Temples of Dagon


The problem of the origin of the name.

The problem is twofold: the apparent confusion of the basis of the meaning of the name and, second, its origin. Etymologically the name has been thought to have come from דָּאג, H1794, plus וֹן, meaning, according to Jerome, “fish of sorrow,” i.e., to the devotees because of the burdens of idolatry (see Macalister, The Philistines, Their History and Civilization, 100, n. 1), and by others from dagan, grain (Philo Byblius). In the Middle Ages, the name was thought by the rabbis to have been derived from דָּאג, H1794, fish, but as early as Jerome and Josephus “Dagon” was not known as a fish god. The popular derivation prob. resulted from the similarity to dag. The meaning must be sought in the area of association with earlier eras and in other areas, coming in by migrations of peoples. Some have considered on as indicative of a diminutive, whereas others see dāgôn as derived from a root represented in Arab. by dagga with the aspect of “cloudy.” This suggests the proper basis for the derivation of the name in the light of historical usage of the name.

The meaning of the name.

Sargon I (c. 2360 b.c.) in his account of the campaign to the upper Euphrates country and Cilicia (Gadd-Legrain, Ur Excavation Texts, 119, 350) relates his stop at Tutuli (modern Hit) to worship Dagon. His son Naram-Sin conquered the same territory and claimed it was a gift to him by Dagon, which implies that the worship of Dagon had spread westward beyond the western Syrian mountains. As to the usage of the name, indicative of the early existence and long persistence of the cult, besides the late 3rd millennium usages, the name occurs in the Ur III period, the Isin-Larsa period, and well beyond the Hammurabi epoch (from 1530 b.c.; Montalbano, “Canaanite Dagon,” CBQ, 13:384-393). It is possible on the basis of certain specific uses of the name to derive its meaning. Naram-Sin’s texts of the conquest of Syria (Gelb, Inscriptions from Alishar, 6) cannot be used to describe Dagon as the war god, for this function was served by Ninurta. Dagon could not have achieved widespread popularity in a role secondary to the chief Ninurta. It is first in the Ur III period that a suggestion as to meaning is given. His “wife’s” name is written as Ša-la-aš, prob. equivalent to Ša-la, the wife of Adad the weather God (Montalbano, ibid., 386). Final confirmation is found in the Hammurabi period where, in a letter to Zimrilim (c. 1730 b.c.) of Mari, Dagon is equated with Enlil the Babylonian storm god (CBQ, 13:388). The victory cited in the letter was promised from Dagon for suggested reverence on achievement of victory, which reverence was made in offerings in the temple of Dagon, most likely at Tirqa, c. 60 m. N of Mari, which could be called the locus of the cult of Dagon. The letter strongly suggests a palace revolt of some kind. By this equation is shown the nature of D agon as the weather god of the Upper Euphrates River country between the Ḥabur River and Tutuli.

Dagon is mentioned in the Amarna Tablets by the name Dagan-takala (Tell El Amarna Tablets of the British Museum, 74:3; 129:2) c. 1375 b.c., and c. 1400 b.c. at Ugarit on commemorative sacrificial stelae (Syria, 16:179, 180). In other Ras Shamra texts, Dagon is presented as the father of Baal, the Canaanite storm god, who had a temple erected to him in Ugarit, prob. from the Middle Bronze period. Thus down to the 2nd millennium b.c. and later, as Assyro-Babylonian records show, Dagon was widely popular for a time span of some 1500 years. It is in the Amarna era that his worship appears to have reached widespread permanence in Syro-Palestinian areas. It is necessary to find the causes of his adoption by Palestinians and the significance of his name. The temples dedicated to his name show distinctly the influence of the occupying power.

In Syria, as in the upper Euphrates, Dagon was associated with the weather gods (Gordon, Ugaritic Literature lists Dagon with his son twelve times). Adad, another Babylonian-Assyrian weather god, was associated with Dagon, and Adad was assimilated into Syria as Hadad and then became the son of Dagon (CBQ, 13:396). Hadad became the Baal of Ugarit. Thus the transference of a fixed association tending toward Dagon’s identity as a weather god is established. In Pal. and Syria weather is important from the standpoint of rain for the crops. It is not too difficult to transfer the power of Dagon from a weather god to the status of a grain god, particularly since good harvests generally coincided with the appeals to him for rain so the grainfields would flourish. In Ugarit was found a word for grain that is synonymous with the name of Dagon (Gordon, Ugaritic Handbook III, 223, n. 519). Baal, his “son,” by virtue of the process of amalgamation begun with Dagon, was known both as the god of weather and productivity (CBQ, 13:397).

