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Dagon

A Philistine deity

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* Published by Encyclopedia Press, 1913.


Dagon, a Philistine deity. It is commonly admitted that the name Dagon is a diminutive form, hence a term of endearment, derived from the Semitic root dag, and means, accordingly, "little fish". The name, therefore, indicates a fish-shaped god. This the Bible also suggests when speaking of the Dagon worshipped in the temple of Azotus (I K., v, 1-7): he had face and hands and a portion of his body resembled that of a fish, in accordance with the most probable interpretation of "the stump of Dagon" (verse 5). From the received text of the Septuagint it would seem that he possessed even feet, although Swete's edition gives here a different reading; at any rate, this sentence, in the Greek translation, shows all the appearances of a gloss. With the description found in the Bible coincides that which may be seen on the coins of various Philistine or Phcenician cities, on most of which Dagon is represented as a composite figure, human as to the upper part of the body, fish-like as to the lower. From this it may well be inferred that Dagon was a fish-god, a fact not in the least surprising, as he seems to have been the foremost deity of such maritime cities as Azotus, Gaza (the early sites of which are supposed to be buried under the sand-mounds that run along the sea-shore), Ascalon, and Arvad. In the monuments—also most probably in the popular worship—Dagon is sometimes associated with a female half-fish deity, Derceto or Atargatis, often identified with Astarte.

A few scholars, however, waving aside these evidences, consider Dagon as the god of agriculture. This opinion they rest on the following statement of Philo Byblius: "Dagon, that is, corn" [the Hebrew word for corn is dagan]. "Dagon, after he had discovered corn and the plough, was called Zeus of the plough" (ii, 16). The same writer tells us (in Eusebius, Praep. Evang., i, 6) that, according to an old Phcenician legend, Dagon was one of the four sons born of the marriage of Anu, the lord of heaven, with his sister, the earth. Moreover, on a seal bearing certain symbolic signs, among which is an ear of corn, but not, however, the image of a fish, may be read the name of Baal-Dagon, written in Phcenician characters. It is open to question whether these arguments out-weigh those in favor of the other opinion; so much so that the etymology adopted by Philo Byblius might possibly be due to a misapprehension of the name. It should, perhaps, be admitted that, along the Mediterranean shore, a twofold conception and representation of Dagon were developed in the course of time as a result of the presumed twofold derivation of the name. At any rate, all scholars agree that the name and worship of Dagon were imported from Babylonia.

The Tell-el-Amarna letters (about 1480-1450 B.C.), which have yielded the names of Yamir-Dagan and Dagan-takala, rulers of Ascalon, witness to the antiquity of the Dagon-worship among the inhabitants of Palestine. We learn from the Bible that the deity had temples at Gaza (Judges, xvi, 21, 23) and Azotus (I K., v, 1-7); we may presume that shrines existed likewise in other Philistine cities. The Dagon-worship seems even to have extended beyond the confines of their confederacy. The testimony of the monuments is positive for the Phoenician city of Arvad; moreover, the Book of Josue mentions two towns called Bethdagon, one in the territory of Juda (Jos., xv, 41), and the other on the border of Aser (Jos., xix, 27); Josephus also speaks of a Dagon "beyond Jericho" (Antiq. Jud., XIII, viii, 1; De bell. Jud., I, ii, 3): all these names are earlier than the Israelite conquest, and, unless we derive them from dagan, witness to a wide dissemination of the worship of Dagon throughout Palestine. This worship was kept up, at least in certain Philistine cities, until the last centuries B.C. Such was the case at Azotus; the temple of Dagon that stood there was burned by Jonathan Machabeus (I Mach., x, 84; xi, 4).

Unlike the Baals, who, among the Chanaanites, were essentially local deities, Dagon seems to have been considered by the Philistines as a national god (I Par., x, 10). To him they attributed their success in war; him they thanked by great sacrifices, before him they rejoiced over the capture of Samson (Judges, xvi, 23); into his temple they brought the trophies of their victories, the Ark (I K., v, 1, 2), the armor, and the head of Saul (I K., xxxi, 9, 10; I Par., x, 10). A bronze demi-rilievo of Assyro-Phcenician workmanship would also suggest that Dagon played a prominent part in the doctrines concerning death and future life. As to the ritual of his worship, little can be gathered either from the documents or from Scripture. The elaborate arrangements for returning the Ark (I K., v, vi) may have been inspired more by the circumstances than by any ceremonies of the Dagon-worship. We only know from ancient writers that, for religious reasons, most of the Syrian peoples abstained from eating fish, a practice that one is naturally inclined to connect with the worship of a fish-god.

CHARLES L. SOUVAY


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