King of the Gods
Gilded statuette of El from Megiddo
|Region||Canaan and Levant|
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ancient Near East
|Pre-Islamic Arabian deities|
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|Deities of the ancient Near East|
|Religions of the ancient Near East|
’Ēl (or ’Il, Ugaritic: 𐎛𐎍; Phoenician: 𐤀𐤋; Hebrew: אל; Syriac: ܐܠ; Arabic: إل or إله; cognate to Akkadian: 𒀭, translit. ilu) is a Northwest Semitic word meaning "god" or "deity", or referring (as a proper name) to any one of multiple major ancient Near Eastern deities. A rarer form, 'ila, represents the predicate form in Old Akkadian and in Amorite. The word is derived from the Proto-Semitic archaic biliteral ʾ‑l, meaning "god".
Linguistic forms and meanings
In northwest Semitic use, El 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". El is listed at the head of many pantheons. In some Canaanite and Ugaritic sources, El played a role as father of the gods or of creation.
However, because the word sometimes refers to a god other than the great god Ēl, it is frequently ambiguous as to whether Ēl followed by another name means the great god Ēl with a particular epithet applied or refers to another god entirely. For example, in the Ugaritic texts, ʾil mlk is understood to mean "Ēl the King" but ʾil hd as "the god Hadad".
The Semitic root ʾlh (Arabic ʾilāh, Aramaic ʾAlāh, ʾElāh, Hebrew ʾelōah) may be ʾl with a parasitic h, and ʾl may be an abbreviated form of ʾlh. In Ugaritic the plural form meaning "gods" is ʾilhm, equivalent to Hebrew ʾelōhîm "powers". In the Hebrew texts this word is interpreted as being semantically singular for "god" by biblical commentators. However the documentary hypothesis developed originally in the 1870s, identifies these that different authors - Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and the Priestly source - were responsible for editing stories from a polytheistic religion into those of a monotheistic religion. Inconsistencies that arise between monotheism and polytheism in the texts are reflective of this hypothesis.
The stem ʾl is found prominently in the earliest strata of east Semitic, northwest Semitic, and south Semitic groups. Personal names including the stem ʾl are found with similar patterns in both Amorite and Sabaic—which indicates that probably already in Proto-Semitic ʾl was both a generic term for "god" and the common name or title of a single particular god.
Proto-Sinaitic, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Hittite texts
The Egyptian god Ptah is given the title ḏū gitti 'Lord of Gath' in a prism from Tel Lachish which has on its opposite face the name of Amenhotep II (c. 1435–1420 BCE). The title ḏū gitti is also found in Serābitṭ text 353. Cross (1973, p. 19) points out that Ptah is often called the Lord (or one) of eternity and thinks it may be this identification of ʼĒl with Ptah that lead to the epithet ’olam 'eternal' being applied to ʼĒl so early and so consistently. (However, in the Ugaritic texts, Ptah is seemingly identified rather with the craftsman god Kothar-wa-Khasis.)
A Phoenician inscribed amulet of the seventh century BCE from Arslan Tash may refer to ʼĒl. The text was translated by Rosenthal (1969, p. 658) as follows:
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, Cross (1973, p. 17) translated the text as follows:
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.
With oaths of Heaven and Ancient Earth.
In some inscriptions, the name ’Ēl qōne ’arṣ meaning "ʼĒl creator of Earth" appears, even including a late inscription at Leptis Magna in Tripolitania dating to the second century. In Hittite texts, the expression becomes the single name Ilkunirsa, this Ilkunirsa appearing as the husband of Asherdu (Asherah) and father of 77 or 88 sons.
In a Hurrian hymn to ʼĒl (published in Ugaritica V, text RS 24.278), he is called ’il brt and ’il dn which Cross (p. 39) takes as 'ʼĒl of the covenant' and 'ʼĒl the judge' respectively.
Amorite inscriptions from Sam'al refer to numerous gods, sometimes by name, sometimes by title, especially by such titles as Ilabrat 'God of the people'(?), ʾil abīka "God of your father", ʾil abīni "God of our father" and so forth. Various family gods are recorded, divine names listed as belonging to a particular family or clan, sometimes by title and sometimes by name, including the name ʾil "God". In Amorite personal names, the most common divine elements are ʾil "God", Hadad/Adad, and Dagan. It is likely that ʾil is also very often the god called in Akkadian texts Amurru or ʾil ʾamurru.
