Separating fact from legend in the history of the ancient world can be close to impossible. Between royal claims of divinity, propaganda from rival cultures, and the mundane reality of lost records, we’re left with a sometimes psychedelic vision of noteworthy figures. One such exaggerated, distorted, and mythical individual is Semiramis, an Assyrian queen alleged to be a sovereign ruler, love goddess, or a spiteful murderess depending on whose opinion one hears. Further complicating matters is the fact that her name is also at the center of a conspiracy theory seeking to prove that Catholicism is a form of paganism.
Located in the territory occupied by present-day Iraq, Assyria was one of the key geopolitical entities of the ancient world. The society was a warlike one, surrounded by states eager to lay claim to fertile regions of land along the Tigris River. Assyrian rulers were responsible for enforcing a strict code of law that was considered brutal even for its time. By the 9th Century BC, the Assyrian state had existed for nearly 1,700 years and was at the height of its empire, sprawling across land occupied by 12 modern nations. It is in this atmosphere that Queen Shammuramat–translated into Greek as Semiramis–became the first (and only) woman to occupy the Assyrian throne. Though her reign lasted only five years and was merely a stopgap between the death of her husband and her son’s coming of age, the fact that a woman ruled over such an aggressive and gender-divided society in any capacity is remarkable.
Over the course of centuries, the story of the Assyrian empress was embellished and transformed. The assumption of the Greek and Roman historians chronicling the region was that any woman capable of controlling such a fearsome society must have been larger than life. Hundreds of years after her reign, epic monuments in Assyria–by that time reduced to a fraction of its former power–were attributed to her. The role of historian during the classical period was quite different from what we think of today. These chroniclers recorded a mixture of hearsay, legend, and fact in order to create a narrative that sometimes bore only a nodding relationship to the truth. In this way, Shammuramat, the empress regent, became Semiramis, the divine warrior queen.
The legend of Semiramis was well established by the time Diodorus of Sicily wrote about her in the 1st Century BC. To hear Diodorus recount her tale, Semiramis was born from the union of the mermaid-like fertility goddess Derekto with a mortal man. Abandoned by her parents and nurtured by doves in the wilderness, the infant demigoddess was found by a kindly shepherd who raised her as his own. Semiramis grew into a bewitching young woman, catching the eye of King Ninus (himself a mythical figure that does not appear in any record of Assyrian kings). Unfortunately, Semiramis was married to one of the king’s generals, leading Ninus to threaten this general with mutilation unless he ceded his wife to him. This conflict of loyalty drove the general mad and he committed suicide, conveniently freeing his wife to pursue the king. The freshly minted queen and Ninus had a son together, and after the king’s death on the battlefield, a cunning Semiramis dressed in men’s clothing, fooling the army into believing she was her own son. The charade proved remarkably successful, allowing her to rule for over four decades and conquer vast sections of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. By the late 4th Century AD, historians credited Semiramis as heading up a campaign to protect female virtue. In addition to allegedly inventing the chastity belt, she was also said to be the first person to castrate young men to create celibate eunuch warriors tasked with guarding noblewomen.
Given the Assyrian penchant for empire-building, it’s unsurprising that its neighboring civilizations had less heroic views of its legendary leaders. One of the regions that frequently found itself chafing under Assyrian rule was the area of Eurasia currently occupied by Armenia. In Armenian myth, Semiramis’s insatiable sexual appetite meant that the hills of the countryside she ruled are the final resting places of her many discarded and slain lovers. Foremost among these men was Ara the Beautiful, an Armenian king who rejected her advances only to find himself killed by the vengeful empress during a war she instigated against his people. The legend of Semiramis and Ara underscores her womanly hot-headedness and deceptive nature, and has been retold by some of Armenia’s leading literary figures. This depiction of a lustful, power-mad queen has carried through the centuries and Semiramis is depicted in this fashion in fictional works as diverse as Dante’s Inferno, numerous operas, and two Italian sword and sandal movies.
Perhaps the strangest twist in the legend of Semiramis came in the middle of the 19th Century. In 1853, Scottish minister Alexander Hislop set out to prove that Catholicism is a pagan religion by publishing his theory that Semiramis was the founder of a mother goddess cult that later morphed into the Catholic Church. His book, The Two Babylons, purports to prove that Semiramis portrayed herself as a divine mother and that this cult thrived and transformed across cultures. Hislop contends that Ishtar, Isis, and Venus are the same figure as the Virgin Mary, and that Emperor Constantine simply merged Christianity with pagan beliefs and never converted to a true belief in Christ. This theory is still cited by certain Protestant groups, including Jack Chick’s Independent Baptist Church. In fact, multiple Chick Tracts, including Are Roman Catholics Christians? and Angel of Light make mention of this alleged cult of Semiramis.
The story of Semiramis shows how a single historical event can spark a host of contradictory reactions. That the figure at the core of this story was a woman who achieved fame for playing a role reserved for men is no accident–this left historians in a position where they had to build an epic character to support such a seemingly outrageous tale. Competence (alongside a good measure of luck) was not a sufficient explanation, so hyperbole and fantasy stepped in to fill the blanks. Today’s image of Semiramis is a patchwork of history, Biblical apocrypha, and salacious rumors that continues to fascinate scholars and esotericists alike.