Gil Student is the Managing Editor of OU Press and an Orthodox Jewish blogger who writes about the interface between different facets of Judaism, specifically Orthodox Judaism and Modern Orthodox Judaism. He is an ordained non-pulpit serving Orthodox rabbi.

The Philistine idol Dagon captures children’s imaginations as it is commonly referred to as a half fish creature, like a mermaid.1 Few realize that this description has little basis and is debated among commentators.

While the idol is mentioned in multiple places in the Bible, the main text is I Samuel 5. The Philistines capture the Ark of the Covenant and place it in their temple of Dagon in Ashdod. The next morning, they find the Dagon idol toppled. They put it back in place. Then the next morning they find it toppled and broken.

Rashi (ad loc., v. 2) says that the Dagon idol was made in the form of a fish, as does his student R. Yosef Kara (Mahari Kara). There are no talmudic or midrashic sources for this claim. Neither Yalkut ShimoniMidrash Shmuel nor the Ha-Torah Ha-Temimah compendium of midrash by verse provide any source. However, there is an earlier discussion in a grammatical work.

Menachem Ben Saruk was a famous grammarian whom Rashi sometimes quotes. In his Mahberet Menahem (sv. dgn), he says that it is unknown whether Dagon was so named because it was shaped like a fish or because the word is a general term for idol. Donash Ben Livrat, a contemporary and critic of Menachem, attacks the second suggestion.2 Dagon is definitely not a general term for idol. The general term for idol is atzabim, which includes idols made of any material, while pesilim are idols made specifically out of wood or stone. Dagon may have been the specific name of the Philistine idol but it was not a general term for idols.

Rabbenu Tam, Rashi’s grandson, in his work defending Menachem against Donash’s critiques,3 agrees with Donash in this respect, that Dagon is not a general term for idol. He adds that this idol could not have been shaped like a fish. The verse specifically says that when the idol was broken, its head and the palms of its hands were on the doorstep (ibid., v. 5). Fish don’t have hands! Rabbenu Tam continues: “And if you suggest that it had a fish’s shape and human hands, why toil in nonsense to uphold lies that have no basis (legs)?” Rather, he concludes, Dagon is merely the name of the idol. Many years later, Ralbag wrote in his commentary that the Philistine idol was “in the shape of man and was called Dagon.”

There is an early source for the idea that Dagon was a fish god, but it is not a Jewish source. The Church Father Jerome (ca. 390) calls Dagon piscis tristiae (sorrowful fish), a combination of the Hebrew words dag and on. This is the earliest source for the fish identification.4

Radak (1160 – 1235) takes a middle position that has become famous. He writes that the idol was shaped like a fish below the navel and a human above. Therefore, it had hands and a human face. In other words, it looked like a mermaid. It is significant that Radak begins this explanation with “they said.” This usually introduces a midrash. However, there is no known source in the midrash for this idea. The textual reason for this interpretation is the cryptic language of I Samuel 5:4, which in describing the broken idol states, The head and both hands of Dagon were cut off, lying on the threshold; only Dagon remained upon him. This last phrase is difficult to understand, and Radak explains that it means that the fish part remained intact. However, Targum Yonatan explains that the verse simply means that “the body of Dagon remained intact”, an interpretation followed in the Da’at Mikra commentary5 and JPS translation, Dagon’s trunk was left intact.

It would not be surprising to learn that a sea-faring people like the Philistines believed in mermaids. However, the evidence that their idol was shaped like a mermaid seems to be entirely based on the similarity between the word dag and the name Dagon, and the verse referring to the idol’s hands. Rashi (and much later Metzudat David) say that the idol was entirely shaped like a fish (presumably with hands) while Rabbenu Tam and Ralbag say it was shaped like a human.

In fact, the deity Dagon is understood to be related to the term dagan (grain),6 and is considered to be the Hebrew form of the deity named Dagan, an important Mesopotamian and West Semitic fertility god.7 Worship of Dagan spread widely, and was adopted in some syncretistic form by a number of groups, including the Philistines. The fact that it was not originally a Philistine god, or a god specifically associated with the sea, calls into question any identification of Dagon with a fish at all.8

  1. See, for example Nosson Slifkin, Mysterious Creatures (New York: Targum/Feldheim, 2003), p. 124.
  2. Herschell Filipowski, ed., Teshuvot Donash al Mahberet Menahem (London: 1855), p. 58.
  3. See Hakhra’ot Rabbenu Tam, p. 58, in Teshuvot Donash al Mahberet Menahem.
  4. See The Conflict Between Good and Evil in Canaanite Religion (Leiden: Brill, 1969), p. 57, note 2.
  5. Yehudah Kiel, Da’at Mikra – I Samuel (Jerusalem: Mossad HaRav Kook, 1991), p. 49.
  6. Kiel, p. 49.
  7. Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Peter Wiem van der Horst, eds., Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (Leiden: Brill, 1999) p. 216.
  8. Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, p. 217.