Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated


ESHMUN was a Phoenician healer god, later identified with Asklepios, the patron of medicine, by the Greeks and the Romans. He seems to be attested since the third millennium bce in Syria, though his physiognomy becomes clear only in the first millennium bce. The etymology of Eshmun clearly connects him with "oil," which had therapeutic and ritual functions (in relationship with the kingship ritual) in the ancient Near East. In the Ebla archives (middle of the third millennium bce), the theophoric element sí-mi-nu/a is found in some personal names, written dì-giš in Sumerian, meaning "oil." In the ritual texts of Ugarit and Ras Ibn Hani, in the late Bronze Age (eighteenth century bce), the god Šmn is also mentioned as a beneficiary of offerings (Keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit 1.164:9, 1.41:[45], 1.87:50). Unfortunately nothing is known about the functions or the role of this god in the Syrian pantheons, but his connection with oil must indicate that he was "the one who oils," and thus "the one who heals." This is surely the main reason why Eshmun was later assimilated to Asklepios/Aesculapius. His occasional interpretatio as Apollo (for example, in Carthage) is also based on the same background, because Apollo was also a salvific god. According to Philo of Byblos (Eus., Praeparation Evangelica I, 10, 38), Eshmun was Sydyk's son (Sydyk was the personification of Justice), while Damascius (Vita Is. ß 302) knows his father as Sadykos, who had first seven sons, the Dioscouri or Kabeiri, then an eighth son, Eshmun (Esmounos; the number 8 was a sign of election, of a special destiny). According to Pausanias (VII, 23,78), who refers a Sidonian testimony, Eshmun's father was Apollo, while the god himself was the Air, which brings health. According to Cicero (Nat. deor. III, 22, 57) and Lydus (De mens. IV, 142), Arsippos was the name of the third Aesculapius, that is, Rashap (Reshef), the semitic Apollo.

Eshmun and the Baal Tradition

From a typological and historical point of view, Eshmun, though he is not a storm god, seems to be near to the Syrian Baal tradition, which emphasizes the salvific functions of the god, documented in Ugarit through Baal's connection with the Rapiu/Refaim ("the healers"=the dead). Eshmun's cult is documented not only in the sphere of public religion, but also on the level of private or popular beliefs, where the questions of health, wealth, and salvation were essential.

The earliest attestation of Eshmun seems to be the London Medical Papyrus, where we find, transcribed into Egyptian hieratic syllabic script, some short West Semitic magical texts, dated from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries bce (Steiner, J. C., Journal of Near Eastern Studies 51, 1992, pp. 191200). One of them (no. 28) contains the name of Eshmun and probably also of Astarte, while the text of number 33 alludes to an anonymous "healer" (rpy), who is probably Eshmun.

Eshmun in Phoenicia

The first epigraphical evidence related to Eshmun is the treaty (754 bce) between Mati'el, the king of Arpad (North Syria) and Assurnirari V, king of Assyria, where Eshmun is mentioned in the group of the Syrian gods who warrant the treaty, together with Melqart (the Baal of Tyre; cf. State Archives of Assyria II, 1988, no. 2, VI, 22, p. 13). Both appear again in the treaty between Asarhaddon of Assyria and Baal of Tyre (675670 bce). The consequences are stated, should the Tyrian king not respect the oath: "May Melqart and Eshmun deliver your land to destruction and your people to deportation; may they [uproot] you from your land and take away the food from your mouth, the clothes from your body, and the oil for your anointing" (State Archives of Assyria II, 1988, no. 5, IV, 1417, p. 27). The mention of the oil probably alludes to Eshmun's specific functions. The association of Melqart, Baal of Tyre, and Eshmun, Baal of Sidon, is not rare. For example, in Batsalos, near Kition (Cyprus), the double divine name, Eshmun-Melqart, indicates a strong cultural association between the two gods, who protected and defended the people.

