Ugaritic-Canaanite Religion

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This ancient Syro-Palestinian paganism is of more than antiquarian interest. It was the religion that the Israelites

encountered when they entered the Promised Land, and which they imitated to a certain extent in the outward forms of their cult, and absorbed into their literature and popular lore. Israel's religion had behind it a background of the common culture of Canaan; while it had a character of its own, which it did not share with the Canaanites, it did express itself through shared forms and language. Though there were forms that could not be integrated into Yahwism, there were other forms, such as sacred poetry, music, and architecture, which were taken over and made the organ of Israelite religion. Both where the Old Testament incorporates them, and where it reacts against them, Canaanite religion and mythology continue to exert their impact upon us through the Bible.

Sources. Until the discoveries at Ugarit-Ras Shamra, little was known about Canaanite religion, and that little was based mainly on second-hand sources. To be sure, the Old Testament contained numerous allusions to Canaanite gods and practices, but these references were invariably polemic and had to be interpreted accordingly. There were some references to Canaanite deities, and sometimes also to ritual implements and usages, in Egyptian and Mesopotamian texts, in the El Amarna letters, and in the Phoenician inscriptions of the 1st millennium, especially those from Karatepe discovered in 1946; but these could not yield a coherent summary of the religion. Greek writers, e.g., Lucian and philo of byblos, preserved accounts of Canaanite mythology and religion, which they claimed to have derived from native sources, but it was difficult to separate the genuine deposit from later accretions. Finally, excavations at such sites as Byblos, Megiddo, Hazor, Gezer, and Tell Beit Mirsim have yielded some temples, numerous altars, statues, figurines, incense-burners, bones of sacrificial animals and the like, which, while giving valuable information, permitted at best a tentative reconstruction.

Today, the Canaanites speak for themselves. In a series of remarkable discoveries at Ras Shamra (ancient ugarit) on the North Syrian coast near Latakia have come to light hundreds of clay tablets inscribed in a Canaanite dialect closely related to Biblical Hebrew. In addition to material that is not here relevant, these tablets contain a series of relatively long mythological poems and of shorter documents relating to the service of the sanctuary. There are lists of gods and sacrifices to be offered to them, classes of temple functionaries, and ritual texts mentioning animals for sacrifice. Discovery of non-literary materials includes remains of temples to Baal and to Dagon, two stelae with dedications to Dagon, stelae with carved reliefs representing El and Baal, and installations for the cult of the dead.

General Characteristics. Though Canaanite religion was substantially the same in all regions of Greater Syria, one must allow for local variations and peculiarities. It must not be taken for granted that each Canaanite town recognized the sum total of deities revealed to us in the texts. Religion among the Canaanites, however it may have varied from place to place, was also more a public institution than a private experience. Its rites were public exercises aimed primarily to secure fertility of man and land; and while it doubtless inspired feelings of individual pietywitness the numerous votive inscriptions in Phoenicianit was in essence an expression of communal economy. It was an approach to the world which was thought to establish an intimacy between the community and the personified forces of nature, and which, by the large place given to sympathetic magic and rites of fertility, made man a necessary agent in the continuous process of creation and revitalization.

The Pantheon. The importance of certain gods in the mythological texts does not necessarily correspond to their popularity among Canaanite worshippers. The reverse is also true: e.g., dagon, whose place in the myths is limited to being described as the father of baal, appears to have been quite popular, to judge from the temple and two stelae dedicated to him at Ugarit.

The God El. In the extreme recesses of Mt. Sāphôn, the great mountain of assembly, the gods held session. In the Ugaritic texts the pantheon is called "the totality of the sons of El," "the totality of the gods," "the assembly (family) of the gods." The head of the pantheon is El, whose titles include "the Creator of Creatures," "the King," "the Bull El," and "the Father of Mankind." Though regalitas in the full sense is ascribed only to El, he was no more than titular head of the pantheon and part of the time he seems quite otiose, what anthropologists call a "remote high god." He resided in a distant cosmic spot known as "the Sources of the Two Deeps" where he received suppliants and sent instructions by messengers. El was conceived as a mild old man; one of his titles is "El the Merciful" and the stress on this attribute, according to O. Eissfeldt [Journal of Semitic Studies 1 (1956) 37], may have served to moderate the Israelite concept of the severe Yahweh so as to stress more His paternal gentleness. The most probable etymology of the name El derives it from the root wl "to be strong, leader"; the form would be that of a stative participle [W. F. Albright, Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore 1946) 72].

Baal, the Sea, and Death. Practical dominion over the world was divided among the three powers who correspond roughly to Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades of the Greeks. The sky and the rains were under the control of Baal, the dominant figure of the Canaanite pantheon. His epithets include "the Rider of the Clouds," and "the Mighty One." When he gives forth his voice from the heavens the mountains rock, the earth shakes, and his enemies take to the forests. Since the word balu simply meant "lord," it could be applied to different gods. In practice, however, from before the 15th century b.c., the Semitic storm-god Hadad, identified with Baal in the Ugaritic tablets, had become "the Lord" par excellence. As lord of the storm, Baal was the god of fertility, since in Syria-Palestine fertility depended in very large measure upon rainfall. In actual cult, the mythological figure of Baal was identified in each locality with the peculiar genius loci; hence one encounters him under such diverse titles as "Baal of Sidon," "Baal ammôn," and "Baal Addîr." His most frequent title among later Phoenicians is "Baal Shamên" or "Lord of the Heavens." This is none other than the great storm-god of Ras Shamra. The problem of henotheism is in this connection quite academic since there is no evidence that the local Baal was less than cosmic in scope. The Canaanite Baals were all high gods in their own right.

