Misreading Melville

I make it a practice not to discuss books I’m still reading on this blog.  There’s no reason I shouldn’t, I suppose, but it just feels like cheating getting more than one post for a book.  Besides, there’s so much other stuff to blog about!  I’ll make an exception this time, because it involves an unusual typo.  Well, it’s not so much unusual as it is apt.  In chapter 82 of Melville’s classic, Moby Dick, “The Honor and glory of Whaling,” he discusses the mythical history of whaling.  In typical Melvillian style, he takes mythical stories to support his contention of how honorable whaling is.  After Perseus and St. George and the dragon, he mentions the curious biblical episode of Dagon and the ark of the covenant, found in 1 Samuel 5.  It’s here that my edition has a typo.  Melville writes “this whole story will fare like that fish, flesh, and fowl idol of the Philistines, Dagon by name” but my edition reads “Dragon by name.”

Image credit: Vignette by Loutherbourg for the Macklin Bible 12 of 134, via Wikimedia Commons

My very first academic publication was on this story about Dagon (I had intended to write my dissertation on that deity).  I had no idea of H. P. Lovecraft’s appropriation of Dagon at that point.  The interest was purely based on the fact that you couldn’t find much information on this curious god.  It was clear that he was well known among ancient cultures of West Asia.  He was attested at Ugarit, specifically as the father of Baal.  (Both would later be assumed to be demons.)  Further east, he was apparently a fairly major deity in Mesopotamian religions, although we are still awaiting a readable synthesis of that massive corpus of texts and the religions toward which it points.  In other words, Dagon is mysterious.  Lovecraft likely picked him up from the biblical story.

The tale in 1 Samuel is provocative.  After defeating Israel, the Philistines (who would eventually give Palestine its name) took the ark to the temple of Dagon as spoils.  The image of their god fell face-down before the ark overnight.  Disturbing as this was, the next morning after they’d replaced him, Dagon was again tumbled but also decapitated and with his hands broken off.  That meant his body was all that was left.  Somewhere along the line the name Dagon (close to the Hebrew word for “fish”) was interpreted as a maritime entity.  This seems unlikely, given what we know of his origins, but the idea stuck, leading to some compelling horror fiction.  Dagon does indeed become a kind of dragon in that realm.  My edition of Moby Dick has a typo that we today would blame on autocorrect, but in reality was likely the result of a copyeditor not knowing his or her Bible as well as Melville did.


“Has anybody seen my god?” So we might imagine an ancient victim of godnapping wailing after a hostile takeover raid. We might smirk to ourselves, knowing that gods only really come in paper or plastic. The only godnapping that goes on these days is when someone hacks our credit card number. These were my thoughts when a friend sent me a link from ASOR’s website, “‘Godnapping’ in the Ancient Near East” by Shana Zaia. Stories of godnapping are known from the Bible, like where the Philistines defeat the Israelites and take the ark of the covenant to the temple of Dagon. It’s easy to congratulate ourselves in this post-theistic age that we’ve developed more spiritualized versions of deities to disbelieve. At least we didn’t believe some hunk of wood was an actual god. We at least had a person nailed to it.

I used to ask my students what the difference between an “idol” (not the American variety) and a “god” was. The usual understanding is that an idol was made out of something like wood or metal. The ancients weren’t so naive, however, as we suppose them to have been. Before any carven or graven image could be considered a “god” it would have to undergo a ritual to make it one. Elaborate ceremonies attended the process in which even ancient sophisticates realized that this piece of rock or wood wasn’t actually the fullness of the deity it represented. It was a symbol. A symbol invested with power, to be sure, but a symbol nevertheless. What was an “idol” then? Merely a modern way of degrading another religion. “Idol” can never be a neutral term.


Imagine the ark of the covenant in the temple of Dagon. It was a box overlaid with gold, on top of which sat cherubim. Two of them. Images, but not “idols.” Inside, depending on what passage you read, you might find the original ten commandments, a jar or manna, or Aaron’s rod. Or all three. You might find nothing inside. The point was in the power of the symbol. Godnapping was a real fear in ancient times. A deity captured left its people vulnerable to the whims of others. Today we may rely on the high priests of encryption to keep our divine numbers safe from those who hack at the new idols. Gideon, after all, was the original hacker, and we all know how he ended up. Those who destroy others gods often fall into worshipping them once the hewing is done. The only question left is if one prefers paper or plastic.

