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Canaan in the Pre-Israelite Period – 2

Original Date
May 13, 2009

Gods and Rituals of the Canaanites –  Highlights

The Canaanite religion, from which the Religion of Israel emerged had priests, priestesses [N-1]  and prophets.  At Ugarit, like later Israelite religion, it viewed the universe as having three levels. The highest celestial realm was the realm of El, the earth was the realm of Baal and other gods; and the depth was the realm of Mot (death), Resheph (lightning-fire-fiery) and Horon (terror). 

Canaanite religion concentrated on the middle realm.  In Bronze Age Ugarit many gods were worshiped.  However, the pattern in Iron Age Phoenicia, and probably in the territories of Israel and Judah, usually was composed of a triad consisting of a protective god of the place, a goddess, often his wife or companion who symbolizes the fertile earth; and a young god somehow connected with the goddess whose resurrection expresses the annual cycle of vegetation” (see Dever  [1] on Popular Religion and Canaanite Religion Compared to Israelite Official Religion As Reflected in the Torah on the confusion of divine names).  In Carthage the triad was Baal Hammon (may be Ugaritic El or Baal-Haddad with some El features attached), Tanit (his spouse who may be Ugaritic Asherah or an African goddess with similar characteristics) and Melkart (may be derived from Baal-Haddad)

This triad [N-2] , similar to that of Israelite religion about 1000 BCE, can be seen as a reflection of the nuclear family.  At Ugarit, the primary triad was –

  •  ?lDivine Father – ?l, (was) the ancestral deity of the Semites.  (“?l” appears also (in Arabia) under the augmentative form “Ilah-Allah,” who’s plural of majesty is the Hebrew “Elohim”
  •  Ela/Elat-AsherahDivine Mother – She is the universal mother. As such, she is wise, nurturing, symbolizing and supporting the fertility of man, beasts and crops. Asherah is symbolized by the Tree of Life which, in turn, may be symbolized by a pole. On a thirteenth century BCE ewer found near a temple, a female, probably goddess, figure has its pubic triangle replaced by a tree. Her title Ela (Hebrew) or Elat (Phoenician) is the feminine form of El and hence means “goddess”.  “Another name of ´Asherah in the first millenium BCE is Chawat, which is Hawah in Hebrew and Eve in English. “ Her full title is Rabat Chawat ´Elat, Great Lady Eve the Goddess, and is associated with the serpent.
  • Ba’al-Hadad – Divine Son – Baal is also identified as Hadad (Ugaritic haddu), an Akkadian and Babylonian god of the sky, clouds, and rain, both creative, gentle showers and destructive, devastating storms and floods. In Ugaritic literature he is frequently referred to as “Cloud Rider” (rkb rpt) a title that was later used to describe ?l – Yhwh in Psalms 68:5. Baal is the vigorous, young god of the triad, not a creator, but basically the executive member of the triad. He is the executive of the divine assembly. Baal is the champion of divine order against chaos. Lightening is his weapon, and he can be found in storms and thunder.

Cannanite Goddess Asherah

Central to the rituals were offerings that were consummated by the gods. Offerings were both vegetable and animals. We also see that human sacrifice was fairly common in some areas, even though some scientists believe that the frequency of this has been exaggerated by outside sources, like what we read in the Old Testament. But at least in the North-African colony of Carthage we know that children were thrown into a fire in front of a statue of a god. But from Ugarit there are no indications on child sacrifice.

The myth of Baal’s death and resurrection is believed to have been the source of some of the main religious festivals. Other festivals appear to have involved eating and drinking (alcohol) by the partakers. A third group of rituals involve that statues of gods were carried down to the sea, rituals that could involve either a sacred marriage or the blessing of the sea and the ships. A fourth group of rituals were the very central festival where sacrifice were hung from trees, and then put on fire.

Priests in Ugarit were called khnm (there must have been vowels in the pronunciation, but these were not written, and cannot be reconstructed in Hebrew – Kohanim). Under the priest … (there may have been) qdshm (Hebrew =sacred – absolutely other meaning – Qedoshim) , sacred prostitutes, performing their sexual rituals in the temples to promote fertility. There was also room for oracle priests or prophets that received messages from the gods during states of ecstasy.