The oceans, rivers, lakes, and subterranean springs were under the dominion of Yamm, "Sea." Each year Yamm sought to gain control of the earth by flooding it, but was invariably repelled by Baal after a fierce battle. Yamm was regarded as a seven-headed monster-dragon and bore the title Lôtan (Leviathan).

The nether world and the barren places were the realm of Môt, "Death," the genius of aridity and sterility. When he stalked the earth all life ceased among men, the earth became a desert. Even the great Baal was helpless before him, for, as one text describes it, "Baal became as a lamb in his mouth." The text that follows is important for comparative mythology, since it tells how the goddess Anath attacked Death with an avenging fury, "cutting him off with her sword, winnowing him with the sieve, burning him in the fire, grinding him with the handmill, sowing his remains in the field" (J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 140). The ritual was intended to revive the god of fertility by sympathetic action.

The three-cornered contest of Baal, Yamm, and Death for domination of the earth forms the central theme of one of the myths from Ras Shamra (Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 13839).

Minor Deities. A popular Canaanite god was Kôthar, whose nature was not understood until the Ugaritic data made it possible to interpret already available material. He was the Canaanite Hephaestus or Vulcan, the wise craftsman and inventor of tools and weapons, as well as of musical instruments. In the myths he supervises the building of Baal's palace, equips the sanctuaries of the gods, and makes the divine bows. His forge was located in kptr, Biblical Caphtor, which is probably Crete.

Another god whose attributes were unknown until 1935 was Hôron. In an Egyptian execration text from the 19th century b.c., two Palestinian princes bear the name auranu-abum "Hôron is Father," and during the Nineteenth Dynasty in Egypt when there was considerable Canaanite influence on Egyptian religion, Hôron was identified with Horus. References to him in the Harris magical papyrus make it clear that he is the Canaanite equivalent of Babylonian Nergal, the god of the plague and the nether world. This may be inferred also from his name, which probably means "the One of the Pit." In a comminatory formula in the Legend of King Keret from Ras Shamra, he is invoked thus: "May Hôron break, O my son, may Hôron break your head, Astarte, name of Baal, your pate" (Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 149).

The Canaanite god of pestilence, Resheph, has long been known through inscriptions from Cyprus and Zinjirli, and Cypriote bilingual texts identify him with Apollo. In El Amarna letter 35, belia "my lord" is considered the cause of a recent plague in Cyprus; clearly, Resheph is intended, since in the Legend of King Keret he is described as gathering to himself one-sixth of Keret's family. On the other hand, in the Karatepe inscriptions (see canaan and canaanites) Resheph appears as a god of well-being and prosperity; he is thus a god of health as well as of the plague. These apparently irreconcilable attributes find their sharpest expression in the composite deity Resheph-Shalmon (W. F. Albright, op. cit. 7980). In Canaanite religious belief and practice there was a strong tendency to bring opposites together. Polarities were felt to be the very essence of life. What could be more natural than to pray to the god of pestilence for healing from the disease that he controlled?

Goddesses. As the Canaanite judged that certain functions might be attributed more appropriately to the operation of a female principle, the male deities were supplemented by three principal goddesses: Asherah, Astarte, and Anath.

By reason of her position as consort of El, Asherah is sometimes simply called ilt "the goddess." She is also styled "the progenitress of the gods," while, conversely, the gods are termed "the sons of Asherah." Her most frequent epithet, however, is "the one who walks in the sea." Asherah is the embodiment of matronly qualities, the wife and mother, the head of the home and family. Since in practical cult Baal tended to replace El as head of the pantheon, it is with Baal that Asherah is most frequently paired in the ritual texts from Ras Shamra and in the Old Testament (2 Kgs 18.19; 23.4). In the Bible, the common noun asherah meant a wooden cult object, which might be burned or cut down like a tree. Just what the cult object was we cannot determine with precision; some kind of wooden emblem, like contemporary Babylonian examples, has been proposed.

Astarte, whom late Greek writers describe as the personification of sexual passion, comparable to Aphrodite, often interchanges with Asherah in the Bible, where both are mentioned with Baal. On the other hand, an Egyptian text associated her with Anath as one of the "two great goddesses who conceive but do not bear," i.e., the goddesses who are perennially fruitful without ever losing virginity. Astarte was also the genius of warfare and combat, and it is in this role that she makes her rare appearances in Ugaritic literature. She helps Baal defeat his rival Yamm, and is thrice invoked with Hôron (see above) in a standard curse, to break the head of an enemy.