Ugarit and the Levant
For the Canaanites and the ancient Levantine region as a whole, Ēl or Il was the supreme god, the father of mankind and all creatures. He also fathered many gods, most importantly Hadad, Yam, and Mot, each sharing similar attributes to the Greco-Roman gods: Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades respectively.
Three pantheon lists found at Ugarit (modern Ras Shamrā—Arabic: رأس شمرا, Syria) begin with the four gods ’il-’ib (which according to Cross; is the name of a generic kind of deity, perhaps the divine ancestor of the people), Ēl, Dagnu (that is Dagon), and Ba’l Ṣapān (that is the god Haddu or Hadad). Though Ugarit had a large temple dedicated to Dagon and another to Hadad, there was no temple dedicated to Ēl.
Ēl is called again and again Tôru ‘Ēl ("Bull Ēl" or "the bull god"). He is bātnyu binwāti ("Creator of creatures"), ’abū banī ’ili ("father of the gods"), and ‘abū ‘adami ("father of man"). He is qāniyunu ‘ôlam ("creator eternal"), the epithet ‘ôlam appearing in Hebrew form in the Hebrew name of God ’ēl ‘ôlam "God Eternal" in Genesis 21.33. He is ḥātikuka ("your patriarch"). Ēl is the grey-bearded ancient one, full of wisdom, malku ("King"), ’abū šamīma ("Father of years"), ’El gibbōr ("Ēl the warrior"). He is also named lṭpn of unknown meaning, variously rendered as Latpan, Latipan, or Lutpani ("shroud-face" by Strong's Hebrew Concordance).
In Canaanite mythology, El builds a desert sanctuary with his children and his two wives, leading to speculation[by whom?] that at one point El was a desert god.
The mysterious Ugaritic text Shachar and Shalim tells how (perhaps near the beginning of all things) Ēl came to shores of the sea and saw two women who bobbed up and down. Ēl 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 called him. They saluted him as husband. He then lay with them, and they gave birth to Shachar ("Dawn") and Shalim ("Dusk"). Again Ēl lay with his wives and the wives gave 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 Ēl's chief wife, and the goddess Raḥmayyu ("the one of the womb"), otherwise unknown.
In the Ugaritic Ba‘al cycle, Ēl 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 to 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 "seventy sons of Athirat" to a feast in his new palace. Presumably these sons have been fathered on Athirat by Ēl; in following passages they seem be the gods (’ilm) in general or at least a large portion of them. The only sons of Ēl 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 Ēl. Ba‘al Hadad is a few times called Ēl's son rather than the son of Dagan as he is normally called, possibly because Ēl is in the position of a clan-father to all the gods.
The fragmentary text R.S. 24.258 describes a banquet to which Ēl 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 hang-over.
The Hebrew form (אל) appears in Latin letters in Standard Hebrew transcription as El and in Tiberian Hebrew transcription as ʾĒl. El is a generic word for god that could be used for any god, including Hadad, Moloch, or Yahweh.
In the Tanakh, ’elōhîm is the normal word for a god or the great god (or gods, given that the 'im' suffix makes a word plural in Hebrew). But the form ’El also appears, mostly in poetic passages and in the patriarchal narratives attributed to the Priestly source of the documentary hypothesis. It occurs 217 times in the Masoretic Text: seventy-three times in the Psalms and fifty-five 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 hā’Ēl 'the god' (for example in 2 Samuel 22:31,33–48).
The theological position of the Tanakh is that the names Ēl and ’Ĕlōhîm, when used in the singular to mean the supreme god, refer to Yahweh, beside whom other gods are supposed to be either nonexistent or insignificant. Whether this was a long-standing 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, YHWH says in Exodus 6:2–3:
I revealed myself to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as Ēl Shaddāi, but was not known to them by my name, YHVH.
