Historical context: Canaanite deities and the Hebrew Bible
If you’ve ever cringed a little with a superstitious fear that uttering blasphemy might get you struck by lightning, you’re recalling God as Baal, who commanded thunder in his role as Storm God of the Canaanites; if you picture God in the shining sky with clouds under his feet, you are also recalling Baal, whose primary epithet was Rider on the Clouds. En route to becoming the only God, the God of the Old Testament borrowed these characteristics from his chief rival Baal. If you are envisioning God as an old man with a beard, however, and as ruler and king of, well, everything, you are recalling another ancient Canaanite God, El, who was the Father God. The old, bearded man on his throne in the clouds, dispensing lightning as punishment is a composite image taken from both the Canaanite Gods El and Baal.
El and Baal were important members of the pantheon of gods worshiped by the Canaanites. Canaan is described in the Bible as the land of milk and honey which was promised to the Israelites by the one true God who introduced himself to Moses as Yahweh. In reality, though, we cannot really understand the Judeo-Christian religion without understanding it as a younger faith interacting with older traditions. Archaeology informs us that the nation of Canaan, which preceded the nation of Israel, was a prosperous, artistic place with religious forms similar to those of its neighbors.
Archaelogical evidence shows that the worship of the Canaanite gods was continued by the Israelites rather than abandoned and Yahweh’s hold on the people may have been tenuous at best. His origins appear to be among the semi-nomadic desert people called the Midianites, among whom Moses stayed for many years and where he first encountered him in a burning bush. But in entering Canaan he was probably added to the Canaanite gods, only replacing them after a long struggle from polytheism to monotheism.
Readers who spent as much time as I did in Vacation Bible School as a kid will no doubt recognize Baal as chief among those pagan deities the “naughty” Israelites reverted to worshiping after they entered the “promised land” (Canaan). The writers of the Old Testament tell us directly that Yahweh battled Baal for supremacy in Israel. Some of the other deities who played a role in the Epic of Baal appear in the Bible too, just in more hidden forms. El, in addition to being the name of the chief God was a general term for a god. From this root comes the word Elohim, which is plural (gods) and gender neutral. One of the writers of the Bible, referred to as the Elohist, probably a priest writing during the time of the autonomous kingdom of Israel, has been recognized as a separate author because he consistently used the name Elohim for God in his texts, rather than Yahweh (consistently used by another major Bible author from the southern kingdom of Judah). The distinction between the two is played down in English translations where we see Lord and God and have no clear indication that He is being called by different names in different contexts. The God Moses saw in the burning bush gave his name as Yahweh (or more accurately YHWH). However, it was El Shaddai (translated God Almighty) who appeared before Abraham and promised that he would father the nation Israel (Isra-El) in the land of Canaan.
Canaanite Goddesses are, unfortunately, played down in the Bible to such an extent they can hardly be identified, but they play important roles in the earlier myths, as we will see. Back when I was a kid in Sunday School, I had no idea, for example, that the Asherah poles the Old Testament’s “sinners” kept putting up (even in Solomon’s Temple!) and reformers kept taking down, were emblems of the Mother Goddess of Canaan. I at least had a modern translation, in which her name appears. Readers of the King James Version will find no reference to Asherah at all. There, her name was frequently translated “groves,” leaving one to wonder why God so frequently wanted his zealous reformers to tear down seemingly innocent stands of trees. Other translations mention “poles” without attaching Asherah’s name to them. Two other Goddesses who play major roles in the Epic of Baal are never mentioned in the Bible at all: Anat, the Warrior Maiden, and Shapash, the Sun Goddess.
The Epic of Baal: What is it? The Epic of Baal is an ancient story of war and death and fertility and rebirth which was unearthed in the ruins of the ancient Phoenician city of Ugarit (modern day Ras Shamra in Syria). It was probably written between 1400 and 1200 BC and so would probably have been familiar to the Jewish people, who lived in Canaan, just to the south. (The earliest confirmation of Israel as a country is in an Egyptian source dated to 1209 BC, meaning the epic could have been written down as many as 200 years before Israel). The Ugaritic religion appears to be essentially the same as the Canaanite faith and included worship of the same deities. Powerful roles are played by goddesses in the story, especially the goddess Anat, the Warrior Maiden, who heroically (and violently) rescues Baal from the God of Death. In the process, she saves the world from dying, since Baal is a Storm God, the God of Rain, who was in that arid land the God of Fertility. To the modern ear, these characters seem like gender reversals. The female goddess is the warrior and the male god brings fertility? The damsel rescues the hero in distress? In fact, though, the Warrior Maiden is a popular goddess throughout the Middle East in ancient times and is found in Egypt as Sekhmet, and Babylon as Ishtar. She is often represented with a lion, though this animal is also associated with Mother, Sun, and Earth Goddesses, as it symbolizes strength and the power of the throne. In the Epic of Baal, Anat receives assistance in her quest from the Sun Goddess Shapash. Here is another connection which sounds like a gender bender to the western ear, but in fact Sun Goddesses are plentiful throughout the ancient world and common in the Middle East, where Hittites, Arabs, Canaanites, Syrians and early Jews considered the Sun to be feminine and where Egyptians had sun deities of both genders.
Cast of characters in the epic:
El, old Father Time and King of the Gods, an old gray bearded divinity who dwells in a mountain at the source of two great rivers. He is also called The Bull.
Asherah (or Athirat), Mother of the Gods, wife of El, is the Lady of the Sea, “kindly Asherah, who loves her children.” Like the Catholic Mary she can be approached to intercede, to plead one’s case with the more remote and less approachable El.
