R is for Resheph

Published April 21, 2016 by Iphis of Scyros


I know the headgear looks Egyptian, but this IS Phoenician, and it's probably Resheph...probably. Wikimedia Commons.

I know the headgear looks Egyptian, but this IS Phoenician, and it’s probably Resheph. Wikimedia Commons.

Resheph was a protective Phoenician god who specialized in war and plague.  This might make him the inverse of two of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse…

One of the surviving Ugarit texts refers to him as the “Lord of Arrows,” a title which implies that he could also participate in combat and/or cause plagues.  That might make him an inspiration of those same two Horsemen, since the Phoenicians (AKA the Canaanites) were enemies of the Israelites.  (Wait…are the Horsemen of the Apocalypse actually Biblical?  I here reveal my utter ignorance of all things to do with the religion in which I was supposedly raised…but even if they are Biblical, I’m suddenly thinking they’d actually be New Testament, and therefore likely have nothing at all to do with Resheph, regardless of his ability or inability to cause as well as prevent plagues.  You know what, forget I mentioned any of this.)

In any case, the people of Ugarit associated Resheph with Nergal, a Mesopotamian god of war who also had some associations with plague, so he probably did have non-protective associations with war and plague, as well as protective.  (Sort of like praying to Ares that your town not come under siege, I guess?  Or praying that he defeat your enemies for you before they could actually arrive at your town?  That kind of prayer probably happened…though perhaps more to Athene than to Ares, if we’re talking ancient Greece.)

Resheph was also associated with deer and gazelles, and was popular in Egypt for some time, where his function shifted to being god of horses and chariots.  (This may explain his headgear in the bronze in the photo…)

Anyway, the title of “Lord of Arrows” in conjunction with the whole plague issue brings to mind a certain other ancient deity…

Phoibos Apollo heard his prayer.  Down from Olympos he strode, angry at heart, carrying bow and quiver:  the arrows rattled upon his shoulders as the angry god moved on, looking black as night.  He sank upon his heel not far from the ships, and let fly a shaft; terrible was the twang of his silver bow.  First he attacked the mules and dogs, then he shot his keen arrows at the men, and each hit the mark:  pyres of the dead began to burn up everywhere and never ceased.  [The Iliad, Book I, W.H.D. Rouse translation]

And no, he wasn’t killing them outright:  those were arrows of plague.  (In the following meeting of the Achaian kings and princes, Achilles specifically points out to Agamemnon that “war and pestilence” have joined forces to drive them away from Troy.)

So Apollo and Resheph are actually very similar.  And I’m not the only one who thinks so…nor is it only modern people thinking so.  The people of Cyprus saw Apollo and Resheph as being one and the same.

Apollo may be the Greek adaptation of an Anatolian (or perhaps specifically Trojan) guardian god, perhaps exactly the sort of protective god that Resheph was.  And Apollo, too, was associated with horses, as he’s frequently tending to horses (or cattle):  when his father punished him by forcing him to serve Admetos as a slave for a year, Apollo tended to his horses, and he also drove the chariot Admetos needed to win his loyal wife Alcestis; when Apollo and Poseidon agreed to build the walls of Troy for Laomedon, in some versions Apollo merely tended Laomedon’s herds (which might mean cattle, but Laomedon’s horses were famous, while his cattle were, well, not); and I’m pretty sure there are other examples, but all I can come up with off the top of my head are the cattle Hermes stole from him a few days after his own birth.  (If those actually are the only examples, then I should say he was “sometimes” tending to horses instead of “frequently”.  Or perhaps even “occasionally”.)

From Apollo we kind of circle back to Nergal.  The Hittite text known as the Alaksandu Treaty (between the Hittite king and Alaksandu of Wilusa (Alexander of Ilios, in modern English spellings)) mentions a god named Apaliunas who protects the city.  Apaliunas is believed to be the Hittite rendition of an early form of Apollo (closer to the Cypriot form of the god’s name than the Athenian form we’re familiar with), but it’s also believed to be either the same or related to Aplu, a Hurrian god of plague, which in turn probably came from one of Nergal’s epithets in Akkadian.

So, while Resheph doesn’t seem anything like these other gods linguistically, he’s from the same basic region and time period, and all the others are actually related to each other…or they might be, anyway.  Which does make it at least theoretically possible that Resheph, too, is related to the others, and there just isn’t a linguistic connection, or at least not one obvious to non-linguists like myself.

But there are actually a lot of other plague gods out there.  In fact, there are enough gods of disease (to say nothing of the demons and evil spirits) that I’m only going to address a few that have other aspects in common with Resheph.  (And sometimes with Apollo, since our knowledge of Resheph is limited, but he and Apollo are enough alike that there’s at least the possibility that they may have shared more aspects than we currently know.)  For no particular reason, we’re going to move eastward, shifting from Phoenicia to India, where we’ll meet up with our next god.

Rudra is primarily a storm god, but he’s also a god of disease.  Like Resheph, he’s associated with the bow and arrow.  And like Apollo, he’s considered a healer as well as a bringer of illness.  (At the time the Iliad was written, Paion was the god of healing, but eventually he and Apollo were combined into one, and Paion became merely an epithet of Apollo.  Though Apollo then loses mot of his healing aspects to his son Asclepios, of course.)

Moving further east to Tibet and Sri Lanka, we’ll meet Lhamo.  Now, Lhamo is not a god:  she’s a demon who brings disease wherever she goes.  But she does this by firing her arrows of plague.  And she also have a protective function, having a role to protect the Dalai Lama.  She also sends oracles to those who can interpret them, which is a very Apollo thing to do, but I doubt Resheph had any prophetic aspects.

One last jaunt eastward, this time a very long distance, all the way to the New World.  The Mexica (AKA the Aztecs) had a god called Xipe Totec.  (The letter “x” in Nahuatl is actually pronounced as an “sh,” btw.  After listening to half a semester or more of students reading aloud papers and totally failing to remember the pronunciation consistently, I feel compelled to point that out.)  Xipe Totec was a very multipurpose god.  His functions ranged from fertility and agriculture to silversmithing.  But in there somewhere were both war and disease.

Thinking about it, I’m actually surprised I didn’t find more gods/demons/etc. who were associated with both war and disease.  War and plague are quite natural bedfellows, especially in eras where war was very common and in which soap (and thus proper hygiene) had yet to be invented.

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