MELQART , whose name means "king of the city" (milk qart ), was the patron god of the Phoenician city of Tyre and one of the major gods of the Phoenician and Punic pantheons. He was also known as Baal Sur (Lord of Tyre) and was identified with Herakles (Hercules) since at least the sixth century bce. There is no longer any doubt about his link with Tyre (the "city" of his name) since the publication in the 1990s and early 2000s by Pierre Bordreuil of explicit epigraphical evidence, including a seal, tesserae, dedication, weight, and sling balls.
Phoenicia and Syria
The earliest epigraphical evidence on Melqart appears on a statue found near Aleppo (Bredj), Syria, dating from about 800 bce. The royal Aramaic votive inscription bears the name of Barhadad, who probably was king of Arpad. This document is an important trace of commercial and cultural contacts between Northern Syria and Phoenicia, especially Tyre, which explains why an Aramaic king made such an offering to a Tyrian god. Melqart is represented on the stela, standing, striding from right to left, with a naked torso and bare feet, bearded, with a loincloth and a dome-shaped hat, a fenestrated ax on the shoulder (a royal symbol) and carrying what may be an ankh or a lotus flower in the right hand (a symbol of immortality). This is clearly a composite image, with Egyptian and Syro-Hittite affiliations. The same iconography, with a standing or seated god (on a throne), is also attested in different Mediterranean contexts (Cyprus, Carthage, Ibiza, Sardinia), but it is not certain that it always refers to Melqart.
Although the first reference to Melqart belongs to the beginning of the first millennium bce, different literary sources link him with the founding of the city of Tyre, and Herodotus (II, 44) reports that, according to the priestly traditions, Melqart's Tyrian sanctuary was as old as the city itself. It is likely that Melqart's cult was based on a longtime religious tradition, the cult of royal ancestors, which is well attested in Mesopotamia and Syria until the third millennium bce. However, Melqart became the poliadic god of Tyre, with this specific name, only at the beginning of the first millennium bce, when Tyre became a great commercial center with a Mediterranean dimension. In fact, Josephus (A.J., VIII, 145–146; C.Ap. I, 117–119) records that Hiram I, the king of Tyre during the tenth century bce, built new temples for Melqart (Herakles) and Astarte in the city and celebrated for the first time the egersis, which was the resurrection ritual of Melqart, in the month of Peritios (February–March). During this annual ritual, the god "died" (perhaps in a fire) and was awakened or resuscitated, perhaps through a sacred marriage (hierosgamos ) with the goddess Astarte. In this celebration, the Tyrian king probably played the role of the god, and a priestess played the role of the goddess.
Later in Cyprus and in the Punic world, a ritual title applied to important citizens is attested, surely in connection with Melqart's egersis : "The one who makes the god(s) awaken, bridegroom of Astarte(?)." In Greek inscriptions found in Amman, Ramleh, and Ashkelon, this function is translated as "egerseites of Herakles." On a vase, presumably from Sidon, there is a probable iconographical representation of the main moments of Melqart's egersis. In addition, in Gades (Spain), Hercules/Melqart's bones were kept (Pomponius Mela III 46). These elements seem to fit well with the known Frazerian pattern of the "dying and rising god," but this pattern has been critically challenged because it is an artificial construction that does not reflect the great diversity of the historical and "theological" backgrounds of the so-called dying and rising gods, a category that includes Osiris, Dumuzi, Attis, Adonis, and others. In Melqart's case, it appears clear that the annual ritual death and resurrection means that every year the natural, cosmic, sociopolitical, and religious order was renewed with and through the king. It is not simply a "naturalistic" ritual, but a way to assure fertility, order, peace, and wealth for all the people, because, as the Semitic royal inscriptions say, the king—mythical and historical—"makes his people live." It is also interesting to notice that Astarte seems to be the mother and paredros (companion) of the god. According to Cicero (N.D. III, 42) and Philo of Byblos (Eusebius, P.E., I, 10, 27, 3), the Tyrian Herakles was the son of Zeus Demarous (from Dmrn, the "Warrior," possibly an epithet of Baal) and Asteria (Astarte); he was killed by Typho in Libya and was brought back to life by the goddess, who made him smell roasted quails (Eudoxus of Cnidos, fr. 284).
After the Aleppo inscription, Melqart appears in two vassal Assyrian treaties. First, Melqart is mentioned in the treaty of 754 bce between Matiel, king of Arpad (Northern Syria) and Ashurnirari V, king of Assyria. Here Melqart is included in the group of gods who warrant the treaty; together with Eshmun (the Baal of Sidon), Melqart is also named in the treaty of 675–670 bce between the kings Esarhaddon of Assyria and Baal of Tyre. This treaty regulated the shipping and overland trade routes, and Melqart is included in the group of Tyrian gods, together with Astarte and Eshmun: "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" (Parpola and Watanabe, 1988, vol. II, p. 27).