Baal, Rider on the Clouds, Fertility God. Baal is the star of this story, which is in part an allegory of the seasons in which he represents the rains necessary for the crops to grow, making him the sustainer of life and an extremely important god to agriculturalists in an arid land. From the Epic: “Baal sets the season/And gives forth his voice from the clouds./He flashes lightning to the earth.”
Mot (or Mavet), God of Death and Drought (the bad guy). He literally chews people (and gods) up when their time has come. Like the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty, he turns vengeful when he isn’t invited to Baal’s housewarming party with all the other Gods.
Anat, the Maiden Warrior, sister and possibly wife of Baal. Definitely his best friend, she seriously kicks Death’s ass in this story. Since she is ordinarily a War Goddess whose preferred place to be is knee deep in the blood of warriors, it’s interesting that in this story she appears not only as death bringer but also death’s conqueror.
Shapash, the Sun Goddess, who helps Anat rescue Baal.
Yam, God of the Sea, Sea Serpent, who represents primordial chaos.
How Anat saved her brother and the world in the Epic of Baal: The opening section of the epic deals with Baal’s battle with Yam, the Ocean God who is symbolic of primordial chaos. Yam has terrorized the gods into offering him the Mother Goddess Asherah until Baal intervenes. When his long battle with Yam ends in victory, Baal starts feeling pretty important and feels he should have his own palace, atop his own mountain. He enlists the help of his sister Anat, who bribes Asherah into asking her husband El for permission to have the palace built for Baal. After permission is given and the palace is built, Baal invites all the gods to come for a grand dinner in celebration of its completion. All the gods, that is, except one. Mot, the God of Death, who rules the underworld where the dead reside is not invited. At this point, things start to go very badly for Baal.
Mot demands that Baal come to a banquet at his home, in the Land of the Dead, an offer Baal feels he cannot refuse without giving away the fact that the real reason he left Mot out of his own party is that Baal the mighty warrior is terrified of Mot, the Lord of Death. From the Epic: “One lip down to the earth, one lip to the heavens/Mot stretches his tongue to the stars/Baal must enter his maw; and must descend into his mouth/like an olive-stuffed bread, like the produce of the earth, the fruit of the trees./Afraid is Baal the Powerful/Terrified is the Rider on the Clouds.”
Baal masters his fear sufficiently that he does indeed descend into the mouth of death, where he eats supper with the dead and, so, dies. With the death of the Rain God, of course, the consequences for earth are very severe. The people and the gods cry out as the drought shrivels up all food sources.
Baal’s sister Anat finds his body, suggesting that it is Baal’s soul which is stuck in the underworld. Shapash the Sun Goddess lifts Baal’s body onto Anat’s back. She carries him home and buries him in the ground, with the shades of the dead, and goes into mourning.
But Anat is a War Goddess and so, naturally, grief quickly gives way to anger, and now Anat does a truly remarkable thing. She seizes Mot, the God of Death, and cuts him down with a blade, winnows him, burns him, grinds him up and sprinkles the remains of his body across the fields — exactly as a farmer would do with grain. Shapash, who as the Sun, can see everywhere, even into the Land of the Dead, searches for Baal, finds him, and restores him to the throne. A subsequent fight between the restored Baal and a magically reconstructed Mot is broken up by the Sun Goddess. Shapash convinces Mot to stay in his place below and leave Baal to his place above. At the end of the epic, Anat bloodily disposes of all the human enemies of Baal. Finally, thanks to Anat and Shapash, the rains can begin.
Where did the Goddesses go?
The names Baal and El are known to us from the Bible, but what happened to the Goddesses described in the Epic of Baal? Some have hidden; others have disappeared. Without archaeology, we might never guess that the Asherah poles, which were so popular they even stood for a time in Solomon’s temple, represented the Mother Goddess Asherah. She, of course, was a Canaanite goddess; however, she may also have been an Israelite one. Many small Asherah figurines have been found in Israelite homes, as though her popularity mirrored that of Mary, whose image is found in many Catholic homes in much the same way today. Interestingly, the archaeological record now includes inscriptions referring to Asherah as the wife of Yahweh, giving one the impression that some very heavy editing has been done to excise the Mother Goddess from the Jewish record.
Shapash has disappeared, though the ancient Hebrew language referred to the sun as female, using the related word shemesh.
There is no direct reference to Anat, the Maiden Warrior, in the Bible, though she is one candidate for the reference to those, again, rather “naughty” Israelites baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven. Anat is referred to in Egyptian texts by this title. Another candidate, though, would be the Babylonian Ishtar or her Canaanite equivalent the Love Goddess Astarte, called Ashtoreth in the Bible. (Ashtoreth is a deliberate distortion of Astarte’s name which labels her a whore in the Hebrew language.) Astarte plays only a minor role in the Epic of Baal. In Egyptian texts Astarte and Anat are both identified as Baal’s wives and the two goddesses were sometimes fused into a single Goddess of Love and War. Ishtar was responsible for both love and war in Babylonian religion, where she was identified as the Queen of Heaven, and was also involved in a similar fertility story to that of the Epic of Baal.
Another place in which Anat may be hidden in the Bible is in the figure of Yahweh as a bloodthirsty War God. Mark S. Smith, Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at Yale University, notes that much of the Biblical imagery of Yahweh the Warrior seems to be borrowed from imagery of Anat the Warrior, including imagery found in the Epic of Baal. Anat’s characteristics (like those of the Storm God Baal and the King of Gods, bearded El) may have been folded into those of the One True God, while she has faded away into obscurity.