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Death and Rebirth Myths: Baal and Dumuzi and the Question of Interpretation

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This is an essay written for my Near Eastern Mythology subject at Melbourne Uni. Needless to say, this subject was right up my alley. Once again, I used this essay partly to investigate one of Joseph Campbell’s theories again – this one concerning his championing of James Frazer’s ‘Death and Resurrection’ mythic archetype. The evidence suggests that Frazer’s methods are out of date but there is once again no real reason not to chose to interpret the myths in this way anyway. In fact, the subject of this essay is really an attack upon those who would somehow claim that one interpretation (or no interpretation) is somehow more ‘scientifically’ valid when we are in fact free to choose.

The theme of death and rebirth appears frequently in myth and literature throughout history. The Mesopotamian myth of ‘Inanna/Ishtar’s Descent to the Underworld’, and the Canaanite myth of ‘Baal and Mot’ have been interpreted as representing this theme, most notably by the influential social anthropologist James Frazer, writing at the turn of the 20th Century. However, in more recent times, some scholars have cast doubt upon the categorization of these myths, suggesting that they represent the theme of a disappearing or merely dying god instead.

In this essay I will examine each of these myths in turn, briefly reviewing their historical context, the reconstructed texts, and the variants we possess. I will then examine the argument for and against the interpretation that these are death-and-rebirth myths and conclude with a consideration of the nature of mythology itself and how this affects the argument. I will argue that while it is of paramount importance to base interpretations upon the archaeological evidence, it is difficult to affirm or deny a particular mythological interpretation over another when the often-incomplete archaeological evidence sustains both interpretations. Furthermore, such disputes, when directed toward interpretations of mythology, concern not differing facts but relatively superficial disagreements over names and definitions.

Ugaritic (Canaanite) Baal

The myth of ‘Baal and Mot’ heralds from a set of texts discovered on the site of the ancient city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra in Syria). The coastal town had its beginnings in the 8th millennium B.C.E. but is best known as a key trading port at the end of the 13th century B.C.E.[1] It is generally considered by historians as part of the ancient land known as Canaan situated approximately in the modern Levant, along the eastern Mediterranean coast, including the lands of modern Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and the coastal regions of Lebanon and Syria.[2] Canaan was inhabited by mainly Semitic peoples divided into a number of different kingdoms or cultures[3] often involved in complicated political alliances.[4] Ugarit was the capital of a kingdom of the same name and Baal-Hadad can be construed as Ugarit’s patron god.[5] Baal was a storm god,[6] often portrayed as king of the pantheon, although he was still acting under the supreme god El.[7] His adversary in this myth is the underworld god Mot, a figure that does not often appear in the texts;[8] he is the personification of the concept of death.[9]

His myth is considered part of a cycle of Baal myths – the earlier parts recount Baal’s battle with the sea god Yam and the completion of his palace.[10] At this point, Baal has a premonition that he is to be swallowed by Mot.[11] Baal and Mot exchange messages; Mot declares he is hungry and invites Baal to visit.[12] The next section is very difficult to interpret. Some scholars suggest that Baal receives instructions from another god.[13] Baal decides to engender a child from a heifer;[14] it is unclear if this is related to the instructions. There now follows the first sizeable lacuna in the text.[15] When the story resumes, Baal’s death is announced to the gods, who find Baal’s body, undertake his burial, and unsuccessfully seek a replacement in king Athtar.[16] The goddess Anat threatens Mot, who admits swallowing Baal. Anat slices, winnows, burns, grinds and sows Mot (like wheat).[17] After another brief lacuna, the god Latipan appears to be having a dream in which he sees that Baal is alive, but El points out that the fields are still parched and destitute.[18] Sun goddess Shapash says she will seek out Baal before the text lapses into another lacuna.[19] Baal has returned when the text resumes. Baal has a final battle with Mot, before the intervention of Shapash results in Mot conceding to Baal.[20]

Variants of myths involving Baal and death or disappearance are fragmentary. T. N. D. Mettinger mentions a version in which Baal is not killed by Mot but by entities called “eaters” or “devourers” – perhaps some kind of beast. Baal’s death results in a drought for 7-8 years.[21] Mettinger suggests that this more simple account of Baal’s death may be an early version, the rebirth element entering the mythology later, perhaps with influence from the Mesopotamian Dumuzi myth.[22]

Mesopotamian Dumuzi

Dumuzi (also called Tammuz) was a vegetation/fertility god of ancient Mesopotamia, one of the earliest high civilizations stretching back as far as the 4th millennium and located between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates in modern Iraq. Unlike Baal, Dumuzi may originally have been an historical king, as the name appears more than once in Mesopotamian king-lists,[23] suggesting at least a legendary background. Like many mythic characters, Dumuzi appears to be a syncretistic amalgam of more localized and earlier god-figures that shared characteristics such as vegetative powers or even just a similar name.[24] Historian Thorkild Jacobsen theorized in the 1970s about the differing Dumuzis, suggesting, for example, a local incarnation for the cowherds – the ‘Wild bull’ Dumuzi[25] – and another for the shepherds of the central grasslands.[26] Both Dumuzis were portrayed as married to Inanna (called Ishtar in the later Akkadian period), a powerful goddess.

