When I started getting an interest in mythology, I started to think about the references to other gods in the Bible. I was curious to learn more about Baal and Asherah and Moloch, gods who were worshipped by the Canaanites and their neighbors and found continued devotion in the Israelites, who were always proving themselves unfaithful to their singular God. Not much information is actually known about Canaanite mythology outside of a few incomplete texts found at the site of Ugarit in Syria. I’ve decided to give a short overview of the Canaanite deities (as well as a couple human characters). I’ll give more information on those mentioned in the Bible or in the epic Baal Cycle.
The Cosmic Order
Little has been discovered about Canaanite creation beliefs. Probably like other Near Eastern cultures, it involved chaotic waters and/or darkness being fashioned into existence by a creator god. In this case, the god is El/Elyon (El means “God” in Hebrew). El was evidently the original head of the Canaanite pantheon, but was surpassed in prominence by the younger, more vigorous and active Baal. The earth itself is held on two ends by the mountains Targhizizi and Tharumagi.
While El was still at the head, three major male deities presided over the sky, the seas, and the underworld, a parallel of the Zeus-Poseidon-Hades division of rule in Greek mythology. The sky god was Baal, the sea god Yam, and the death god Mot. Unlike Zeus and his brothers, these gods warred against each other. Baal slew Yam and in turn was devoured by Mot. However, Baal would be resurrected and with the help of his sister/lover Anat, goddess of war, would subdue Mot.
Thanks to a paucity of evidence, it is hard to see where all the gods fit in relation to each other, or even if some of them were members of the same pantheon. For example, Moloch is often listed as a Canaanite deity, though he is mentioned in the Bible as beign worshipped by neighboring people groups.
The original head of the Canaanite pantheon, El is a father god who literally shares a name with the God. He lives on the Mountain of Lel and his consort is Asherah. He is a more passive figure in the myths. The most he does is grant or deny the wishes of other gods. He resists Baal’s claim to power, but eventually upholds it. Thanks to his name, many scholars believe that the Hebrews worshipped this same god. It would certainly explain how they easily mixed Canaanite religion with their worship towards God.
Baal is actually not a name, but a title, literally translated as “lord”. When Baal is mentioned in the Bible, it could refer to several different deities. The most well-known, thanks to the portions of the Baal Cycle found in Ugarit, is Baal Hadad. Wielding the powers of the storm and ruling the pantheon (superseding El), he is pretty much the Zeus of the Near East.
In the Baal Cycle, Baal Hadad challenges Yam, who has been favored by El. He kills him and his sea serpent Lotan with two special clubs. Having acquired lordship, he has Kothar, craftsman of the gods, build him a magnificent palace made of gold, silver, and Lebanese cedar. Baal then enters into a feud with Mot. The embodiment of death kills him, but he is revived and renews his struggle. Mot finally admits that Baal is lord.
Like other chief deities, Baal has lots of children. He has twin sons Shahar and Shalim, gods of dawn and dusk. They actually have separate mothers, but Baal had sex with them both at the same time, so this somehow makes them twins. He also has three daughters associated with water. They are Aretsaya, goddess of floods, Pidraya, goddess of mist and rain, and Talaya, also a goddess of mist and rain. This trio serve as Baal’s beneficent side, blessing the earth with their powers.
Baal in the Bible can refer to many different Baals. Baal Hadad is likely one that received much worship from the Israelites, as he was a Syrian-Amorite deity. Other Baals include Baal Berith (only named in the Bible and possibly just Baal Hadad, Baal Hammon of Carthage, Baal Marqod (a dance god), and Baal Zebub of Philistia (who came to be equated with Satan as Beelzebub).
Worship of Baal was rampant in ancient Israel, and altars and idols of him were constantly being erected and torn down. In Judges 6 Gideon tears down a statue of Baal to effectively start a revolution against the oppressing Midianites. 1 Kings 18 has my favorite story of Baal. In this one, Elijah and the 450 priests of Baal have a contest. Whoever can get their god to light their sacrifice on fire wins, proving that their god is superior. The priests of Baal perform a loud, ecstatic series of rituals, all of which fail. In between making fun of them, Elijah has water continually poured over his sacrifice. Despite being thoroughly wet, it receives fire from heaven and blazes away.
