Ancient Semitic religion

Ancient Semitic religion encompasses the polytheistic religions of the Semitic peoples from the ancient Near East and Northeast Africa. Since the term Semitic itself represents a rough category when referring to cultures, as opposed to languages, the definitive bounds of the term "ancient Semitic religion" are only approximate.

Semitic traditions and their pantheons[1] fall into regional categories: Canaanite religions of the Levant, the Sumerian tradition–inspired Assyro-Babylonian religion of Mesopotamia, the Ancient Hebrew religion of the Israelites, and Arabian polytheism. Semitic polytheism possibly transitioned into Abrahamic monotheism by way of the god El, whose name "El", or elah אלה is a word for "god" in Hebrew, cognate to Arabic ilah اله, and its definitive pronoun form الله Allah, "(The) God".

Proto-Semitic pantheon

Abbreviations: Ac. Akkadian-Babylonian; Ug. Ugaritic; Pp. Phoenician; Ib. Hebrew; Ar. Arabic; OSA Old South Arabian; Et. Ethiopic

  • 'Ilu: "god" (Sky god, head of pantheon: Ac. Ilu, Ug. il, Pp. ʼl/Ēlos, Ib. El/Elohim, Ar. Allāh, OSA ʼl).
  • 'Aṯiratu: (Ilu's wife: Ug. aṯrt, Ib. Ašērāh, OSA ʼṯrt)—The meaning of the name is unknown. She is also called 'Ilatu "goddess" (Ac. Ilat, Pp. 'lt, Ar. Allāt).
  • 'Aṯtaru: (God of Fertility: Ug. ʻṯtr, OSA ʻṯtr, Et. ʻAstar sky god).
  • 'Aṯtartu: (Goddess of Fertility: Ac. Ištar, Ug. ʻṯtrt, Pp. ʻštrt / Astarte, Ib. 'Aštoreṯ). The meaning of the name is unknown and not related to ʼAṯiratu.
  • Haddu/Hadadu: (Storm god: Ac. Adad, Ug. hd, Pp. Adodos). The meaning of the name is probably "thunderer". This god is also known as Ba'lu "husband, lord" (Ac. Bel, Ug. b'l, Pp. b'l/Belos, Ib. Ba'al).
  • Śamšu: "sun" (Sun goddess: Ug. špš, OSA: šmš, but Ac. Šamaš is a male god).
  • Wariḫu: "moon" (Moon god: Ug. yrḫ, Ib. Yārēaḥ, OSA wrḫ).

Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia

When the five planets were identified, they were associated with the sun and moon and connected with the chief gods of the Babylonian pantheon. A bilingual list in the British Museum arranges the sevenfold planetary group in the following order:[2]

The religion of the Assyrian Empire (sometimes called Ashurism) centered on Ashur, patron deity of the city of Assur, and Ishtar, patroness of Nineveh. The last positively recorded worship of Ashur and other Assyrian gods dates back to the 3rd century AD.[3][4]

Ashur, the patron deity of the eponymous capital from the Late Bronze Age, was in constant rivalry with the patron deity of Babylon, Marduk. In Assyria, Ashur eventually superseded Marduk, even becoming the husband of Ishtar.

The major Assyro-Babylonian and Akkadian gods were:

Major Assyro-Babylonian demons and heroes were:


The Canaanite religion was practiced by people living in the ancient Levant throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Until the excavation (1928 onwards) of the city of Ras Shamra (also known as Ugarit) in Northern Syria and the discovery of its Bronze Age archive of clay tablet alphabetic cuneiform texts,[10] scholars knew little about Canaanite religious practice. Papyrus seems to have been the preferred writing material for scribes at the time. Unlike the papyrus documents found in Egypt, ancient papyri in the Levant have often simply decayed from exposure to the humid Mediterranean climate. As a result, the accounts in the Bible became the primary sources of information on ancient Canaanite religion. Supplementing the Biblical accounts, several secondary and tertiary Greek sources have survived, including Lucian of Samosata's treatise De Dea Syria (The Syrian Goddess, 2nd century CE), fragments of the Phoenician History of Sanchuniathon as preserved by Philo of Byblos (c. 64 – 141 CE), and the writings of Damascius (c. 458 – after 538). Recent study of the Ugaritic material has uncovered additional information about the religion,[11] supplemented by inscriptions from the Levant and Tel Mardikh archive[12] (excavated in the early 1960s).