Philistines in Midtown

It’s an old story. In fact, it’s in the Bible. The enemies of Yahweh perish. Since Israel’s god could not be represented iconically, the story goes, an iconic ark stood in for the divine presence. After a certain unpleasantness with the Philistines, the ark was captured and taken to the temple of Dagon. There, the statue of Dagon fell down in worship before the ark. Philistine priests, embarrassed for their deity, set the statue upright again only to come back the next morning to find their god not only toppled, but decapitated. I’ve always found this story intriguing. I wrote an academic article about it some years ago, which, as far as I can tell, has been ignored by subsequent scholars of Dagon. Of course, the Philistine god eventually went on to fame at the hands of H. P. Lovecraft. Today most scholars are far too parsimonious to care about that, so I’m left to follow my imagination when it comes to the old gods.


This past week, on my way to work, I spied a mannequin fallen in the Garment District. There used to be hundreds of fabric stores around here. I’m always interested in those that remain. Cloth is so basic to human needs. The mannequin was behind glass, behind a chain fence. She’d clearly fallen in the night. She was decapitated. Of course, Dagon came to mind. I’m sure that others walking by the store had the same thought. Fallen before the invisible almighty, an idol meets its end.

Once upon a time, I’m told, biblical literacy was common. I don’t mourn its passing because I believe society has become sinful, but I do mourn it because the stories are timeless and important. There is something very poignant about the idea of a foreign deity falling, headless, before an even more powerful, invisible foe. That foe these days is the equally omnipresent and omnipotent dollar. After all, I am standing in Midtown Manhattan where the only language that everyone can speak is that of Mammon. Writers of fiction and erudite scholars beyond the reach of mere mortals ponder the great mysteries of ancient gods. The rest of us walk the streets to our assigned places so that we may participate in its endless worship.

Rocket Cats


A few weeks ago the Internet’s attention was captured (if such a thing is possible) by rocket cats. Apparently the brain-child of sixteenth-century artillery expert Franz Helm, the story raised outrage and some giggles and then faded from view. In a recent Chronicle of Higher Education, however, the issue jetted back to life in an academic forum. The article by Steve Kolowich helpfully pointed out that the idea isn’t exactly new. My regular readers know that I advocate for animal rights and I believe most animals are far more intelligent than we deign to admit. In other words, I consider this an inherently bad and distasteful idea. Nevertheless, to look at it academically—Steve Kolowich was referring to the fact that the manuscript, being digitized from Penn University’s library, had been known previously. It went viral when the Associated Press decided to make something of the story. The Internet took an old idea and made it current.

The idea goes like this: a city is under siege and you’re getting impatient. What to do? Strap incendiaries to cats and birds and send them into the city that is guarded against human-sized invaders. Although this does have an evil genius quality to it, I wonder if Franz Helm didn’t get the idea from the good, old Bible. In the commentary on the rocket cats I’ve seen, nobody is giving credit where credit is due. Samson, according to Judges, was fond of the ladies. Not just any ladies, but Philistines in particular. Prior to his wedding he set a riddle for the Philistines to solve and when they pressed the bride-to-be for the answer, Samson ended up owing the Philistines a fair bit of cash. Samson simply killed some Philistines, took their goods, and paid those he owed. Meanwhile, his father-in-law supposed, reasonably enough, that Samson no longer loved his daughter, and gave her to another. In a fit of rage, Samson caught three hundred foxes, tied torches between they tails of each pair, and sent them out to burn up the crops in the field. Substitute city for field and you have Helm’s idea. With steampunkish add-ons.

In an era when the Bible is treated as increasingly irrelevant, the media (and scholars) frequently overlook how important it was to people in the past. You might even say it was inspirational. Despite all that, I’ve met a fair number of clergy who’ve never read the whole thing (it is a big book, after all) and meddlesome laity like yours truly often point out the more uncomfortable aspects of scripture. But even Samson may have to give a nod to the Hittites. Before Israel showed up on the scene, the Hittites, if i recall correctly, had figured out that it you sent a diseased donkey into an enemy’s city, the contagion would do the gruesome work for you, killing of people and well, the donkey was dead anyway. There was no Internet to spread the idea, but it was quite literally viral. Ancient manuscripts can teach us quite a lot, if we can take our eyes from the more questionable bits long enough to read the rest.

