Geography, and the geological formations and climatological effects derived thereby, have a distinct shaping influence on the everyday lives of people who live in particular areas. This shaping influence extends naturally to the religious traditions that develop in certain places, affecting the figures, metaphors, motifs, and physical structures that are relevant in certain areas of the world. To be meaningful, of course, something must be relevant. The Eastern Mediterranean was shaped by certain geographical and climatological forces that enabled life, through rainfall agriculture, but that also limited life, due to a lack of largescale irrigative rivers, constant aridity, and the blight of frequent drought. Geographical and agricultural motifs developed in the region that both were relevant and meaningful in such a setting. Such agricultural motifs earliest were associated with the figure of the ancient storm-god, and then became associated with his subsequent regional manifestations and alternatives, in the figures of Jewish Elijah, Christian St. George, and Muslim al-Khiḍr. Investigating this particular example offers a good case study for the usefulness of geography of religion as both a theory (geography shapes religions) and as a method (geographical contextualization allows us to see that religious traditions always are a product of both place and time).
See Also: Geography, Religion, Gods, and Saints in the Eastern Mediterranean (Routledge, 2020).
By Erica Ferg
Assistant Professor, Religious Studies
The Way We Usually Think About Religion: A World Religions Paradigm
A traditional “world religions” perspective remains prevalent within religious studies textbooks and theoretical approaches (Asad 1993, 27-54; Masuzawa 2005). This manner of organization and study focuses on discrete, comprehensive traditions, and normative beliefs and practices (Knott 2010, 478). One way of thinking of religions within this framework is as separate “silos” – massive vertical worlds unto themselves, which do not intersect with other religious traditions. This perspective can make sense from a disciplinary standpoint, but by focusing on individual “world religions” categories to the exclusion of other variables, such as geography, this perspective also can occlude understanding. Moreover, it is artificial: no human phenomena ever exist in a vacuum. The “world religions” paradigm is the theoretical framework from within which most of the investigations involving the popular Jewish, Christian, and Muslim figures of Elijah, St. George, and al-Khiḍr have been undertaken. What that means is that these figures usually have been studied only from within their individual religious traditions. However, in the Eastern Mediterranean, where those figures originated, they share characteristics sometimes considered “peculiar,” or anomalous: in the Eastern Mediterranean region known as the Levant, similarities between these figures largely have revolved around the geographical and meteorological motifs of rain, storms, thunder, lightning, greenness, fertility, fecundity, the ability to appear and disappear, associations with mountains and other high places, local feast or celebration days of April 23, and the motif of vanquishing a dragon.
In the past, the “peculiarity” of those shared aspects sometimes has led observers to challenge the validity of the figures themselves, even though linkages and similarities between them have never been considered anything but authentic by the local communities who venerate them. In fact, since at least 1200 CE, agrarian communities of Jews, Christians, Muslims, and others in the Eastern Mediterranean largely have shared – and sometimes conflated – the figures of Jewish Elijah, Christian St. George, and Muslim al-Khiḍr. In the region, Elijah and St. George are known and beloved for the trait of being defenders of “true” religion over and against “false” gods. Al-Khiḍr and Elijah are associated as well, especially in Islamic religious texts, and al-Khiḍr and St. George share iconographical representation (mounted on horseback or standing, vanquishing a dragon, snake, or human foe underfoot).
