Why Were Hundreds of Dogs Buried at Ashkelon?
Ancient Ashkelon, now quietly nestled beside the Mediterranean in the south of Israel, is shaped like a giant 150-acre bowl, with the sea wearing away at much of the western half. The rim and sides of the bowl are formed by the mammoth Middle Bronze Age glacis, or rampart, that once protected the city. Inside the bowl are buried at least 20 ancient cities, dating from about 3500 B.C. to 1500 A.D., a span of 5,000 years.
In the last issue, we examined the Middle Bronze and Iron Age cities—the first, Canaanite and the second, Philistine.
In 604 B.C., Philistine Ashkelon was destroyed by the neo-Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar (neb-uh-kuh-DREZ-uhr; also called Nebuchadnezzar [neb-uh-kuhd-NEZ-uhr]), whose army soon thereafter (in 586 B.C.) destroyed Jerusalem, capital of the kingdom of Judah, together with its Temple. Thus began what is known in Israelite history as the Babylonian Exile. Less widely known is the fact that the Philistines too were exiled to Babylon.
The Babylonians were replaced (in 538 B.C.) by the Persians, who expanded and then ruled the biggest empire the world had known before Alexander the Great—from the eastern Mediterranean to India. A more benign imperial power than the Babylonians—perhaps we may even characterize their hegemony as enlightened—the Persians under Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to their land and even to rebuild their Temple (Ezra 1:2–4, 6:3–5).
No record exists, however, as to what happened to the exiled Philistines. Those who may have remained in Ashkelon after Nebuchadrezzar’s conquest apparently lost their ethnic identity. They simply disappear from history.
Culturally, Ashkelon once again became Canaanite—or, more precisely, Phoenician, as the coastal Canaanites are called at this time, having developed a culture of their own, supported by a far-flung commercial empire to the west.
During the Persian period (538–332 B.C.), the great Persian kings ruled the area politically, but they were not cultural imperialists. Even politically, they ruled with a comparatively gentle hand, giving rather wide latitude to local satrapies. In the heart of Phoenicia—the eastern Mediterranean coast, in what today is Lebanon—the Persians found willing allies among the Phoenicians, who provided their Persian overlords with naval power and wealth from the Mediterranean world and beyond.
For their cooperation, the Persians gave Phoenicians from Sidon and Tyre control of the coast as far south as Ashkelon. (Farther south, Gaza remained more a desert port than a Mediterranean seaport.) The Persians assigned governors for the coastal cities, cleverly alternating a Tyrian and a Sidonian governor for each major coastal city down to Ashkelon. According to a mid-to-late-fourth-century B.C. source,1 Ashkelon was known as a “city of the Tyrians” and headquarters of a Tyrian governor.
Phoenician culture—and therefore, we may assume, the Phoenicians—dominated Ashkelon by the late sixth or early fifth century B.C. This is evidenced by Phoenician inscriptions (one as early as about 500 B.C.), iconography characteristic of Phoenician religion (especially the sign of the goddess Tanit) and by the Phoenician pottery we excavated.
The Phoenicians brought with them to Ashkelon not only their culture. With their maritime and commercial skills, they also brought a great deal of prosperity to the port. In fact, the whole eastern coast of the Mediterranean prospered during the Persian period under the enterprising Phoenicians. This stands in sharp contrast to the comparatively impoverished province of Judah, or Yehud (ye-HOOD) as it was known in official Aramaic in the Persian period, with Jerusalem as its capital. In abundance of Persian-period remains, the contrast between the two areas is remarkable. Inland, in Yehud, Persian-period strata are very thin if not ephemeral. On the Mediterranean coast, Persian-period occupational debris is quite thick—6 to 10 feet at Ashkelon and at Dor to the north.
Within the huge bowl that is the tell at Ashkelon are two mounds, one in the northern part and one in the southern part of the site. On the north side of the southern mound (Grid 38), known as al-Hadra, nearly 10 feet of Persian-period occupational debris overlay the Philistine strata. The Persian-period sequence begins with monumental ashlara buildings that we have only partially excavated. Thereafter, we found at least five more phasesb or subphases of buildings, culminating in a major destruction in about 300 B.C. Rooms in the destroyed buildings were filled with burnt and fallen debris from the superstructure. In the debris were buried basket-handled amphorae (AM-fo-ree)c and a linen bag filled with Phoenician silver coins of the fourth century B.C.
