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At the Edge / Bob Trubshaw /

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Goddess of the Black Stone

Alby Stone

Bob Trubshaw's article on the Black Stone of Mecca was of great interest to myself, as I had already seen Rufus Camphausen's original article on The Ka'bah at Mecca, and already had something of an interest in the subject. Camphausen, and now Bob Trubshaw, have done us all a great service by bringing this material to our attention in an accessible form, and presenting what is basically a strong and coherent case for the original pagan context of the Black Stone; but it is also apparent that there is a good deal more that could be said on the subject. Indeed, there are a number of points that really must be made, particularly with regard to the goddess Al'Lat, whose identity - and those of her old Meccan companions, Al'Uzza and Manat - is perhaps not as clear-cut as Rufus Camphausen has asserted, and as Bob Trubshaw has reported. There are more connections to be made, and these show the goddess of the Black Stone in a rather different light.

Of especial interest is the explanation of the Beni Shaybah, the imams who attend the sacred structure, as 'Sons of the Old Woman', the old lady in question supposedly being the Queen of Sheba. Any connection with an authentic, historical Queen of Sheba is debatable, but in view of the tradition it is worth pointing out that the Hebrew sheba' can mean either 'seven' or 'oath'. The Biblical place-name Beer-sheba is literally 'the well of seven', the well in question being dug by Abraham and where he made a peace-treaty with Abimelech. Abraham gave seven ewe-lambs to seal the pact, and the place was named to commemorate the event. The well is said to have been reopened by Isaac, who renamed it Shibah, which just happens to be the feminine form of the numeral sheba'. Interestingly, the site is now said to have seven wells. The name given by Abraham thus seems to have been a play on the Hebrew words for 'seven' and 'oath'. The sacred complex at Mecca has the holy well Zamzam, of course.

That the Semitic tribes associated oath-taking with the number seven is confirmed by Herodotus, writing in the fifth century BCE, who reports that Arabs solemnised oaths between two men by enlisting the services of a third, who 'stands between them and with a sharp stone cuts the palms of their hands...then he takes a little tuft of wool from their clothes, dips it in the blood and smears the blood on seven stones which lie between them, invoking as he does so, the names of Dionysus and Urania'. Herodotus identifies the latter as Alilat, who is undoubtedly the same goddess formerly venerated at Mecca as Al'Lat [1].

It seems relevant that the sanctity of treaties made at the Ka'bah is stressed in the Koran [9:6], where even covenants made with infidels are to be honoured: 'God and His apostle repose no trust in idolaters, save those with whom you have made treaties at the Sacred Mosque. So long as they keep faith with you, keep faith with them. God loves the righteous.'

There were, in pagan times, seven priestesses at site of the Black Stone, who circled it seven times, naked. Today, the tawaf, the sevenfold counterclockwise circuit of the Ka'bah, is a memory of that ancient practice. But the older practice is itself a strong echo of the descent of the Sumerian goddess Inanna (and her Babylonian equivalent Ishtar) through the seven gates of the underworld, the gatekeepers demanding the removal of a garment at each gate until she stands naked before her elder sister Ereshkigal, 'Queen of the Great Earth', the goddess of death and the underworld. Another name for Ereshkigal is Allatu, 'the goddess', which is clearly an earlier form of Al'Lat/Alilat.

This suggests that, far from being a moon-goddess, Al'Lat is actually the goddess of the underworld, who could indeed be fittingly described as the 'Old Woman'. I do not myself subscribe to the idea of three-phase moon goddesses of the maiden-mother-hag model popularised by the likes of Robert Graves [2], but in the case of Al'Lat and her sisters there is a definite argument against it - although the reported evidence is contradictory and confusing. In his introduction to the Penguin edition of the Koran, translator N.J. Dawood says that Al'Lat, Al'Uzza, and Manat 'represented the Sun, Venus, and Fortune respectively' [3] - but I have also seen Allat described as a representation of Venus [4], and she once had a temple in the precinct devoted to the sun-god Shamash in Hatra, Iraq [5]. In early Mesopotamian art, the only heavenly bodies regularly shown as a group were the triad of Sun, Moon, and Venus, the three most important celestial lights; and in Sumer and early Babylon the sun and moon were represented mainly by a male divinity, though elsewhere in the Semitic world the moon was usually regarded as feminine.