The Canaanite religion shows the clear influence of Mesopotamian and Egyptian religious practices. Like other peoples of the ancient Near East, the Canaanites were polytheistic, with families typically focusing worship on ancestral household gods and goddesses while acknowledging the existence of other deities such as Baal, Anath, and El.[13] Kings also played an important religious role and in certain ceremonies, such as the sacred marriage of the New Year Festival; Canaanites may have revered their kings as gods.

According to the pantheon, known in Ugarit as 'ilhm (Elohim) or the children of El (compare the Biblical "sons of God"), the creator, called El, fathered the other deities. In the Greek sources he was married to Beruth (Beirut, the city). The pantheon was supposedly obtained by Philo of Byblos from Sanchuniathon of Berythus (Beirut). The marriage of the deity with the city seems to have Biblical parallels with the stories that link Melkart with Tyre, Yahweh with Jerusalem, and Tanit and Baal Hammon with Carthage. El Elyon is mentioned (as God Most High) in Genesis 14.18–19 as the God whose priest was Melchizedek, king of Salem.

Philo states that the union of El Elyon and his consort resulted in the birth of Uranus and Ge (Greek names for Heaven and Earth). This closely parallels the opening verse of the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 1:1—"In the beginning God (Elohim) created the Heavens (Shemayim) and the Earth" (Eretz). It also parallels the story of the Babylonian Anunaki gods.

Abrahamic religions

The Enuma Elish has been compared to the Genesis creation narrative.[14][15][16] Some writers trace the story of Esther to Babylonian roots.[17]

El Elyon also appears in Balaam's story in Numbers and in Moses song in Deuteronomy 32.8. The Masoretic Texts suggest:

When the Most High ('Elyōn) divided to the nations their inheritance, he separated the sons of man (Ādām); he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the sons of Israel.

Rather than "sons of Israel", the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, suggests the "angelōn theou," or "angels of God", and a few versions even have huiōn theou (sons of God). The Dead Sea Scrolls version of this suggests that there were in fact 70 sons of the Most High God sent to rule over the 70 nations of the Earth. This idea of the 70 nations of Earth, each ruled over by one of the Elohim (sons of God), is also found in Ugaritic texts. The Arslan Tash inscription suggests that each of the 70 sons of El Elyon was bound to their people by a covenant. Thus, Crossan translates:

The Eternal One ('Olam) has made a covenant oath with us,
Asherah has made (a pact) with us.
And all the sons of El,
And the great council of all the Holy Ones (Qedesh).
With oaths of Heaven and Ancient Earth.

