Nabataeans PDF Print E-mail
Written by Stephen Langfur
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Their Gods

Nabataean Religion

Stele-shaped niches in Petra's SiqThe Nabataean shrine usually consisted of a standing stone. Some scholars call such a stone a betyl. Others prefer the term stele, which I shall use here. At about 200 Nabataean camps in the Negev (identified by the characteristic pottery), Uzi Avner has located more than 2000 of these stelae (Patrich, p. 64). But the standing stone was by no means unique to the Nabataeans. We find it earlier among the Canaanites and Israelites - for instance, at Hazor and Gezer in the Canaanite period, at Dan, Arad and Shechem in Israelite contexts.

There are variations in the sizes of these stones and in their shapes at the top. Sometimes they are rough and sometimes hewn. Basically, though, the form is longer than wide, resembling a person dimly seen. This similarity brings us, perhaps, to the secret of the stele's numinous power. For what is a god? A god is a person, but unlike us, a god is immortal - permanent. When a nomad erects a stone in the desert and stands facing it, the result looks like the encounter of two persons, one of flesh and the other permanent. It may seem ridiculous, of course, for a man to worship a thing he has set up with his own hands. Here is a description by the Muslim historian Ibn Sa'ad (9th century), describing the custom of the Arab tribes of central Arabia before Islam (quoted in Patrich, p. 66):

When some part of the tribe, while encamping in a certain new place, does not have an idol, one man goes and looks for four stones which he erects - three are used for the pot while he chooses the nicest stone for the idol, which he then worships. If, later on, he finds a nicer one, he replaces it; at the next stop he takes another in its stead. 

If the stone is so easily replaceable, it seems clear that it was not the object of worship - any more than the stones in the Western Wall are worshipped by Jews who pray toward them, or the cross by Christians or the Kaaba in Mecca by Muslims. The faithful venerate the wall or the cross or the stone, but they worship the deity. It is as if one said to oneself, "Here is the place to stop what I'm doing and focus on God." In a similar way, the standing stone would have brought the divine presence into focus. (We can find a contemporary equivalent of the stelae in the so-called classic paintings of Mark Rothko.)  

Despite the 2000 standing stones at Nabataean campsites in the Negev, at Petra there are mainly representations of them carved into rock. From the slots cut into the bases that held them, as well as from later literature, we know that standing stones did exist in the city, but few have been found. Of representations and places for stelae, about 60 have been counted in the Siq alone (see photo, above right) and more than 180 throughout Petra. Sometimes the worshippers carved niches in the sides of the sandstone cliffs, in which they would set up the stones. Other niches seem too shallow, leading one to think that the niche itself must have sufficed. Sometimes two parallel vertical channels are cut in the rock, so that the form of a stele projects between them.  

The few freestanding stelae that have been found in Petra date from the 1st century AD and later. These have a schematic rendering of eyes and nose. We might expect that once the Nabataeans had taken this step, a trend would have started, and they'd have begun to carve more lifelike figures. This did not happen. As Patrich puts it (p. 86): "It seems that there was an uncrossable barrier."

We can understand this barrier as follows. A specific figure with personal features (a particular nose, eyes, mouth etc., as in Greek and Roman statues) would probably limit the worshipper's chance of connecting with the divine. For what if the image on the stone doesn't match the divine as you conceive it? Then it's distracting. A bare stone, on the other hand, allows you to find what you seek - or, on the contrary, what you would prefer to avoid. 

Capitals comparedThe simplicity of form combined with mass, such as we find in the Nabataean stelae, is the hallmark of their art and architecture. When we do find figurative art at their sites, it is the result of external influences that were tolerated (one would expect tolerance from a people that lived by international commerce). But these foreign influences were never permitted to dominate. The Nabataean kings emulated the Romans, designing their tombs accordingly, and these make up Petra's most exciting monuments. But they are only found at Petra. The subroyal classes stuck to simpler forms that were in line with their nation's distinctive style. Or using the examples from Petra in the photo, look at the typical Nabataean horn capital on the right: it is as if the masons had blocked out a Corinthian capital and then decided that the simpler form suited them more.

Their Gods

Just as the stelae lacked faces, so the Nabataean gods had no proper names. Their chief tribal god was "the one of Shara": Dushara (Dusares). It is not clear what "Shara" refers to.  The mountain range east of Petra is called Shara, but with a significant difference in the Arabic spelling. ({jtips}Jane Taylor, Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabataeans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002|Taylor,{/jtips} p. 124).

Because we lack a Nabataean literature, we know little about Dushara. A few rock inscriptions from a later phase, when they had come into contact with Greek and Roman practices, connect him with Zeus. Others link him with the son of Zeus, Dionysus, probably because the Nabataeans of the Hauran  grew grapes.

