Religion of the Phoenicians

 

There can be no doubt that the Phoenicians were a people in whose minds religion and religious ideas occupied a very prominent place. Religiousness has been said to be one of the leading characteristics of the Semitic race .

Here was a nation among whom, in every city, the temple was the centre of attraction, and where the piety of the citizens adorned every temple with abundant and costly offerings. The monarchs who were at the head of the various states showed the greatest zeal in continually maintaining the honour of the gods, repaired and beautified the sacred buildings, and occasionally added to their kingly dignity the highly esteemed office of High Priest .

In considering the nature of the Phoenician religion, we must distinguish between its different stages. There is sufficient reason to believe that originally, either when they first occupied their settlements upon the Mediterranean or before they moved from their primitive seats upon the shores of the Persian Gulf, the Phoenicians were Monotheists. We must not look for information on this subject to the pretentious work which Philo of Byblus, in the first or second century of our era, put forth with respect to the "Origines" of his countrymen, and attributed to Sanchoniatho; we must rather look to the evidence of language and fact, records which may indeed be misread, but which cannot well be forged or falsified. These will show us that in the earliest times the religious sentiment of the Phoenicians acknowledged only a single deity—a single mighty power, which was supreme over the whole universe. The names by which they designated him were El, "great;" Ram or Rimmon, "high;" Baal, "Lord;" Melek or Molech, "King;" Eliun, "Supreme;" Adonai, "My Lord;" Bel-samin, "Lord of Heaven," and the like .

Baal

 

 

 

“Baal with thunder-bolt” stele 1500~1200 B.C. from Ugarit

 

In its second stage the religion of Phoenicia was a polytheism, less multitudinous than most others, and one in which the several divinities were not distinguished from one another by very marked or striking features. At the head of the Pantheon stood a god and a goddess—Baal and Ashtoreth. Baal, "the Lord," or Baal-samin, "the Lord of Heaven," was compared by the Greeks to their Zeus, and by the Romans to their Jupiter. Mythologically, he was only one among many gods, but practically he stood alone; he was the chief of the gods, the main object of worship, and the great ruler and protector of the Phoenician people. Sometimes, but not always, he had a solar character, and was represented with his head encircled by rays. Baalbek, which was dedicated to him, was properly "the city of the Sun," and was called by the Greeks Heliopolis.

Astarte

The female deity whose place corresponded to that of Baal in the Phoenician Pantheon, and who was in a certain sense his companion and counterpart, was Ashtoreth or Astarte. As Baal was the embodiment of the generative principle in nature, so was Ashtoreth of the receptive and productive principle. She was the great nature-goddess, the Magna Mater, regent of the stars, queen of heaven, giver of life, and source of woman's fecundity. Just as Baal had a solar, so she had a lunar aspect, being pictured with horns upon her head representative of the lunar crescent.

Melkart

The Greeks, who identified Baal with their Zeus, viewed Melkarth as corresponding to their Heracles, or Hercules; and the later Phoenicians, catching at this identification, represented Melkarth under the form of a huge muscular man, with a lion's skin and sometimes with a club.Melkarth was especially worshipped at Tyre, of which city he was the tutelary deity, at Thasos, and at Gades. Herodotus describes the temple of Hercules at Tyre, and attributes to it an antiquity of 2,300 years before his own time. He also visited a temple dedicated to the same god at Thasos. With Gades were connected the myths of Hercules' expedition to the west, of his erection of the pillars, his defeat of Chrysaor of the golden sword, and his successful foray upon the flocks .

Dagon

Dagon appears in scripture only as a Philistine god, which would not prove him to have been acknowledged by the Phoenicians; but as Philo of Byblus admits him among the primary Phoenician deities, making him a son of Uranus, and a brother of Il or Kronis, it is perhaps right that he should be allowed a place in the Phoenician list. According to Philo, he was the god of agriculture, the discoverer of wheat, and the inventor of the plough. Whether he was really represented, as is commonly supposed, in the form of a fish, or as half man and half fish, is extremely doubtful.

 

Tanit

The worship of a goddess, called Tanath or Tanit by the later Phoenicians, is certain, since, besides the evidence furnished by the name Abd-Tanit i.e. "Servant of Tanit"1188 the name Tanit itself is distinctly read on a number of votive tablets brought from Carthage, in a connection which clearly implies her recognition, not only as a goddess, but as a great goddess, the principal object of Carthaginian worship.

