Canaanite religion

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The land of Canaan, which comprises the modern regions of Israel, the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. At the time when Canaanite religion was practiced, Canaan was divided into various city-states.

Canaanite religion is the name for the group of Ancient Semitic religions practiced by the Canaanites living in the ancient Levant from at least the early Bronze Age through the first centuries of the Common Era.

Canaanite religion was polytheistic, and in some cases monolatristic.

Deities and Heroes[edit]

Ba'al with raised arm, 14th-12th century BC, found at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), Louvre
See List of Canaanite deities

Afterlife beliefs and Cult of the Dead[edit]

Canaanites believed that following physical death, the npš (usually translated as "soul") departed from the body to the land of Mot. Bodies were buried with grave goods, and offerings of food and drink were made to the dead to ensure that they would not trouble the living. Dead relatives were venerated and sometimes asked for help.[1][2]

Cosmology[edit]

So far, none of the inscribed tablets found in 1929 in the Canaanite city of Ugarit (destroyed ca. 1200 BC) has revealed a cosmology. Any idea of one is often reconstructed from the much later Phoenician text by Philo of Byblos (c. 64–141 AD), after much Greek and Roman influence in the region.

According to the pantheon, known in Ugarit as 'ilhm (=Elohim) or the children of El, supposedly obtained by Philo of Byblos from Sanchuniathon of Berythus (Beirut) the creator was known as Elion, 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; Chemosh and Moab; Tanit and Baal Hammon in Carthage.

From the union of El Elyon and his consort were born Uranus and Ge, Greek names for the "Heaven" and the "Earth".

In Canaanite mythology there were twin mountains Targhizizi and Tharumagi which hold the firmament up above the earth-circling ocean, thereby bounding the earth. W. F. Albright, for example, says 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 late period of this cosmology makes it difficult to tell what influences (Roman, Greek, or Hebrew) may have informed Philo's writings.

Mythology[edit]

In the Baal cycle, Ba'al Hadad is challenged by and defeats Yam, using two magical weapons (called "Driver" and "Chaser") made for him by Kothar-wa-Khasis. Afterward, with the help of Athirat and Anat, Ba'al persuades El to allow him a palace. El approves, and the palace is built by Kothar-wa-Khasis. After the palace is constructed, Ba'al gives forth a thunderous roar out of the palace window and challenges Mot. Mot enters through the window and swallows Ba'al, sending him to the Underworld. With no one to give rain, there is a terrible drought in Ba'al's absence. The other deities, especially El and Anat, are distraught that Ba'al has been taken to the Underworld. Anat goes to the Underworld, attacks Mot with a knife, grinds him up into pieces, and scatters him far and wide. With Mot defeated, Ba'al is able to return and refresh the Earth with rain.[3]

History[edit]

The Canaanites[edit]

Main article: Canaanites

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.[4] There are a number of possible etymologies for the word.

Some[who?] suggest the name comes from the Semitic word "cana'ani", meaning merchant, for which the Phoenicians became justly famous.

The Akkadian word "kinahhu", however, referred to the purple-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 BC 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.[5]

Influences[edit]

Canaanite religion was strongly influenced by their more powerful and populous neighbors, 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, the Elohim, while acknowledging the existence of other deities such as Baal and El, Asherah and Astarte. 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."[6] [7]

Contact with other areas[edit]

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 chariot-mounted maryannu 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 (known by her later Hebrew name Asherah), Athtart (known by her later Greek name Astarte), and Anath henceforth were portrayed wearing Hathor-like Egyptian wigs.

From the other direction, Jean Bottero has suggested that Yah of Ebla (a possible precursor of Yam) was equated with the Mesopotamian god 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 worshiped 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 neighboring Aramaeans to the east, and Baal Hadad and El can 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, who was often equated with Heracles.

Hebrew Bible[edit]

El Elyon also appears in Baalam'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"

Sources[edit]

The sources for Canaanite religion are literary sources, mainly from Late Bronze Age Ugarit[8] and supplemented by biblical sources, and from archaeological discoveries.

Literary sources[edit]

The ruins of the excavated city of Ras Shamra, or Ugarit.

Until the excavation of Ras Shamra in Northern Syria (the site historically known as Ugarit), and the discovery of its Bronze Age archive of clay tablet alphabetic cuneiform excavated by Claude F. A. Schaefer,[9] little was known of Canaanite religion, as papyrus seems to have been the preferred writing medium. Unlike in Egypt, where papyrus may survive centuries in the extremely dry climate, these have simply decayed in the humid Mediterranean climate.[10] As a result, the accounts contained within 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 Dea Syria (The Syrian Goddess), fragments of the Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos, and the writings of Damascius). 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.[10][11]

According to The Encyclopedia of Religion, the Ugarit texts were one part of a larger religion, that was based on the religious teachings of Babylon. The Canaanite scribes that produced the Baal texts were also trained to write in Babylonian cuniform, including Sumerian and Akkadian texts of every genre.[12]

Archaeological sources[edit]

Archaeological excavations in the last few decades have unearthed more about the religion of the ancient Canaanites.[5] The excavation of the city of Ras Shamra and the discovery of its Bronze Age archive of clay tablet alphabetic cuneiform texts, helped provide a wealth of new information. 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.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

Notes
  1. ^ Segal, Alan F. Life after death: a history of the afterlife in the religions of the West
  2. ^ Annette Reed (11 February 2005). "Life, Death, and Afterlife in Ancient Israel and Canaan" (PDF). Retrieved 2014-10-01. 
  3. ^ Wilkinson, Philip Myths & Legends: An Illustrated Guide to Their Origins and Meanings
  4. ^ Aubet, Maria E., 1987, 910 "The Phoenicians and the West", (Cambridge University Press, New York) p.9
  5. ^ a b Tubb, Jonathan "The Canaanites" (British Museum Press)
  6. ^ abstract, K. L. Noll (2007) "Canaanite Religion", Religion Compass 1 (1), 61–92 doi:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2006.00010.x
  7. ^ Moscati, Sabatino. The Face of the Ancient Orient, 2001,
  8. ^ Richard, Suzanne Near Eastern archaeology: a reader, Eisenbrauns illustrated edition (1 Aug 2004) ISBN 978-1-57506-083-5, p. 343
  9. ^ Schaeffer, Claude F. A. (1936). "The Cuneiform Texts of Ras Shamra~Ugarit" (PDF). London: Oxford University Press. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2011-09-20. 
  10. ^ a b Olmo Lete, Gregorio del (1999), "Canaanite religion: According to the liturgical texts of Ugarit" (CDL)
  11. ^ Hillers D.R. (1985)"Analyzing the Abominable: Our Understanding of Canaanite Religion" (The Jewish quarterly review, 1985)
  12. ^ The Encyclopedia of Religion - Mcmillan Library Ref. - Page 42
Bibliography
  • Moscatti, Sabatino (1968), "The World of the Phoenicians" (Phoenix Giant)
  • Ribichini, Sergio "Beliefs and Religious Life" in Maoscati Sabatino (1997), "The Phoenicians" (Rissoli)
  • van der Toorn, Karel (1995). Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. New York: E.J. Brill. ISBN 0-8028-2491-9. 
  • Bibliography of Canaanite & Phoenician Studies