Cosmology refers to the structure of the universe as portrayed in belief, myth, and legend. There are three realms of existence in Canaanite literature. The heavens, the earth, and the underworld below the earth. Ba'al sees to the heavens, Yamm watches over the seas, and Motu has dominion in the underworld.(1)
Many Deities live atop mountains, and this could be construed as living in the heavens. Ilu lives atop Mount Kasu, at the source of two rivers. Ba’al lives atop Mount Sapan. The Assembly of the Deities gathers for feasts and meetings atop Mount Lal.(2) Shapshu the sun and Yarikh the moon both live in the heavens. The twin Deities Shachar and Shalim are the morning and evening stars.
The earth is the realm of human existence. It is also here where we have Dagan of the Grain, and Nikkal of the Orchards, and Gapnu and Ugaru of Vine and Field.
The world below is the site for the afterlife. Along with the Rapi’uma, shades of the deceased, also live the chthonic deities such as Choron. Shapshu also spends each night here and Ba’al, when he died, lived among the Rapi’uma before he returned to the living. It is also theorized that the Canaanites believed there was a large lake of fresh water under the earth, or that the underworld encompassed mountains and waters of the deeps. (3)
Cosmogony refers to the origins of the universe as portrayed in belief, myth, and legend. The Phoenicians, the Canaanite daughter culture, had some interesting cosmogonical views. According to Philo of Byblos, a Greek who supposedly recorded information about the Phoenicians from a Phoenician referred to as Sanchuniathon, the very first elements of the universe were wind and chaos. Wind “lusted after its own sources” and thereby created Desire and "mot," firmament. From the firmament came all life. Zophasemin, spherical heavenly objects, probably planets and suns, were formed of "mot." The Zophasemin were “living creatures without sensation.” (4) See Philo of Byblos in Resources.
1. Mark S. Smith, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Volume I. E.J. Brill, Leiden, The Netherlands, 1994, p. 94.
2. Tradition often has it that Ilu's mountain is named Lal, Lalu, or Lel, but Smith disagrees, offering that Mount Ks is Ilu's home and Mount Lal is actually the mountain where the Assembly of Deities meets. Mark S. Smith, p. 226.
3. Dennis Pardee. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, 2002, p. 281.
4. Attridge, Harold W. and Robert A. Oden, Jr. Philo of Byblos: The Phoenician History. The Catholic Biblical Association of America, Washington, DC, 1981, p. 37.
If the ancients had a codified system of beliefs, it is not in any of the text that have been excavated. We do have a taste of some themes in the text that they may have considered important, such as love, loyalty, keeping promises, offering hospitality, honoring the deceased, honoring the deities and each other, justice, etc. It is my assessment that beliefs would have varied from city to city, from city to countryside, and from state religion to folk custom.
The ancient Canaanites viewed each deity as a separate entity in relationship to other separate entities, and also as a quorum called the Assembly of Deities. They may have viewed the deities as possessing sentience, intelligence, and individual will. The Canaanites viewed the deities as similar to humans in appearance but having greater abilities.(1)
There are different categories of deities, some examples include chthonic, abundance, and nocturnal deities. The chthonic deities include Yammu, Kathiru-wa-Khasis, and Rashap. Deities in charge of the earth's abundance include Ba'al and Pidraya. Nocturnal deities include Yarikhu and Shapshu-Pagri.(2) An unusual category encompasses divinized objects such as Lyre, Censer, Wine, and Door-bolt. (3)
For more information on individual deities, see the Inner Sanctuary.
The ancient Canaanites seemed to have at least two different views regarding death. One view is of “dust and silence.” The soul (napshu) separates from the body and the body goes back into the earth. A person’s afterlife is in the memories of the living. The other point of view is that when the napshu separates from the body it goes into the underworld, the Betu Khupthati,(4) The House of Freedom.
There is no explicit mention of reincarnation, but the death and resurrection of Ba’al could be viewed as such. The Canaanites usd grain as a symbol for death: they had an idea that the Rapi’uma, the spirits of the deceased,(5) could come visit the living through a threshing floor, and Anat, in the Ba’al texts, treats Mot (Death) like grain.(6) It is my thought that the symbol of grain may represent an idea of life after death or the return of the Rapi’uma to life, or the living’s reliance on the Rapi’uma.
The Rapi’uma live in a place called the Betu Khupthati, the “House of Freedom.” Many scholars view this phrase as a euphemism for an unpleasant place.(7) I simply view it at face-value: a house of freedom from the concerns of a physical existence, freedom of the struggle for survival. To respect the Rapi’uma, the living are called upon to remember their names, to salute them at a marzichu, and to give offerings to them.(8)
No matter the view of death, Mot, the God of Death is always personified as having an insatiable appetite; he eats the bodies of the deceased, and his mouth is that of the grave. Shapshu crosses the sky and at dusk, begins her decent into the underworld where she joins the Rapi'uma until the next day when she will rise again on the living.
