By: Jeffrey P. Emanuel
Even casual readers of the Hebrew Bible are familiar with the Philistines, portrayed as the Israelites’ perpetual antagonists from the time of the Judges to the postexilic period, when Zechariah prophesied an end to the “pride of the Philistines” (Zech. 9:6). Mentioned nearly 300 times in the Bible, the Philistines are accused of virtually every quality, trait, and action that Israelites found unsettlingly or abhorrent, including paganism, idol worship, lack of circumcision, and consuming unclean animals.
Some of the accusations were true; others almost certainly were not. But the Bible’s demonization was so thorough that “Philistine” is still used to this day to refer to an uncultured individual or population. But how well does the Bible’s depiction dovetail with historical and archaeological evidence? The answer begins by considering Philistine religion, as described in the Bible and understood from excavations of four of their major cities, with an emphasis on the critical period of the Early Iron Age (roughly 1200-1000 BCE).
The transition from the Late Bronze Age to the Early Iron Age after 1200 BCE was a time of major changes around the Eastern Mediterranean. The Mycenaean palaces and Hittite empire collapsed, major cities like Ugarit, a key port on the coast of Syria, were destroyed, migratory peoples were on the move, and Egypt began its decline from the unified New Kingdom into the fragmented Third Intermediate Period, when it would be ruled by dynasties from Libya and Nubia. The Philistines, like the Israelites of the biblical narrative, were among the groups on the move, arriving in Canaan in the late second millennium BCE and establishing their “pentapolis,” or five major cities of Ashdod, Ashkelon, Gaza, Ekron, and Gath (Josh. 13:2-3).
The Philistines are synonymous with the Peleset, one of the groups who appear in Egyptian records as invaders by land and sea at the end of the Late Bronze Age. Egypt’s interactions with these “Sea Peoples” are vividly depicted on the walls at Medinet Habu, the mortuary temple of the pharaoh Ramesses III, who ruled ca. 1185 to 1153 BCE. Two imposing reliefs show battles on land and at sea between Egyptian forces and various groups of “Sea Peoples.” The sea battle, perhaps the first ever depicted, is notable for its portrayal of Sea Peoples vessels as Mycenaean-style galleys, and for the appearance of new maritime technology (loose-footed sail, brailed rig, and crow’s nest) on both sides’ ships. The land battle depicts ox-carts, women, and children alongside the invading warriors, suggesting a migratory movement, which is in keeping with the archaeological understanding of the Philistines as immigrants to the southern Levant. Medinet Habu also provides the first documentary evidence for the Philistines as a group, who are mentioned in three separate inscriptions.
Not long after these events, they seem to have settled on the southern coastal plain of Canaan, founding their pentapolis and living in what archaeologist Lawrence Stager, the excavator of Ashkelon, described as “a diverse community of warriors, farmers, sailors, merchants, rulers, shamans, priests, artisans, and architects.” Four of the five major Philistine cities have been excavated, with only Gaza remaining inaccessible under the heavily populated modern city. There are enough differences between each to suggest that the people we refer to with the term “Philistines” were by not culturally homogenous. But similarities create a template of Aegean and Cypriot (“Cypro-Aegean”) traits for Philistine sites, and for some customs and material culture. This includes cult-related objects and architecture.
The biblical description of Philistine religion seems straightforward. Their chief god in the Early Iron Age was Dagon, and his sacrificial cult was practiced at temples in at least two Philistine cities, Gaza and Ashdod. The former was home to the last act of Samson, who brought down the building by collapsing its supporting pillars (Judg. 16:26-30), while the latter was home to a battle between the captured Ark of the Covenant and the divine image of Dagon (1 Sam. 5:1-8). The Philistines were also credited with worshiping “Ashtaroth” (I Sam. 31:10), while later, in the 9th century BCE, a divinatory cult of Ba’al-Zebub was present at Ekron (2 Kings 1:2-16).