That the conflagration was widespread is clear from evidence in Grid 57 on the southwestern side of the city. Here we found the same phases and subphases of Persian-period occupation, beginning with a monumental structure built in about 500 B.C., followed by later phases of architecture, such as street-front workshops, culminating in a massive destruction. Shortly before the destruction of about 300 B.C., the inhabitants of one of the buildings secreted a hoard of silver coins and a silver bracelet. The coins were tetradrachmas (tet-ruh-DRAK-muhs) bearing the portrait of Alexander the Great. Nearby was a laurel-leaf crown of gold with side pieces of gilded bone. Several basket-handled amphorae stored on the second floor of one of the buildings collapsed onto the first floor. The basement was filled with burnt bricks, rubble and pottery of the late fourth century B.C.
Because of the presence of a hoard of his coins, the citywide destruction must have occurred after Alexander the Great (356–323 B.C.) had conquered the Levant (about 332 B.C.). Ashkelon (but not Gaza) was apparently spared the destruction which accompanied Alexander’s conquest. But soon thereafter, in about 300 B.C. (although we cannot be certain until all of the data—pottery, coins, etc.—have been analyzed), Ashkelon too was devastated. This tragic episode must have occurred about the time Ptolemy I Soter (c. 367/6–283/2 B.C.) of Egypt was establishing his supremacy over the region, when Ashkelon was no longer under the control of Tyre.
In Grid 57 we also made one of the strangest discoveries of the entire excavation. In the phase following the construction of the monumental building mentioned previously, sandwiched in between that initial phase and the following architectural phase was a brief interlude (Phase 5 in Grid 57) when the floor area was leveled and used as a dog cemetery! We found a dozen dogs carefully buried here.
In nearby Grid 50 we uncovered an impressive building with six almost identical rooms. These rooms seem to be magazines of a large warehouse, about 30 by 60 feet. Each magazine had nearly 250 square feet of interior storage space. On the floors of the magazines, we excavated several Phoenician amphorae; Greek Attic Black-glazed ware; Red-figured as well as Black-figured fine ware, also from Greece; and a scapula (collar-bone) of a camel that was one of the basic raw materials from which fine bone artifacts were manufactured. The imprint of a basket containing red ocher was all that remained of perishable items. Other pigments, such as brown umber from Cyprus, were found stored nearby.
In its original construction, this large warehouse was stepped or terraced down toward the sea; the western half of the building’s stone foundations therefore lay at a lower level than the eastern half. In the next phase (Phase 7 in Grid 50, which corresponds to Phase 5 in Grid 57), this western area was leveled up with a series of rubbish-laden fills. But before the leveled area was next used as a warehouse (sometime in the last half of the fifth century B.C.), the deeper fills above the western half of the warehouse were put to a far different use: it was part of a huge dog cemetery that extended all the way to the 12 dog burials we had found in Grid 57. Moreover, the western limits of the dog cemetery could not be ascertained because that part had eroded into the sea.
Till now, we have found more than 700 partial or complete dog carcasses from the fifth century B.C., most of them buried in the western half of Grid 50. Because only the eastern limits of this dog cemetery have been established, we can speculate that it was originally much larger, with dog burials probably numbering in the thousands. This is by far the largest animal cemetery of any kind known in the ancient world.
Ashkelon’s dog cemetery was of extremely short duration, perhaps lasting no more than 50 years. Thereafter the area was returned to its previous mercantile use (though we have indications that dogs still received special burials elsewhere later in the Persian period). Nevertheless, in that short period, as many as three burials were found superimposed in some places, one dug into the other. This suggests that there were no burial markers over the graves.
Each dog carcass was carefully and individually placed in a shallow pit dug into the fill of what had previously been a warehouse. Each dog was deliberately placed on its side, its legs flexed and its tail tucked in around the hindlegs. The carcass was then carefully covered with earth containing a mixture of cultural debris. However, no grave goods can be associated with the dog burials.
When undisturbed by later building activity or scavenging, the dog burials present a remarkably homogeneous picture. Actually, it was quite tedious (some would say boring) excavating them, each of which we had to excavate as carefully as the last.
