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Ancient Canaanites Religion – 1

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Linguistically, the ancient Semites have been broadly classified into Eastern and Western groups. The Eastern group is represented most prominently by Akkadian, the language of the Assyrians and Babylonians, who inhabited the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. The Western group is further broken down into the Southern and Northern groups. The South Western Semites inhabited Arabia and Ethiopia while the North Western Semites occupied the Levant – the regions that used to be Palestine as well as what is now Syria, Israel and Lebanon, the regions often referred to in the Bible as Canaan.

Recent archaeological finds indicate that the inhabitants of the region themselves referred to the land as ‘ca-na-na-um’ as early as the mid-third millenium BCE  . Variations on that name in reference to the country and its inhabitants continue through the first millenium BCE.  [1] It has been somewhat frustrating that so little outside of the Bible and less than a handful of secondary and tertiary Greek sources (Lucian of Samosata’s [2]  De Syria Dea – The Syrian Goddess), fragments of the Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos [3] , and the writings of Damasacius) remain to describe the beliefs of the people of the area. Unlike in Mesopotamia, papyrus was readily available so that most of the records simply deteriorated. A cross-roads of foreign empires, the region never truly had the chance to unify under a single native rule; thus scattered statues and conflicting listings of deities carved in shrines of the neighboring city-states of Gubla (Byblos), Siduna (Sidon), and Zaaru (Tyre) were all the primary sources known until the uncovering of the city of Ugarit in 1928 and the digs there in the late 1930’s.

The Canaanite myth cycle recovered from the city of Ugarit in what is now Ras Sharma, Syria dates back to at least 1400 B.C.E. in its written form, while the deity lists and statues from other cities, particularly Gubla date back as far as the third millenium BCE. Gubla, during that time, maintained a thriving trade with Egypt and was described as the capital during the third millenium B.C.E. Despite this title, like Siduna (Sidon), and Zaaru (Tyre), the city and the whole region was lorded over and colonized by the Egyptians. Between 2300 and 1900 BCE., many of the coastal Canaanite cities were abandoned, sacked by the Amorites, with the inland cities of Allepo and Mari lost to them completely. The second millenium B.C.E. saw a resurgence of Canaanite activity and trade, particularly noticeable in Gubla and Ugarit. By the 14th century B.C.E., their trade extended from Egypt, to Mesopotamia and to Crete. All of this was under the patronage and dominance of the 18th dynasty of Egypt. Zaaru managed to maintain an independent kingdom, but the rest of the soon fell into unrest, while Egypt lost power and interest. In 1230, the Israelites began their infiltration / invasion and during this time the possibly Achaean “Sea Peoples” raided much of the Eastern Mediterranean, working their way from Anatolia to Egypt. They led to the abandonment of Ugarit in 1200 BCE., and in 1180, a group of them established the country of Philistia, i.e. Palestine, along Canaan’s southern coast.

Over the next three or four hundred years, the Canaanites gradually recovered. Now they occupied little more than a chain of cities along the coast, with rival city-states of Sidon and Tyre vying for control over larger sections of what the Greeks began to call Phoenicia Tyre won out for a time and the unified state of Tyre-Sidon expanded its trade through the Mediterranean and was even able to establish colonies as far away as Spain.

The Phoenician era saw a shift in Canaanite religion. The larger pantheon became pushed to the wayside in favor of previously less important, singular deities who became or, in the case of Baalat, already were the patron city-gods, born witness to by ruling priest-kings.

Ancient Semitic Religion

As a definition we can describe the Ancient Semitic religion as the polytheistic religions of the Semitic speaking peoples of the Ancient Near East. Its origins are interlaced with earlier (Sumerian) Mesopotamian mythology.

Ilu – The Supreme God / ?los  -  ?l / Elohim – Il

 Northwest Semitic word and name translated into English as either ‘god’ or ‘God’ or left untranslated as ?l, depending on the context.In the Levant as a whole, Ilu – ?l  was the supreme god, the father of humankind and all creatures and the husband of the Goddess Atiratu / Atrt / Asherah as attested in the tablets of Ugarit.

The word ?l was found at the top of a list of gods as the Ancient of Gods or the Father of all Gods, in the ruins of the Royal Library of the Ebla civilization, in the archaeological site of Tell Mardikh in Syria dated to 2300 BCE. He may have been a desert god at some point, as the myths say that he had two wives and built a sanctuary with them and his new children in the desert. El had fathered many gods, but most important were Hadad, Yam and Mot, each of whom has similar attributes to the Greek gods Zeus, Poseidon or Ophion, and Hades or Thanatos respectively. Ancient Greek mythographers identified ?l with Cronus  (not Chronos). [4]

The original meaning may have been ’strength, power’. In northwest Semitic usage il was both a generic word for any ‘god’ and the special name or title of a particular god who was distinguished from other gods as being the god, or in the monotheistic sense, God. ?l is listed at the head of many pantheons. El was the father god among the Canaanites. However, because the word sometimes refers to a god other than the great god ?l, it is frequently ambiguous as to whether ?l followed by another name means the great god ?l with a particular epithet applied or refers to another god entirely. For example, in the Ugaritic texts ’il mlk is understood to mean ‘?l the King’ but ’il hd as ‘the god Hadad’.

