Sunday, October 22, 2017

Queen by Fire and Steel and Slaughter: Bêlit’s Hymn By Karen Joan Kohoutek

Robert E. Howard’s short story “Queen of the Black Coast” introduced Conan’s first love, Bêlit, a passionate, ruthless pirate queen full of “the urge of creation and the urge of death” (128). Her name comes from the same storehouse of Canaanite/Assyrian legends that brought deities like Ishtar and Derketo into Howard’s Hyborian Age fiction. In real-life legend, Bêlit belonged to the same pantheon, often associated with Ishtar and Derketo, although it’s hard now to know whether the goddesses were popularly connected at the time of their active worship, or whether the association happened when the sources were later compiled out of varied lore.

            In either case, Howard’s Bêlit namechecks two goddesses with whom her namesake was syncretized (Ishtar and Derketo), and also mentions Bel, who was her counterpart’s father in some legends and her husband in others, saying, “Above all are the gods of the Shemites – Ishtar and Ashtoreth and Derketo and Adonis. Bel, too, is Shemitish…” (Howard 247).

            The following tidbits are taken from The Story of Assyria, by Zénaïde  Ragozin, known to have been one of Howard’s sources:

            “As to the female deity of the Canaanites, ASHTORETH (whom the Greeks have called ASTARTE), she is the ISHTAR and MYLITTA and BÊLIT (“BAALATH,” “Lady,”) of the Assyro-Babylonian cycle of gods, scarcely changed either in name or nature; the goddess both of love and war, of incessant production and laborious motherhood, and of voluptuous, idle enjoyment , the greatest difference being that Ashtoreth is identified with the moon and wears the sign of the crescent, while the Babylonian goddess rules he planet Venus, the Morning and Evening Star of the poets” (107 – 108).

            “The planet Venus appearing in the evening, soon after sunset, and then again in the early morning, just before dawn, it was called Ishtar at night and Bêlit at dawn, as a small tablet expressly informs us; a distinction which, apparently confusing, rather tends to confirm the fundamental identity between the two, -- Ishtar, ‘the goddess,’ and Bêlit, ‘the lady’” (19).

            “In ASCALON, where the goddess was worshipped under the name DERKETO, she was represented under the form of a woman ending, from the hips, in the body of a fish” (111). This is of particular interest to Howard readers, since we know that Bêlit’s “fathers were kings of Askalon!” (Howard 243).

            Ragozin also states, “To the Canaanites, the Sun and Moon – the masculine and feminine principles, as represented by the elements of fire and moisture, the great Father and Mother of beings – were husband and wife. … in Ascalon and the other cities of the Philistine confederation they both assumed the peculiarity noted above, together with other names, and became, she, the fish-goddess Derketo, and he, the fish-god Dagon (from dag, fish, in the Semitic languages)” (114).

            Of course, Derketo is mentioned as a goddess in Howard’s stories; Dagon is well-known, especially from the work of H.P. Lovecraft, but also appearing, connected with Derketo, in Howard’s story “The Servants of Bit-Yakin.”

The Servants of Bit-Yakin
Artwork by Tomás Giorello
            In an article from1903, J. Dyneley Prince, a professor at Columbia University, published the text of a poem called “The Hymn of Bêlit,” with a phonetic transliteration and a fragmentary translation. He wrote that “this text, which is one of the most difficult of the Sumerian hymns, has, so far as I am aware, never been published before” ( 103). While it can’t be proven that Howard had access to this specific information, the format of the “Hymn” is intriguing, since he prefaced the sections of “Queen of the Black Coast” with verses of a poem called “the Song of Bêlit.”

            Stylistically, the two poems could hardly be more different. Nonetheless, the image of a woman who is both intensely warlike (to quote the Hymn, “the city which I plunder is not restored … From the rush of my onslaught who can flee?”), but also associated with love and sex, fits both characters, the mythological goddess and the fictional woman who declared “I am a queen by fire and steel and slaughter” (Howard 243).

            In his commentary, Price says “At first sight the subject matter … would seem to indicate that the goddess Bêlit … was a bi-sexual deity,” but he determines that “our goddess is simply claiming universality” (106).

