Wednesday, April 30, 2008

New Take on the Original Dagon Myth

I use "myth" in the technical sense, that is a story that assists a sociological group to understand about their preceived history and destiny. In Lovecraft's day, Dagon was believed to be a root word which connotated fish. Therefore he made Dagon a fish god. Of course, he loathed fish and fishy smells, so it was a powerful personal disgust which he was able to translate to horror, thust creating a new kind of myth.

The other images of the ceramic phalluses discussed can be found in the original article:


Biblical Archaeology Review,

Did Captured Ark Afflict Philistines with E.D.?
By Aren M. Maeir

I’ve always been troubled by the Philistine hemorrhoids. The Hebrew word is ‘opalim (Mylpe). That was supposedly their affliction when they captured the Ark of the Covenant and placed it before a statue of their god Dagon.

The story is told about the Ark (sometimes called the Ark of God) when it was resting at Shiloh, cared for by Eli the priest, before it was ultimately brought to Jerusalem by King David. The Israelites had engaged their enemies the Philistines in battle at Ebenezer.a The battle went badly for the Israelites, and Eli’s sons allowed the Ark to be brought from Shiloh to the battlefield at Ebenezer as a paladin in the hope that this would turn the tide of battle. Instead, the Philistines captured the Ark (1Samuel 5–6).

The Philistines took the Ark to Ashdod and placed it before a statue of Dagon in the Philistine temple. The next day, the Philistines found Dagon toppled, lying on the ground. They set him back up, but the same thing happened the next day. The text goes on to tell us that “the hand of the Lord was heavy on the Ashdodites.” The Lord afflicted them with “hemorrhoids” (‘opalim).
The Philistines then took the Ark to Gath, another city of the Philistine pentapolis. This time the men of Gath were afflicted with “hemorrhoids.”

Finally, the Philistines decided to send the Ark back to the Israelites. To mollify the Israelite God, the Philistines included five golden “hemorrhoids” (one for each city of the Philistine pentapolis) and five golden mice. (The text tells us that “hemorrhoids” and mice had been ravaging the land of the Philistines.)

These ‘opalim have caused scholars lots of problems. The root of the word is ‘pl (lpe, or Ophel, as in the acropolis [upper city] of ancient Jerusalem), which means “high” or “rise,” hence a swelling.

But there is something strange, even a bit peculiar about ‘opalim. Is it a vulgarity? Is it simply too intimate for use in a holy text? Or does it perhaps mean something entirely different?
The King James translation calls them “emerods.” Modern translations, apparently a little embarrassed at hemorrhoids, often translate ‘opalim as “tumors.” To some scholars this suggests that the word isn’t really referring to blood-rich rectal swellings, but to another kind of swelling, perhaps bubonic plague. Admittedly, in either event it is difficult to imagine what the golden hemorrhoids or tumors that the Philistines sent back with the Ark looked like.

The history of the Hebrew text also suggests that ‘opalim is in some ways a strange or at least unusual word. Until about the tenth century C.E., Hebrew was written essentially without vowels (in modern Israel it still is). At that time a group of Hebrew textual scholars called Masoretes gathered in Tiberias and developed a series of superscripts and subscripts, called pointing, to indicate the proper vowels in the Hebrew text. Hence, the authoritative Hebrew text is referred to as the Masoretic Text, or simply MT. The Masoretes also included elaborate notes on the text, called the Masorah.

In these notes, the Masoretes indicated that some words written in the text were to be read aloud entirely differently. In their terms, they distinguished between the ketib (what is written) and the qere (what is read aloud). What is written is one thing, but what is read aloud in the synagogue may be entirely different.

Biblical passages containing the word ‘opalim are still read aloud in synagogues on Sabbath in the annual cycle of Bible readings.1 But ‘opalim is one of those words that is not pronounced. The Hebrew word tehorim (Myrwjf) is substituted instead. That is the modern word for hemorrhoids; it appears nowhere in the Bible. It is the word for hemorrhoids used in polite society.

There is, however, another possibility. Based on recently recovered archaeological evidence, I believe that ‘opalim refers not to hemorrhoids or tumors or the bubonic plague, but to the male sexual organ. The Philistines were afflicted in their membra virile.

In 604 B.C.E. the Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar, who would soon destroy Jerusalem and the Israelite Temple, destroyed the Philistine city of Ashkelon. In this destruction level, archaeologist Lawrence Stager of Harvard University recovered seven small vial-shaped vessels called situlae. Based on comparative archaeological evidence, Stager concluded that these vessels were meant to represent uncircumcised, non-erect phalluses.b I agree with him.

