BEL, the name of a chief deity in Babylonian religion, the counterpart of the Phoenician Baal (q.v.) ideographically written as En-lil. Since Bel signifies the “lord” or “master” par excellence, it is, therefore, a title rather than a genuine name, and must have been given to a deity who had acquired a position at the head of a pantheon. The real name is accordingly to be sought in En-lil, of which the first element again has the force of “lord” and the second presumably “might,” “power,” and the like, though this cannot be regarded as certain. En-lil is associated with the ancient city of Nippur, and since En-lil with the determinative for “land” or “district” is a common method of writing the name of the city, it follows, apart from other evidence, that En-lil was originally the patron deity of Nippur. At a very early period—prior to 3000 B.C.—Nippur had become the centre of a political district of considerable extent, and it is to this early period that the designation of En-lil as Bel or “the lord” reverts. Inscriptions found at Nippur, where extensive excavations were carried on during 1888–1900 by Messrs Peters and Haynes, under the auspices of the University of Pennsylvania, show that Bel of Nippur was in fact regarded as the head of an extensive pantheon. Among the titles accorded to him are “king of lands,” “king of heaven and earth” and “father of the gods.” His chief temple at Nippur was known as E-Kur, signifying “mountain house,” and such was the sanctity acquired by this edifice that Babylonian and Assyrian rulers, down to the latest days, vied with one another in embellishing and restoring Bel’s seat of worship, and the name itself became the designation of a temple in general. Grouped around the main sanctuary there arose temples and chapels to the gods and goddesses who formed his court, so that E-Kur became the name for an entire sacred precinct in the city of Nippur. The name “mountain house” suggests a lofty structure and was perhaps the designation originally of the staged tower at Nippur, built in imitation of a mountain, with the sacred shrine of the god on the top. The tower, however, also had its special designation of “Im-Khar-sag,” the elements of which, signifying “storm” and “mountain,” confirm the conclusion drawn from other evidence that En-lil was originally a storm-god having his seat on the top of a mountain. Since the Euphrates valley has no mountains, En-lil would appear to be a god whose worship was carried into Babylonia by a wave of migration from a mountainous country—in all probability from Elam to the east.
When, with the political rise of Babylon as the centre of a great empire, Nippur yielded its prerogatives to the city over which Marduk presided, the attributes and the titles of En-lil were transferred to Marduk, who becomes the “lord” or Bel of later days. The older Bel did not, however, entirely lose his standing. Nippur continued to be a sacred city after it ceased to have any considerable political importance, while in addition the rise of the doctrine of a triad of gods symbolizing the three divisions—heavens, earth and water—assured to Bel, to whom the earth was assigned as his province, his place in the religious system. The disassociation from his local origin involved in this doctrine of the triad gave to Bel a rank independent of political changes, and we, accordingly, find Bel as a factor in the religion of Babylonia and Assyria to the latest days. It was no doubt owing to his position as the second figure of the triad that enabled him to survive the political eclipse of Nippur and made his sanctuary a place of pilgrimage to which Assyrian kings down to the days of Assur-bani-pal paid their homage equally with Babylonian rulers.