• J. W. Barlament

The Temple of Ba’al and Astronomy in the Ancient World

Just this year, a new discovery made it even clearer that astronomy is about to revolutionize archaeology.

The island-city of Motya, just off the coast of Sicily, was once a powerful and prosperous Phoenician city-state that came under the influence of Carthage before its sudden destruction by the Greeks in 398 BC. Since the 19th century, the island has been known for its archaeological treasures and monumental architecture. A large Phoenician complex on the south side of the island, centered around a rectangular artificial body of water connected to the sea by a wide channel, has been known since the 1920s.

Until recently, it was thought that because of said connecting channel, the site was used as some kind of harbor. This, then, with no evidence but lots of martial imagination, was declared to have been a military harbor, and that interpretation stuck for a hundred years until the reexamination of Dr. Lorenzo Nigro of the Sapienza University of Rome. Over a decade of study, he determined first that the channel extending only exists now due to the site’s erosion; originally, the rectangular body of water was a pool isolated from the sea. And originally, in the middle of that pool, there stood a statue of the god Ba’al.

Sacred pools are a well-known phenomenon from the ancient Near East. They appear in Egypt, like the Karnak Temple Sacred Lake, built by Pharaoh Thutmosis III and dedicated to the god Amun, and can be found as far north as Turkey, like the Pool of Abraham in Urfa, worshiped by Jews and Muslims in the modern day but just next to which a statue from around 8000 BC was discovered, meaning the site itself as a sacred place is likely much older. This site being a sacred pool for the worship of Ba’al, then — already well-known as the chief god of the Phoenicians and the later Cathaginians in the form of Ba’al Hammon — isn’t that shocking.

But a simple statue wasn’t the only discovery made by Dr. Nigro. The pool wasn’t just a sacred pool. It was a sacred astronomical observatory.

The pool, of course, didn’t stand on its own, but as the centerpiece of a larger complex. In this complex was found an astrolabe — an ancient astronomical measurement tool — which led Dr. Nigro to try and envision the entire (walled and circular) complex as a sort of astronomical vault, or replica of the celestial sphere. This isn’t at all unheard of — the Dendera Zodiac of Hellenistic Egypt similarly maps the celestial sphere onto a smaller surface — but for it to make up an entire temple complex is impressive nonetheless. Astronomy and astrology were important to ancient pagan religions. But just how much?

labeled map of the Motya temple complex (image by Sapienza University of Rome)

Well, according to the newly-released research, the complex at Motya includes right beside the pool a temple, dubbed the “Temple of Ba’al”, the entrance of which is oriented 110° on an azimuth circle (jargon for east-southeast). This happens to be the exact position where the constellation Orion rose in that era and place on the day of the winter solstice. A temple on the other side of the complex, meanwhile, is oriented 200°, south-southwest, where Venus would rise in the summertime, with said temple’s main room facing straight toward Mount Eryx and the city of the same name, famed for its temple of the Phoenician goddess Astarte (equated with Greek Aphrodite and Roman Venus).

We have no shortage of ancient sources listing throwaway associations between different deities and heavenly bodies. But to align their very temples with said bodies seems to imply that the associations here of Ba’al-Orion and Astarte-Venus were not throwaways, but instead primary attributes of said deities. A statue, too, found elsewhere in the complex corroborates this; a dog-headed baboon, symbol of the Egyptian god Thoth, god of language, math, measurement, and astronomy. Not a surprising find for a supposed observatory, but the evidence doesn’t end there.

In the complex — which, if we’ll remember, is theorized here to represent the celestial sphere — two stelae, seemingly facing again the point of Orion’s solstice rising, mark the exact points on the projected celestial sphere where we’d find the stars Sirius and Capella (both nearby Orion, the first- and sixth brightest stars in the night sky, respectively). And with that, the dog-headed baboon, the astrolabe, the temple of Venus and alignment with Orion, we can very confidently call this an astronomical religious complex.

The point is this: the pagan religions of the ancient world didn’t merely “associate” their gods with the stars. They very literally worshiped the stars, planets and constellations as deities in and of themselves. And those deities live on.

800 words into this, it’s natural to beg the question why any of this is in any way important. So, simply put, it’s important because it holds hidden implications for the world’s two largest religions and over half of the world’s population.

dramatized statue of Moloch from 1914 Italian film “Cabiria” (image by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra on WikiCommons)

Let’s rewind. The Carthaginians, Phoenician descendants just like the builders of Motya, worshiped as their chief god Ba’al-Hammon. Some linguists think “Hammon” is a translated version of the Egyptian “Amun”, whose sacred pool we covered earlier; others think it a reference to one place or another in Phoenicia (modern Israel, Lebanon or Syria), but no translation is clear. What is clear is that many inscriptions have been found from Phoenicia dedicated to a seemingly equivalent “El-Hammon”, including the Phoenician Sphinx Inscription, dedicated to a certain “Milk’ashtart El-Hammon”.

This “Milk’ashtart” is to be found, as far as I can tell, nowhere else in the archaeological record other than the Phoenician (later Roman) city of Leptis Magna in modern-day Libya. Here, a wealth of evidence depicts Milk’ashtart as a Phoenician patron god of the city, who the Romans later equated as “Milk’ashtart Hercules”. Which, I swear, is important, because not only may the “Ashtart” be a reference to Astarte, Ba’al’s consort who was probably Phoenicia’s most significant goddess, but a theory by Biblical scholar Edward Lipinski posits the name “Melqart”, universally equated by the Greeks with their Heracles, to be an evolution of the name “Mīlk-Qārtī”, or “King of the City”.

Let’s piece this together. We have evidence of Ba’al as Orion, equated with Ba’al-Hammon and El-Hammon, as “El” refers in the ancient Levant to any of several chief gods, including both Ba’al and Yahweh. The mysterious god Milk’ashtart, meanwhile, is equated variously with both El-Hammon and Roman Hercules, possibly also being a reference to his consort Astarte, while the very similar name Mīlk-Qārtī is thought to be the origin of the name Melqart, accepted by the Greeks as the Phoenician equivalent of their Heracles. And, not to mention, Heracles has a huge wealth of independent associations with the constellation Orion. We can therefore make the following equation; Ba’al-Hammon-Heracles-Orion. And this god, so common in the ancient Near East and Mediterranean, seems to be in several varied forms the same basic god battled by the followers of Yahweh in the Old Testament. Should I have mentioned the “Mīlk” is one potential origin of the name “Moloch”, that great enemy of Yahweh in the Book of Leviticus.

Now, there’s a whole other can of worms to be opened on whether the “El” title and Ba’al’s well-attested function as the weather god is enough to claim that he and Yahweh (worshiped by the Patriarchs by the name El) both arose from the same, even older, chief deity. But without even delving in that, the significance of Ba’al as Orion should be clear.

From this, we can uncover a whole web of clues that all point to the same conclusion; many of the ancient Near East’s most important gods came from the same basic source and were united by the same unchanging thread, and that source, and that thread, was the constellation Orion.