And these motifs extend even further back in time. In 1969, Hassan S. Haddad wrote a brief article titled “‘Georgic’ Cults and Saints of the Levant,” wherein he noted the similarities of Elijah, St. George, and al-Khiḍr among agricultural communities of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the Levant (Haddad 1969, 21-39). As a native of the Levant, Haddad uniquely was positioned to have been aware, as well, of the common practices surrounding these figures between local communities of Muslims, Christians, Jews, and others. In his article, Haddad was the first to make the provocative but unsubstantiated claim that “the cults of these ‘georgic’ saints is a continuation, with variations, of the cults of the Baals of ancient Syria” (Haddad 1969, 22), referring to the millennia-long regionally dominant figure of the Syro-Canaanite storm-god, Baal-Hadad, as well as to Baal’s regional syncretic manifestations. Throughout the second half of the second millennium BCE and the first millennium BCE, Baal-Hadad often was named the patron deity of particular cities, inspiring local epithets of Baal-Hadad that linked him with those cities (e.g., Baal of Tyre, Baal of Aleppo). These names do not refer to separate deities, but instead should be considered manifestations of Baal-Hadad as associated with a particular locality (Allen 2015; Schwemer 2008, 15-16; Haddad 1960, 46). Although there is not space in this forum to detail this argument, in my recent book, Geography, Religion, Gods, and Saints in the Eastern Mediterranean (New York: Routledge, 2020), which is the product of nearly a decade of research, I investigate the regional importance and longevity of the storm-god Baal-Hadad, as well as subsequent local counterparts such as Levantine Zeus, Jupiter, and even St. George, and alternative and corollary figures like Hebrew Bible Elijah, Late Antique Elijah, and al-Khiḍr.
Despite similar characteristics between Baal-Hadad, Elijah, St. George, and al-Khiḍr, and the fact that, for at least the past 800 years, local agricultural communities of Jews, Christians, Muslims, Druze, Alawites, and others have venerated and often conjoined these figures, outside of the Eastern Mediterranean, the linkages between these figures previously were unable to be seen. That is because a traditional “world religions” perspective of these figures understood the figures only in isolation, uprooted from their local settings, and separated from their local communities. When we study Elijah, St. George, and al-Khiḍr as regional religious figures, however, and study their Biblical and Qur’ānic texts in the context of contemporaneous religious, political, and geographical influences, their linkages and associations in text, image, and popular practice become much clearer, and their shared agricultural motifs do not appear at all peculiar.
Using a Different Lens: Geography of Religion
Geographical motifs in the Levant relating to rain, storms, thunder, lightning, greenness, fertility, fecundity, the ability to appear and disappear, associations with mountains and other high places, local feast or celebration days of April 23, and the motif of vanquishing a dragon, largely have been associated with regional agricultural needs – specifically, with the need for rainfall from the sky.
Three main features in particular have affected geography in the Eastern Mediterranean. First, its geological structures: the Mediterranean basin, which is composed of a bedrock of limestone, weathers quickly, leaving behind an abundance of rocks, thin, rocky soils, and thousands of caves and grottoes. Being located exactly at the convergence of three continental plates – the African, Arabian, and Eurasian – has created the topography of the region and has resulted in three topographical zones: coastal plains in the west, a central band of mountain ranges, and plains and plateaus in the east. This continental-plate convergence also accounts for the frequency of earthquakes in the region. The second and third major features that have affected the geography of the Levant are related to water. The climatological weather patterns of the wider Mediterranean Sea region govern seasonal wind flows, as well as precipitation. The location of the Levant, situated at the Eastern littoral of the Mediterranean Sea basin, has affected regional climate and rainfall patterns. With its mountain ranges jutting upward next to the sea and just inland of a narrow band of coastal plains, the mountainous topography of the region governs which areas of the Levant attract rainfall – the windward sides of the mountains – and which areas are perennially dry – the leeward sides of the mountains, which descend into dry plains and plateaus to the east. All of that, together with the region’s water resources, of course, has affected the regional possibilities for the practice of agriculture.
In general, the Eastern Mediterranean is arid, with rainfall totals decreasing from north to south and west to east, and with drought being a regular climatological condition. Despite that, much of the Levant falls within the 400 mm (12 inches) isohyet, and most of the region generally receives, therefore, sufficient annual rainfall to enable the cultivation of rainfall or “rain-fed” agriculture. Moreover, because of the location of the Levant as the western arc of the “Fertile Crescent” in which regional agricultural practices were spread, agriculture long has been practiced in the Eastern Mediterranean, as well. Indeed, the region primarily can be characterized by an agricultural economic base through the mid-twentieth century CE.