About 60 to 70 percent of the dogs were puppies; the remainder were subadult and adult dogs. Our staff zooarchaeologists, Dr. Paula Wapnish and Professor Brian Hesse, of the University of Alabama in Birmingham, tell us that the skeletons lack any butchering marks, which indicates that the dogs died of natural causes. This is confirmed, according to them, by the fact that the mortality profile of the Ashkelon dogs is similar to that of urban dog populations today. Thus, it does not appear that these dogs were eaten (as the Persians accused the Phoenician Carthaginians of doing2). Nor does it appear that these dogs were offered as sacrifices, despite the implication in Third Isaiahd in a passage written shortly before the Ashkelon dog cemetery was established:
The mature Ashkelon dogs were a little over 20 inches high and weighed a little more than 30 pounds—a dog population of medium height and build. Although no known modern breed correlates exactly with the Ashkelon dogs, Wapnish and Hesse have found a modern counterpart in today’s Bedouin sheepdogs, known as Palestinian pariah dogs. The best ancient representation of dogs similar to the Ashkelon dogs is probably the hound on the so-called Alexander Sarcophagus (late fourth century B.C.) from Sidon, on which Alexander the Great and his client, the king of Sidon, pursue a lion with a hunting hound of about the same size and build as the Ashkelon dogs. Like the dog on the sarcophagus, the Ashkelon hounds could have been used in hunting, to pursue hares, gazelles, wild goats or even lions.
A critical datum: Newborn dogs and puppies were given the same careful mortuary treatment as more mature dogs. This concern for the proper burial of what in some cases were probably dog fetuses reflects an intense relationship between dogs and humans. Yet, because many of these dogs lived only for a short time, if at all, the attachment could not be based on mere companionship.
In classical Greek society, where dogs were greatly appreciated, poets sometimes wrote very moving epitaphs for dogs, to be inscribed on markers over the pet’s grave, as in this example penned by the poet Tymnes in about 300 B.C.
But in ancient Greece, as now, special burials were reserved for pets old enough for some kind of human bonding to have occurred. This could not have been the case for the majority of dogs buried at Ashkelon.
The best explanation seems to be that the Ashkelon dogs were revered as sacred animals. As such, they were probably associated with a particular deity and with that god’s sacred precinct, about which the dogs were free to roam.
I hasten to add that we have not yet found a shrine or temple associated with the dog cemetery. But most of the environs of the cemetery have not yet been excavated—and a substantial area to the west has collapsed into the sea.
The area occupied by the dog cemetery is significant. Throughout the preceding and the remainder of the Persian period, this ground was devoted to profit-making enterprises connected with the export-import business. But for a generation or so, this was interrupted by the dog cemetery, apparently devoted to ritual purposes.
Dog burials are extremely rare outside of Ashkelon, although in the same period at neighboring Ashdod, seven dog burials were recorded. Recently, a dog from the Persian period was found buried in a jar at Tell Qasile, in modern Tel Aviv.4 Several dogs were also found buried at Gezer, but these are a couple of centuries later, in the Hellenistic period.
Like many other ports and caravan cities, Ashkelon had a heterogeneous population throughout most of its history, comprised of local citizens and a variety of foreign merchants. In cosmopolitan Ashkelon of the Persian period, we should not be surprised to find Persians, Phoenicians, Philistines, Egyptians, Greeks and Jews. And the artifacts recovered in our excavations provide evidence for the presence of diverse elements in the city’s population from the mid-sixth through the fourth centuries B.C. The culture of any of these could provide clues to understanding the significance of the strange dog cemetery we found in the midst of this mercantile district.
In the cosmology of the Persian Zoroastrians, dogs rank next to humans in both this world and the next. In Zoroastrian death rites, the priest gives an egg, a symbol of immortality, to a dog to eat. He then leads the dog to the home of the dead person, where the dog gazes at the corpse and then eats three pieces of bread from the chest of the corpse. After that, the dead body is washed and shrouded. Then for three days a dog vicariously eats three meals a day for the deceased. Then each day for the next 40 days, the canine vicar is fed three pieces of baked bread and a roasted egg at the house of the deceased.5
Although Persian reverence for dogs might have influenced the practice at Ashkelon, a Zoroastrian would not have laid the corpse of a human or a dog directly in the ground without a lining of stones or the like to protect the earth from the corpse, which was considered a highly charged pollutant.6 That the dogs in the Ashkelon cemetery were placed directly into the ground in unlined pits mitigates against the Zoroastrian association.
