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Some Questions about Canaanite Deities

This article is an excerpt from Lilinah's website

(no longer available)


Back in the late 90s, I was on a number of neoPagan e-lists and the following (much edited) came up in some discussions we were having. The answers reflect primarily my point of view on the questions. Other posters may have had different opinions.

Question 1

You describe the goddesses as being the consorts or wives of the gods. Was this always the case -- or just in certain time periods? In other words, was there a time when Asherah, for example, was considered the primary deity? Was she always "married" to El? Or was there a time when she was worshipped alone, or in her own right, and not as wife of the god?

Answer 1

Basically, most Canaanite deities are related in male-female pairs, not necessarily always, but usually. After all, no matter what one's sexual preference, before modern technology, the only way for humans to procreate was for a woman and a man to have sex. I would not go so far as to suggest that they are primarily fertility deities, that would be to misunderstand the complexity of the culture, but they are concerned with the well-being and continuity of humanity.

However, the deities can be, and were, worshipped individually. If a city had a male-female pair as tutelary deities (and not all necessarily did), they would have separate temples and separate festivals. Some locales were especially reknowned for the temple of a particular goddess or god, and people would come on pilgrimages from all over the Mediterranean just to visit that one deity. Each deity has a specialty, so for different issues one would approach different deities. If one wants to, one can devote oneself entirely to one chosen deity - this is called henotheism, and it was not uncommon in the ancient past - or a select group of deities, although on major feast days, it's good to remember as many of the others as you can ;-)

In the Myths from Ugarit, the deities have particular relationships with each other, but they are also free to act individually/ independently. A Canaanite-Phoenician goddess was not of lesser status or power than the god with whom she was associated, although her area of expertise would be different. There was a definite hierarchy among the deities - remember, in the ancient past the society was organized hierarchically, even if it isn't p.c. today. (I still have difficulty calling a deity "my king" or "my queen", even though that may be their status in the pantheon). El ("God") is definitely "on top" as Creator of All Creation - He is the King. Elat ("Goddess"), another of Athirat/ Asherah's names, is the chief goddess, mother of the Parliament of deities, and Queen. Ba'al is Prince (Zebul) or Master (Ba'al), the Rider on the Clouds, and his domain is Earth and its people. Anat, whose exact relationship to Ba'al is not absolutely clear (sister? lover? 5-star general?), acts quite independently, even threatening El with violence. Athtart/ Astarte has the power to restrain Ba'al when he goes too far, etc.

I don't think that Asherah was ever the primary deity, in general, although She could have been the primary deity of some city. But that doesn't demean Her. She is, after all, far more approachable than El - on His mountain at the source of the twin world oceans, in His pavillion behind 7 doorways, from a distance of 8 rooms. It also appears that the people of the Levant, including the Hebrews-Israelis, continued to worship Her for a very long time. She was the consort of Yahwuh (who blends together aspects of both El and Baal), and She is probably the one referred to as "The Queen of Heaven" by the Jews of Elephantine on the Nile. Even if the Deuteonomists disapproved, She was worshipped by the masses, and Her image or symbol was kept in the Temple of Jerusalem for about 3/4 of the duration of its existence, although fanatic monotheists removed it from time to time. And She has not been forgotten, for She remains the Jewish Shekhinah, the Bride of God.

Of thousands and thousands of small deity figurines which have been found in the Levant (teraphim? personal votary statues? souvenirs of pilgrimages? offerings for boons requested of the deities?), the VAST majority (really, nearly all) are female. I think this says something about the relationship of humans to the deities and to which ones we feel closest...

The female figurines are usually naked. There seems to be something definitely sexual in their nature. They look like more than nurturing mommies. The exact relationship of sex to the temples is not clear. In later times, some men were associated with the temples as transvestites or "eunuchs" who castrated themselves (the Gallae/Galloi). A man did this to himself in a state of religious ecstasy. Various sources (the Bible, the Greeks, the Romans) claim various things, but we have as yet no first-hand sources from the lips of the Canaanite-Phoenicians themselves. Some refer to temple-prostitutes, male (kalbu) as well as female (qodesha) - but their actual nature is not known. We are forced to make all sorts of guesses.

It is also known that in Mesopotamia, there were many males and females in the priesthood with very specific roles (libator, ablutor, laver, incenser, incantor, psalmist, exorcist, diviner, ecstatic prophet, etc.). Males could serve the goddesses and females could serve the gods. Among the males were: transvestite castrati priests; and so-called feminine male priests. Among the females were: priestesses who bore children; very specifically infertile priestesses; and priestesses who dressed and behaved as men. It is obvious that there wasn't just one sex/ gender/ behavior model - and undoubtedly there were others about which we are yet ignorant.

