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Coin showing the baetyl of Elagabal in Emesa. © cngcoins.com
Coin showing the baetyl of Elagabal in Emesa. (©**; cngcoins.com)
Elagabal (Aramaic Ilaha Gabal, the "lord of the mountain"), Syrian sun god. His cult was introduced in Rome by the boy-emperor Heliogabalus (218-222).

The pantheon of Emesa

All gods of the pantheon of the Arabian city Emesa, in Syria, had Semitic names, with one exception: the supreme god Elagabal. He was a Sun god, which suggests an earlier origin and makes this god a local deity, probably related to similar gods from Canaan. The Aramaic name of Elagabal is Ilaha Gabal, meaning "God of the mountain".

Mountain gods were known in Anatolia, Syria, and Palestine since Hittite times, and they continued to be venerated up until the Roman age. They were often portrayed with eagles. The Syrian Sun-bird was seen as servant and messenger of the god. Later, the worshippers of Elagabal were influenced by the cult of the venerably old Babylonian sun god Šamaš. Elagabal has also been compared to the Chaldaean god Gibil, which can be translated as "god of the black stone". Gebal is a Semitic root which means "to create".

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Alexianus' inscription from the Römisches Museum, Augsburg (Germany). Photo Marco Prins.
Dedication to Elagabal by Avitus Alexianus (Römisches Museum, Augsburg)

Triads were not uncommon in Syrian and Mesopotamian cities, and Elagabal, the personification of a male principle and fertile warmth, had two female consorts of Semitic origin:

  1. Atargatis can be compared to the Phrygian goddess Cybele, the "great mother";
  2. the other female deity, Astarte, resembles Aphrodite. She offered water and fertility to the people, and was immensely popular in Syria. Lucian's treatise The Syrian goddess offers much information on this cult, which shows similarities to the cult of Elagabal.

The cult of Elagabal

According to the Greek-Roman historian Herodian, who witnessed how the cult of Sol Invictus (the invincible sun) Elagabal was introduced in Rome by the emperor Heliogabalus (218-222), the worship of Elagabal was not a local phenomenon, but was known in adjacent territories as well. Sacrifices were brought to Emesa by the inhabitants of the surrounding areas. It is believed that the cult of Elagabal was the principal cult of Syria and that Emesa was its main religious center.

The Syrian sun god was also known outside Syria; in the mid-second century CE, a dedication was made to Elagabal in a town called Laurium in Germania Inferior, at the opposite end of the Roman world (more...).

Woerden's Elagabal inscription. Stadsmuseum Woerden (Netherlands). Photo Jona Lendering.
The Elagabal inscription (Stadsmuseum Woerden)

Elagabal had always been worshipped with much pomp and devotion, accompanied by music and dancing. He had no statue, but was venerated as a black stone with a round base and a pointed top. This conic stone, a baetyl, showed several indefinable markings. On coins, it is usually shown with an eagle spreading its wings over the object in a protective way. Such stones were very important in Syrian-Phoenician religion.

Herodian gives us a detailed account of the most important festival of the god, which, he says, was celebrated in mid-summer and shows, according to modern scholars, great similarity to the Akitu festival (the Babylonian New Year), which was celebrated in April. During the festival, the god Marduk was carried around in a chariot decorated with gold, silver and precious gems and accompanied by the cult images of the other gods. These images were brought to the festival house outside Babylon. The king brought gifts and sacrifices to the gods and in return they gave the people oracles. The day after the festivities the god was brought back to the city and celebrated his return with the goddess Sarpanitu.

All cult acts were conducted by the high priest. Eastern priests served only their own deity and did everything in their power to propagate the cult. Any man, no matter what his status was, could fill a priestly office. This was quite different from the situation in Rome, where priests were usually of noble birth and combined their office with political or administrative offices. This created tensions when Elagabal was introduced in the west, a subject that will be discussed here.

Lauren van Zoonen © 2005
Latest revision: 31 March 2006

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