On the Shelf – The Development of Dagan: A Sketch

I brought a huge pile of reading for the bus during this trip, and one of the key items was this article in the Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religion by Bradley Crowell on the god Dagan, better known to Lovecraftians as Dagon.  Medieval writers on the god, having little to build upon, connected him with the Hebrew dag, or fish, leading to Lovecraft’s short story about a colossal fish-man, its followup in “The Shadow over Innsmouth”, and subsequent action figures.  Later scholars took his name to derive from dgn, a West Semitic word meaning “grain,” turning him into an agricultural deity of some sort.

Crowell discards both of these idea.  What should be more important than speculating about the linguistics of the name, he says, is finding out what people from the time actually thought of Dagan.  And we don’t know too much, save that Dagan was really an important god whose influence dates back to the third millennium B.C.  He was especially revered in the Middle Euphrates around the city of Tuttul, which was an important regional trade center.  Many local polities had gods whose fortunes would wax with the importance of the god of that area.  A prime example here is Marduk, the patron god of Babylon, whose ascent to the top of the pantheon in the Enuma Elish mirrored the growing importance of his city.  Dagan never became that popular.

The god did have considerable influence, though.  The number of personal names of both rulers and commoners including “Dagan,” inscriptions, and ritual curses indicate this. His oracle at Tuttul was a popular place of consultation in the surrounding area.  He was influential enough to be mentioned alongside Anu at times, and the phrase “Anu and Dagan” was used to describe the important gods as a group for many years.  Still, Dagan seems to have had little influence outside of Tuttul, which remains unexcavated, with no known temples existing elsewhere.  His mentions in myth are few, and all of them merely describe him as a powerful but unremarkable god.

What about his importance among the Phoenicians and, as mentioned in the Bible, the Philistines?  After all, Dagan is best known from 1 Samuel, in which the Philistines leave the Ark of the Covenant in the temple of the god.  The next day, the statue of the god is found broken and fallen over.  Crowell points out that, while we have one author claiming the Phoenicians worshiped Dagan and a number of personal names including the term, there’s little evidence that he was actually worshiped there.  Even less evidence can be found with regard to the Philistines, leaving open the possiblity that the Biblical story was an invention of later authors.

As you can tell, much of the above is hardly definitive, but it does give some additional insight into a Mesopotamian figure who has captured the imaginations of many.

Published in: on May 8, 2008 at 12:47 pm  Comments (2)  

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  1. This reminds me of something that once came up in a CoC adventure – would serious scholars of religion still subscribe to the fish-god version in the ’20s? Forced to make a decision on the spot, I said no and sent the investigators chasing a grain-shaped red herring instead of the actual fishy doings of the cultists, but it would be nice to actually now.

  2. […] substantive errors.  For example, I’d love to rewrite part of the section on Dagon based on this, or correct some the material on Nitocris, or illuminate some of the background of Nodens.  […]

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