The ancient Canaanites may very well have had a concept of “sin.” A possible translation of “sin” into Ugaritic could be the word khatz’a. The word has a very different meaning now than it did in ancient times. In ancient times, it more implied “to make a mistake,” “to mess up,” “to miss the mark” or it implied a deed that has caused imbalance.(9)
In modern Western monotheism, the word “sin” carries connotations of evil, and usually implies a disobedience and/or transgression against the will of a deity. In order to absolve oneself of the sin, one must seek the forgiveness of the deity and perhaps the injured parties, then do actions to make amends.
In the ancient Near Eastern polytheistic concept of sin, sin is a disruption in natural order, not usually a form of blind disobedience to the will of a deity. In order to restore the natural order, a person who has committed a khatz’a can perform various incantations or perform actions to repair the natural order, and in order to return the natural order to a state of harmony. In contrast, virtue can be measured by how a person keeps the values of the culture.
Sins usually fall into one of three categories, sin against social customs, sin against general moral standards, and "cultic sins." (10) I interpret the last category to mean ritual acts performed wrongly or misdeeds committed in the ritual setting.
In reading the ancient literature of Ugarit, there are seven basic virtues that I’ve identified. Please feel free to read the original texts to see what you think the Canaanites would have considered virtuous. Here is my list:
See Seven Components for a further exploration of modern applications of this topic.
1. Van der Toorn in Jack Sasson et al., eds., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1995.p. 2044.
2. Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, Georgia. 2002, p.108 #89.
3. Pardee 16-21
4. Parker, Simon B., ed. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. Society of Biblical Literature, U.S.A., 1997, p. 138.
5. There are many theories as to who the Rapi'uma are; the concept that they are spirits of the deceased is just one idea. Others include that they are deceased royalty or even a particular tribe of people living at that time.
6. Parker 156, 161.
7. Xella in Sasson, p. 2063
8. Smith, Mark S. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Volume I: Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU 1.1-1.2. E.J. Brill, Leiden, the Netherlands, 1994, p. 141-2.
9. Buccelati in Sasson, 1691.
10. Gregorio Del Olmo Lete. Canaanite Religion According to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, 2004, p. 156-8.
In ancient Near Eastern religions, purification is vital. Prior to beginning any ritual or holiday, one should undergo a form of purification. In Ugaritic ritual purification was usually used prior to rituals which involved sacrifice,(1) and it seems that most rituals involved some form of offering or sacrifice.
The ancient Canaanites used olive oil in their purification rites (2); sometimes this oil is poured from a horn onto the head of the person receiving the purification. (3) Purification can also involve washing,(4) but it is unclear what the washing entailed: was it just the face and hands, the feet, or the whole body, and was the washing performed with water or with olive oil?
The ancient Canaanites made offerings to the deities, perhaps in order to feed the deities or to ensure wellbeing for the community.(5) Food offerings could have included fruit, olive oil, wine, bread, grain, and flour. (6) Material goods could include wool, clothing, sandals, furniture, ritual tools, and precious metals. (7) Animal offerings usually consisted of sheep, goats, pigeons, and more rarely cattle. (8)
There are many different methods of making offerings in ancient Canaan. Three methods are:
Shalmuma: peace offerings. Usually these are offerings of foodstuffs. This kind of offering may be consumed by the participants of a ritual gathering, or by a select group of participants. This is probably the most common form of offering, and it was often coupled with shurpuma.(9) For the Israelites, a peace offering (shelem) would have been food consumed by the community. (10)
Shurpuma: burnt offerings.(11) Items given as burnt offerings may have been completely consumed by fire. These are typically meat offerings (12). Israelite burn offerings ('ola), typically involved an animal sacrifice which was butchered then burned. (13)
Dabchuma: This may be a generic term for sacrifices and it indicates a communal meal. (14) Archaeologists have uncovered a whisk and many vessels in the sacred precinct indicates the ritual preparation of food in Late Bronze Age Lachish. (15)
Cakes for the Queen of Heaven
On a related topic, it is said that Israelite women would make cakes for offering to the "Queen of Heaven." According to the Bible (Jer. 44:19), the cakes, kavanim--a loan word from Akkadian kamanu (cake)--were marked with an image of the feminine divine. Scholars conjecture that the images could have been stars, pubic triangles, or dough formed in a female shape or a "fig" shape.(16) A fig shape is probably based on a hand gesture, an upraised thumb between fingers in a closed fist, which represents female genitalia. The title "Queen of Heaven" could refer to many different goddesses: Ishtar, Astarte, Athtartu, or Asherah. See also Did the Canaanites Make Cakes as offerings to the Queen of Heaven?