Eshmun is also present in the onomastics of the Phoenicians who were deported to Assyria (Nimrud) in the seventh century bce. In the fifth to fourth century bce, Eshmun's cult is documented in Amrith, probably in connection with the salvific waters of the sanctuary (the so-called Maabed), where Melqart seems to be the major god, and in Sarepta, under the name of Asklepios (bilingual dedication made by a Cypriot in Greek and syllabic Cypriot writings, fourth century bce). But the main center of Eshmun's cult is clearly Sidon: he is called Baal of Sidon in the famous funerary inscription of Eshmunazor II ("Eshmun has saved"), circa 475 bce (Kanaansische und aramsische Inschriften [KAI] 14). He is also mentioned in the two series of Bodashtart's inscriptions (KAI 1516), which record the restoration of the god's sanctuary, and in the inscription of the young prince Baalshillem (Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions, T III, no. 29). Eshmun was the most important god of Sidon, the dynastic god, the "holy prince" (šr qdš ) of the city. He was associated, like Melqart in Tyre, with the goddess Astarte, who bore the title of šm b'l, "Name of Baal" (already mentioned in Ugarit). In Sidon, Eshmun had at least two sanctuaries: one in the city ("Sidon-on-the-sea") and one outside the city ("Sidon-in-the-countryside"), in Bostan esh-Sheikh, along the Nahr el-Awali (Bostrenus), near the Yidal source, where the god was associated with Astarte. Initially, in the neo-Babylonian period (sixth century bce), a ziggurat was built, already associated with a sacral pool, probably for therapeutic rituals. The sanctuary was rebuilt in Persian times (fifth century bce) in the Greek style. It was a very large sacral complex, with different shrines and cultural buildings. On a monumental and richly decorated podium (decorated with hunting scenes), built against the mountain, there was a sanctuary constructed of Greek marble that remained in use until the fourth century bce. In the northwest part of the sanctuary the Eshmun's tribune (a big socle, or base, for a colossal statue or an altar) was built, seven meters high and decorated with dances and other "Apollonian" images. Another shrine, further down and located to the east, was associated with a cultic pool, and a stone throne decorated with sphinx and lions was dedicated to Astarte, the paredros of Eshmun. This temple complex was excavated beginning in the 19631964 period, and among the finds from the temple's favissa were votive statues dedicated to Eshmun, on behalf of children (12 years old) who may have been sick or were subjected to an initiation ritual (the so-called temple-boys).

Eshmun was also venerated in Berytos (Beirut), and as late as the rule of the Roman emperor Elagabalus (218222 ce) coins of Berytos depict Eshmun on the back, usually with a caduceus or a border of snakes (symbol of healing). In the same region, according to Damascius, Vita Is. ß 302 (sixth century bce), a young hunter named Asklepios was obliged to practice self-castration because of Astronoe's passion for him. The goddess, "mother of the gods," brought him to life again after the castration, using the "vital heat." This story presents several analogies with Attis's myth, but probably contains an authentically Phoenician mythical tradition. Like Melqart, a god dies and then returns to life through the actions of a goddess who gives him immortality and divine powers. It is worth noting that the Lebanese toponym Qabr Smun (Eshmun's Tomb) lies near Beirut. In this case, just like in Melqart's case, the Frazerian typology of the "dying and rising god," with its seasonal pattern, seems to be a reductive interpretation, though not completely wrong. (In The Golden Bough [1914], J. G. Frazer devised the category of "dying and rising gods," which included Adonis, Osiris, Attis, and others.) Besides, the fertility aspect is not the primary characteristic of Eshmun, who is first of all a healer, the Baal of the town. He is more obviously the heir of the Syrian Bronze Age traditions incarnate in Baal and the dead kings who are immortalized.

Eshmun outside Phoenicia, in the Near East

Elsewhere in the Near Eastern world, Eshmun is attested through dedications or onomastics in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. The Nebi Yunis inscription (third to second century bce), which mentions a molk (sacrifice) in honor of Eshmun, is probably false, while the presence of Eshmun's name on an ostrakon from Shiqmona (end of the eighth century bce) is also questionable. In Cyprus, Eshmun's cult is well documented, especially in Kition, sometimes together with Melqart (at Batsalos), probably because these two Baals had salvific functions. In Kition a god named Baal Marpe, the healing Lord, is mentioned, who could be identical with Eshmun or with Eshmun-Melqart.

