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The antiquity of the worship of the god or gods of Baal extends back to the 14th century BC among the ancient Semitic peoples, the descendants of Shem, the oldest son of Biblical Noah. Semitic is more of a linguistic classification than a racial one. Thus, people speaking the same or similar languages first worshiped Baal in his many forms. The word Baal means "master" or "owner". In ancient religions the name denoted sun, lord or god. Baal was common a name of small Syrian and Persian deities. Baal is still principally thought of as a Canaanite fertility deity. The Great Baal was of Canaan. He was the son of El, the high god of Canaan. The cult of Baal celebrated annually his death and resurrection as a part of the Canaanite fertility rituals. These ceremonies often included human sacrifice and temple prostitution.
Baal, literal meaning is "lord," in the Canaanite pantheon was the local title of fertility gods. Baal never emerged as a rain god until later times when he assumed the special functions of each. Although there is no equivalent in Canaan of the sterile summer drought that occurs in Mesopotamia, the season cycle was marked enough to have caused a concentration on the disappearing fertility god, who took with him the autumn rain clouds into the neither world.
After defeating the sea god Yam, and building a house on Mount Saphon, and taking possession of numerous cities, Baal announced that he would no longer acknowledge the authority of Mot, "death." Baal not only excluded Mot from his hospitality and friendship, but also told him that he could only visit the deserts of the earth. In response to this challenge, Mot invited Baal to his abode to taste his fare, mud. Being terrified and unable to avoid the dreadful summons to the land of the dead, Baal coupled with a calf in order to strengthen himself for the ordeal, and then set out. El and the other gods donned funeral garments, poured ashes on their heads, and mutilated their limbs, while Anat, aided by the sun goddess Shapash, brought the corpse back for burial. El placed Athtar, the irrigation god, on the vacant throne of Baal, but Anat bitterly missed her dead husband. She begged Mot to restore Baal to life, but her pleas went without avail, and Anat's attempts to interest the other gods in helping her were met with cautious indifference. Thus, Anat assaulted Mot, ripping him to pieces "with a sharp knife," scattering his members "with a winnowing fan," burning him "in a fire," grinding him "in a mill," and "over the fields strewing his remains." El, in the meantime, had a dream in which fertility returned, which suggested that Baal was not dead. Afterwards, he instructed Shapash to keep watch for him during her daily travels. In the due course of time Baal was restored, and Athtar fled from his throne. Yet Mot was able to arrange another attack, but on this occasion all of the gods supported Baal, and neither combatant could gain the victory. Finally El intervened and dismissed Mot, leaving Baal in possession of the field.
The above myth, fragments of which are on the Ras Shamra tablets, relates to the alteration of the seasons. Baal is the god of rain, thunder, and lightening. "At the touch of his right hand, even colors wilt." Yam, the owner of salt water, gave place to Baal as the genius of rainfall and vegetation, a displacement that left Mot as sole contender under the mighty El. Torrid heat, sterility, the arid desert, death, the neither world: these were Mot's irresistible realm till Anat threshed, winnowed, and ground the harvested corn, the fecundity of Baal's land, just as the siding of El with the resurrected rain god ensured the continuation of the annual cycle. A parallel of the magical rites can be found in Psalms, where "they that sow in tears shall reap in joy. He that go forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bearing sheaves with him." This is sympathetic magic: the tears shed were expected to induce drops of rain.
Baal was the son of El, or Dagon, an obscure deity linked by the Hebrews with the Philistine city of Ashdod. Dagon was perhaps associated with the sea, as a coin found in the vicinity portrays a god having a fish tail. Although Baal personally overcame Yam, it is uncertain whether or not he fought Lotan, the Leviathan of the Old Testament, but it is known that Anat "crushed the writhing serpent, the accused one of the seven heads." Another echo of the Mesopotamian thought patterns are nestled in these reasons advanced by Baal for needing a "house." His food offerings were too meager for a god "that rides on the clouds." As far apart as Carthage and Palmyra were temples dedicated to Baal-Hammon, "the lord of the altar of incense," whom the Greeks identified with Cronus. On Mount Carmel it was the prophet Elijah who discredited King Ahab's belief in the power of Baal, when at his request "the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice," and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench. Afterwards Elijah had the people slay "the prophets of Baal," thereby assuring the survival of the worship of Yahweh in Israel.
The worship of Baal extended from the Canaanites to the Phoenicians who also were partially an agricultural people. Both Baal and his cohort Ashtoreth, or Astarte, who is equivalent to the Greek goddess Aphrodite, were both Phoenician fertility symbols. Baal, the sun god, was fervently prayed to for the protection of livestock and crops. Priests instructed the people that Baal was responsible for droughts, plagues, and other calamities. People were often worked up into great frenzies at the prospects of displeasing Baal. In times of great turbulence human sacrifices, particularly children, were made to the great god Moloch (see Molech).
Since the Phoenicians also were superb ship builders the religion and
cults of Baal spread throughout the Mediterranean world. The worship of
Baal was found among the Moabites
and their allies Midinites during Moses' time. It was also introduced to the Israelites.
The religion of the god Baal was widely accepted among the ancient Jews, and although it was put down at times, it was never permanently stamped out. Kings and other royalty of the ten Biblical tribes worshiped the god. The ordinary people ardently worshipped this sun god too because their prosperity depended on the productivity of their crops and livestock. The god's images were erected on many buildings. Within the religion there appeared to be numerous priests and various classes of devotees. During the ceremonies they wore appropriate robes. The ceremonies included burning incense, and offering burnt sacrifices, occasionally consisting of human victims. The officiating priests danced around the altars, chanting frantically and cutting themselves with knives to inspire the attention and compassion of the god.
In the Bible Baal is also called Beelzebub, or Baalzebub, one of the fallen angels of Satan. A.G.H.
Cotterell, Arthur, A Dictionary of World Mythology,
New York, G. P. Putman's Sons, 1980, pp. 27-28
Grimal, Pierre, Larousse World Mythology, Secaucus, New Jersey, Chartwell Books, 1965, pp. 89-95
Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia, 1979, p. 71
Comptons's Online Encyclopedia
Grolier's Academic American Encyclopedia, 1994 (Online edition)