Index / Religions / Historical /
Canaanite and Phoenician religions
Religious traditions of pre-Christian Middle East, and parallel to early Judaism, generally ranging from around 3000 BCE until as late as 0 CE.
Stele of Baal from Ugarit (modern Syria), sometime between 18th and 15th century BCE. Now at Musee du Louvre, Paris, France.
Remains of the Temple of Dagan. Ugarit, Syria
Baal temple at Palmyra, Syria.
The religions of the peoples of this region, Phoenicians, Moabites, Canaanites, Hebrews etc., did have regional differences, and according to sources never was never any unifying ideas, rituals and pantheons across the region. The closest to any unifying concept came in the form of developing Judaism, itself not a closed religion the local tribes and villages were free to embrace Judaism, but many of them brought their own perspectives.
Additionally, it is close to impossible, at this late date, to make decisions about unique differences. Hence we have to consider these religions as parts of the same traditions: there are many similarities between the different practices, many channels for influence between them, and in general a great lack of written material.
Very early, in the religions of this region we see that the Mother Goddess was the subject of important cults (at this point in history it is not correct to use the terms "Canaanite" or "Phoenician"). Later on, the religions came to be dominated by male gods, but female gods still continued to play central roles in the cults and the conciousness of the believers.
Gods and Godesses
In Semitic languages of the time, the word "'El" was used for "God" all over the Middle East. Its meaning could be interpreted as "power" (from Hebrew) or "first" (from Aramaic), two designations that could be seen as complementary. The symbol of the bull, dominant in use in connection with El, supports the idea that El was the main god, the god of power.
The highest god was often referred to with the main noun El, but also Adon (lord), Baal (master) or Malek (king). In Ugarit, it can be seen that gods are referred to as Qds (holy). The highest god is referred to as "father of mankind, "creator of the creatures", "benevolent and merciful" and "the source of the river." Contrary to what is found in many other polytheistic religions, El was the focus of cult activities.
The other important god is Baal (in feminine form Baalat), and in many cases it is hard to say whether El, in the actual cult centres, still is revered as the highest god. In general, it seems to that there is space for only one of Baal or El in one religious framework, or the two appear in an amalgamated form. We hear of him by his pure name from Ugarit, but in many other cult centres his name is put together with another name (often the name of the place), like Baal-Hazor, Baal-Peor, Baal-Sidon, Baal-Lebanon, Baal-Harran. We also see combinations like Baal-Berit (Lord of the Covenant) and Baal-Marqod (Lord of Dancing).
The main enemy of Baal is Mot, death. Yet, Mot plays an intrinsic part in one of the main myths: Mot manages to throw Baal into the netherworld (i.e. kill him), with the result that vegetation dies (equals the heat of summer). But with the help of his sister Anath, Baal manages to return to life, and with this, nature returns to fertility (fall, winter, spring).
There are many other gods, and there were probably even more that are lost to research today. Among the important ones is Dagan (or Aliyan Baal, as he is called in other places) of Ugarit. Dagan was revered at other cult centres too, and his powers appear to have been involved with agriculture.
Among the most famous gods is the one known to us as Adonis. Adonis is the name he was given when imported into Greek myths. His name corresponds to the Phoenician Adon (lord), but it is most likely that his name was combined with Baal in some way. In Greek mythology, Adonis is ordered by Zeus to spend half the year in the netherworld and the other half in the real world. This myth has similarities to the one of Baal, Mot and Anath described above.
Among the other gods often local ones we find Eshmun, a fertility god revered at Sidon and Carthage.
Resheph was the god of fire, lightning and plague.
Melqart was the city god of Tyre, and also revered in Carthage (which was founded by merchants from Tyre). Melqart was initially the god of sea and navigation, but developed over time into a solar god.
Horon was a popular god among the Canaanites, and possibly a god with the earth as his realm (chthonic).
Kemosh was the national god of the Moabites, and his powers were mainly connected to war. He is depicted as a warrior between 2 torches.
In Ugaritic literature, readers can learn about the 2 gods of Shabar and Shalim. Shabar was probably the god of dawn. In the Old Testament, Shabar is mentioned, but his name is sometimes translated as "morning". Shalim is the contrary, namely the god of dusk. It is believed that Jerusalem got its name from him, with the meaning "fortress of Shalim".
There were also prominent goddesses in the Phoenician and Canaanite religions, even if these appear to have been less in number and importance. The most outstanding were Athirat, Athtart, Anath and Derketo. Our main sources of them are from Ugaritic literature, but they were revered in many other cult centres, too. It is important to notice that, in theory, the Mother Goddess was above all the 4, but we do not really know if there was a clear relationship, and what it was.
Athirat was the consort of El, and the most revered of the 4. Her areas of power were with the sea, and it is also known that she is the one who creates the gods.
Athtart was the goddess of love, fertility and war. But she was unreliable, and could sometimes be good and sometimes evil.
Anath was in the cult of Ugarit the most active of the goddesses. She is called "Queen of Heaven, Lady of the Gods" (see Heaven). In Ugarit she is also referred to as a virgin, even if she sometimes is described as sexually active. She is the sister of Baal, and she is actively involved in wars, in which she aggressively combats her enemies. When she is depicted, it is with a helmet, a battle axe and a spear.
We know less about the character of Derketo. She was depicted with a fish tail, and was probably a goddess of fertility.