Son of Stone Flies

One of my favorite comic books growing up was Turok, Son of Stone. We couldn’t afford as many comics as our friends, but among brothers we’d share our resources and get a fair variety of reading material. Turok belonged to my older brother. It felt so ancient and sophisticated, tinged with primal urgency as Turok and Andar attempted to make their way from the Lost Valley where dinosaurs daily threatened their existence. The comics had a gravitas that even The Valley of Gwangi lacked. In one installment, a scroll-keeper joined Turok and Andar and claimed his sacred scrolls would show them the way free of this accursed valley. Turok doubted this and was rebuffed with “Fools scoff at what they don’t understand!” as their erstwhile companion decisively re-rolled his scrolls for storage in a handy leather pouch.

One pilgrim's progress

That image comes back to me when I think of how ancient writers sometimes used ridicule to castigate competing religions. It even happens in the Bible. A friend recently inquired into the figure of Baalzebub, the famous “Lord of the flies.” The Bible attributes worship of such a deity to the Philistines, the popular pagan foil of the children of Israel. The Philistines, as we know today, were a sophisticated group of Indo-European settlers on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean who showed up about the same time as the early Israelites were emerging from their “Canaanite” milieu. Since they didn’t practice circumcision and didn’t worship Yahweh, the Philistines were shackled with the worship of ineffectual fish-and-insect deities. (Dagon would never regain his proper significance until he was rediscovered by H. P. Lovecraft many centuries later.)

A different pilgrim's progress

With the discovery of the Ugaritic tablets, the common usage of the term zbl (let’s say zebul, so it can be pronounced) was clarified. Zebul commonly designed “prince.” One of the recipients of this honored title was the deity formerly known as Baal. Baal-Zebul, “Prince-Lord,” the great thunderer Hadad. From the sketchy evidence of Philistine religious practice, it seems the new-comers did adopt some of the gods of their new land, and perhaps among them the lordly Baal. In order to disparage the cafeteria choice of their neighbors’ gods, a biblical writer renamed Baal-Zebul, Baal-Zebub, Lord of the Flies. There have been other explanations for the title, but the lessons learned from our youngest days often furnish our adult interpretative lenses. This explanation makes sense to me, and it reminds me of a bit of wisdom from Turok, Son of Stone.

Our Mother Who Aren’t in Heaven

In the course of preparing to teach a course on Classical Mythology, I have been reading up on the Minoan culture of ancient Crete. This fascinating civilization is obviously related to many others in the Ancient Near East, but it has such a distinctive ethos that it always gives me pause. The Minoans had a religion that was apparently dominated by a great mother-goddess. Decades ago astute archaeologists and historians demonstrated that the amorphous “mother goddess” of antiquity was a modern construct rather than an ancient reality, but the evidence still stands that at least the Minoans revered the sacred feminine.

The work of Marija Gimbutas had overstated the case for a matriarchal society in antiquity, but she had touched on a truth sometimes obscured by the patriarchal world of yesteryear — some cultures did venerate the divine mother. Among the cruel ironies of history the name of this goddess has been lost, but images of a secure island with its chthonian female divinities remain. Among the artifacts discovered among the various Philistine sites in the Levant was an inscription, apparently dedicated to Asherah. Asherah is a thoroughly Semitic deity, first appearing in Mesopotamian contexts further to the east. The Philistines, however, likely settled their region after migrating from Crete a few centuries after the collapse of the Minoan culture. Could they have brought with them a remembrance of the divine mother?

I am not convinced by arguments that suggest a polymorphous “mother goddess” reigned in antiquity, as much as I might wish it had been so. What a different world might have emerged if monotheism had been based on a divine mother! Minoan culture appears to have been strong but relatively peaceful. In one of the androcentric twists of history “Cretan” and “Philistine” have come into modern usage as derogatory slurs against good taste and refinement. History demonstrates, however, that apart from foreign biases those hailing from ancient Crete may have developed the superior civilization of antiquity.