Little is known about Canaanite mythology compared to other ancient cultures. As far as I can tell there is little in the way of ancient literature that has survived, or been found. It’s great for the writer in me, little established lore means my creative license can be quite liberal, but annoying for the mythology addict who desperately wants to know more.
*Fingers crossed archaeologists find more*
So what do we know about the beliefs of ancient Cana?
An Amazon search reveals only six titles that appear to be directly related to Canaanite mythology. Of these I’ve purchased and read two, and one is so far out of my price range I imagine only a religious library or museum may be able to afford it (it currently costs over $900 AUD). I intend to purchase the more affordable titles when I can, but when I was first researching this story, I didn’t come across these books. A lot of my research into the goddess Asherah has come from academic databases and doctoral thesises (I’ll put some references at the bottom of the article).
The main surviving tales of the Canaanites seem to be The Baal cycle, a collection of stories featuring the deeds of Baal, a War God, and how he replaced El as head of the Pantheon. The Baal Cycle was recorded on stone tablets which were uncovered in Syria by a farmer, in what had once been a section of Ugarit (a Canaanite city). For a great summation of the Baal cycle click here. Other information we know about Canaanite mythology comes from other religious texts (such as the Christian Bible and the Torah), although how accurate these interpretations are is debatable. Asherah and Baal are mentioned several times in the Old Testament as heathen gods whom the idolaters worship when they should be worshipping Yahweh. Asherah is one of the deities the Bible tells us was worshipped by Jezebel.
I imagine that the stories of Ugarit mythology are much like those of Cana’s near neighbours Sumer, Akkad, Babylon and Assyria. These would be stories such as the Epic of Gilgamesh (a hero’s journey story such as Heracles), Innana’s Descent (a goddess who descends to the Underworld story), Tammuz (a dying god story), and more. These myths all share archetypes common to each other, and one can therefore assume to the geographical region, as well as archetypal associations (War God, Thunder God, Underworld Goddess etc). It is this geographic nearness and the commonality of themes in the mythologies we do know that suggest to me similar would be found in Canaanite mythology.
The story we know of Baal includes his imprisonment in the Underworld by King Mot, a motif that would indicate he was possibly worshipped as a “dying god”, a god whom overcomes death and is resurrected much like Tammuz or Osiris. We know that Baal Hammon is God of Fertility and it is likely that “Hammon” is an epithet of the Warrior God as opposed to another god with the same first name.
Using these near neighbouring mythologies one can easily imagine a tale in which Kothar-Wa-Khasis (the craftsman god) creates an item of beauty or magic as a gift for a goddess or hero. Qadeshtu is the Goddess of Love in this pantheon and so one can expect there were likely myths surrounding her love life, much as the myths of Isis, Aphrodite, and Inanna. Indeed this idea has inspired me to write a collection of short myths featuring these deities as they appear in The Lady of Zion Universe. Naturally these myths I’ve written are completely fictitious and do not reflect what the ancient Canaanites believed. More than anything they are a companion piece to The Lady of Zion novels and novellas that help explain the history of the LOZ Universe.
While we might not know the actual stories of the Canaanite deities, apart from Baal’s rise to King, we do know the roles they played in Canaanite theology. It is unclear how important some of the deities were in everyday life, but we can imagine that they too would have been similar to the important deities of other Mesopotamian mythologies. Likely Asherah, El, and Baal would have been favoured highly, especially to the state, being the heads of the pantheon. To a people in constant conflict with their neighbours Anat and Baal were especially likely to have been prominent. Qadeshtu, Goddess of Love, was likely to be another prominent figure in the daily life of ancient Canaanites for if human nature has told us anything its that love and war are intrinsic to our societies and psychology. Kotharat too was likely to figure prominently in the life of women as Goddess of Marriage and Pregnancy.
I really enjoyed exploring these deities in my writing. The Lady of Zion is by no means a retelling of Canaanite mythology, rather it is a blend of ancient story structures and mythic archetypes in a modern urban fantasy setting. Mythic inspiration for the story has predominately come from Greek, Egyptian, Ugarit, and Judeo-Christian tales but the gods are named after their Canaanite counterparts (although I’ve changed some of their roles). A list of Canaanite deities can be found here, but for many I haven’t come across their stories. Baal (warrior god), Anat (warrior goddess), El (King of the Gods), Mot (King of the Underworld) and Asherah (Queen of the Gods) feature prominently in the Baal cycle, and so these are the deities we know best from Cana. I picked Canaanite mythology as a base for my characters and settings for a few reasons, one being the lack of lore, and because other mythologies such as Greek or Egyptian have been done by a thousand other authors. Canaanite mythology is relatively unexplored and is one of the ancient origins of Christianity. In The Lady of Zion, Lilith takes the place of Anat as a warrior goddess.
My primary texts of inspiration of Canaanite mythology while researching were were Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan by John Day, and Stories from Ancient Canaan by Michael C. Gibson. This second title is a translation of The Baal Cycle. Day’s title on the other hand was an academic exploration of Yahweh and El being conflagrated in the Bible, the relationship between El and Asherah, Yahweh and Baal as rivals, and more. However this text focuses not on retelling the myths of these deities (as I’d hoped) but on delineating on how the origins of Christianity, and the iconography of the Old Testament, grew out of the worship of these deities.
I’m pretty disappointed that I can’t just run out and buy a book of Canaanite mythology the way you could of Norse deities or Greek. Hopefully some clever archaeologist will be able to piece together the original myths in the future. In the meantime if you want to read some of the articles and books I used for research here are some of the ones I found most useful.
– Encyclopedia of Spirits by Judika Illes
– The Power of Myth by Joseph Campbell
– Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible by D. Penchansky
– About El, Asherah, Yahweh and Anath by B. Urrutia, In American Anthropologist.
– The Goddess Asherah (Doctoral Dissertation) by T. Yamashita
– Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan by John Day
– Stories from Ancient Canaan by Michael C. Gibson
(These I haven’t read but are on my Amazon wishlist)
– Canaanite Myths and Legends by John C. Gibson (I’m hoping this might have more than just the myths of Baal)
– Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic by Frank Moore Cross
– The Canaanites: Their History and Culture from Texts and Artifacts by Mary Ellen Buck
– Ancient Canaanites: The Civilization of Canaan Before the Israelites by History Titans