The chief goddess in Petra was
"the strong one," al-'Uzza.  Several inscriptions mention her. For example, the following appears beside a niche on a mountain next to Petra's Siq: "These are the stelae of al-'Uzza and of the Lord of the House, made by Wahballahi, the caravan-leader, son of Zaidan." Most scholars understand the "Lord of the House" to be Dushara. (The "House" could have been either a temple or the Nabataean dynasty.) At another Nabataean site (Ain-Shellaleh in Wadi Rum ) is a niche containing two stelae, one bigger with schematic eyes, and an inscription: "This is al-'Uzza and the Lord of the House, that was made by Aqbar Phm and Haggy, artisans." Another stele at the same site also has eyes, and the inscription again attributes it to al-'Uzza. This is not a whole lot to go on, of course, but if we allow it, then when we encounter two such stelae on a boulder of the Petra Siq, but without an inscription, we may identify the larger one with eyes as al-'Uzza and the smaller as the Lord of the House, Dushara.

Double stele in Petra's Siq

Double stele in the Siq of PetraWhenever al-'Uzza's stele appears together with another god's, hers is the larger. If the second stele can indeed be attributed to Dushara, what we appear to have here is a mother-son relationship. (See Wenning, p. 83.) This is not surprising if we add yet another association: al-'Uzza became connected, in the Nabataean mind, with the Egyptian goddess Isis, mother of Horus. Egyptian documents attest to a major cult of Isis at Petra, but only a few direct representations of Isis have turned up there, most notably on the face of the "Treasury." Much more frequent are the stelae of al-'Uzza. The apparent contradiction disappears if we assume that the Nabataeans understood Isis and al-'Uzza to be one and the same.

The symbol on the Treasury at Petra is the crown of Isis: two cow horns embrace the sun, with ears of wheat on either side. The cow horns and sun originally belonged to Hathor, the cow goddess. The Egyptians beheld the Milky Way embracing the night sky, and they thought of it as a river of milk flowing from cow teats. The god of the sky was Horus the falcon. His eyes, composed of the sun and the moon, watched humankind as he flew across the heavens. So the Milky Way (Hathor) was seen as embracing Horus (the night sky), in the manner of mother and child.

In time, Isis combined with Hathor. The name Isis prevailed, but so did Hathor's cow horns, which embraced her son Horus, the sun. This new Isis was the "Queen of Heaven" whose worshippers Jeremiah denounced (7:18):

"The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead the dough, to make cakes for the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink offerings to other gods, that they may provoke me to anger."

Apuleius, author of The Golden Ass, had a different view:

"You see me here, Lucius, in answer to your prayer. I am nature, the universal Mother, mistress of all the elements, primordial child of time, sovereign of all things spiritual, queen of the dead, queen also of the immortals, the single manifestation of all gods and goddesses that are.... Though I am worshipped in many aspects, known by countless names. . . some know me as Juno, some as Bellona . . . the Egyptians who excel in ancient learning and worship call me by my true name..Queen Isis."

What then is Isis/al-'Uzza doing on Petra's Treasury, whose decor seems bound up with death? The answer relates to an aspect of Isis mentioned by Apuleius: she is queen of the dead. It may be that the original Isis, in early dynastic Egypt, was the pharaoh's wife, who was executed and buried with him in order to guard his organs in the tomb. In this way, perhaps, Isis became known as Protectress of the Dead. 

Isis'  dual role as mother and queen of death found expression in Egyptian myth: She married her brother Osiris, who made Egypt prosper. But their brother Seth killed Osiris. The disconsolate Isis finally found the body and resurrected Osiris sufficiently to get a son by him, Horus, who avenged his father. Osiris than descended to preside over the underworld, where Isis joined him.

(p. 130) conveys the importance of this story for defining the powers of Isis: "The role of Isis as mother became so important an aspect of her cult that she became universally recognized as a mother goddess, or earth mother - an Egyptian counterpart of Syrian Atargatis. But she had a much wider brief than Atargatis: as divine mother she controlled birth; as wife-in-mourning she oversaw the rites of death; as consort of Osiris she presided over the underworld; and as sovereign of the earth she dispensed fortune and fecundity." 

The powers of Isis and al-'Uzza do not stop there. A millennium before any mention of Nabataeans, Hathor accompanied Egyptian workers to the turquoise mines in Sinai and consequently took over the realm of cosmetics. Thus she became an Egyptian equivalent to Aphrodite. In merging with Hathor, Isis also assimilated these characteristics. Therefore, when the Nabataeans looked at the Greco-Roman pantheon in search of an equivalent for Isis/al-'Uzza, they chose Aphrodite. An inscription in Nabataean and Greek was found on the island of Cos; the Nabataean part reads, "To the goddess al-'Uzza," and the Greek part reads, "To the goddess Aphrodite." The latter also appears in an inscription found in Petra's "Qasr al-Bint." A Syrian source, Isaac of Antiochia, identifies al-'Uzza with the morning star.

