Canaanite religion

Canaanite religion

Canaanite religion is the name for the group of Ancient Semitic religions observed by the Canaanites living in the ancient Levant from at least the early Bronze Age through the first centuries of the Common Era. It is often thought of as a "pagan" religion because it was polytheistic, believing in a number of different gods and goddesses.

Etymology and history

The Levant region was inhabited by people who themselves referred to the land as 'ca-na-na-um' as early as the mid-third millennium BCE. [Aubet, Maria E., (1987, 910 "The Phoenicians and the West", (Cambridge University Press, New York) p.9] There are a number of possible etymologies for the word.

Somewho suggest the name comes from Hebrew "cana'ani" word meant merchant, for which, as Phoenicians, the Canaanites became justly famous.

The Akkadian word "kinahhu", however, referred to the red-colored wool, dyed from the Murex molluscs of the coast, which was throughout history a key export of the region. When the Greeks later traded with the Canaanites, this meaning of the word seems to have predominated as they called the Canaanites the Phoenikes or "Phoenicians", which may derive from the Greek word "Phoenix" meaning crimson or purple, and again described the cloth for which the Greeks also traded. The Romans transcribed "phoenix" to "poenus", thus calling the descendants of the Canaanite settlers in Carthage "Punic".

Thus while Phoenician and Canaanite refer to the same culture, archaeologists and historians commonly refer to the Bronze Age, pre-1200 BCE Levantines as Canaanites and their Iron Age descendants, particularly those living on the coast as Phoenicians. More recently, the term Canaanite has been used for the secondary Iron Age states of the interior, that were not ruled by Aramaean peoples, a separate and closely related ethnic group which included the Philistines and the states of Israel and Judah. [Tubb, Jonathan "The Canaanites" (British Museum Press)]

Until the excavation of Canaanite Ras Shamra (the site historically known as Ugarit), and the discovery of its Bronze Age archive of clay tablet alphabetic cuneiform texts, little was known of Canaanite religion, as papyrus seems to have been the preferred writing medium, and unlike Egypt, in the humid Mediterranean climate, these have simply decayed. As a result the highly negative and biased accounts of the Bible were almost the only sources of information on ancient Canaanite religion. This was supplemented by a few secondary and tertiary Greek sources (Lucian of Samosata's "De Syria Dea" (The Syrian Goddess), fragments of the Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos, and the writings of Damasacius). More recently detailed study of the Ugaritic material, other inscriptions from the Levant and also of the Ebla archive from Tel Mardikh, excavated in 1960 by a joint Italo-Syrian team, have cast more light on the early Canaanite religion.

Canaanite religion was strongly influenced by their more powerful and populous neighbours, and shows clear influence of Mesopotamian and Egyptian religious practices. Like other people of the Ancient Near East Canaanite religious beliefs were polytheistic, with families typically focusing worship on ancestral household gods and goddesses while acknowledging the existence of other deities such as Baal and El. Kings also played an important religious role and in certain ceremonies, such as the sacred marriage of the New Year Festival may have been revered as gods. "At the center of Canaanite religion was royal concern for religious and political legitimacy and the imposition of a divinely ordained legal structure, as well as peasant emphasis on fertility of the crops, flocks, and humans." [abstract, K. L. Noll (2007) "Canaanite Religion", "Religion Compass" 1 (1), 61–92 doi:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2006.00010.x ]

Popularity of the religion declined from the second half of the first millennium BCE, until by the 8th century CE it had seemingly been totally wiped out. During the 1990s, however, a small group of followers emerged in California, calling themselves Natib Qadish, or the 'Sacred Path'.


A large number of deities were believed in and worshipped by the followers of the Canaanite religion.
* Anat, Virgin goddess of War and Strife, mate and sister of Ba'al Hadad
* Asherah walker of the sea, Mother Goddess, wife of El (also known as Elat)
* Astarte, possibly androgynous divinity associated with Venus
* Baalat or Baalit, the wife or female counterpart of Baal (also Belili)
* Ba'al Hadad, storm God, superseded El as head of the Pantheon
* Baal-Hammon, god of fertility and renewer of all energies in the Phoenician colonies of the Western Mediterranean
* Dagon, god of crop fertility, father of Hadad (usually).
* El Elyon (i.e. God most high) and El
* Eshmun or Baalat Asclepius, god of healing (or goddess)
* Kotharat
* Kathirat, goddesses of marriage and pregnancy
* Kothar, Hasis, the skilled, god of craftsmanship
* Lotan, serpent ally of evil,Yam
* Melqart, king of the city, the underworld and cycle of vegetation in Tyre
* Molech, God of Fire
* Mot (god), God of Death
* Qadeshtu, Holy One, Goddess of Love
* Resheph God of Plague and healing
* Shalim and Shachar
* Shamayim, the God of the Heavens.
* Shemesh (in Ugarit the goddess Shapshu), Sun god [Johnston, Sarah Isles, "Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide." Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01517-7. P. 418] (or goddess, its gender is disputed) [Some authorities consider Shemesh to be a goddess, see Wyatt, Nick, "There's Such Divinity Doth Hedge a King", Ashgate (19 Jul 2005), ISBN 978-0754653301 p. 104 [] ]
* Yam-nahar or Yam, also called Judge Nahar
* Yarikh God of the moon, lover of Nikkal


According to the pantheon, known in Ugarit as 'ilhm (=Elohim) or the children of El (cf. the Biblical "sons of God"), supposedly obtained by Philo of Byblos from Sanchuniathon of Berythus (Beirut) the creator was known as Elion (Biblical El Elyon = God most High), who was the father of the divinities, and in the Greek sources he was married to Beruth (Beirut = the city). This marriage of the divinity with the city would seem to have Biblical parallels too with the stories of the link between Melkart and Tyre; Yahweh and Jerusalem; Chemosh and Moab; Tanit and Baal Hammon in Carthage. El Elyon is mentioned as 'God Most High' occurs in Genesis 14.18–19 as the God whose priest was Melchizedek king of Salem.

