Plants and the Philistine Cult at Gath

Nature and agriculture were key aspects of Philistine religion

Philistine Gath

Aerial view of Philistine Gath. Courtesy Photo Companion to the Bible, Joshua.

Although the Philistines are well known from ancient texts, including the Hebrew Bible, and their cities have been extensively excavated, many questions remain about their culture and religion. A study published in the journal Scientific Reports attempts to provide answers to some of these questions by examining the plant remains from two excavated Philistine temples in the ancient city of Gath, the birthplace of the biblical figure Goliath.

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Gath’s Nature Cult

Examining two successive temples at Gath, which dated from the tenth to ninth centuries BCE, archaeologists identified dozens of plant species, including cereals, fruits, pulses, and herbs. While it is not surprising to find plant remains in an ancient temple, the types and quantities could tell researchers a great deal about Philistine cultic practices. The results of the study indicate the Philistine temple at Gath was likely associated with nature and agriculture. More interestingly, it suggests temple worship had close similarities with later Aegean cults, specifically the cult of Hera, the Greek mother goddess.

Among the plants identified in the temples, several stood out, including the fruit of the chaste tree. Although a local plant, the large quantity of chaste tree fruit is unique in the region and indicates its importance in Philistine cult. The only other region where the fruit took on a religious significance was Greece, where it was used in both Sparta and on the island of Samos as part of the cult of Hera. Numerous loom weights were also found in the temple, suggesting its association with weaving and Asherah, one of the Canaanite mother goddesses.

chaste tree

Flowers of the chaste tree. Famartin, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

Researchers also discovered the floral remains of crown daisies, which are known to have been used in ancient Greek religion to adorn statues of the goddess Artemis, while flowers were also a common element in the cult of Hera. This is a notable difference from Levantine religions, whose cultic symbolism was focused more on crops and trees. The presence of the chaste tree and the crown daisy could connect Philistine cultic tradition to the wider cult of Aegean and Mycenean mother-goddess worship. The similarities between the Aegean and Philistine religions would be telling, as many scholars believe the Philistines, part of the infamous Sea Peoples, originated in the Aegean.

Other plants discovered in the temples included those used for medicine, food, decoration, incense, and alcohol. Some plants even had psychoactive properties. In addition, researchers found that most of the plants were processed on-site at the temples and, furthermore, that this processing was meant to prepare cultic offerings rather than food products for storage and later consumption. This indicates that plant processing likely played an important role within the Philistine cult.

As the lead researcher, Suembikya Frumin, told the Times of Israel,  “The study revealed that the Philistine religion relied on the magic and power of nature, such as running water and seasonality, aspects that influence human health and life.”

Read more in Bible History Daily:

The Destruction of Philistine Gath

Horned Philistine Altar Discovered at Gath

Philistine and Israelite Religion at Tell es-Safi/Gath

All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Excavating Philistine Gath: Have We Found Goliath’s Hometown?

Philistine Cult Stands

Philistine Temple Discovered Within Tel Aviv City Limits

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

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