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Ancient Semitic religion

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Ancient Semitic religion spans the polytheistic religions of the Semitic speaking peoples of the Ancient Near East. Its origins are intertwined with earlier (Sumerian) Mesopotamian mythology. As Semitic itself is a rough, categorical term, the definitive bounds of the term "Ancient Semitic religion" are likewise only approximate.

These traditions, and their pantheons, fall into regional categories: Canaanite religions of the Levant, Assyro-Babylonian religion strongly influenced by Sumerian tradition, and Pre-Islamic Arabian polytheism.

A topic of particular interest is the transition of Semitic polytheism into our contemporary understanding of Abrahamic monotheism by way of the god El, a name of the god of Judaism and cognate to Islam's Allah.

Scholars[1] have speculated that the "transition" from polytheism to monotheism was likely a form of theological supremacy — by which the theology of a supreme deity, the "One God," naturally grew from the supremacy of a particular culture toward which that "One God" was favorable. (See covenant.) Thus, as the culture and people expanded, their monotheistic beliefs and specific God were carried with them. (See also henotheism.)

Proto-Semitic pantheon

This is a partial list of possible Proto-Semitic deities.

(Ac. Accadian-Babylonian; Ug. Ugaritic; Pp. Phoenician; Ib. Hebrew; Ar. Arabic; OSA Old South Arabian; Et. Ethiopic)

  • *ʔIlu "god" (Overgod: Ac. Ilu<tt>, Ug. il, Pp. ʔl/Ēlos, Ib. Ēl/Elohim, Ar. Allāh, OSA ʔl).
  • *ʔAṯiratu (<tt>Ilu's wife: Ug. aṯrt, Ib. Ašērāh, OSA ʔṯrt). The meaning of the name is unknown.
    • She is also called *ʔIlatu "goddess" (Ac. Ilat, Pp. ʔlt, Ar. Allāt).
  • *ʕAṯtaru (God of Fertility: Ug. ʕṯtr, OSA ʕṯtr, Et. ʕAstar sky god).
  • *Haddu/*Hadadu (Storm god: Ac. Adad, Ug. hd, Pp. Adodos). The meaning of the name is probably “thunderer”.
    • This god is also known as *Baʕlu "husband, lord" (Ac. Bel, Ug. bʕl, Pp. bʕl/Belos, Ib. Baʕal).
  • *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).

Babylonia and Assyria

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

The pre-Christian religion of the Assyrian Empire (sometimes called Ashurism) centered around the god Assur, patron deity of the city of Assur, besides Ishtar patroness of Niniveh. The Assyrians adopted Christianity in the course of the 1st to 3rd century AD,[3] the last recorded worship of Ashur dating to AD 256.[4][5]

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.


Canaanite religion was the group of belief systems utilized by 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 Egypt, in the humid Mediterranean climate, these have simply decayed. 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). More recently detailed study of the Ugaritic material, other inscriptions from the Levant and also of the Ebla archive from Tel Mardikh, excavated in 1960 by a joint Italo-Syrian team, have cast more light on the early Canaanite religion.

Canaanite religion was strongly influenced by their more powerful and populous neighbours, and shows clear influence of Mesopotamian and Egyptian religious practices. Like other people of the Ancient Near East Canaanite religious beliefs 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 = God most High), who was the father of the divinities, and in the Greek sources he was married to Beruth (Beirut = the city). This marriage of the divinity with the city would seem to have Biblical parallels too with the stories of the link between Melkart and Tyre; Yahweh and Jerusalem; Tanit and Baal Hammon in Carthage. El Elyon is mentioned as 'God Most High' occurs in Genesis 14.18–19 as the God whose priest was Melchizedek king of Salem.

From the union of El Elyon and his consort was born Uranus and Ge, Greek names for the "Heaven" and the "Earth". This closely parallels the opening verse of Genesis 1:1 "In the beginning Elohim gave birth to the Heaven (Shemayim) and the Earth (Eretz)", and this would appear to be based upon this early Canaanite belief. This also has parallels with the story of the Babylonian Anunaki (i.e. = "Heaven and Earth"; Shamayim and Eretz) too.

Influence on Abrahamic religions

Many of the stories of the Tanakh[6], Bible, and the Qur'an are believed to have been based on, influenced by, or inspired by the legendary mythological past of the Near East as Judaism, being a Semitic faith, is derived from the same system of belief: proto-Semitic theism. The Enuma Elish in particular has been compared to the Genesis creation story. The story of Esther in particular is traced to Babylonian roots.

El Elyon also appears in Baalam's story in Numbers and in Moses song in Deuternomy 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 Aslan Tash inscription suggests that each of the 70 sons of El Elyon were 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."


  2. Mackenzie, p. 301.
  3. "Iraqi Assyrians: Barometer of Pluralism". Middle East Quarterly. Retrieved Summer 2003. "Modern Assyrians trace their heritage to the ancient Mesopotamians who converted from paganism to Christianity in the three centuries after Christ." 
  4. "Brief History of Assyrians". AINA Assyrian International News Agency. 
  5. Parpola, Simo (1999). "Assyrians after Assyria" (in English) (HTML). Assyriologist. Journal of Assyrian Academic Studies, Vol. XIII No. 2,. "The gods Ashur, Sherua, Istar, Nanaya, Bel, Nabu and Nergal continued to be worshiped in Assur at least until the early third century AD; the local cultic calendar was that of the imperial period; the temple of Ashur was restored in the second century AD; and the stelae of the local rulers resemble those of Assyrian kings in the imperial period." 
  6. "Assyria" (in English) (HTML). Jewish Encyclopedia. "The official and to some extent the popular religion of Judah was greatly affected by Assyrian influence, especially under Ahaz and Manasseh." 
  • Moscatti, Sabatino (1968), "The World of the Phoenicians" (Phoenix Giant)
  • Ribichini, Sergio "Beliefs and Religious Life" in Maoscati Sabatino (1997), "The Phoenicians" (Rissoli)
  • Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria (1915).[1]
  • Thophilus G. Pinches, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, The World Wide School, Seattle (2000)[2]
  • van der Toorn, Karel (1995). Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. New York: E.J. Brill. ISBN 0-80282-491-9. 

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