Called Anath in the Bible, Anat is not mentioned too often in the word of God. There is a city called Bath Anath, “House of Anat”, and in Judges, the hero Shamgar is said to be a son of Anath, suggesting that he is not an Israelite. While her mentioning in the Bible is sparse, Anat is besides Baal the most well known deity from Canaanite mythology. She is the goddess of war and love.
Anat has both a sisterly and sexual relationship with Baal, which confuses many since she is often called the virgin goddess. Here “virgin” refers to her often youthful appearance and independence.
Anat figures heavily in the Baal Cycle. Showing her violent and pro-Baal nature. Since fragments of the story are missing, it’s difficult to understand the reasoning behind some of her actions. After the text breaks off, readers will tune in to see her slaughtering thousands of people in a valley. Why she is doing this is not known. Perhaps the people of Canaan are not paying Baal proper respect. Anat kills so many that she is caked in blood. She wears a necklace of her victims’ heads and with their hands fashions a belt. Listed among the victims is a fire goddess named Ishat. Later on, when El refuses to grant Baal his own palace, she flat out threatens to bloody his face and drag his body through the ground. Anat also helps defeat sea god Yam and absolutely brutalizes Mot, forcing him to return Baal.
Anat is sometimes equated with the goddess Asherah or the Sumerian goddess Ishtar. Like Ishtar, she can prove to be a danger to human heroes who reject her wishes. In one story, she wants the magical bow of the Aqhat, the son of the hero Danel. Aqhat refuses, even though she keeps raising her offer. He finally turns on her wrath when he makes a comment that his weapon is useless to a woman. Feeling, insulted, since she is a goddess of war, she has him killed by Yatpan (whether Yatpan is a god or human is unclear) and then fed to Sumul, the queen of the vultures. In some versions this causes darkness and chaos and Aqhat has to be brought back to life by an apologetic Anat.
Asherah is a fertility goddess, often said to be the consort of supreme Canaanite god El and later Baal, which would also make her a mother goddess. Many idols of the goddess have been found by archaeologists, which show a nude woman holding her rather large breasts.
She was a major source of the Israelites’ unfaithfulness. Associated with trees, she was worshipped through Asherah poles, which may have been designed after trees. God specifically forbade any tree to be grown near His altars, knowing that this was heavily linked to Asherah-worship. Another form of Asherah worship mirrored that of Sumerian goddess Ishtar: ritual prostitution. As well as providing agricultural fertility, Asherah was involved in motherhood and sexual fertility. Both male and female prostitutes were used for sexual worship, though whether or not they were forced is unknown. This practice too was specifically condemned by Mosaic Law.
As the highest-ranking female deity, she was given the title Queen of Heaven by the Israelites and literally was thought to be the wife of God Himself. This earned her a pole in the temple, erected by King Manasseh. King Josiah was quick to target this object in his reforms. “He took the Asherah pole from the temple of the LORD to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem and burned it there. He ground it to powder and scattered the dust over the graves of the common people.” To this day some people believe that sexist patriarchal men had edited the Bible to conceal the presence of a female God.
Outside of her sexual relationships and prominent placement with the kings of the Canaanite pantheon, Asherah is absent from any surviving mythology.
Athtart is better known as Astarte or Ishtar. A goddess of war, love, and fertility, she was widely popular all over the ancient world. In Canaanite mythology she is the consort of El, and in Egyptian tales is a partner of Anat who is given to Set as a wife. She may have been joined with Asherah was one single goddess. Many of the Israelites, like their neighbors, also worshipped her, including King Solomon himself.
Attar is actually more of a Mesopotamian deity. He is the god of the morning star, Venus. During Baal’s temporary death, he takes over the throne, but proves unfit to rule the other gods and has to step down.