The Question of Human Sacrifice
It is often asked or even assumed that the Canaanites engaged in human sacrifice, particularly child sacrifice, but no evidence of adult or child human sacrifice has ever been uncovered in Ugarit. (17) Most scholars have reached a consensus that human and child sacrifice never occurred in Ugarit (18). The Canaanite archaeological record is fairly quiet on the issue. Child sacrifice may have occurred in Phoenicia, Carthage, and occasionally in Iron Age Israel, but this topic is still greatly debated. (19)
Ancient Canaanite altars would have been made of mudbrick or stone. (20) They could be circular, square, or rectangular (21) and were sometimes tiered or built at the top of a few steps. (22). Altars were typically constructed against an interior wall at the rear of a temple or outside in a courtyard.
Water, pitcher/bowl or a horn: see Purification
The Canaanites probably used myrrh. Myrrh shows up in the Ugaritic texts as an offering. (23) An Israelite recipe for incense shows up in Exodus and includes galbanum, onycha (from a type of shellfish), storax (liquidambar), frankincense, and salt.
For anointing or for offerings. The ancient Canaanites often make mention of shamnu mori, probably an olive oil infused with myrrh; and shamnu raqachi, an olive oil infused with aromatic spices. (24)
Cloth was typically linen or wool. Linen may have been the preferred cloth of the clergy. (25) Men would wear a wrap-around knee-length kilt or a wrap-around garment that would cover one shoulder and reach to the thigh or knee. Women would wear a wrap-around from near the neck to near the ankle.(26)
Sometimes Canaanite garments would be made out of one piece of cloth wrapped around the body and secured with a toggle pin; on the toggle pin a person’s “seal” could dangle. This seal was usually a carved bead that had their name and a design upon it. (27)
The ancient Canaanites probably would have worn sandals, and within their sacred space they would go barefoot. (28)
the ancients probably wore a great deal of jewelry, both men and women: earrings, necklaces, bracelets, rings, and armbands. They may have worn nose rings, anklets, or decorated belts. Precious metals and stones were popular.
Cups, bowls, vessels:
Archaeological digs have uncovered pottery jugs and juglets, faience cups, calcite bowls, ceramic bowls, rhyta, flasks, kraters, goblets, and cooking pots(29)
Oil Lamp(s) or Candles:
The Canaanites used pottery oil lamps, sometimes simple dishes with a wick and olive oil placed in them. Archaeologists have found some seven-spouted oil lamps in sacred precincts. (30)
Myrrh is most frequently mentioned in offering texts.
Representation of Deities:
Usually made of stone, but Iron Age ones were sometimes pottery or wood.
The ancient Canaanites had musical instruments at their rituals and festivals. Some of these instruments could include drums, sistrums, tambourines, lyres, and a double pipes.
There are different types of rituals and ritual forms: rituals of Contemplation, rituals of Rectitude, long rituals, and short rituals; but ancient ritual often involved some of the same basic elements:
In the Sipru Chukmi, there is a modern ritual form that integrates some of these elements.
Forms of divination included:
1. Clemens, David M. Sources for Ugaritic Ritual and Sacrifice, Volume I: Ugarit and Ugarit Akkadian Texts. Ugarit-Verlag, Münster , Germany , 2001, p. 82.
2. Clemens 82
3. Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, Georgia. 2002, p. 250.
4. Pardee 36
5. Nakhai, Beth Alpert. Archaeology and the Religions of Canaan and Israel. The American Schools of Oriental Research, Boston , MA , 2001, p. 44.
6. Parker, Simon B., ed. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. Society of Biblical Literature, U.S.A., 1997, p. 202.
7. Nakhai 42-3
8. Pardee 225
9. Nakhai 42
10. Dever, William. Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI, 2005, p. 104.
11. Pardee 247
12. Clemens 20
13. Dever 103
14. Del Olmo Lete, Gregorio. Canaanite Religion According to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, 2004, pg. 35. Clemens 14.
15. Nakhai 147
16. Marsman, Hennie J. Women in Ugarit and Israel : Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East. E.J. Brill, Leiden , The Netherlands , 2003, p. 608.
