Ibiza’s History - Part IV: The Gods of Ancient Ibiza
By Emily Kaufman
The gods of Antiquity thundered out from the heavens, brandishing lightning bolts and defeating all foes... or so the mythological cliché goes. In fact, the ancient world view encompassed a remarkable scope of masculine archetypes. The attributes they ascribed to their male deities ranged from the fierce and bellicose to the mild and holy. Using Ibiza’s pantheon as a case in point, let us explore this rich diversity as it was expressed by the five male divinities worshipped in Phoenicio-Punic times.
High on the list is Melqart, top god of the Phoenician city-state of Tyre and consort to Astarte. Together, this pair comprised a dual godhead that functioned in tandem, each looking after his or her areas of protection. Over the centuries, as the needs of society changed, these areas of protection changed as well. Melqart literally means “lord of the city” and his primary function was to safeguard the common good, but that might have been perceived differently at different stages of history. For example, when Tyre was an emerging coastal city in the third millennium BCE (over 4,000 years ago), striving to sustain itself on a thin strip of land, Melqart was envisioned as an agrarian god - guardian of the harvest and overseer of the ongoing cycle of life, death and rebirth. He was associated with winter wheat and barley - the staple crops necessary for the survival of the population. But, as Tyre developed into a sophisticated, prosperous city with a far-flung trade network, Melqart’s domain shifted from the land to the sea, and his area of custodianship passed from agriculture to seafaring and commerce. He is credited with discovering the process by which murex seashells yield a rare purple dye, which was one of Tyre’s unique exports.
Dr. María Eugenia Aubet points out in her book, ‘Tyre and the Phoenician Colonies of the West’, that “Melqart not only extended his protection over commercial undertakings, but also set himself up as a protector of the colonists in a foreign land.” She further notes that, in the conduct of business, Melqart was ever-present as a guarantor of honesty and fair dealings, for which reason, “The name of the god was invoked in oaths sanctioning contracts.” With these worthy attributes to recommend him, Melqart’s cult flourished in Ibiza, where he was worshiped in the early colonial phase of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE (around 2,600 years ago). Though no material remains have survived, we may safely assume that where the cathedral now stands in Ibiza town, a temple once stood to honour Melqart. A tablet graven in his honour was found at es Culleram sanctuary (near San Vicente), from which we may deduce two things: firstly, that Melqart continued to be worshiped during the subsequent Punic period, and secondly that, like Tanit, he was almost certainly venerated with an annual festival of resurrection in late February/early March. As a sea god, Melqart’s allusive symbols were dolphins and tunas - motifs which appeared on Phoenician coins. However, unlike Greek gods, Melqart was never depicted in human form. In his temples, he was served by a priestly class who practiced celibacy, walked barefoot, dressed in white linen and wore bands around their shorn heads.
Another important Phoenician god whose cult flourished in Ibiza was Eshmun, the god of healing. He was to Sidon (another Phoenician city-state) what Melqart was to Tyre: the city’s top god. The Greeks equated him with Asclepius, son of Apollo, both gods of healing. While the archaeological record is silent as to his cult in Ibiza, two indirect clues speak of a strong presence. Our first indication rests on the prevalence in Punic Ibiza of the surname Abd’eshmun, meaning “servant of Eshmun”. Across the ancient world, theonyms, or surnames derived from the gods, were quite common. When a victorious culture supplanted a vanquished one, locals often tried to conform to the new ruling class by changing their surnames. So it happened that, following Rome’s victory over Carthage, Ibiza was found to have an unusually high incidence of the surname Apollonius, derived from Eshmun’s homologue, Apollo. Epigraphists have interpreted this as a wholesale Latinization of the Punic surname Abd’eshmun in an attempt to curry favour with Roman bureaucrats. A second testimony to Eshmun’s cult in Ibiza was discovered in Murcia in the form of a Latin inscription: sacerdos Asculepi Ebusitani. This means “Ibicenco priest of Asclepius”, and seems to be a reference to Eshmun’s healing order on the island. Interestingly, the Romans equated Eshmun with Mercury, whose symbol was the caduceus with two serpents intertwined. Today it is an emblem of the medical profession, but in his Phoenician form, Eshmun was represented by just a single snake.
A third Phoenician deity worshiped in Ibiza was Reshef, a god of war. Little is known about his cult in Ibiza, which is archaeologically attested to by a sole lead statue found at the San Juan bastion, and a graven reference from es Culleram. Former director of Ibiza’s Archaeology Museum Jordi Fernández sums up his basic profile: “As a deity, he is comparable to the Greek Apollo: he was the lord of lightning and as allusive symbols he has the axe, the spear and the shield, which makes him a war god.”
Our next god is Bes, Ibiza’s namesake. This fun-loving deity was a party animal, whose two main characteristics were his ability to drive away snakes and other poisonous creatures, and his love of dance. Adopted by the Phoenicians from Egypt, he was envisaged as more of a secondary god or benevolent spirit. The epigraphist Solà Solé theorized that Ibiza’s first Phoenician settlers must have been impressed by the island’s absence of venomous animals, and attributed this charmed state of affairs to Bes’ divine protection, naming the island after him. Virtually all coins of early Ibicenco mint carried an image of Bes, pot-bellied, bow-legged and wielding a snake in his hand. This peculiar portrayal correlates to the fact that Bes originated in sub-Saharan Africa, where the Pygmies (whose morphology Bes replicates) were famed for performing the “Dance of God”, hence his association with singing, dancing and revelry.
Baal Hammon, our final god, was a cruel and exacting deity, a Semitic version of the Greek Cronos and the Roman Saturn. Together Baal and Tanit formed the dual godhead adopted by the Carthaginians to replace Astarte-Melqart after the city’s rupture with Tyre in 480 BCE. But somehow – although Ibiza abounds with archaeological evidence of Tanit – Baal’s cult is not so clearly defined. It almost seems as if the islanders continued to worship Melqart alongside Tanit, an idea drawn primarily from the famous two-sided tablet unearthed at es Culleram. One face of the relic bears a dedication to Tanit, the other face to Melqart. Why was the inscription to Melqart not replaced with one to Baal? The answer, of course, lies in the mists of time, but one cannot help but wonder if ancient islanders were reluctant to relinquish their devotion to their original founding deity. In regard to votive figures of Baal, two terra-cottas were discovered among the grave goods at the Puig de Molins necropolis, both portraying the god sternly seated upon his throne. On that note, we shall end our tale for today. Next time, we will pick up the thread as Carthage sends out desperate pleas to Baal, begging for victory over Rome during the third Punic War. Of course, we all know how that ended... •