Canaanite/Ugaritic Mythology FAQ, ver. 1.2

by Christopher B. Siren

cbsiren at alum dot mit dot edu

based on John C. Gibson's Canaanite Mythology and S. H. Hooke's Middle Eastern Mythology

Last modified: May 25th 1998: Corrected several spelling errors.
May 25th 1996: Added an entry on Molech.
March 30th 1996: Fixed a couple of Lucian typos, added a biblical link.
March 11, 1996: added some links to Shawn Knight's "Egyptian Mythology FAQ"
February 12, 1996: Included more extra-Ugaritic information.
prior to February 12: added link to Gwen Saylor's commentary on this FAQ.

I. Who do we mean by 'Canaanites'?

Linguisticly, the ancient Semites have been broadly classified into Eastern and Western groups. The Eastern group is represented most prominently by Akkadian, the language of the Assyrians and Babylonians, who inhabited the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys. The Western group is further broken down into the Southern and Northern groups. The South Western Semites inhabited Arabia and Ethiopia while the North Western Semites occupied the Levant - the regions that used to be Palestine as well as what is now Syria, Israel and Lebanon, the regions often referred to in the Bible as Canaan.

Recent archaeological finds indicate that the inhabitants of the region themselves referred to the land as 'ca-na-na-um' as early as the mid-third millenium B.C.E. (Aubet p. 9) Variations on that name in reference to the country and its inhabitants continue through the first millenium B.C.E. The word appears to have two etymologies. On one end, represented by the Hebrew cana'ani the word meant merchant, an occupation for which the Canaanites were well known. On the other end, as represented by the Akkadian kinahhu, the word referred to the red-colored wool which was a key export of the region. When the Greeks encountered the Canaanites, it may have been this aspect of the term which they latched onto as they renamed the Canaanites the Phoenikes or Phoenicians, which may derive from a word meaning red or purple, and descriptive of the cloth for which the Greeks too traded. The Romans in turn transcribed the Greek phoinix to poenus, thus calling the descendants of the Canaanite emigres to Carthage 'Punic'. However, while both Phoenician and Canaanite refer to approximately the same culture, archaeologists and historians commonly refer to the pre-1200 or 1000 B.C.E. Levantines as Canaanites and their descendants, who left the bronze age for the iron, as Phoenicians.

It has been somewhat frustrating that so little outside of the Bible and less than a handful of 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 Damasacius) remain to describe the beliefs of the people of the area. Unlike in Mesopotamia, papyrus was readily available so that most of the records simply deteriorated. A cross-roads of foreign empires, the region never truly had the chance to unify under a single native rule; thus scattered statues and conflicting listings of deities carved in shrines of the neighboring city-states of Gubla (Byblos), Siduna (Sidon), and Zaaru (Tyre) were all the primary sources known until the uncovering of the city of Ugarit in 1928 and the digs there in the late 1930's. The Canaanite myth cycle recovered from the city of Ugarit in what is now Ras Sharma, Syria dates back to at least 1400 B.C.E. in its written form, while the deity lists and statues from other cities, particularly Gubla date back as far as the third millenium B.C.E. Gubla, during that time, maintained a thriving trade with Egypt and was described as the capital during the third millenium B.C.E. Despite this title, like Siduna (Sidon), and Zaaru (Tyre), the city and the whole region was lorded over and colonized by the Egyptians. Between 2300 and 1900 B.C.E., many of the coastal Canaanite cities were abandoned, sacked by the Amorites, with the inland cities of Allepo and Mari lost to them completely. The second millenium B.C.E. saw a resurgence of Canaanite activity and trade, particularly noticable in Gubla and Ugarit. By the 14th century B.C.E., their trade extended from Egypt, to Mesopotamia and to Crete. All of this was under the patronage and dominance of the 18th dynasty of Egypt. Zaaru managed to maintain an independent kingdom, but the rest of the soon fell into unrest, while Egypt lost power and interest. In 1230, the Israelites began their invasion and during this time the possibly Achaean "Sea Peoples" raided much of the Eastern Mediterranean, working their way from Anatolia to Egypt. They led to the abandonment of Ugarit in 1200 B.C.E., and in 1180, a group of them established the country of Philistia, i.e. Palestine, along Canaan's southern coast.

Over the next three or four hundred years, the Canaanites gradually recovered. Now they occupied little more than a chain of cities along the coast, with rival city-states of Sidon and Tyre vying for control over larger sections of what the Greeks began to call Phoenicia. Tyre won out for a time and the unified state of Tyre-Sidon expanded its trade through the Mediterranean and was even able to establish colonies as far away as Spain. The most successful of these colonies was undoubtedly Carthage, said in the Tyrian annals to have been established in 814 B.C.E. by Pygmailion's sister Ellisa. She was named Dido, 'the wandering one', by the Lybian natives and escaped an unwelcome marriage to their king by immolating herself, a story which Virgil also recounts in the Aeneid. Her dramatic death brought about her deification while the colonists continued to practice the Canaanite religion, spreading it under Carthage's auspices while that state expanded during sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. Carthage outlasted its patron state as Tyre and Sidon were crushed under Assyrian expansion beginning during the reign of Sennacherib around 724 B.C.E. and ending under Nebuchadnezar around 572 B.C.E.

The Phoenician era saw a shift in Canaanite religion. The larger pantheon became pushed to the wayside in favor of previously less important, singular deities who became or, in the case of Baalat, already were the patron city-gods, born witness to by ruling priest-kings.