See also


  1. ^ Noll, K. L. (2001). Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An Introduction. A&C Black. p. 187. ISBN 978-1-84127-258-0. [A patron god in an ancient Near Eastern religion held a unique position among the gods] as the most powerful and the most just of the gods, who ruled the divine realm as he ruled the human realm, often with the approval of a council of divine 'elders' who legitimated his right to rule as patron god (as in the book of Job 1—2). [...] Other gods were subordinate to, and partners with, the divine patron, just as the human aristocracy and commoners were expected to be subordinate to, and supportive of, the human king. The pantheon was usually quite complex, often including hundreds or even thousands of gods.
  2. ^ Mackenzie, p. 301.
  3. ^ "Brief History of Assyrians". AINA Assyrian International News Agency.
  4. ^ Parpola, Simo (1999). "Assyrians after Assyria". Assyriologist. Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. XIII No. 2. The gods Ashur, Sherua, Ishtar, Nanaya, Bel, Nabu and Nergal continued to be worshiped in Assur at least until the early 3rd century AD; the local cultic calendar was that of the imperial period; the temple of Ashur was restored in the 2nd century AD; and the stelae of the local rulers resemble those of Assyrian kings in the imperial period.
  5. ^ Dalley, Stephanie, Mari and Karana: Two Old Babylonian Cities (2002), ISBN 1-931956-02-2
  6. ^ Dalley (2002)
  7. ^ Robert Francis Harper (1901). Assyrian and Babylonian literature. D. Appleton and company. p. 26. Retrieved 27 June 2011.
  8. ^ Thorkild Jacobsen (1978). The treasures of darkness: a history of Mesopotamian religion. Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-02291-9. Retrieved 27 June 2011.
  9. ^ "ETCSLhomepage". 24 October 2006. Retrieved 16 May 2015.
  10. ^ Gray, John, "The Legacy of Canaan the Ras Shamra Texts and Their Relevance to the Old Testament", No. 5. Brill Archive, 1957; for a more recent discussion see Yon, Marguerite, The City of Ugarit at Tell Ras Shamra, Eisenbrauns, 2006.
  11. ^ Smith, Mark S., The origins of biblical monotheism: Israel's polytheistic background and the Ugaritic texts, Oxford University Press, 2001.
  12. ^ J. Pons, Review of G. Pettinato, A. Alberti, Catalogo dei testi cuneiformi di Tell Mardikh - Ebla, MEE I, Napoli, 1979, in Études théologiques et religieuses 56 (1981) 339—341.
  13. ^ "Canaanite religion". Encyclopædia Britannica. 17 April 2014. Retrieved 26 January 2016.
  14. ^ "The Enuma Elish: The Babylonian Creation Myth". 11 November 2011. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  15. ^ "ENUMA ELISH - Babylonian Creation Myth - Theories". Archived from the original on 22 November 2011. Retrieved 28 December 2011.
  16. ^ Sharpes, Donald K. 'Lords of the scrolls: literary traditions in the Bible and Gospels'. Peter Lang, 2005. ISBN 0-8204-7849-0, 978-0-8204-7849-4
  17. ^ Gunkel, Hermanh (2006). Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton: Religio-Historical Study of Genesis 1 and Revelation 12. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. p. 198. ISBN 978-0802828040.

Further reading

  • Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria (1915).
  • Moscati, Sabatino (1968), The World of the Phoenicians (Phoenix Giant)
  • Ribichini, Sergio "Beliefs and Religious Life" in Moscati Sabatino (1988), The Phoenicians (by L.B. Tauris in 2001)
  • Thophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, The World Wide School, Seattle (2000)
  • van der Toorn, Karel (1995). Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. New York: E. J. Brill. ISBN 0-8028-2491-9.
Ancient Canaanite religion

Canaanite religion refers to the group of ancient Semitic religions practiced by the Canaanites living in the ancient Levant from at least the early Bronze Age through the first centuries of the Common Era.

Canaanite religion was polytheistic, and in some cases monolatristic.


Asherah (), in ancient Semitic religion, is a mother goddess who appears in a number of ancient sources. She appears in Akkadian writings by the name of Ašratu(m), and in Hittite as Aserdu(s) or Asertu(s). Asherah is generally considered identical with the Ugaritic goddess ʼAṯirat (Athirat).


Gatumdag is a fertility goddess in Sumerian mythology. She is the daughter of the sky god An and is the tutelary mother goddess of Lagash. She is mentioned in the Gudea Cylinders as a source of protection.

Hebrew mythology

Hebrew mythology may refer to:

pre-Judaistic Canaanite mythology

Jewish mythology

Hebrew religion

Hebrew religion may refer to:

Ancient Canaanite religion


Legend of Keret

The Legend of Keret, also known as the Epic of King Keret, is an ancient Ugaritic epic poem, dated to Late Bronze Age, circa 1500 – 1200 BC. It recounts the myth of King Keret of Hubur. It is one of the Ugarit texts.

