In 1928, a farmer digging in his field in northwest Syria accidentally discovered an ancient tomb. The tomb was part of a cemetery located in the area of the ancient city of Ugarit, a center of wealth and commerce from about 1450 to 1180 B.C. French excavators working at the site discovered the remains of two temples, a palace, and private dwellings, as well as two libraries of ancient clay tablets written mainly in alphabetic Ugaritic, the major language of the city. Other texts were inscribed in Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hurrian. Translations of the Ugaritic literary texts provided the first insights into the religion of the Canaanites, known previously mainly from the pages of the Bible.
Ugaritic mythological tablets describe the activities of the main gods and goddesses of the Canaanite pantheon. Although there existed no single state theology, the major gods reflect local geographical concerns about the fertility of the earth and the importance of water as well as relationships to the sky and the underworld. The universe was believed to be ruled in tandem by the older god El and a main warrior-god, Baal, surrounded by a council of deities and a lower level of attendant gods. The divine council included the older generation of the god El and his wife Athirat, known in the Bible as Asherah, as well as a younger group of figures that included the war god Baal and the war goddesses Anat and Astarte. Forces of destruction included Yamm, the god of the sea (also known as Nahar, the River), and Mot, the god of death as well as burning (Resheph) and pestilence (Deber), a god described in the Bible (Habakkuk 3). In total, more than 234 deities are recorded in Ugaritic texts, and these gods, unlike humans, were thought to have eternal lives.
The god El was viewed as the elder, “gray beard” supreme deity. He was the creator god, the father of the gods and humankind, and the god of wisdom. He was considered a good-natured, beneficent being. Although described as a creator, there exists no biblical-type creation story in Ugaritic literature. El’s dwelling place is at the edge of the world at the “source of the two rivers,” a place where the waters of the heavens and earth meet.
El is often associated with the epithet “bull,” indicating strength and possibly dignity. No temple is dedicated to his cult, and his image cannot be clearly identified among excavated reliefs and statues. Small, heavily robed human figures seated on high-backed chairs and wearing either caplike headdresses or tall conical crowns have often been identified as El. Recent archaeological finds indicate that this image may represent either a presently unidentified god or a deified king.
In a land dependent upon life-sustaining rain, Baal was both a warrior god and the storm god who brought fertility. Baal was enthroned on Mount Zaphon, identified with Jebel Aqra, the highest mountain in Syria located 25–30 miles north of Ugarit. An active, powerful deity, Baal is depicted on a white limestone stele, 1.42 meters tall, now in the Louvre. Dominating the stele, the god Baal is pictured in profile with his right foot placed in front of his left. He wears a horned helmet emblematic of power and strength. In a classic Egyptian smiting pose, his right arm is raised above his head with a mace in his hand as if he were about to strike an enemy. In his left hand, he holds and firmly plants into the ground a large spear with a vegetal form emerging from the top of the weapon. The spear is symbolic of the deity’s control over the powers of nature. Below the ground, undulating lines represent the sea, Baal’s enemy. A small figure representing the king dressed in priest’s clothing stands on a pedestal. The figure and its pedestal rest just below the god’s sheathed dagger, which is suspended from his belt. The stele illustrates the Canaanite concept of divine kingship whereby the warrior-god protects humanity against the destructive forces of nature.
Excavated at Ugarit, the tale of Baal’s conquest of the sea is described in an epic cycle of six tablets. After a rather obscure opening, the god Yamm (the Sea) sends a message to the divine assembly demanding that Baal surrender. El, the aging chief deity, agrees to the request. He demands that Baal surrender to Yamm’s messengers. But Baal resists. With the encouragement and assistance of Kothar-wa-Hasis, the craftsman god, Baal engages the Sea in battle. He pummels Yamm with his mace and defeats him.
Following the victory, Anat, El’s daughter who is also called Baal’s sister, goes on a rampage and slaughters human enemies presumably allied against Baal. Afterward, Baal pursues the construction of a magnificent royal palace on his sacred mountain. The craftsman Kothar-wa-Hasis suggests that the palace have windows, but Baal disagrees so that Yamm/Nahar cannot enter stealthily. Cedars are brought from Lebanon together with silver, gold, and precious stones to adorn the palace. When the building is finished, all the deities celebrate with a great feast. Afterward, Baal defeats all of his enemies in surrounding territories in order to form an empire for himself. Now flush with victory, Baal sends a courier to Mot, son of El and ruler of the Underworld, to declare his kingship. But Mot in his reply turns the tables on his adversary and invites him to come to the Underworld. When Baal accepts and descends, he becomes trapped in the vise of death, which results in the cessation of rain. Anat, Baal’s sister and the goddess of hunting and war, goes in search of him. Finding him in the realm of the dead, she confronts Mot, attacks him with a knife and winnowing fork, and burns his body, which is then eaten by birds. Now rescued, Baal resumes his place on the royal throne. But Mot revives and the two giants of the heavens battle. Finally, Mot capitulates and declares Baal to be the rightful ruler of the cosmos.
The myth, by recounting the conquest of Baal over his cosmic enemies, both celebrates the institution of divine human kingship and explains that rule by a warrior king is necessary to bring order to both earth and the heavenly abode. It also provides a mythological explanation for the change of seasons from harvest to winter, a time when Baal descends into the Underworld and fertility ceases.