Various scholars hold that the cult of Baal that King Ahab and his wife Jezebel, a Tyrian princess, introduced into Israel in the ninth century bce (1 Kgs. 16), and against which the prophet Elijah fought on Mount Carmel (1 Kgs. 18:20–40), was in fact a cult of Melqart. The text that narrates the challenge between Elijah and Baal's prophets alludes to a god who sleeps and travels, like Melqart, the god of the egersis and the companion of the Tyrian expansion on the Mediterranean shores. But the god Baal Shamin (Lord of the Heaven) is another good possibility for the Carmel episode. In the sixth century bce, Ezekiel's oracle against Tyre (Ez. 28:1–19) probably refers to the cultural background of the Tyrian kingship when he places in the king's mouth these words: "I am a god, I sit on a divine throne, in the heart of the seas." The Tyrian betyls (standing stones) that symbolize the city's power (Ez. 26:11) are probably the two stelae that Herodotus (II, 44) describes in Melqart's shrine and that are represented on the city's coinage. They were a symbol of his dominion, as were, later, the columns of Herakles at the end of the Western world (Libya, then Gibraltar). These elements prove that an aniconic tendency, maybe the older form of the cult, was still present in the worship of Melqart, especially in Tyre and Gades, though anthropomorphic figures are also known. On the Tyrian coinage, the Heraklean symbols occur frequently in the Hellenistic and Roman period. In the fifth century bce a sea god riding a hippocampus is depicted, which could be Melqart represented as the protector of commercial expansion, but this is not certain.
When Alexander the Great reached Tyre in the fourth century bce and began the siege, because of his Heraklean genealogy he tried to manifest his devotion to the Tyrian Herakles (Melqart), making several offerings in his temple (Arrian, Anab. II, 16–24). But by that time the Hellenization of the cult was already deep, and it is difficult to distinguish the local Semitic god and its Greek interpretation; one deals with a syncretistic figure (Melqart/Herakles) in a syncretistic context (the Hellenistic period). The Greek iconographical language completely covers the original Phoenician image, which is very poorly attested.
Just as the Tyrian influence expanded through the Mediterranean by way of trade and colonization, so did the cult of Melqart. The "Lord of Tyre" was also the "sailors' god" (Diodorus XX, 14), who traveled with the population. Melqart thus became one of the major figures of the ancestral religious traditions for the western Phoenicians (Punic people). For example, it is known that the Tyrian founders of Carthage and Gades brought on their ships, together with their families, relics of Melqart (Justin XVIII, 4, 15; XLIV, 5, 2). In these colonial contexts, the foundation of a sanctuary for Melqart, often extra muros, was probably one of the first concerns of the new inhabitants because the sanctuary was a neutral and sacral space that offered an adequate context for the first commercial and social contacts with the local populations. Melqart's temples probably had an important economic function, perhaps serving as "treasuries" of commercial exchanges through a system of tithe, but this aspect of his cult is still hypothetical because of the lack of documentation.
Elsewhere in Phoenicia and Syria, Melqart is mainly attested in Amrith (together with Eshmun), Sarepta (if he is the "holy god" of the inscriptions), Umm el-Awamid (under the name of Milkashtart), Jamnia, and Ascalon.
Beyond Phoenicia and Syria
From Phoenicia, Melqart's devotion expanded in the eastern Mediterranean.
The first step was Cyprus. There Melqart is documented in several places: Kition, Amathus, Idalion, and Larnaka, which were the major centers of Phoenician colonization since the ninth century bce. In Kition-Bamboula, Melqart's sanctuary was near Astarte's, while in Kition-Batsalos there is epigraphical evidence of a common cult to Melqart-Eshmun. In many Cypriot cult sites, a Heraklean iconography, similar to that present on the Syrian coast (Amirth) since the sixth to fifth centuries bce, is present. It may allude to Melqart, but probably also alludes to other cults, including Reshef /Apollo and some anonym Cypriot god, as if the Heraklean shape were a standard male god iconography. Cyprus was thus a crucial place for the iconographical assimilation between Melqart, the royal god, perhaps associated with the lion (as in the Eastern iconography of the smiting king or god), and the Greek Herakles, who became the god with the leonte, the bow and the club. The Idalion cup (eighth century bce) is the best illustration of this assimilation process.
Although there is little specific evidence of Melqart in Greece, it is probable that Samos was an important stage on the road that brought Melqart/Herakles from Phoenicia and Syria to Greece, through Cyprus and perhaps Rhodi, where an "awakener of the god" is attested, surely in connection with Melqart's cult. In Samos, where Hera looks much like Astarte, there is a famous pectoral (625–600 bce) with the first Heraklean image of the hero with the leonte. Otherwise, Melqart's name never appears on Greek soil.
