Canaanite religion is the religion of Palestine and Syria during the third and second millennia (3000–1001) B.C.E. In the ﬁ rst millennium B.C.E. Canaanite religion came into conﬂ ict with the worship of YHWH (“the Lord”), especially in the northern kingdom of Israel.
Technically, the name “Canaanite” applies only to the ancient inhabitants of Palestine. But people also use it for all peoples and settlements that spoke languages known as “Northwest Semitic.” These peoples inhabited the region between two major ancient powers, Egypt and Mesopotamia. Not much is known in detail of their history. But during the 20th century two major archaeological ﬁ nds unearthed many Canaanite texts. Among other topics, they shed light on Canaanite religion. These ﬁ nds were the ancient cities of Ugarit (discovered 1929) and Ebla (discovered 1968).
The Canaanites worshipped several deities. Two were the pair El (the Semitic word for “god”) and Athirat, also known as Asherah. El was the “father of gods and men.” He created the world. Athirat was the mother of the gods. Together, they were worshipped as king and queen.
Another pair of gods was BAAL, also known as Hadad, and Anat, his sister and wife. The name Baal means “lord.” A god of the storms, Baal is called “rider of the clouds.” Anat was a GODDESS renowned both for beauty and violence. Yet another goddess renowned for beauty and violence was Athtart. Mesopotamians called her Ishtar; the BIBLE calls her Ashtoreth.
A prominent Canaanite myth concerns the god Baal. It tells how he fought and defeated the sea, a son of El named Yamm. But when Baal faced another son of El, Mot, the god of death, he was defeated and killed. His sister, Anat, avenged his death. Baal was restored to life and in the end defeated death in battle. Earlier scholars thought this story reﬂ ected the yearly cycle of the seasons. Current opinion takes it as referring instead to an irregular drought.
Canaanite worship was much like worship in other parts of the ancient Near East. It centered on SACRIFICES and offerings. The Canaanites performed these on at least two social levels. One level was the city. The king oversaw its worship. The second level was the local community. Individuals seem to have performed in local cults for themselves. They sacriﬁ ced at high places throughout the year. They also held celebrations in conjunction with planting and harvesting in spring and autumn. Like many ancient peoples, the Canaanites had a complex system of RITUAL specialists. It is not clear what any of the specialists mentioned in the Canaanite texts actually did.
During the ﬁ rst millennium, Canaanite religion in Palestine gradually gave way to the worship of YHWH. But the worship of YHWH also adopted Canaanite elements. In some sense, YHWH combines the characteristics of El and Baal. He creates the world. He is also a god of the storms. Like Baal, he rides the clouds (Psalms 68.4) and defeats the sea (PSALMS 89.9–10; JOB 26.12–13). It is also possible that Canaanite agricultural festivals lie behind the JEWISH FESTIVALS OF PASSOVER, Shavuot, and Sukkot.