The worship of Dagon (spelled “Dagan” in ancient Near Eastern literature outside the Bible) is widely attested in Mesopotamia from as early as the third millennium BC. In Canaan, the existence of Dagon worship already in the second half of the second millennium BC is evidenced by a proper name in the Amarna letters that includes the theophoric element “Dagon.”
In Philisita-judging from Biblical evidence-Dagon was apparently the head of the pantheon of gods. Judg 16:23 speaks of the rulers of the philistines assembling to offer a “great sacrifice to Dragon their god” after their capture and humiliation of Samson, and 1 Chron 10:10 mentions that after King Saul’s death, the Philistines placed his armor in the temple of their gods and “hung up his head in the temple of Dagon.”
The vexing question of what kind of deity Dagon must have been has elicited several etymological theories. The first, favored by Jerome, some Jewish tradition, and promoted by Wellhausen in the nineteenth century AD, is that Dagon was a fish-god, (dag). This etymology of Dagon has not gained general acceptance.
A second theory links the name to the Hebrew word for grain (dagan), but again there are problems, namely, that the etymology is uniquely West Semitic and would not account for the presence of the name in Mesopotamia. There is some evidence, however, that Dagon/Dagan may have been regarded in Mesopotamian religion as inventor of the plow and that his consort may have been the goddess Shala, an agricultural deity whose symbol was a barley stalk. This lends some support to the “grian” etymology.
The third theory links the name Dagon to an Arabic root (dajana) for “gloomy, cloudy,” which makes Dagon a storm-god, a notion that finds some support in the positioning of Dagon as the father of Baal, also a storm-god. None of these three major theories has gained a general consensus, and while Dagon/Dagan is frequently attested in mesopotamian literature, these attestations do little to clarify the deity’s specific character and role. In a Zukru festival tablet from Emar, e.g., Dagan is variously referred to as “Lord of the Brickwork,” “Lord of the Firstborn,” “Lord of Creation,” “Lord of the Camp,” “Lord of Habitations,” “Lord of the Quiver” and “Lord of” several villages.
Giver the evidence at hand, many specific questions regarding Dagon must remain open. What can be said is that Dagon was widely worshipped in Mesopotamia over a vast stretch of time (even as late as the second-century BC Maccabean period; in the Apocrypha see 1 Maccabees 10:83-85), and that his ascendancy to the head of the Philistine pantheon possibly took place after the Sea Peoples’ arrival in Canaan.