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Dagon

Dagon Was the Chief God of the Philistines

By Judd Burton

Excavating a low-relief carving of the Fish god Dagon, Nineveh, 1853. Artist: N Chevalier

Excavating a low-relief carving of the Fish god Dagon, Nineveh, 1853. Between 1845 and 1851 British archaeologist Austen Henry Layard (1817-1894) excavated the remains of the ancient Assyrian capitals of Nimrud and Nineveh and revealed the reliefs that decorated the royal palaces. These and other objects recovered from Mesopotamia astonished Europe and Layard's account of his discoveries became a best-seller. In 1851 he retired from excavation to take up a life in politics. From Discoveries in the Ruins of Ninevah and Babylon by Austen Layard. (London, 1853).

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Dagon: Chief God of the Philistines

Dagon was the principal deity of the Philistines, whose ancestors migrated to Palestinian shores from Crete. He was the god of fertility and crops. Dagon also figured prominently in the Philistine concepts of death and the afterlife. In addition to his role in the religion of the Philistines, Dagon was worshiped in the more general society of Canaanite peoples.

Some years after the arrival of the Minoan forefathers of the Philistines, the immigrants adopted elements of Canaanite religion. Eventually the primary religious focus shifted. The worship of the Great Mother, the original religion of the Philistines, was traded for the paying of homage to the Canaanite deity, Dagon.

Within the Canaanite pantheon, Dagon seems to have been second only to El in power. He was one of four sons born to Anu. Dagon was also the father of Baal. Among the Canaanites, Baal eventually assumed the position of god of fertility, which Dagon had previously occupied. Dagon was sometimes associated with the half fish female deity Derceto (which may account for the theory of Dagon being portrayed as half fish). Little else is known of Dagon's place in the Canaanite pantheon, but his role in Philistine religion as primary deity is quite evident. It is known, however, that the Canaanites imported Dagon from Babylonia.

The image of Dagon is a debated issue. The notion that Dagon was a god whose upper body was that of a man and the lower body that of a fish has been prevalent for decades. This idea may stem from a linguistic error in translating a derivative of the Semitic 'dag.' The word 'dagan' actually means 'corn' or 'cereal'. The name 'Dagon' itself dates back to at least 2500 BCE, and is most probably a derivative of a word from a dialect of the Semitic tongue. This notion that Dagon was represented in iconography and statuary as part fish in Philistia proper is not supported entirely by coins found in Phoenician and Philistine cities. In fact, there is no evidence in the archaeological record to support the theory that Dagon was thusly represented. Whatever the image, a varying perception of Dagon developed around the Mediterranean.

The worship of Dagon is quite evident in ancient Palestine. He was, of course, the foremost deity in the cities of Azotus, Gaza, and Ashkelon. The Philistines depended on Dagon for success in war and they offered various sacrifices for his favor. As previously mentioned, Dagon was also worshipped outside the confederacy of Philistine city-states, as in the case of the Phoenician city of Arvad. The religion of Dagon continued to at least the second century BCE, when the temple at Azotus was destroyed by Jonathan Macabeas.

Two textual sources that mention Dagon, and rulers and towns bearing his name merit note. The Bible and the Tel-el-Amarna letters made such mention. During the course of the establishment of the Israelite monarchy (ca 1000 BCE), the Philistine nation became the primary enemy of Israel. Due to this situation, Dagon is mentioned in passages such as Judges 16:23-24, I Samuel 5, and I Chronicles 10:10. Beth Dagon was a town in the land captured by the Israelites mentioned in Joshua 15:41 and 19:27, thus preserving the namesake of the deity. The Tel-el-Amarna letters (1480-1450 BCE) also mention the namesake of Dagon. In these letters, two rulers of Ashkelon, Yamir Dagan and Dagan Takala, were entered.

Despite any debate over the subject, it is apparent that Dagon was at the apex of the Philistine pantheon. He commanded religious reverence from both the Philistines and the broader Canaanite society. Dagon was indeed crucial to the cosmology of the Philistines and a vital force in their individual lives.

Sources:

  • The Bible (NIV Translation). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1991.
  • DeVries, Lamoine. Cities of the Biblical World. Peabody, Massachussetts: 1997.
  • Keller, Werner. The Bible as History. New York: Bantam, 1980.
  • Knight, Kevin. 'Dagon', The Catholic Encyclopedia 4 (1999): www.newadvent.org, pg. 1-2.
  • The Revell Concise Bible Dictionary. Tarrytown, New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1984.

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