Ancient Semitic religion

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Ancient Semitic religion encompasses the polytheistic religions of the Semitic peoples from the ancient Near East and Northeast Africa. Since the term Semitic itself represents a rough category when referring to cultures, as opposed to languages, the definitive bounds of the term "ancient Semitic religion" are only approximate, but exclude the religions of "non-Semitic" speakers of the region such as Egyptians, Elamites, Hittites, Hurrians, Mitanni, Urartians, Luwians, Minoans, Greeks, Phrygians, Lydians, Persians, Medes, Philistines and Parthians.

Semitic traditions and their pantheons[1] fall into regional categories: Canaanite religions of the Levant (including the henotheistic ancient Hebrew religion of the Israelites, Judeans and Samaritans and the religions of the Amorites, Phoenicians, Moabites, Edomites, Ammonites and Suteans); the Sumerian–inspired Assyro-Babylonian religion of Mesopotamia; the Phoenician Canaanite religion of Carthage; Nabataean religion; Eblaite, Ugarite, Dilmunite and Aramean religions and Arabian polytheism.

Semitic polytheism possibly transitioned into the Semitic originating Abrahamic monotheism (Judaism, Christianity, Gnosticism and Islam) by way of the god El, whose name "El" אל, or elohim אֱלֹהִים is a word for "god" in Hebrew, cognate to Arabic ʼilāh إله, which means god.

Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia[edit]

The five planets visible to the naked eye and the sun and moon are connected with the chief gods of the Babylonian pantheon. A list now held in the British Museum arranges the sevenfold planetary group in the following order:[2]

The religion of the Assyrian Empire (sometimes called Ashurism) centered on Ashur, patron deity of the city of Assur, and Ishtar, patroness of Nineveh. The last positively recorded worship of Ashur and other Assyrian-Mesopotamian gods dates back to the 3rd century AD in the face of the adaptation of Christianity from the 1st century AD onwards, although there is evidence of isolated pockets of worship among Assyrian people as late as the 17th century AD..[3][4]

Ashur, the patron deity of the eponymous capital of Assur from the Early Bronze Age (circa. 22nd century BC), was in constant rivalry with the later emerging Marduk (from circa. 19th century BC), the patron deity of Babylon. In Assyria, Ashur eventually superseded Marduk, even becoming the husband of Ishtar.

The major Assyro-Babylonian-Akkadian gods were:

Major Assyro-Babylonian demons and heroes were:


The Canaanite religion was practiced by people living in the ancient Levant throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Until the excavation (1928 onwards) of the city of Ras Shamra (known as Ugarit in antiquity) in Northern Syria and the discovery of its Bronze Age archive of clay tablet alphabetic cuneiform texts,[10] scholars knew little about Canaanite religious practice. Papyrus seems to have been the preferred writing material for scribes at the time. Unlike the papyrus documents found in Egypt, ancient papyri in the Levant have often simply decayed from exposure to the humid Mediterranean climate. As a result, the accounts in the Bible became the primary sources of information on ancient Canaanite religion. Supplementing the Biblical accounts, several secondary and tertiary Greek sources have survived, including Lucian of Samosata's treatise De Dea Syria (The Syrian Goddess, 2nd century CE), fragments of the Phoenician History of Sanchuniathon as preserved by Philo of Byblos (c. 64 – 141 CE), and the writings of Damascius (c. 458 – after 538). Recent study of the Ugaritic material has uncovered additional information about the religion,[11] supplemented by inscriptions from the Levant and Tel Mardikh archive[12] (excavated in the early 1960s).

Like other peoples of the ancient Near East, the Canaanites were polytheistic, with families typically focusing worship on ancestral household gods and goddesses while acknowledging the existence of other deities such as Baal, Anath, and El.[13][failed verification] Kings also played an important religious role and in certain ceremonies, such as the sacred marriage of the New Year Festival; Canaanites may have revered their kings as gods.[citation needed]

According to the pantheon, known in Ugarit as 'ilhm (Elohim) or the children of El (compare the Biblical "sons of God"), the creator deity called El, fathered the other deities. In the Greek sources he was married to Beruth (Beirut, the city). The pantheon was supposedly obtained by Philo of Byblos from Sanchuniathon of Berythus (Beirut). The marriage of the deity with the city seems to have biblical parallels with the stories that link Melkart with Tyre, Yahweh with Jerusalem, and Tanit and Baal Hammon with Carthage. El Elyon is mentioned (as God Most High) in Genesis 14.18–19 as the God whose priest was Melchizedek, king of Salem.[citation needed]

Philo states that the union of El Elyon and his consort resulted in the birth of Uranus and Ge (Greek names for Heaven and Earth). This closely parallels the opening verse of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 1:1—"In the beginning God (Elohim) created the Heavens (Shemayim) and the Earth" (Eretz). It also parallels the story of the Babylonian Anunaki gods.