Before El's revelation with the name of Yahweh, it is said in Genesis 14:18–20 that Abraham accepted the blessing of El, when Melchizedek, the king of Salem and high priest of its deity El Elyon blessed him. One scholarly position is that the identification of Yahweh with Ēl is late, that Yahweh was earlier thought of as only one of many gods, and not normally identified with Ēl. Another is that in much of the Hebrew Bible the name El is an alternate name for Yahweh, but in the Elohist and Priestly traditions it is conceived as an earlier name than Yahweh. Mark Smith has argued that Yahweh and El were originally separate, but were considered synonymous from very early on. The name Yahweh is used in the Bible Tanakh in the first book of Genesis 2:4; and Genesis 4:26 says that at that time, people began to "call upon the name of the LORD".
In some places, especially in Psalm 29, Yahweh is clearly envisioned as a storm god, something not true of Ēl so far as we know (although true of his son, Ba'al Hadad). It is Yahweh who is prophesied to one day battle Leviathan the serpent, and slay the dragon in the sea in Isaiah 27:1. The slaying of the serpent in myth is a deed attributed to both Ba’al Hadad and ‘Anat in the Ugaritic texts, but not to Ēl.
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 Ēl Shaddāi, Ēl ‘Ôlām, Ēl ‘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 in 1929. But others have argued that from patriarchal times, these different names were in fact generally understood to refer to the same single great god, Ēl. This is the position of Frank Moore Cross (1973). What is certain is that the form ’El does appear in Israelite names from every period including the name Yiśrā’ēl ("Israel"), meaning "El strives" or "struggled with El".
According to The Oxford Companion to World Mythology,
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 archaeological indications that she was perceived as such before she was in effect "divorced" in the context of emerging Judaism of the 7th century BCE. (See 2 Kings 23:15.)
The apparent plural form ’Ēlîm or ’Ēlim "gods" occurs only four times in the Tanakh. Psalm 29, understood as an enthronement psalm, begins:
A Psalm of David.
Ascribe to Yahweh, sons of Gods (bênê ’Ēlîm),
Ascribe to Yahweh, glory and strength
Psalm 89:6 (verse 7 in Hebrew) has:
For who in the skies compares to Yahweh,
who can be likened to Yahweh among the sons of Gods (bênê ’Ēlîm).
Traditionally bênê ’ēlîm has been interpreted as 'sons of the mighty', 'mighty ones', for ’El can mean 'mighty', though such use may be metaphorical (compare the English expression [by] God awful). It is possible also that the expression ’ēlîm in both places descends from an archaic stock phrase in which ’lm was a singular form with the m-enclitic and therefore to be translated as 'sons of Ēl'. The m-enclitic appears elsewhere in the Tanakh and in other Semitic languages. Its meaning is unknown, possibly simply emphasis. It appears in similar contexts in Ugaritic texts where the expression bn ’il alternates with bn ’ilm, but both must mean 'sons of Ēl'. That phrase with m-enclitic also appears in Phoenician inscriptions as late as the fifth century BCE.
One of the other two occurrences in the Tanakh is in the "Song of Moses", Exodus 15:11a:
Who is like you among the Gods (’ēlim), Yahweh?
The final occurrence is in Daniel 11:36:
And the king will do according to his pleasure; and he will exalt himself and magnify himself over every god (’ēl), and against the God of Gods (’El ’Elîm) he will speak outrageous things, and will prosper until the indignation is accomplished: for that which is decided will be done.
There are a few cases in the Tanakh where some think ’El referring to the great god Ēl is not equated with Yahweh. One is in Ezekiel 28:2, in the taunt against a man who claims to be divine, in this instance, the leader of Tyre:
Son of man, say to the prince of Tyre: "Thus says the Lord Yahweh: 'Because your heart is proud and you have said: "I am ’ēl (god), in the seat of ’elōhîm (gods), I am enthroned in the middle of the seas." Yet you are man and not ’El even though you have made your heart like the heart of ’elōhîm ('gods').'"
Here ’ēl might refer to a generic god, or to a highest god, Ēl. When viewed as applying to the King of Tyre specifically, the king was probably not thinking of Yahweh. When viewed as a general taunt against anyone making divine claims, it may or may not refer to Yahweh depending on the context.
