The name appears in Hebrew as דגון (in modern transcription Dagon, Tiberian Hebrew Dāḡôn), in Ugaritic as dgn (probably vocalized as Dagnu), and in Akkadian as Dagana, Daguna usually rendered in English translations as Dagan.
In Ugaritic, the root dgn also means grain: in Hebrew dāgān, Samaritan dīgan, is an archaic word for grain, perhaps related to the Middle Hebrew and Jewish Aramaic word dgnʾ 'be cut open' or to Arabic dagn 'rain-(cloud). The Phoenician author Sanchuniathon also says Dagon means siton, that being the Greek word for grain. Sanchuniathon further explains: "And Dagon, after he discovered grain and the plough, was called Zeus Arotrios." The word arotrios means "ploughman", "pertaining to agriculture".
The theory relating the name to Hebrew dāg/dâg, fish, based solely upon a reading of 1 Samuel 5:2–7 is discussed in Fish-god tradition below.
The image of Dagon is a subject of discussion for scholars. The notion that Dagon was a god whose upper body was that of a man and the lower body that of a fish has been prevalent for decades. This notion that Dagon was represented in iconography and statuary as part fish in Philistia proper is not supported entirely by coins found in Phoenician and Philistine cities. In fact, there is no evidence in the archaeological record to support the theory that Dagon was thusly represented. Various 19th century scholars, such as Julius Wellhausen and William Robertson Smith, believed the tradition to have been validated from the occasional occurrence of a merman motif found in Assyrian and Phoenician art, including coins from Ashdod and Arvad. H. Schmökel asserted in 1928 that Dagon was never originally a fish-god, but once he became an important god of those maritime Canaanites, the Phoenicians, the folk-etymological connection with dâg would have ineluctably affected his iconography.
Whatever the image, a varying perception of Dagon developed around the Mediterranean. Dagon is sometimes associated with a female half-fish deity, Derceto or Atargatis, often identified with Astarte.
Rashi records a tradition that the name Dagôn is related to Hebrew dag/dâg 'fish' and that Dagon was imagined in the shape of a fish: compare the Babylonian fish-god Oannes. In the thirteenth century David Kimhi interpreted the odd sentence in 1 Samuel 5.2–7 that "only Dagon was left to him" to mean "only the form of a fish was left", adding: "It is said that Dagon, from his navel down, had the form of a fish (whence his name, Dagon), and from his navel up, the form of a man, as it is said, his two hands were cut off." The Septuagint text of 1 Samuel 5.2–7 says that both the arms and the legs of the image of Dagon were broken off.
Dagon is also sometimes identified with Matsya, the fish avatar of Vishnu, who jumped into the ocean to fight a demon. A statue in Keshava temple in Somnathpur, India depicts Matsya as a fish from the waist down. The fish form may be considered as a phallic symbol as seen in the story of the Egyptian grain god Osiris, whose penis was eaten by (conflated with) fish in the Nile after he was attacked by the Typhonic beast Set. Likewise, in the tale depicting the origin of the constellation Capricornus, the Greek god of nature Pan became a fish from the waist down when he jumped into the same river after being attacked by Typhon.
The god Dagon first appears in extant records about 2500 BC in the Mari texts and in personal Amorite names in which the gods Ilu (El), Dagan, and Adad are especially common. Dagan is mentioned occasionally in early Sumerian texts but becomes prominent only in later Akkadian inscriptions as a powerful and warlike protector, sometimes equated with Enlil. Dagan's wife was in some sources the goddess Shala (also named as wife of Adad and sometimes identified with Ninlil). In other texts, his wife is Ishara. In the preface to his famous law code, King Hammurabi calls himself "the subduer of the settlements along the Euphrates with the help of Dagan, his creator". An inscription about an expedition of Naram-Sin to the Cedar Mountain relates (ANET, p. 268): "Naram-Sin slew Arman and Ibla with the 'weapon' of the god Dagan who aggrandizes his kingdom." The stele of Ashurnasirpal II (ANET, p. 558) refers to Ashurnasirpal as the favorite of Anu and of Dagan. In an Assyrian poem, Dagan appears beside Nergal and Misharu as a judge of the dead. A late Babylonian text makes him the underworld prison warder of the seven children of the god Emmesharra.
At Ebla (Tell Mardikh), from at least 2300 BCE, Dagan was the head of the city pantheon comprising some 200 deities and bore the titles BE-DINGIR-DINGIR, "Lord of the gods" and Bekalam, "Lord of the land". His consort was known only as Belatu, "Lady". Both were worshipped in a large temple complex called E-Mul, "House of the Star". One entire quarter of Ebla and one of its gates were named after Dagan. Dagan is called ti-lu ma-tim, "dew of the land" and Be-ka-na-na, possibly "Lord of Canaan". He was called lord of many cities: of Tuttul, Irim, Ma-Ne, Zarad, Uguash, Siwad, and Sipishu.
An interesting early reference to Dagan occurs in a letter to King Zimri-Lim of Mari, 18th century BCE, written by Itur-Asduu an official in the court of Mari and governor of Nahur (the Biblical city of Nahor) (ANET, p. 623). It relates a dream of a "man from Shaka" in which Dagan appeared. In the dream, Dagan blamed Zimri-Lim's failure to subdue the King of the Yaminites upon Zimri-Lim's failure to bring a report of his deeds to Dagan in Terqa. Dagan promises that when Zimri-Lim has done so: "I will have the kings of the Yaminites [coo]ked on a fisherman's spit, and I will lay them before you."
