16. North Syrian Temple


M. von Oppenheim's expedition to Tell Halaf has not only given us the beautiful painted bowls from the prehistoric Halafian culture, but also brought to light the ruins of a temple from the 9th century B.C. Passing along an endless gallery of sculptured stone slabs, the visitor will finally reach the “Scorpion Gate”. Inside the temple area the processional road will turn 180 degrees, and suddenly you are standing face to face with the temple-facade with a giant portico as entrance to the temple rooms inside. The top-stone is supported by three gods. A male standing in the centre on the back of a bull, a female and another male standing on lions. If we compare with the material from Catal Hüyük, we can quickly conclude that they must be the high god, the goddess and the hunter. And as a matter of fact the lion carrying the hunter has a stag with its stomach ripped open lying between its legs. If we pass the lion carrying the god, we can move on through a kind of hall to the inner chamber. The entrance to this room is guarded by a lion, in some ways identical with the lion at the entrance to the hall, but looking much more demonic. It has the head of an eagle and big folded wing and a tail covered with scales. The two lions are parallels, the last being a demonised variation of the first. It has taken both the nature of the eagle and the scorpion into its lion nature, thereby becoming an ecstatic (eagle), but also using sex as a way to vision (the scorpion). Its visionary power is stressed by the inlaid eyes being placed in something similar to telescopic tubes. The same scary eyes are seen on two eagles put on the top of two pillars in the temple court outside.


Reconstruction, Tell Halaf II,p.68.



To the left and right the hunter is seen shooting the bull and the stag.

The bull carrying the central god is standing in a mountainous landscape where the hunter, easily recognisable by his heavy kilt, turns his bow and arrow towards a goat eating from the tree of life. Although the central god is the high god standing on his bull, everything in this temple seems to stand under the sign of the great hunter.

The goddess is standing on the back of a she-lion with a small cub sucking her between the legs. The many stone-slabs show a scenario not so different from what could be seen in the paradisos in the great temple of Mabbug in Roman times. They show 35 trees, 10 lions, bull, horse, goats by the tree of life, boar, leopard, eagle, ostrich, hare, beaver, and lions fighting bulls. To that is added a lot of composite animals: winged lion, winged lion with an eagle´s head and a scorpion´s tail, winged lion with a human face, winged lion with both the face of a human and the face of a lion, winged lion with two heads, winged lion with the tail of a bird and the horns of a bull.

There is also a lot of hunting-scenes: hunting for lions, bull, eagle, goose(?), and a giant fish. The hunters are 11 bowmen, 8 armed with curved clubs, a weapon also carried by the male gods. Finally there is a warrior who seems to carry the skin of a beast of pray wrapped around his kilt (Moortgat asks if it could be a shield?[1])



Beautiful decorations are found on the walls. The stepped pinnacle must be a symbol of the primordial mountain. There are different variations of the snake coil. Mystical quadrangle. Mystical rosette. Tell Halaf II, p.73.


The composite lion-like creatures are to be interpreted as Genii, “helping demons” (especially the winged ones). From a much later period we have an episode told in Photios Bibliotheca, ch.203: a man saw a meteor falling from the sky in the neighbourhood of Emesa. In that very moment a giant lion approached the spot where it had fallen, but disappeared immediately afterwards. When the man asked the stone what god it belonged to, it answered Gennaios, a god honoured in Hierapolis in the bodily shape of a lion. The composite animals and humans are the train of demons following the great hunter. The inner chambers are interesting by the fact that they do not contain any platform or niche for the idol, but in the biggest room was found a square stone-plate in a frame with wheels underneath, perhaps some mobile fireplace. In our opinion the inner chambers were dining rooms for a marzeah, serving the hunter and dining in the presence of helping demons and the spirits of the deceased. But not only dining: a so-called “Tierkapelle” is shown on one of the slabs (III,t.100). It shows the orgiastic changing of the participants into lions, dogs, and donkey. The donkey even being very, very dirty. A decoration on a musical instrument from 2600 B.C. excavated in Ur shows Gilgamesh/the hunter putting two divine bulls into submission. His followers, the panther and the lion, are bringing food and drink, the donkey is playing music, and the bear, the scorpion, and a little goat are dancing.



A Mesopotamian Seal shows lion and donkey drinking together (Frankfort). Acc. to Moortgat [2] such "Animal Music-bands", “Tierkapellen” are rather common in the North Syrian, North Mesopotamian area in the post-Hurritic period.



That the hunt for the bull is also a spiritual symbol is seen from the motif on one of the slabs from Tell Halaf. Note the bird of ecstasy standing ready to fly on the head of the hunter (III,t.42). A very important motif is the hunter subduing a symbol of vegetation. Either the hunter will grab around the top of a plant or branch and brutally force it downwards, or he will enter a tree, or wrestle with it (III,t.31). This is the Lycourgos-motif already dealt with.



He is like Sandan world-pillar. The bullmen lifting the bird of ecstasy to make room for the "Knielauf" of the sun (the picture above in the chapt. The snake…) and the Lycourgos-man as world-pillar lifting the bird of ecstacy is almost the same motif. Ecstasy is primordial unity lifted to allow room for the sun to shine and man´s civilisation to develop.

Of special interest are the very massive stone idols, almost big cubes in massive stone showing a god or a goddess sitting on a box-like seat. The massive stone signals stability and eternity. It is the eternal house for a spirit passed into a transcendent status as one of the ´ilim or rephaim. All these idols have a small stone-cup for the offering of an alcoholic drink. It is the drinking of wine or beer that bridges the gap between the dead and the living. The statue of black basalt shown above (II,p.358,fig.8o) was originally placed in a small chapel with an opening towards east, but later a fortress wall was erected over the place, and the idol was covered by bricks. Under it is a small shaft with the urn and a few gifts.

[1] Tell Halaf III, t.19a. Moortgat is the editor of vol.III.

[2] Tammuz,p.22