Terry Heckler, a Starbucks employee, is supposed to have found the original twin-tailed mermaid in a 16th century Norse woodcut from an “old marine book”. The first Starbucks logo reproduced this image without changing it in any noticeable way; later versions of the logo are progressively less sensual. With her noticeable breasts and belly and provocatively split tail this mermaid or one similar to it appeared in two medieval Italian churches, in Otronto and Pesaro, as an emblem of sinful temptation. Howard Schulz of Starbucks described her as “barebreasted and Rubinesque” and “as seductive as the coffee itself”.
By the 13th century this mermaid, popular in Italy, began to travel throughout Europe as part of the church’s bestiary, a collection of animals used to decorate churches and sacred manuscripts. These fantastic creatures were supposed to warn the pious to avoid lust, greed, and pride. The twin-tailed mermaid was also used in depictions of Melusina in 14th century France. According to the legend the legs of this beautiful queen became serpentine when she bathed.
My contention is that the original of the European twin-tailed mermaid is the Near Eastern goddess Atargatis, who was worshiped in the Levant as late as the Hellenistic Age. The name “Atargatis” was a Greek derivation from the Semitic “Atar Ate”, which probably originated in the Canaanite “Athirat”.
“Athirat of the Sea” was the Phoenician form of Asherah, the mother goddess who was worshiped alongside YHVH in the temple of Jerusalem until the religious reforms of the prophet Nehemiah. She is one of three goddesses who were popular symbols of sexuality in Canaan---the other two were Anat and Ashtart (Astarte). In James George Fraser’s “Golden Bough” the three are conflated and called Astarte.
The seat of Atargatis’ worship was Hieropolis in Syria, but her cult spread to Greece and Rome. Lucian calls her Dea Syria, the Syrian goddess, in his treatise “De Dea Syria”, a portrayal of Levantine religious life in the 2nd century CE. He describes castration and ritual sex, and obelisks with a noticeably phallic shape.
There was a sacred pool at Hieropolis which was populated by fish whom no one was allowed to eat. They were undoubtedly symbols of the goddess. The theme of fish and a pool is found in a Canaanite myth that was ancient in the time of the Syrian goddess. Ashtart fled from Yam, a personification of the sea, holding her daughter in her arms. She leapt into a pool of fresh water and mother and daughter both became either fish or mermaids and were saved from harm.
The worship of Atargatis and the cult of Aphrodite existed side by side, and the two goddesses shared the attributes of sensuality and sexuality. The association of Atargatis with fish and Aphrodite’s birth from the sea were probably both responsible for the folkloric idea that fish is an aphrodisiac. If modern man thought in the same symbolic way as his ancestors he would conclude that coffee is also an aphrodisiac. It has been demonstrated, as a matter of fact, that two sexual partners who are awake have better sex than two who are asleep.
Below: The progressive stylization of the original woodcut forming the Starbucks logo.