Perhaps one might be in a jubilant mood anyway from yesterday, having celebrated the dies natalis with the holy goddess Diana … and perhaps the Ides would in any case have brought out a certain jovial spirit … or else the celebration of Lychnapsia might have lightened one’s spirits … but now the news from Syria, of all places, brings even more reason for rejoicing. Namely, as of August 12, the holy city of Hierapolis Bambyce is free!
Now a mainly Arab city of some 75,000 people, this city has retained its millennia-old name (anciently MNBG, presumably Manbig- or Manbug-) with only minor fluctuations. Its Syriac name in ancient times was Mabog, while the Greeks called it Bambyce, and today in Arabic it is Manbij. The news therefore making the rounds is that Manbij has been liberated from Daesh (may they be cursed on earth and by the gods of heaven and by the gods below) by the Syrian Democratic Forces, the Kurdish-led coalition of multi-ethnic, post-nationalist fighters who have driven Daesh out of its strongholds all across northern Syria. The BBC showed some wonderful scenes of local people coming out onto the street to celebrate, publicly cutting off their beards, burning their niqabs, and hugging their liberators.*
It is not beyond the scope of this blog to make some mention of the reasons why a Gallo-Roman polytheist should feel particularly gratified at the liberation of this Syrian holy city. Hierapolis Bambyce was the great sanctuary of the Dea Suria or Syrian goddess—generally so called in Latin, but otherwise known as Atargatis and/or Hera, among other names. Lucian of Samosata devotes a whole treatise to her cult at Hierapolis and elsewhere, which is miraculously extant.
Here is an extract from Lucian, giving a hint of Hierapolis’ importance in the 2nd century CE:
10. Of all these temples, and they are numerous indeed, none seems to me greater than those found in the sacred city; no shrine seems to me more holy, no region more hallowed. They possess some splendid masterpieces, some venerable offerings, many rare sights, many striking statues, and the gods make their presence felt in no doubtful way. The statues sweat, and move, and utter oracles, and a shout has often been raised when the temple was closed; it has been heard by many. […] Nowhere among mankind are so many festivals and sacred assemblies instituted as among them.
[ . . . ]
13. But a further story is told by the men of Hierapolis, and a wonderful one it is; they say that in their country a mighty chasm appeared which received all the water, and that Deukalion on this occurrence reared altars and founded a temple to Juno above this chasm. I have actually seen this chasm; it lies beneath the temple and is of very small dimensions. […] They maintain that their tale is proved by the following occurrence; twice in every year the water comes from the sea to the temple. This water is brought by the priests; but besides them, all Syria and Arabia and many from beyond the Euphrates go down to the sea; one and all bring its water which they first pour out in the temple; then this water passes down into the chasm which, small though it be, holds a vast quantity of water.
(Lucian of Samosata’s De Dea Syria, paragraphs 10 and 13. From the 1913 translation by Herbert Strong and John Garstang, pp. 49, 51-52)
The cult of the Dea Suria was taken to the West by Roman soldiers, including Syrian auxiliaries stationed at Hadrian’s Wall. There is also some reason for thinking that the Dea Suria was at least sometimes syncretized with the consort of Jupiter Optimus Maximus Dolichenus, who like her was a Syrian goddess known in Greek as Hera. Among the places where the worship of the Dolichene couple found a home was Moguntiacum (Mainz), then a legionary stronghold at Gaul’s easternmost extremity, as well as neighbouring encampments of the limes germanicus.
Hail to you, Dea Suria! Long may your city and your people be free!
* All things being equal, I am rather a fan of beards than otherwise; I refer scoffers to Musonius Rufus and the emperor Julian. In this case, however, all things are emphatically not equal!
In addition to this, I should also say a word or two about my observances about the Ides of August. I focused my observances on Diana—whose dies natalis it is, according to the Philocalian calendar of 354 CE (if memory serves)—on Apollo, on Hercules, and on their father Jupiter. This year I had a separate ceremony for Hercules some hours before the other, more elaborate, one. I offered him a libation of Murphy’s Stout, which seemed to go down well, along with prayers and words of praise along the lines you might expect. I tend to highlight Hercules’ role as saxsanus or ‘Hercules of the Rocks’ for his miraculous deliverance while driving the cattle of Geryon; Hercules as culture hero in Gaul; and Hercules the trailblazer to immortality, as depicted on the Igel Column. I also poured out some of the beer onto the ground as an offering to Hercules-as-hero, and myself drank to him as an ancestor of the Celts and Gauls. Somehow this was the first time it occurred to me that Hercules might be honoured as god, as hero, and as ancestor all at once…!
I hadn’t really thought of Diana as a beer-drinker, but the Hercules offering seemed to work so nicely that I later offered her libations of Fat Squirrel brown ale from the New Glarus brewery. This seemed a potation appropriate to the hunt. I also offered her incense, an offering of holy water from the lake of the manitou (wrongly called Devil’s Lake) also in Wisconsin, a reading of a hymn, and such. I also made my customary monthly offerings to Jupiter.
Finally, I’m currently midway through observing the decamnoctiaci Granni, to conclude with the dedication of the altar to Apollo Grannus on August 18. Each night I’ve been lighting a tealight and offering various prayers and invocations in honour of Grannus. So far so good. The final night, I intend to make some more substantial offerings in addition to the candle. So on the Ides I included this as a component of the larger ritual (recalling that there is also an altar dedicated to Jupiter, Apollo, and Diana from Gaul on this date).