28 February 2010

The Unknown God of Palmyra

A new altar, freshly dug up (left), was dedicated in the Palmyrene language "to the One Whose Name Is Blessed Forever". An offering to an unnamed god who was -- and remains -- unknown.

It doesn't look like much as it comes out of the ground but, flip it around 180°, and you have the upper part of an inscribed altar (compare the complete altar, below left, also dedicated to the so-called Anonymous God, now in the Istanbul Museum).

These altars are half-columns with a very small bowl, only large enough for burning incense, while altars dedicated to other gods have space for the sacrifice of bigger and different kinds of offerings (even a garlanded bullock, as pictured at bottom left).
You can see just such an incense offering in the famous fresco from the Temple of the Palmyran Gods in Dura Europos (below, dated ca. 230 C.E.): An officer named Julius Terentius leads the soldiers of the XXth Palmyrenes, a cohort of mounted archers stationed on the Euphrates, in a ritual of bloodless sacrifice. He burns incense in honour of the three cult statues of gods dressed in military costume (Yarhibol, Aglibol, and Arsu), ranged on their pedestals on the upper left side of the fresco. Beside Terentius is the standard bearer of the cohort with the troop colours and, next to him, a seated goddess who wears the mural (city) crown: an inscription identifies her as the gad (Tyche/Good Fortune) of Palmyra.*

So, this is a picture of an incense sacrifice offered to known and individually depicted divinities that took place within the official sanctuary of the Palmyran gods.

All clear and above board.

Whose name is blessed forever, the merciful and good

Worship of the 'Anonymous God' is entirely different. First of all -- and no small matter in a polytheistic religion -- the "one whose name is blessed forever" is never pictured (at least, no image is ever shown attached to this formula). His altars are small incense burners like the one just found by the Italian archaeologists. Hundreds of such altars appear as early as the first century C.E. all over Palmyra. Most are dedicated "to the one whose name is blessed forever". Further epithets are "Lord of the World" or "of Eternity", and "the good and merciful one". Sometimes, the person making the dedication explains that he gives the altar "Because he called upon [the god] and he has answered him.

Why do people bring incense to a god not known to them by name?

Here's why two brothers (named Zabdibol and Moqimu) dedicated an altar to the nameless god in December 188 C.E.:

In thanksgiving every day, Zabdibol and Moqimu, sons of Gadda ... [dedicate this altar] to the merciful, the good and compassionate [god] for the well-being of themselves and of their sons and all their house.**
Nameless he may be, but he has all the best features of a named god -- mercy, compassion, goodness. By dedicating this incense burner and the act of burning incense, the brothers are expressing both their gratitude and honouring the deity.

The cult of this so-called 'Anonymous God', did not take place in any known sanctuary; he had no temple of his own nor did he inhabit the temple of any other god. Rather, the hundreds of small altars dedicated to him could be set up virtually anywhere in the city.

And by almost anyone, it seems: there are incense burners gifted by the city and paid for out of treasury funds -- and it runs right down the social scale to a man identified as a 'butcher' or 'cook' and to dedications made by freed slaves. That may be why nearly all of these dedications are written only in Palmyrene (fewer than 5% are bilingual [Palmyrene and Greek***] compared with about half of the major honorific inscriptions from statue bases and columns).

Some altars are even offered by women. Because the role of women in public life was restricted at Palmyra, the nameless god can best be considered as belonging primarily in the private sphere of religion. This is a god who listens, too, to an individual's prayers -- because he called upon him and he has answered him. That response establishes a personal relationship between the god and his worshippers, a relationship, they hope, that extends to their immediate family. In this sense, they mean 'their house' as almost a residential (rather than genealogical) term.

So it is no great surprise that, among the very first finds from the new middle-class quarter of the city (the South-West Quarter , which we wrote about last week), the Italians uncovered an altar dedicated to the Anonymous God. Still, however personal this worship came to be, a great number of the altars dedicated to the nameless god were found in or near the Efqa spring -- one of the most sacred places in Palmyra from ancient times. There was definitely a need, too, to publicize the worshipper's relationship with the nameless god.

What could be the reason so many men and women worshipped a god not identified by name?

Unknown and Nameless Gods

It may be a case of a foreign god whose name and image is unknown.

At least for the Greeks and Romans who wrote about it, the god of the Jews fits this description. For polytheists, the Jewish god was an unknown god because he could not be called by name and had no image even in the innermost recess of his unapproachable sanctuary in Jerusalem. A god without a name and without an image is an unknown god. Since an unknown or anonymous god is also attested in pre-Islamic Arabia, the nameless god of Palmyra might be thought of as a quasi-monotheistic Semitic trait.

Or it could be a god about whose identity one is in doubt. In ancient religions, it was of great importance to know the right name of the deity. If you erred in invoking the god's name, he might be offended -- with possibly dire consequences. This is a widespread and very ancient fear. Sinuhue, the hero of an early Egyptian tale (ca. 1800 BCE), flees for his life to a foreign country; alone in this strange land, he pleads, "O god, whosoever you are who has decreed this flight, have mercy and bring me home." The same invocation is found in Homer (Od. V 455), "Hear Lord, whoever thou art!"