However, unlike in Mesopotamia, with the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, or in Egypt, with the Nile River, the Levant lacks similarly large and annually flooding rivers that can be used as water resources and for largescale irrigation. Instead, the three main rivers in the Levant – the Orontes, the Litani, and the Jordan – as well as smaller regional rivers and hundreds of far smaller, seasonal tributaries, together with a few surface lakes and the regional aquifers, have provided the water resources necessary for life in the Levant. These kinds of weather patterns and water resources distinctly have shaped Levantine religious notions and practices, as well.
Thus, when we study the Levant, we are confronted with a limestone bedrock landscape, as well as an agriculturally oriented location that simultaneously is arid, and in which water from rainfall always has constituted the main source of water for crop growth and for the success or failure of its human populations. Accordingly, an understanding of regional geography is absolutely essential for a proper understanding of the geographical and meteorological motifs that have developed there and remained relevant and compelling in Levantine culture for the past few thousand years.
Geography of Religion as A Theory: Geography Shapes Religion
“Geography is far more important in the study of religions than is generally appreciated. Religious beliefs and ideas, symbols and practice, are naturally affected by the social and geographical conditions in which the theology is elaborated” (Hinnels 2010, 13). Geography, and the geological and climatological characteristics that are thereby derived, have a significant effect upon the daily life and needs of people. Naturally, these factors also affect the development of religious notions: gods and narratives take on particular characteristics or serve particular purposes relevant to and reflective of certain geographical areas (and not reflective of other areas); motifs and metaphors are more meaningful in certain geographical areas than in others; and historical religious structures and the locations in which they are built are largely shaped by the landscapes out of which they are born.
For instance, differences in characteristics and powers between what were the ancient Near Eastern storm-gods largely are attributable to the geographical and climatological traits of the region in which those gods manifested. According to Alberto R.W. Green, “in the cultural and religious evolutions of any region [of the ancient Near East], certain inherent geographical and climatological factors contribute substantially to the local conception of a deity” (Green 2003, 9). Daniel Schwemer argues that “the relative significance and sphere of activities of the individual storm-gods was dependent, among other things, on the climatic conditions in the individual regions” (Schwemer 2007, 129-130). Differences in the ecological and topographical features between hilly northern Mesopotamia and flat southern Mesopotamia are key to understanding different modes of thought concerning regional storm-gods. In northern and western Mesopotamia – those areas characterized by rainfall agriculture and dry farming – the storm-gods occupied positions of high importance within their panthea and often were perceived of as hot-tempered, fickle, and bellicose. People in those regions, dependent on the whims of the weather, resorted to cultic rituals directed to specific gods in order to obtain moisture from the skies. In southern Mesopotamia, the Sumerian god Iškur was responsible for storms, wind, lightning, rain, and thunder, but generally, he belonged to a less-important category of the great gods. This lesser position is likely to reflect both Babylonian geography and agricultural practices: “the storm-god as bringer of rain has no role in the agrarian rituals of Babylonia, where agriculture was characterized by irrigation” (Schwemer 2007, 130-131).
In old Norse mythology, Fimbulvetr (“Fimbulwinter” or “great winter”) is the harsh winter that precedes the end of the world. This event is described in the Poetic Edda, an anonymous collection of Old Norse poetry that comes from the 13th-century Icelandic Codex Regius and represents our earliest-extant source of Norse mythology. Fimbulwinter consists of three consecutive winters with no intervening summers, during which time snow comes from all directions and most of the living world dies of the cold. Fimbulwinter precedes Ragnarök, a cataclysmic series of wars and great events in which some of the great gods die before the world is entirely submerged by water, and, eventually, renewed again. The mythological narrative of Fimbulwinter – and in particular its origins in snow and ice – was relevant among its communities precisely because of the specific geography and geology of cold northern climates. Similar phenomena and characteristics neither appear in the mythological or cosmogonic stories of warmer-weather locations, like the Levant, nor would they have resonated with the same effect among people there. Of course, Fimbulwinter represents just one of dozens of possible examples of the influence of northern geography and climate upon the development of Norse mythological narratives and figures.
