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4c1aeb64cc61163ec6f3a5c19748dd51--goddesses-bible

The Moabites, ancient antagonists of Israel, have showed up in the last couple of posts about ancient magic, pestilence, and idols.  You are probably wondering if the Moabites, who controlled the territory on the East of the Sea of the Dead Sea (in what is now Jordan), had their own angry deity.  Oh boy did they ever!  The Moabite God was named Chemosh,  a name which seems to mean “destroyer,” “subduer,” or, more intriguingly, “fish god.”  

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The Mesha Stela (now in the Louvre)

Frustratingly though, we don’t know much about Chemosh.  The only good sources we have are the Hebrew Bible and the Mesha Stela which was erected in 840 BCE by King Mesha of Moab.  The black basalt stela explains how the faithlessness of the Moabites caused Chemosh to become angry and turn away from his people which allowed the Israelites to take advantage of Moab (before King Mesha came along and put things back in good order).   The Bible tells this story from the Israelite perspective (Numbers 22 and 23) and then there is subsequent angry mention of Chemosh in the 2nd Book of Kings in the context of some of Solomon’s wives (Solomon allowed worship of Chemosh in order to keep his Moabite wives happy).

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The God of Israel, of course, made it big and went global.  Because of this, some of his early small-time adversaries are now portrayed as demons or dark gods.   Whereas the Chemosh of the Moabites was a serene and powerful old man who was perhaps not unlike Ptah (or Yweh!), the Chemosh portrayed by Christians is a hellish monster of darkness, cruelty, and disease (you can see him up there at the very top in an illustration which looks like it could have come from a Sunday School book from Palmer Methodist).  Also, I seem to recall that some of the Dungeons & Dragons books which I read while growing up featured a God named Chemosh who was the deity of plague!  So it goes for history’s losers, I guess.  Maybe Balaam needed to try harder (although, in fairness, the D&D plague-themed Chemosh does look pretty metal)!

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A Satellite Photo of Modern Gotland (reference needed)

A Satellite Photo of Modern Gotland (reference needed)

Tonight we travel once again to the ancient and mysterious island of Gotland, the largest island in the Baltic Sea.  Ferrebeekeeper has already visited Gotland as the (possible) land of origin of the enigmatic Goths and as a place which is absolutely covered in beautiful medieval churches, but in this post we push further back in Gotland’s mysterious past to contemplate an ancient sculpture.   The Smiss stone (Smisstenen) also known as the Ormhäxan (which means snake-witch stone) is a carved picture stone shaped like a huge piece of toast which shows three zoomorphic serpent creatures entwined in a sort of triskelion pattern.  Beneath the creatures, an apparently female human figure with legs spread holds aloft two writing serpents.

The Snake Witch Stone (unknown sculptor, ca. 400-600 AD)

The Snake Witch Stone (unknown sculptor, ca. 400-600 AD)

As you can see, the actual stone is even more amazing than the already astonishing description (I get the sense that the red paint was added by a later hand, but, alas, I am unable to find an explanation for the brightness of the color).  The stone was discovered in an ancient cemetery in Smiss in the När parish.  Scholars and archaeologists have dated the stone’s construction back to 400–600 AD, the late Vendel era when great migrations changed the Germanic world–but all of the experts disagree concerning the stone’s meaning and purpose.

The "Hall of Picture Stones" at the Gotland Museum in Visby

The “Hall of Picture Stones” at the Gotland Museum in Visby

Some historians (the reputable ones) believe the stone shows a pagan goddess or sorceress…perhaps Hyrrokkin (a snake wielding giantess) or maybe some unknown deity left out of the Eddas.  Other thinkers have speculated that the stone depicts a Minoan snake goddess (although who knows how she got to Gotland from Crete), Odin making love (?), or Daniel in the lion’s den (???).   I am usually good at determining how people perceive visual art, but I confess to being perplexed by these latter interpretations.  The lovely knots and sinuous serpentine animals look very much like Celtic, Pictish, and Mercian designs to me–which would comfortably place the stone’s figures within the cryptic North Sea pantheon of late antiquity.  Unfortunately, there is little and less which is certain about the faith and folktales of that time.  We are left with a haunting beautiful sacred stone, but like so many of the most compelling statues from humanity’s history, the real meaning slips from our grasp and we are left with haunting conjecture.

The Snake-Witch Stone surrounded by other ancient picture stones from Gotland

The Snake-Witch Stone surrounded by other ancient picture stones from Gotland

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