Phoenician worship

The chief characteristic of the third period of the Phoenician religion was the syncretistic tendency, whereby foreign gods were called in, and either identified with the old national divinities, or joined with them, and set by their side. Ammon, Osiris, Phthah, Pasht, and Athor, were introduced from Egypt, Tanith from either Egypt or Syria, Nergal from Assyria, Beltis (Baaltis) perhaps from Babylon.

The Phoenicians worshipped their gods, like most other ancient nations, with prayer, with hymns of praise, with sacrifices, with processions, and with votive offerings. We do not know whether they had any regularly recurrent day, like the Jewish Sabbath, or Christian Sunday, on which worship took place in the temples generally; but at any rate each temple had its festival times, when multitudes flocked to it, and its gods were honoured with prolonged services and sacrifices on a larger scale than ordinary. The ordinary sacrificial animals were oxen, cows, goats, sheep, and lambs; swine were not offered, being regarded as unclean . The priests of each temple had at their head a Chief or High Priest, who was robed in purple and wore a golden tiara. His office, however, continued only for a year, when another was chosen to succeed him .

Votive offerings were continually being offered in every temple by such as believed that they had received any benefit from any god, either in consequence of their vows, or prayers, or even by the god's spontaneous action. The sites of temples yield numerous traces of such offerings. Sometimes they are in the shape of stone stelæ or pillars, inscribed and more or less ornamented, sometimes of tablets placed within an ornamental border, and generally accompanied by some rude sculptures; more often of figures, either in bronze or clay, which are mostly of a somewhat rude character. M. Renan observes with respect to these figures, which are extremely numerous:—"Ought we to see in these images, as has been supposed, long series of portraits of priests and priestesses continued through several centuries? We do not think so. The person represented in these statues appears to us to be the author of a vow or of a sacrifice made to the divinity of the temple . . . Vows and sacrifices were very fleeting things; it might be feared that the divinity would soon forget them. An inscription was already recognised as a means of rendering the memory of a vow more lasting; but a statue was a momento still more—nay, much more efficacious. By having himself represented under the eyes of the divinity in the very act of accomplishing his vow, a man called to mind, as one may say, incessantly the offering which he had made to the god, and the homage which he had rendered him. An idea of this sort is altogether in conformity with the materialistic and self-interested character of the Phoenician worship, where the vow is a kind of business affair, a matter of debtor and creditor account, in which a man stipulates very clearly what he is to give, and holds firmly that he is to be paid in return .

Child sacrifice and religious prostitution

In these several respects the Phoenician religion seems to have leant towards the side of simplicity, the divinities recognised being, comparatively speaking, few, priestly influence not great, and the ceremonial not very elaborate. But there were two respects in which the religion was, if not singular, at any rate markedly different from ordinary polytheisms, though less in the principles involved than in the extent to which they were carried out in practice. These were the prevalence of licentious orgies and of human sacrifice. The worship of Astarte was characterised by the one, the worship of Baal by the other.

Phoenician mythology taught that the great god, Il or El, when reigning upon earth as king of Byblus, had, under circumstances of extreme danger to his native land, sacrificed his dearly loved son, Ieoud, as an expiatory offering. Divine sanction had thus been given to the horrid rite; and thenceforth, whenever in Phoenicia either public or private calamity threatened, it became customary that human victims should be selected, the nobler and more honourable the better, and that the wrath of the gods should be appeased by taking their lives. The mode of death was horrible. The sacrifices were to be consumed by fire; the life given by the Fire God he should also take back again by the flames which destroy being. The rabbis describe the image of Moloch as a human figure with a bull's head and outstretched arm .

and the account which they give is confirmed by what Diodorus relates of the Carthaginian Kronos. His image, Diodorus says, was of metal, and was made hot by a fire kindled within it; the victims were placed in its arms and thence rolled into the fiery lap below. The most usual form of the rite was the sacrifice of their children—especially of their eldest sons—by parents. "This custom was grounded in part on the notion that children were the dearest possession of their parents, and, in part, that as pure and innocent beings they were the offerings of atonement most certain to pacify the anger of the deity; and further, that the god of whose essence the generative power of nature was had a just title of that which was begotten of man, and to the surrender of their children's lives . . . Voluntary offering on the part of the parents was essential to the success of the sacrifice; even the first-born, nay, the only child of the family, was given up.

In the worship of Astarte the prostitution of women, and of effeminate men, played the same part that child murder did in the worship of Baal. Thus lust itself became a service of the gods; and, as the fundamental idea of sacrifice is that of the immediate or substitutive surrender of a man's self to the deity, so the woman could do the goddess no better service than by prostitution. Hence it was the custom [in some places] that a maiden before her marriage should prostitute herself once in the temple of the goddess .