            Relating to the connection of Bêlit with similar goddesses, he says that “a great deal of the confusion with regard to Bêlit no doubt arose from the fact that beltu meant ‘lady,’ and hence was applicable to any goddess. By far the most curious part of our inscription are the passages describing the destructive power of Bêlit. She is evidently at war with and conquers other gods ‘of the mountain’ … the whole tone of the hymn is that of a song of praise to a warrior goddess” (107)

            It can’t be too curious, however, since he also says that the “Istar in the Gilgamesh-Epic … is a raging deity who smites her foes with plagues. The destructive characteristics of our Bêlit … are precisely those of the Gilgamesh epic. Istar was, of course, the mother of all mankind and the goddess of sexual love and parturition” (108)

            He continues drily: “the confusion of the original Babylonian Bêlit with Istar is well known and need excite little remark.”

The Hymn to Bêlit
The Hymn to Bêlit, K. 257 (HT. 126-131)
Authors: J. Dyneley Prince
from Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 24 (1903), pp. 103-128. Published by the American Oriental Society
(The inscriptions were carved on two sides of a tablet, so there’s a front and a “reverse”)

1. the lady of
2/3. (am I not the lady ?)
4/5. (am I not the lady ?)
6/7. (am I not the great one ?)
8/9. (am I not) the great one ?
10/11. the lady, the god .... (am I not?)
12/13. (of the) gods am I not (their lady ?)
14/15. Am I not the daughter of Bel?
16/17. I am supreme, am I not? I am the warrior (masc).
18/19. Am I not the goddess? The war-like daughter of Bel am I.
20/21. The high-placed daughter of Bel am I.
22. I am En-lil-ld, Nin-lil-ld,
23. (I am En-lit) of Nin-lil.
24. (I am En-lit) and Nin-lil.
25/26. The waters which I stir up do not become clear.
27/28. The fire which I kindle does not go out.
29/30. The House of Heaven, the House of Earth, unto my hand he has entrusted.
31/32. The city which I plunder is not restored.
33/34. The utterance of my exalted command destroys the land of the foe. (Assyr. At the utterance .... [my] hand destroys, etc.).
35/36. At the mountain spring I fill the vessel.
37/38. At the mountain spring of Dilmun I wash (my) head.
39/40. By the igizangi stone I am guarded.
41/42. I am supreme. In the midst I shout my war-cry;
43/44. In the midst of the mountain I shout my war-cry.
45/46. The gods of the mountain are hostilely inclined.
47/48. On the road of the mountain, the gods of the mountain approach me with hostile intent.
49/50. The royal beings (dwellers in palaces) enter before me : hasten unto me : they afflict me.
51/52. The dwellers in the palaces with one accord come down unto me.
53/54. The rebellious goddess of the water shouts at me.
55/56. I am supreme. I will cause the rebellious goddess to enter the house.
57/58. I establish the lifting up of my hands to heaven; my exalted powers make war in heaven.
59/60. I am supreme. The hand of him who vies with me shall not stand with my hand.
61/62. My mighty pace fills the earth.
63/64. I am supreme. The foot of him who vies with me shall not stand with my foot.
7/8. I am supreme. An exalted net spread out in the wilderness (field of the storm-wind) I am.
9/10. ? ? ? which in the field (is spread) I am.
65/66. Who is there before me ? Who is there behind me ?
67/68. From the lifting up of mine eyes who can escape ?
69/70. From the rush of my onslaught who can flee ?
71/72. The exalted daughter of the judgment of Bel I am.
73/74. The noble heroine of my father Sin I am.
75/76. I am supreme. The duly appointed spouse (?) of Ea I am.
77/78. Him who is bowed down I lift up; the aged one I lift up