Though Anath is the best attested of the three main goddesses, it is not clear whether her original attributes were sensuality and fertility, or strength and martial ardor. The uncertainty stems from the general trend toward the virtual fusion, by Roman times, of all the West Asiatic goddesses into the one figure of dea Syra, whose principal traits were sensuality and fecundity. In Egypt, moreover, at a very early date Astarte and Anath borrowed one another's attributes, but the Egyptian papyrus Chester Beatty 7 does preserve a reminiscence of what is probably the original concept of Anath. She is there called "the strong goddess, the woman being a warrior, clothed as a man, dressed as a woman." In iconic representations she generally bears arms, only exceptionally fertility symbols. The Ugaritic texts regularly designate her "the virgin Anath," one "the maiden Anath," and several times, apparently, simply as "maiden." The Anath of the middle Bronze period was a beautiful, youthful, vigorous, bellicose, even vicious goddess, but not a voluptuous or reproductive one. She figures as a fighter in behalf of Baal (Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament 137), indulges in an orgy of slaughter (ibid. 136), and acts as a wet nurse to offspring begotten by Baal, presumably for the purpose of imparting to the infants in question some of her martial spirit.

The Ugaritic myths mention other deities whose roles are quite minor. There is mention of Ashtar who is depicted as competing unsuccessfully with both Yamm and Baal for possession of the earth. Baal's three daughters Arsiya (goddess of the earth), Talliya (goddess of dew), and Pidraya (goddess of the clouds), and his two messengers "Vine" and "Field" are all personifications of natural phenomena closely associated with the operations of Baal as genius of rainfall and fertility.

Astral Deities and the King. Several heavenly bodies also were divinized, though their cult seems not to have been very popular among the Canaanites. The sun-goddess Shapsh is mentioned in the myths as "the torch of the gods" and "the illuminatrix of the heavens." The moon-god Yarikh figures only in the hymn to Nikkal and Ib where the lack of poetic parallelism has led some scholars to suspect that the hymn may be of Hurrian and not Canaanite origin. The birth of the two gods Shahar, "dawn," and Shalim, "sunset," begotten by El who seduced two women, forms the subject of a dramatic text that has been described as "a landmark in the prehistory of classical drama" (Gordon, Mythologies, 185).

An aura of divinity also surrounded the king. He was regarded as a nursling of the goddess Asherah, and an ivory panel from Ras Shamra shows two royal sucklings at the breasts of a goddess [C. H. Gordon, Antiquity 115 (1955) 14749].

Cult. We have very little direct evidence regarding the nature of Canaanite ceremonial. Their sacrificial ritual was more diversified than the Israelites'; many more animals were employed as offerings. Sacrificial texts from Ugarit mention various bovines, especially bullocks, and small cattle (rams, ewes, lambs, kids, etc.), as well as small birds and doves. A mythological text adds wild bulls, stags, wild goats, and deer. The same picture emerges essentially from the sacrificial tariffs of Marseilles and Carthage from c. 4th century b.c.

Ugaritic administrative texts imply a highly developed cultic establishment with functions departmentalized among priests under the supervision of a chief priest, consecrated persons, singers, doorkeepers, etc. There were also numerous guilds that looked after the temple interests.

There is no evidence in the Ugaritic tablets of human sacrifice, though the practice was rampant among the Canaanites of the 1st millennium b.c. as is clear from frequent Biblical allusions, as well as from the fact, attested by many Roman witnesses, that the Carthaginians, who migrated from Phoenicia in the 9th and 8th century b.c., practiced human sacrifice on a large scale down to the fall of Carthage. The root of this practice in Punic religion is illustrated by the fact that it had not ceased by the 3d century a.d. despite repeated Roman efforts to wipe it out.

It is possible to reconstruct some of the details of Canaanite ritual from references in the Old Testament, e.g., 1 Kgs 18.2340 describes the contest of Elijah with the prophets of Baal on the summit of Mt. Carmel. The latter are said to have "leaped about the altar" and to have "cut themselves after their manner with knives and lances till the blood gushed out upon them." The gashing with knives is found in the description of El's mourning for the dead Baal as well as in the writings of Lucian of Samosata, in the 2d century a.d., who states that the custom was characteristic of the ceremonial mourning for Adonis, which was performed annually at the Syrian sanctuary in Hierapolis.

Bibliography: w. f. albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (2d ed. New York 1957); Archaeology and the Religion of Israel (Baltimore 1946; 2d rev. ed. 1953). t. h. gaster, "The Religion of the Canaanites," Forgotten Religions, ed. v. ferm (New York 1950) 11143; Thespis (rev. ed. New York 1961). c. h. gordon, "Canaanite Mythology," Mythologies of the Ancient World, ed. s. n. kramer (New York 1961). j. gray, The Legacy of Canaan: The Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament (Vetus Testamentum Supplement 5; 2d ed. Leiden 1964). r. delanghe, "Myth, Ritual, and Kingship in the Ras Shamra Tablets," Myth, Ritual and Kingship, ed. s. h. hooke (Oxford 1958) 12248. m. h. pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts (Vetus Testamentum Supplement 2; Leiden 1955).

[m. j. dahood]