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El


El, the first Canaanite god who dwelt on Mount Saphon, was considered remotely old, the master of time, and the father of god and men, and a benevolent and merciful lord. Under his governorship Baal married Anat, defeated the sea god Yam as well as the deadly Mot, and became the god of rain, lightening, and thunder. El, who represented omnipotence once removed, was always portrayed as a seated figure wearing the horns of the bull, a symbol of strength. In the Old Testament there is a mention of the supreme deity as El and Yahweh. About Melchizedek, King of Jerusalem, it was said, "he brought forth bread and wine, and he was the priest of the most high God." This was El Elyon. It is now thought that the Old Testament is the compilation of at least three main versions of Hebrew religious history, the Yawist being the dominant.

In mythology, El presided over the Ugaritic pantheon. His name, being common in almost all Semitic languages, meant "supreme god." His title of "bull" gave him irresistible power enabling his to be perceived as the father of innumerable gods, men, and creator of all created things. El, depicted as an old man, was called "the father of the years" just as the God of Israel in the dream of Daniel (8:9) received the title of "ancient of days." El was perceived as having a hoary beard of an old man possessing infinite wisdom and kindness.

Even though the creator was wise and kind he remained aloof from his creation. His abode was a mysterious and far away place: "at the source of the rivers, in the hallow of the abysses"; a reference that was probably to the conflux of the two branches of the cosmic river, which enclosed the visible universe with its waters (the "waters above" and the "waters below" separated by the firmament. (Genesis 1:6-9) El heard the complaints of the gods, but seemed to remain in the background, sometimes supervising, as the forces that embroiled the other gods, who were closer to men and more adored, played out.

However, the poem Birth of the Gracious Gods seems to indicate that this was not always so. This poem is the only mythological work in which El himself plays a more active role. In the poem El meets two women by the sea who become fascinated by the size of his hand, and later become his wives while a bird is roasted. Their children, the "gracious gods," are born. The newborn have large appetites and El counsels them to spend seven years among the crops and pasture land while food is accumulated in the barns. Instructions are constantly interspersed throughout the text, which either tell how certain rites should be performed or remain enigmatic. One of them, "Cook a kid in milk" seems to supply the reason behind the instruction given to the Israelites in Exodus 23:19, "Thou shalt not seethe a kid in his mother's milk." The primary purpose of this poem was to accompany the celebration of the sacred marriage destined to promote the fertility of the fields and the fecundity of the flocks. It is interesting to note that El in this agrarian myth is not shown as he created everything; but perhaps part of the reason lies in the fact that the head of the Ras Shamra pantheon was eclipsed by a new god, one that was later promoted to eminent dignity, Baal of the Semites of Ugarit.

Two epic cycles associated with El are Keret and Aqhat. The first describes the assistance given to Keret, son of El and a righteous king. The god helped him find a second wife who blessed him with seven sons, "yea eight," and towards the end of his reign saved him from senility. The text breaks off at the point where Keret is accused of incompetence by one of his sons. The second epic conflict occurs when the goddess Anat seizes the bow of Aqhat, the son whom El had granted to King Daniel. Grateful for the hospitality shown to him by the king, the smith god Kother gave Aqhat a bow with "its horns… twisted like a serpent." The prince refused Anat; he said her offer of immortality in exchange for the weapon was an illusion to a man destined to die: for such presumption the goddess had him killed with the consent of El. However, the bow fell "in the midst of the waters" and broke along with its precious arrows. Moreover with the disappearance of Aqhat, the vegetation withered away and Baal sent down neither rain nor dew. The fragmentary text leaves Paghat, Daniel's daughter, bent on revenge: "to smite the smiter of my brother." The parallel to Baal is striking, but by no means certain that Aqhat was an aspect of a "dying and reviving" fertility deity. A.G.H.


Sources:

Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology, New York, G. P. Putman's Sons, 1980, p. 30
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 87-89