In Ugaritic an alternate plural form meaning ‘gods’ is ’ilhm, equivalent to Hebrew ’el?hîm ‘gods’. But in Hebrew this word is also used for semantically-singular ‘God’ or ‘god’, is indeed by the most normal word for ‘god’ or ‘God’ in the singular (as well as for ‘gods’).

The stem il is found prominently in the earliest strata of east Semitic, northwest Semitic and south Semitic groups. Personal names including the stem il are found with similar patterns both in Amorite and South Arabic which indicates that probably already in Proto-Semitic il was both a generic term for ‘god’ and the common name or title of a single particular ‘god’ or ‘God’.

?l in Proto-Sinaitic, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Hittite texts. A proto-Sinaitic mine inscription from Mount Sinai  (see Figure  above) reads ’ld‘lm understood to be vocalized as  ’il d? ‘ôlmi, ‘?l Eternal’ or ‘God Eternal’.

The Egyptian god Ptah is given the title d? gitti ‘Lord of Gath’ in a prism from Lachish which has on its opposite face the name of Amenhotep II (c. 1435–1420 BCE) The title d? gitti is also found in Ser?bit text 353. Cross [5] (1973, p. 19) [6]   points out that Ptah is often called the lord (or one) of eternity and thinks it may be this identification of ?l with Ptah that lead to the epithet ’olam ‘eternal’ being applied to ?l so early and so consistently.

A Phoenician inscribed amulet of the 7th century BCE from Arslan Tash [7]  may refer to ?l. Rosenthal  (1969, p. 658) translated the text:

An eternal bond has been established for us. Ashshur has established (it) for us, and all the divine beings and the majority of the group of all the holy ones, through the bond of heaven and earth for ever,…

However the text is translated by Cross [9]  (1973, p. 17):

The Eternal One (‘Olam) has made a covenant oath with us,
Asherah has made (a pact) with us.
And all the sons of ?l,
And the great council of all the Holy Ones.
With oaths of Heaven and Ancient Earth.


?l among the Amorites. Amorite inscriptions from Zin?irli [10]  refer to numerous gods, sometimes by name, sometimes by title, especially by such titles as ilabrat ‘god of the people’(?), il ab?ka ‘god of your father’, il ab?ni ‘god of our father’ and so forth. Various family gods are recorded, divine names listed as belong to a particular family or clan, sometimes by title and sometimes by name, including the name Il ‘god’. In Amorite personal names the most common divine elements are Il (’God’), Hadad/Adad, and Dagan. It is likely that Il is also very often the god called in Akkadian texts Amurru or Il Amurru.

?l in Ugarit. For the Canaanites, ?l or Il was the supreme god, the father of mankind and all creatures. He may have been a desert god at some point, as the myths say that he had two wives and built a sanctuary with them and his new children in the desert. El had fathered many gods, but most important were Hadad, Yam and Mot, each share similar attributes to the Roman-Greco gods: Zeus, Poseidon and Hades respectively.

Three pantheon lists found at Ugarit begin with the four gods ’il-’ib (which according to Cross  (1973; p. 14)  [11] is the name of a generic kind of deity, perhaps the divine ancestor of the people), ?l, Dagnu (that is  Dagon ), and Ba’l Sap?n (that is the god Haddu or  Hadad ). Though Ugarit had a large temple dedicated to and another to, there was no temple dedicated to ?l.

?l is called again and again Tôru ‘?l (”Bull ?l” or “the bull god”). He is b?tnyu binw?ti (”Creator of creatures”), ’ab? ban? ’ili (”father of the gods”), and ‘ab? ‘adami (”father of man”). He is q?niyunu ‘ôlam (”creator eternal”), the epithet ‘ôlam appearing in Hebrew form in the Hebrew name of God ’?l ‘ôlam “God Eternal” in Genesis 21.23. He is H?tikuka (”your patriarch”). ?l is the grey-bearded ancient one, full of wisdom, malku (”king”), ’ab? šam?ma (”father of years”), ’?l gibb?r (”?l the warrior”). He is also named ltpn of unknown meaning, variously rendered as Latpan, Latipan, or Lutpani.

