Eblaite Religion

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EBLAITE RELIGION . The archaeological excavations carried out in the ancient city of Ebla have brought to light a library with thousands of clay tablets that inform us in detail about the politics, economy, and religion of third-millennium bce Syria. These cuneiform texts have provoked great interest among scholars. Ebla's geographical position near the Syro-Palestinian region described in the Bible, as well as the presence in the Eblaite onomasticon of anthroponyms similar to those of the biblical patriarchs, have caused a heated debate among scholars of different ten-dencies.

The Eblaite Pantheon

Although archaeologists have not been able to identify particular buildings from the third millennium as temples, it is clear from these texts that the city of Ebla must have contained a large number of religious buildings dedicated to the various divinities of their pantheon, since the Eblaites were in fact a polytheistic people. The pantheon, as seen in the epigraphic material, is clearly Western Semitic, and in this respect the Eblaite civilization differs from civilizations of the Mesopotamian world. Of course scholars at Ebla were aware of the Sumerian gods, and the Eblaite texts include a bilingual vocabulary with a section dedicated to listing the Sumerian gods who could be partly identified with Eblaite gods; for example, Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of love and war, is equated with Ishtar, the Western Semitic goddess with the same attributes, and Nergal, the Sumerian god of the underworld, is compared to Rasap, in later times Rasef, the god of plague.

Confirming what is already known from later literature, the texts from Ebla show that certain syncretic processes had not yet occurred. For example, Enlil, the supreme god of the Sumerian pantheon, was equated in the second millennium to the principal god of the Western Semitic pantheon; at Ebla, however, at least according to the bilingual vocabulary, the two divinities were not regarded as equivalent. At Ebla, as throughout the whole of Western Semitic civilization, Dagan is the principal god, and he is regarded as distinct from the Sumerian Enlil. This suggests deep intellectual reflection among the Eblaite writers, along with a spiritual maturity in their religious belief, indicating perfect knowledge of the divine world.

The Eblaite pantheon is indeed Semitic, and its chief god is Dagan, but together with familiar Semitic gods, such as Ishtar, Baal, Rasap, Kamish, Sipish, Adad, Sin, and Shamagan, we also find Hurrite gods, such as Ashtapi, Ishhara, and Hepat, and perhaps even Teshup. There are also gods that are otherwise completely unknown, such as the divine pair Kura and Barama, protective divinities of the Eblaite kingdom; Kakkab ("the star"), possibly Venus; and NI.DA.KUL (the spelling is uncertain), identified by some scholars as the moon god, who must have been part of the Eblaite pantheon, or more recently with Adad-Baal of later tradition. It is also striking that the guardian god of the city of Ebla is Dabir, who is known from the Bible.

Certain aspects of Eblaite religion are completely novel conceptually and anticipate much later developments. In particular, two pertinent and highly significant patterns of Eblaite thought reveal the remarkable flexibility and tolerance of this civilization. The first and most apparent novelty lies in the Eblaite practice of honoring not only their own divinities but also those of other cities and kingdoms both on lists of official offerings made by the royal household and in offerings made by private individuals. The recipients of the offerings are not only gods of the city and kingdom of Ebla, but also gods from various other kingdoms and cities of central-northern Syria. From sacrificial offerings to the god NI.DA.KUL of Arukatu, Æama, and Luban, as well as to Adad of Abati, Atanni, Æalam, Lub, and so on, we can clearly see that the Eblaites welcomed gods venerated in other cities into their pantheon. Frequent mention of gifts ("offerings to the gods") being dispatched by the Eblaite court to the most distant locationsAdab in southern Mesopotamia, Gasur in northern Mesopotamia, and Byblos on the Mediterranean coast in Lebanonall lead to the same conclusion.

There would have been political reasons for this religious attitude towards foreign divinities, but it remains the case that the Eblaites, by behaving in this way, demonstrated open-mindedness, flexibility, and sensitivity to the needs of those with whom they came into contact. In contrast to the jealous reaction of the Sumerians, Assyrians, Babylonians, and Hebrews to the gods of other peoples and their rigid rejection of foreign religious traditions, one cannot help but be struck by the openness of the Eblaites in dealing with the varied religious observances of peoples with whom they had political and economic relationships.