Another way in which we can see the effects of geography on religious narratives, figures, motifs, metaphors, and structures – in this example, in the area of the Levant – is through the notion of “agrarian religion,” first identified and coined by James Grehan in his 2014 book, Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine (Grehan 2014). “Agrarian religion” in the Levant consists of a “fine attunement to the essentially agrarian conditions of everyday existence”; as much urban as it was rural, it was the expression of an entire social and economic order whose rhythms were tied to the slow turnings of the seasons, and finely attuned to the vagaries of earth, sky, and environment” (Grehan 2014, 140 and 16). This was an experience shared by all peoples in the region, regardless of distinctions in religious identity(ies), social class, urban or rural location, age, or gender. Agrarian religion in the Levant, in Grehan’s formulation, was driven by geographical influences and characterized by sacred sites, essential agricultural needs, shared religious culture, and saints and holy figures. Sacred sites in the region intimately are related to geography, and often were hulled from the rocky landscape or simply created around natural wonders, consisting of holy mountains, noteworthy rock formations, and caves – especially caves with access to subterranean water. Agricultural concerns, foremost among them water, droughts, and crop yields, shaped the contours of agrarian religion. Scholars of religious studies tend anachronistically to think of historical religious communities in the region as being theologically distinct from one another. However, before the ascendency of mass literacy, textual religion, the growth of a religious infrastructure that was sufficient to police and enforce particular theological positions, and a concomitant rise in exclusivist sectarian religious identities, religious communities in the Levant were marked more sharply by a shared agrarian religious culture than they were differentiated by distinct doctrinal characteristics. Geographical and geological conditions, which change very slowly, underlie agrarian religion in the Levant. Agrarian religious culture is therefore naturally slow to change and associated with a longue-durée perspective (Grehan 2014, 16). Phenomena and characteristics associated with agrarian religion endured in the region for a very long time indeed, and only began to be eclipsed during the course of the twentieth century CE.
Geography, of course, does not drive religious belief. Many important religious notions, in the Levant, in Norse traditions, and certainly in every religious tradition – have nothing whatsoever to do with geography. But geography does have a distinct shaping influence on religion. This influence exists in a religious culture for as long as geography can be said to be the most influential factor impacting everyday life. As the agrarian orientation of our societies gradually has diminished since the mid-20th century CE, the original influence of geography has persisted within our religious traditions – it’s just that, usually, we can’t see it any longer.
Geography of Religion as a Method: “Geographical Contextualization”
Religious traditions are always a product of both time and place. If you want to understand the origins of yogic texts and practices within Hindu religious traditions, you must seek to contextualize their emergence by investigating the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali for the 4th-century CE religious, political, and geographical (relating to place) conditions that combined to influence their development. Those conditions and influences are likely to extend beyond the disciplinary realms of “Hinduism” and of Hindu theology. To that end, and as compared with a traditional “world religions” paradigm, theories associated with the field of Geography of Religion represent a more-promising approach for understanding the ways in which locality and temporality inform religious phenomena.
Since the 1960s, the field of Geography of Religion has evolved in various ways, but one of its more important contributions is the “contextualization of religion” that is evident in local, geographically oriented studies of religion (Stump 2008, 177; Knott 2010, 476-491). That is, according to a Geography of Religion theoretical perspective, religions inherently are “geographically contextualized”: prevailing political, social, religious, and physical-geographical conditions evident within a particular locality are understood to influence the development and manifestation of that locality’s religious traditions at any given point in time.