One fruit of this system was the extraordinary institution of the Galli. The Galli were men, who made themselves as much like women as they could, and offered themselves for purposes of unnatural lust to either sex. Their existence may be traced in Israel and Judah,as well as in Syria and Phoenicia. At great festivals, under the influence of a strong excitement, amid the din of flutes and drums and wild songs, a number of the male devotees would snatch up swords or knives, which lay ready for the purpose, throw off their garments, and coming forward with a loud shout, proceed to castrate themselves openly. They would then run through the streets of the city, with the mutilated parts in their hands, and throw them into the houses of the inhabitants, who were bound in such case to provide the thrower with all the apparel and other gear needful for a woman.

This apparel they thenceforth wore, and were recognised as attached to the worship of Astarte, entitled to reside in her temples, and authorised to take part in her ceremonies. They joined with the priests and the sacred women at festival times in frenzied dances and other wild orgies, shouting, and cutting themselves on the arms, and submitting to be flogged one by another.

A vivid conception of another world, and of the reality of a life after death, especially if connected with a belief in future rewards and punishments, might have done much, or at any rate something, to counteract the effect upon morals and conduct of the degrading tenets and practices connected with the Astarte worship; but, so far as appears, the Phoenicians had a very faint and dim conception of the life to come, and neither hoped for happiness, nor feared misery in it.

Their care for the preservation of their bodies after death, and the provision which in some cases they are seen to have made for them, imply a belief that death was not the end of everything, and a few vague expressions in inscriptions upon tombs point to a similar conviction;but the life of the other world seems to have been regarded as something imperfect and precarious—a sort of shadowy existence in a gloomy Sheôl, where was neither pleasure nor pain, neither suffering nor enjoyment, but only quietness and rest. The thought of it did not occupy men's minds, or exercise any perceptible influence over their conduct. It was a last home, whereto all must go, acquiesced in, but neither hoped for nor dreaded

Chief among these, and particularly at Carthage, were the Egyptian Ammon, or Hammon, identified with Baal, and the Persian Anaitis, Tanai's, or Tannata, the latter, indeed, under the name of Tanit or Tanith, becoming what might be called the most popular female divinity. As such, this goddess appears often to have been identified with the Phoenician Ashtoreth, and no doubt there was considerable association between the two, although at Carthage, as shown by numerous inscriptions, they were undoubtedly regarded as distinct deities.

 

As Baal was identified with the sun and called the Sun-God, so was Astarte associated with the moon and called the Moon- Goddess and the Queen of Heaven, each having its separate band of priests, although in some localities the two deities appear to have been worshipped collectively and in the same temple.

Of the minor deities above mentioned, Melkarth, who was regarded as the tutelary god of Tyre, appears to have been identified by the Greeks with their Hercules. Herodotus writes  that, wishing to obtain certain information regarding the worship of this god in Phoenicia, he sailed to Tyre, having heard that there was a temple there dedicated to Hercules, and found it " richly adorned with a great variety of offerings, and in it were two pillars, one of fine gold, the other of emerald stone, both shining exceedingly at night."

 

Herodotus further says that at Tyre he saw another temple dedicated to Hercules, known as the Thasian, and going therefore to Thasos, he there found a temple of Hercules built by the Phoenicians, who had founded Thasos five generations before Hercules the son of Amphitryon appeared in Greece. From the researches he had made, and considering that Hercules was one of the ancient gods of the Egyptians, according to their own computation, seventeen thousand years before the reign of Amasis, Herodotus concludes that Hercules was a god of great antiquity, and that therefore the Greeks had acted most correctly in recognising two separate deities of this name, one the immortal or the Olympian Hercules, the other the hero.

 

Vulcan, whom the Phoenicians worshipped under the name of Pataice, was often represented as a pigmy and placed as a figure- head on the prows of their triremes. Dagon is generally supposed to have had the form of a fish, and was therefore looked upon as a fish-god, although Philo of Byblus calls him a corn-god, the discoverer of wheat and the inventor of the plough. In Philistia this deity apparently held a far higher place than it did in Phoenicia, and, according to Diodorus, was known by the name of Derceto, being a goddess with the face of a woman, but a fish in all other parts of the body. Hadad was probably one of the deities intro- duced from the Syrians. Sydyk was the god of justice and the father of Eshmun, who, together with the Cabiri, gods of navigation and of metallurgy, was held in great account.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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