The second novelty is the particular concept of divinity held by the Eblaites, which, notwithstanding their widespread polytheism, took the form of henotheism and a theoretical concept of god. Dagan in particular rises to a leading, nearly unique role. In votive texts and in onomastic writings Dagan is often referred to not by his own name but with the title Lord, which corresponds to the Semitic belu. In various religious references linked to particular cities, we find the expression "Lord of the gods" and "Lord of the country," confirming Dagan's leading role among the Eblaite gods and his undisputed position as the principal Semitic god in the third millennium. In an inscription of Sargon of Akkad, Dagan is said to have presented to the king the Upper Country, confirming what the Eblaite texts say about the status of this god.

The use of the term Lord instead of the name Dagan has profound implications in terms of religious history. It is clear that Dagan is present under a wide range of aspects and conceptual representations, as demonstrated by the numerous occasions where d Be Lord is followed by a geographical reference. This perhaps provides an answer to an even more intriguing question, with all that this implies in terms of religious history: Dagan, although the principal god, or perhaps by virtue of being so, is not called by his own name, but rather by the term Lord. We thus find ourselves dealing with a religious concept very different from that in Mesopotamia, on the basis of which the name of the god could not be spoken, as is the case in other important ancient religions. This suggestive question, implicitly requiring an affirmative response, makes us realize the enormous contribution of Ebla to the understanding of later historico-religious phenomena.

This view of the role of Dagan finds unexpected onomastic support, permitting us to draw the conclusion that the Eblaites had already arrived at an abstract concept of divinity in the third millennium. It is indeed highly probable that the theophoric designations -il and -ya that are often mentioned in onomastic texts do not indicate the god Il or the god Ya as individual personal gods, but rather god as such or the concept of the divine. The use of the term Be for Dagan and of -il and -ya for divinity itself does not mean that we can talk of definite monotheism among the Western Semitic peoples; rather we can legitimately conclude that at the very least the Eblaites had an extremely advanced concept of the divine and were certainly very close to henotheism.

Eblaite Cult

Turning from speculation to everyday life in Ebla, the deeply religious nature of the Eblaites is evident from the divine worship of both private citizens and the royal family. Eblaite texts concerning economic matters regularly catalogue offerings, bloody and unbloody, presented to the divine world in general and to individual gods to gain their favorable intercession in every aspect of life, and especially on important occasions, such as marriage or illness. The important influence of the cult on public life is also reflected in the six months of the New Calendar that refer to the festivals of various gods:

Festival of Dagan: 1st Month

Festival of Ashtapi: 2nd Month

Festival of Ada(d): 4th Month

Festival of Adamma: 9th Month

Festival of AMA-ra: 11th Month

Festival of Kamish: 12th Month

Two other festivals can be added to these official festivals: itu er-me and itu hu-lu-mu. Both are religious rituals, the first resembling the festival of tabernacles and the second that of the holocaust.

Such festivals presuppose the existence of sacred buildings or temples and the presence of cult worshippers or priests, but archaeologists have not managed to identify religious buildings of the third millennium, despite their presence as indicated by the written sources. It is recorded that one of the structures on the acropolis, specifically é-mah ("exalted house"), is the official temple area of the city of Ebla. Various temples mentioned in the documentary sources must have been located elsewhere in the Low City, especially the temples of Kura, Adad, and Ashtar, the three gods that were most worshipped at Ebla. Other texts tell us of the existence of a temple to all the gods called e-mul, where, inter alia, the marriage ceremony of the queen to the new sovereign was conducted. Located in the temples were statues of the various gods, made mostly of gold and silver and resplendent with jewels that the people had brought to them as gifts.

The ranks of the priesthood are not explicitly designated as such, but the priestly titles dam-dingir, reserved for female members of the ruling class, perhaps only royal princesses, and pa 4 -shesh ND ("the god's anointed") stand out. One text indicates that the male head of the priestly class was called a-bu-mul ("father of the gods") and the female head ama-mul ("mother of the gods"); their respective relations to each other have not yet been investigated.

Religion also played a central role in Eblaite state events. The most weighty decisions were accompanied by oaths taken before the more important gods. Thus when Ebrium bequeaths his possessions to various children, he swears an oath before Kura, Siphish, Adad, and all the gods. Furthermore, in a curse mentioned in a treaty between Ebla and Assur, the sun god, Adad, and all the gods are invoked. Other ceremonies took place at the temple of Dagan at Tuttul.