Ten centuries later, an ancient Roman prayer begins, "Dis Pater, Veiovis, Manes, or by whatever other name it is allowed to address you.... (Macrobius, Saturnalia, III, 9, 10). Even at Athens, altars were erected to placate the unknown god responsible for bringing a plague -- and thus the logical one to end it; as witness St Paul (Acts of the Apostles 17:23):

Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in all things ye are too superstitious. For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship
Another reason might be that the god is unknown to outsiders but has been revealed to insiders and whose name should not be mentioned to the non-initiated. Complex processes of concealment and revelation are pivotal in the life of many mystery cults. Just like images or objects will only make sense in initiate cults if you have some kind of mental key (which is why we don't understand them), the god's true name will never be known to the profane. Is the turning away from blood sacrifice in the worship of the Anonymous God a sign of such exclusiveness, possibly in opposition to the animal sacrifices celebrated in the temples?

Of course it is imaginable, too, that the Anonymous God is an illusion. His dedications may be indirect ways of referring to a god who is otherwise known. Some think that the Anonymous God is 'really' Baal-Shamin, with whom he shares his main titles (e.g. "Lord of Eternity"); others see him as Yaribol, the ancestral god of Palmyra and protector of the Efqa spring, where so many of his incense burners were found. In any case, the Palmyrans had no difficulty dealing with two 'supreme gods' (Bel and Baalshamin; both 'Zeus' in Greek) whose jurisdictions must have overlapped a good deal. So there's no reason that they couldn't call the same god by different names or titles on various offerings.

Yet there remains something strange about the Anonymous God. While his worshippers must have travelled to places like Dura Europos and further abroad, his cult -- unlike those of other Palmyran gods -- did not travel with them. This implies a strong sense of localism: he always remained close to home, a personal and familial deity. Although his altars were set up in public places, very few of his dedications were translated into Greek. So, what his cult may have offered was not the ritual assertion of civic pride but a strong sense of local identity. Was he, in fact, a middle-class, and hopelessly parochial god?

When the Italians finish excavating the South-West Quarter, we should know a lot more about this unknown god.

We'll just have to sit tight and wait.

* The word gad frequently appears in Palmyrene inscriptions. It can mean 'luck' or 'good fortune' but usually refers to the protector deity of the city, i.e. the gad of Palmyra.

** The Palmyrene formula
appears in such invocations as 'for the life of X and the lives of [his] sons. I find this phrase awkward in English so I used the slightly less accurate Greek equivalent of 'well-being'.

***Translated as Zeus and/or Theos Hypsistos (God Most High), a divine title common among pagans, Jews and Christians.

I have made use of the following resources: K. Dijkstra, Life and Loyalty: a study in the Socio-Religious Culture of Syria and Mesopotamia, Leiden, 1995; L. Dirven, The Palmyrenes of Dura-Europos: a study of religious interaction in Roman Syria, Leiden, 1999; J. Elsner, "Cultural Resistance and the Visual Image", Cl. Phil. 96, 2001, 260-304; P.W. van der Horst, Hellenism, Judaism, Christianity: essays on their interaction, Leuven, 1990; T. Kaizer, The Religious Life of Palmyra, Mainz, 2002.


Top left: University of Milan: Progetto Palmira Archeologia

Centre: Fresco of Julius Terentius from the so-called Temple of the Palmyran Gods, Research on Dura-Europos, University of Leicester website

Middle left: Altar dedicated to the 'Nameless god' (Istanbul Archaeological Museum), via BiblePlaces

Bottom left: Fresco depicting Elijah making sacrifice on Mt Carmel, from the synagogue at Dura Europos, via Wikimedia (wrongly labelled as 'worshipping the gold calf").


  1. Joe in Australia1/3/10 23:03

    The exact same formula ("l'khayey Mr Smith and Mr Jones and Mr Jones' children and ...") is used today in synagogues to honor people who make donations after receiving a communal honor. This is very funny.

  2. Hi Judith, I looked for your book on Amazon but it isn't currently available. Is it still available for purchase?

  3. Sadly, Zenobia is out of print. It's best to look for a copy on ebay or your local equivalent. If you don't find one, I still have some copies (but postage is rather expensive if you are in the USA). Write me, if needed, at judith@judithweingarten.com

  4. Thank you for this publication. I would like to ask for better picture of this inscription. I work on the meaning of formula "He whose name is blessed forever" in Palmyra-this is my Ph.D. dedication.

  5. Hi 'Archeola', I suggest you write to the excavator of the altar for a picture of the inscription, maria.teresa.grassi@unimi.it

  6. If you don't find one I still have some copies (but postage is rather expensive if you are in the USA

  7. Th3e legend of Zenobia is now a musical play:


    As part of the cast of the play, I would invite everyone to see our WORLD PREMIERE in August & September:
    Thursday, August 15th 8pm
    {FREE WORLD PREMIERE for the annual Bolingbrook Jubilee)
    Friday, August 30 8pm
    Saturday, August 31 8pm
    Sunday, Sept 1 7:30pm


Blog Archive