The labels “Canaanite religion” and/or “Canaanite mythology” refer to the beliefs and practices once prevalent in ancient Palestine and Syria during the second and first millennia BCE.
Source Material for Canaanite Religion
Canaanite mythology is limited and known primarily from archeological sites, literary fragments, and biblical references. The evidence presents a challenge,
“Evidence does not allow the writing of a detailed and continuous history of the religions of ancient Syria and Canaan across the first three millennia bce . The textual record, the best evidence for reconstructing the history of religion, is extremely meager and spotty” (1).
Despite this, it is possible to piece the extant evidence together to comprehend the basics of Syro-Canaanite religion.
The primary source for Syro-Canaanite religion is a corpus of texts from Ugarit, the earliest of which date to around 2300 BCE. These almost 2000 tablets were discovered at Tell Mardikh in Syria. They refer to the deities Hadda (Baal), El, and Dagan. These three gods are further attested by Amorite personal names discovered in the Amorite homeland that was located on the eastern borders of the Syro-Canaanite world along the middle Euphrates and lower Khabur rivers and surrounding steppe areas.
Texts from around 1500 BCE, such as the inscription of Idrimi of Alalakh, provide valuable references to Syro-Canaanite religious customs. Additional sources from Ema, dating to around the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries BCE, contain festival texts written in Akkadian that refer to religious practices and beliefs.
The most informative data are the tablets discovered at and near Ras Shamra in Syria dating to around 1275 BCE. These texts written in Ugaritic (many tablets are also written in the Akkadian, Hurrian, and Hittite languages) are valuable because they contain information about the gods, legends, myths, prayers, hymns, votive texts, festival catalogs, sacrificial lists, ritual prescriptions or descriptions, liturgies, and omen texts of ancient Syro-Canaanite religion.
In addition, several streams of evidence from the first millennium BCE are informative. These include the Israelite/Judean religious tradition (mostly attested in the Hebrew Bible) and the Aramean and Phoenician traditions.
In the Aramean tradition, religious ideas are mentioned in inscriptions and on amulet texts. Important among these are the Zakir Inscription, Sefire Inscriptions, Panammu I Inscription, and an inscription on a statue from Tell Fekherye.
The Phoenician texts are numerous but are mostly dedicatory. They do, however, refer to sacrificial practices. Primary sources include inscriptions of Yahimilk, Azatiwada, Yehawmilk, and the Marseilles and Carthage Tariffs.
The Mesha Inscription (d. 850 BCE) is limited but also an important source for the religion of the Moabites, one of the Canaanite subgroups and a neighbor of ancient Israel.
Deities Associated with Natural Phenomena
Syro-Canaanite religion is ‘animistic‘, one tenet of which is the association of deities with natural phenomena. The sun, the cycle of the seasons, natural disasters (droughts or floods), death and birth, and the sea were connected to divine agencies that are not entirely different from humans, although more powerful. The chief god Baal’s father, for example, associates the rain with his son,
“May the clouds bring precipitation on the summer-fruit, let dew distill on the grapes! Baal could be missing for seven years, eight, the cloud-rider – without dew, without rain, without the surge of the deep waters, without the sweetness of Baal’s voice!” (2).
The gods are anthropomorphic because they were conceived of in the physical, emotional, and social image of human beings (3).
Dating around 1500 BCE, a stela from Ugarit creatively depicts the high god Baal as a long-haired and bearded man brandishing a weapon in his raised right hand. He has a stylized bolt of lightning in his left hand. He also has a belt and dagger, and a pointed hat with two protruding horns marking his divinity. Depicting gods as threatening and holding weapons was a common theme in religious imagery of this period.
The sexual organs of female gods are emphasized and indicate reproductive success and fertility. A carved figure of a topless goddess, Qadesh-Astarte-Anat, wearing a necklace and flowing skirt was discovered. Two goats surround her while she holds stalks of grain.
The anthropomorphic depictions and conceptions of the gods enabled the people to interact and identify with them. The gods are depicted close to the people. For example, an engraving from the thirteenth century BCE depicts a god (possibly El) with a crown on a throne with an individual positioned before him. One hand is raised as a welcoming gesture and the other holds a cup.