In addition, whatever the conceptions of the deities and their priesthood were in the past, for any religion to meet the needs of its followers - adherants, celebrants, worshipers, whatever - it needs to change. I think one must not forget the affinities of the deities (they do seem to have a bit more power when acting together), but our society is quite different from the past, and while i don't advocate entirely rewriting everything to suit one's personal opinions or ideas, certainly one can interpret or adapt what is known of the past and apply it to the present.

Question 2

Isn't Yahweh/YHWH just another Name for Baal? Although as Yahweh developed, He certainly absorbed the attributes of many surrounding Gods (not unusual at all, really), that doesn't in and of itself explain Yahweh's origins. My studies have shown me that Yahweh was most intimately connected to Baal Hadad - which hardly proves that the two are one and the same, or at least directly connected - but it is suggestive to me. I wonder if "Yahweh" might not have simply been an epithet (or descended therefrom) of Hadad Himself...

Answer 2

I do not believe that Yahwuh is "just" another name for Ba'al. Yahwuh appears to be a combination of 'El and Ba'al (and possibly some other gods). His description reflects aspects of both El and Ba'al, not to mention the Ugaritic Yaw, a chaotic sea god, who may be the Phoenician god Ieuo.

Although there is a passage in the Hebrew corpus which says, "Yahwuh is my Ba'al," it does not indicate a one-to-one correspondence between the two deities, since "ba'al" in both Canaanite and Hebrew, besides being a deity name, basically means "master."

I do not deny a connection with Ba'al, Hadad or Ba'al Hadad. But let us first look into the myths from Ugarit and compare the epithets of El with those Yahwuh:

"El at the sources of the two rivers, El in the midst of the springs of the two oceans/double deeps" is an expression typical of Mesopotamian imagery of the primary god

Ugaritic epithets of El: The Creator of Creatures/All Created Things; The Ageless One who Created Us; Father of Humanity; Kindly/Beneficent El the Compassionate/ Sympathetic; The King, the Father of Years/Time

Biblical Hebrew titles of Yahwuh/YHWH: Creator of the Universe; God/El the Eternal One; Eternal Father; God the Compassionate and Merciful; Ancient of Days. These clearly mirror the epithets of the Ugaritic El. Yahwuh is the creator of the universe and time, and of man, woman, and humanity.

The name or title "'El," which means simply "God," is familiar as a "name" of the single god of the Torah/ Bible. Although we have no Canaanite creation myth, his epithets indicate that 'El, like Yahwuh, is the prime creator god of the pantheon. 'El is also the king, as is Yahwuh, and he is head of the divine assembly, the council of the gods, who may well be the Hebrew 'Elohim. He is described as an old bearded man and, in most stories we have, he is seated in his hall up on his mountain - between the two rivers which are the source of the world oceans. The generally accepted idea of Yahwuh is an old bearded man, although, of course, at the mystic level, the Ultimate Divine does not have human form.

Ba'al, on the other hand, is not the King, although he is identified as a ruler, while 'El and Yahwuh are kings. Among Ba'al's epithets:

·         Most High/ Mightiest/ Most Powerful Master - al'iyanu ba'alu (variously transliterated as 'Aleyin/ 'Aliyan/ 'Elioun/ 'Eleyin)

·         Mightiest of or Conqueror of Warriors - 'al'iyu qarradima

·         Warrior - dmrn (damaron), Demarous (Greek)

·         Prince, Master of the Earth - zubulu/zebul ba'alu 'aretsi (compare with the Qabalistic phrase Melek ha 'Aretz)

·         Pidar, uncertain meaning, possibly Bright or Flash, relating to his control of lightning

·         Rider on the (Storm)Clouds - rakibu 'arpati/ rakab arpat (gee, maybe Jim Morrison was onto something...)

·         Thunderer - re'amim, rimmon (is this a pun on the word for pomegranate?)

Ba'al is the Canaanite and Phoenician god most actively worshipped, source of the rains and mists which nourish the crops. Therefore he is considered responsible for fertility, particularly of the Earth, for the growth of vegetation, and for the maintenance of life. He cares for the multitudes, the masses of humanity. While the word "ba'al" means simply "master" or "owner," he is considered a prince. Ba'al is a dynamic, executive force. He is often depicted striding forward (not seated like El), wearing a horned helmet and short wrap kilt of a warrior (whereas El wears a long robe), and carrying a mace and spear or lightning-bolt staff. Remnants of his worship remain in the Jewish prayerbook, when in late spring there is a prayer for dew, and in late fall, a prayer for rain.

