Bayt-ˀĒl (Baetylus, Bethel, Abaddir)



  1. Baetylus and Greek mythology
  2. Baetylia in ancient Phoenicia
  3. Bayt-ˀĒl and Phoenician mythology
  4. Baetyl worship in two Greek inscriptions
  5. Baytˀēl in Phoenician-language sources?
  6. Baytˀēl and ˤAnat-Baytˀēl in Assyrian treaties
  7. Baytˀēl and related gods in Aramaic sources from Egypt
  8. Bethel in the Bible and its readers
  9. Abaddir
  10. Problems with the scholarly category of ‘betyls’

1 Baetylus and Greek mythology

Who or what is Baetylus (gr. Baítylos)? Hesychius’ Lexicon says, “the stone given to Kronos instead of Zeus was called so.“ Aelius Herodianus gets more vivid: “Baetylus is the stone which Kronos swallowed” (De prosodia catholica, ed. Lentz, Grammatici Graeci, vol. 3.1, p. 163).

The story is known to anyone who has read Hesiod’s Theogony: Kronos, knowing he would be dethroned by his own offspring, swallowed each of his children by Rhea, until she hid the youngest and gave him a stone to swallow instead. Zeus grew up in secret and avenged his siblings by overthrowing his father.

Hesiod never names the stone, yet the appellation ‘Baetylus’ clearly had at least a marginal presence in the later tradition of the myth. One summary of the story goes: “Kronos, having (received) an oracle from Earth, protected himself against plots by his male (offspring). But when Rhea gave birth to Zeus, she gave him a swaddled stone, which he swallowed, and later vomited. And they say that it was brought to Delphi, where to this day, it is called Zeus’ [unintelligible word], and by some, Baetylus. But the infant, Rhea exposed beside the Dictaean mountain” (Scholia on Aratus 30–33). The stone in question is “the so-called Omphalos (‘navel’) made of white stone” (Pausanias, Description of Greece 10.16.3), the supposed midpoint of the Earth.

The name Baetylus was even proverbial. The saying “Would you eat even Baetylus?”, explains one of the great proverb collections, was applied “to those who are too gluttonous. Baetylus is the swaddled stone which Kronos swallowed instead of Zeus” (Apostolius, Collection of Proverbs 9.24).

So, if not from Hesiod, or any other poet for that matter, where does this name come from? The explanation repeated by all the Etymologica is certainly wrong linguistically (if perfectly satisfactory as mythology): “It was called this because Rhea gave it to Kronos wrapped in the skin (baítē) of a goat.” The same is true of that in the Rhetorical Glosses edited by Bekker, which connects it to týlos, ‘lump’ (Anecdota Graeca, vol. 1, p. 224).

2 Baetylia in ancient Phoenicia

A better path starts from an entry in the Lexicon ascribed to Zonaras, which reads, “Baetylus: a stone that occurs around the Lebanon, the mountain of Helioupolis (=Baalbek)”, and also from Damascius’ Philosophical History, in which this Neoplatonic philosopher “says that (the philosopher) Asclepiades went to the mountain of Lebanon by Helioupolis, and saw many of the so-called baitýlia or baítyloi. […] At a later time, (Damascius) himself and Isidore saw them” (Photius, Bibliotheca, cod. 242, 342b).

Happily, Photius excerpts the passage about Damascius’ own experiences more fully. These were gathered on Mount Lebanon too, it seems, when he and his teacher Isidore met with Eusebius, a man from Emesa (now Homs) in Syria, east of Mount Lebanon: “…” (Photius, Bibliotheca, cod. 242, 348ab).

