I. The Word. The word ʾab(u) is found with slight variations in all Semitic languages. All attempts to trace the word back to a triliteral root must be regarded as failures. Instead it is to be understood, with Köhler, as an onomatopoetic word imitating the babbling sounds of an infant, i.e., as a child’s word.
1. Egypt. The Egyptian word for “father” is ỉt. In most cases this word is used of an earthly father. It is also used in the broader sense of “ancestor, forefather,” often in the plural.
This word is used figuratively in expressions like “I was a father to the child,” and he was “a father to orphans, a husband to widows.” An official was said to be “a good father to his people.” The king was referred to as “father of the two countries” or as “the good bearer of water, who keeps his army alive, father and mother to all men.” It is clear that these expressions contain above all comparisons based on the idea of a father providing for the needs of his children.
It is noteworthy that the Egyptian terms used for relatives are limited to the most intimate family relationships (father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister). This indicates that only the small family unit was felt to play a crucial role in Egyptian social life. The same thing was true in the public administration, where originally the highest public offices were held by royal princes.
An outstanding feature of Egyptian family life was the reverence the son showed to his father. He was responsible for his father’s funeral, and for offering the sacrifice at his tomb. E.g., the provincial prince Khnumhotep boasts: “I have exalted the name of my father, and have supplied the place of the cult of the dead and the provisions which are necessary for it.” But also more generally, Egyptian literature often contains admonitions that a person show love, gratitude, and respect to his parents.
It was the father’s duty to educate the children, as is clear in that many of the Egyptian books of wisdom claim to be a father’s teaching for his son. They emphasize that it is good when the son obeys his father.
Since the families and genealogies of the gods have an important place in Egyptian mythology, “father” is often used as a divine epithet. Thus, Osiris above all is known as the father of Horus, e.g., in Pyr. 650b he is called “the father of Horus, who begat him”; and Horus is said to be “the one who acts in his father’s behalf” (nḏ ỉt.f). Several gods are known as “father of the gods” (ỉt nṯr.w), among them Atum, Re, Nun, Geb, Ptah. The primal- and creator-god boasts that he was “without father and mother,” or that he is “the bull of his mother” (Kamutef), i.e., he begat himself (above all, Amon and Min). “Father of fathers, mother of mothers,” i.e., primal-father and primal-mother, also occur as divine epithets. Strange as it may seem, one and the same God can appear as father and mother: thus Ptah, Osiris, Amon. Amon is often called “father and mother (or merely father) of mankind,” which in particular emphasizes his function as creator (cf. Aton, who is described as “mother and father of everything which has been made,” and the sun-god, who is called “mother of the earth, father of mankind”).
From the first Intermediate Period on, there are also proper names which characterize a given individual as son of a god. Such a designation was limited to kings in the Old Kingdom. The reason for this change is that the social unrest in the first Intermediate Period brought about a democratization. In the New Kingdom names like “Amon is my father,” “Chons is my father,” etc., appear. According to Ranke, this indicates a deepened piety.
Finally, the king is designated as “father of the child, nurse of the infant.” The priestly title ỉt nṯr, “divine father,” which refers to a priest of the highest rank, has not been explained satisfactorily.
2. Mesopotamia. a. As M. Lambert has demonstrated, the Sumerian language has at least three different expressions for “father”: (i) a, later a-a, “father” = “begetter”; (ii) ab-ba, “father” = “head of the family”; and (iii) ad-da, which is found only in texts from Nippur, and to which the Elamite word for “father” is related. The difference between the first two terms is evident, e.g., in two epithets of En-lil: he is called ab-ba dingir-dingir-e-ne, “father of all gods,” i.e., the Pater familias of the world of the gods; and a-a-kalam-ma, “father of the land,” i.e., begetter and creator of the world.