Abrahamic religions[edit]

Many scholars believe that the Assyro-Babylonian Enuma Elish influenced the Genesis creation narrative.[14][15][16] The Epic of Gilgamesh influenced the Genesis flood narrative. The Sumerian myth of Enmerkar and the Lord of Aratta also had influence on the Tower of Babel myth in Genesis. Some writers trace the story of Esther to Assyrio-Babylonian roots.[17]

El Elyon also appears in Balaam's story in Numbers and in Moses song in Deuteronomy 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.

Rather than "sons of Israel", the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, 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 the Most High 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 Arslan Tash inscription suggests that each of the 70 sons of El Elyon was bound to their people by a covenant. Thus, Crossan[who?] translates:

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Noll, K. L. (2001). Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction. A&C Black. p. 187. ISBN 978-1-84127-258-0. Archived from the original on 12 March 2023. Retrieved 4 March 2018. [A patron god in an ancient Near Eastern religion held a unique position among the gods] as the most powerful and the most just of the gods, who ruled the divine realm as he ruled the human realm, often with the approval of a council of divine 'elders' who legitimated his right to rule as patron god (as in the book of Job 1—2). [...] Other gods were subordinate to, and partners with, the divine patron, just as the human aristocracy and commoners were expected to be subordinate to, and supportive of, the human king. The pantheon was usually quite complex, often including hundreds or even thousands of gods.
  2. ^ Mackenzie, p. 301.
  3. ^ "Brief History of Assyrians". AINA Assyrian International News Agency. Archived from the original on 28 April 1999. Retrieved 22 August 2007.
  4. ^ Parpola, Simo (1999). "Assyrians after Assyria". Assyriologist. Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. XIII No. 2. Archived from the original on 14 July 2011. Retrieved 22 August 2007. The gods Ashur, Sherua, Ishtar, Nanaya, Bel, Nabu and Nergal continued to be worshiped in Assur at least until the early 3rd century AD; the local cultic calendar was that of the imperial period; the temple of Ashur was restored in the 2nd century AD; and the stelae of the local rulers resemble those of Assyrian kings in the imperial period.
  5. ^ Dalley, Stephanie, Mari and Karana: Two Old Babylonian Cities (2002), ISBN 1-931956-02-2[page needed]
  6. ^ Dalley (2002)[page needed]
  7. ^ Robert Francis Harper (1901). Assyrian and Babylonian literature. D. Appleton and company. p. 26. Retrieved 27 June 2011.
  8. ^ Thorkild Jacobsen (1978). The treasures of darkness: a history of Mesopotamian religion. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-02291-9. Archived from the original on 12 March 2023. Retrieved 27 June 2011.
  9. ^ "ETCSLhomepage". 24 October 2006. Archived from the original on 2 May 2019. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
  10. ^ Gray, John, "The Legacy of Canaan the Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament", No. 5. Brill Archive, 1957; for a more recent discussion see Yon, Marguerite, The City of Ugarit at Tell Ras Shamra, Eisenbrauns, 2006.
  11. ^ Smith, Mark S., The origins of biblical monotheism: Israel's polytheistic background and the Ugaritic texts, Oxford University Press, 2001.
  12. ^ J. Pons, Review of G. Pettinato, A. Alberti, Catalogo dei testi cuneiformi di Tell Mardikh - Ebla, MEE I, Napoli, 1979, in Études théologiques et religieuses 56 (1981) 339—341.
  13. ^ "Canaanite religion". Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 April 2014. Archived from the original on 22 May 2019. Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  14. ^ "The Enuma Elish: The Babylonian Creation Myth". 11 November 2011. Archived from the original on 5 April 2019. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  15. ^ "ENUMA ELISH - Babylonian Creation Myth - Theories". Archived from the original on 22 November 2011. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  16. ^ Sharpes, Donald K. 'Lords of the scrolls: literary traditions in the Bible and Gospels'. Peter Lang, 2005. ISBN 0-8204-7849-0, 978-0-8204-7849-4
  17. ^ Gunkel, Hermann (2006). Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton: Religio-Historical Study of Genesis 1 and Revelation 12. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. p. 198. ISBN 978-0802828040. Archived from the original on 12 March 2023. Retrieved 15 October 2020.

Further reading[edit]

  • Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria (1915).
  • Moscati, Sabatino (1968), The World of the Phoenicians (Phoenix Giant)
  • Ribichini, Sergio "Beliefs and Religious Life" in Moscati Sabatino (1988), The Phoenicians (by L.B. Tauris in 2001)
  • Thophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, The World Wide School, Seattle (2000)
  • van der Toorn, Karel (1995). Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. New York: E. J. Brill. ISBN 0-8028-2491-9.

External links[edit]