An ancient cult complex of the Canaanite storm god was uncovered in Israel. The 3,300 year old pagan temple was discovered by archaeologists near Tel Burna in central Israel. A courtyard 52 feet long and 52 feet wide indicates the vast size of the complex, most of which has yet to be excavated.
Archaeologists are not yet sure which god was worshiped in the Canaanites complex, but inscriptions in Ugarit lend proof that the god was part of the Canaanite religion. The most probable is Baal, the god of storms and fertility. Another possibility is his sister-consort Anat, the goddess of war. Yes, in this ancient religion the male brought fertility to the land and the female protected him by smiting his foes.
The remnants of artifacts found in the complex may also provide clues about how the gods were worshiped. Fragments of face masks worn in ceremonies or processions have been found. Goblets and burnt animal bones indicate that grand feasts took place. Other burnt animal remains may be left over from ritual sacrifices. Broken figurines depicting the common part human and part animal characters are being unearthed. A cylinder-shaped seal may signify an organization and hierarchy within the religion. A scarab with Egyptian hieroglyphics and a chalice of three connected cups from Cyprus are evidence that the Canaanites traded with many cultures and experienced cultural diffusion. The most exciting find for the archaeologists are the giant pithoi, or storage jars, found, because many of these remain intact. An analysis of the residue on the inside of the jars may tell what was stored in them. They could have held food or drink, or possibly tithes brought to the temple by devotees.
The discovery of the ancient cult complex of the Canaanite storm god in Israel adds to the growing knowledge of the ancient world. Most of what historians knew came from the first century writings the Greek Philo of Byblos who collected the mythologies in his Phoenician History. The stories remained uncorroborated until the 1928 discovery of Ugarit in what is now Ras Shamra, Syria. The city’s prehistory stretched to 6,000 BCE. Ugarit was destroyed about 1200 BCE and left nearly untouched for 3,000 years. A farmer uncovered the necropolis while plowing a field. During excavation archaeologists found a treasure trove of rare clay tablets documenting culture and mythology. Within the 90 room palace and two expansive temples were four different libraries with tablets in at least seven languages. The previously unknown Ugarit instantly became the oldest known alphabetic writing. These finds allow a glimpse of ancient Canaan.
The term Canaan means “land of purple”and most likely comes from the murex shells used to dye cloth a deep violet. The dye from the shells was highly traded and helped develop the area into a cultural center. Canaan was not a specific empire but a region of land encompassing modern day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Palestine and parts of Syria. After the advent of their iron age, the Canaanites were known as the Phoenicians. They also moved into northern Africa and became known as the Carthaginians. In addition, the Israelites are believed to be their descendants. The Canaanites passed on much of their culture to surrounding and subsequent peoples. They were the first to use an alphabet in writing as opposed to pictograms. The Proto-Canaanite alphabet was similar to the the later Ugaritic and Phoenician alphabets.
Canaan was a settled, agricultural civilization, therefore, much of its religion was based on fertility. At first Canaanites worshiped El as the chief god and the creator of the world. In some places he was called El-berith, the god of the covenant. But after marrying Asherah and fathering the rest of the gods, he retreated into the shadows. After some violent sibling rivalry, Baal became the leading god. Baal is the Canaanite word for lord. Baal was the lord of storms as well as the sun, rain, thunder, fertility and agriculture. The land of Canaan was infertile unless it rained; it had no flooding rivers to bring life to the soil. Periods of drought and possible starvation were seen as times when Baal was not in control or was unhappy. Mot was the god of drought and death, and the enemy of Baal and his sister-consort Anat. Baal was portrayed with a thunderbolt in one hand and a battle mace or hammer in the other. He wore a helmet adorned with the horns of a bull to symbolize fertility and his hair fell down in long braids.
The religion of the Canaanites centers on the themes of fertility and drought. There are powerful male and female deities. An important aspect of worship was the hieros gamos, or divine marriage, which may have been reenacted in temples during ceremonies.
Baal and the Canaanites were the hated enemies of the early Jews in the lore of the Torah and the Bible. It seems that Yahweh’s worshipers were constantly being warned off participating in praising Baal and the other Canaanite gods because of the enticing religious practices. However, research shows that the early traditions of the Canaanites and Israelites were very similar. They shared a semetic language and many cultural practices, but the Israelites developed their monotheistic culture they purposely separated themselves from their ancient roots. Many of the current inhabitants of the Middle East, especially Palestinians and Lebanese, also trace their ancestors to the Canaanites.
The civilizations across the ancient world shared culture and religion. The Canaanites may have borrowed their gods and myths from Mesopotamia. One can easily see the roots of the Greek god Zeus in Baal with and his lightening bolt. The ancient cult complex of the Canaanite storm god uncovered in Israel provides insight into how people developed and how culture was spread throughout the world.
By: Rebecca Savastio