Al'Uzza and Manat are less easily traced to a more archaic source. Their names - 'the Strong' and 'Destiny' respectively - suggest abstract forces rather than natural objects. If the three 'daughters of Allah' [6] are personifications of any natural phenomena, then one is surely the Earth (Al'Lat = Allatu = Ereshkigal); the others are of uncertain pedigree. But there is also a strong chance that their form and function were influenced by the banat, the three daughters of Baal, the supreme deity of the Canaanites. They symbolised light, rain, and earth [7].

At Petra, the Nabataeans venerated a four-sided stone named after Allat [8], whose son Dusura (in their system) is a version of Tammuz/Dumuzi/Du'uzi, the vegetation god characterised by a seasonal death and resurrection, who dwells in the underworld for half the year. His full name in Sumerian is Dumu-zi-abzu, 'faithful son of the abyssal waters' - a rough but appropriate rendering of abzu, which denotes the spaces below the earth as well as the primal waters. Dumuzi/Tammuz, of course, was the reason for Inanna/Ishtar descending to Allatu's realm in the first place, according to nearly every version of the myth. Once there, the Mesopotamian Venus lies about the reason for her visit, so breaking the 'law of the underworld which must be fulfilled', and is sentenced to death by the Anunnaki, the seven judges of the underworld. Abzu(later: Apsu), was the natural home of the Sebettu, the seven sages associated by Babylonians with the foundation of culture and the seven major cities of the region.

All this fits in well with Islamic and pagan Arab traditions concerning the Black Stone and its precincts. By word-play, the Beni Shaybah are at once the Sons of the Old Woman, the Sons of the Seven, and the Sons of the Oath; they are also the successors of the seven sky-clad servitors of Al'Lat, whose Babylonian predecessor ruled the sevenfold palace of the underworld; and of the seven Anunnaki. Like many examples of the axis mundi, the Black Stone has a sacred well nearby, and is associated with oath-taking. The Queen of Sheba, bearing in mind the lore associated with Beer-sheba, takes on further significance: tradition has it that she was black, and of djinn ancestry - in other words, she was a divine being in her own right, possibly even a hypostasis of Al'Lat herself.

As for Q're: the identification with Kore (a title of Persephone) is a familiar notion, but one that is almost certainly mistaken. In Greek, kore can denote a girl, and koros a boy; the word actually comes from the same Indo-European stem as a number of other words meaning 'to grow', and denotes more or less the same thing - an increase in size. Any phonetic similarity between Q're and Kore is coincidental, but oddly fortuitous if the former is an aspect or title of Al'Lat: Persephone, 'bringer of destruction', is Queen of the Underworld in Greek myth, daughter of Demeter, who represents the earth as mother. Persephone's son is Triptolemos, who resembles Tammuz/Dumuzi. Essentially, Demeter and Persephone are effectively twin aspects of the earth - mother and grave of all - and have no real connection with the moon whatsoever. Hekate, who figures in their myth, cas indeed be seen as a representation of the moon, but is in herself a triad of maleficent, nocturnal entities; she is quite separate from Persephone and Demeter. The supposed triad of Kore, Demeter, and Hekate is a relatively modern invention, with no real foundation in ancient Greek myth or iconography.

Little of this affects Bob Trubshaw's reading of Camphausen's analysis, other than to suggest that worship of the moon is probably not as dominant in the pre-Islamic Meccan schema as Camphausen thinks. There is always a chance that Al'Lat did become linked with a lunar cult at some point, but little evidence to suggest that she or her sisters were moon-goddesses. On the whole, the pattern presented here suggests that Al'Lat is essentially a chthonic mother-goddess, a deity of the underworld also associated with fidelity and covenants - a later form of Ereshkigal, who has retained many of her older attributes, albeit in a slightly distorted form.

