2. South Arabian fairytales


W.Daum, Ursemitische Religion, 1985 draws our attention to the ritual hunt on the ibex still performed in modern times in Yemen. After the killing of the animal a shouting sounds: “The old man is killed”, for the ibex is acc. to Daum a symbol of the old god El, and the most important goal of the hunt is not the flesh, but the big horns of the animal. The hunt is originally called “the hunt of `Athtar” and is the cultic performance of the young god `Athtar's killing of the old god[1].

Daum finds early Semitic and Near-Eastern myth in the love story about the young girl Europa who is taken away over the sea on the back of the bull, and in the story about Ariadne who is liberated from the bullman Minotauros by the young Theseus killing the bull man. South Arabian fairy-tales tell about the young girl set out in the desert as a sacrifice to Afrit, a name which can not be translated but stands for a night-demon. But acc. to Daum Afrit is more than a demon, he is an eternal existence without forefathers or offspring. He is Lord of the world: “Everything belongs to me”, he says in one of the fairytales. He is the primeval god, the only one, a survival of the old Semitic high god El, whose name simply means “God”[2]. “Crushed he lay there towering as high as heaven”, it is told after the young hero has killed him. He is the ruler of the wild deserted land and lord over the wadis and their water streams, cf. the El of Ugarit who lives by the “fountain-head of the waters”. “The religion of the fairytales has proved itself to be a living modern survival of Pre-islamic religion” is the conclusion of Daum in his important book. The young hero of the fairytales is ´Athtar, the Morning star Venus[3]. In early Semitic religion there was no salvation except through the death of El[4]. The god of the sea, Jamm, who in the Ugarittexts is killed by the young god Baal, is nothing but an avatar of El, an emanation[5].

This “ur-semitische Religion” can, acc. to Daum, not go back to Catal Hüyük although this “would suit the chronology best”[6], mostly because Daum thinks that the goddess in C.H. is the partner of the old bull, while the old god in the South Arabian fairytales is barren and without offspring and the female therefore partner for the young heroic god.

But here Daum is leaning too heavily on the South Arabian fairytales. Certainly El in Ugarit is not barren. He has the son Jamm and with his wife ´Athirat he has a multitude of sons. But it seems as if ´Athirat is changing her loyalty to Baal with the words: ”Our king is Baal”. And in the cosmogony told by Philo of Byblos the high god Uranos is castrated by the younger god El Cronos who even takes his wives.

In the old Egyptian fairytale about the “Two Brothers” Bata is one with the cattle and he is one with the forest and vegetation: He lives in the “Cedar valley” (by Byblos) he is killed and his wife is taken away from him. He is the fairytale version of the Highgod and a forerunner of Adonis of Byblos. (We will return to him in a few moments.)

Werner Daum thinks that Christianity in its teaching about the death of God for our salvation uses very old Semitic “Patterns of Thought” (Denkkategorien) and in the process overcomes them: the old God and the young fuse into one in so much as he is both killed and conquering. To our opinion it is El who is killed and so far we can agree with Daum that “God has revealed himself in the thought-patterns of ursemitische Religion”[7]. But to our opinion he is killed by a younger demonic power Baal-Beelzebul who also takes the mind of humans captive in this act.

One of the fairytales used by Daum in his reconstruction of pre-Islamic religion is a tale about “Donkey-skin”. “Donkey-skin” is the young hero who defeats the “Great Sultan” and gains the love of the princess. He is the fairytale version of the young god.

But the poor donkey is not so highly estimated in the Middle East. He is often seen as a symbol of vile chaotic sexuality. Daum seems to know that, he mentions the holy Gregertius complaining about shameless dances performed by the young men in costumes of animal skin (Yemen 6th cent.). To the young god is also linked an orgiastic behaviour. In Catal Hüyük there were two sons of god, the calf and the leopard-rider, but in South Arabia they are fused into one: The morning star ´Athtar becoming also the great hunter.

To our opinion the "great hunter" was originally linked to Orion with the Dog star Sirius bringing the hot season. 6000 years ago in the Middle East it would become visible around the 1st of July. 14 days later the Nile begins to rise.

