By Stuart Munro-Hay
10-1. The Pre-Christian Period
We are fortunate in having translations into Greek of the names of some of the gods mentioned in the Aksumite inscriptions (Ch. 11: 5). These indicate the identifications the Aksumites themselves found for their gods among the deities of the Greek pantheon. Of these, Astar was associated with Zeus, and Mahrem was paralleled with Ares. Beher, if his name is cognate with the Arabic word bahr, the sea, may be Poseidon, who was certainly worshipped in some equivalent form in Aksum, as the Monumentum Adulitanum (Ch. 11: 5) indicates. This interpretation is uncertain, however, since the names of the two deities Beher and Meder seem to derive from words meaning land or country in Ge`ez (see the note in Ullendorff 1973: 94, 1). It seems, therefore, that when they are joined with Astar the three form an Ethiopian trinity of either heaven, earth and sea, or one with a possibly agricultural significance. The trinity Heaven, Earth and Ares (in Greek), or Astar, Beher and Mahrem (Ge`ez) is also known from Ezana’s Geza `Agmai inscription (Ch. 11: 5).
The worship in Ethiopia of South Arabian gods (Ryckmans 1951: 19ff) like Astar (Venus), Ilmuqah (Sin, the moon, chief god and protector of the Sabaeans), Nuru (the luminous, the dawn), Habas (Hawbas, probably an aspect of the moon-god), Dhat Himyam (the incandescent) and Dhat Ba`adan (the distant) both female aspects of Shams, the sun, perhaps representing the summer and winter sun, is indicated by inscriptions on incense-altars and the like, and also by a number of rock inscriptions from the pre Aksumite period. One block, found in the walls of the basilican church at Enda Cherqos near Melazo, doubtless came from one of the pre-Aksumite sanctuaries, and is dedicated to what is essentially a solar triad, consisting of Venus, the moon in two aspects, and the sun in two aspects; Astar, Habas and Ilmuqah, Dhat-Himyam and Dhat Ba`adan. It has been suggested that some of these gods were still worshipped in Aksum, according to an interpretation of the inscription of GDR nagashi of Aksum on a bronze implement found at Addi Galamo (Atsbi Dera) as a dedication to Ilmuqah (Jamme 1957); but this interpretation, which included an unknown deity called Erg or Arg — and various theories constructed on it (Kobishchanov 1979: 48-9, 226) — appears to be wrong (Schneider 1984: 151). A number of other gods, of whom nothing further is known, are mentioned in pre-Aksumite inscriptions (Schneider 1973).
The Aksumite inscriptions do not mention Ilmuqah, but concentrate mainly on Astar, Beher, Meder and particularly Mahrem, identified with Ares. The latter was the Aksumite royal or dynastic god, who was regarded as the father of the king, and his invincible guard from danger. Possibly Mahrem had taken on some of Ilmuqah’s attributes. If he was the god honored on the coins, as is possible since he was the special royal patron, it may have been he who was represented by the disc and crescent formerly a characteristic of the old South Arabian coins and altars. Alternatively, these could have been the symbols of other gods of the Aksumite pantheon, or of its chief god Astar. Astar (Athtar in South Arabia), though a god in this case, bears the same name as the northern Semitic goddess Ishtar, Astarte, Ashtaroth and so on, the fertility deity represented by the planet Venus. Where a triad is mentioned he is always the first of the three, and was probably, therefore, the head of the Aksumite pantheon, as his identification with Zeus would also imply. In the translation (supposedly done in 678AD; see Trimingham 1952: 48 n. 1; Cerulli 1968: 20, questions this date) of the Greek version of Ecclesiasticus into Ge`ez, the word for theos (god) which the translators selected was Astar; in the final analysis the Ethiopian’s choice for a word to describe the Christian god was Egziabher, `Lord of the Land’ (in the sense of the whole world), using a combination employing the same word as the old divine name Beher. Beher and Mahrem were also masculine divinities, whilst Meder appears to have been feminine.