In Judges 9:46 we find ’Ēl Bêrît 'God of the Covenant', seemingly the same as the Ba‘al Bêrît 'Lord of the Covenant' whose worship has been condemned a few verses earlier. See Baal for a discussion of this passage.
Psalm 82:1 says:
’elōhîm ("god") stands in the council of ’ēl
he judges among the gods (Elohim).
This could mean that Yahweh judges along with many other gods as one of the council of the high god Ēl. However it can also mean that Yahweh stands in the Divine Council (generally known as the Council of Ēl), as Ēl judging among the other members of the Council. The following verses in which the god condemns those whom he says were previously named gods (Elohim) and sons of the Most High suggest the god here is in fact Ēl judging the lesser gods.
An archaic phrase appears in Isaiah 14:13, kôkkêbê ’ēl 'stars of God', referring to the circumpolar stars that never set, possibly especially to the seven stars of Ursa Major. The phrase also occurs in the Pyrgi Inscription as hkkbm ’l (preceded by the definite article h and followed by the m-enclitic). Two other apparent fossilized expressions are arzê-’ēl 'cedars of God' (generally translated something like 'mighty cedars', 'goodly cedars') in Psalm 80:10 (in Hebrew verse 11) and kêharrê-’ēl 'mountains of God' (generally translated something like 'great mountains', 'mighty mountains') in Psalm 36:7 (in Hebrew verse 6).
Philo of Byblos (c. 64–141 AD) was a Greek writer whose account Sanchuniathon survives in quotation by Eusebius and may contain the major surviving traces of Phoenician mythology. Ēl (rendered Elus or called by his standard Greek counterpart Cronus) is not the creator God or first God. Ēl is rather the son of Sky (Uranus) and Earth (Ge). Sky and Earth are themselves children of ‘Elyôn 'Most High'. Ēl is brother to the God Bethel, to Dagon and to an unknown god, equated with the Greek Atlas and to the goddesses Aphrodite/’Ashtart, Rhea (presumably Asherah), and Dione (equated with Ba‘alat Gebal). Ēl is the father of Persephone and of Athena (presumably the goddess ‘Anat).
Sky and Earth have separated from one another in hostility, but Sky insists on continuing to force himself on Earth and attempts to destroy the children born of such unions. At last, Ēl, with the advice of his daughter Athena and the god Hermes Trismegistus (perhaps Thoth), Ēl successfully attacks his father Sky with a sickle and spear of iron. He and his military allies the Eloim gain Sky's kingdom.
In a later passage it is explained that Ēl castrated Sky. One of Sky's concubines (who was given to Ēl's brother Dagon) was already pregnant by Sky. The son who is born of the union, called Demarûs or Zeus, but once called Adodus, is obviously Hadad, the Ba‘al of the Ugaritic texts who now becomes an ally of his grandfather Sky and begins to make war on Ēl.
Ēl has three wives, his sisters or half-sisters Aphrodite/Astarte (‘Ashtart), Rhea (presumably Asherah), and Dione (identified by Sanchuniathon with Ba‘alat Gebal the tutelary goddess of Byblos, a city which Sanchuniathon says that Ēl founded).
El is depicted primarily as a warrior; in Ugaritic sources Baal has the warrior role and El is peaceful, and it may be that the Sanchuniathon depicts an earlier tradition that was more preserved in the southern regions of Canaan.:255
Eusebius, through whom the Sanchuniathon is preserved, is not interested in setting the work forth completely or in order. But we are told that Ēl slew his own son Sadidus (a name that some commentators think might be a corruption of Shaddai, one of the epithets of the Biblical Ēl) and that Ēl also beheaded one of his daughters. Later, perhaps referring to this same death of Sadidus we are told:
But on the occurrence of a pestilence and mortality Cronus offers his only begotten son as a whole burnt-offering to his father Sky and circumcises himself, compelling his allies also to do the same.
A fuller account of the sacrifice appears later:
It was a custom of the ancients in great crises of danger for the rulers of a city or nation, in order to avert the common ruin, to give up the most beloved of their children for sacrifice as a ransom to the avenging daemons; and those who were thus given up were sacrificed with mystic rites. Cronus then, whom the Phoenicians call Elus, who was king of the country and subsequently, after his decease, was deified as the star Saturn, had by a nymph of the country named Anobret an only begotten son, whom they on this account called Iedud, the only begotten being still so called among the Phoenicians; and when very great dangers from war had beset the country, he arrayed his son in royal apparel, and prepared an altar, and sacrificed him.