17. Curtis, Adrian. Ugarit (Ras Shamra). William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1985, p. 94-5
18. Clemens 54
19. Dever 217-8
20. Nakhai 140-1
21. Nakhai 94, 129, 140-1
22. Nakhai 124
23. Pardee 270
24. Pardee 270
25. Ackerman, Susan. "Asherah, the West Semitic Goddess of Spinning and Weaving?" Journal of Near Eastern Studies (JNES), 67, no. 1, University of Chicago, 2008, p. 27
26. Gruber in Jack Sasson et al., eds., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1995, p. 642
27. Gruber in Sasson 642
28. Pardee 75; A ritual notes the action of a king putting on or taking off his sandals.
29. Nakhai 140-5, 131
30. Nakhai 94
31. Parker 13, 51-2, 157.
32. Pardee 143-4
33. Pardee 135
34. Pardee 127
35. Dever 125
The ancient Canaanites recognized two different contexts for magic:
Within the context of the organized religion: This was usually magic done by a temple staff member by request on behalf of another person, the royal family, or on behalf of the entire city. Requests could include protection, purification, conception and childbirth, fertility of flock and field, and healing.
Outside of the context of the organized religion (freelance): This was magic done for the same reasons as magic within organized religion plus protection incantations. Sometimes this magic would venture into unlawful magical acts: the exercise of one person’s will over another for personal gain (mental/emotional control, willing harm upon another person, et cetera), and the exercise of magic to bring about an act that is unlawful whether done with or without magic (harming neighbor's cattle, making someone sick, and so on). At least in Mesopotamia, workers of baneful, unlawful magic would stand trial and would sometimes be executed. (1)
Amulets, at least by the classical era, were used to protect from danger, illness, and harmful spirits; devised to cure infertility; designed to heal; worked for safe journeys; created for abundance and wealth; and to protect against the Eye, the “evil eye.” The Eye is a harmful force directed at and individual, whether conscious or unconscious, from a person who is envious, spiteful or angry towards the individual. An amulet was often made of stone or metal such as jasper, hematite, lead (not suggested for modern use), quartz, and bloodstone. An amulet-maker could carve an image and words of incantation around the image upon the stone or metal’s surface. Amulets often were made into jewelry such as rings and bracelets. The amulets themselves may come in different geometric shapes such as an oval or a circle, in the shape of an Egyptian scarab beetle, or in the shape of the palm of a hand. (2)
Incantations were created for the same purposes as amulets, and were often written on amulets or written on papyrus. Incantations often bore repeated phrases, and even what we may consider “nonsense” phrases to add an energy of sound and a sense of mystery to the incantation. If an incantation was written upon papyrus, the papyrus could be rolled up and stowed in a cylindrical pendant, and thereby be used as an amulet.
Another type of magic involved communications with the Rapi’uma. Rapi'uma are often thought of the ancestors, and the "shades" of those who have come before us. Rapi’uma could be reached through ritual, perhaps at a marzichu, which would serve to bring them near to the participants or a message could be sent to them. (3)
The Canaanites may have also practiced string and knot magic. Sha'taqat, a dragon Ilu created to heal King Kirtu is said to loosen the knot of his illness. (4)
See Links for more information on Ancient Near East Magic.
1. Marsman, Hennie J. Women in Ugarit and Israel : Their Social and Religious Position in the Context of the Ancient Near East. E.J. Brill, Leiden , The Netherlands , 2003, p. 514.
2. For more information on amulets, see Bohak, Gideon. Traditions of Magic in Antiquity. University of Michigan. Keep in mind, however, that these examples are much later than the Canaanites.
3. Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, Georgia. 2002, p. 193.
4. Parker, Simon B., ed. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. Society of Biblical Literature, U.S.A., 1997, p. 39.
Note on pronounciation: "ch" is pronounced like the "ch" in the name "Bach" or the Scottish word "loch," and is probably a voiceless
fricative. The pharynx is located about mid-way down the throat, but not as deep as the glottis.
The "kh" is pronounced similarly to "ch" but higher up in the throat, closer to the root of the tongue. It is a voiceless postvelar fricative.
For more information on the Ugaritic language, see:
Schniedewind, William M. and Joel H. Hunt. A Primer on Ugaritic: Language, Culture, and Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2007. Segert, Stanislav. A Basic Grammar of the Ugaritic Language. University of California Press, Berkeley. 1984, 1997.
Sivan, Daniel. A Grammar of the Ugaritic Language. Brill, Leiden , The Netherlands , 2001.
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Please do not use without permission, proper crediting, and a link to my site.
Natib Qadish: Modern Canaanite Polytheism is a site about Canaanite religion, also called Canaanite revivalism, or Canaanite reconstructionism. This site explores topics of interest for people who practice Canaanite religion, information regarding the ancient Canaanites themselves, and includes both ancient Canaanite religion and its modern counterpart.