The Cippi of Melqart are a pair of ornamental pillars with engravings found by the Knights of St. John on the Island of Malta in the village of Marsaxlloc, they are considered to be from the 2nd century BCE. It is in this village that the Phoenicians reputedly landed in the 9th CE BC and set up trading posts. In the temple of Tas-Silg, the Cippi were unearthed, one cippus being gifted to Louis XVI by the grand master of the knights of St. John in 1782. This cippus now sits in the Louvre and the other in the National museum of archaeology in Valetta.
The engravings are in both Phoenician and Greek testifying to the God Melqart and Heracles as being one and the same. The question of what are the Cippi of Melqart, what do they represent, who made them and why are they important will be attempted. The cultural value of the objects and the context of their significance will be explored. Who was Melqart and why was he being worshipped in Malta?
The Cippi have bilingual inscriptions, which allowed the French archaeologist, Father Jean-Jacques Barthlemy to decipher the Phoenician alphabet in 1758. The Phoenician alphabet, reputedly the source of Modern western language, has it’s own mythology; the Tyrian prince Cadmus, the founder of Thebes, brother to Europa and conveyor of written language is also popularized as the source. The other version, which does not really contradict the mythical one, is that of Tyrian merchant sailors using simple written characters to overcome language barriers when travelling. As the principle force in the Mediterranean the sophisticated Phoenician’s reach was tremendous, this was until pressures from the Assyrians and Babylonians, weakened the city states that make up what we consider to be collectively known as the Phoenicians, and a power shift to her greatest colony, Carthage, takes place, continuing the Punic legacy.
The Cippi inscriptions read as dedications to Melqart/Heracles from two Tyrian brothers. Melqart was the Baal or Lord of Tyre and with him comes the mythological foundations of that monumentally important city state that spawned a colonization of the Mediterranean and some of the most revered mythical and historical characters from Heracles and Europa to Dido. The myth pertains to the joining of the two Islands of Tyre to form what was one island before Alexander the great built a land bridge to conquer it. The myth says Heracles, or Melqart, instructed the people of Tyre to build a ship to stop the Islands wandering off, what were two islands were fastened together at the behest of Melqart. According to the legend two wandering rocks floated over the sea; on one of them was a burning olive tree with an eagle perched on top of it, together with a bowl. A snake was entwined around the tree; both eagle and snake lived in harmony. The text is rich with olive tree references, in fact I would argue that the symbol may relate to the worship of Iron age Gods and Goddesses combining to form new ones. The Olive tree being associated to Asherah’s many forms and the snake being sacred to Bronze Age Goddesses such as Nidaba and Nabu. There’s a strong case for the imagery symbolizing the Phoenix; as with ressurectionary God’s, Melqart was celebrated at spring.
The worship of Melqart appears to originate in Tyre. According to information Herodotus got from priests in Tyre, the temple to Melqart there was established at the founding of the city 2300 years before the time Herodotus visited. There’s conflict in this theory, as the worship of Melqart was supposedly introduced by the King Hiram of Tyre, who is associated with the 10 century BC and reputedly aided in the construction of Solomon’s temple, as seems to be a pattern with myths, they can often be, like history, a powerful tool to convey ideas, whether that be propaganda or confusion. Melqart as a resurrectionary god has great similarities to older and newer gods of rebirth and spring. Rawlinson attributes Melqart to being the lord or Baal of Tyre; other city-states would also have their protecting gods but would share more regional and cultural ones like El and Astarte. Perhaps, due to the prolific expansion of the Mediterranean from Tyre is the key factor that has secured Melqart’s legacy of worship.
While Malta’s origins are mysterious it seems apparent that the Phoenicians did colonize and integrate with the local culture. Worship of a female deity in most cultures seems to mean the same thing, the worship of fertility and the moon. In this way the name of the principal female deity need only be transposed linguistically, it really being just a case of same Goddess different name as so comprehensively exemplified by the Cippi of Melqart with regards to that male deity. So there is also the sleeping lady, an object believed to be depicting the Lady Astarte however made before the colonization of the Phoenicians. It being found in one of the astounding cave temples, the piece is believed to have been made in ca. 3600 – 2500 BC. This huge leap in time shows the perplexing nature of tracing this cultural epitaph, and here there are only theories. In this the clues or hints at what might be Malta’s ancient history, Herodotus points a period in Levantine history where the king of Anatolia splits his kingdom as a result of a great famine. He sends one half West to find new land. The theory is that these early settlers colonized islands in the Med. The greatest correlation, in culture is between the ancient sites of Catal Hoyuk and Gobekli Tepe in southern Turkey and the temple complexes on the Islands around Malta. However these somewhat similar cultures seem to be at a significant distance from each other, with the whole of Greece and its Islands standing closer to the proposed point of exodus. There does seem to be a sequence of Ancient sites dedicated to the Goddess leading from southern Turkey through Knossos and to Malta, however as a pattern it leaves many facts to be desired. The more recent excavations on these sites promise to reveal more about this mysterious time and shed more light on cultural migrations that leave modern historians with giant holes in their heads.
For the Cippi of Melqart to be in Malta is most apt, Malta commanding a central place in the Mediterranean and being so strategically positioned in the midst of Phoenician colonies. The Cippi were reputedly for burning incense with the inscriptions I only imagine informing bilingually a dedication and statement of cultural exchange between the Greeks and the Phoenicians with regards to their shared Hero and god, Melqart or Heracles. The adoption of Melqart by the Greeks provides a fascination study as to how significantly the Phoenicians managed to export their Gods and culture. It is recognized that cultural migrations were for centuries very much of East to West in the Mediterranean and that in this the Phoenicians played a signal role. The fact that Melqart is widely seen as a conflation of the more ancient Tammuz is indicative of cultural integration over centuries and the harnessing of essential ideas of rebirth and spring manifested into figures of worship. The Hellenized Melqart however stands as a mortal god and also as a land taming hero, serving penance for a terrible crime; a much more sophisticated and modern tale that exhibits deeply human characteristics and actions being performed by a demi God. All tales tell of his epic journey in the pursuit of penance. Driven mad by the jealous Goddess Hera, Heracles kills his family. His road to redemption is in the form of twelve tasks all of which involve the subduing and slaying of beasts. He also manipulates the landscape by diverting a river to clean the Augean stables, all deeds telling of a taming of the wilderness, and propagation of the legend of a world changing demi God and one of the most mortal or human like Gods of the ancient world. In this way perhaps the development of the story of Melqart was necessary for his legacy to survive, and this was achieved by the Greeks with Heracles and then inherited by the Romans in turn.
Perhaps then the Cippi of Melqart can be seen as a true marriage of an older Phoenician culture and a more recent adaptation of it in the form of the Greeks. The inscription is a testament to a cultural collaboration and infers some moment of harmony when this is transliterated onto temple objects. The Cippi can also be seen to represent the continuity of a myth and by studying the Melqart of the Phoenicians and the Heracles of the Greeks we can see the cultural imprints of those two great civilizations.