The account also relates that Thoth:
also devised for Cronus as insignia of royalty four eyes in front and behind ... but two of them quietly closed, and upon his shoulders four wings, two as spread for flying, and two as folded. And the symbol meant that Cronus could see when asleep, and sleep while waking: and similarly in the case of the wings, that he flew while at rest, and was at rest when flying. But to each of the other gods he gave two wings upon the shoulders, as meaning that they accompanied Cronus in his flight. And to Cronus himself again he gave two wings upon his head, one representing the all-ruling mind, and one sensation.
This is the form under which Ēl/Cronus appears on coins from Byblos from the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 BCE) four spread wings and two folded wings, leaning on a staff. Such images continued to appear on coins until after the time of Augustus.
A bilingual inscription from Palmyra dated to the 1st century equates Ēl-Creator-of-the-Earth with the Greek god Poseidon. Going back to the 8th century BCE, the bilingual inscription at Karatepe in the Taurus Mountains equates Ēl-Creator-of-the-Earth to Luwian hieroglyphs read as da-a-ś, this being the Luwian form of the name of the Babylonian water god Ea, lord of the abyss of water under the earth. (This inscription lists Ēl in second place in the local pantheon, following Ba‘al Shamîm and preceding the Eternal Sun.)
Poseidon is known to have been worshipped in Beirut, his image appearing on coins from that city. Poseidon of Beirut was also worshipped at Delos where there was an association of merchants, shipmasters, and warehousemen called the Poseidoniastae of Berytus founded in 110 or 109 BCE. Three of the four chapels at its headquarters on the hill northwest of the Sacred Lake were dedicated to Poseidon, the Tyche of the city equated with Astarte (that is ‘Ashtart), and to Eshmun.
Also at Delos, that association of Tyrians, though mostly devoted to Heracles-Melqart, elected a member to bear a crown every year when sacrifices to Poseidon took place. A banker named Philostratus donated two altars, one to Palaistine Aphrodite Urania (‘Ashtart) and one to Poseidon "of Ascalon".
Though Sanchuniathon distinguishes Poseidon from his Elus/Cronus, this might be a splitting off of a particular aspect of Ēl in a euhemeristic account. Identification of an aspect of Ēl with Poseidon rather than with Cronus might have been felt to better fit with Hellenistic religious practice, if indeed this Phoenician Poseidon really is Ēl who dwells at the source of the two deeps in Ugaritic texts. More information is needed to be certain.
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- Rosenthal, Franz (1969). "The Amulet from Arslan Tash". In Pritchard, James. Trans. in: Ancient Near Eastern Texts (3rd ed.). Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 658. ISBN 978-0-691-03503-1. OCLC 5342384.
- Smith, Mark S. (January 2001). The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic background and the Ugaritic texts. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-513480-3. LCCN 99058180. OCLC 53388532.
- van der Toorn, Karel; Becking, Bob; van der Horst, Pieter Willem (1999). Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (2nd ed.). Leiden, Netherlands: Brill. ISBN 978-90-04-11119-6. LCCN 98042505. OCLC 39765350.
- Wyatt, Nicolas (October 2002). Religious Texts from Ugarit. The Biblical Seminar. 53 (2nd ed.). Continuum International Publishing Group. ISBN 978-0-8264-6048-6. LCCN 2002489996. OCLC 48979997.
- Bruneau, Philippe (1970). Recherches sur les cultes de Délos à l'époque hellénistique et à l'époque imperiale (in French). Paris: E. de Broccard. LCCN 78851163. OCLC 2349270.
- Fontenrose, Joseph Eddy (1959). Python: A Study of Delphic Myth and Its Origins. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-04091-5. LCCN 59005144. OCLC 4089770.
- Teixidor, Javier (1977). The Pagan God. Princeton: Princeton University Press. ISBN 978-0-691-07220-3. LCCN 76024300. OCLC 2644903.
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