Therefore Dagon as a storm god of upper Euphrates country was brought into Syro-Pal. by conquerors from Mesopotamia, was adopted there, and by a process of accretion became also the storm god. Along with the usage of the upper Euphrates area, one must look for a word that would provide a root for the name, perhaps best supplied in the root dg, cognate to Arab. dagga, dagā, (“cloudy,” “rainy”). The final long syllable ôn derives from the Akkad. an, but not the Aram. long â (ân), as is shown by the frequency of the short a in the Assyrian inscrs. The a of the second syllable became accented (á) in Heb. and then became long (ā/ô). The Dagan form from Akkad. is confirmed by the Arab. and the an ending most likely came from a 2nd millennium form ending in an or annum, expanding the original word. The name Dāgôn is thus a first millennium form that underwent first tone shift and then quality shift of an original short vowel.

Philistine Dagon.

How did the Philistines take up the worship of Dagon? The answer is found first in a tablet found at Ugarit dated to the 18th dynasty (c. 1580-1350 b.c.), which includes the name of Ashdod with those of Askelon and Akko as Palestinian cities (BA, XXVI, 135-136), indicating commercial relations with the area, naming linen as an article of that commerce, and also naming the governor of Ashdod. It would seem that since Dagon appeared earlier in Syria and later in Pal., and since there is provable commercial traffic, Dagon migrated with those traders and their families from Ugarit. It is probable that trade was established much earlier and continued for a considerable time. Since the Philistine plain had been a grain growing area for some time, this was a most likely area for a weather god to come to active acknowledgment. Since a temple to Dagon was erected at Ugarit as early as the 12th dynasty (1991-1786 b.c., Syria, 13:20 and 16:177ff.), Ugarit was known to the Palestinians from the Amarna age (Dussaud, Decouverts du Ras Shamra, 28), indicative of a commerce wider than just with Ashdod. The presence of an invoice or receipt tablet in 12th cent. b.c. Taanach (BA, XXX, 21, 22) in Ugaritic confirms the commerce of the area of Pal. with Ugarit and widens the understanding of the scope of Ugarit’s cultural influence. Thus it may be assumed that the worship of Dagon traveled southward earlier than the Amarna period, perhaps as early as the 16th cent. b.c. when, still within the era of Egyp. hegemony, commercial relations were established and continued thereafter. Indications of Egyp. influence in Ugarit in the area and era in question is seen in the Mani Stele (Dussaud, op cit., 28) in its dedication to “Seth Zapouna,” an Egyp. god that is equivalent to Baal Zaphon, thus using a form of localized paraphrase, which pinpoints the locale.

It would seem evident that the Dagon of the Philistines was the same as the Syrian type and perhaps the aspect emphasized would be that of fertility since Philistia was a grain-producing area.

The temples of Dagon.

Temples to this god existed in Ugarit (Dussaud, op. cit.), in Bethshan (1 Chron 10:10; cf. 1 Sam 31:7-10), in Gaza (Judg 16:23) and in Ashdod (1 Sam 5:1-7).


The peculiarity about the temple of Dagon is that it is of the same size and arrangements and orientation as the temple of Baal (Syria, 16:177; Ugaritica, III, fig. 9). It is situated c. 170 ft. E-SE of the temple of Baal and was discovered after that of Baal. Dussaud remarked that the honors the father had received were accorded likewise to the son (op. cit., 29). The temple was situated within an open court where the religious ceremonies were performed and in which was situated the altar. That of the Baal temple had two steps; prob. that of Dagon had steps also. Beyond the altar was the holy place and back of that the holy of holies itself.

One is at once impressed with the similarity of these temples to the later Ishtar temple of Assur (13th cent. b.c.; Syria 16:406, 407 and Andrae, Das Wiedererstandene Assur, 109, for plan and 110 for perspective). The striking and common element is the arrangement of the altar; one entered the holy of holies and then turned to the right to view the altar and the idol, which was on a platform served by a series of steps.

Since the Baal temple was built after that to Dagon, and since inscriptional evidence points to the founding of the latter c. 1910 b.c. (Syria 13:20), the temple of Dagon began its history late in the 20th cent. b.c.

That the identification of the temple with Dagon is certain is seen by the finding of two dedicatory stelae on the site. One stele (A), complete, is that of a woman, reading:

The stele that Tryl erected to Dagan. A monument (commemorating) [a head of small] and a head of large cattle as food (Gordon, Ugaritic Literature, 108).

The other (B), incomplete, reads in part:

The monument that -zn erected to Dagan, his master, (commemorating) [a head of small and a head of large] cattle in the mhrt (temple refectory?) (Ibid.)

The stelae had the usual rounded heads and a tennon at the bottom to fit into a stone socket (Syria 6, plate XXXI).


Excavations were conducted at Ashdod May-June, 1962 (IEJ 12:147-150) and June-July, 1963 (IEJ 13:340-342). In the first campaign, the only Philistine pottery finds occurred in a large pit. In the second season two levels of Philistine occupation dating to the 12th and 11th centuries b.c. were exposed, the principal structure being a fortress. So far no temple has appeared (cf. Judg 16:23), but such may be unearthed in the future (see BA, XXVI, 134ff.). The fortress testifies to the prowess of the Philistines.