Herodotos reports (II, 44) that Melqart was venerated in Thasos as the archegetes of the city, just as the Thasian Herakles was venerated in Tyre, but excavations have not provided any evidence of this. In Crete, the Phoenician presence (at least in Kommos) is well documented, but Melqart does not appear, although the Cretan Herakles Daktylos may have some relationship to him and to the Egyptian Bes. Another important site in the religious map of the Greek world is Delos, where different oriental communities settled for commercial reasons. The Tyrian group considered Melqart as their patron god and therefore took the name of Heracleistes. Their decree (ID 1519) records that on the Aegean island they regularly practiced Melqart's cult as their archegetes during the second century bce.
Though the monarchy disappeared in Carthage, Melqart, the royal god par excellence, remained popular as a symbol of the Phoenician roots of Carthaginian people, like the goddess Astarte. The divine couple, Melqart and Astarte, already attested in Phoenicia, survived in the Punic context and was often translated in Greek and Roman sources through the interpretatio graeca or latina : Herakles/Hercules for Melqart, and Aphrodite/Venus or Hera/Juno, especially but not exclusively, for Astarte. In Carthage, Melqart's cult provided one of the most important occasions to maintain the relationships between Tyre and its major Punic colony. Every year during Melqart's feast a tithe was sent from Carthage to Tyre to demonstrate the people's fidelity to the great ancestral god and to Tyrian traditions. When the Carthaginians interrupted this custom, they were badly punished by the god with war and epidemics, as reported by Diodorus of Sicily (XX, 14). In the famous treaty between Hannibal and the Macedonian king Philippus V in 215 bce, Herakles (with the Carthaginian daimôn and Iolaus), who must surely be Melqart (Polybius VII, 9, 2–3), is mentioned among the Punic gods.
Elsewhere in Africa, Melqart is present in Leptis Magna (as Milkashtart, together with Shadrafa), Sabrata (as Hercules), El Hofra, and Lixus, where the classical authors placed the Hesperian garden.
In Spain, where Phoenician people founded emporia as early as the eighth century bce, the main center of Melqart's cult was Gades. The evidence is entirely Greek and Latin, and relatively late, so it is difficult to determine what belongs to the Phoenician god and what to his later classical brothers. It is likely that Phoenician, Greek, and Roman cults were practiced together in a clearly syncretistic context, where each believer was able to recognize his own god.
Milkashtart, who could be a god similar to Melqart and who was also assimilated to Herakles/Hercules, appears in Gades in the second century bce. His name alludes to a royal god (Milk) of Ashtarot, a Palestinian place name, and not to Ashtart/Astarte. The cult of Melqart/Herakles/Hercules propagated in several places in southern Spain, as demonstrated by local coinage with Heraklean symbols or images, including Herakles' head, bowl, and club, but the chronology of such a phenomenon is not clear. It is probable that the brief Punic dominion on Spain in the third century bce under the leadership of the Barcides, a family who had a special devotion for Melqart, reinforced the god's presence in Spain. The Barcides imitated Alexander's coinage with the Heraklean head.
The cult of Melqart is also known through epigraphical and iconographical evidence to have been present in Ibiza. Scholars are not aware of any mythological cycle of Melqart's adventures similar to those surrounding Herakles, neither in Ibiza, the far West, or the East. The Western episodes of Herakles' myth are particularly important because they constitute the antecedent of his death and apotheosis. The West, the Sun's house, was considered to be the end of the world, a fabulous land where a person could communicate with the netherworld. But nothing similar is known about Melqart, and the old idea that the "city" contained in his name was the city of the dead is not convincing.
Italy, Malta, and Great Britain
Melqart is found in all Phoenician colonies, including Sardinia, Sicily, and Malta. In Sardinia, there is little evidence of Melqart's presence in Tharros, the most important Phoenician colony on the island, apart from a temple, known from an inscription. Astarte is much better documented, particularly on iconographical grounds, and these two gods probably formed a divine couple, as they frequently did elsewhere. Melqart is also documented in the Sid/Sardus Pater's sanctuary in Antas.
In Sicily, the name of Melqart occurs as a theophorous element in the onomastics, but there is no cultural evidence. He was nevertheless probably venerated in different places, for example in Selinus, where the cult of Herakles is well documented, and in Mozia, where the famous statue of the Young of Mozia (fifth century bce) has been interpreted as Heraklean iconography. Melqart also appears in the place-name Roshmelqart (Cape of Melqart), which is documented in inscriptions and on the coinage but has not yet been definitively identified. In Sicily, the Heraklean presence is strong and is reinforced through the interaction (often violent, in the form of a conquest and assimilation) with indigenous cults.
