Myths and Legends of Babylonia and Assyria

Page: 139

The Gods of the Phœnicians

The Phœnicians who were the lineal descendants of the Canaanites adopted many of the deities of[Pg 327] Babylonia. Like the early deities of that great empire, the Phœnician gods were associated either with the earth, the waters, or the air. Some of these in later times held sway over more than one element. Thus the god Melkarth of Tyre had both a celestial and a marine aspect, and Baal and Ashtart assumed celestial attributes in addition to their earthly one. The Phœnicians described their gods in general as alônim, much as the Israelites in early times must have described theirs, for we find in the first chapters of Genesis the word elohim employed. Both then went back to the singular form el, the common Semitic name for 'god,' adding to it the Semitic plural ending im. The god of a locality or shrine was known as its 'ba'al,' and, as in early times, this did not apply to any particular deity. Although their gods all had names, yet still they were merely the ba-alim of Tyre, the chief of whom was Melkarth, whose name signifies merely 'king' or patron of the city. Perhaps one of their most venerated gods was Ba'al-Hamman, who was also worshipped in Carthage, a Phœnician colony. One of the most strongly marked characteristics of the Phœnician religion was the unvarying addition of a female to every male god. Ashtart or Ishtar was quite as popular in modern Phœnicia as she has been in ancient Canaan. It must be borne in mind that Tyre and Sidon were closely in touch with Assyria, and that their ships probably carried Assyrian commerce far and wide throughout the Mediterranean, exchanging Syrian goods for Egyptian, Cyprian, and Hellenic. Ashtart or Ishtar had temples at Sidon and Askelon, and Phœnician mariners seem to have carried her worship as far as Cyprus and even Sicily. Indeed it was probably through[Pg 328] their agency that she was introduced into the Greek world, but there were Greek colonies on the shores of Asia Minor at an early date, and these may have transferred her cult to the people of their own race in the Greek motherland. Another goddess specially honoured at Carthage was Tanith, who was also called the 'Countenance of Ba'al.' Eshmun, the god of vital force and healing, seems to have been worshipped especially at Sidon but also at Carthage. Melkarth, the patron deity of Tyre, the Greeks equated with their Heracles; Reshef, the lightning god, was of Syrian origin, and was identified by the Greeks with Apollo. The Phœnicians were also prone to fuse their gods one with another, so that we have such combinations as Eshmun-Melkarth, Melkarth-Reshef, and so forth. Phœnician religion was also strongly influenced by Egyptian ideas, and Plutarch has put it on record that when Isis journeyed to Byblus she was called Astarte. Certain Phœnician settlers at Piræus, the port of Athens, worshipped the Assyrian god Nergal, and many of their proper names are compounded of the names of Babylon deities. The worship of Moloch was also popular in Phœnicia, where he was called Melk ('King'), and to him, as to the Moloch of the other Semitic peoples, infants were offered up in sacrifice. The Phœnicians likewise adopted the custom of burning the chief god of the city in effigy or in the person of a human representative at Tyre and Carthage. (See remarks on Hamman, pages 142-144; and on Sardanapalus, pages 31-34.)

We know very little concerning Phœnician myth. We cannot credit what is written by Philo of Byblus concerning it, as he professed that he had used as his authority the writings of one Sanchuniathon, an[Pg 329] ancient Phœnician sage, who, he says, derived his information from inscribed stones in Phœnician temples. All of Philo that remains (and thus all of Sanchuniathon) is preserved in the works of Eusebius. It would seem, however, to be unfair to regard Eusebius as the inventor of Sanchuniathon. As we have already remarked in the paragraphs dealing with the legend of Oannes or Ea, several of the myths he quotes as coming from the Phœnician sage are manifestly of Babylonian origin.

Like all Semites the Phœnicians closely identified themselves with their gods, in whom, if inscriptions can be believed, they seemed to find a great deal of comfort. They were assiduous devotees of their several cults, and as prone to sacrifice as were their cousins of Babylonia. Probably, too, their voyages and mercantile ventures made them firm believers in the efficacy of divination, and it cannot be doubted that the trade of the seer in ancient Tyre or Sidon must have been a flourishing one indeed.

The Carthaginian Religion

Very little is known concerning the religion of the Semites of Carthage, those colonists from Phœnicia who settled on the north-western shores of Africa at an early date, and this is probably owing to the circumstance that the jealousy of their Roman conquerors ordained that all records pertaining to them should so far as possible be blotted out. In Virgil's Æneid we find Queen Dido of Carthage worshipping and sacrificing to the gods of Rome, but whether this error is due to Roman lack of imagination or otherwise it would be difficult to say. Carthaginian religion was strongly influenced by Assyrian belief. The chief gods worshipped in[Pg 330] Carthage were Baal-ammon or Moloch, Tanit, goddess of the heavens and the moon, Ashtart or Ishtar, and Eshmun, the patron deity of the city. The cult of Tammuz-Adonis was also greatly in vogue, as was that of the god Patechus, a repulsive monster who may have been of Egyptian origin. The Tyrian Melkarth, too, was widely worshipped. We also encounter in inscriptions the names of deities concerning whom we know nothing, such as Rabbat Umma, 'the Great Mother,' Illat, Sakon, and Tsaphon.

About the beginning of the third century B.C. the intimate relations between the Carthaginians and the Greeks of Sicily favoured the introduction of a Hellenic element into the Punic religion, and there was reciprocal borrowing on the part of the Greeks. In the forum of Carthage was a temple to Apollo containing a colossal statue which was later removed to Rome, and on one occasion the Carthaginian worshippers of Apollo actually sent offerings to Delphi. We also find their goddess Tanit compared with the Greek Demeter. Her symbol is a crescent moon, and in her temple at Carthage was preserved a famous veil which was regarded as the palladium or 'mascot' of the city, its luck-bringer. Inscriptions to Tanit and Baal-ammon abound, and as these are usually found in conjunction it is only reasonable to suppose that these two deities are worshipped together. Tanit was, in fact, frequently alluded to as 'The Countenance of Baal,' whose name we find in those of the Carthaginian heroes, Hannibal and Hasdrubal. The Carthaginian Baal-ammon is represented as an old man with ram's horns on his forehead, and that animal was frequently portrayed along with him.[Pg 331] He also holds a scythe. At Carthage children were sacrificed to him, and their bodies were placed in the arms of a colossal bronze statue which represented him. When they grew tired they slipped through the embrace of the god into a furnace below amid the excited cries of the fanatical worshippers. Even Roman severity could not put an end to these horrors, which persisted in secret until a relatively late date.

It is strange to think that after the fall of Carthage the goddess Tanit became identified with Dido by the new Roman colonists of the city. Virgil had celebrated her misfortunes, and a public Dido cult grew up, the colonists even claiming to have discovered the very house from which she had watched the departure of Æneas.

It is not unlikely that through the agency of the Phœnicians some fragments of the Babylonian religion may have penetrated even to our own shores. We know that they traded for tin with the ancient inhabitants of Cornwall and the Scilly Isles, and some writers believe they have philology on their side when they try to show that several Cornish names are of Phœnician origin. For example, the name Marazion appears to mean in Semitic 'Hill by the Sea,' and Polgarth, say some, owes its second syllable to the Phœnician word for 'city.' But it will not do to be dogmatic regarding these names, which may after all be explicable from Cornish or other sources.