Moreover, the traces of Persian material culture in the West are minimal. At Ashkelon a beautiful ivory comb, with hunting scenes and rows of lions, recalls Persian Achaemenid art; a lead weight encased in a truncated shaft of decorated bone seems to conform to the Persian standard.7 But other than that, the immediate, direct impact of Persians on the material culture of the coast seems negligible.
What about the Egyptians? We know that the Egyptians were nearby and exported basketfuls of trinkets and amulets to Ashkelon. The Egyptians are well known for their reverence, even worship, of animals: they installed them in temples and devoted special precincts to their burials, although most were mummified for careers in the afterlife. Diodorus Siculus, writing in the first century B.C., mentions the dog among several animals venerated by Egyptians:
None of the buried dogs at Ashkelon, however, showed any signs of mummification.
Thus, although the Greeks, Egyptians and Persians could all be described as “canidophiles” (dog-lovers), I doubt that any one of these relatively small ethnic groups residing in Ashkelon could have accounted for the hundreds (if not thousands) of dogs buried here in the fifth century B.C. And neither the Greeks nor the Egyptians would have had the authority to convert prime real estate into a sacred precinct for dog burials.
The only people with sufficient authority and a large enough population to account for so many dog burials in such a short time were the Phoenicians. Their material culture dominated Ashkelon throughout the Persian period. This is shown by the ubiquity of their religious symbols, such as the “sign of Tanit,” as well as their pottery and inscriptions. Although other ethnic groups, such as the Egyptians or the Persians, might have had an influence on Phoenician attitudes and ritual concerning dogs, it was the Phoenicians, I believe, who were responsible for the dog burials at Ashkelon and who considered the dog a sacred animal. The evidence for this inference—derived mainly from the archaeological remains—is, however, not conclusive. I describe it in some detail in the sidebar “Deities and Dogs—Their Sacred Rites.”
Presumably the dog became associated with healing because of the curative powers evident from licking its own wounds or sores. One neo-Assyrian text in cuneiform suggests that even touching the sacred dog was sufficient to heal: “If a man goes to the temple of his god, and if he touches... (?), he is clean (again?); likewise if he touches the dog of Gula [the goddess of healing], he is clean (again?).”9
Dogs were involved in healing cults in many different cultures in antiquity; their association with temples and healing deities was rather widespread in the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern worlds, whether it be Gula in Mesopotamia, Asklepios in Greece, Eshmun in Phoenicia, Mukol or Resheph-Mukol in Phoenician Cyprus, or, earlier still, at Late Bronze Age Beth-Shean. In Egypt sacred dogs participated in rituals where, according to Diodorus, the Egyptians “make vows to certain gods on behalf of their children who have been delivered from an illness, in which case they shave off their hair and weigh it against silver or gold, and then give the money to the attendants of the animals mentioned [including dogs].”10 According to the Kition plaque, discussed in the sidebar “Deities and Dogs—Their Sacred Rites.” it was the attendants who were paid for the services involving healing rites performed by the sacred “dogs and puppies” in the Phoenician temple at Kition.
This is also the context in which we should understand the Deuteronomist’s condemnation of those who bring the “wages of a dog into the house of Yahweh in payment for any vow” (Deuteronomy 23:18). There were probably healing cults involving sacred dogs operating in the vicinity of the Jerusalem Temple. It is in such a cultic context that I would—at least tentatively—understand the hundreds of puppy and dog burials at Ashkelon. We do not know the name of the deity with whom these sacred dogs were associated (Resheph-Mukol or Eshmun [= Asklepios]?—see the sidebar, “Deities and Dogs—Their Sacred Rites.”) nor do we yet have the temple to which the dogs might have belonged. Until the temple or other cultic architecture is found, our hypothesis must be regarded as unconfirmed.
If anyone has a better explanation for the immense dog cemetery at Ashkelon, I would like to hear it.
In the ancient Near East, dogs are often associated with particular deities and the powers they wield. We cannot yet be sure with which deity the dogs in the cemetery at Ashkelon were associated. There are several possibilities, in several cultural guises, often interrelated as one deity merges into another.