From Carthage there is information about a great goddess called Tinnit. Here she is revered as the greatest of all the gods, even more than Baal Hammon, herself, the queen of Heaven. Tinnit is often called "the face of Baal", which could be understood to imply that she was a manifestation of Baal. Another interesting quality about her is that she is both presented as virgin and mother. She was revered in connection with fertility in nature.
The statues of gods, typically present rather clear indications of their power and abilities. There are, however, no indications as to whether these qualities were thought of as symbols or if the statues were made according to what the believers considered to be the real image. It is most likely, however, that most representations were symbolic.
From the extant sources, texts from Ugarit and indirect recounts by contemporary writers, creation myths are the dominant literary genre. There are several of these, but they resemble each another. The main theme of the creation myths is that basic elements of nature coalesce, and from them gods are created, followed by heaven and earth.
A central element of the creation myths is the egg a symbol that is found in many other religions as well. Within the egg, the potential ingredients for the complex world are found, and these are then developed in the creative process.
The primary gods of creation are not important to the religious rituals, and neither El nor Baal are among them. Most of the primary gods, or rather qualities and powers of nature, seem to disappear from the mythology after the creation of the world is accomplished. The only one of these, still having some recognition, is Kronos.
Foremost of the non-creation myths is the death and resurrection of Baal. Then, from the Ugarit myths there is an account of an important battle, in which Baal defeats Yam, the god of the sea, resulting in Baal's ultimate domination of the world.
Another important myth tells about the erection of a house for Baal, a myth that must have been central to the rituals of temple building.
Rituals were performed either outdoors on hills or in groves, or inside in temples.
Outdoor cult places are called bamah, which can be translated as "high place". On these places, pillars were erected, one in stone for the male god, and one in wood for the female goddess. Bamahs could be built on hill tops, but along the rugged coast of Lebanon, they were even placed on low ground near the harbour.
When temples were erected, bamahs were sometimes built in front of the entrance under the open sky. The reason for erecting temples, was that the gods, mainly Baal, needed a house, in order to exercise his power over humans and over the earth. The house was also believed to be a place where gods could dwell.
The temples were in most cases built according to the same arrangement, formed as rectangles. There were entrance rooms, a room for the altar or a niche for a statue, always facing the entrance.
Central to the rituals were offerings that were consumed by the gods. Offerings were both vegetables and animals. Human sacrifice was fairly common in some areas, even though some scientists believe that the frequency of this has been exaggerated by outside sources, such as those provided in the Old Testament. In the North African colony of Carthage it is known that children were thrown into a fire in front of a statue of a god. But from Ugarit there are no indications about child sacrifice.
The myth of Baal's death and resurrection is believed to have been the source of some of the main religious festivals. Other festivals appear to have involved eating and drinking (alcohol) by the partakers. A third group of rituals involved carrying statues of gods down to the sea, rituals that could indicate either a sacred marriage or the blessing of the sea and the ships. A fourth group of rituals was the very central festival in which sacrifices were hung from trees, and then ignited.
Priests in Ugarit were called khnm (there must have been vowels in the pronunciation, but these were not written, and cannot be reconstructed). Under the priest were the qdshm, sacred prostitutes, performing their sexual rituals in the temples to promote fertility. There was also room for oracle priests or prophets who received messages from the gods during states of ecstasy.
It is not clear whether the king was considered as sacred, or if he was a central participant in the rituals. Apparently the kings, at least those in Phoenicia, did not play any specific role in religion, largely due to their relatively weak position compared to what was in effect in other, stronger states than the Phoenician cities.
Even if some of the rituals involved practices incompatible with contemporary standards, like child sacrifice and temple copulation, there is no evidence that the peoples of these religions were unethical. In general, one has the impression that there was a strong sense of social justice, with emphasis on the rights of the poor and the weak.
The ideals of the society were a long life, a good reputation, success in business, work and love. There are also indications that the gods could punish wrong acts.
The information on the qualities and destiny of human beings is scant. Immortality was apparently not an option for humans, that was something reserved for gods. Life on earth was a gift given from the gods to humans, and its length was all in the hands of the gods. From personal names we learn that humans are considered to be the servants of the gods (by the use of the prefix "Abd," servant).
Even if humans can expect only death, still in death, he resided in his grave. In the grave some form of existence could continue where the dead needed to eat and drink, and sacrifices were made by the families of the deceased.
Influences on Judaism
At its early stages, it would be correct to say that Judaism was a part of the religions described above. Canaanite religion and its symbols and gods are mentioned over and over again in the Old Testament, and there also are many similarities in ideas and in rituals. One of the most succinct examples of this (sometimes uneasy) brotherhood is the situation in which the Jews in Moses' absence melt their gold to make a golden calf, one of the main symbols of the Canaanite god Baal.
In the process of liberating Judaism from these related religious traditions, condemnation of the Canaanite and Phoenician religions was an important method. Many characters from its mythology were equated to the dangerous and evil powers against which the Jewish God fought. The name Beelzebub is in the New Testament used as a second name for Satan, but it comes from the Ugaritic god Baal Zbl, a god of storm and rain.
In the development of the image of God, the Jews addressed challenges from Canaanite and Phoenician religions, as well as influences. Exactly what has been formed from what is virtually impossible to say, but it appears to be likely that the image of Satan is adorned with symbols and myths from the traditions among the neighbours of the Jews.