intricate account of the Ionic in which DDS is composed, compared with other examples of imperial pseudo-Ionism, such as Aretaeus, Arrian’s Indica, the “Herodotean” life of Homer, and Ionic texts associated with Lucian, such as the speeches assigned to Democritus and others in the Vitarum Auctio and the essay entitled Astrologia (90-142). This section is of value independent of its contribution to the issue of Lucianic authorship. Beginning with a salutary reminder of the distance between epigraphic Ionic and Herodotus’ poetic kunstsprache (98), L. demonstrates how much the author’s dialect represents a “valiant attempt to be Herodotean” (121). This is consistent with the apparently “Herodotean” personality of the narrator (161), although there are many signs of a different author, more inclined, like authors in the 2nd century, to use “devices more redolent of Gorgias than Herodotus” (153), and, despite his Herodotean, Greek, stance to the works of the “other,” the barbarian, an author who self-identifies as “Assyrian,” and describes a temple and a cult in which he is personally involved (182).

It is in this context that we return to the issue of authorship; doubts have been expressed since the 17th century that the same man who was as contemptuous of religious sectarianism as Lucian could have written a straight-faced treatise on the Assyrian Hera (185-187). The most recent version of this argument was made by Dirven in 1997:1 DDS is factually reliable on several points of cult; seriousness about religion is foreign to Lucian; therefore the work is probably not genuine. The reverse argument, for the work’s authenticity, was made by the great Lucian translator Christoph Martin Wieland:2 it is entirely typical of Lucian to imitate, not just the style of Herodotus, but his naïve credulity, which is either satirised or at least the source of amusement, as suggested by Elsner.3 But is amusement the point? After situating DDS in the context of modern theoretical discussions of parody and pastiche,4 L. describes the essay as extraordinarily clever, but not particularly funny (199).

DDS is, as L. demonstrates, the work of a master imitator, and Lucian was a skilled and clever mimic, perhaps without peer in antiquity (196-197). On linguistic grounds, L. cautiously concludes (196) that the number of linguistic correspondences in the pseudo-Ionic of Vitarum Auctio, Astrologia and DDS “make[s] it improbable that the three texts are not by the same author.” But, if Lucian is the author, how are we to respond to DDS’s uncharacteristic approach to religion (199)? L. attempts a nuanced response, stressing the work’s genre: ethnography in the Herodotean manner does not prescribe sneering and dismissal, whereas comic and philosophical satire, Lucian’s chosen genre in other works, do (200). I suspect that L. may well be right, but, at the risk of expanding an already long work, I wish that she had spent more time reviewing Lucian’s many narrative stances and self-presentations in a wide variety of genres, from Vera Historia to Philopseudes to De Historia Conscribenda. Such a review could also expand on the Lucius novel, whose attribution to Lucian L. does not dispute (208). If it is genuine, it would be valuable to pay more attention to the comparison of the account of the Syrian deity by one Lucianic persona (“Lucius of Patrae”) with that of his “Assyrian” mouthpiece in DDS.

If DDS is by Lucian and much of its purpose is literary pastiche, can it have any evidentiary value? After carefully balancing the evidence, L. concludes that DDS does remain “a priceless source for the religious history of imperial Syria” (221). She also reminds us of its value for the interpretation of Herodotus. Lucian presents Herodotus, she argues, as “an engaging simpleton.” (footnote 620), to be contrasted with the intellectually engaged sophisticated controversialist of Rosalind Thomas’ recent study.5 It would also be worthwhile to contrast Lucian’s Herodotus with those of nearly contemporary authors such as Dionysius of Halicarnassus and Plutarch.

This is an intellectually stimulating and demanding study of a complex work by one of the more subtle and engaging authors of antiquity. It is impossible in a short review to give a full sense of the richness of the argument. I could have written at length, for example, on the treatment of the story of Stratonice and Combabos, qualified as a “showpiece faux-naïf Herodotean novella” (384), which manages effortlessly to combine such themes as its parallels in literature from Sassanid Persia to Mogul India to Tokharian Turkestan to Turkish Anatolia, with the historical Stratonike, and the possible ties of Combabos to Cubaba, the city-goddess of Bronze-Age Carchemish. This essay, like many others, ends with a series of questions such as “Is it folk-tale or high art, rationalised myth or mysticated bazaar-tale?” (401). L. describes such questions as unanswerable. This reviewer finds himself wishing that the author had chosen to answer to declare her own position more often (as she does on the matter of authorship); but that is in fact the best indication of the confidence L. that has inspired in her knowledge and judgment in all matters relating to DDS.


1. L. Dirven, “The author of the De Dea Syria and his cultural heritage,” Numen 44 (1997) 153-179.

2. C.M. Wieland, Lucians von Samosata sämtliche Werke, Leipzig 1788-89, 5. 289-90.

3. J. Elsner, “Describing Self in the Language of Other: Pseudo (?) Lucian at the Temple of Hierapolis,” in S. Goldhill (ed.), Being Greek under Rome: Cultural Identity, the Second Sophistic and the Development of Empire. Cambridge 2001, 123-53.

4. Linda Hutcheon, A Theory of Parody, New York, 1985.

5. R. Thomas, Herodotus in Context: Ethnography. Science and the Art of Persuasion. Cambridge 2000.