Εἶδον, φησί, τὸν βαίτυλον διὰ τοῦ ἀέρος κινούμενον, ποτὲ δ‘ ἐν τοῖς ἱματίοις κρυπτόμενον, ἤδη δέ ποτε καὶ ἐν χερσὶ βασταζόμενον τοῦ θεραπεύοντος. Ὄνομα δ‘ ἦν τῷ θεραπεύοντι τὸν βαίτυλον Εὐσέβιος, ὃς καὶ ἔλεγεν ἐπελθεῖν αὐτῷ ποτε ἀδόκητον ἐξαίφνης προθυμίαν ἀποπλανηθῆναι τοῦ ἄστεος Ἐμίσης ἐν νυκτὶ μεσούσῃ σχεδὸν ὡς πορρωτάτω πρὸς τὸ ὄρος αὐτό, ἐν ᾧ τῆς Ἀθηνᾶς ἵδρυται νεὼς ἀρχαιοπρεπής· ἀφικέσθαι δὲ τὴν ταχίστην εἰς τὴν ὑπωρείαν τοῦ ὄρους, καὶ αὐτόθι καθίσαντα ἀναπαύεσθαι ὥσπερ ἐξ ὁδοῦ· σφαῖραν δὲ πυρὸς ὑψόθεν καταθοροῦσαν ἐξαίφνης ἰδεῖν, καὶ λέοντα μέγαν τῇ σφαίρᾳ παριστάμενον· τὸν μὲν δὴ παραχρῆμα ἀφανῆ γενέσθαι, αὐτὸν δὲ ἐπὶ τὴν σφαῖραν δραμεῖν ἤδη τοῦ πυρὸς ἀποσβεννυμένου καὶ καταλαβεῖν αὐτὴν οὖσαν τὸν βαίτυλον, καὶ ἀναλαβεῖν αὐτόν, καὶ διερωτῆσαι ὅσου θεῶν ἂν εἴη, φάναι δ‘ ἐκεῖνον εἶναι τοῦ Γενναίου (τὸν δὲ Γενναῖον οἱ Ἡλιουπολῖται τιμῶσιν ἐν Διὸς ἱδρυσάμενοι μορφήν τινα λέοντος), ἀπαγαγεῖν τε οἴκαδε τῆς αὐτῆς νυκτὸς οὐκ ἐλάττω σταδίων δέκα καὶ διακοσίων, ὡς ἔφη, διηνυκώς. Οὐκ ἦν δὲ κύριος ὁ Εὐσέβιος τῆς τοῦ βαιτύλου κινήσεως, ὥσπερ ἄλλοι ἄλλων· ἀλλ‘ ὁ μὲν ἐδεῖτο καὶ ηὔχετο, ὁ δὲ ὑπήκουε πρὸς τὰς χρησμῳδίας.

Ταῦτα ληρήσας καὶ πολλὰ τοιαῦτα, ὁ τῶν βαιτυλίων ὡς ἀληθῶς ἄξιος, τὸν λίθον διαγράφει καὶ τὸ εἶδος αὐτοῦ. Σφαῖρα μὲν γάρ φησιν ἀκριβὴς ἐτύγχανεν ὤν, ὑπόλευκος δὲ τὸ χρῶμα, σπιθαμιαία δὲ τὴν διάμετρον κατὰ μέγεθος· ἀλλ‘ ἐνίοτε μείζων ἐγίνετο καὶ ἐλάττων. Καὶ πορφυροειδὴς ἄλλοτε. Καὶ γράμματα ἀνεδίδαξεν ἡμῖν ἐν τῷ λίθῳ γεγραμμένα, χρώματι τῷ καλουμένῳ τιγγαβαρίνῳ κατακεχρωσμένα, καὶ ἐν τοίχῳ δὲ † ἐγκρούσας †· δι‘ ὧν ἀπεδίδου τὸν ζητούμενον τῷ πυνθανομένῳ χρησμόν, καὶ φωνὴν ἀφίει λεπτοῦ συρίσματος ἣν ἡρμήνευεν ὁ Εὐσέβιος.

Τερατολογήσας οὖν τὰ εἰρημένα ὁ κενόφρων οὗτος καὶ μυρία ἄλλα παραλογώτερα περὶ τοῦ βαιτύλου, ἐπάγει· «Ἐγὼ μὲν ᾤμην θειότερον εἶναι τὸ χρῆμα τοῦ βαιτύλου, ὁ δὲ Ἰσίδωρος δαιμόνιον μᾶλλον ἔλεγεν· εἶναι γάρ τινα δαίμονα τὸν κινοῦντα αὐτόν, οὔτε τῶν βλαβερῶν, οὔτε τῶν ἄγαν προσύλων, οὐ μέντοι τῶν ἀνηγμένων εἰς τὸ ἄϋλον εἶδος οὐδὲ τῶν καθαρῶν παντάπασι».