Mahrem, the war-god of the Aksumites, was also the royal and dynastic patron. The expansionist state, under kings who were war-leaders, is proclaimed by the inscriptions, which are almost exclusively on the subject of war; and these inscriptions particularly mention Mahrem/Ares as the helper of the king and the recipient of the thank-offerings after the campaigns (Ch. 11: 5). He is mentioned with other gods, sometimes apparently as part of a trinity. He possessed lands, flocks and herds, and prisoner-slaves (unless these were actually sacrificed to him), and gold, silver and bronze statues which were the gifts of the king. Ezana dedicated to him also the inscriptions themselves on which he detailed his conquests, accompanying these monuments with curses against anyone who interfered with them. He also offered to Mahrem a SWT and a BDH (in Greek COY’ATE and BE?IE); two words of unknown meaning (Bernand 1982; Geza `Agmai inscription, see Ch. 11: 5).
Sanctuaries of the older gods are known in Ethiopia from Yeha and the Hawelti-Melazo region, which includes the sites of Gobochela and Enda Cherqos. These sites are of particular interest in that they furnish information about the paraphernalia of the temples, from which one can gain some idea of the pre-Christian observances of Ethiopia. Though much of this material is pre-Aksumite, it is worth noting here since the old religion still persisted to a certain degree into Aksumite times.
At Yeha there is, of course, the famous temple, dating from the period of strongest Sabaean influence. The very existence of this large and very well-constructed structure on Ethiopian soil testifies to the importance of the cult practiced there. Later (and infinitely more humble) pre-Aksumite religious buildings are also known. At Gobochela was found a rectangular structure in an enclosure, with inscriptions on plaques and altars mentioning Ilmuqah (Leclant 1959ii). Incense-altars of South Arabian type still lay on a sort of raised bench in this `temple’, some bearing the disc and crescent symbol, or the club or mace also connected with Ilmuqah. Such altars testify to the use of aromatics in the worship of the gods in Ethiopia as well as Arabia. An inscription from Gobochela alluded to the dedication of an altar by a mukarrib of D`MT and Saba to Ilmuqah. Also found were the statue in white stone of an animal (probably a bull like the alabaster and schist examples found at Hawelti — see below), and two round altars on tripod legs, made of alabaster, comparable to two round altars with disc and crescent symbols and inscriptions found at Hawelti. At Enda Cherqos (de Contenson 1961ii) a rectangular basilican church dating to perhaps the fifth century was revealed, with, built into it, the remains of older inscriptions mentioning the gods Astar, Hawbas and Ilmuqah, DhatHimyam and Dhat-Ba`adan as well as the title `mukarrib of D`MT and Saba’ (Schneider 1961).
Illustration 55. The interior of the great pre-Aksumite temple at Yeha; the best preserved of all the ancient structures in the country.
At the site of Hawelti (de Contenson 1963ii) two more rectangular structures were found, surrounded with a sort of bench on which had been placed ex-voto pottery figures of bovids and other animals, including a leopard and a tusked boar, primitive models of steatopygous women (forming an interesting comparison with the female statuettes found at Adulis and Matara, see Ch. 12: 1 & 5), model houses, and miniature yokes. From here also came an elaborately-carved throne and a statue in white limestone (parts of others were found too) which has close stylistic connexions with another found at Addi Galamo near Atsbi Dera (Caquot and Drewes 1955). The latter is associated with a plinth bearing an inscription which has been interpreted as reading `That he might grant a child to Yamanat (YMNT)’ — (but see also Ryckmans 1958). Usually, the Hawelti `throne’ and statue are thought of as ex-voto offerings to the lord of the temple by richer citizens (de Contenson 1962); but Jacqueline Pirenne (1967) proposed that the two statues represented the divinity, and the covered thrones the naos, of each of the temples. She also suggested, with some likelihood, that some of the objects found at Gobochela, Hawelti and Enda Cherqos were actually older than the structures involved. They had been taken from a now-destroyed temple of the `Sabaean’ period, either by descendants of the original dedicators of the altars or by worshippers who still venerated the same gods but had lost the skill to produce such monuments. This would explain the juxtaposition of the finely carved altar, inscriptions, thrones, and statues with crude structures and rough pottery ex-voto objects. Hawelti also produced some bronze objects, rings and openwork plaques, similar to others found with pottery deposits in small pits at Sabea in the Agame district (Leclant and Miquel 1959). Numerous other articles came from the stele area and some apparently ritual deposits at Hawelti. The general impression is that the objects were left at the temple as reminders to the gods about a number of human affairs; childbirth or fertility in the family, crops and domestic animals, protection against wild animals, safety and prosperity of the house, and other such cares. Further possible ex-voto objects consist of crescents and phallic or female figures from Sembel-Cuscet (Asmara) and Aksum (Tringali 1987).