Human emotions were ascribed to the gods. Baal angrily battles with Yam and Anat is full of rage when she threatens El. Sensual enjoyment is also a theme. El has sex with two goddesses: “The ‘hand’ of El became long like the sea, the ‘hand’ of El like the flood. He took the two hot ones (the goddesses)… He took (them) and put (them) in his house. El lowered his staff”. El approaches Athirat in a similar manner and mates with a heifer seventy-seven times.
Familial characteristics are connected to the gods. Like humans, gods such as Athirat have children. El is the father of some deities and conceived as a father in general. Gods also have siblings: Anat is the sister of Baal. These family characteristics ascribed to gods engendered power relationships between various cities and kingdoms to be articulated symbolically on the religious level.
The Divine Council
The divine council is an important theme in Syro-Canaanite religion (4). It is found in the Kirta story suggesting that the notion emerged out of human social organization in an urban context, notably out of the royal court and judicial court. According to this story, El assembles the gods to determine how to cure Kirta and asks: “Who among the gods can cast out sickness, dispel disease?” But none of the gods respond.
Anat, the goddess of war, is vicious and violently subdues the enemies of Baal. Because of the level of her violence, Baal tricks her into returning to his side so that she does not destroy the entire world.
Anat returns to Baal and he makes known his wish to build a palace commensurate with his new status. But Baal and Anat require the permission of their father El for constructing this palace. The pair resort to bribing Asherah, the consort of El. Scholar Ewa Wasilewska suggests that the building of Baal’s palace is a metaphor for the creation process and for the belief that “Baal re-establishes existing principles and preserves the order of existence” (5).
The Canaanites believed in a high god called Baal (“Lord”) who is associated with weather and storms. Baal was often assimilated with other gods: Baal-Hadad (god of storms, thunder, and rain), Baal-Karmelos (storm god of Mount Carmel, Palestine), and Baal-Hammon (Carthaginian deity and god of weather).
The Baal Cycle, which singles Baal out for praise, narrates his conflict with various other deities. In one story, Baal defeats Yamm, the god of the sea and so overcame the chaotic water powers. This enabled him to determine the flow of water and rain.
Baal fights with his gigantic brother Mot, the god of death, whose opened mouth extends from the ground to the stars. Baal is nearly defeated. He is condemned and submits to the depths of Mot’s gullet and takes the rain and clouds down with him, which leaves the world suffering from drought and devastation. The others gods mourn the world because it is without the divine energy of Baal.
But Baal is rescued by the sun-goddess Shapsh and his sister-mate Anat. Anat splits Mot in two with her sword, grinds him up with a hand mill, and sows him in the fields. These events enable Baal’s resurrection and the return of life to the Earth. This ending is never permanent as Mot challenges Baal repeatedly which forms a cycle of a continuous story of life, death, and rebirth.
The apparent association of death and the agricultural process in this story is arguably a metaphor for the mystery of agriculture and the weather, by which the dead seed is transformed into a living plant (6).
El is the ancient father god or “Father of the Gods” (a title he received after defeating his parents, Heaven and Earth), and the husband of the goddess Asherah. El was associated with the bull and because of his role as creator occupied the leadership position of the Canaanite pantheon.
According to a Ugaritic tablet, a story tells of El standing at the seashore and his penis growing as long as the sea itself. With him are his two wives whom he kisses and impregnates. They give birth to Dawn and Dusk.
El is also a healer. In one story he creates the female healing being Shataqat to cure the ill Kirta. Shataqat fights Mot which echoes the Baal Cycle in which female deities help rescue an ailing male.
Goddesses had a significant and sometimes dominant role in the Syro-Canaanite pantheon.
Anat is the goddess of war and the hunt, and the consort of Baal. She is often referred to as “the Virgin” and is known for her brutality in battle. Her cult is first attested in Egypt in the late Middle Kingdom (c. 1800 BCE) and she is also depicted as a naked goddess in ancient Egyptian representations.