1/2. Verily, I will raise up the king.
3/4. To my shepherd .... I will give.
5/6. Verily, I am before ; verily, I am behind.
11/12. A glowing fire flaming forth I am.
13/14. A glowing fire which burns in the midst of the mountains I am.
15/16. I am the one who, full to overflowing with its flame, rains down on the foeman's land.
17/18. The one who makes as naught the speech of the humbled warrior I am.
19/20. The one who cuts off him whose way is haughty in the land I am.
21/22. To those who store up proud thoughts (?) I give not the way (do not permit to advance with impunity).
23/24. . . . lead I am. Lead alloyed with  copper (I am).
25. The lofty .... I am. The lofty one, the glowing one I am.
26. Lead I am. The maker (?) of ... . (I am).
27/28. I am the goddess who ....
29/30. Lead alloyed with copper, which unto ....
31/32. The girl I disturb, the girl and ....
33/34. The man I disturb, the (man) ....
35/36. The house which I enter, the house of the man I trouble.
37/38. the man who ? ? ? ?
39/40. I will go before ....
41/42. I will go behind ....
43/44. Right to left ....
45/46. Left to right ....
47/48. The man unto the woman ....
49/50. The woman unto the man ....
51/52. That which the man unto the woman ....
53/54. The woman unto the man ....
116 J. D. Prince, [1903.
55/56. To open the house ....
57. Not to open the house ....
59/60. The virgin (?)....
61/62. The strength out of the house I bring forth.
63/64. I as the wife ....
65/66. I am supreme. The daughter with her mother I . . . .
67/68. The one who the erect member ....
69/70. The one who the low member ....
71/72. That which I have planned (in future shall come to pass).
73. On that day (?) to the mother I foretell her time .... (i. e. of her bearing).

Belit from Queen of the Black Coast (Del Rey ISBN 0345461517)
Artwork by Mark Schultz

The Hymn to Bêlit
Paraphrased by Karen Joan Kohoutek

Am I not the woman,
the great one,
the woman of the gods?
Aren’t I the god?
Aren’t I supreme, the daughter of Bel?
I am the warrior.
I am the daughter of Bel, and I am high-placed, war-like.
I am Bêlit, and I am Bel himself.

When I stir up the waters, they never clear.
When I kindle a fire, it never goes out.
The House of Heaven, the House of Earth,
are both entrusted to my hand.
The city I plunder will not be restored.
I speak my exalted command, and it destroys the land of my foe.
I am supreme.
In the midst of the mountain,
Where the gods are hostile,
I shout my war-cry.
On the road of the mountain, the gods approach me, and attack.
The gods, who live in their palaces, afflict me.
They rush down to me with one accord.
I am supreme.
The rebellious goddess of the water shouts at me.
I will make the rebellious goddess enter the house.
I lift my hands up to heaven, where I make war with my powers.

I am supreme.

Who is there before me?
Who is there behind me?
When I lift up my eyes, who can escape?
In the rush of my onslaught, who can flee?
I am the exalted daughter of the judgment of Bel.
I am the noble heroine of my father.
I am supreme,
the true wife of my husband.
Those who are bowed down, I lift up.
Those who are aged I lift up.
I will raise up the king!

I am a glowing fire, flaming forth.
I am a glowing fire, burning in the midst of the mountain.
I am the one who, full to overflowing with her flame,
Rains down on the land of my enemy.
I make as nothing the speech of the humbled warrior,
I am the one who cuts down those who are haughty in the land.
Those who store up proud thoughts,
I do not allow to pass.

I am lead, lead alloyed with copper.
The lofty one, the glowing, one, I am.
I am the maker, I am the goddess.
I disturb the girl, and I disturb the man.
The house that I enter, is the house of the man I disturb.
I go in front, and behind.
Right to left, left to right.
The man unto the woman,
The woman unto the man.
I am supreme.
I tell the mother when she will give birth.

What I have planned will come to pass.


Works Cited

Howard, Robert E. “Queen of the Black Coast.” The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian. New York: Del Rey, 2002. 121 – 149.

Prince, J. Dyneley. “The Hymn to Bêlit, K. 257 (HT. 126-131).” Journal of the American Oriental Society. Vol. 24 (1903), 103-128.

Ragozin, Zénaïde A. The Story of Assyria: From the Rise of the Empire to the Fall of Nineveh (continued from "the Story of Chaldea."). New York & London: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1887. 

This article won the Robert E. Howard Foundation's Cimmerian Award, Outstanding Achievement, Essay (Online) (tied with Bobby Deries' Conan and the Oak five part series)


Unknown said...

That poem is really something. I love it. Its tone sounds truly ancient.

Anarchivist said...

Thanks so much! This text was a real find, for its content as much as its value to Howard studies. And surprisingly badass.