Petra: Goddess of HayyanThe most remarkable stele discovered at Petra is the one pictured here. It was found in the ruins of the Temple of the Winged Lions. Here the eye-stele is carried a step or two further toward figural art (but this will be the limit). The eyes are not square as in other examples, rather more naturally almond-shaped. Big eyebrows are added, and the nose is quite definite. For the first time there is a mouth. Yet the whole is still quite schematic, avoiding features that are too particular. Above the brows is a headband with a hole in the center, perhaps for a gem. The face is set in an engraved frame. On the bottom, in a style of Nabataean script that dates to the 1st century AD, we read: "The goddess of Hayyan, son of Nybat." 

Who was this goddess of Hayyan? She was found in a niche in the cella  of the temple. Nearby, writes Taylor  (p. 106) was a ceramic figurine representing Isis in an attitude of grief, as well as a statuette of Osiris. Another clue "is seen in a less elaborately carved stone with stylized eyes and a headband with the Isis device carved into it." Perhaps this was also engraved on the missing gem in the headband. The consensus among scholars so far is that Hayyan's goddess was Isis/al-'Uzza. 

Strabo, who had a good informant on the Nabataeans, reports that they worshipped the sun from the roofs of their houses, burning incense and pouring libations to it. Given the association between Isis-Horus and al-'Uzza-Dushara, we can see why the informant might have understood matters thus. For Horus the falcon crossed the sky, and his daylight eye, we recall, was the sun. By the time of the Nabataeans, he was identified with the sun. Since Isis was al-Uzza, the informant would have equated Dushara with Horus, the Sun. And perhaps the Nabataeans did too. 

A 10th-century document called the Lexicon of Suidas, or Souda, which preserves material from earlier sources, includes a heading for "Theus Ares," (a corruption of Dous Ares, i.e., Dousares, the Greek form of Dushara). Thus it mistakenly finds the war god Ares (Mars) at Petra. But what follows the mistake is interesting:

That is the god Ares at Petra in Arabia. The god Ares is worshipped by them, for they venerate him above all others. The image is a black stone, rectangular and unshaped, measuring four feet in height by two feet in width. It is set on a base worked in gold. To this they burn incense and against it they pour the blood of the sacrificial animals. And that is their form of libation. 

In Petra, clearly, al-'Uzza and Dushara were dominant, though we must not forget the deified king Obodas. Outside Petra, Dushara was still chief god, but al-'Uzza was not chief goddess. There was also Allat, whose name means simply "the goddess." She was worshipped by many peoples throughout the northern part of Arabia. Inscriptions attest to her both in the Hauran, north of Petra, and south in Wadi Rum, where the last Nabataean king, Rabel II, built a temple to her. Allat became associated with Athena, but in a softer version than the warrior goddess, so that she - like al-'Uzza - could also be identified with Athena's opposite, Aphrodite.

Older than Allat and al-'Uzza was Manat, the goddess of fate and order. Her name means "portion." At Hegra she appears in inscriptions on some of the tombs, guarding them. She would also appear in Petra, perhaps, if more inscriptions had survived. (At Petra stucco and paint were used; the inscriptions may have been painted, in which case erosion would have erased them.) She is invoked in Hegra, along with Dushara, to visit dire consequences on anyone who does not abide by the rules of the tomb. 

On the male side, in addition to Dushara, the Nabataeans revered al-Kutba, god of the scribes, whose stele in Wadi Rum is depicted beside (and smaller than) that of al-'Uzza. And some worshipped Shay' al Qaum, a god of the caravaneers. He adhered to the old desert ideal, abjured agriculture and never touched wine.  

And then there was Baal-Shamin, a survival of the old Canaanite Baal. (A temple dedicated to him, northeast of Bostra, included a statue of Herod.) To the south again, in the old Edomite heartland that was their home, there were Nabataeans who worshipped Cos (Qos), chief god of the Edomites. On a hill called at-Tannur in Wadi Hasa, east of the Dead Sea's southernmost shore, they expanded a small, simple sanctuary into an elaborate one dedicated to Cos and Atargatis, the Syrian fertility goddess. Her images decked the place. The art is figurative, very foreign, it would seem, to the original Nabataean impulse - as foreign as the images on the Treasury in Petra. But while the latter were made by the highest order of artists, those at at-Tannur seem the work of local craftspeople using Greco-Roman ideas. Perhaps they, and the pilgrims to this temple, belonged to the old Edomite population, whose Nabataean affiliations went no more than skin deep.