Dumuzi’s early death is apparently an integral part of his character, although brought about in various ways depending on the version of the myth.[27] The best-known and most complete extant version we possess is ‘Inanna’s Descent to the Underworld’, a myth initially more concerned with Inanna and her desire to conquer her sister Ereshkigal, goddess of the underworld.[28] Inanna ventures to the underworld but Ereshkigal kills her. The god Enki revives her and Inanna attempts to escape, but she is told that she can only return to the land of the living if she proffers a substitute to remain in the underworld in her stead.[29] Ultimately, it is her husband Dumuzi whom Inanna sends to take her place, displeased with his carousing in her absence.[30] Luckily however, Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinanna makes a deal – she will take Dumuzi’s place in the underworld for half of every year, allowing Dumuzi to rise to the land of the living during that time.[31]

A later version of the story (discovered earlier than the reconstructed version above), written in the Akkadian language, is much briefer and vaguer.[32] In this version, Ereshkigal simply orders Dumuzi brought down to replace Ishtar in the underworld[33] and the ending involving Dumuzi and his sister (here called Belili) is far more obscure. Belili has vengeful thoughts and apparently declares, “when Dumuzi comes up to me… the dead shall come up and smell the smoke offering.”[34] No specific mention is made of the half yearly bilocation.

The Debate

James Frazer in The Golden Bough (1890) considered the dying and reviving god to be an important essential feature of all myth and religion,[35] listing many examples from the Near East, such as Dumuzi, Tammuz, Adonis, Osiris, Attis and Christ.[36] Frazer’s work was certainly influential, although since publication most of his methods and many of his conclusions have been disproved or questioned.[37]

The argument against Frazer’s idea is founded on the view that lumping myths into the death-and-rebirth category often involves making unwarranted assumptions about missing or obscure parts of the recovered text and even overlooking details that contradict the theory. The main counterarguments involve the idea of disappearing deities – who do not die – and dying gods – who do not resurrect.[38] For example, the myth of Telepinu from the Hittite religion furnishes an example of the disappearing deity type. The god Telepinu, wishing to punish his people, disappears. Since Telepinu is a weather/fertility god, this leads to drought and starvation as the crops die in his absence. Eventually a goddess finds where Telepinu is hiding and convinces him to return. Humanity is forgiven and the land is fertile once more.[39]

J. Z. Smith argues that the Baal myth exemplifies a similar motif of disappearance-reappearance rather than death-and-rebirth.[40] He argues that Baal evades death by sending down a substitute to be eaten by Mot. The basis of this ‘substitution’ view seems to be founded on a fragmentary section which appears before the first major lacuna in the text: “He (Baal) loved a heifer in the pasture(s),… he did lie with her… and she conceived and gave birth to a boy. [Mightest] Baal did clothe him with [his robe], [           ] him as a gift for the…”[41] The clothing of the boy in his robes seems to indicate, at least to some, a disguising of the boy to look like Baal.[42] This way, Baal essentially fakes his death with Mot and then disappears, to be rediscovered by the goddess Shapash, presumably narrated in the significant lacuna near the end of the tale.

But Mettinger finds this substitute/disappearance interpretation unconvincing. He argues it is clear that Baal has died: the gods find his corpse, arrange his burial, search for his replacement, and Mot even confesses eating him.[43] Indeed, if a substitution has occurred, it has fooled not only Mot but all of the gods and, while this is not inconceivable, it is remarkable that the extant text nowhere acknowledges their foolishness in being taken in. The most convincing evidence for Baal’s death is that the crops withered,[44] a detail suspiciously absent from retellings of the myth that advocate the substitution theory.[45] Either way, it is difficult to come to a definite conclusion since there are two large lacunas in the text at the crucial sections.

