We arrived at the gate of Ashkelon as the light was fading in the western sky. Passing by the shrine to the bronze idol and the nearby dog cemetery, we entered the city just before the gates were closed.
“Many years have passed in a moment,” Pleiades observed. “The time of day is the same as a moment ago, but we have leaped into the future.”
“I discern that nineteen years have passed in a moment,” Pegasus said.
“I guess that makes me the oldest dog in the world,” Dogma said. “If anyone knew this, I would be given a prominent place at the shrine of Sirius and be given dominion over felines.”
“Yes,” I replied. “You look quite distinguished now. I think I see some gray fur around your ears!”
“Did you know that at one time cats were worshiped in Egypt?” Dogma asked.
“I had forgotten,” I replied.
“Cats remember this,” Dogma said. “They are fond of reminding us dogs—and any human who tries to tell them what to do.”
Ashkelon was a large city, the largest in Philistia. Surrounded by vineyards and wheat fields, it was a prosperous seaport with shops featuring many items imported from afar. Taverns were everywhere, with inns above them, all abounding with harlots licensed by the temple of Atargatis to serve the desires of tourists and worshipers.
We found one of the larger inns that seemed to cater to upper class clients. Most of them were rich foreigners who had come to pay homage to the goddess at the temple in Ashkelon.
The stable behind the inn was clean and roomy, and the stable boys promised to take good care of the horses. They were somewhat puzzled by the fact that they needed no bridles, but we assured them that they only needed to tell the horses to follow and then lead them to a clean stall, and they would cause no trouble.
“Feed them well and brush them down,” I said. “I will pay you well if you treat them well. Be warned that the horses will tell me how well you have treated them!” We left the stable and walked into the inn, with Dogma following us closely. Sippore flew into the air, joining the great flocks of doves that seemed to be everywhere.
“That will be nine peh or three shekels per night,” the clerk said. “Harlots and meals are extra. How long will you be staying?”
“Just one night,” I replied. “We will not need any harlots.” I handed him two ounces of silver, which he weighed carefully, giving me some copper coins in change.
A servant boy led us to our room upstairs. It was luxurious with a large, soft bed with curtains above. A tall but narrow window looked out over the busy street below. It was a fine accommodation, the best that we had seen thus far in our travels.
Sipporah went to the window and looked out over the city. Soon Sippore flew to her and landed on her shoulder.
“Shall we go downstairs and have some dinner?” I asked.
“That would be lovely,” Sipporah replied. “We have not had a good meal in quite some time.”
“Then let us go downstairs to the tavern,” I said. “I suspect that the food in this establishment is better than at The Tipsy Tavern.”
We walked downstairs and found an empty table. Dogma laid down at our feet. A maid saw us and immediately came to serve us. We ordered their best meal. “And bring meat for our dog, please, along with a bowl of clean water. And if you have a few seeds for the dove, please bring them as well,” I added.
We were soon dining on roast lamb covered with the famous onions of Ashkelon, along with bread, vegetables, and delicious fruit from the nearby fields, orchards, and pastures. Dogma, too, was happy. He was happy to be back in the place he was born, and the meat, he said, was delicious. Sippore, too, enjoyed fresh seeds from the kitchen, for (as we learned later) it was good luck to feed the doves, so virtually all of the inns had seeds and grain for the doves.
“I can see why this city would attract a lot of foreign tourists,” Sipporah commented. “It is a wealthy city.”
“And very religious,” I added. “I suspect that the main tourist attraction is the temple of Atargatis. Perhaps someone can tell us more about the religion of this city.”
Sipporah pointed to a woman who had just walked into the tavern. “That looks like a temple harlot,” she said. “Perhaps if she is not busy at the moment, she would not mind answering some questions.”
I waved at the harlot to get her attention, and she walked over to our table with seductive movements. She had beautiful, flowing brown hair clasped by a delicate, bluish ornament that was shaped like a lotus flower. “May I help you?” she asked, staring at Sippore who was sitting on Sipporah’s shoulder.
“This is my wife, Sipporah,” I said in order to assure her that I was not sitting with a harlot, sacred or secular. “I am Anava. We are from a foreign country. May we ask you a few questions? We are unfamiliar with the religion of Ashkelon, and we were hoping that you could tell us about the goddess of the temple here. What is her story?”
“Atargatis is the Belit, the great mistress-harlot of this city,” the harlot said, sitting down beside us. “She is a Syrian goddess of fertility and fishery. She is the goddess of the sea. As the story goes, long ago she once insulted Venus, the goddess of love. Venus avenged herself by putting a curse upon her, so that she would fall in love with a mortal, a shepherd boy who had come to one of her shrines to worship her.”
“Atargatis is a cursed goddess?” I asked curiously.
“Yes,” the harlot replied. “Our Lady then fell in love with the shepherd boy and became pregnant with his child. But because of the curse, she was doomed to kill her lover accidentally. Out of guilt and sadness, she then threw herself into a lake.”
“To kill herself on account of her grief?” Sipporah asked.
“Yes,” the harlot answered. “However, being a goddess, instead of drowning, she was given fins like a fish. She turned into a mermaid and has been worshiped since that time as a goddess of the sea and of fish, as well as of fertility. This is why in the islands of the sea she is known by the name Derceto, which, in their tongue, refers to Cetus, the sea monster. So the name means the Whale of Der.”
“But you said that she was pregnant. What happened to her child?” I asked.
“Since she had become a fish,” the harlot explained, “she laid an egg, which was brought to shore by fish, where doves sat upon it and hatched it. That is why fish and doves are sacred in Ashkelon.”
“Well, that explains why Ashkelon seems to be a haven for doves,” I observed.
