Divinity of the High Places, and Sacred Stones

by Esteban

“The sacred mounds of Babylonia, in fact, like the Gilgals of Palestine, appear to have been the sites of older structures which had long fallen into decay, and around which fancy and tradition were allowed to play freely.

They had in this way become veritable hills–tumuli, as we should term them in our modern archeological vocabulary–and as such deserved the venerable title of sadu, or “mountain.” New temples like that of “the mountain of the world” could be named after them, but this did not imply a recollection that the sacred mounds had once been temples themselves.

They were rather, like the mountains of the eastern frontier, the everlasting altars of the gods, on whose summits worship could most fittingly be paid to the deities of heaven. And, like the mountains, they were something more than altars; they were themselves divine, the visible habitations of the spirits of the air.

It is possible that Prof. Friedrich Delitzsch is right in proposing to see in the Assyrian sadu, or “mountain,” the explanation of the Hebrew title of the Deity, El Shaddai. At all events, God is compared to a rock in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy, xxxii. 15, Psalms, xviii. 2), and the worship of sacred stones was widely spread through the Semitic world.

Between the sacred mounds of Babylonia, however, and the sacred stones of Semitic faith, there was a wide difference, answering to a difference in the minds of the two races to whom these separate cults belonged.

The sacred stone was a Beth-el, or “house of god;” no habitation of a mere spirit, but the dwelling-place of deity itself. Its sanctity was not inherent; it was sacred because it had been transformed into an altar by the oil that was poured out upon it in libation, or the priest who was consecrated to its service. The worship of those sacred stones was common to all the branches of the Semitic family.

The famous black stone of the Kaaba at Mecca is a standing witness of the fact. So firmly rooted was the belief in its divine character among the Arabs of Mohammed’s day that he was unable to eradicate it, but was forced to make a compromise with the old faith by attaching to the stone the traditions of the Old Testament.

The black stone, though more sacred than any others, did not stand alone. All around Mecca there were similar stones, termed Anzab, three of which may still be seen, according to Mr. Doughty, at the gates of the city, where they go by the names of IIobbal, Lâta and Uzza.

Northward of Mecca, at Medain-Saleh, the burial-place of the ancient kingdom of the Nabathaeans, Mr. Doughty has discovered niches in the rock containing sacred stones. Above one of them is an inscription which shows that the stone was the symbol or habitation of the god Auda (or Aera): “This is the place of prayer which Seruh the son of Tuka has erected to Auda of Bostra, the great god, in the month Nisan of the first year of king Malkhos.”

A.H. Sayce, Lectures on the Origin and Growth of Religion as Illustrated by the Religion of the Ancient Babylonians, 5th ed., London, 1898, pp. 407-8.