List of religions and spiritual traditions

While religion is hard to define, one standard model of religion, used in religious studies courses, was proposed by Clifford Geertz, who defined it as a

[…] system of symbols which acts to establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic." A critique of Geertz's model by Talal Asad categorized religion as "an anthropological category." Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws, or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.The word religion is sometimes used interchangeably with "faith" or "belief system", but religion differs from private belief in that it has a public aspect. Most religions have organized behaviours, including clerical hierarchies, a definition of what constitutes adherence or membership, congregations of laity, regular meetings or services for the purposes of veneration of a deity or for prayer, holy places (either natural or architectural) or religious texts. Certain religions also have a sacred language often used in liturgical services. The practice of a religion may also include sermons, commemoration of the activities of a god or gods, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, trance, rituals, rites, ceremonies, worship, initiations, funerals, marriages, meditation, invocation, mediumship, music, art, dance, public service or other aspects of human culture. Religious beliefs have also been used to explain parapsychological phenomena such as out-of-body experiences, near-death experiences and reincarnation, along with many other paranormal and supernatural experiences.Some academics studying the subject have divided religions into three broad categories: world religions, a term which refers to transcultural, international faiths; indigenous religions, which refers to smaller, culture-specific or nation-specific religious groups; and new religious movements, which refers to recently developed faiths. One modern academic theory of religion, social constructionism, says that religion is a modern concept that suggests all spiritual practice and worship follows a model similar to the Abrahamic religions as an orientation system that helps to interpret reality and define human beings, and thus religion, as a concept, has been applied inappropriately to non-Western cultures that are not based upon such systems, or in which these systems are a substantially simpler construct.


Moab () (Arabic: مؤاب‎) is the historical name for a mountainous tract of land in Jordan. The land lies alongside much of the eastern shore of the Dead Sea. The existence of the Kingdom of Moab is attested to by numerous archaeological findings, most notably the Mesha Stele, which describes the Moabite victory over an unnamed son of King Omri of Israel. The Moabite capital was Dibon. According to the Hebrew Bible, Moab was often in conflict with its Israelite neighbours to the west.

Origins of Judaism

This article discusses the historical roots of Judaism throughout the 1st millennium BCE. For the origins of the modern-day religion of Judaism, see Origins of Rabbinic Judaism.The origins of Judaism lie in the Bronze Age amidst polytheistic ancient Semitic religions, specifically Canaanite religion, co-existing with a syncretization with elements of Babylonian religion and of the worship of Yahweh reflected in the early prophetic books of the Hebrew Bible. During the Iron Age I, the Israelite religion became distinct from other Canaanite religions due to the unique monolatristic (proto-monotheistic) worship of Yahweh.

During the Babylonian captivity of the 6th and 5th centuries BCE (Iron Age II), certain circles within the exiled Judahites in Babylon refined pre-existing ideas about monotheism, election, divine law and Covenant into a strict monotheistic theology which came to dominate the former Kingdom of Judah in the following centuries.From the 5th century BCE until 70 CE, Israelite religion developed into the various theological schools of Second Temple Judaism, besides Hellenistic Judaism in the diaspora. Second Temple eschatology was significantly influenced by Zoroastrianism. The text of the Hebrew Bible was redacted into its extant form in this period and possibly also canonized as well.

Rabbinic Judaism developed during Late Antiquity, during the 3rd to 6th centuries CE; the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud were compiled in this period. The oldest manuscripts of the Masoretic tradition come from the 10th and 11th centuries CE; in the form of the Aleppo Codex of the later portions of the 10th century CE and the Leningrad Codex dated to 1008–1009 CE. Due largely to censoring and the burning of manuscripts in medieval Europe the oldest existing manuscripts of various rabbinical works are quite late. The oldest surviving complete manuscript copy of the Babylonian Talmud is dated to 1342 CE.


