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 or monolatristic, worshiping one god while acknowledging the existence of others.
The sources for Canaanite religion come either from literary sources written by the early Hebrews, or from archaeological discoveries.
The Canaanite wrote on papyrus and, in the humid Mediterranean climate, these have simply decayed. Many of the accounts of Canaanite religion written by the Hebrews have however, survived, because they were kept as a part of the Bible. It's not impossible that these sources were not without bias because the Hebrews viewed their god as a competitor of the Canaanite Baal.
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 Damascius), all from the time of the Phoenicians.
Archaeological excavations in the last few centuries have unearthed more about the religion of the ancient Canaanites. The excavation of the city of Ras Shamra (the site historically known as Ugarit), 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.
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. There are a number of possible etymologies for the word.
Some[who?] 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 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 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.
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 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."
So far, none of the inscribed tablets found in the Canaanite city of Ugarit (destroyed ca. 1200 BCE) has revealed a cosmology. Any idea of one is often reconstructed from the much later Phoenician text by Philo of Byblos (c. 64–141 CE), after much Greek and Roman influence in the region.
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 were born Uranus and Ge, Greek names for the "Heaven" and the "Earth". This has parallels with the story of the Babylonian Anunaki (i.e. = "Heaven and Earth"; Shamayim and Erets).
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.
A large number of deities were worshiped by the followers of the Canaanite religion.
- Anat, virgin goddess of war and strife, sister and putative mate of Ba'al Hadad
- Athirat, "walker of the sea", Mother Goddess, wife of El (also known as Elat and after the Bronze Age as Asherah)
- Athtart, better known by her Greek name Astarte, assists Anat in The Myth of Ba'al
- Baalat or Baalit, the wife or female counterpart of Baal (also Belili)
- Ba'al Hadad, storm god, perhaps 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 and grain, father of Baal or Hadad
- El Elyon (lit. God Most High) and El; also transliterated as Ilu
- Eshmun, god, or as Baalat Asclepius, goddess, of healing
- Kotharat, goddesses of marriage and pregnancy
- Kothar wa Hasis, the skilled, god of craftsmanship
- Lotan, serpent ally of Yam
- Melqart, king of the city, the underworld and cycle of vegetation in Tyre
- Molech or Moloch, putative god of fire
- Mot or Mawat, god of death (not worshiped or given offerings)
- Nikkal-wa-Ib, goddess of orchards and fruit
- Qadeshtu, lit. "Holy One", putative goddess of love, modernly thought to be a sacred prostitute, although there is no evidence of sacred prostitution in ancient Canaanite cities
- Resheph, god of plague and of healing
- Shalim and Shachar, twin gods of dawn and dusk
- Shamayim, the god of the heavens
- Shapash, also transliterated Shapshu, goddess of the sun; sometimes equated with the Mesopotamian sun god Shemesh whose gender is disputed
- Yahweh or Yah, for a short time, a son of El and brother of Baal, sometimes married to Asherah.
- Yam-nahar or Yaw, also called Judge Nahar
- Yarikh, god of the moon and husband of Nikkal
There is no objective evidence that the Canaanites practiced human sacrifice by burning their children alive. A few historical accounts written around the time the Canaanites were flourishing make the claim for human sacrifice, but others did not.
No deity named Moloch or Molech appears in any Canaanite offering lists or other writings. It could be a misspelling: of Melqart; of Milcom, a god of the Ammonites; of the Assyro-Babylonian "Malik", or the Palmyran Malach-bel. Moloch is also identified with Baal Hammon in Carthaginian religion.
The main evidence for human sacrifice, other than claims of some writers of the time who were enemies of the Canaanites, is the discovery of the graves of many children near certain Punic religious sites in North Africa, such as Carthage. Opponents to the claim of Punic human sacrifice suggest that these children died naturally, and point to the few undeveloped fetuses amongst the other dead as evidence for this.
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 (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 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, who was often equated with Hercules.
Parallels with Old Testament narrative
- 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 Arslan 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."
Whilst the religion of Canaan has died out, small groups emerged in the 1990s, such as Qadash Kinahnu and Natib Qadish, or 'sacred path' in Ugaritic. They are devoted to Canaanite gods such as Ilu and Baal and goddesses such as Athirat (Asherah) and Anat.
These groups celebrate several holidays based on the Canaanite sacred calendar, and use the palm of a hand as their symbol.
- Aubet, Maria E., (1987, 910 "The Phoenicians and the West", (Cambridge University Press, New York) p.9
- Tubb, Jonathan "The Canaanites" (British Museum Press)
- abstract, K. L. Noll (2007) "Canaanite Religion", Religion Compass 1 (1), 61–92 doi:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2006.00010.x
- "alleged but not securely attested", according to Johnston, Sarah Isles, Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01517-7. p.335
- Johnston, Sarah Isles, Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-01517-7. P. 418
- 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 
- 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 0-80282-491-9.
- Bibliography of Canaanite & Phoenician Studies
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