b. Like the other Semitic languages, Akkadian has only one word for “father,” viz., abu(m), which is used to convey both of these nuances. When it means “father” in the physical sense, it often appears alongside or is used as a synonym for bānû, “begetter.” Sometimes a distinction is made between ālidānu, “the physical father,” and “step-father” or “foster-father.” But abu is also used with reference to other men: kings speak of their predecessors on the throne as “my father” (there are also instances in which the plural means “ancestors”); a king or a protector of the people is addressed as “my father and lord” (abī bēlī, or some similar expression); cf. TCL, 14, 13:27: “Thou art my father and my lord, I have no other father but thee.” The sheiks of the semi-nomadic peoples were called abu, particularly in Mari but also later. In some cases abu means “official,” “administrator,” or “master”; of particular interest is the expression abu ummāni kalāma, “a master of all trades.” The Mesopotamian family was essentially patriarchal, but the authority of the father over the children was not entirely absolute. It is true that he could expose a child, but he did not have the power of life and death over his child. According to Sumerian laws, a son who acted contrary to his father was sold into slavery. The Code of Hammurabi requires punishment for the son who smites his father (CH § 195), and states that the father may disown his son or give his children into servitude for debts he has incurred.
As in Egypt, so in Mesopotamia the education of the child was considered to be the responsibility of the father. For example, we read in EnEl VII, 147: “Let the father tell about it (i.e., the creation) and teach it to his son.” It was the duty of the sons to maintain the ancestral cult, though this was not regulated by law, but was founded on ancient custom. And yet, in documents having to do with the distribution of the paternal inheritance, often the heirs must accept the responsibility of maintaining the ancestral cult.
It is also the responsibility of the father to support and to protect his family. From comparisons and other types of expressions (for illustrations cf. CAD), we become acquainted with the characteristics that were considered essential for a man to be a good father in the view of Mesopotamian society. For example, we find such statements as these: “The king treated his servants as a father treats his sons”; “let me learn from this whether you love me as a father”; it is said to be abnormal for a “father and mother to abandon their son.” Conversely, something was considered to be wrong if “sons despised their father” or if “a son and a father were angry with each other.”
There are several indications of a feeling of an intimate relationship between the generations in Mesopotamian literature. We find this description of calamity in the Erra Epic: “The son will not be concerned about the health of the father, nor the father about the health of the son”; in incantation texts there is also an allusion to “curse through father or mother,” but it seems best not to understand this in the sense of a child being responsible for his parents’ crimes; indirect examples are the deprecatory references to a king’s sons who raise up a revolt against their father or kill him.
Frequently the gods are designated as abu. To some extent this is to be understood literally in connection with the idea of genealogies of the gods. But this title also appears without genealogical connections. Anu, Enlil, Sin, Assur, etc. are called abu ilāni, “father of the gods.” Quite often Nanna-Sin is designated simply as “father,” but he is also referred to as abu kibrāti, “father of the world regions,” and abu ṣalmāt qaqqadi, “father of the blackheaded ones” (i.e., men). Anu is called abu šā ilāni bānū kalāma, “father of the gods, creator of all,” and abu šamê ū erṣetim, “father of the heaven and of the earth.” Here it is clear that the word “father” is synonymous with creator or originator, and also an expression for power and authority.
Occasionally, the relationship between god and man is characterized as a father-child relationship. Thus a certain god is said to show mercy as a father, or to forgive as a father. It has been said that “they spoke of Marduk as one would speak of a father and a mother.” Such a statement refers primarily to the kindness and care of the deity. It was natural, then, for the tutelary god of some man to be addressed as abī, “my father.”
There is a particular problem connected with statements in which a king asserts that he has no other father or mother than a certain deity. Scholars are divided as to whether such a statement is intended to convey the idea that the king was physically the product of a divine begettal, or merely that the deity gave the king special protection.
Perhaps this question can be settled by referring to the use of abu in proper names. A few proper names, such as ᵈAnum-ki-i-a-bi-ia, “Anu is like my father,” merely suggest that the deity’s behavior is similar to a father’s behavior. Others, like Šamaš-abī, “Shamash is my father,” Sin-Abūšu, “Sin is his father,” and the like, indicate unequivocally that the god who is named is considered to be the man’s father. Stamm understands these names as “expressions of prospective trust”; they are analogous to the names which refer to a man as a son of the deity or as begotten by him. It is certain that there is no mythology here, but rather a man is simply described as standing under special divine protection. But we cannot be sure about names in which abī, or the like, seems to be a substitute for a divine name, as in Abī-nāsir, “my father protects,” Abī-iddina, “my father has given,” etc. Noth regards abu as a theophorous element, which is certainly true in many cases (especially with reference to the tutelary god), but there are other cases in which it seems to refer to the earthly father, as Stamm has argued.
