Baˤlat Gubal (Lady of Byblos)

Category: FrameworksCanaanPhoenician Gods

1 Introduction

The Lady of Byblos was, as her name suggests, regarded as the patron goddess of the Phoenician city of Byblos. Over the course of history, she was also given various other names, but ‘Lady of Byblos’ is her primary appellation, as Anna Elise Zernecke has shown in her remarkable article, The Lady of the Titles: The Lady of Byblos and the Search for her “True Name” (in: Die Welt des Orients 43 [2013], pp. 226–242).

Her name Phoenician consists of the word bˤlt, ‘owner, ruler, lady’, and gbl, ‘Byblos’. In Phoenician, the collocation of these words was probably vocalized as Baˤlat Gubal.

Through long-standing mercantile connections between Byblos and Egypt, the Lady of Byblos – nbt kpn in Egyptian – was identified as the Egyptian goddess Hathōr, and in fact ‘Lady of Byblos’ becomes a common title of the goddess in Egypt, at least until the end of the New Kingdom period (Zernecke, The Lady of the Titles, p. 228). Afterwards, there seems to have been a shift to equating her with more particularly with Hathōr-Isis, or simply Isis.

These Egyptian connections are not incidental, but provided the basis of the local iconography of the goddess, at least at certain times. In the Achaemenid period, the Lady of Byblos carried the “iconographic elements traditional of Hathor-Isis: the crown with horns and the sun, and also the sceptre” (Zernecke, ibid.).

In the Armarna letters of the 14th century BCE, when Canaan was under Egyptian imperial control, we also see what Byblians called their goddess in Akkadian, namely Bēltu ša Gubla, ‘Lady of Byblos’ (spelled ᵈNIN ša ᵘʳᵘgub-la), or simply Bēltu, ‘Lady’ (see Zernecke, p. 241).

In the 1st/2nd-century CE Greek-language writer Philo of Byblos, the goddess’ name is shortened to ‘Lady’, Hellenized as Baaltís. This cannot represent the full Phoenician form Baˤlat– directly, but probably the Aramaic Baˤlt(h)ī, ‘My Lady’. This is the name of the goddess in later Aramaic (specifically Syriac) texts; at least one Syriac text also uses the cognate Mesopotamian theonym Balthī (derived from Akkadian) in reference specifically to the goddess of Byblos, probably reflecting an awareness that the two words were semantically/etymologically equivalent, and a belief that they referred to the same goddess.

Philo of Byblos, alongside his Hellenization Baaltis, also offers a translation, Dione; this is less an identification with the Greek Dione than a linguistic analogy: as Baˤlat, ‘Lady’, is to Baˤl, ‘Lord’, so the feminine Dione is to the masculine Zeus (gen. Dios), grammatically speaking.

Lucian, by contrast, another Roman imperial-period writer, gives her the Greek name of ‘Byblian Aphrodite’. The divergence is explained by their different frames of reference: for Philo, ancient Canaanite literature; for Lucian, contemporaneous myths and beliefs (see following two sections).

2 Pan-Phoenician mythology

In Philo of Byblos (drawing on a now lost Phoenician-language work by Sanchuniathon of Byblos), the Lady is incorporated into a comprehensive mythological framework as a daughter of Heaven. When Heaven (gr. Ouranos) is in conflict with his son Ēl (gr. Kronos), who banishes him, he sends his daughters Astarte (gr. Aphrodite), Rhea (=ˀAšerah?) and Baaltis (gr. Dione) to kill Ēl. But he instead catches them, marries all three of them, and has several children with each. After he has stabilized his rule, he gives Baaltis the city of Byblos, which he had previously founded as the first city in the world.

In Ugaritic literature, the Lady of Byblos is not present, and it is likely she had no established place in pan-Phoenician mythology, leading Sanchuniathon to attempt to give her one. If, at any rate, it had been the prevailing opinion that the Lady and Astarte were sisters, it would be rather odd that they are sometimes identified. Rather, it seems that Astarte was a pan-Phoenician goddess, worshipped across the different cities, while the Lady was the preeminent local goddess at Byblos. Worshippers could regard her as a separate goddess alongside Astarte, but also treat ‘Lady of Byblos’ as the local title of the more widely worshipped deity.

3 Byblos and the myths of Adonis and Osiris

It is questionable whether the integration of the Lady into the old Canaanite genealogy of the gods would still have mattered to most Phoenicians in Philo’s time, as Greek mythology was increasingly the primary point of reference for divine genealogy across the Roman empire. Not that local myths disappeared; but they were recontextualized into the Greek framework (the full flowering of this can be found in Nonnus’ Phoenician books).