Asherah, the “Lady of the Sea” or “She Who Walks on the Sea”, is the mother goddess associated with lions, serpents, and sacred trees. Texts from Ugarit refer to her as the consort of El. Asherah is the mother of seventy gods and she is also often coupled with Baal who takes the place of El. Sources show that she was worshiped widely across Syria and Palestine.
Astarte is the “Queen of Heaven” who was either the child of Asherah or an aspect of Asherah. This goddess’s importance is underscored by palace-temples at Sidon and Byblos dedicated to her, and her having been the chief god of important Mediterranean seaports at Tyre and Elat. She was worshiped in Egypt, Ugarit, among the Hittites, and in Canaan. Later, Astarte was assimilated with other gods such as Egyptian deities Isis and Hathor and in the Greco-Roman world with Aphrodite, Artemis, and Juno.
These deities share the common role as consorts to the high gods, had similar names, and were assimilated and combined with the gods and mythological figures of other tribes and cities.
Because of assimilation, it has been difficult for scholars to precisely isolate these goddesses from each other. Anat was at a later time fused with Ashtart/Ashtoret/Astarte to become Atargatis while in Hebrew she was primarily Asherah, a combination of Anat, Ashtart, and Athirat. Possibly, these goddesses can be seen as aspects of a Great Goddess.
An additional difficulty is that the sex of the goddess switches. In the Ugaritic texts, Shapsh, the sun god, is female but elsewhere is depicted as male. As a goddess, she is largely benevolent and associated with the underworld. As a god, Shapsh had a gate of a city named after him.
The gods were believed to have the capacity for malevolence. Although Baal and El provide blessings, other gods are associated with evil and suffering. Resheph is also a god of plague and illness and Anat was associated with violence. In the story of Kirta, Athirat makes Kirta ill for not bringing to her his promised vow offering.
Communicating with the Gods
There were various methods through which the gods of the invisible worlds could be contacted (7). In return, the gods communicated with the people through prophecy, omens, dreams, and visions.
Prominent was prayer. Baal received prayer during the month of Iba’lt: “O, Baal, drive away the strong one from our gates… O Baal, we shall consecrate a bull (to you), we shall fulfill a vow… We shall ascend to Baal’s sanctuary, we shall walk the paths of Baal’s temple” (8).
A hymn refers to Baal as one who “sits like a mountain foundation, Hadad… like the flood. In the midst of his mount, Saphon, in the mount of conquest… His head is awe-inspiring, dew drips down between his eyes”.
A particular prayer ended with the words: “Let your might, grace, power, guidance, and glory be in the midst of Ugarit, for days, months, and favorable years of El.”
In another case, an individual journeying to Phoenicia experiences a youth seized with ecstasy and who made a divine pronouncement.
The Deir ‘Allah text refers to the prophet Balaam son of Beor who is the “seer of the gods”. The gods inform him of an impending punishment of blighting the land with darkness because of the behavior of the people and animals.
The Temple and Offerings to the Gods
Holiness, purity, and ritual practices, centrally sacrifice, were associated with the temple (9). During the sacrifice, venerators would sing praises, give their thanks, and ask for blessings from the gods. Offerings also appeased an angry or offended deity.
Sacrifice entailed offering a meal to the deity in the form of animals. Bread, beer, wine, and oil were also offered and incense was used to please a god’s sense of smell.
The gods enjoyed their food and drink; according to the Panammu I Inscription: “May [the gho]st of Panammu [eat] with you (Hadad), and may the [gh]ost of Panammu dri[nk] with you”.
In the Aqhat story, El, Baal, the Kotharat, and Kothar-wa-Hasis feasted upon meals and drinks offered to them by Daniel, a pious patriarch. According to the Baal Cycle, Baal hosts a feast containing flock animals, oxen, and an abundance of wine upon the completion of his palace. The feast is enjoyed by the many gods in attendance.
Other offerings included statues, altars, thrones, ornaments, weapons, and building structures. Food, however, was considered distinct because it was a daily requirement of people whereas the other material gifts were not.
According to two stelae from Malta dating to the sixth century BCE, offerings also entailed child sacrifice. Offering a child as a gift is perceived by a god as a superior offering to an animal sacrifice. However, child sacrifice was later replaced by animal sacrifice.