But in the end, a common theme emerges—deities with healing powers are often associated with dogs.
According to a Phoenician legend, the leading deity of the city of Tyre, Herakles-Melkart, was credited with the discovery of purple. Actually, however, it was his dog who discovered the product for which the Phoenicians were world-renowned—purple dye, extracted from a gland in a Murex mollusk: Herakles was strolling along the beach with his dog and with a beautiful nymph named Tyrus. His hound discovered a Murex and bit into it. The dye from the snail stained the dog’s lips a bright purple, a color the nymph greatly admired. Herakles collected enough mollusks to dye a robe purple and presented this fine gift to the nymph. This discovery was celebrated on coins from Tyre, depicting a dog sniffing a Murex snail.11
More pertinent, however, is a small (about 6 by 4 inches) mid-fifth-century B.C. limestone plaque inscribed on both sides in Phoenician; it was found in 1869 at the Phoenician port city of Kition on Cyprus.12
The Kition plaque lists personnel associated in some way with the temples of the goddess of fertility, Astarte, and a more obscure male deity, Mukol (vocalized variously as Mekal, Mukal or even Mikal). Mukol appears as part of a compound god name, Resheph-Mukol (rsû pmkl) in several fourth-century B.C. inscriptions at Idalion, Cyprus, where his cult flourished.13 In a trilingual inscription from there,14 Resheph-Mukol is equated in Greek with Apollo-Amuklos.
Resheph is known from Ugaritic and Aramaic inscriptions as the lord of the underworld (= Mesopotamian Nergal), lord of plague, pestilence and disease—and conversely the god of healing. William F. Albright suggested that the Phoenician god of healing par excellence, Eshmun (whose Greek equivalent was Asklepios), had a Canaanite precursor, Sulman (literally, “One of welfare”). The Canaanite underworld figure named Rasûap-Sšulman, then, represented both polarities, namely sickness and health.15
Resheph-Mukol = Apollo-Amuklos could be the same sort of bipolar deity, embodying what seems to us (but not to them) mutually exclusive, contradictory aspects. At Ugarit, Resheph bore the title “Lord of the Arrow Resheph” (b‘l h\z\ rsûSp). A millennium later in Cyprus he was still called “Resheph of the Arrow.”16 The name itself probably means “Burning”/“Fever”/“Plague” according to Frank Moore Cross.
Apollo also has an ambivalent nature: besides being a god of healing, father of Asklepios and bearing the epithet Physician (Iatros), Apollo is also the god of plague. In the Iliad 1.43–52 an angry Apollo marches down from Mt. Olympus, carrying his silver bow, the arrows rattling in his quiver. He sends a plague upon the Achaean army by shooting a “tearing arrow” into them. “The corpse fires burned everywhere and did not stop burning.” For nine days Apollo bombarded them with arrows. As William J. Fulco and Walter Burkert so astutely pointed out, the “arrows of Apollo,” like those of Resheph (and we might add, those of Yahweh), signify pestilence.17 Conversely, Apollo’s image was capable of warding off plague. It was Canaanite Resheph-Mukal who bequeathed many attributes to the archer-god Apollo, god of healing, god of plague.
There may be a much earlier evidence of the bipolar Resheph-Mukol, or Mukal, in Late Bronze Age Beth-Shean. An Egyptian stela found there in a temple from stratum IX depicts a bearded deity who sits enthroned before two worshippers.18 The deity wears a high conical cap with two streamers down the back and two small horns protruding from the front—horns very much like those worn by Resheph, whose animal emblems included the gazelle. However, the seated deity is identified by the hieroglyphic inscription as “Mukal, the great god, lord of Beth-Shean.” From the same temple of Mukal comes one of the most superb pieces of Canaanite art, a beautifully carved basalt relief (probably an orthostat), 3 feet high, with the following scene: In the upper register a dog and a lion stand on their hindlegs engaged in battle. In the lower one, the dog is prevailing over the lion as he bites the haunches of the lion. It is tempting to link the victorious dog with the god Mukal.
