22. Harran: the God of the left hand


In Harran the old Syrian religion survived the coming of the Muslim faith under the somewhat confusing name of Sabaeans (= baptists) taken to gain the acceptance of the Moslems. En-Nedim´s Fihrist (987 A.C.) quotes two older sources: a Christian, Abu-Said Wahb ben Ibrahim, who gives information about the holy feasts & festivals of the Sabaeans, and a very small pamphlet being a translation of one of their own writings with some information about their 5 mysteries. Chwolson has rightly seen that all the mysteries are centred on the worship of the god Shemal (“Left”). This name is very interesting because of the occult religiosity in India called the left hand tantra.

In the Antique world the left hand was connected with the serving of demons and chthonic powers (Plut. Quaest. Rom. ch. 26) and Shemal is by the Sabaeans the Lord of the“genii and demons” just like Shemael in rabbinical litterature and Zohar. He seems to be the highest god for the Sabaeans because his name could also be translated “North” (as right also means “South”), and the Sabaeans pray with their faces turned north. In Ephrem the Syrian the descendants of Cain represented the “left side” (sml`), the descendants of Seth the right side [1]. On the 1st of Ajar some rituals have to be carried out to the honour of Shemal: there is smelling at roses, eating and drinking. On the 27th of Chaziran (chazîr = “wild pig”) secret rituals to the honour of Shemal with the epithet “He who lets his arrows fly”, cf Resheph´s epithet “with the arrow”: the priest shoots 12 burning arrows into the air, a ceremony repeated 15 times, and each time the priest will run around on all four like a dog and pick up the arrows and take them back. Resheph with the arrow is he who hits man with pestilence and fever, so the ceremony should be interpreted as magic designed to hold back the arrows of sickness.

In the month of Ab a newborn boy child is cooked and when the flesh is softened by cooking, it is mixed with fine flour and made into small cakes eaten at the mysteries of Shemal. The pamphlet speaks about the youth to be initiated as lambs and calves from the herd. They have to learn that dogs and ants and ravens are their brothers, the Seth-animal, the black thief and the small animals living under the earth and helping Psyche in her quest for Amor-Resheph. By the last initiation seven cups standing on a line have to be emptied and an 8th standing in an angle for Shemal. The content of the last cup is spoken of as a mystical drink. On the 27th of Chaziran 7 portions are presented to “the seven gods (and) to Shemal”. As Baal is followed by 7 servants, 8 boars, so the number seven is always the number of demons: 7 Sibitti are kept imprisoned in hell [2] “seven are they, seven are they… the evil spirits”, so it is said in a Babylonian song. W.Eichrodt [3] compares with the 7 revenging angels, Ez 9,1f. They come from the north, and 6 of them carry - not axes, but hammers. The name of the dead hunter, Eshmun,  can be translated “the 8th”, he is followed by 7 kabirim (heroes from the past, inventors of the first ship). The seven servants from hell are probably shown on a relief of the sun found at Palmyra.


H.Seyrig, "Bas-relief palmyrénien dedié au soleil", SYRIA 36,1959, pp.58-60:

The inscription goes “to Sun, Greatest god” and under the portrait of the god 7 small figures all tied with a rope fastened to a ring round their necks. They are demons forced to serve the god who is the master of great magic, indicated by the raised kundalini-snake coiling round his halo.

Now back to the Sabaeans. We cannot agree with Jan Hjärpe [4] who thinks Wahb´s information about cannibalism is malicious gossip, and at least “very dubious”. En-Nedim goes on to tell about the month of Tammuz (July): “Half way through this month there is the feast of el-Buqat, that is the weeping women… celebrated to the honour of their god Tâuz. The women weep for him because he was so cruelly killed by his Master, his bones ground in a mill, and then scattered by the wind.” [5]

As we can see, Tammuz was identified with the lifegiving force in the flower and the cereals. So the boy cooked and mixed with the flour is a symbol of the god. After this feast for the women only the men will celebrate their feast on the 27th. It is Shemals mysterion to the honour of “genii,demons and gods”, where they bake cakes of flour, berries and nuts in the ashes. During their feast the women would eat nothing made of flour out of sorrow for Tammuz, but the men use a very primitive way of making cakes of flour when they, after the habit of shepherds, bake the cakes in ashes as if the oven was not yet invented. So it seems likely that Tâus was killed by Shemal and his demons and after that eaten, and that this is what the mysteries celebrated by the men are all about.


[1] T.Kronholm, Motifs from Genesis 1-11 in the Genuine Hymns of Ephrem,1978.

[2] Reallexikon der Assyriologie,II,pp.396ff.

[3] Der Prophet Hesekiel,I,1959,p.64.

[4] Analyse critique des traditions arabes sur les Sabéens harraniens,1972.

[5] Chwolson, Die Ssabier.II, p.27.