Canaanite Man

Canaanite language

The Canaanite languages are a subfamily of the (West) Semitic languages, which were spoken by the ancient peoples of the Canaan region, including Canaanites, Israelites, Phoenicians, and Philistines. All of them became extinct as native languages in the early 1st millennium CE, although Hebrew remained in continuous literary and religious use among Jews, and was revived as a spoken, everyday language in the 19th century by Eliezer Ben Yehuda. The Phoenician (and especially Carthaginian) expansion spread their Canaanite language to the Western Mediterranean for a time, but there too it died out, although it seems to have survived slightly longer than in Phoenicia itself.

The Canaanite language experienced a revolution during the first millennium BCE, where it became the official language of the whole Phoenician city states in the land of Canaan, reaching all the way to Cyprus, as well as the Canaanite colonies in Greece, and the respective Canaanite communities there as well.

Punic became a serious rival of the Canaanite mother tongue and evolved to become the basis of a serious Canaanite and Hellenistic literary culture. It was spoken by the influential majority such as the emperor Septimius Severus and Augustine of Hippo.

The main sources for study of Canaanite languages are the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), and inscriptions such as:

  •  in the Moabite language: Mesha Stele, El-Kerak Stela 
  •  in the Biblical Hebrew language: Gezer calendar
  • in the Phoenician languages: Ahiram inscription, sarcophagus of Eshmunazar, Kilamuwa inscription, the Byblos inscription
  • in the later Punic language: in Poenulus – by Plautus – beginning of 5th-Act.

The extra-biblical Canaanite inscriptions are gathered along with Aramaic inscriptions in editions of the book “Kanaanäische und Aramäische Inschriften”, from which they may be referenced as KAI n (for a number n); for example, the Mesha Stele is “KAI 181″.

Possible Evolution of the Cannanite - Phoenician Alphabet

Canaanite migrated to Carthage with the Tyrian (Tsour) migration to Africa, and with the Queen Elissar (or Elissa or Dido)  . There it survived in the Punic form well into the 4th century CE. It went minor transformations from the original Canaanite tongue, and it even survived the Canaanite language generations after the Aramaic language became the Lingua Franca of the Middle East. Punic migrated back into its dependant colonies in the Mediterranean, and made it all the way back to Cyprus. Some even say that with the destruction of Carthage, many Canaanites migrated back to their home land, which they called “Lebanon”, as opposed to the land of Canaan, which included Lebanon, and all the Canaanite colonies in the Mediterranean, and they brought back with them the Punic language with its modified spelling, such as the “F” instead of the original Canaanite “P“. So, many words that were spelled in the Canaanite with a “P“, were spelled in Punic as “F“.


[N-1] “The institution of priesthood in its typical crystallization as a social class is encountered in many different religions, both primitive and advanced, in the Ancient Near East and elsewhere—but not in all religions. Thus, priesthood, at least in its cultic manifestations, did not exist among the early Arabs or among other nomadic-tribal religions. At the same time, any given priesthood with its procedures and customs tends to be shaped by the specific style and religious attitudes characterizing the particular culture. Even the Canaanite priesthood differed from that of the Israelites, although the Canaanite term for priest is identical with the biblical one. For example, among the Canaanites one finds a priestess and even a female “high priestess” (rb khnrav-kohenet) paralleling the male “high priest” (rb khn—rav-kohen). In Israel, in contrast, the priesthood is restricted to males; there are no priestesses in their own right (i.e., other than the female members of a priest’s family, such as his wife or daughter).” Encyclopedia Judaica

[N-2] The Phoenicians worshipped a triad of deities, each having different names and attributes depending upon the city in which they were worshipped, although their basic nature remained the same. The primary god was El, protector of the universe, but often called Baal. The son, Baal or Melqart, symbolized the annual cycle of vegetation and was associated with the female deity Astarte in her role as the maternal goddess. She was called Asherat-yam, our lady of the sea, and in Byblos she was Baalat, our dear lady. Astarte was linked with mother goddesses of neighboring cultures, in her role as combined heavenly mother and earth mother. Cult statues of Astarte in many different forms were left as votive offerings in shrines and sanctuaries as prayers for good harvest, for children, and for protection and tranquillity in the home. The Phoenician triad was incorporated in varying degrees by their neighbors and Baal and Astarte eventually took on the look of Greek deities.”

[1] William G. Dever “Who Were the Early Israelites?”,  Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
[2]See Edgeworth 1977, 129-33; Letter 7 of Ovid’s Heroides


ANE Articles from Theophyle's English Blog - Ancient Near East

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