It seems clear that the Greek Apollo inherited his darker side as god of pestilence as well as his brighter side as god of healing from Canaanite Resheph. It was this Apollo of Cypro-Phoenician lineage who bequeathed his name to the Roman city Apollonia, between Caesarea and Jaffa, which earlier had been named for Resheph, as the modern Arabic placename Arsuf still attests. Likewise, the worship of Apollo in Hellenistic Ashkelon probably bore more resemblance to that of Resheph-Mukol in Phoenician Cyprus than to the sun worship and youth cult of Apollo in Greece. One tradition has it that Herod’s grandfather served as hierodule (a temple servant) in the temple of Apollo at Ashkelon. The sacred dogs of Ashkelon, like the dogs and puppies at Kition, just might have been part of a healing cult in the tradition of Apollo-Resheph-Mukol.e
By classical times in Greece, Asklepios, the son of Apollo (= Resheph), had become more popular among the Greeks than even his father Apollo also a healing deity. The most famous shrine of Asklepios’ healing cult was at Epidaurus, where patients would come to spend the night in the dormitory (abaton) in the hope that Asklepios would appear to them in a dream vision and reveal a cure for the sleeper’s disease or illness. Or the clients might be visited during the night by surrogates of the god—sacred dogs and snakes whose “tongues” were believed to have a therapeutic effect on the clients. Professor Howard Clark Kee of Boston University provides this memorable image of the experience: “It is easy to imagine the vigil of the suppliants, lying in the total darkness of the abaton, listening for the padding feet of the priests or the sacred dogs, or the nearly noiseless slithering of the sacred snakes.”19
Among the temple personnel mentioned on the Kition plaque are builders, marshals, singers, servants, sacrificers, bakers, barbers, shepherds (who may have raised flocks for temple sacrifices), maidens (‘lmt, sometimes rendered “temple prostitutes”) and—relevant to our topic—dogs (klbm). In short, here we find dogs associated with a Phoenician temple, or temples, of Astarte and Mukol.
All of the personnel mentioned in the Kition plaque, including dogs, receive particular payments for services rendered.
The word “dogs” appears in the same line of this inscription with a much-disputed term, grm. According to one scholar, A. Van den Branden, the dogs were actually humans who served as male prostitutes, or sodomites, in the temple rituals. This is the service for which they were paid. The grm, according to Van den Branden, were “lambs” or “adolescent prostitutes” in the cult. Later he modified his interpretation and suggested that these two groups of temple prostitutes received their names—“dogs” and “lambs”—from the animal masks and costumes they wore.20 The masked humans symbolized an earlier era when bestiality, involving real dogs and lambs, was performed in the cult.
Van den Branden based his (mis)understanding of the text on the Kition plaque largely on a common but equally questionable interpretation of a Biblical text, Deuteronomy 23:18:
Van den Branden’s argument is based in large part on this passage from Deuteronomy, in which most Biblical commentators contend that “wages of a dog” is parallel to “hire of a harlot”; a harlot (zonah) being a female prostitute, dog (klb) must, therefore, be a male prostitute.
I do not see the necessity, however, of assuming that “dog” in this passage is the male counterpart of a female prostitute. It is not sodomy or pederasty that is the abomination in the context of this passage; rather it is the “bad” money accruing from the services of a harlot or a dog. To use that kind of money to pay for a vow in the Jerusalem Temple would be an abomination to the Israelite deity Yahweh.
Professor Brian Peckham of the University of Toronto, an expert on the Phoenicians, has written a superb analysis of the Kition plaque in which he too discards connotations of sodomy and pederasty that some scholars have imputed to the terms klbm (dogs) and grm in the Kition plaque. He has also decisively dated the Kition plaque to about 450 B.C., precisely in our period. On the other hand, Peckham agrees with Van den Branden that the dogs (klbm) and grm were humans masked as animals, who participated in some kind of temple rituals. The people with klbm masks were masquerading as dogs; those with grm masks, as lions. The latter identification is based on the Hebrew gr (plural, grm) which means lions or, more precisely, lion cubs, since Hebrew grm usually refers to lion whelps in the Bible.”21
I prefer, however, to take a very literal interpretation of klb (dog; plural klbm) in both Deuteronomy 23:18 and in the Kition plaque. In both texts the authors are referring not to humans acting like dogs in cult dramas but to actual dogs that performed services in the sacred precincts of the Phoenicians. Moreover, grm (singular gr) in the Bible can refer not only to lion whelps but also to the young of any animal, such as the jackal in Lamentations 4:3; on this basis the grm in the Kition plaque refers to the antecedent “dogs” and should be translated “puppies.”