Dagon was worshipped across several religions and pantheons. Foremost among his worshippers were the Canaanites and Philistines. As a result, his role varied greatly across the different Near East cultures. In later Mesopotamia he became protective war god. In Canaan he was actually the father of Baal-Hadad, putting him in a prominent position. His function here was as an agricultural god. This passes down to Baal, who himself is involved in the fertility of the earth.
Thanks to the book of 1 Samuel, Dagon is most recognizable as the head of the Philistine gods. Seafarers, the Philistines settled on the coast of southern Canaan and adopted Dagon as their chief god. Dagon was now also associated with fish and the sea, and was depicted wearing either a scaly skirt or having the back half of a fish, basically a divine merman.
In ancient times the idols of conquered enemies were often brought back as if the gods themselves had been defeated and taken prisoner. Likewise, the Philistines bring the Ark of the Covenant, the presence of God, to Ashdod, where they set it in front of Dagon. Of course, God isn’t going to be treated like all of the other gods, so he forces the statue of Dagon to fall face-down in front of the Ark. The Philistines set it back up, only for it to fall again later, this time breaking apart. Terrified, the Philistines put the Ark on an oxen-driven cart and have it sent back to the Israelites.
Kothar-wa-Khasis is the master builder and craftsman of the Canaanite gods. He is a firm supporter of Baal-Hadad in the Baal Cycle. He fashions his two magic clubs and also builds a special palace, featuring one window through which Baal can pour rain on the earth. This window has a drawback, as Mot is able to come in through it to attack Baal. Kothar also creates a special bow for the human hero Aqhat. Kothar lives in Egypt. He was actually a minor deity in Egypt and shared many similarities with Ptah.
Also called Molech and Milcom, Moloch is a fertility god, depicted as a humanoid cow, often with a Near Eastern beard and hat. Some scholars believe that he’s actually Baal repackaged by neighboring civilizations. He’s not usually listed or mentioned in books on Near Eastern mythology, and is more identified with the Ammonites that the Canaanites and Syrians. This is because the name “Moloch” can actually refer to a whole category of gods who demand human sacrifice. Moloch itself roughly translates as “king”. The main center of Moloch worship, as far as can be discerned from Scripture, was Tophet, which was eventually destroyed by Josiah.
A god of fertility (and believed to also be one of fire), Moloch was appeased through child sacrifice. Parents would hand over their children to be placed on the idol’s hands. Heated up, the idol would then burn the child, usually an infant, alive. Child sacrifice, used with knives rather than fire, were reported to have been practiced by the Phoenician Carthaginians, who would play loud music to drown out the screams of sacrifices. There is still debate on whether this is Roman and Greek propaganda or truth, as thousands of skeletons of infants have been found near ancient Carthaginian sites. If true, this would support the idea of Near Eastern Phoenicians practicing child sacrifice.
Several other mentioned gods are very similar to Moloch in the description of their worship and were likely considered alternate names and forms of the same deity. These include Adrammelech (sun god) and Chemosh (chief Moabite deity). The Sepharvites, who worshipped Adrammelech, worshipped the similar-sounding moon goddess named Anammelech, who is also satiated with child sacrifice.
The god of death, Mot (whose name literally means “death”), is one of the three great sons of El. He resides in a dark realm and is not worshipped at all. In the Baal Cycle, after slaying Yam, Baal takes up a throne. Mot doesn’t like this, so he attacks and kills Baal. Later on, Anat avenges her brother, winnowing, burning, and grinding him. This overkill does not kill him, but he is disposed of for seven years. Baal is resurrected and they battle again, before Baal ultimately prevails and Death is put in his place.
Despite being destroyed by Anat, Mot actually gets a crush on her because of all the killing she does. He abducts the Sun and the Moon (Shapash and Yarikh), forcing Anat to pursue him into his realm. She has to beat him in eight rounds of a game to win the freedom of herself and the other two gods. She succeeds, though Mot is able to have sex with her after each round.