3. The West Semitic Region. West Semitic literature is little different from Akkadian in the way it uses the word “father.” Most of the examples refer to the earthly father; thus, e.g., Mesha (line 2 of the Mesha Inscription), Aḥiram (KAI, 1.1), Barrakib (KAI, 215.18), and Panammuwa (KAI, 214.8f.) speak of their fathers in a literal sense. In the Ugaritic texts, Keret and Danel are mentioned as fathers. The plural is used to refer to the forefathers, and the expression byt ʾb is used for the family or the dynasty. In the Ugaritic texts, a certain “Hrgb, father of the eagle (vulture)” is mentioned in conjunction with “Ṣml, the mother of the eagle.” It is obvious in this case that a mythological couple represent the (species) eagles. Ugaritic also has the word ḥtk, which (probably with different vocalizations) sometimes means “father” and sometimes “origin.”
There are numerous examples of the metaphorical use of ʾb in West Semitic literature. For example, Kilamuwa says: “I was a father to one person, and a mother to another, and a brother to yet a third.” And in the Karatepe Inscription we read, “Baal made me a father and a mother of the Danuna,” a statement which obviously is describing the king as protector and sustainer of his people. Ahikar is called “father of all Assyria” (55). This expression means that he was the counsellor, because the land was dependent on the counsellor as a child on his father.
In the Ugaritic texts, Danel calls El his father, as when he says: “O Bull El, my father.” It is not absolutely clear whether this means that the king is the son of the god, because the god Baal uses the same expression, and the bull El is said to be Baal’s father. As a divine epithet, ʾb is applied to El: he is called ʾb bn ȝl, “father of the sons of the gods” (i.e., of the pantheon), ʾb ʾdm, “father of mankind” (i.e., of the human race), and ʾb šnm, an epithet which has not yet been explained satisfactorily. At first it was assumed that this expression meant “father of the years” (so still Driver); but now many scholars doubt this, and it is thought that šnm is a place name, or the son of El, or El’s celestial habitation.
It is interesting that some Aramaic inscriptions state that some king was put on the throne because of the righteousness (or loyalty, ṣdq) of his father. The Aqhat Epic refers to certain responsibilities which a son has to his father. But these have to do with cultic assistance primarily.
ʾb often appears as a theophorous element in proper names. Sometimes it is used as a substitute for a divine name, as in ʾbrm, abi-rāmi, “the father is exalted,” ʾbrpȝ, abi-rapi, “the father heals” (or “ ‘Rapi’ is the father”?). Sometimes it explicitly refers to a god as father, e.g., ʾbmlk, abimilku, ʾbbʿl, ʿṯrʾb, aš-tar-a-bi, rašap-abi, ršpʾb ʾbršp.
Noth has shown that names containing ʾb and ʾḥ are phenomena that may be found generally in North Semitic literature, and therefore concludes that they originated at a time “in which the North Semitic territory was an entity complete within itself.” Gradually, this type of name becomes more and more infrequent among the individual peoples, although new names using ʾb and ʾḥ appear. Further, it is to be observed that ʾlydʿ occurs as well as ʾbydʿ, and ʾlkrb as well as ʾbkrb, which indicates that most probably ʾb is actually a theophorous element. According to Noth, this is to be explained in that in the ancient Northwest Semitic tribal religion, the tribal god was regarded as father (or brother) of the tribe. This concept gradually disappeared, but a number of proper names reflecting it lingered on. “But as tribal ancestor, the deity was not only begetter of the tribe, but also head, leader, and protector.” It cannot be determined whether the main emphasis should be placed on the physical begetting or on the protection and care of the god. It is probable that the latter came more and more into the foreground.