In the Kition plaque dogs and puppies (or better, their attendants) were thus paid a sum for services rendered, probably in the temples of Mukol or Resheph-Mukol. Thus, this plaque provides an important contemporaneous and complementary document for interpreting the hundreds of dog and puppy burials at Ashkelon.
Although I reiterate that we have thus far not found an actual temple or any other kind of architecture that can be associated with the dog burials at Ashkelon, I believe there was either a temple or a sacred precinct associated with the cemetery. We may yet find it.
The concentration of dog burials in a cemetery, the type of interment in unlined pits and the mortality profile of the dogs in the Ashkelon cemetery also resemble dog burials in Mesopotamia associated with the goddess of healing, Gula/Ninisina. Her healing cult flourished at several centers during the second and first millennia B.C.
Recently a temple dedicated to the goddess of healing was partially excavated at Nippur, in modern Iraq. A votive figurine of a man clutching his throat has been interpreted by the excavator, Professor MacGuire Gibson of the University of Chicago, as signifying the ailment of which the suppliant either hoped to be or was healed.22 In cuneiform texts the temple of this goddess of healing (Gula) is sometimes referred to as the “Dog House” (é-ur-gi-ra), and her emblem is the dog.23
At Isin, another site in Mesopotamia, about 20 miles south of Nippur, numerous votive plaques and figurines depicting dogs were found in another temple of the healing goddess Gula. But even more revealing for our purposes were the 33 dog burials found in the ramp leading up to the temple. They, like the Ashkelon dogs, were buried in shallow pit graves, the carcass then being covered with soil. Although the sample of dogs excavated at Isin is quite small in comparison with Ashkelon, nevertheless, the mortality profile of the two dog populations is similar: At Isin, puppies comprised nearly half (15 of 33) of the dog burials; the rest were adults and subadults. Like the dogs at Ashkelon, there were no signs that the Isin dogs had died of anything other than natural causes. Again like the dogs of Ashkelon, the Isin dogs were given careful burials regardless of age at death.24 At Isin, however, the dog burials are clearly related to the temple of Gula, the goddess of healing. They were once the dogs of Gula, the goddess of healing. They roamed about the sacred precincts and participated in the healing rituals. The dogs buried at Ashkelon probably did the same thing.
1. Pseudo-Scylax, Periplus; see Menachem Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1984), vol. 3, p. 10.
2. Pompeius Trogus-Justin, Book XIX. i.10.
3. Greek Anthology, transl. W.R. Patton, Loeb Classical Library (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917), vol. 2, p. 117, poem 211.
4. Personal communication from Professor Amihai Mazar.
5. Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984), pp. 45ff.
6. Personal communication from Professor Richard Frye.
7. After the original carvings on both sides of the ivory comb were made, the edges of the comb were, for some unknown reason, pared off. Dr. Abbas Alizadeh, associate director of the Leon Levy expedition, has restored the motifs on the basis of contemporary parallels from ancient Persia in the drawings which he produced. Dr. A. Eran staff metrologist, identified the weight as one karsha, a Persian unit equal to 10 shekels.
8. Diodorus Siculus, Bibliotheca historia (Library of History), transl. C.H. Oldfather, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1933), Book 1.83.2; 84.5; 83.5–6.
9. For a general survey of ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean healing deities, such as Gula and Asklepios, see Hector Avalos, “Illness and Health Care in Ancient Israel: A Comparative Study of the Role of the Temple (Ph.D. dissertation, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 1991), chs. 1–2. Dr. Avalos translated the neo-Assyrian text.
10. Diodorus, Bk. 1.83.2.
11. See, for example, Nina Jidejian, The Story of Lebanon in Pictures (Araya, Lebanon: Imprimerie Catholique, 1985), pp. 150–151.
