The ancient world was full of gods and goddesses, each with their own myths, attributes, and cults. Some of these deities were worshipped across different cultures and regions, while others were more local and specific. Among the most famous and influential gods were Zeus, the king of the Olympians in Greek mythology, and Bel, the chief god of Palmyra in Syria. But were these two gods related in any way? Did they share a common origin, or did they influence each other through cultural contact? In this article, we will explore the possible connections between Zeus and Bel, and see how they compare and contrast in their roles, symbols, and stories.
The Origins of Zeus and Bel
Zeus and Bel were both sky gods, who ruled over the heavens and the weather. They also had authority over other gods and humans, and were often called the father or the lord of all. However, their origins were quite different.
Zeus was the son of the Titans Cronus and Rhea, who ruled over the cosmos before the Olympians. His siblings were the gods Hestia, Demeter, Hera, Poseidon, and Hades. Zeus eventually led his siblings in a war against Cronus and the other Titans, and succeeded in dethroning them. He then divided the dominion over the world with his brothers Hades and Poseidon, taking the sky as his realm. Zeus was also associated with law and order, justice and wisdom, hospitality and protection. He was married to his sister Hera, but had many affairs with goddesses, nymphs, and mortals of all sorts. From these various consorts (well exceeding 100!), Zeus had numerous children, including the gods Apollo, Artemis, Athena, and Hermes, the heroes Heracles and Perseus, and the beautiful queen Helen.
Bel was the chief god of Palmyra, a city in Syria that flourished in the Roman period. He was worshipped alongside the gods Aglibol (the moon god) and Yarhibol (the sun god), forming a triad of deities that represented the celestial spheres. Bel was also connected to Baalshamin (the lord of heaven), a god who was widely venerated in ancient Syria and Canaan. Bel’s name means “lord” or “master” in Akkadian, a Semitic language that was spoken in Mesopotamia. Bel’s name was also used as a title for other gods in Mesopotamia, such as Marduk (the patron god of Babylon) and Enlil (the supreme god of Sumer). Bel’s origin is not clear, but he may have been influenced by these Mesopotamian deities or by other Semitic sky gods such as El or Dagan.
The Symbols of Zeus and Bel
Zeus and Bel had some similar symbols that reflected their power over the sky and nature. They both wielded thunderbolts as their weapons, which they used to strike down their enemies or to manifest their will. They both were also associated with bulls as their sacred animals, which symbolized strength and fertility. Bulls were often sacrificed to Zeus and Bel as offerings of honor or appeasement.
However, Zeus and Bel also had some distinct symbols that distinguished them from each other. Zeus was often depicted with an eagle as his companion or messenger, which represented his sovereignty and vision. He also had an oak tree as his sacred plant, which symbolized endurance and stability. Zeus’ main temple was located on Mount Olympus in Greece, where he resided with his fellow Olympians.
Bel was often depicted with a lion as his companion or guardian, which represented his courage and majesty. He also had a palm tree as his sacred plant, which symbolized prosperity and victory. Bel’s main temple was located in Palmyra in Syria, where he was honored with a magnificent sanctuary that included a colonnaded street, an altar court, a cella (inner chamber), and a baetyl (sacred stone).
The Stories of Zeus and Bel
Zeus and Bel both had many stories that illustrated their deeds and adventures. Some of these stories were similar to each other, while others were unique to each god.
One story that both Zeus and Bel shared was their conflict with a monstrous serpent that threatened their rule. In Greek mythology, this serpent was called Typhon (or Typhoeus), a son of Gaia (the earth goddess) who had a hundred heads that breathed fire. Typhon rebelled against Zeus and tried to overthrow him from his throne on Olympus. He attacked Zeus with his thunderbolts and claws, but Zeus fought back with his own thunderbolts and a sickle given by his ally Athena (the goddess of wisdom). Zeus eventually defeated Typhon by hurling him into Tartarus (the abyss), where he remained imprisoned under Mount Etna.
In Syrian mythology, this serpent was called Lotan (or Leviathan), a son of El (the supreme god) who had seven heads that spewed venom. Lotan rebelled against Bel and tried to usurp his authority over the cosmos. He attacked Bel with his fangs and coils, but Bel fought back with his own thunderbolts and a spear given by his ally Anat (the goddess of war). Bel eventually defeated Lotan by piercing him with his spear and cutting off his heads.
Another story that both Zeus and Bel shared was their involvement in the creation of the world. In Greek mythology, Zeus was not the original creator of the world, but he was the one who established the order and harmony of the cosmos after defeating the Titans. He also participated in the creation of humans, either by molding them from clay or by breathing life into them. Zeus also gave humans fire, which he stole from the Titan Prometheus, who was punished for his act by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten by an eagle every day.
In Syrian mythology, Bel was also not the original creator of the world, but he was the one who organized and beautified the cosmos after defeating Lotan. He also participated in the creation of humans, either by forming them from dust or by mixing his blood with clay. Bel also gave humans culture, which he taught them through his son Dagon, who was the god of grain and agriculture.
One story that Zeus had that Bel did not have was his abduction of Europa, a Phoenician princess who caught his eye. Zeus disguised himself as a white bull and mingled with Europa’s herd of cattle. He then lured her to climb on his back and carried her across the sea to Crete, where he revealed his true identity and seduced her. Europa became the mother of Minos, the legendary king of Crete who built the labyrinth for the Minotaur.
One story that Bel had that Zeus did not have was his marriage to Beltis (or Belti), a goddess who was his sister or consort. Beltis was also known as Atargatis (or Derceto), a goddess of fertility and water who had a fish tail. Bel and Beltis had a son named Hadad (or Adad), who was the god of storms and rain. Hadad inherited his father’s thunderbolts and became one of the most important deities in Syria.
Zeus and Bel were both powerful and revered sky gods who had many similarities and differences in their origins, symbols, and stories. They both represented the authority and majesty of the heavens, but they also had their own personalities and attributes that made them unique. They both influenced and were influenced by other cultures and religions, but they also maintained their own identities and legacies. They both were part of a rich and diverse mythology that enriched the ancient world with wonder and wisdom.