Gods, goddesses in ancient Israel

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Canaanite gods & goddesses

The Canaanites believed the earth was ruled by forces and spirits (gods and goddesses)  who were both 

  • patrons of particular places they had created and now governed

  • forces with specific functions and authority. 

We know this from discoveries at the ancient site of the city of Ugarit: the mysterious, violent epics of the male force Baal, who impregnated the earth through his semen/rain, and Anat, fierce protectress of the family. There were also stories of Dan'el and Aqhat, and the story of Keret, all dating from the 15th and 14th centuries BC. 

Excavations at the ancient city of Ugarit

Excavations at the ancient city of Ugarit, where the Baal/Anat epic was discovered

Although later on, when  the Canaanites were beginning to amalgamate politically with the invading Hebrews and Philistines and their beliefs were being attacked and/or watered down, Canaanite religion lingered on. The old myths and the poetry in which they were expressed appealed to many of the Israelites who had settled down to farming and needed a belief system that addressed their daily lives.

A comparison of ancient Canaanite epics, later Phoenician inscriptions and other archaeological finds shows that the Canaanite deities recorded in the Bible (eg Baal and Asherah) belong to the same family as the divinities of the Phoenician cities of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and Ugarit. 

The most important among the goddesses and gods were the following:

The Lady Asherah, consort of El-Dagon, mother of gods 

Nine different images of ancient goddesses carved in stone She was the supreme mother goddess. She was also "Athirat-Yam", Asherah of the Sea, the goddess of the sea and fishermen, and supreme goddess in Tyre and Sidon. Asherah gave life to everything, good and bad alike. As the mother of the gods, she assigned responsibilities to each one according to his (or her) character.Below are some of the plaques and figurines dedicated to her by her followers are shown below.

There is a variety of styles for these plaques. Often the goddess has the two long "S" shaped ringlets which were the emblem of the great Egyptian goddess Hathor. Sometimes she wears the cylindrical crown of the goddesses and queens of Late Bronze Age Syria or, occasionally, an ordinary woman's headdress. Often the plaque is decorated with flowers, sometimes a flower and a serpent. 

Ashera, Durga, Egypt An Egyptian carving (see right) dating from the New Kingdom (1150-1090 BC) is a more artistic picture of Asherah, showing her standing on the back of a lion, holding what seems to be a bunch of lotus flowers, and a serpent. The flowers she offers with her right hand to the Egyptian fertility god, Min. Her left hand (the unfavourable one) offers the serpent to Reshef, who was associated with the idea of death. 

The inscription reads: "Qdesh, lady of heaven and mistress of all gods." This symbolism is echoed in the Bible. Jeremiah (44:17) reproached Hebrew women for worshipping Asherah as the "Queen of Heaven". 

Ishtar (Ashtoreth or, in Greek, Astarte)

 seems a strange combination, but essentially she embodied two particularly female qualities: 

  • Ishtar, British Museumshe produced children 

  • and fiercely protected her family against danger from outside. 

With the spread of Mesopotamian influence during the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, Ishtar became known throughout Syria and, later, Israel. She is represented as mounted on a lioness, armed with a sword and wearing a fluted crown surmounted by an astral disc identifying her with the planet Venus. 

By that time the cult of Ishtar had spread along the coast of Phoenicia and throughout Canaan, obliterating the memory of the ancient Canaanite Asherah. Figurines of the mother-goddess, sometimes traditional, sometimes Phoenician, sometimes Hellenistic, continued to be made. Ishtar's name appears more than forty times in Phoenician and later Punic inscriptions, many of them found on tombstones. The practice of sacred prostitution as a magical means of ensuring fertility (for people, their flocks and crops) was especially associated with Astarte.

El, Supreme Father God 

The 'creator of creatures' and supreme father is also "Kindly El, Benign", the "King" and, sometimes "Bull El, my Father". "El" is the Semitic word for God; it appears, for example, in the biblical El and Elohim.

In the epic tales, El is described as living in a remote dwelling  'a thousand plains, ten thousand fields' from Canaan at the 'source of the rivers of the Floods', in the midst of the 'headwaters of the Two Deeps'. When the gods wanted to consult him, they had to travel to this remote paradise. In the same way, the Babylonian hero, Utnapishtim, was translated into an immortal existence at the 'source of the two rivers' and in Genesis the Garden of Eden is placed at the source of the four great rivers.

Another of El's titles was "Father of Years" which made him the god of time. 

Stone carving from Ugarit showing a god and a worshipper

This mottled stone from Ugarit (above) shows a god with a flowing beard seated on an elaborate lion-footed throne, his feet resting on a footstool and wearing a tiara, tunic and mantle. A king or priest is presenting an offering which is welcomed. It is believed that this figure represents a 'supreme father'.

The characteristics ascribed to El made him seem too remote for simple people, although like the other gods he occasionally stepped down from his heavenly eminence and played the hero in some remarkably earthy myths. Nevertheless, interest in him began to wane and the popular cult attached itself to his more adventurous, interesting children.