Eshmun in Western Contexts

In Western contexts, Eshmun is also an important god, especially in Carthage, where he was, according to Apuleius (Florida 18), the city's numen. Eshmun's temple in Carthage, on the Byrsa acropolis, was indeed very famous and very rich. The Senate's meetings took placed in this sanctuary. In 146 bce, at the end of the Third Punic War, the last defenders of the city found refuge in this temple, which was destroyed by fire. Eshmun's temple and Eshmuns priests are often mentioned in the Carthaginian inscriptions. The god was probably venerated together with Astarte, as the divine name Eshmun-Astarte is mentioned in at least one inscription. In the Roman period, Eshmun, who was named Aesculapius, continued to play an important role in the religious life of Carthage. His paredra (divine feminine partner) was Caelestis, with whom Aesculapius is frequently associated in Roman Africa. The Carthaginians also venerated a golden statue of Apollo, which was taken away by the Romans and placed in front of the Circus Maximus in Rome. This god could be another interpretatio of Eshmun.

Eshmun, under the name Aesculapius or Apollo, is also documented in Bulla Regia, Maktar, Lambesa, Oea, and elsewhere, but it is not easy to distinguish between the possible Punic roots and the Roman manifestations. The toponym Rusucmona (Cape of Eshmun) is located near Utica, where there was an important and archaic temple to Apollo.

In Sardinia, the most important evidence of Eshmun is the trilingual dedication to Eshmun/Asklepios/Aesculapius, which appears in Punic, Greek, and Latin on a bronze altar at S. Nicolò Gerrei (second century bce). Near Cagliari, a votive hand (ex-voto) was dedicated to "Eshmun who listens," the one who fulfills prayers and heals the ill. In Spain, there probably was an Eshmun's temple in Carthagena (on the Acropolis; Polybius X, 10, 8).

Eshmun is also very frequently found in onomastics in Phoenicia and in all the "colonies" (more than seven hundred just at Carthage). The verbs linked to Eshmun in the personal names stress the healing functions of the god, who "protects," "gives (life/health)," "saves," "delivers," and so on. In the Latin transcriptions, Eshmun's name can be written as Sum/n-, San/m-, and A/Ismun-.

On the basis of such documentation, it is obviously impossible to present Eshmun as a simple "vegetation god," as suggested in the works of W. Baudissin and R. Dussaud. Like the different Bronze Age Baals, who are related to the Syrian tradition on kingship, Eshmun or Melqart, the Phoenician Iron Age Baals, are complex personalities to whom people asked a large protection: for food, for health, for stability, for fertility, for peace.

See Also

Asklepios; Phoenician Religion.


Baudissin, W. Adonis und Esmun. Leipzig, 1911.

Lipinski, E. Dieux et déesses de l'univers phénicienn et punique. Leuven, 1985. See pages 154169.

Mettinger, N. The Riddle of Resurrection. Dying and Rising Gods in the Ancient Near East. Stockholm, 2001. See pages 155165.

Ribinichi, S. "Eshmun." In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, pp. 583-587. Leiden, 1995.

Stucky, R. A. Tribune d'Echmoun. Basel, 1984.

Stucky, R. A. "Das Heiligtum des Eschmun bei Sidon in vorhellenistischer Zeit." Zeitschrift des Deutschen Palästina-Vereins 118 (2002): 6686.

Xella, P. "Eschmun von Sidon." In Mesopotamica-Ugaritica-Biblica, edited by M. Dietrich and O. Loretz, pp. 481498. Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, 1993.

Xella, P. "Les plus anciens témoignages sur le dieu Eshmoun: une mise au point." In The World of the Aramaeans, II, Studies in Honour of P.-E. Dion, edited by P. M. Michèle Daviau et al., pp. 230241. Sheffield, U.K., 2001.

Corinne Bonnet (2005)