The mysterious Ugaritic text Shachar and Shalim tells how (perhaps near the beginning of all things) ?l came to shores of the sea and saw two women who bobbed up and down. ?l was sexually aroused and took the two with him, killed a bird by throwing a staff at it, and roasted it over a fire. He asked the women to tell him when the bird was fully cooked, and to then address him either as husband or as father, for he would thenceforward behave to them as they call him. They saluted him as husband. He then lies with them, and they gave birth to Shachar (”Dawn”) and Shalim (”Dusk”). Again ?l lies with his wives and the wives give birth to “the gracious gods”, “cleavers of the sea”, “children of the sea”. The names of these wives are not explicitly provided, but some confusing rubrics at the beginning of the account mention the goddess Athirat who is otherwise ?l’s chief wife and the goddess Rahmay (”Merciful”), otherwise unknown.

In the Ugaritic Ba‘al cycle ?l is introduced dwelling on (or in) Mount Lel (Lel possibly meaning ‘Night’) at the fountains of the two rivers at the spring of the two deeps. He dwells in a tent according to some interpretations of the text which may explain why he had no temple in Ugarit. As to the rivers and the spring of the two deeps, these might refer real streams, or to the mythological sources of the salt water ocean and the fresh water sources under the earth, or to the waters above the heavens and the waters beneath the earth.

In the episode of the “Palace of Ba‘al“, the god Ba‘al/Hadad invites the “70 sons of Athirat” to a feast in his new palace. Presumably these sons have been fathered on Athirat by ?l in following passages they seem be the gods (’ilm) in general or at least a large portion of them. The only sons of ?l named individually in the Ugaritic texts are Yamm (”Sea”), Mot (”Death”), and Ashtar, who may be the chief and leader of most of the sons of ?l. Ba‘al/Hadad is a few times called ?l’s son rather than the son of Dagan as he is normally called, probably because ?l is in the position of a clan-father to all the gods.

The fragmentary text RS 24.258 describes a banquet to which ?l invites the other gods and then disgraces himself by becoming outrageously drunk and passing out after confronting an otherwise unknown Hubbay, “he with the horns and tail”. The text ends with an incantation for the cure of some disease, possibly hangover.

?l in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh). The Hebrew form (??) appears in Latin as ?l. In the Tanakh ’el?hîm is the normal word for a god or the great god (or gods). But the form ’?l also appears, mostly in poetic passages and in the patriarchal narratives attributed to the P source according to the documentary hypothesis. It occurs 217 times in the Masoretic text: 73 times in the Psalms and 55 times in the Book of Job, and otherwise mostly in poetic passages or passages written in elevated prose. It occasionally appears with the definite article as h?’?l ‘the God’ (for example in 2 Samuel 22.31,33–48). There are also places where ’?l specifically refers to a foreign god as in Psalms 44.20;81.9 (Hebrew 44.21;81.10), in Deuteronomy 32.12 and in Malachi 2.11.

The theological position of the Tanakh is that the names ?l, ’?l?hîm when used in the singular to mean the supreme and active ‘God’ refers to the same being as does Yahweh. All three refer to the one supreme god who is also the God of Israel, beside whom other supposed gods are either non-existent or insignificant. Whether this was a longstanding belief or a relatively new one has long been the subject of inconclusive scholarly debate about the prehistory of the sources of the Tanakh and about the prehistory of Israelite religion. In the P strand Yahweh claims in Exodus 6.2–3:

I revealed myself to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as ?l Shadd?i, but was not known to them by my name Yahweh.

This affirms the identity of Yahweh with either ?l in his aspect Shadd?i or with a god called Shadd?i. Also affirmed is that the name Yahweh is a more recent revelation. One scholarly position is that the identification of Yahweh with ?l is late, that Yahweh was earlier thought of as only one of many gods and not normally identified with ?l. In some places, especially in Psalm 29, Yahweh is clearly envisioned as a storm god, something not true of ?l so far as we know. (Noted Parallel: El is derived from Sumerian Enlil, God of Wind It is Yahweh who fights Leviathan in Isaiah 27.1; Psalm 74.14; Job 3.8 & 40.25/41.1, a deed attributed both to Ba’al/Hadad and ‘Anat in the Ugaritic texts, but not to ?l. Such mythological motifs are variously seen as late survivals from a period when Yahweh held a place in theology comparable to that of Hadad at Ugarit; or as late henotheistic/monotheistic applications to Yahweh of deeds more commonly attributed to Hadad; or simply as examples of eclectic application of the same motifs and imagery to various different gods. Similarly it is argued inconclusively whether ?l Shadd?i, ?l ‘Ôl?m, ?l ‘Elyôn and so forth were originally understood as separate divinities. Albrecht Alt presented his theories on the original differences of such gods in Der Gott der Väter [12]    in 1929. But others have argued that from patriarchal times these different names were indeed generally understood to refer to the same single great god ?l. This is the position of Frank Moore Cross (1973). What is certain is that the form ’?l does appear in Israelite names from every period including the name Yi?r?’?l ‘Israel’, meaning ‘?l strives’ or ’struggled with él’.