The Baal and Anat Cycle 

Stone stele showing Baal, god of rain and storms in ancient IsraelBaal had different names in different places. He was Ba'al-Hazor, Ba'al-Peor, Ba'al Hermon, etc. He also had different attributes—the Ba'al-Berith of Shechem, or Ba'al Zebub, or Ba'al Zebul. These names referred to a single supreme god, the personification of life-giving forces in Nature.

In Northern Syria, Anat was thought to be his wife, although later on in Palestine the goddess Ashtoreth (Ishtar) became his wife.
Even in the epics, 'Anat sometimes appears as both sister and wife. Elsewhere she is a devoted sister and a valiant warrior maiden.

One of the Baal epics from Ugarit describes how he is killed by Asherah (the early mother goddess) and a group of monsters she has borne. Baal's friends mourn for him but his sister is not only grief-stricken but also determined on revenge. She had a single-hearted devotion to her brother: "Like the heart of a cow for her calf; Like the heart of an ewe for her lamb, So is the heart of 'Anat for Baal."

However, more typical of Anat as she appears in the myths is the Egyptian stele (below right) which stresses her cruel, revengeful nature. 

She loved war. There is another story in the Ba'al cycle telling how, in her thirst for blood, she "smote and slew from seacoast (to the west, meaning sunset) to sunrise" in a night of general massacre. An Egyptian stele depicting Anat - womanly and fierce She filled her temple with men and barred the doors. Hurling heavy tables and furniture at them, she waded in blood up to her knees, even to her neck. "Her liver swelled with laughter; her heart was full of joy." 

At last she washed her hands in the blood — and went cheerfully off to something else.

In spite of her bloodthirsty nature, it was Anat, more than any other female divinity who was the symbol of fecundity and vitality. This gave her one of her other names, the "Power of Life". Her popularity in the Palestine of the Patriarchs (Middle Bronze Age) is indicated by place names such as Anathot and Beth-Anat.

In the Bible, her name appears only in occasional lists of temples or places. The goddess herself is not mentioned. By the time the biblical books were cast in their final form, she had been forgotten. Some scholars believe that her place had been taken by the female warrior, Ishtar.

Nature Explained through Myth

Reshef, god of plague and famineThe workings of the forces of nature were explained by means of myths and legends about the gods. Besides the great central epic of the seasons, there were stories about 

  • the god of pestilence and Lord of the Underworld, Reshef, represented as an angry warrior, heavily armed and wearing contemporary Asiatic costume; see the stone relief at right, where Reshef has the face and bared teeth of a skull

  • Shulman or Shalim, the god of health

  • and Kothar, god of arts and crafts.

Ba'al: The dominant figure among the Canaanite gods was the great storm-god Ba'al. His name means "master" or "lord", so the same title could be applied to many different gods and a variety of personalities. Ba'al was the son of El, the supreme Canaanite god. Later on, the son consigned his father to oblivion and Ba'al became the name of the principal god of the sky, the earth and its fertility, akin to Bel of the Babylonians.

Mot: According to the epics, control of Sheol (the underworld) was taken over by Ba'al's brother Mot (death) while a series of other myths presents Ba'al as one of the gods of creation, as when he kills the sea dragon Yam (which means "sea" in Hebrew).

The most likely representation we have of the rain-god Ba'al is a stele found in Ugarit showing a god bestriding the mountains with a club in one hand and a shaft of lightning in the other (see above). References in the epics to Ba'al as god of the storm, who spoke in the thunder and whose voice resounded through heaven and earth, seem to fit in very well with this "Ba'al of the Lightning".

Death and Return to Life

The most striking of the Ugarit poems is the epic of Ba'al's death and revival. It provides the mythical explanation for the annual cycle of death and resurrection in the seasons. It is suggested that the myth was re-enacted in mimetic ritual so that the forces of nature might be reactivated and fertility of soil, beast and man be ensured. 

 

Part of the clay tablet on which is inscribed the epic of Baal and Anat

Part of the clay tablet on which is inscribed the epic of Baal and Anat

In Canaan and the Eastern Mediterranean, the summers are hot and rainless, and all the rain falls in the winter, usually during and after violent storms and cloudbursts. Ba'al was the vividness of all vegetation. Different epics tell how after a long war against his brother Mot, Ugaritic god of the rainless season, associated with the underworld, Ba'al was killed. With his death, all growth ceased and life languished.

Ba'al's sister, the "maiden 'Anat" came to the rescue and killed Mot, "With sword she doth cleave him, with fan she doth winnow him, With the fire she doth burn him, with handmill she grinds him. In the field she doth scatter his seed". 'Anat carried Ba'al's body to a sacred mountain top. There she performed an elaborate sacrifice and brought Ba'al back to life as god of grain. 

The cycle of life and growth could begin again. In the words of the Ugarit epic, "the heavens fat did rain, the wadis flow with honey".

Young woman standing in heavy rain

 


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