The Mysterious God Dagan

 – Known in the Bible as Dagon the chief god of the Philistines, the more ancient Dagan’s origins in fact go back much further and his cult’s influence spreads across the Near East.

The god Dagan first appears in ancient texts from the Syrian city of Mari, modern Tell Hariri, dating to around 2,500 BCE. Dagan begins here as a fertility god of the middle Euphrates belonging to the Semitic Amorite pantheon although his original ranking is unclear. The spread of Sumerian culture northward, which began in earnest during the Akkad Dynasty around 2100 BCE, incorporated deities like Dagan into the existing mythology and allowed his cult to grow beyond his original territory.

Mari and Akkad

When the Akkadian king Naram-Sin campaigned in the west he is said to have been given victory over the northern Mesopotamian kingdoms of Arman and Ibla, by Dagan. Naram-Sin claimed to have been given a weapon by Dagan thereby establishing himself as the god’s champion. Dagan would endure and appear as the personal god of the kings Hammurabi and Shamshi-Adad centuries later during the Old Babylonian period

Some of the texts from Mari are diplomatic letters which indicate a high level of cultural exchange, including diplomatic marriages, with the city-states of Sumer and Akkad. In these early accounts Dagan’s name was written both phonetically and with the Sumerian logogram symbol dKUR, which is a shortened version of dkur-gal (Great Mountain). Great Mountain was the epithet of the Sumerian chief god Enlil with whom Dagan became associated. Enlil as the father of many Sumerian deities was of course a fertility god as well. This linguistic connection indicates that Sumerian influence on Dagan was in place as the written record begins. Whether this connection is based solely on Dagan’s association with Enlil as chief god or rather upon a specific reference to one of the nearby sacred mountains, such as Jebel Bishri, is not yet known.

This connection places him as one of the chthonic deities that rivaled the astral deities throughout much of ancient mythology. This is reflected in the rivalries of such gods as the Hurrian mountain god Kumarpi vs. the storm god Teššup. Later myths mirrored this primal conflict such as the rivalry of Cronus vs. Zeus, however any particular rival of Dagan’s remains a mystery.

More Than A Corn-god?

In addition to his connection with Enlil and Kumarpi he is sometimes seen as a counterpart with the Sumerian grain-goddess Nisabe. The connection with Nisabe may rise from a later pun used to write the god’s name in Ugaritic and Hebrew, which drew upon the root word for grain, dgn. Whether or not Dagan was originally a corn-god associated with the harvest cycle as has been proposed is uncertain. However by late antiquity this aspect of his persona had likely become key to his cult in western Syria.

The influence of Dagan’s cult also spread northward to the central Syrian cities of Terqa and Tuttul and by 2,300 BCE Dagan was the chief deity in the cities of Ebla and Emar. The cities of Mari, Terqa and Tuttul all existed in the low rainfall region of the Middle Euphrates where the seasonal rains were vital to agriculture and presumably the whims of the gods. Ebla represents the western extreme of this climatic zone and the western extreme of Dagan’s traditional place in the mythos as a chthonic chief-god.

1syriam

Map showing the key cities of ancient Syria.

In Emar, in honor of Dagan, a seven day long  rite was performed on the first new moon of the year. During this festival the statue of the god was dressed in regal finery and paraded to a sacred location outside of the city where he passed between rows of stones that had been anointed in blood and oil. These stones are thought to have represented a council of deities which each year would symbolically reappoint Dagan as their chief.

In the prophetic texts discovered in the ruins of Mari, Dagan plays a key role as an agent of divination. One prophecy seems to foreshadow the doom of the city at the hands of the Akkadians. A priestess wrote to the king of Mari that she had a dream in which the temple of Dagan was empty with the god’s statue missing. A solitary figure stood crying over and over again, “Come back Dagan! Come back Dagan!.

Dagan’s Coastal Influence

When Dagan’s cult is found to the west of Ebla his place in the pantheon has changed. By 1400 BCE, in the coastal city of Ugarit, Dagan has been supplanted as chief of the gods by his son, the storm-god Baal Hadad. Although Baal is elsewhere mentioned as being the son of El this may hint at the same type of dual father-ship that the Hurrian storm-god Teššup experienced through the rivalry of Kumarpi and Anu. Indeed there is an intricate myth involving the apparent adoption of Teššup by Dagan. Although there was no apparent cult of Dagan in Ugarit it seems rather that the cult of El occupied his temple and that in fact these two god’s had at a cultic level become homogenous.

Bwas relief possibly of Dagon as a fish-god

Bwas relief possibly of Dagon as a fish-god

Dagan would emerge again some centuries later as chief god of the Biblical Philistines during their struggle with the Israelites. As the god of the Philistines, Dagan (in this case often spelled Dagon) is, according to later Hebrew tradition, a fish-god. This association has been linked to Egyptian influence which saw fish as symbols of fertility. Another explanation for this change could be Dagan’s relation to the sea-goddess Atargatis who is sometimes seen as the wife of Dagan’s son Baal.

The key Biblical reference is 1 Samuel Chapter 5 verse 4;

And when they arose early on the morrow morning, behold, Dagon was fallen upon his face to the ground before the ark of the LORD; and the head of Dagon and both the palms of his hands lay cut off upon the threshold; only the trunk of Dagon was left to him.

Around 1050 CE a French Rabbi named Rashi was analyzing that text from Samuel and decided to literally segment the name of the god Dāgôn leaving only Dāg which is a Hebrew word for fish. This went along well with the Medieval mind set which then connected the Biblical Dagon with other better known fertility god’s who used the symbol of the fish, such as Osiris whose penis was swallowed by a fish after that unfortunate incident with Set. Much of this sort of work took place as thousands of ancient pagan deities were reclassified as demons and saints and placed into the new monotheistic world order.

Many modern interpretations of Dagan/Dagon are based on this later image, seemingly transforming the primeval earth-god into an Iron Age sea-god. However since little is known of the actual Phoenician/Philistine cults of Dagon that are referenced in the Bible it is not unlikely that the god may well have take on an aquatic persona given the seafaring nature of the cultists.

Future archeological work in the Near East may yet shed some light on this ancient god about whom so little is known. Answering the question of whether or not the Mari pantheon represents a fully developed Semitic mythology or rather one that grew in conjunction with the Sumerian mythos is a question fundamental to understanding the early civilizations of the Near East. This question, together with study of the primeval rivalry of the earth and storm gods (chthonic vs. astral) provides a valuable insight into the formation of Western religions.

Sources

Authors notes, (Near Eastern Religion, Johnson, UCLA, 2008)

Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green, ( God’s Demons and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia, University of Texas Press, Austin, 1992.)

Bottero, Jean, ( Religions in Ancient Mesopotamia, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2001)

Wright, David, Syria and Canaan ( Religions of the Ancient World, Belknap Press, Cambridge, 2004.)