Temples had a tower-like appearance and usually consisted of a large hall with one or two ante-chambers. They were the permanent or temporary dwelling places of the gods suggested by images within them. Two temples at Ugarit contain an image of Baal holding a thunderbolt. The royal complex had a palatial temple and many small shrines were sprinkled throughout the city.
Material objects such as temples, symbols, and icons made the presence of the invisible gods concrete. These objects were not considered the gods themselves but instead a representation of their being and power.
In the very ancient prehistory in Syro-Canaan religion (7000-5500 BCE) in Jericho, there is evidence for the veneration of the dead indicated by decorated skulls. This suggests that belief in an afterlife was established well before the second and first millenniums BCE (10).
Life continues beyond death although the afterlife is largely without consequence. The Hebrew Bible, for example, references Syro-Canaanite beliefs about the afterlife and describes these as a dark world inhabited by “the dead” or “the shades” (Ps. 89). This world is located underground.
According to the Panammu I text, ghosts must be remembered. A person performing a sacrifice as Hadad’s statue must “remember the ghost of Panammu with (the storm-god) [Ha]dad”.
The role of kings in the afterlife was more important. They received offerings and were called upon for blessings. A funeral liturgy asks for the prosperity of the new king and the kingdom and asks the gods for their wellbeing. A ritual text celebrates the deification of the dead king.
There were many rituals within Syro-Canaanite religion intended to prevent calamities such as natural disasters, illness, sorcery, witchcraft, and hangovers (11). This included binding evil forces and providing a remedy for sorcery, as well as for dealing with snakebites. According to a Ugartic text, one would say: “You (the evil) shall depart at the voice of the t’y -priest, like smoke through a hatch-hole, like a snake from a wall, like mountain goats to the summit, like lions to the lair”. An amulet depicts a demonic animal consuming a child, as well as a god holding an axe, which symbolizes power over evil.
Festivals were connected with temples (12). An important occasion was the seven-day zukru rite that took place on the year’s first new moon for Dagan, the chief deity of Emar. A nine-day rite was dedicated to the installation of a priestess, NIN.DINGIR. The new and full moons were also important ritual occasions.
A ritual feast known as the marzeah is mentioned in the Ebla tablets, Phoenician sources, and Hebrew Bible. The finer religious details (were they connected with the veneration of the dead?) of this feast are unknown although wine, upon the acquisition of a vineyard, was a key element in the activities. The groups met in buildings and/or rooms and were supported by city and state officials. There is a prescription for curing a hangover, which possibly suggests that the gods became inebriated too.
The kings served a central role in the religious domain. They oversaw the building or rebuilding of temples and had a professional class officiate under their direction. Some of these personnel included “those who enter (the temple)” (‘rbm), the “guards” (tnnm), “priests” (khnm), and a “chief priest” (rb khnm). The functions connected with the temple mirrored servants attending to the needs of the king and his palace.
References and Sources
- Wright, David P. 2013. “Syro-Canaanite Religions”. In The Cambridge History of Religions in the Ancient World, 129-140. Cambridge University Press. p. 130.
- Wright, David P. 2013. Ibid. p. 133.
- Wright, David P. 2013. Ibid. p. 133.
- Wright, David P. 2013. Ibid. p. 138.
- Wasilewska, Ewa. 2000. Creaation Stories of the Middle East. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. p. 116.
- Coogan, Michael. 1978. Stories from Ancient Canaan. Westminster Press. p. 83-84.
- Wright, David P. 2013. Ibid. p. 143.
- Wright, David P. 2013. Ibid. p. 143.
- Wright, David P. 2013. Ibid. p. 143.
- Wright, David P. 2013. Ibid. p. 146.
- Wright, David P. 2013. Ibid. p. 144.
- Wright, David P. 2013. Ibid. p. 139-140.
Wyatt, Nicolas. 1998. Religious Texts from Ugarit. Sheffield Academic Press.
Britannica Academic. n.d. Canaanite religion. Accessed via university database. [Britannica Academic contains sources on the various Canaanite deities]