In Malta, Melqart certainly had a temple, which is mentioned by Ptolemy as Herakles' temple; the location was revisited in 2003 by Nicholas Vella. The twin stelae with double bilingual inscriptions in Phoenician and Greek were probably offered in this temple to Melqart, Baal of Tyre, and to Herakles, archegetes of the Tyrians, that is, the founder, the "leader of the foundation" (Donner and Ršllig, 2002). These texts enabled Jean-Jacques Barthèlemy to decipher the Phoenician scripture in 1758. Astarte's cult is also well attested in Tas Silg in Malta.
Pyrgi is the most important site in continental Italy, which has something to do with Melqart. The evidence is both epigraphical and iconographical. The bilingual Phoenician and Etruscan inscription on the laminae includes a dedication to Astarte/Uni from the local king on a special occasion: "the day of the burial of the god" (Donner and Ršllig, 2002). The name of this god is not explicitly mentioned, but the iconographical evidence may indicate that he was Melqart—in the decoration of Pyrgi's temples (A and B), Heraklean motifs are common, probably in connection with the cults practiced there. In the Forum Boarium on the Ara Maxima in Rome, the local Hercules had economic and commercial functions. Because of the relationships between archaic Rome and different oriental groups (Cypriots and Phoenicians, maybe through the Etruscans), the Forum Boarium's Hercules could have some oriental connotations, just like he also has deep Greek shapes, but he is surely not sic et simpliciter Melqart.
Phoenician traders probably settled in Corstopitum in Great Britain, the cult site of both their ancestral gods, during the Imperial period. Melqart, translated as Herakles, and Astarte (Inscriptiones Graecae, XIV, 2253–2254) remain together, even in such a remote place.
From the rich evidence discussed above, from all the Mediterranean shores, scholars conclude that Melqart was one of the most important gods of the Phoenician and Punic world. He was primarily a royal god who was linked with the Syro-Mesopotamian background of the cult of royal ancestors and who had some chthonic, salvific, and healing connotations. Because of the commercial vocation of Tyre and its expansion in the West, Melqart became a god of the sea, who took the Tyrian people to the colonial world. He was not simply a vegetation god, an example of the dying-god typology, but rather a king who protects the population and assures security, victory, wealth, fertility, and stability. Melqart was thus the king's prototype in historical times. His cyclical death, recorded in a special ritual that involved the king, means that without the king's mediation between the divine and the human sphere the world cannot function, fertility ceases, and fecundity disappears, as in the Ugaritic Kirta myth. The annual death and resurrection (egersis ) of Melqart must demonstrate what a society without a king (a catastrophic event) means and how it is important to reestablish and confirm the primary importance of the king in the balance between life and death, power and destruction, fertility and desolation. This pattern surely includes the life of nature and vegetation, but it goes far beyond.
Bonnet, Corinne. Melqart: Cultes et mythes de l'Héraclès tyrien en Méditerranée. Louvain, Belgium, 1988.
Bonnet, Corinne. "Melqart est-il vraiment le Baal de Tyr?" Ugarit-Forschungen 27 (1995): 695–701.
Donner, Herbert, and Wolfgang Ršllig, eds. KanaanŠische und aramŠische Inschriften, 5th ed. Wiesbaden, 2002.
Gibson, J. C. L. Textbook of Syrian Semitic Inscriptions. Oxford, 1973–1982.
Lipiński, Edward. Dieux et déesses de l'univers phénicien. Louvain, Belgium, 1995. See pages 226–243.
Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. No Graven Image? Israelite Aniconism in its Ancient Near Eastern Context. Stockholm, 1995.
Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. The Riddle of Resurrection: "Dying and Rising Gods" in the Ancient Near East. Stockholm, 2001. See pages 83–111 for a discussion on the dying-god typology.
Parpola, Simo, and Kazuko Watanabe, eds. Neo-Assyrian Treaties and Loyalty Oaths. Helsinki, 1988.
Ribichini, Sergio. "Melqart." In Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2d ed., edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, pp. 563–565. Leiden, Netherlands, 1999.
Xella, Paolo. "Da Baal di Ugarit agli déi fenici: Una questione di vita o di morte." In Quando un dio muore: Morti e assenze divine nelle antiche tradizioni mediterranee, edited by Paolo Xella, pp. 73–96. Verona, Italy, 2001.
Xella, Paolo. "Le soi-disant 'dieu qui meurt' en domaine phénico-punique." Transeuphratène 22 (2001): 63–77.
Corinne Bonnet (2005)
"Melqart." Encyclopedia of Religion. . Encyclopedia.com. (September 15, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/environment/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/melqart
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