Digging into the biblical narrative both raises new questions and shines a light on the Bible’s pejorative discussion of Philistine culture, including religious practices. Ba’al-Zebub (“lord of flies”), for example, is almost certainly a corruption of Ba’al-Zebul (“Ba’al the prince”). Dagon, on the other hand, despite being presented as a deity exclusively associated with the Philistines, has no place in a southern Canaanite pantheon – let alone in one maintained by Cypro-Aegean immigrants.
Dagon, in his linguistically earlier form Dagan, was an established deity in Syria and Mesopotamia by the late third millennium BCE. By the Late Bronze Age, his influence had spread as far west as Ugarit, where he was an equivalent of El, father of Ba’al. However, by the later years of the second millennium BCE his influence had waned significantly, and there is no clear evidence outside the Bible to connect Dagon to the southern Levant at all!
The most convincing argument for Dagon in the Philistine pantheon was made by the late historian Itamar Singer, who suggested the Philistines encountered Dagan along their route to the southern Levant and integrated him into their pantheon as an equivalent of the Great Mother Goddess, perhaps Cretan Rhea or Anatolian Kybele, whose gender they altered to conform to this new identity. While there is still no material or written extrabiblical evidence for Dagon’s presence in Canaan, Singer’s theory may be supported by the recent discovery of an Early Iron Age kingdom of Palistin centered on Tell Ta’yinat in the Plain of Antioch. If this polity and its people are associated with the Philistines, then we have a possible connection between Dagan’s Bronze Age territory and the southern coastal plain. However, until extrabiblical evidence is found for the presence of Dagon in Philistine cult, this hypothesis remains untested.
The Bible itself displays confusion about the Philistine pantheon. Judges 10:6, for example, reads, “The Israelites again did what was offensive to the LORD. They served the Baalim and the Ashtaroth…and the gods of the Philistines.” This verse, an extended version of a common Deuteronomistic theme of forsaking Yahweh and falling into worship of the Canaanite deities Ba’al, Asherah, and Astarte (Judg. 2:11–13, 3:7, 8:33; 1 Sam. 12:10), can be read as evidence that “the Baalim and the Ashtaroth” were associated with Canaanites but not with Philistines, whose gods were separate and distinctive from their contemporaries.
Just who these “gods of the Philistines” were, into whose worship the Israelites strayed, is never made clear, despite specific references to Dagon in other Deuteronomistic narratives. However, a Philistine connection to Ashtaroth is specifically mentioned in 1 Sam. 31:10, as Saul’s weapons were placed in this temple after his death. Thus the Bible depicts the West Semitic pantheon, and Canaanite religion as a whole, as being as attractive to Philistines as it was to the continually relapsing Israelites.
The material evidence for early Philistine cult is less straightforward than the Bible’s description. It consists primarily of handmade figurines and other Aegean–Canaanite style items such as lion-headed cups and incised scapulae in the Cypriot tradition, as well as a small number of altars and buildings. Figurines, the most common Iron I find, are divided into two types: “Philistine Psi” and “Ashdoda.” As archaeologist Michael Press, an authority on Philistine figurines, has noted, both both represent females, and are frequently decorated in geometric fashion similar to Philistine ceramics, whose form and decoration is derived from Aegean and Cypriot styles. The former takes its name from the figurine’s form (upraised arms give the appearance of the Greek letter Psi) and seems to be a direct continuation of the Mycenaean Psi.
Ashdoda, on the other hand, is uniquely Philistine. Named for the city of Ashdod, where the most complete example has been found, this figurine represents a seated woman, featuring a polos headdress and appliqued breasts, whose body has been fused with her chair. As Press has shown, both experienced a surge in popularity in the 11th century; however, the Mycenaean-derived Philistine Psi is found in 12th century contexts, while the uniquely-Philistine Ashdoda, with its combination of Aegean and Cypriot elements, does not appear before around 1100 BCE. Both forms went out of use by the end of the beginning of the first millennium. Ashdoda in particular has been seen as evidence that the Philistines worshiped a Great Mother Goddess, but since most Ashdoda figurines – including the complete example – have been found in pits and rubble piles, rather than on floors or identifiable contexts, Ashdoda’s nature, like her cult, remains unclear.