Ba'al is the son of Dagan/Dagnu, god of agriculture and storms (a deity important at Emar, a basically Canaanite city much older than Ugarit and closer to Mesopotamia), and not actually a son of 'El. Documentation exists called "The Installation of the High Priestess of Ba'al at Emar" (unfortunately not a ritual text, but an outline of the procedure, probably something of a mnemonic device), and it is important to remember that male priests did not exclusively serve the gods, nor female priestesses the goddesses; males and females could serve either; there was no sexual or gender equivalance in religious service.

Through a series of conflicts and competitions with other gods, Ba'al achieves a position subordinate only to 'El among gods. However, he defers to 'Asherah and often enlists her favors when he must approach 'El. He also relies upon his sister 'Anat, who may be his mate, although not his wife. Although at times He transforms into a bull, he is never called "The Bull," which title is limited to 'El. Ba'al's assistants are Gapen and Ugar, whose names mean "Vineyard" and "Grain Field," again stressing Ba'al's relationship with the fertile, life-giving earth, agriculture, and feeding humanity.

Ba'al is also identified at Ugarit as Adad/Hadad/Haddu/Addu, the name of a Mesopotamian god of the sky, clouds, and rain, both of the creative, gentle showers and the destructive, devastating storms and floods. Like the Canaanite Ba'al, Hadad holds and hurls thunder-bolts. Hadad rides a bull.

Ba'al's home is in the Heights of Tsaphon, the Mount of the North, the Mountain Divine. It is known in Hittite as Mount Hazzi d'khursan khazi, in Akkadian as Ba'alitsapana, in Greek as Kasios, in Latin as Mons Casius, in modern Arabic as Jebel 'el-Aqra', and in Modern Turkish as Keldag. It stands at a height of 5660 feet (1780 meters), the peak lying about 25 miles north of Ugarit and 2.5 miles from the coast. Tsapan is appropriate as the mountain of the great storm-god, as this mountain receives the heaviest annual rainfall on the Levantine coast at over 57 inches. This mountain is later associated with Yahwuh. El's mountain is not specifically identified with an earthly mountain, although it is sometimes said to be in the North.

While embodying royal power and authority, Ba'al is not aloof nor beyond the menace of evil. He is continually threatened yet triumphant, as in the story of his continual conflict to sustain Order against Chaos (the Ocean god Yam) and to sustain Life against Death (Mot, the god of drought, blight, sterility, and decay). Even the goddess 'Anat threatens 'El with violence, saying she'll make his grey beard run with gore. Yahwuh appears beyond menace.

'El remains throughout the ultimate authority whom Ba'al must petition for permission to build his palace. 'El has dominion over all Creation, while Ba'al controls the fertility of the Earthly realm and oversees the well-being of humanity. This is similar to the political situation found frequently in the Ancient Near East, as well as in other places and other times. There is one supreme authority, the King (capital K), who has numerous vassals who are regional rulers, kings (small k) if you will, of a limited scope.

Because, as with 'El, the name Ba'al is a title more than a name, there are numerous Ba'al's whose relation to each other, if any, is unclear. Among them are:

·         Ba'al Lebanon, Master of the Cedars

·         Ba'al Tsaphon, Master of the North or northern districts

·         Ba'al 'Adir, Master-of-Help

·         Ba'al Kaneph, Winged Ba'al

·         Ba`al Qarnaim or Ba`al Karnayin, Master of the Horns or Two-Horned Ba`al

·         Ba'al Moganim, Master of the Shields

·         Ba'al Marpah'a, Master of Healing

·         Ba'al Shamim, Master of the Heavens

Quote from the Myth of Ba'al:

Yea, also Ba'al will make fertile with his rain,

with water he will indeed make fertile harrowed land;

and he will put his voice in the clouds,

he will flash his lightning to the earth.

In this we see the origin of the syncretization of Ba'al and Yahwuh, for the Psalms, especially, are replete with storm imagery associated with Yahwuh. Anyone well versed in the Torah or Old Testament can probably cite other examples.

Yawi is attested as a personal name in some older Canaanite cities east of Ugarit. Additionally, there is a reference in the Myths from Ugarit to Yah/ Yaw/ Yawu being the original name of Yam the Ocean who, among other things, represents uncontrollable destructive winter storms, especially on the sea. The reference is a singular one at Ugarit, but later Phoenician sources refer to a god named Iahu, Iaio, Ieuo (in Philo of Byblos' "Phoenician History"), also mentioned in some other writings, and some scholars think this indicates a relationship with Yahwuh. Perhaps YHWH is really a deity of the Internet, since a likely pronunciation is "Yahoo".