From the union of El Elyon and his consort was born Uranus and Ge, Greek names for the "Heaven" and the "Earth". This closely parallels the opening verse of Genesis 1:1 "In the beginning Elohim gave birth to the Heaven (Shemayim) and the Earth (Eretz)", and this would appear to be based upon this early Canaanite belief. This also has parallels with the story of the Babylonian Anunaki (i.e. = "Heaven and Earth"; Shamayim and Erets) too.

In Canaanite mythology there were twin mountains Targhizizi and Tharumagi which hold the firmament up above the earth-circling ocean, thereby bounding the earth. We learn from W. F. Albright for example that El Shaddai is a derivation of a Semitic stem that appears in the Akkadian shadû ("mountain") and shaddā`û or shaddû`a ("mountain-dweller"), one of the names of Amurru. Philo of Byblos states that Atlas was one of the Elohim, which would clearly fit into the story of El Shaddai as "God of the Mountain(s)." Harriet Lutzky has presented evidence that Shaddai was an attribute of a Semitic goddess, linking the epithet with Hebrew šad "breast" as "the one of the Breast". The idea of two mountains being associated here as the breasts of the Earth, fits into the Canaanite mythology quite well. The ideas of pairs of mountains seem to be quite common in Canaanite mythology (similar to Horeb and Sinai in the Bible).

The appearance of "high places" or "holy places" in early Biblical tales (until the centralisation of the cult in the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem by Hezekiah and Josiah). Certainly the idea of the "Lords of the Mountain" (Ba'al Hermon and Ba'al Zephon) suggests that there are twin gods mentioned here in the north also. These twin Gods, located on the Eastern and Western extremities are probably the homes of Shachar (the Rising Sun) and Shalim (the setting sun), sons of Asherah and El, known as the "beneficent gods".

Contact with other areas

Canaanite religion was influenced by its peripheral position, intermediary between Egypt and Mesopotamia, whose religions had a growing impact upon Canaanite religion. For example during the Hyksos period, when horse using maryannu Asiatics ruled in Egypt, at their capital city of Avaris, Baal became associated with the Egyptian God Set, and was considered identical - particularly with Set in his form as Sutekh. Iconographically henceforth Baal was shown wearing the crown of Lower Egypt and shown in the Egyptian-like stance, one foot set before the other. Similarly Athirat/Asherah, Astarte and Anath henceforth were portrayed wearing Hathor like Egyptian wigs. From the other direction, Botero has suggested that Yah, of Ebla (a possible precursor of Yam), was equated with the Mesopotamian Ea, during the Akkadian period. In the Middle and Late Bronze Age, there are also strong Hurrian and Mitannite influences upon the Canaanite religion. The Hurrian Goddess Hebat was worshipped in Jerusalem, and Baal was closely considered equivalent to the Hurrian storm God Teshub, and the Hittite storm God Tarhunt. Canaanite divinities seem to have been almost identical in form and function to the neighbouring Aramaeans to the east, and can Baal Hadad and El be distinguished amongst earlier Amorites, who at the end of the Early Bronze Age invaded Mesopotamia. Carried west by Phoenician sailors, Canaanite religious influences can be seen in Greek mythology, particularly in the tripartite division between the Olympians Zeus, Poseidon and Hades, mirroring the division between Baal, Yam and Mot, and in the story of the Labours of Hercules, mirroring the stories of the Tyrian Melkart.

imilarities with the Bible

El Elyon also appears in Baalam's story in Numbers and in Moses song in Deuternomy 32.8. The Masoretic Texts suggest

:When the Most High (`Elyōn) divided to the nations their inheritance, he separated the sons of man (Ādām); he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the sons of Israel

The Septuagint suggests a different reading of this. Rather than "sons of Israel" it suggests the "angelōn theou" or 'angels of God' and a few versions even have "huiōn theou" 'sons of God'. The Dead Sea Scrolls version of this suggests that there were in fact 70 sons of God sent to rule over the 70 nations of the Earth. This idea of the 70 nations of Earth, each ruled over by one of the Elohim (sons of God) is also found in Ugaritic texts. The Aslan Tash inscription suggests that each of the 70 sons of El Elyon were bound to their people by a covenant. Thus as Crossan translates it

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

The Child Sacrifice Question

There is some evidence that seems to suggest the Canaanites sacrificed their children, by burning them alive, probably to the god Moloch, which could be a misspelling of Melqart. A few historical accounts written around the time they were flourishing make this claim, but others don't. As yet there is no actual proof either way, so no way to be sure. The main evidence, other than claims of historians of the time, is the discovery of the graves of many children near certain religious sites. Opponents to the sacrifice claim suggest that these children died naturally, and point to the few undeveloped fetuses amongst the other dead as evidence for this.

ee also

*Ancient Semitic religion


* Moscatti, Sabatino (1968), "The World of the Phoenicians" (Phoenix Giant)
* Ribichini, Sergio "Beliefs and Religious Life" in Maoscati Sabatino (1997), "The Phoenicians" (Rissoli)

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