The power structure at Ebla was essentially secular, in contrast to Mesopotamia and Egypt, where the sovereigns were either divine incarnations or simply their representatives. Nevertheless, Ebla was governed by firm religious principles: the marriage of the queen and sovereign was a religious rite that took place in the temple of the gods, and the queen herself was chosen by divination, which involved an inspection of entrails presided over by the "god of their fathers." The term dingir followed by a personal name did not indicate that this person had been made a god, but rather referred to the god of the individual concerned, and was actually the eponym of various Eblaite families, thus showing that the very structure of Eblaite society was based upon familial bonds. The choice of the queen of Ebla was made with the blessing of the god of the family to which she belonged.

Other important ceremonies include various divine processions in the area around Ebla, including one for the god NI.DA.KUL that occurred in the territories of over twenty other cities. Another even more splendid procession in celebration of the marriage of the queen lasted some six weeks, starting from Ebla and following a specific route to the town of Binash.

Eblaite royal power was the prerogative of the queen, that is, the female, and the sovereign became king not via dynastic descent but through marriage to the queen, who was the sole and real possessor of royal power, and who was chosen by the inspection of entrails. The marriage ceremony and subsequent enthronement took place in a time and manner described in the texts, from which it is clear that the ritual lasted some six weeks and featured cult acts not only in Ebla and Binash, but also in other cities where the marriage party would stop during the ceremonial procession. The Eblaite texts describe the enthronement of two well-known sovereigns, Arennum and Ebrium, the third and fourth rulers of Ebla, confirming theories advanced in previous studies regarding the nature of Eblaite sovereignty.

The rite of the scapegoat was one of the ceremonies in the complex ritual for the succession to the Eblaite throne. This rite was carried out when the procession arrived in Binash, and involved the purification of the sanctuary é-mah via the expulsion of a goat, a rite that Pelio Fronzaroli (1993) has rightly emphasized as "partly anticipating the well-known episode in Leviticus (16:2122)." "Let us purify the exalted house (the sanctuary) before Kura and Barama go there, let us release a goat with a silver bracelet on its neck to the mountain of AliNI."

A passage from the Eblaite texts describing the purchase of a silver bracelet supports the idea that this rite must have occurred in the manner described above: "One Dilmunite shiqlu of silver for one bracelet for a goat for the purification of the exalted house of Binash (on the occasion of) the enthronement of the sovereign" (MEE 7, 34 v. VII 613). The text is only interested in the administrative dispatch of the silver and its intended destination and not in the fate of the goat, but the very mention of this transaction along with the purification of the sanctuary for the enthronement of the sovereign makes it clear that it was a part of this ceremony. This Eblaite practice marks the beginning of a rite that was to become very widespread, especially in the region of Syro-Palestine and Anatolia in the second and first millennium, as well as in the world of the Old Testament, as seen from the Leviticus passage cited above. Ebla is the oldest source for such a rite, which was to develop and extend until it included all the ceremonies described in the Bible: in Ebla there is no transference of the sins of the community to the head of the chosen goat, nor the sacrifice of another goat, the blood of which is sprinkled in the sanctuary. The Eblaite text emphasizes only that the temple was purified by sending a goat wearing a silver bracelet to the mountain. However, this ritual dating from the middle of the third millennium bce is the nucleus of the highly detailed rite described in Leviticus. This fact demonstrates the attachment of the Syro-Palestinian peoples to religious tradition.

Among the most outstanding Eblaite prophetic figures, at least at Mari, a particular role is assigned to an individual called the apilum (var., aplum ; fem., apiltum ), which translators have rendered as "answering," basing their translation upon the literal meaning of the Akkadian. The translation is ill-suited to the role of the human being, however, and would be better rendered as "prophet." The surprise in the bilingual vocabulary of Ebla is not so much that the term contains the familiar Semitic root ˒pl, but that it includes the Sumerian syntagma eme-bala, which means "to translate" or "to interpret," and not the meaning expressed by the Semitic root, "to talk" or "to answer." The term corresponding to eme-bala in Akkadian and in other Semitic languages is targumannu, so that probably the Eblaite scribe intended a particular meaning of the Sumerian headword. The prophet therefore is no longer "the one who answers," as previously translated, but rather "the translator," that is, the person who interprets the divine message and renders it intelligible to humankind, just as the Greeks intended when they chose the word prophet to refer to someone who speaks for someone elsein this case God.

See Also

Canaanite Religion; Hittite Religion; Israelite Religion; Mesopotamian Religions; Moabite Religion; Phoenician Religion.


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Giovanni Pettinato (2005)

Translated from Italian by Paul Ellis