Both the temple at Yeha and the throne from Hawelti depict the ibex, the sacred animal connected with the worship of Ilmuqah. Perhaps the bull (also sacred to Ilmuqah) succeeded the ibex in popularity as an ex-voto offering in Ethiopia, since several bull figures have been found in Ilmuqah temples there, and one small schist image from Gobochela even has a dedication to Ilmuqah written on it (Leclant 1959: 50, pls. XXXIXXL; Drewes 1959: 95-7). The bull was also the symbol of Sin, the moon-god particularly venerated in the South Arabian kingdom of Hadhramawt, where the bull was depicted with the letters SYN on coins issued at the Hadrami royal castle called Shaqar in the capital, Shabwa. Most of these pre-Christian sites are marked by stelae, but it seems that they served as memorials or offering places rather than tomb-markers as later in Aksum. Apart from the disc and crescent symbols found on the altars, the later Matara and Anza stelae also bear these symbols, which may indicate that the great stelae at Aksum were similarly dedicated on the now-missing metal plaques at their summits. Pottery with the symbol has been found, and it appeared on the coins until the reign of Ezana, when the cross began to be used instead. The disc and crescent, however, presumably divested of its sacred character, continued to be used in Ethiopia as (apparently) a mint-mark on coins until the very end of the coinage (Munro-Hay 1984i: see Gersem, Armah).
Apart from the `state’ religions (if we may call them so) of the Sabaean or D`MT periods, there was probably an underlying stratum of more popular beliefs connected with animals, birds, and the various manifestations of nature, the weather, and so forth. It may be that some of these survived in magical rites connected with the kingship and enacted at the royal coronation, preserved by the continuance of that ceremony at Aksum in the time of the Solomonic restoration (see Ch. 7: 6). A priesthood, presumably arranged in some sort of hierarchy, would have served the gods and made the offerings and sacrifices. It seems quite likely that the king, claiming divine descent, may have held a prominent place in it, perhaps as high-priest, at least of the dynastic deity Mahrem. However, there is no indication of this in the surviving texts, and nothing is known of the personnel of the pre-Aksumite temples.
At the earliest period, the mukarribs of D`MT and Saba may have acted as both priest, offerer of sacrifices, and ruler, since these attributes are apparently represented in the meaning of the title (Ryckmans, J., 1951). Later, when the title mlkn (malik, king), and nagashi came into vogue, the greater part of the priestly side of the kingship may have been entrusted to one or several high-priests and their subordinates, but this is simply surmised.
Paribeni (1907: 469-70) found near his `Ara del Sole’, trenches with walls lined with stone (and in one case containing two rows of bricks), and filled with ashes. In the lower levels, these contained no other material but ashes, and Paribeni suggested that they were due to receive the material from animal cremations. He noted the care with which the pure ashes were deposited in the trenches, but added that there were no traces of carbonized bones. Around the Aksumite stelae, several deposits of carbonized bone were noted, and it seems very possible that dedicatory meals were prepared as part of the ceremonies of burial during the pagan period.