I have wanted to write about the matter of Daesh and their hostile takeover of the ancient city of Palmyra for days, but I have not been able to write about it. Summer solstice, a time of celebration for many, was the day I heard the worst of the news so far about the ancient Temple of Baʽal Shamem (Belshamin). No polytheist wants to hear of the planting of mines in an ancient temple to a god on summer solstice. The news descended upon me like a cloud of lead—heavy, inescapable, overwhelming. I fasted, and I tried to write a post on this matter, but the words just couldn’t come. Even now, the horror of the matter claws me from within.
I sputter with anger and sadness. I’d like to go off on a tangent of how reprehensible these excuses of “human beings” are. I’d like to curse and spit. I can’t find the words to describe the depths of my shock and horror, and the depth of my shame for the lows of this small segment of “humanity.” I’d like to express that this late moment is the alarm claxon blaring. Our ancient polytheist ways have been under threat for a very long time, and they are even more so today. We would do well to look steadily at this tableau as it plays out in Syria and see it for the dire warning it is.
I would also like to point out that sometimes the “bad guys” aren’t just a few angry people with explosives. People who deface and desecrate sacred sites come in all forms, even the seemingly harmless happy party goers at Stonehenge who left piles of garbage over celebrations of past solstices. Happy with trash or angry with explosives, the different situations still result in the disrespect and the violation of sacred places, and this destructiveness absolutely must stop.
As a devotional deed, I shall try to devote these next pixels to something more constructive and talk a little about at least one of the gods whose temple now has explosives mines in it. The Near Eastern gods are covered far less than the European, Hellenic, Roman, and Egyptian gods in the revival of polytheisms today, so I thought it might be helpful to lend some context to the gods in Palmyra, centering on Baʽal Shamem.
Because Semitic languages are quite different from English, names get put into English letters in various different spellings; and if you compound the changes in spellings and pronunciations over time, you’re going to end up with many various ways of spelling the same name. Baʽal Shamem’s name can also appear as Bal Samen, Baʽal Shamayim, Baʽal Shamin, Baalshamin, and Beelsamin. His name literally translates as Lord of Heavens. The beauty of the word shamem, or shamayim is that it represents heavens, plural. There’s an idea in Hebrew of shamayim and mayim, heavens and waters. The words are deliberately put into a dual-form, a plural form which indicates two of something, a pair, to symbolize that the heavens and waters are paired with one another. The waters of the skies and the skies of the waters: each expanse mirrors the other. It is as if there are technically “two waters” referenced, that of the above and that of the below.
Baʽal Shamem is a Lord of the Heavens; he’s not exactly a “storm god” although his sphere of influence sometimes includes this—he embraces far more than this.
Most people are unfamiliar with Near Eastern gods and think that there is one weather god named Baʽal. However, there is not one baʽal but many, and they aren’t all weather gods or even primarily sky gods. The word baʽal means “lord,” and this is a title, not a name. There are many, many gods who bear this title of baʽal. Most local areas had their own baʽal. Mountains and cities especially have their own local baʽal. It’s a tongue-in-cheek joke among Canaanite polytheists that “Canaanites have baʽals!” Because of this misunderstanding of the nature of the word “baʽal,” people often tend to think mistakenly that all baʽals are the same Baʽal and that they are all weather gods. They’re not.
For instance there is a Baʽal Sidon, Lord of the city of Sidon, who is likely Eshmun, a god of healing. There is a Baʽal Khammon of Carthage, who name means Lord of the Many—he, too, is a different baʽal. Most of the time when people mention “Baʽal” they are probably thinking of Baʽal Hadad, Lord Thunderer, the storm god who appears throughout Near Eastern polytheisms throughout time, and who is the chief god present in the ancient Ugaritic tales as the smiter of the sea god Yammu and as victorious over Motu the god of death. Baʽal Shamem, however, is a different god than Baʽal Hadad, is a different god from Baʽal Sidon, and is a different god from Baʽal Khammon.
Baʽal Shamem, provided there aren’t many different Ba’al Shamems throughout time and throughout the regions, seems to have seen his worship spring up earliest in Anatolia as a specific deity starting around 1000 BCE but may have been around earlier. Anatolia was in the area we know today as the country of Turkey. The worship spread into Phoenician cities of Tyre, Byblos, and Qedesh—the Phoenicians have Canaanite ancestry, and this area spans mostly through Lebanon and Israel. His worship spread to Cyprus, and also to Carthage (in north Africa, modern-day Libya and Tunisia), and eastwards into Nabatean culture, an ancient northern Arabian people. If you’ve ever watched the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: when Indy, Henry Jones, and Sallah are riding through that formidable crevice and catch site of an dazzling ruins built right into a rock face—that place is Petra, a Nabataean city. Indeed the Nabateans in some areas called upon Baʽal Shamem in curses meant to protect graves.
In Palmyra, the Lord of Heavens was honored alongside Bel, Aglibol, and Malakbel. Bel is the Babylonian god Marduk who became incorporated into the Palmyran pantheon. Bel is a god of magic, wisdom, water, vegetation, and judgment. Aglibol is a moon god, while Malakbel is a sun god whose name literally translates as King-Lord. The elegance of Baʽal Shamem is that, being the heavens, he spans the spaces between Aglibol the moon and Malakbel the sun. In a popular image from Palmyra, this is exactly how the triad is pictured: with Aglibol and Malakbel flanking either side of Baʽal Shamem. In the hierarchy of Palmyran gods, it appears that Bel and Baʽal Shamem were of greatest importance in Palmyra.
In other areas, Baʽal Shamem also carries the title Lord of the World, while in other places he carried the epithet Creator of the Earth. In some areas, Baʽal Shamem carries a connection not just to the heavens, but also solar qualities as well, and in times of drought he also serves as a god of rains and dew. He is also known as an establisher of wisdom for people.
The temples where Baʽal Shamem and Bel were worshipped in Palmyra are in an area built around 131 CE, so about 1,884 years ago. Bel, too, has a temple in Palmyra and this temple is probably also mined with explosives right now. I would highly suggest that in any honoring of the gods of the temples of Palmyra be extended to include Bel and probably also Aglibol and Malakbel.
If there is a blessing to be gathered out of the ashes of the wanton acts of evil Daesh has done here, it is that polytheists are gathering together, protesting in solidarity. I hope and I pray that for every temple they threaten, and for every mine they plant in these dusty, dry, decaying ruins, seven more living, new shrines or temples will spring up. As great as our fury is, we may feel drawn to hurl curses upon the heads of those who would threaten these sacred places. I do not say “do not curse them”—by all means, if you feel moved to do so, be my guest—but I firmly think that there are more important things that need doing first and foremost.
We need to nourish, hold, and maintain our polytheist spaces, our holy places, our sacred discourses, our necessary conversations, our holidays, our rites, our offerings, our blessed gatherings. We need to nourish, hold, and maintain these things on behalf of our deities, our ancestors, and each other. And we need to do this far more than any curse or call for vengeance. Indeed, these very acts themselves are revolutionary and the very things that Daesh and others would try to blot out. Do these things first, and then, only then, contemplate curses because vengeance is nothing when there is nothing left to avenge.