Resheph is a deity well known in the Near East from the middle of the 3rd millennium to the end of the 1st century BCE. He is found in Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic and Egyptian texts and features at least seven times in the Hebrew Bible. In these texts, Resheph is described in different ways, associated with the gates of hell, with war, as well as the plague and healing. Of course, what is of special interest to us today, in these times of lockdown, is this last aspect of the god, which is notably conveyed in the expression “Resheph of the arrow” (ršp ḥṣ), seen in a Cypriot inscription in Kition from the middle of the 4th century BCE. Another Cypriot inscription, this time from Paleo-Kastro in the region of Pyla, mentions, if the restitution is correct, Resheph Shed, whose name accompanies the monumental head of a sort of Bes. This association of Resheph and Shed, the latter being a protective and healing god, may demonstrate the healing power of Resheph. Actually, it is somewhat common – and logical – for the deity at the origin of disease to be the same very one with the power to stop it.
Beyond this association with Shed, in this period, in Cyprus, the figures of Resheph and Apollo, the ultimate archer god, are frequently juxtaposed, as shown in bilingual documentation in Phoenician and in Cypriot-Greek syllabary from the sanctuary of Apollo in Phrangissa, in Tamassos. However, this link between Resheph and arrows is attested in older periods in iconographic and literary testimonies. Particularly, in Ugarit, in the 13th century at the latest, in the Keret epic text, Resheph is already called “the lord of the arrow”. As for his imagery, the most reliable attestations of Resheph in near-eastern iconography show, as a general rule of thumb, on stelae, seals or even on metal figurines, Resheph as an active, even threatening deity, brandishing a weapon. Said weapon has been known to be a large axe, a mace or a mallet, but sometimes also a sword, a lance or knives. Furthermore, he often carries a shield, reflecting his role as protector.
In terms of Resheph the archer, specifically, three categories of objects come to mind. First, the stelae in Ugarit, which represent a deity armed with shield and bow, although his identity is uncertain due to the absence of an inscription.
The second category includes some cylindrical seals from the Middle Bronze Age (2200-1550) of Syrian origin, today kept in the Louvre (AO 4795 and AO 6268, above), on which a deity armed with a bow is sometimes identified by his name: Nergal. Nergal is, morphologically speaking, the Mesopotamian deity that corresponds to Resheph in the Levant, both of them having been identified in texts from Ugarit. The iconography of Nergal and Resheph was therefore most probably interchangeable.
The third category, the most extensive one, refers in particular to a bronze figurine from the Saite period (665-525), currently conserved in the Louvre (AF 587, above, on the left), representing, as confirmed by the inscription, Resheph the Egyptian way, armed with a bow, arrows and a quiver.
One last aspect is deserving of our attention: the link, as for Apollo, between Resheph, disease, arrows and fire. In all three cases it obviously has to do with describing an uncontrollable and elusive power which strikes from afar without being noticed and which spreads an epidemic where we see the symptoms and cry for the victims, never able to put our fingers on the origin of the evil. It is notably in echo with this triple semantic spectrum that the term Resheph is used in the Hebrew Bible. It goes without saying, of course, that he is no longer an independent deity, but he becomes a weapon or a punishment used by YHWH against their people or, more often, against their enemies. However, the ferocious and destructive power of Resheph deserves, even in the Hebrew Bible, a place of honour in the famous verse of the erotic poem which is the Song of Songs, when the young woman says to her lover: “Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm. For love is as strong as death, passion as fierce as the netherworld. Its darts are darts of fire, the intensest-flame (reshafeha rishpei esh).” (8,6).
Ultimately, we prefer to imagine Resheph, as we do Eros or Cupid, as the bringer of a much better malady than Covid-19, the “malady of love”.
Image: Resheph (ca 1184–664), Metropolitan Museum of Art (89.2.215), from Wikimedia Commons.