Few Early Iron Age Philistine temples have been found. However, a temple with two pillars, similar to that described in the Samson saga (although not large enough to hold 3,000 people on its roof!), was found at Tell Qasile, a city likely founded by the Philistines in the late 12th century. A slightly smaller structure, used from the 12th century into the early Iron II, was found at Gath (modern Tell es-Safi), suggesting that the two-column design was a regular feature of Philistine cultic architecture. At Ashkelon, a lime-plastered, four-horned installation in the center of a multi-roomed structure may be a Philistine horned altar. At Ashdod, a large building whose wide central hall featured two columns and an Aegean-style hearth is either a cultic structure or an upscale private dwelling. Just south of this was another building with a unique apsidal southern end that has been connected to the cult of Ashdoda because of its proximity the complete figurine’s findspot.
Our difficulty interpreting the archaeological evidence is compounded by the question of just how representative they are of Early Iron Age Philistine cult. A similar situation is found in one of the Philistines’ possible points of origin: Mycenaean Greece. Archaeological picture from the Aegean –primarily iconography and figurines – suggests a small, exclusively-female Mycenaean pantheon, possibly dominated by the Great Mother Goddess, much like our current picture of the Philistines’ Ashdoda-centric cult. But the Mycenaean evidence contains something absent from early Philistine culture: Linear B texts from Mycenaean Greece and Crete, which meticulously record the palaces’ involvement in Bronze Age cult. They reveal dozens of deities, including familiar names like Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Dionysos, and more. The records from Knossos, for example, include at least 34 male and female deities. The mixed pantheon in the written evidence directly contradicts the all-female terracotta figurines and other iconography that make up our archaeological evidence.
Without texts to complement archaeological evidence, a great deal about Philistine religion will remain unknown. Identifying the deity represented by Ashdoda, and its implications both for the Philistine cult of Dagon and for the reconstruction of the early Philistine pantheon as a whole, all the more problematic.
The biblical writers can name the Philistines’ chief deity, but uninscribed material remains cannot. Further, the human element in narrative – innate biases, ulterior motives, and purposes that may have been clear to the intended audience but are lost on us – can make it unreliable as a source of information about a specific culture. This is doubly true when, like the Bible’s portrayal of the Philistines, such descriptions are dripping with polemic.
Of course, “archaeological silence” is not firm ground from which to make an argument. Without contemporary written evidence we will continue to have significant gaps in our understanding of early Philistine cult. Hopefully, in the not too distant future, new evidence will help remedy that situation.
Jeffrey P. Emanuel is CHS Fellow in Aegean Archaeology & Prehistory and Associate Director of Academic Technology at Harvard University.
All content provided on this blog is for informational purposes only. The American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR) makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this blog or found by following any link on this blog. ASOR will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information. ASOR will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. The opinions expressed by Bloggers and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not reflect the opinions of ASOR or any employee thereof.
For Further Reading
Jeffrey P. Emanuel. 2016. “Dagon Our God: Iron I Philistine Religion in Text and Archaeology.” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 16: 22-66.
Michael D. Press. 2012. “(Pytho)Gaia in Myth and Legend: The Goddess of the Ekron Inscription Revisited.” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 365: 1–25.
Michael D. Press. 2012. Ashkelon 4: The Iron Age Figurines of Ashkelon and Philistia. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns
Itamar Singer. 1992. “Towards the Image of Dagon the God of the Philistines.” Syria 69: 431–450.
Lawrence E. Stager. 1991. Ashkelon Discovered: From Canaanites and Philistines to Romans and Moslems. Washington, DC: Biblical Archaeology Society.