The situlae were found in what was apparently a “cultic corner,” along with other cult objects and a votive offering table. The situlae were apparently votives, much like the arms or legs that are often found in Egyptian and Greek (Aegean) cultic contexts.

The most prominent depiction on the Ashkelon situlae is of the Egyptian god Min, closely associated with male sexual potency. He is depicted on the situlae with an erect penis, which probably reflects the cure that the depositors of the votive situlae were seeking. Stager suggests that these situlae may have been filled with semen, milk or water symbolizing the life-giving force that the votive was intended to induce.

Stager’s interpretation has been strengthened and, I believe, can now be elaborated based on the recent finds from Tell es-Safi/Gath.c 2

In the 2004 excavation season at Tell es-Safi/Gath, we found two clay situlae in the shape of phalluses in a destruction level from the late ninth or early eighth century B.C.E. (This destruction was apparently the work of Hazael, king of Aram Damascus, as mentioned in 2 Kings 12:17.) Each of the situlae is hollow. Each is cylindrical with a bulbous-like thickening at the closed end. The identification of these vessels as ithyphallii (erect penises) has been confirmed by several urologists. Like the situlae from Ashkelon, they, too, were found in what appears to be a cult-related context.

In our 2007 excavation season at Tell es-Safi/Gath, we discovered an additional cultic context, also from the destruction level attributed to Hazael: an apparent cultic corner in a largely domestic building. In the “corner” we discovered a group of clearly cult-related objects, including a complete kernos* (and fragments of other ritual libation vessels), a zoomorphic vessel, various platters and seven additional phallic-shaped vessels. Interestingly, most of the vessels had holes that would have enabled them to be hung—apparently an ancient cultic mobile!

These phallic-shaped objects from Ashkelon and Gath are clear indications of the symbolic importance of the phallus in Philistine culture. While such depictions are relatively common in Egyptian and Greek (Aegean) religious iconography, they are very rare in Semitic religious iconography. The Philistines are, of course, widely believed to have originated in the Aegean area and arrived in Canaan via Egypt, and the phallus is known to be an attribute of various ancient Greek, Anatolian and Cypriot goddesses.

With this background, I suggest that the ‘opalim with which the Philistines were afflicted after they captured the Ark of the Covenant and placed it in the temple of Dagon involved penises rather than hemorrhoids. It is unclear precisely what the nature of the affliction of the Philistine membra virile was. Perhaps it was the failure to attain erection, the condition referred to today as E.D., or erectile dysfunction. Or perhaps it was some malady causing penile pain.
The root of ‘opalim, which means “a rise,” suits the penile context as well as it does a hemorrhoid swelling. But it is far easier to visualize the Philistine offering, apparently to placate the Israelite God, as golden penises than golden hemorrhoids. Although we have much Philistine cultic material, nothing in it suggests the possibility of a visual reproduction of a hemorrhoid. Understanding ‘opalim as penises, on the other hand, has excellent parallels in the archaeological record.

The word ‘opalim is still very much a dirty word, inappropriate for use in the synagogue. But it would be quite appropriate (for reading), given the fact that the Biblical text is clearly making fun of the Philistines and their penile malady.

This coming summer we will be in the field again. Why don’t you join us? Who knows—perhaps we will find some more ‘opalim.3

For additional details see Aren M. Maeir, “A New Interpretation of the Term ‘opalim (Mylpe) in the Light of Recent Archaeological Finds from Philistia,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 32, no. 1 (2007), p. 23.

Footnote Articles
Shiloh Yields Some, but Not All, of Its Secrets, by Israel FinkelsteinBAR 12:01, January/February 1986.
An Israelite Village from the Days of the Judges, by Moshe Kochavi, with Aaron DemskyBAR 04:03, September/October 1978.
DNA Analysis Sheds New Light on Oldest Profession at Ashkelon, by Patricia Smith and Lawrence E. StagerBAR 23:04, July/August 1997.
The Fury of Babylon: Ashkelon and the Archaeology of Destruction, by Lawrence E. StagerBAR 22:01, January/February 1996.
Eroticism and Infanticide at Ashkelon, by Lawrence E. StagerBAR 17:04, July/August 1991.
Why Were Hundreds of Dogs Buried at Ashkelon? by Lawrence E. StagerBAR 17:03, May/June 1991.
When Canaanites and Philistines Ruled Ashkelon, by Lawrence E. StagerBAR 17:02, March/April 1991.
Excavating Philistine Gath: Have We Found Goliath’s Hometown? by Carl S. Ehrlich and Aren M. MaeirBAR 27:06, November/December 2001.

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