The sacrifice most typical for the "great hunter", the leopard, the ritual tearing the victim to pieces is among the Arabs linked to the morning star: Nilus describes the following sacrificial act among the Preislamic Arabs. A white camel was selected and consecrated to the morning star. When given a certain sign all the participants in the ritual act would throw themselves over the animal and eat it raw with hair, hide and bones before the sun rose and the morning star disappeared[8].

M.Tawfik [9] brings a picture and a description of a red granite stele from South Arabia. Kensdale interprets the stele as picturing the ´Athtar-hunt. The ibex was the holy animal of this god. At the top of the stele is shown 7 circles each with 28 marks inscribed into the circle acc to Tawfik for the 28 days of the moon-month.

The first flock is still enjoying their freedom acc. to Tawfik. The next scene shows a flock heading towards a  pen and at the bottom 9 oryx-goats resting above  snakes coiling around each other. The coiling snakes are an important symbol which we will try to interpret later. The oryx-goat is the symbol of the moon-god Wadd (his name mostly translated as “Love”, but acc. to Toufic Fahd [10], it is the Arabian version of Hadad/Adad)

The marking of the circles making them symbols of the full moon is also found on the horns of the ibexes making this animal a symbol of the highgod, the moon and not a symbol of ´Athtar. The stele is standing by an old temple adorned with pictures of men with throwing-sticks and globular wine-jars[11].



The South Arabian god Ta`lab is an old moon god with the ibex as his epiphany. His name means “giver of rain”. He is also called b´al tr´t (“Lord of the fresh/juicy plants”) and “Lord of the cattle herds” and “Lord of the fresh pastures”.

Everywhere in prehistoric and Phoenician iconography is seen the bull, ibex or stag being killed by a lion. It is seen on coins from Byblos, Tarsus and Citium. Acc. to A.D.H.Bivar[12] it witnesses a dark cult of the Lord of the Netherworld, Nergal, with Resheph in Byblos, Sandan in Tarsus, Molok-Melqart in Citium as Phoenician parallels. He is the leader of the “wild hunt”, he is the leopard or lion, the killer. He is the man with axe and fire destroying the forest.


Greaco-Phoenician gem, 5th cent.B.C. J.Boardman, "The Danicourt Gems" in RevArch N.S.1971, p.199.


Lloyd & Safar, JNES 2, 1943, pl.X.


The picture shows the flight of stairs leading to an altar and on both sides of the stairs is painted a leopard. To right and left of the altar is painted a bull. Daum does not mention this “painted temple” in Uqair, but it is an example of an early bull-leopard-symbolism connected to the sacrifice of cattle.

Myth is a divine mystery clothed in a human plot and human words. Like Jesus speaking about God and the kingdom of God in parables. This is perhaps always the condition when man has to speak about God to his fellow man and to the fragile human mind.

A very interesting myth is told by Ovid about the god of vegetation, the spirit of the cypress, Met. X,106ff.:

A very big and beautiful stag lived on the island of Keos. On its forehead gleamed a silver amulet, in its ears were golden rings, its antlers gleamed with gold, etc. The boy Cyparissus was very much in love with it and often rode on its back. One day at high noon when it was burning hot, the stag was hiding in the thicket. The boy was hunting, and by accident hit the stag in the heart with his javelin.

The boy wept day and night, and with his many tears he lost his life force and blood in the constant flow of tears and finally was changed into the cypress.

The god of vegetation has the mighty stag living in the thicket as his epiphany, or is riding on its back. When the summer heat gets strong he has to die, but being the king of the life forces of nature, closely connected to the life-fluids, his death is only a transformation into another life form.


[1] Daum,p.81.  

[2] ibd. p.43.   

[3] p. 53.    

[4] p. 213

[5] p. 185

[6] p. 215

[7] p. 213

[8] W.Robertson Smith, The Religion of the Semites, 3rd ed.1927, p. 345.

[9] Les Monuments de Ma`in,1951 cf. W.E.N.Kensdale in JNES 12,1953,pp.194ff.

[10] Études d´Histoire et de Civilisation Arabes,1997,p.122.

[11] A. Fakhry, An Archaeological Journey to “Yemen 1951-2,I, pp.143f., fig.90 See also J.Ryckmans La chasse Rituelle dans l´Arabie du Sud, and M.Höfner, Ta´alab und der Herr der Tiere”. Both in Al-Bahit. Festschrift für J. Henninger, 1976.

[12] Henning Memorial Vol. pl. I & II, pp.54ff.