15. Palmyra


In the Palmyra area there have been discovered a number of altars, dedicated to the so-called “Anonymous God”, also called “Zeus the Highest”. They are half-columns with a very small bowl only for incense, while the altars dedicated to other gods have space enough for the sacrifice of different kinds of offerings[1]. These altars of stone are, acc. to Seyrig, erected to be an everlasting witness to the sacrifice, and he mentions the North African custom after sacrificing the first born of burying a vessel with the ashes under a stele, obelisk or column. By a temple outside Carthage was found a veritable “petrified wood” of such “memorials”. It is also most likely that the “Anonymous God”, also with the epithet “He whose name is blessed in eternity”, has close connections to the North African Saturn, whose name could not be pronounced openly either, but whose nature as world-pillar was symbolised by the pillar of incense on the altar. The sweet-smelling column of incense was a mean to mystical-ritual union with the godhead, a modification of the ritual where the man who was sacrificed literally (or through a substitute)“went through the fire” to unity with the god. J.Scheftelowitz [2] draws attention to the fact that funeral fire was originally thought to carry the soul of the deceased up to heaven, cf. the angel ascending and descending through the column of fire, Judg 13,20.

The scene below could be understood as a burial procession (SYRIA 15, 1934, pl. XIX, Goodenough, IX, 183). Goodenough directs our attention to the four men with raised hands and an aura around their heads. They are those who have already reached apotheosis, greeting the deceased at his arrival in their world, and they are all having an instrument in the left hand, which could be the famous throwing-club, but is perhaps only a stick. There are also two groups of weeping women. But most interesting is the horse walking in front of the camel carrying the shrouded body. It has its reins hanging loose down from the bridle. It is a symbol of the horse of the sun. A woman is kneeling in front of the horse beside a soldier-like man, perhaps the sun hero.



The central position of the horse in the scenery makes Goodenough able to compare the scene with a memorial from Palmyra. In the freeze under the couch is seen a horse with an empty saddle ready to carry the deceased to the land beyond. The deceased is standing between two columns in a small “gate of the sun”. (Two capitals are seen, one over each of his shoulders.) The man to his left is the hunter with scabbard and bow. The man two the right is the sun hero offering him his horse. Above, the deceased is seen resting in the land beyond, with a woman at his side: the highest existence is a union of male and female[3] .


Apuleius Met. XI,8 describes a procession in honour of Isis. At the end of it was seen a monkey dressed as Ganymedes, with a Phrygian hat and a gold goblet in his hand, and a “certain weakened senile person” and a donkey with wings glued to his back. The monkey is a symbol of the orgiastic thiasos as a mean to reaching the apotheosis of Ganymedes. The donkey and the senile person were, acc to the explanation of Apuleius, Bellerophontes and Pegasus - in my opinion the winged horse of the sun hero ready to give the weakened man the ascension to heaven he longs for.

Harmonia had a golden piece of jewellery consisting of an snake coiled up in a circle, and in its double mouth an eagle with four wings. The snake was dotted full with stars on its back and adorned with 7 precious stones, among them a moon-stone, and “at the centre” a “shining” Indian agate (for the sun moving forth from India, considered the land of the sunrise) Nonnos Dion. V 144. The snake is the kundalini snake coiling around cosmos, being its dark periphery, but over the gap of the abyss the mystical bird is hovering. Something similar is seen on a relief from Palmyra: the holy eagle of Baalshamin, the bird of eternity hovering over the snake. Along the snake are seen 6 planets (The north side of the temple of Bel. Drawn by Carro, SYRIA 14, 1933, p.255).



The next picture shows the primordial twins: their branches are forced into unity by the eagle (Robert Wood, The Ruins of Palmyra, t.18). The same motif of the eagle trying to hold the twins together is seen in another picture (R.Dusseaud, Notes de myth. Syriennes.1903, p.11, fig.3).

The twins are the symbol of duality and creation, the snake and the mystical bird are the symbol of mystic vision and of unity. The characteristic curl down the neck of the bird, the symbol of  coiling kundalini, can only just be seen on the drawing by Robert Wood. The symbol of duality attacking primordial matter must be the meaning af the next picture (SYRIA 15, 1934). The Typhon-like figure is attacked by a god armed with a bow and riding in a chariot, and from the other side a god riding a horse, helped by his dog.




First among the gods watching is Shadrapha with his symbol, the snake coiling up his spear. The material about this god is collected and interpreted by J.Starcky[4]. His name has to be translated as “Healing Demon”, and Starcky compares with the rephaim of the Bible. He is mostly accompanied by a snake and a scorpion, or a snake at each shoulder. Two snakes coiling around each other can also be used as his symbol. A small tesseres shows, on one side, a snake with two heads, and on the reverse a scorpion. On another the reverse is two snakes rising to look at the mystical rosette. On another a snake coiling three and a half times round itself [5]. He is “a chthonic and infernal god” [6].

[1] H.Seyrig, “L´offrande des cippe de pierre au dieu anonyme”, SYRIA 14, 1933, pp.263-6

[2] Der Seelen- und Unsterblichkeitsglaube im A.T.”, ARW 19, p.220.

[3] See also H. Ingholt, Berytos II, 1935, pp.63-7 & SYRIA XVIII, 1937, pl. IV, p.16.

[4] SYRIA 26, 1949, pp.67-81.

[5] SYRIA 26, pl. IV, no.12, no.5, no.2.

[6] Starcky. p.73.