According to The Oxford Companion To World Mythology (David Leeming, Oxford University Press, 2005, page 118), “It seems almost certain that the God of the Jews evolved gradually from the Canaanite El, who was in all likelihood the ‘God of Abraham’. If El was the high god of Abraham – Elohim, the prototype of Yahveh – Asherah was his wife, and there are archeological indications that she was perceived as such before she was in effect ‘divorced’ in the context of emerging Judaism of the seventh century BCE. (See 2 Kings 23:15)”

The more traditional Orthodox Jewish opinion explains the depictions of Yahweh as performing these deeds attributed to other gods in the Ugaritic, etc. traditions as making the theological point that there is but one God and He is responsible for all natural forces and everything divine. This would cast Him in the roles that previously other gods had, as god of the weather and he who conquers deep sea creatures, etc.

?l in Christian theology. Christians accept the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh) as part of scripture, generally translating ?l as “god” or “God.” Some Christians take the Tanakh’s use of the plural “?lohim” for God as confirming the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).

According to church fathers of early Christianity, El was the first Hebrew name of God. Unlike other Christians and unlike Jews, Latter-day Saints  (The Mormons) identify Elohim as a distinct deity from YHWH, whom they identify with Jesus Christ.


[1]  Aubet, Maria E., The Phoenicians and the West, Cambridge University Press, New York, 1987, 1993. p. 9
[2]  Lucian of Samosata (125 – after 180 CE) was an Assyrian rhetorician, and satirist who wrote in the Greek language. He is noted for his witty and scoffing nature.
[3]  Philo of Byblos (Herennios Philon), (c. 64-141 CE) was an antiquarian writer of grammatical, lexical and historical works in Greek. His name “Herennius” suggests that he was a client of the consul Herennius Severus, through whom Philo could have achieved the status of a Roman citizen.
[4]  also called Cronos or Kronos, was the leader and the youngest of the first generation of Titans, divine descendants of Gaia, the earth, and Uranos, the sky. He overthrew his father, Ouranos, and ruled during the mythological Golden Age, until he was overthrown by his own son and imprisoned in Tartarus or sent to rule the paradise of the Elysian Fields
[5]  Frank Moore Cross, Jr. (born July 13 1921, Ross, California) is a Professor Emeritus of the Harvard Divinity School, notable for both, his work in the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls as well as his analysis of the Deuteronomistic History (DH).
[6]  Cross, Frank Moore (1973). Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
[7]  Arslan Tash (Turkish; Arslan Ta?, Stone Leon), ancient Had?tu, is an archaeological site in northern Syria. It was the center of an Aramean Iron Age kingdom, which were conquered by Assyria in the 9th century BCE
[8]  Rosenthal, Franz (1969). “The Amulet from Arslan Tash”. Trans. in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, 3rd ed. with Supplement, p. 658. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
[9]  Cross, Frank Moore (1973). Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
[10]  Zincirli (also Zinjirli, Zenjirli, Senjirli; Turkish: Zincirli Höyük) is an archaeological site at the location of the ancient Hittite city of Sam’al. It is located in the Anti-Taurus Mountains of south-central Turkey..
[11]  Cross, Frank Moore (1973). Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
[12]  Albrecht Alt The God of the fathers. A contribution for the prehistory of Israeli”; (Contributions to the science of the old person and new will 3.12); Kohl hammer: Stuttgart 1929.
[13]  Burton, Rulon (1994) We Believe: Doctrines and Principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Salt Lake City: Tabernacle Books.


Original Date: 
May 19, 2009
ANE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - Ancient Near East
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Ancient Religion and term god/gods

A great article on the subject of ancient Canaanite religion. I am on my third read through and still getting new insights and thoughts for further study. Thank you for sharing your research.

I would add one comment on the use of the word god/gods in your article. You refer to Zeus, for example, as a god which is accurate, however you do not explain that to the ancient world like the Greeks, a being referred to as a god was not the same as the Christian World thinks when it uses the word GOD today. To much of the ancient world but especially the Greek world and those cultures it influenced the creator of the universe (Gaia for the Greeks)was not a god but well above the level of the gods. The gods may be better described as super humans (better technology and health???) or if you fancy ETs who came to earth. Zeus and all the other gods were created by the creator of the universe (often a mother creator)and ruled over humans with superior technology and strength.

Perhaps there is a convention that could be used to distinguish between the ancient concepts of gods (super beings) and the spiritual creator of the universe recognized by these religions.

Thanks again for the article it is wonderful

Rt. Rev. Robert Straitt, PhD