Speaking to Sipporah, she said, “I see that the sacred dove favors you. It is not restrained in any way, yet it remains with you. How did you gain such power?”
“I have no power over Sippore,” she answered. “She is my guide and follows me willingly. She carries the feminine portion of Creator’s Spirit.”
“The spirit of Atargatis?” the harlot asked.
“No, the Spirit of El Shaddai, who is one with Yahweh,” Sipporah answered. The harlot was puzzled, but did not pursue the question further.
“There is a high temple tax on any doves that are eaten,” she explained. “Fishermen must also pay a tax on the fish that they catch, since fish too are sacred to Atargatis.”
“So the fishing business supports the temple,” I said.
“Yes, but the donations far exceed the taxes,” she answered. “And, of course, the harlots provide much income for the temple as well. As long as there are men in this world, we will always have a good income.”
“I appreciate your information,” I said politely, “but I do have one more question.”
“What is that?” she asked.
“Why do you worship a cursed goddess? Surely that could only bring harm to you and all who fall in love.”
“The curse does not harm us directly,” she explained. “It brings harm to the men that we love, for that is the nature of the original curse. For this reason, we are instructed not to love our clients, for true love will kill them according to the spell of Venus. Any man who desires to devote himself to Atargatis at the temple must be emasculated, so that he is like a woman. He then dresses like a woman and wears a wig of a woman’s hair. This, of course, is for their own protection, for then the curse overlooks them, thinking that they are women.”
“Ah, so you have learned to trick the curse!” I said with a nod.
“I suppose so,” she answered, “but this is a woman’s religion. Men must become women-like to be accepted in this temple. We worship a mermaid goddess who competes with Dagon, the merman who is her consort. Dagon is a male god who rules by power, war, and violence. But we believe that seduction is stronger than war, and our harlots prove this daily.”
“So this is really a power struggle between a merman and a mermaid and between men and women in general,” Sipporah said.
“Is that not what life is all about?” the harlot asked. “Dagon and Atargatis are consorts, just as Baal and Astarte among the Canaanites are said to be married. Even among the Greeks, Venus and Mars have a love-hate relationship, each attempting to prove who has the greatest power. Our temples compete to see which deity is dominant and is the greatest, and this is reflected in the great struggle for dominance between husbands and wives in general.”
“Is that your concept of marriage?” Sipporah asked. “Is marriage in Ashkelon just a competition for dominance?”
“There is more to it than that, of course,” the harlot replied, “but this is indeed the foundational issue here in Ashkelon or wherever Dagon or Atargatis are worshiped.”
“If Dagon is the husband of Atargatis,” I asked, “does this mean Atargatis will overcome Dagon and perhaps even destroy him through love? Will Dagon himself be emasculated?”
The harlot smiled. “If they loved each other, then no doubt this would be so,” she said. “However, they have a loveless marriage, for Dagon knows only power, not love.”
“Well,” said Sipporah, “we are from a far country, and we hold a different belief in regard to marriage. My husband and I empower each other. We do not seek dominion over each other, but use our strengths to support each other through love. Love does not seek its own will, nor does it seek an advantage over the other. Love does not look for weakness to exploit, but where it finds weakness, love defends and strengthens.”
I added, “Our sacred writings teach us that Yahweh and El Shaddai are one, for it is written that Yahweh appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai.” 83 What my wife is saying is that we submit ourselves to one another, each seeking the welfare and happiness of the other. We are not two powers competing for dominion, but two people sharing a single heart. She is my God-given source of strength to be what I was created to be, and I use whatever strength I have, not to enslave her, but to set her free to be all that she was created to be. We are in agreement, and together we overcome all things.”
“Is such a thing possible?” the harlot said. “It seems to me that this goes against the gods and against nature itself.”
“You said yourself that you worship a cursed goddess,” Sipporah said. What would a blessed God look like? “Venus is supposed to be the goddess of love, yet she has used love as a curse to destroy men, beginning with Atargatis’ own lover. Such love is not love at all, nor can it ever be. Love never fails, 84 but cursed love can never succeed. This may be a way of life for Ashkelon, but, if possible, would you not want to be free of that curse? Is there something deep within your heart that longs for the kind of love that my husband and I share?”
The harlot’s eyes suddenly glazed over, and we could see a dark change come over her countenance. Her face narrowed and seemed to take on a new shape, snake-like, while her tongue probed us, trying to understand the Spirit in which we live and move and have our being. 85
“I know you!” she hissed. “You are bond-servants of the Most High God who are proclaiming the way of Yeshua! 86 Why are you here? This is my territory, and this is my chosen vessel!”
“No more!” Sipporah said without flinching. “I command you to come out of her! The Power of the Flame binds you and escorts you to the Creator’s feet for judgment! You will no longer oppress Israel, for your time has come.”
The harlot lurched back in her chair, as if someone had slapped her face. We watched as her face slowly changed back to its natural countenance. Her eyes cleared, and her body went limp in the chair. Sippore flew across the table, landing on her shoulder to strengthen her with the Creator’s word of comfort and love.
“Are you okay?” I asked.
“Yes, I think so,” she answered. “I am a bit confused, though, as if I have just awakened from a bad dream.” She paused. “Who am I?” she asked herself. “What have I done?”
Sippore whispered into her ear. Looking up, she said with a strange look, “My name is Azzah… Azzah. My strength is returning to me.”
Azzah then put her head between her hands and began to weep. As her tears flowed, Sipporah got up from her chair and put her arms around Azzah’s shoulders. “It’s okay. You are safe now. You have been set free by the power of love. Your strength is returning.”
- Genesis 17:1
- 1 Corinthians 13:8
- Acts 17:28
- Acts 16:17, where the slave-girl was possessed by the spirit of python.