Excavations of this city by Phythian-Adams, “Reports on Soundings at Gaza” (PEQ, 1923, 11-36), give no data since the soundings were limited by present occupation. As this was a Philistine city, one would expect a temple to occur in this city, and perhaps future excavations will disclose it.


Of the four temples found by the Museum of the University of Pennsylvania excavations in 1925-1926, the two temples of Rameses III (1175-1144) are from the era of Philistine occupation (Rowe, The Four Canaanite Temples of Beth-shan, 22). The southern temple is of minor hypo-style construction on an irregular plan. The outer walls are of mud brick on basalt stone bases; the central hall is divided into side aisles and a central one by three columns in each of two rows that support the clerestory above the center aisle. Between the columns in each row are dwarf walls separating the clerestory aisle from the side aisles (see Rowe, op. cit., 24, fig. 5 and plate X). This central hall measures 71 ft E to W and 25 ft. N to S. It is flanked by two small and one long storeroom on the N and by two small ones on the S, plus a third room to their E, which opens off the E end of the central hall. At this end of the hall is a transept, longer toward the S than to the N. At its E wall is a type of pedestal on a raised floor level at the E end of the hall and extends around both to the north and south sides of the transept. From the center aisle, steps ascend to this level with a small, low pedestal immediately in front of them. In a general way this is similar to the pedestal feature at Ugarit and at Assur. The low pedestal on the upper level may have carried an idol but there is no evidence of any curtain at the near columns.

The clerestory wall was of brick construction supported by wood beams bearing on the wood columns below. The clay roof was supported on a framework of beams and branches.

Since the southern temple is the larger of the two, and since Dagon was the chief god of the Philistines, it may be assumed that this was the temple of Dagon. It was here that the head of Saul was fastened (1 Chron 10:10).

The reconstruction of the northern temple may be seen in Rowe, op. cit., 33, figure; plate XII. This is similar to the southern temple but having one less column in each row, a slightly higher platform for the idol, and no store rooms. The identity as the house of Ashtaroth (1 Sam 31:10) seems assured by the finding of the figures of Antit, the warrior goddess, dressed as an ashteroth. Here was placed the armor of Saul by the Philistines (1 Chron 10:10).


The similarities among the separate temples vary somewhat, but one may note that those of Ugarit and Assyria are closest, whereas those of Ashdod and Bethshan are most alike. This conclusion is based on the fact that, although no temple of Dagon at Gaza has been found yet, Judges 16:25-30 indicates that there were pillars in it, perhaps somewhat in arrangement as those at Bethshan. There was most likely a large forecourt framed by a colonnade, indicated by the large number of observers (3000) on the roofs, with the court side being supported by a series of columns according to the Egyp. style. The temple itself under this arrangement would have been fitted into one side. It was there that Samson was placed and, pushing down the columns, initiated a domino-like action of destruction that brought down the temple and court colonnade.

A comparison of the Ugaritic and Assyrian temples show preference for the Mesopotamian model, whereas those of the Philistines reveal a preference for the Egypt. type. This latter conclusion is based on the usage in Egypt of the clerestory and a more open sanctuary. Therefore, the temple plans followed the typical arrangement of the political area exerting greatest influence over the respective areas. Ugarit derived her religion and temple from Mesopotamia; the Philistines owed their allegiance to Egypt and took inspiration from her architecture.

The use in Solomon’s Temple of a plan akin to the temple of Dagon in Ugarit is dictated by the requirements of the worship of Yahweh, and this arrangement was not available in the examples from Egypt. A “wall of separation” between the worshiper and Yahweh was required, but even in this arrangement, it is not the heavy masonry dividing wall characteristic of the examples from the north.


R. A. S. Macalister, The Philistines, Their History and Civilization (1913); Phythian-Adams, “Report on Soundings at Gaza,” PEQ (1923), 11-36; “Beth-dagon vs. Beth-gallim,” BASOR 18 (1925), 10; “Dagan,” H. Schmökel, Realexikon für Assyriologie, II (1934), 99-101; R. Dussaud, “Two Stelae to Dagan,” Syria, XVI (1935), 179, 180; A. Rowe, The Four Canaanite Temples of Bethshan, I (1940); R. Dussaud, Les Decouverts de Ras Shamra et l’OT (1941); F. J. Montalbano, “Canaanite Dagon: Origin, Nature,” CBQ (1951), (13:381-397; Y. Yadin, “Excavations at Hazor,” BA (1956), XIX:2-12; “Excavations at Ashdod,” IEJ (1962), 12:147-150; (1963), 13:340-342; BA (1963) XXVI:134ff.; M. Dothan, “2000 ans de l’ancienne cité,” BETS (1965), 71.