The argument against Dumuzi’s status as a death-and-rebirth god is mostly unconvincing since the reconstruction of the Sumerian version of the myth. The obscurity of the Akkadian version, particularly the ending, led some scholars to question Dumuzi’s return from the underworld. Smith interprets, “when Dumuzi comes up to me” as indicating either the month Dumuzi or he translates ‘comes up to me’ as in ‘greets me’,[46] an interpretation that Mettinger considers unjustified.[47] Some have remarked on the puzzling ritual evidence, which seems to indicate a ritual of mourning for Dumuzi but no reliable accounts of rebirth celebrations.[48] A very convincing piece of evidence for Dumuzi’s conception as a death and rebirth god is found in the reconstructed text of a letter, discussed by Mettinger, from one Yaminite king to another in which the king compares himself to the god: “As for me,” he writes, “look at me. … I escaped from death… ten times during uprising[s]. Why, now, [am I not] like Dumuzi? They kill him, at the [time of] counting the year. [In the spring (?),] he always comes back to the temple of Annunitum […].”[49] I would argue this evidence is particularly convincing as it apparently expresses an actual contemporary interpretation of the myth.

The Nature of Myth

From the examination above, I conclude that it is still appropriate to speak of these stories as death-and-rebirth myths, however, if we take a step back and examine the fundamental question we are seeking to answer, we will discover that the two alternatives are virtually synonymous in all important respects.

As students of history and archaeology, we are interested in reconstructing the myths of an ancient people because we wish to learn not only about how these people lived but also about what they thought and believed. In doing so, we must be aware of the nature of the primary source material we are examining, as far as this is possible. In this instance, we must be conscious that the texts under discussion are mythological texts. We therefore must bear in mind what we know already about mythology and particularly Near Eastern myth. As Tammi J. Schneider remarks, “[a]ncient Mesopotamian religion was not dogmatic or systematic.”[50] This means that we cannot expect a dogmatic consistency between retellings of the same myths, between retellings of different myths, or even within divergent parts of the same retelling.[51] From what we know of the Baal cycle, this also holds true for Canaanite myth. Also, Mettinger notes, “[a] particular myth may not be identical with a certain text”.[52] Furthermore, mythic characters can be conflated with an historical person, several historical persons, a local god, or several local gods. The same events can be recounted in different ways – literal, historical, metaphorical, comical, euphemistically, allegorically – with influence from other myths, stories, historical events, political biases, social-cultural interactions, moral posturing, philosophical reflection, and elements of pure entertainment.

Within this highly complex mythological framework, we must be wary of making arguments that are inappropriate not just in terms of content (what is argued) but in terms of method (how we argue). As N. Wyatt cautions, “The besetting sin of too much contemporary scholarship is … to fail to recognize the depth of the symbolic dimension [of ancient mythology].”[53] The language of myth is not the language of history, the usual language of archaeological scholarship. A primary source artifact that reveals, hypothetically, that Sargon of Agade disappeared in 2215 B.C.E. may lead us to conclude that this was the year of his death. A primary source artifact that states the high god Baal disappeared or died, even if this could be dated, should not be interpreted in the same way. Baal’s mythological death, for example, is a mythical event occurring in the life of a mythical character recounted in a particular text or fragment; such an event, frankly, could mean anything. In fact, the very multiplicity of practical, political, emotional, metaphorical, allegorical and contradictory meanings contained in a text is exactly what we should expect of a mythology.

This makes the concept of ‘proving’ a mythological event highly ridiculous, meaningless and inappropriate; historical events can be proved but mythic ones cannot. Most myths are impossible to conclusively interpret, even modern ones, let alone mythologies read in fragments several millennia after they were written down. J. Z. Smith’s critical scholarship is riddled with such inappropriate ‘proofs’: “This is a disappearing-reappearing narrative,” he writes. “There is no suggestion of death and resurrection.” “The tradition of bilocation… has no suggestion of death and rebirth.”[54] He is correct that bilocation need not necessarily suggest death and rebirth, but to argue that it absolutely does not is as ridiculous as arguing that it absolutely does. As Mettinger remarks offhandedly, “One could add that descent and disappearance are two analogous metaphors for death.”[55]


To conclude, the distinction between the Dumuzi and Baal tales as death-and-rebirth or as disappearance-reappearance myths is a question of mythic interpretation rather than archaeological proof. We have textual evidence for distinct parts of particular renditions of these myths which permit us a glimpse of the lost content of these mythic cycles. However, we possess very sparse and inconclusive evidence for their interpretation throughout the centuries in which they were alive in the imaginations of these ancient Near Eastern peoples. Our inability to draw conclusions is due to (a) the fragmentary nature of the recovered text, and (b) the plethora of multiple and contradictory meanings that any mythology will arouse even within its own historical-social context.

The argument is worthy of a footnote at best, for the conclusions do not define but merely categorize myth for our convenience – we need merely be reminded that (a) the Baal myth does not specify the precise details of Baal’s apparent death and rebirth, or that (b) the Dumuzi myth suggests an annual cycle of death and renewal but we do not possess many clear indications of its contemporary interpretation. Smith himself seems to be preoccupied with mere categorization at times, arguing that the Dumuzi myth should be considered a substitution myth rather than a death-and-rebirth myth. Neither alternative makes any significant difference as to the knowledge we possess about these ancient peoples; we simply file these myths under different sub-headings.[56] The most disturbing part of the whole debate is that the expansion of this minor footnote into pages and pages of fussy scholarship demonstrates a disturbing lack of understanding of the nature of mythology in general; in the interests of historical accuracy (the prime concern of archaeology as opposed to literary criticism), a complete, unfragmented mythology cannot be meaningfully condensed into such reductive categorizations.