After Mecca and Medina, the third most holy site of Islam is surely the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount in Jerusalem. One reason for this is undoubtedly the influence of Judaic and Christian monotheism upon Mohammed's early teachings [9]; but another major reason for it is probably the fact that in the Dome of the Rock is the Eben Shetiyyah, a flat, yellow-brown, asymmetrical rock believed by many Jews to be, as its name implies, the 'Stone of Foundation', around which God built the world, and which was used as the pedestal of the Ark of the Covenant. The Ark, as is well known, was a symbol of the Hebrews' communal pact with God; it was also used as a weapon in the destruction of Jericho, an event replete with sevens; and it contained the two stone tablets engraved with the Law - which have been roundly equated with baetyls by a number of Biblical scholars, and sometimes presumed to have been of meteoric origin. Beneath the Eben Shetiyyah is a deep hollow known to Muslims as Bir-el-Arweh, the Well of Souls. In Jewish lore, the Eben Shetiyyah rests upon and keeps in place the waters of the Abyss (that is, abzu).

One Jewish tradition has it that David dug the foundations of the Temple at Jerusalem, and discovered the Eben Shetiyyah during his excavations. When he tried to remove the stone, the waters of the Abyss began to well up. This parallels the Islamic tradition that has Mohammed casting down an idol that stood in the sacred complex at Mecca. According to the tradition, this idol was blocking a well inside the Ka'bah, and the waters began to flow from that moment. Supposedly, the idol represented a deity named Hubal, which seems to be a version of the name of the goddess who was known elsewhere as Kybele, and who was venerated in Phrygia in the form of a stone, a black aerolite that was presented to Rome in 204 BCE by King Attalus [10]. Knowing that the Arabs habitually worshipped stones as representations of their divinities, it seems probable that the idol Hubal was a stone, perhaps of celestial provenance. Interestingly, the goddess Na'ila - one of a veritable host of divinities venerated at the Meccan site - supposedly appeared in the form of a black woman at the time Mohammed destroyed the idols, and ran screaming from the sacred place.


1: Herodotus, trans. A.R Burn (2nd ed., Harmondsworth, 1972) The Histories, pp. 205-6.
2: A. Stone (1990), 'Robert Graves and the Triple Goddess: A Modern Myth', in Talking Stick 2.
3: N.J. Dawood, trans. (5th ed., Harmondsworth, 1990), The Koran, p. 1.
4: P. Masson-Oursel and Louise Morin, 'Mythology of Ancient Persia', in New Larousse Encyclopedia of Mythology (2nd ed., London, 1968), p. 323.
5: Georges Roux (3rd ed., Harmondsworth, 1992), Ancient Iraq, p. 420.
6: Islamic oral tradition (al-Hadith: 'the Talk') has it that Mohammed's original revelation endorsed the idea that the three were goddesses, but he later disowned this as a false teaching inspired by Satan. See Mircea Eliade (Chicago, 1985), A History of Religious Ideas, vol. 3, p. 68.
7: Cyrus H. Gordon (1961), 'Canaanite Mythology', in S.N. Kramer (ed.), Mythologies of the Ancient World, pp. 196-7.
8: Arthur Cotterell (London, 1979), A Dictionary of World Mythology, p. 24.
9: Jerusalem was chosen as the first qiblah or point of orientation for Islamic prayer, replaced by Mecca following a new revelation in 624 CE. The Prophet also claimed that Abraham and Ishmael had built the Ka'bah, which was thus a Temple more ancient than that of Jerusalem (Koran, 2:122, 142, 144). The new qiblah and foundation-legend effectively constituted a restructuring of Islamic cosmology, a formal break with the Judaic tradition that had influenced Mohammed's monotheism, and a revision of the traditions of Arab paganism.
10: Franz Cumont (London, 1911), Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, pp. 46-7.

Originally published in Mercian Mysteries No.15 May 1993.

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