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Ancient Semitic religion


Ancient Semitic religion

Ancient Semitic religion encompasses the polytheistic religions of the Semitic peoples from the ancient Near East and Northeast Africa. Its origins are intertwined with Mesopotamian mythology. As Semitic itself is a rough, categorical term (when referring to cultures, not languages), the definitive bounds of the term "ancient Semitic religion" are only approximate.

These traditions, and their pantheons, fall into regional categories: Canaanite religions of the Levant, Assyro-Babylonian religion influenced by Sumerian tradition and pre-Islamic Arabian polytheism. Semitic polytheism possibly transitioned into Abrahamic monotheism, by way of the god El, a word for "god" in Hebrew and cognate to Islam's Allah.


  • Proto-Semitic pantheon 1
  • Akkad, Assyria and Babylonia 2
  • Canaan 3
  • Abrahamic religions 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7

Proto-Semitic pantheon

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

  • ʼIlu - "god" (Sky god, head of pantheon: Ac. Ilu, Ug. il, Pp. ʼl/Ēlos, Ib. El/Elohim, Ar. Allāh, OSA ʼl).
  • ʼAṯiratu - (Ilu's wife: Ug. aṯrt, Ib. Ašērāh, OSA ʼṯrt) - The meaning of the name is unknown. She is also called ʼIlatu "goddess" (Ac. Ilat, Pp. ʼlt, Ar. Allāt).
  • ʻAṯtaru - (God of Fertility: Ug. ʻṯtr, OSA ʻṯtr, Et. ʻAstar sky god).
  • ʻAṯtartu - (Goddess of Fertility: Ac. Ištar, Ug. ʻṯtrt, Pp. ʻštrt / Astarte, Ib. ʻAštoreṯ). 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 Baʻlu "husband, lord" (Ac. Bel, Ug. bʻl, Pp. bʻl/Belos, Ib. Baʻal).
  • 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, 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:[1]

The religion of the Assyrian Empire, sometimes called Ashurism, centered around 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 to the 3rd century AD.[2][3]

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 in his role as husband of Ishtar.

The major Assyro-Babylonian and Akkadian gods were:

Major Assyro-Babylonian demons and heroes were:


Canaanite religion was the group of beliefs of the people living in the ancient Levant throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Until the excavation of Ras Shamra in Northern Syria (the site historically known as Ugarit) and the discovery of its Bronze Age archive of clay tablet alphabetic cuneiform texts, little was known of Canaanite religion, as papyrus seems to have been the preferred writing medium, and unlike in Egypt, they have simply decayed in the humid Mediterranean climate. As a result, the highly antagonistic and selective accounts contained within the Bible were almost the only sources of information on ancient Canaanite religion. This was supplemented by a few secondary and tertiary Greek sources: Lucian of Samosata's De Dea Syria (The Syrian Goddess), fragments of the Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos, and the writings of Damascius). Recent study of the Ugaritic material, a few other inscriptions from the Levant and also of the Tel Mardikh archive (excavated in 1960 by a joint Italo-Syrian team) has cast more light on the subject.

The Canaanites' religion was strongly influenced by their more powerful and populous neighbors and 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 and El. Kings also played an important religious role and in certain ceremonies, such as the sacred marriage of the New Year Festival may have been revered as gods.

According to the pantheon, known in Ugarit as 'ilhm (Elohim) or the children of El (cf. the Biblical "sons of God"), supposedly obtained by Philo of Byblos from Sanchuniathon of Berythus (Beirut) the creator was known as Elion (Biblical El Elyon), who was the father of the divinities, and in the Greek sources he was married to Beruth (Beirut, the city). This marriage of the deity with the city would seem to have Biblical parallels with the stories of the links between Melkart and Tyre; Yahweh and Jerusalem; Tanit and Baal Hammon in 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 further states that from the union of El Elyon and his consort were born Uranus and Ge, Greek names for Heaven and Earth. This closely parallels the opening verse of 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.

Abrahamic religions

The Enuma Elish has been compared to the Genesis creation narrative.[9][10][11][12] Some writers trace the story of Esther to Babylonian roots.[13]

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

The Septuagint suggests a different reading of this. Rather than "sons of Israel" it 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 as Crossan translates it

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. ^ Mackenzie, p. 301.
  2. ^ "Brief History of Assyrians". AINA Assyrian International News Agency. 
  3. ^ 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. 
  4. ^ Dalley, Stephanie, Mari and Karana: Two Old Babylonian Cities (2002), ISBN 1-931956-02-2,
  5. ^ Dalley (2002)
  6. ^ Robert Francis Harper (1901). Assyrian and Babylonian literature. D. Appleton and company. p. 26. Retrieved 27 June 2011. 
  7. ^ Thorkild Jacobsen (1978). The treasures of darkness: a history of Mesopotamian religion. Yale University Press.  
  8. ^ "ETCSLhomepage". 2006-10-24. Retrieved 2015-05-16. 
  9. ^ "Babylonian Creational Myths Enuma Elish". Crystalinks. Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  10. ^ "The Enuma Elish: The Babylonian Creation Myth". 2011-11-11. Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  11. ^ "ENUMA ELISH - Babylonian Creation Myth - Theories". Retrieved 2011-12-28. 
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ Gunkel, Hermanh (2006). Creation and Chaos in the Primeval Era and the Eschaton: Religio-Historical Study of Genesis 1 and Revelation 12.  

Further reading

  • 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)
  • Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria (1915).[3]
  • Thophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, The World Wide School, Seattle (2000)[4]
  • van der Toorn, Karel (1995). Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. New York: E.J. Brill.  

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