This development also took place in the case of the myth of Aphrodite and Adonis, which had come to the Greeks from Syria (which, in the broaders sense, includes Phoenicia). Although some ancient sources do call the goddess of this myth Astarte, it seems that in Aramaic, the common spoken language of Phoenicia and all of Syria in the Roman imperial period, the story was most often told about the goddess Baˤlthī, ‘My Lady’, and Tammuzā (=Adonis). In the first instance, this may actually reflect influence from the East, as the Assyrians told variants of the story about Balthī (also meaning ‘My Lady’, but linguistically derived from Akkadian Bēlti rather than connected to Canaanite Baˤlat). But regardless, by the time that our sources about the Byblian myth of Baˤlthī-Aphrodite set in, they have become embedded into a Greek intellectual landscape.

Firstly, Lucian, an Assyrian Greek-language writer of the 2nd century CE, in his monograph On the Syrian Goddess, begins with a survey of prominent sanctuaries of Syria (again including Phoenicia). Among them he lists the temple of Astarte at Sidon; this goddess, he argues, is none other than the Moon, albeit others identify her as Europa. Briefly after this, he passes to the temple of Byblian Aphrodite, at Byblos of course, “the site of the mysteries of Adonis” (On the Syrian Goddess 6).

From the translation of Strong and Garstrang (source off-site): “They assert that the legend about Adonis and the wild boar is true, and that the facts occurred in their country, and in memory of this calamity they beat their breasts and wail every year, and perform their secret ritual amid signs of mourning through the whole countryside. When they have finished their mourning and wailing, they sacrifice in the first place to Adonis, as to one who has departed this life: after this they allege that he is alive again, and exhibit his effigy to the sky”.

Lucian also mentions a temple of Aphrodite on Mt Lebanon (On the Syrian Goddess 9). According to a scholiast on Aeschylus, “they say Phoenicia is sacred to Aphrodite because of Byblos and Mt Lebanon” (Scholia on Suppliants 555).

The “thing that was done (τὸ ἔργον) to Adonis by the boar” was familiar to Lucian’s Greek readers in something like this form: Aphrodite is married to Ares; she has an affair with Adonis; being a mortal, Ares transforms into a boar and kills him; since then, laments are held for him every year. As Lucian indicates, the local Byblians were aware and approved of these stories. This seems to be confirmed by later versions in Syriac (a dialect of Aramaic), which also feature Ares under his Greek name, alongside other deities who bear indigenous names. These tellings are preserved by Christians, and describe the gods as historical humans, but this layer of Euhemerist interpretation is relatively superficial.

In Pseudo-Meliton,

In Theodore bar Konai,

In Bar Bahlal,

[Bar Konay + Pseudo-Melito + Bar-Bahlal. Exact spellings of all these names.
[Stephanus: Byblou kai Aphrodites]
[early evidence of Baalat+Adon-?]

[Stephanus: Byblos (=Eustathius? = Etymologicum Magnum? = Scholia in Dionys. 912)]

Lucian ch. 7; tell ch. 8 in the Adonis page?

“From of old, (the Egyptians) have worshipped Isis, who has Osiris as her brother and husband, the one who was slain by his own brother Typhon; and because of this, Isis fled with her son Horus to Byblos in Syria, seeking (the corpse of) Osiris, bitterly lamenting, until Horus grew up and killed Typhon” (Aristides, Apology 12.2).

[Plutarch, On Isis and Osiris 357]

4 Identification with Astarte, or nested spheres of reference

Anna Zernecke writes, “[a] small modell of a clay throne dated to the 4th century BCE – the empty throne being an element of the iconography of Astarte known from other
places – has a bilingual inscription in Greek and Phoenician” (The Lady of Titles, p. 231). The Greek inscription runs “To Astarte, the Greatest Goddess” (the same title is used of Astarte in Philo of Byblos), while the Phoenician says “To the Lady of Byblos”. Why, we might ask, would someone choose to have a translation into Greek at all if, on the one hand, the “Greek” name is still Phoenician but, on the other hand, this “Phoenician” name does not precisely represent the original Phoenician?

Put this way, no satisfying answer can probably be given, but the fact that the empty throne is iconographically linked to Astarte suggests a different question: why, in worshipping Astarte in a way that was already legible in both Phoenician and Greek, did our devotee choose to add the seemingly superfluous tag “To the Lady of Byblos”? And the answer to this is that local religion and translocal religion are not two different religions, but two (or more) horizons within which a single religious action may be located. By linking the two inscriptions as they are, the worshipper was venerating their local city goddess, the Phoenician deity par excellence (Astarte), and the greatest goddess of all at the same time. None of these frames of reference is primary over the others, but they deepen each other’s significance.