In Ugarit around 1300 BCE, Dagon had a large temple and was listed third in the pantheon following a father-god and El, and preceding Bail ?apan (that is the god Haddu or Hadad/Adad). Joseph Fontenrose first demonstrated that, whatever their deep origins, at Ugarit Dagon was identified with El, explaining why Dagan, who had an important temple at Ugarit is so neglected in the Ras Shamra mythological texts, where Dagon is mentioned solely in passing as the father of the god Hadad, but Anat, El's daughter, is Baal's sister, and why no temple of El has appeared at Ugarit.
There are differences between the Ugaritic pantheon and that of Phoenicia centuries later: according to the third-hand Greek and Christian reports of Sanchuniathon, the Phoenician mythographer would have Dagon the brother of El/Cronus and like him son of Sky/Uranus and Earth, but not truly Hadad's father. Hadad was begotten by "Sky" on a concubine before Sky was castrated by his son El, whereupon the pregnant concubine was given to Dagon. Accordingly, Dagon in this version is Hadad's half-brother and stepfather. The Byzantine Etymologicon Magnum says that Dagon was Cronus in Phoenicia. Otherwise, with the disappearance of Phoenician literary texts, Dagon has practically no surviving mythology.
The Phoenician inscription on the sarcophagus of King Eshmun'azar of Sidon (5th century BCE) relates (ANET, p. 662): "Furthermore, the Lord of Kings gave us Dor and Joppa, the mighty lands of Dagon, which are in the Plain of Sharon, in accordance with the important deeds which I did."
Dagan was sometimes used in royal names. Two kings of the Dynasty of Isin were Iddin-Dagan (c. 1974–1954 BCE) and Ishme-Dagan (c. 1953–1935 BCE). The latter name was later used by two Assyrian kings: Ishme-Dagan I (c. 1782–1742 BCE) and Ishme-Dagan II (c. 1610–1594 BCE).
In Biblical texts and commentaries
The Tell-el-Amarna letters (about 1480-1450 B.C.), which have yielded the names of Yamir-Dagan and Dagan-takala, rulers of Ascalon, witness to the antiquity of the Dagon-worship among the inhabitants of Palestine. We learn from the Bible that the deity had temples at Gaza (Judges 16:21, 23) and Azotus (1 Samuel 5:1-7); we may presume that shrines existed likewise in other Philistine cities. The Dagon-worship seems even to have extended beyond the confines of their confederacy. The testimony of the monuments is positive for the Phœnician city of Arvad; moreover, the Book of Josue mentions two towns called Bethdagon, one in the territory of Juda (Joshua 15:41), and the other on the border of Aser (Joshua 19:27); Josephus also speaks of a Dagon "beyond Jericho" (Antiq. Jud., XIII, viii, 1; De bell. Jud., I, ii, 3): all these names are earlier than the Israelite conquest, and, unless we derive them from dagan, witness to a wide dissemination of the worship of Dagon throughout Palestine. This worship was kept up, at least in certain Philistine cities, until the last centuries B.C. — such was the case at Azotus that stood there was burned by Jonathan Machabeus (1 Maccabees 10:84; 11:4).
The account in 1 Samuel 5.2–7 relates how the ark of Yahweh was captured by the Philistines and taken to Dagon's temple in Ashdod. The following morning they found the image of Dagon lying prostrate before the ark. They set the image upright, but again on the morning of the following day they found it prostrate before the ark, but this time with head and hands severed, lying on the miptan translated as "threshold" or "podium". The account continues with the puzzling words raq dagôn miptān , which means literally "only Dagon was left to him." (The Septuagint, Peshitta, and Targums render "Dagon" here as "trunk of Dagon" or "body of Dagon", presumably referring to the lower part of his image.) Thereafter we are told that neither the priests or anyone ever steps on the miptan of Dagon in Ashdod "unto this day". This story is depicted on the frescoes of the Dura-Europos synagogue as the opposite to a depiction of the High Priest Aaron and the Temple of Solomon.
The vita of Porphyry of Gaza, mentions the great god of Gaza, known as Marnas (Aramaic Marna the " Lord"), who was regarded as the god of rain and grain and invoked against famine. Marna of Gaza appears on coinage of the time of Hadrian. He was identified at Gaza with Cretan Zeus, Zeus Krêtagenês. It is likely that Marnas was the Hellenistic expression of Dagon. His temple, the Marneion, was burned by order of the Roman emperor in 402, the last surviving great cult center of paganism. The sanctuary's paving-stones, upon which it had been forbidden to tread, were used by the Christians to pave the public marketplace.
Two textual sources that mention Dagon, and rulers and towns bearing his name merit note. The Bible and the Tel-el-Amarna letters made such mention. During the course of the establishment of the Israelite monarchy (ca 1000 BCE), the Philistine nation became the primary enemy of Israel. Due to this situation, Dagon is mentioned in passages such as Judg. 16:23-24, I Sam. 5, and I Chr. 10:10. Beth Dagon was a town in the land captured by the Israelites mentioned in Josh. 15:41 and 19:27, thus preserving the namesake of the deity. The Tel-el-Amarna letters (1480-1450 BCE) also mention the namesake of Dagon. In these letters, two rulers of Ashkelon, Yamir Dagan and Dagan Takala, were entered. Despite any debate over the subject, it is apparent that Dagon was at the apex of the Philistine pantheon. He commanded religious reverence from both the Philistines and the broader Canaanite society. Dagon was indeed crucial to the cosmology of the Philistines and a vital force in their individual lives.
- 1 Sam 5:2-5
- Judg 16:23-24
... Next came one Who mourned in earnest, when the captive ark Maimed his brute image, head and hands lopt off, In his own temple, on the grunsel-edge, Where he fell flat and shamed his worshippers: Dagon his name, sea-monster, upward man And downward fish; yet had his temple high Reared in Azotus, dreaded through the coast Of Palestine, in Gath and Ascalon, And Accaron and Gaza's frontier bounds.
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