Some scholars believe that Mot is present in the Bible. This is because the ancient Hebrew word for death, Mavet, is similar to his name and derives from the same language group. He is equated by some with the angel of death, or the general force of death itself.
Shemesh is also briefly mentioned in the Bible, but only the name of a city, Beth Shemesh, which was taken over during the initial conquest by Joshua. Shemesh is the god of the sun. In fact, saying that Shemesh is the god of the sun would be greatly redundant, as Shemesh is literally a Near Eastern word for “sun”. In some other Near Eastern cultures he was also a god of justice. According to evidence found in Ugarit, he was actually identified as a female goddess named Shapash. In the Baal cycle she goes into grief when Baal is temporarily killed, depriving the earth of light. She is persuaded to shine again and is instrumental in searching the earth of Baal.
The god of the sea and of chaos, Yam was the first-born son of El and thus had his favor. But he was also a temperamental, angry god, raging at the presence of most of the other gods as well as the humans. He terrorized the seas through his seven-headed serpent Lotan. Yam and Lotan may also have been the same being. Baal slays Lotan and Yam with the help of two clubs fashioned by Kothar. The description of Baal slaying Lotan actually receives a reference in the Bible, as God is said to have slain the great serpent.
Baalit: Alternate consort for both El and Baal
Eshmun: Healing deity
Ilisha: Baal’s messenger
Kotharat: Goddesses of childbirth, divine midwives
Melqart: Patron god of Tyre and also lord of the underworld
Nikkal: Goddess of fruit and vegetation. Check this hymn to Nikkal, one of the oldest reconstructed piece of music. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tAc2KDNHEw4
Qetesh: Sex goddess who was also worshipped by the Egyptians. A surviving image shows her standing on a lion.
Resheph: Plague and war god, also the god of deer
Sedek: God of righteousness
Tanit: Carthaginian mother goddess, associated with lions
Yarikh: Moon god and lover of Nikkal
The above picture is Qetesh on a lion. To the right is Resheph, another Canaanite deity that was popular in Egypt. To the left is Min, an Egyptian god of sexual fertility (perhaps you can notice an unusual feature about him).
Danel & Aqhat
Danel was the wise and righteous ruler of the Haranamites. He is considered a culture hero, though the only known text about him is more about his son Aqhat. Danel prayed to El for a son. Seeing how distressed he was, El granted his wish and gave him Aqhat. Later, Aqhat was given a special bow by the god Kothar, since he and his father had shown him great hospitality. However, Anat wanted this bow and when Aqhat repeatedly refused all of her bribes and demands, she had him killed by her henchman Yatpan. Aqhat’s death caused a string of misfortunes, including a great famine. Aqhat was brought back to life, saving the world. Much of the story is missing, but assumedly Yatpan was killed, as his father swore to find the murderer and kill him.
Keret (also known as Kirta) was a noble king, but all of his wives died prematurely, leaving him no heirs. He begged El for a son. El told him to war against the city of Udum and ask for its princess. To give his victory extra assurance, Keret asked war goddess Athirat for help, promising a sumptuous tribute. Keret defeated Udum and won his bride. She bore him many children. However, he foolishly forgot his oath to Athirat. Athirat bided her time, waiting until Keret’s children were older. She subjected him to a terrible disease. Keret’s children prayed to El for help, especially his daughter Tatmanat. El wanted the other gods to show mercy to Keret, but they all refused. El intervened himself and sent a winged woman to heal the king. Keret’s troubles were not over, as one of his own sons challenged his rule, forcing him to kill his own flesh and blood to protect his kingship. After this little of the text remains. A popular theory for how the story continues and concludes is that Keret ultimately paid for shirking his promised tribute to Athirat, with all of his children save Tatmanat dying.
Coogan, Michael D. Stories from Ancient Canaan 2nd. Edition Westminster John Knox Press. 2012 (first edition in 1978)
Various, Epics of Early Civilization: Myths of the Ancient Near East Time-Life books. 2000