Τῶν δὲ βαιτύλων ἄλλον ἄλλῳ ἀνακεῖσθαι, ὡς ἐκεῖνος δυσφημῶν λέγει, θεῷ, Κρόνῳ, Διί, Ἡλίῳ, τοῖς ἄλλοις.

*Damascius explains in the Philosophical History that the Syrians and Phoenicians call Kronos by the names Ēl (ˀl), Bēl (bˤl) and Bōlathēs (bˤl-?).

But Damascius, in the 6th century CE, is not the first to introduce the concept of baetylia into Greek writing. The material quoted before was almost certainly all first compiled before his time, and already his 5th-century CE predecessor, the Neoplatonist Proclus, was aware of them, as we learn from Psellus: “Proclus the philosopher reports that some of these (pagan) cult statues happened to be diopetê (‘fallen from Zeus/from the sky’), when somewhere above, in the (region of) air, ineffable matter solidifies and is sent down to the Earth again, as for instance, across Phoenicia, they have retrieved the baetylia” (from Psellus, Theologia 47).

In fact, already in the 1st century CE, Pliny the Elder, quoting an earlier Greek author Sotacus, tells us that of the ceraunia stone, “those which are black and round are sacred; cities and fleets can be defeated through them; they are called baetyli” (Natural History 37.135).

In short, in multilingual Phoenicia, a Greek word baítylos or baitýlion was consistently in use over the centuries to designate certain stones, supposedly fallen from the sky, which were sacred to the gods, and somehow agential.

3 Bayt-ˀĒl and Phoenician mythology

When or by whom this word was transferred to Greek mythology is unclear, but what is clear enough is that it was borrowed from Phoenician, a language or dialect closely related to Hebrew, since recognizably the same word appears in both, as well as in Aramaic (which either shared or borrowed it from Phoenician/Hebrew). In the consonantal scripts used for these languages, it was written as bytˀl, representing BaytˀĒl. The pronunciation was however subject to some variance, so that the Hebrew word was transliterated as Baithēl (hence Latin and English ‘Bethel’), the Phoenician as Baityl(os). (Cf. Neo-Punic ylim, ‘god’.)

In the Hebrew context (to be discussed below), this name is taken as ‘dwelling of God/El’, who in Judaism is of course none other than Adonāy. In Phoenician, by contrast, ˀēl may have been taken in its generic sense, ‘a god’, since we can see that there were such ‘dwellings of a god’ not only for Ēl (gr. Kronos), but also other gods.

Besides, among the Phoenicians, Baetylus was also seen as a god in his own right (presumably having a specially close relationship to the baetylia). Thus, in the Greco-Phoenician author Philo of Byblos (2nd cent. CE), Baetylus is named as one of four sons of Heaven and Earth, alongside Ēlos-Kronos, Dagōn, and the obscure ‘Atlas’ (as quoted in Eusebius, Preparation for the Gospel 1.10.16). Philo also mentions separately that “the god Heaven breathed into baetylia, stones designed (to be) ensouled” (Preparation for the Gospel 1.10.23). The parallelism between genealogy and invention narrative is hardly accidental.

4 Baetyl worship in two Greek inscriptions

After the literary sources, there are also two interesting Greek inscriptions to consider. The first was set up by a Roman soldier from Phoenicia: “to the ancestral god Zeus Baetylus (Bétylos) of those towards the Orontes” – a river in modern Lebanon – “Aurelius Diphilianus, a soldier of legion IV Scythica Antoniniana, set this up (fufilling) his vow” (SEG 7:341). Presumably, we can understand Zeus Baetylus as the god Baetylus mentioned in Philo.