12. Corpus Inscriptionum Semiticarum (CIS) 86.
13. CIS 89–90.
14. H. Donner and W. Röllig, Kanaanäische und Aramäische Inschriften, 34 (Weisbaden: Harrassowitz).
15. W.F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (Garden City, NY Doubleday, 1968), pp. 148–150.
16. CIS, I.10. In Job 6:4, Job laments that the “arrows of the Almighty” are in him and that he “drinks their poison.” Just before, Resheph appears in rather thin disguise—when Job’s friend Eliphaz says, “Man is born to trouble as surely as the ‘sons of Resheph’ [usually translated ‘sparks’ or ‘birds’] fly upward,’ (Job 5:7). That firebrands were meant seems likely from Psalm 76:4 (English 76:3), where God “breaks the burning arrows (risûpeqesûet), the shield, the sword and the weapons of war.” And in Habakkuk 3:5, Yahweh the Divine Warrior marches forth with two angels of death in his vanguard: “Before him Pestilence (Deber) marched. Plague (Resheph) went forth at his feet.” See William F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods, p. 186; Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1973), pp. 102–103.
17. William J. Fulco, The Canaanite God Resûep, (New Haven, CT: American Oriental Society, 1976), pp. 49–54; Walter Burkert, Greek Religion, transl. John Raffan (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1985) pp. 145–147. See also his Homo Necans: The Anthropology of Ancient Greek Sacrificial Ritual and Myth, transl. Peter Bing (Berkeley, CA Univ. of California Press, 1983), p. 39, note 19. For survival of older cults in Hellenistic-Roman Palestine, including that of Resheph-Mukol, see David Flusser, “Paganism in Palestine” in The Jewish People in the First Century, ed. S. Safrai and M. Stern (Philadelphia Fortress, 1976), vol. 2, p. 1070.
18. James Pritchard, The Ancient Near East in Pictures (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2nd ed., 1969), no. 487.
19. Howard Clark Kee, Miracle in the Early Christian World (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1983), p. 85.
20. A. Van den Branden, “Notes pheniciennes,” Bulletin du Musée de Beyrouth 13 (1956), pp. 92–95; “Elenco delle spese del tempio di Cition, CIS. 86A e B,” Bibliotheca Orientalis 8 (1966), pp. 257–259.
21. For an excellent analysis of this difficult text, see Brian Peckham “Notes on a Fifth-Century Phoenician Inscription from Kition, Cyprus (CIS 86),” Orientalia 37 (1968), pp. 304–324, and especially p. 317 for a critique of the identification of klbm and grm with cultic prostitutes.
22. McGuire Gibson, “Nippur, 1990: The Temple of Gula and a Glimpse of Things to Come,” Oriental Institute Annual Report (Chicago: Oriental Inst. Press, 1990), pp. 17–26.
23. A. Livingstone, “The Isin ‘Dog House’ Revisited,” Journal of Cuneiform Studies 40 (1988), pp. 54–60.
24. J. Boessneck, “Die Hundeskellete von Isan Bahriyat (Isin) aus der Zeit um 1000 v. Chr.,” in B. Hrouda, et al. (eds.) Isin—Isûan Bahriµyaµt I: Die Ergebnisse der Ausgrabungen 1973–1974 (Munich: Bayerische Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1977), pp. 97–109.
a. Ashlars are well-cut masonry in the shape of a cube.
b. We have not yet assigned site-wide strata numbers to the various phases within local grids (100 meters by 100 meters). Phase numbers apply only within each grid. The phase numbers are not necessarily the same from grid to grid, although eventually we may determine they are part of the same stratum.
c. An amphora (sing., AM-fo-ruh) is a large storage jar.
d. The Book of Isaiah was written by different prophets at different times. Chapters 1–39 are pre-Exilic; that is, before the Babylonian Exile. The remainder (chapters 40–66) is post Exilic; it is attributed either to an anonymous Second Isaiah (deutero-Isaiah) or, in the opinion of some scholars, chapters 40–59 to Second Isaiah and chapters 60–66 to Third Isaiah (trito-Isaiah).
e. As we shall see in Part III, there were other Phoenician deifies and their cults, such as Tanit and her temple, which persisted right on through Roman times, sometimes under a new Greek or Latin name.
Lawrence E. Stager
Lawrence E. Stager is Dorot Professor of the archaeology of Israel at Harvard University, director of the Harvard Semitic Museum and director of the Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon. He previously appeared in these pages with “Child Sacrifice at Carthage”Religious Rite or Population Control?” BAR 10:01 (coauthored by Samuel R. Wolff), and “The Song of Deborah”Why Some Tribes Answered the Call and Others Did Not,” BAR 15:01, for which he won the Fellner Award for the best BAR article of 1989.
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