Paganism (from classical Latin pāgānus "rural, rustic", later "civilian") is a term first used in the fourth century by early Christians for people in the Roman Empire who practiced polytheism. This was either because they were increasingly rural and provincial relative to the Christian population, or because they were not milites Christi (soldiers of Christ). Alternate terms in Christian texts for the same group were hellene, gentile, and heathen. Ritual sacrifice was an integral part of ancient Graeco-Roman religion and was regarded as an indication of whether a person was pagan or Christian.Paganism was originally a pejorative and derogatory term for polytheism, implying its inferiority. Paganism has broadly connoted the "religion of the peasantry". During and after the Middle Ages, the term paganism was applied to any unfamiliar religion, and the term presumed a belief in false god(s). Most modern pagan religions existing today—Modern Paganism, or Neopaganism—express a world view that is pantheistic, polytheistic or animistic; but some are monotheistic.The origin of the application of the term pagan to polytheism is debated. In the 19th century, paganism was adopted as a self-descriptor by members of various artistic groups inspired by the ancient world. In the 20th century, it came to be applied as a self-descriptor by practitioners of Modern Paganism, Neopagan movements and Polytheistic reconstructionists. Modern pagan traditions often incorporate beliefs or practices, such as nature worship, that are different from those in the largest world religions.Contemporary knowledge of old pagan religions comes from several sources, including anthropological field research records, the evidence of archaeological artifacts, and the historical accounts of ancient writers regarding cultures known to Classical antiquity.


Q-D-Š is a triconsonantal Semitic root meaning "sacred, holy", derived from a concept central to ancient Semitic religion. From a basic verbal meaning "to consecrate, to purify", it could be used as an adjective meaning "holy", or as a substantive referring to a "sanctuary, sacred object, sacred personnel."The root is reflected as qdš (Phoenician 𐤒𐤃‬𐤔, Hebrew קדש) in Northwest Semitic and as qds (Arabic قدس‎) in Central and South Semitic.

In Akkadian texts, the verb conjugated from this root meant to "clean, purify."

Semitic neopaganism

Semitic neopaganism refers to a group of religions based on or attempting to reconstruct the old religious traditions of the Semitic peoples, mostly practiced among secular Jews in the United States.

Semitic religions

The term Semitic religions most commonly refers to the Abrahamic religions, including Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Semitic religions may also refer to:

Ancient Semitic religion - polytheistic pre-Abrahamic religions practised by ancient Semitic cultures

Semitic neopaganism

The Bible's Buried Secrets

The BBC has also produced a short series of nearly the same name (Bible's Buried Secrets) covering similar themes presented by Francesca Stavrakopoulou."The Bible's Buried Secrets" is a Nova program that first aired on PBS, on November 18, 2008. According to the program's official website: "The film presents the latest archaeological scholarship from the Holy Land to explore the beginnings of modern religion and the origins of the Hebrew Bible, also known as the Old Testament. This archaeological detective story tackles some of the biggest questions in biblical studies: Where did the ancient Israelites come from? Who wrote the Bible, when, and why? How did the worship of one God—the foundation of modern Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—emerge?"


Yahweh was the national god of the Iron Age kingdoms of Israel (Samaria) and Judah. His exact origins are disputed, although they reach back to the early Iron Age and even the Late Bronze: his name may have begun as an epithet of El, head of the Bronze Age Canaanite pantheon, but the earliest plausible mentions of Yahweh are in Egyptian texts that refer to a similar-sounding place name associated with the Shasu nomads of the southern Transjordan.In the oldest biblical literature, Yahweh is a typical ancient Near Eastern "divine warrior", who leads the heavenly army against Israel's enemies; he later became the main god of the Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) and of Judah, and over time the royal court and Temple in Jerusalem promoted Yahweh as the god of the entire cosmos, possessing all the positive qualities previously attributed to the other gods and goddesses. By the end of the Babylonian captivity (6th century BCE), the very existence of foreign gods was denied, and Yahweh was proclaimed as the creator of the cosmos and the true god of all the world.

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