Another Greek inscription, from Kafr Nabu near Aleppo, and from the year 224 CE, has given rise to some bizarre interpretations: “To Seimios, Symbetylos and Leōn, the ancestral gods, this olive-press together with its entire equipment, from the proceeds of the gods overseen by Numerius, Verio, Darius and Claudius the evocatus, as well as Antonius and Sopater the marble workers” (IGLSyr 2 376). The first thing that strikes the reader is the strongly Roman character of this inscription, with four out of six names being Roman (the other two Greek), and one of these persons even being identified through a Roman title.

Despite this, researchers have preferred to think of this not as a fascinating instance of hyper-localized religion practiced by strongly Hellenized and Romanized people, but as a local expression of fundamentally unchanging Semitic religion. Thus, Seimios, despite the lack of any evidence to suggest it, becomes explained as Baal; Symbetylos, again for no discernible reason, is taken as his spouse, a “fertility goddess” such as Atargatis; and Leōn, ‘the Lion’, is not simply a third god but part of a “triad”, identical with the Gennaios mentioned by Damascius. This is all shamefully baseless.

We do not know who Seimios was, other than a local god. We can guess that he was worshipped in the form of a baetylium, because Symbetylos (= Symbaitylos) means ‘(god) of the baetyl (worshipped) with him’ (i.e., with Seimios), but even this is hardly certain; as for the gender of the deity Symbetylos, it is entirely unknowable unless further evidence emerges. The identification of the Lion with Gennaios is at least plausible, but very far from certain. We also cannot say with certainty whether he was worshipped as part of a triad with the other two, as such fixed constellations are in actuality rarer and often less definite than scholars make them out to be.

All we really get from these inscriptions, in short, is confirmation of the worship of Baetylus in Phoenicia, and an example of baetylia being worshipped in Syria.

5 Baytˀēl in Phoenician-language sources?

Baytˀēl is not attested in the literature of Ugarit (composed in so-called Ugaritic, an early form of Phoenician), at least in what has come down to us (see Marvin H. Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts, pp. 59–60). I have not yet found mentions of the god in any other Phoenician-language sources either, but this may be due to my own unfamiliarity with the relevant scholarship. Whether attested or not, in light of Philo of Byblos’ writing (based on primary sources in Phoenician and Aramaic), there can be no doubt that there once were Phoenician-language works about Baytˀēl.

6 Baytˀēl and ˤAnat-Baytˀēl in Assyrian treaties


7 Baytˀēl and related gods in Aramaic sources from Egypt

No doubt the most important surviving sources relating to our god come from Egypt, specifically from Papyrus Amherst 63, a book written in the Egyptian Demotic script, but recording sacred poetry in the Aramaic language.

According to the analysis of Karel van der Toorn, this liturgical book represents an Aramaic-speaking community that came together out of refugees or migrants from Samaria (principally worshipping Adonāy), from Babylonia (revering Nabû and Nanay), and from the land of Rash around the city of Hamath (in the West of modern Syria). This latter community’s central god was our god, Baytˀēl. These communities found a new home in Palmyra (where the chief deity was Bōl [=Baˤl]), as van der Toorn plausibly argues, and formed a shared group identity – while to some extent also retaining their distinctiveness, it seems. In the wake of the collapse of the Assyrian empire (late 7th century BCE), they jointly migrated to Egypt, where they kept their ancestral traditions alive for centuries, scrupulously preserving their liturgies. Papyrus Amherst 63 is from the 4th century BCE at the earliest, and as noted is written in an Egyptian script; yet, as van der Toorn points out, the whole book contains not a single Egyptian loanword.

[Elephantine & Hermopolis, esp. Pap. Amherst 63 (columns 6 to 11; after?). Hamath.
Scepticism of supposed syncretisms.]

8 Bethel in the Bible and its readers

[Genesis 31. Augustine and other (Jewish!) commentaries.
Jer. 48:13]

9 Abaddir

[Latin sources: Priscian, Hermeneumata, Mythographus Vaticanus I, Augustine: Abaddires]

10 Problems with the scholarly category of ‘betyls’