Word Count: 2650

Works Cited

Dalley, S., ed. and trans. 2008. Reissue. Myths from Mesopotamia. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Revised edition 2000. Original edition, 1989.

Frazer, J. 1996. Reprint. The Golden Bough. Abridged edition. London: Penguin. Original edition, 1922.

Gibson, J. C. L. 1977. Canaanite Myths and Legends. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark.

Jacobsen, T. 1970. Toward the Image of Tammuz and Other Essays on Mesopotamian History and Culture. Edited by William L. Moran. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Kramer, S. N. 1979. From the Poetry of Sumer: Creation Glorification and Adoration. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leick, G. 1991. “Baal and Baal-Myths.” In A Dictionary of Ancient Near Eastern Mythology, 18-23. New York: Routledge.

Mettinger, T. N. D. 2001. The Riddle of Resurrection: “Dying and Rising Gods” in the Ancient Near East. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell.

Schneider, T. J. 2011. An Introduction to Ancient Mesopotamian Religion. Grand Rapids, MI/Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans Publishing.

Segal, R. A. 2004. Myth: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, J. Z. 1987. “Dying and Rising Gods.” In The Encyclopedia of Religion, edited by Eliade, M. et al. New York: Macmillan, 521-26.

Tubb, J. N. 1998. Canaanites. London: British Museum Press.

Wyatt, N. 2007. Word of Tree and Whisper of Stone: And Other Papers on Ugaritian Thought. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press.

Yon, M. 2000. “Ugarit: 6,000 Years of History.” Near Eastern Archaeology 60: 187-89.

[1] Yon 2000, 188.

[2] Tubb 1998, 13.

[3] Tubb 1998, 13-4.

[4] Yon 2000, 188.

[5] Wyatt 2007, 102.

[6] Mettinger 2001, 55.

[7] Wyatt 2007, 63.

[8] Wyatt 2007, 102.

[9] Wyatt 2007, 103.

[10] Smith 1987, 522.

[11] Leick 1991, 21.

[12] Mettinger 2001, 57.

[13] Leick 1991, 21.

[14] Mettinger 2001, 58.

[15] Mettinger 2001, 36.

[16] Mettinger 2001, 58.

[17] Mettinger 2001, 58.

[18] Gibson 1977, 77-8.

[19] Gibson 1977, 78.

[20] Mettinger 2001, 58.

[21] Mettinger 2001, 67.

[22] Mettinger 2001, 209.

[23] Mettinger 2001, 198.

[24] Jacobsen 1970, 24; Mettinger 2001, 185.

[25] Jacobsen 1970, 27.

[26] Jacobsen 1970, 29.

[27] Jacobsen 1970, 29.

[28] Kramer 1979, 82.

[29] Kramer 1979, 82.

[30] Kramer 1979, 83.

[31] Kramer 1979, 83.

[32] Smith 1987, 525.

[33] Dalley 2008, 160.

[34] Dalley 2008, 160.

[35] Segal 2004, 65.

[36] Frazer 1996, 392.

[37] Segal 2004, 24.

[38] Smith 1987, 521-22.

[39] Mettinger 2001, 78.

[40] Smith 1987, 522.

[41] Gibson 1977, 72.

[42] De Moor in Mettinger 2001, 59.

[43] Mettinger 2001, 61-62.

[44] Mettinger 2001, 59.

[45] Such as Leick 1991, 21-22.

[46] Smith 1987, 525.

[47] Mettinger 2001, 24.

[48] Alster in Mettinger 2001, 25; Kutscher in Mettinger 2001, 199.

[49] Mettinger 2001, 201.

[50] Schneider 2011, 39.

[51] It should be noted that even within the more dogmatic systematic religions such as those of the Abrahamic tradition, inconsistencies and contradictions are still rife in matters of interpretation, moral strictures, and even fundamental events, especially when expressed by divergent sects at different times throughout history.

[52] Mettinger 2001, 187.

[53] Wyatt 2007, 105.

[54] Smith 1987, 522.

[55] Mettinger 2001, 77, my emphasis.

[56] An argument perhaps could be made that we should shy away from Frazer’s death-and-rebirth terminology to avoid association with his outdated social Darwinism, but this argument never materializes.

Written by tomtomrant

14 October 2012 at 3:25 pm