Using this method, texts, images, and sites associated with particular gods or other religious figures, with motifs, and with metaphors can be geographically contextualized. That is, texts, images, and sites can be thought of like artifacts that can tell us a great deal about the societies in which they were produced. They represent moments-in-time; each text, image, or site functions like a small window into history. These then can be examined for evidence within them of contemporaneous religious, political, and geographical influences, helping to produce a picture of specific gods, religious figures, motifs, or metaphors that accounts for the intersections within them of time and place. This, in turn, helps us more precisely to analyze specific religious traditions and better explain particular complexities that otherwise would be inexplicable.
Returning to the major example of this article, the characteristics shared by Elijah, St. George, and al-Khiḍr in the Eastern Mediterranean long have been considered “peculiar” when those figures were studied solely as products of their respective religious traditions; i.e., when they were studied from within a “world religions” paradigm. The lens of geography, however, is far more useful in this instance than is that of “world religions.” Rather than searching within only the single “silo” of the religious tradition of Christianity in order to investigate in isolation the “peculiar” characteristics of St. George – which results in precious little explanation – using the lens of geography allows us to pan out, to investigate these same characteristics in other regional figures, across religious traditions, and across time, which helps explain not only the noteworthy and unusual characteristics of St. George, but also to identify developments and changes, as well as linkages and interconnections with other spatially and historically proximate religious traditions and figures, like Elijah and al-Khiḍr, and even the ancient storm-god Baal-Hadad.
Identifying the common geographical and cultural environment for these figures explains as well why these figures are not shared in the same way outside of the Levant. Shorn of long-term associations in community practice and in iconography, Elijah, St. George, and al-Khiḍr are known among their respective religious communities around the world mainly by the content of their canonical texts. Those texts usually have been interpreted in tradition-specific ways that reinforce internal theological principals and religious identities and leave no natural reason, on the basis of their texts, to understand Baal-Hadad, Elijah, St. George, and al-Khiḍr as anything other than discrete, unrelated figures from within their respective – and “separate” – religious communities.
Lastly, Geography of Religion as a method helps underscore, as well, the importance of cultural context within religious studies. The phenomenon of local communities of Jews, Christians, and Muslims venerating Elijah, St. George, and al-Khiḍr in the Eastern Mediterranean for at least the past 800 years is inextricable from the cultural and geographical contexts of the Eastern Mediterranean. That suggests that we in religious studies need better to recognize regional specificity even for “global” religions and that we need to recognize the existence of regionally specific relationships between religious traditions. Geography of Religion methods allow us the opportunity more clearly to understand both of these phenomena.
Asad, Talal. 1993. “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category.” In Genealogies of Religion: Discipline and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam, 27–54. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Green, Alberto R. W. 2003. The Storm-god in the Ancient Near East. Biblical and Judaic Studies from the University of California San Diego, edited by William Henry Propp, vol. 8. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
Grehan, James. 2014. Twilight of the Saints: Everyday Religion in Ottoman Syria and Palestine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Haddad, Hassan S. 1969. “‘Georgic’ Cults and Saints of the Levant.” In Numen, 16, Fasc. 1 (April): 21-39.
Haddad, Hassan S. 1960. “Baal-Hadad: A Study of the Syrian Storm-god.” PhD diss., University of Chicago.
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Schwemer, Daniel. 2008. “The Storm-Gods of the Ancient Near East: Summary, Synthesis, Recent Studies Part Two.” In Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 8, no. 1: 1–44.
Schwemer, Daniel. 2007. “The Storm-Gods of the Ancient Near East: Summary, Synthesis, Recent Studies Part One,” Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 7, no. 2: 121–168.
Spencer, Allen. 2015. The Splintered Divine: A Study of Ištar, Baal, and Yahweh Divine Names and Divine Multiplicity in the Ancient Near East, Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records 5. Munich: De Gruyter.
Stump, Richard W. 2008. The Geography of Religion: Faith, Place and Space. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield.