The Nation of a Thousand Gods

The Hittites’ War Chariots
Photo by Peter Horree

When I was doing my graduate studies at The Southern Baptist Seminary, I wrote a resaerch paper, 100 pages long, on the Hittites and their contribution to the Ancient Near East. As a result of that work, I almost became a Hittitologist.

Some day I may share my work on the Hittites with the readers of this blog. Because of my research, I gained as new appreciation for the Hittites, their culture, and the legacy they left behind.

The Hittites called themselves “A Nation of a Thousand Gods.” There is a book, written in French, that lists more than 800 names of the gods in the Hittite pantheon. One of these thousand gods was the God of the Hebrews. Some day I will explain this title in more detail.

Haaretz has a review of a book that describes the Hittites, their language, and civilization. It is a good review and it provides a good introduction to the Hittites. The only problem is that the book is in Hebrew.

I have taken the liberty to reproduce the review in its entirety. The reason I do so is because most people know little about the Hittites and because this review offers an excellent introduction to the nation of a thousand gods.


The Hittites and Their Civilization, by Itamar Singer. The Bialik Institute, the Library of the Encyclopaedia Biblica, and the Project for the Translation of Literary Masterpieces (Hebrew), 312 pages, NIS 111

During the Late Bronze Age, in the second half of the second millennium B.C.E., the Hittites ruled a mighty empire that stretched from Anatolia (modern Turkey) and northern Syria toward Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria and Ahhiyawa (the Mycenaean entity in the Aegean). As was the way of ancient empires, the Hittites’ state collapsed and their rich culture sank into oblivion. Apart from mentions in the Bible, no written traces were know to have survived. And though Hittite civilization has been excavated and published extensively over the past hundred years, it still remains largely unknown to the general public.

This long-awaited book from Itamar Singer, professor emeritus at Tel Aviv University, and one of our generation’s leading Hittitologists, is the first in Hebrew on the topic. It is an up-to-date volume that addresses the general – although it must be said, educated – public. Basing himself on texts and archaeology, he reconstructs Hittite culture in a captivating way, so that even the uninitiated can follow the Hittites’ cultural history. Each chapter is devoted to a specific topic and documents translated into clear and simple Hebrew can be found at the end of the book. The author also offers suggestions for additional reading.

The roots of Hittite culture are Indo-European, mingled with native Anatolian traditions of proto-Hattian in the north and Hurrian elements in the east and south (we owe much of our knowledge of these traditions to the Hittite archives). Added to these were Mesopotamian and Syrian influences. The Hittite language is an Indo-European language, like Persian, Sanskrit and its offshoots, and most of the languages of Europe. It is the oldest of the Indo-European languages to have been written – in cuneiform; even more ancient than Greek and Latin.

Diplomatic correspondence

However, the breakthrough in the deciphering of Hittite is credited to Czech Assyriologist Bedrich Hrozny, who based his work on Knudtzon’s insights. In a lecture Hrozny delivered in 1915 to the German Oriental Society, which had put at scholars’ disposal the tablets discovered at Hattusa (modern Bogazkoy, Turkey), he focused on the sentence nu NINDA-an ezzatteni watar-ma ekutteni.

As an Assyriologist familiar with Akkadian and Sumerian cuneiform, Hrozny recognized the ideogram “NINDA” – “bread” – and assumed that the word “ezzatteni” would represent eating, from a root common to Greek, Latin and the German word essen. The word “watar” resembles English “water,” German “Wasser,” and it is followed by a conjugation of the verb “to drink” – “ekutteni.” The suffix “-teni” at the end of the verbs was identified as second-person plural, and so he translated: “Then you will eat bread and drink water.”

Bogazkoy is what remains of the site of ancient Hattusa, capital of “The Land of Hatti” (as it was called by its inhabitants of various ethnic origins), about 160 kilometers east of Ankara. Its excavation began in 1906 with funding from the German Oriental Society, and today it is on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. The city’s excavations yielded tens of thousands of cuneiform diplomatic, administrative and legal documents as well as religious and mythological texts, from which it is possible to reconstruct the history of the Hittite kingdom, society and religion.

The documents also describe the religious rites and the items that were provided to those ceremonies’ participants from temple storehouses – for example, the large temple in Hattusa was surrounded by storehouses and the officiants lived in its annex. The descriptions of Hittite festival observances illuminate the rituals in temples both inside the city and outside of it, in nature. Images of the kingdom’s gods were engraved in the smooth rock faces of the chambers of the sanctuary at Yazilikaya, north of Bogazkoy, which was dedicated to the main pair of gods in the Hittite pantheon – the Storm God and his mate. In the large gallery, a procession of gods stride toward a procession of goddesses, gathering in the temple for the New Year. Above them, their (Hurrian) names are carved in Luwian hieroglyphics (named after an Indo-European language the Hittites used for writing on seals and on stone). The small gallery may have served as a royal funerary shrine as suggested by the gods of the underworld depicted in it.

One can also learn about the gods’ appearance from the documents and from the archaeology. Documents from the end of the empire detail the shape of divine statues, their symbols and dwellings. It emerges that “the thousand gods of Hatti” can appear in the shape of humans, of animals or of various objects and monuments.

Leaving their mark on Israel

Many diplomatic treaties were found in the Hattusa archives, which constitute a milestone in the development of political thought. In the 13th century, after the Battle of Kadesh, the policy pursued by King Hattusili III led to the signing of the “Silver Peace” (so called because of the silver tablets on which the original treaty was inscribed) with Ramses II. A reproduction of it is set into the entrance to the Security Council chamber at the United Nations as a model for the nations of the world. The original Akkadian version of the silver peace treaty, on clay tablets, was discovered by Hugo Winckler in 1906 and its translation into the ancient Egyptian language is inscribed on the walls of the Temple of Amun at Karnak.

In the treaty, the powers agree to refrain from hostile actions and to cooperate with each other. Eventually Ramses II even married a Hittite princess. In the era of the Hittite-Egyptian peace, the two powers enjoyed stable relations and exchanges of gifts. Diplomats, merchants, craftsmen and members of other professions passed back and forth through Palestine (and perhaps even settled there), leaving behind material objects, mostly seals and a handful of works of art. Along with the objects, technologies and ideas were also transmitted that left their marks on the cultures of Canaan and Israel.

Biblical parallels

There is also a clear parallel between the Bible and Hittite writings in other areas. In the mythological texts, there is the creation of man from clay, an idea shared by the cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt and Greece. Or in the law – in the statutes on marital status, the law of levirate marriage and the laws concerning rape.

With the fall of the empire, Hittite fugitives from Anatolia fled to relatively peaceful southern Anatolia and northern Syria, where some measure of Hittite culture could still be found. Neo-Hittite kingdoms arose there, most notably Carchemish, which was ruled by viceroys, sons of the Hittite king starting in the 14th century B.C.E. These kingdoms, which survived the tempestuous period of the 12th century into the first millennium B.C.E., continued Hittite traditions such as monumental inscriptions in Luwian. These are the Hittites whom the biblical author had in mind when labeling some foreigners as Hittites.

Itamar Singer’s book is a treasure trove of knowledge celebrating the Hittites. It answers to the lack of a Hebrew book on the Hittites and their culture, which is one of the pillars of Western civilization.

I hope Singer’s book will be translated into English as soon as possible.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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2 Responses to The Nation of a Thousand Gods

  1. Johnny C says:

    >Dr Mariottini:I too hope the book will be translated as soon as possible. Thank you for an excellent review.Your interest in Hittitology is appreciated – very much so So I would ask youAre you aware that in the reduced chronology Ramses II fights at Qadesh/Carchemish [not the orontes]and that Hattusilis is Nebucadrezzar? The bible goes on in specifics about hos the Jeremiad exiles to egypt would not be treated well but returned to Nebucadrezzar – the same stipulation is included in the Silver treaty, as indeed it should be. An unforgeetable line – thou shale not cut off their noses…The story of Bententhresht is fascinating – and should be more widely knownAlso – uniquely – Nebucadrezzar was known to Jewish history as Nanax [the youth], because he never grew a beard.Hattushilis, marrying the daughter of ramses II is pictured on the wall at karnak – true to Nebucadnezzarian form, sans beardThese paralells, and the stratigraphic reasons for these identifications are outlined in the book Ramses II and His Time. The time of Ramses is the time of Jeremiah. The time of Hattusilis is the same. Jeremiah remarked conspicuously that the king of egypt would face disaster in the north, which corresponds to the disastrous ambush on the north side of Carchemish. It is tragic that such parallels of paramount interest to our biblical heritage and history are missed entirely and denied when the chronology is incorrect. Archaeological artifacts to not 'percolate' – the term used to hide embarrasment when supposedly younger artifacts are found beneath the supposedly younger ones. This, we are told happens in Anatolia… We all deserve a deep and searching re-evaluation of the chronology when things like this keep happening, conflicting with or oblivious to their biblical context and importance. Anyone familiar with Nebucadrezzar from the bible would be validated and enlightened with the added light on the character of Nebucadrezzar provided by this book, in light of the treaty parallels with exile experience as recorded in the bible. For example – when it was prophesied that Nebuchadnezzar [as Nebucadrezzar was sometimes also called – he himself preferred the latter] would lose his sanity, dwelling in the wilderness apart from men, that his hair would grow like the feathers of an eagle, and he would subsist on the plants of the wilderness, eating grass like an animal – most people would not have noticed the special significance of the remaining part of the prophecy – that to a jew is the most astounding – that his **beard** would grow wild !Nebucadnezzar was raised in the temples as a youth, and took vows to the goddess and gods – he would never have grown a beard by his own volition. The Hittites, Carians and Chaldeans will only be understood in their proper biblical identity when the chronology aligns with the biblical record in these matters. Because of your interest in Hittitology, I hope you will not miss the opportunity to read Ramses II and His Time, because of the biblical connections in the lives of these Two kings, and our biblical heritage. I believe the insight so gained is worthwhile on that basis irrespective of differences in chronological belief. Why? If two kings and two later kings did the same things when confronted with the same situations, battle for battle, treaty for treaty, and idiosyncrasy for idiosyncrasy – then it only points to illustrate the universality of the human character, and so validates the biblical record. If the two earlier kings are indeed the same as the two later kings, then there are only two kings – the earlier and later dichotomy is an artifact of mischronology. Either way – the insight is worthwhile for the biblical perspective so enlightened. Johnny C Godowski


  2. >Dear Johnny,The views you are proposing here presuppose in many ways Velikovsky's view that Egyptian chronology should be lowered by hundreds of years.I doubt that you will convince Hittitologists and Biblical scholars that Hattusilis is Nebucadrezzar. I am sorry, but this view is not popular and I doubt that it will gain many followers.Claude Mariottini


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