Thursday 30 June 2011

Animals and the Deities

This post is on the use of animal symbolism in Canaanite art, religion, and literature.  Every living creature according to its kind is important to the Canaanites: cattle, creeping things, wild beasts of the field, birds, and the great creatures of the deep.

I'll begin with some background.  Animals have always been a love of mine.  I don't have pets, though a lot of my friends do, and when I leave home and get my own house I'm going to get some (I'm hoping for a dog, some snakes, and a pig, though I'll just have to see).  When I was starting my first school, I enjoyed going on visits to farms, and loved hearing stories about animals (usually animal fables and things like that) in my class.  The class was also decorated with images of animals entering Noah's ark (itself based on older Near Eastern stories).  So I have a fascination for the natural world.  My meditations and visions feature animals and the spirits of animals: gazelles, camels, horses, oxen, lions, donkeys, elephants.  I feel very close connections to animals, and feel proud to be just as much a part of nature and the animal kingdom as they are.  I also see animals as possessing spirits of their own, and I see reflections of the divine in them.  Some may see it as primitive, but I delight in the presence of such creatures, considering it sacred, and everywhere feel the presence and power of the deities. 

These are some of the animals familiar to the Canaanites, either living within Canaan itself, or in nearby areas: asses, camels, conies, donkeys, mice, gazelles, hedgehogs, ibex, lions, leopards, jackals, elephants, oxen, sheep, goats, rams, horses, bats, owls, bulls, buffaloes, rats, moles, locusts, mules, vultures, hawks, eagles, baboons, pigs, boars, snakes, quails, bears, turtles, deer, rabbits, cows, porcupines, foxes, voles, pidgeons, ostriches, wolves, dogs, scorpions, fish, shellfish, dolphins, beetles, doves, sparrows, swallows.

In addition, there are also these animals which are heavily featured in Near Eastern art and poetry: dragons (most likely snakes), unicorns (most likely rhinos), cockatrices, sphinxes, griffins, hippocampus.

There are several animals which are sacred to the gods, usually determined by their attributes and what they represent in Canaanite culture. Here are a few of my own thoughts, based largely upon literature and texts from Ugarit and elsewhere:
All domestic farm animals are sacred to the Canaanites, as they provide food and resources, can be used on the farm (like the ox) or can be used in war (in the case of the horse). Cows are seen as symbolic of the earth, and perhaps motherhood and care, as they provide humans with milk. It is for this reason perhaps that cows could be sacred to Asherah (along with the fact that she is the consort of Thoru Ilu, 'Bull El'). Atik is called 'Calf of El' which likely refers to the fact that he is Bull El's son. Sheger is the god of cattle, and so cattle are sacred to him. It is Sheger (a pastoral deity) who provides cattle, which are a source of food and are found in offering lists at Ugarit and elsewhere as sacrifices to the gods. Sheep are another source of food and are sacrificed along with cattle to the gods and goddesses, and they are sacred to Ithm, who provides us with sheep. Rams are seen as symbols of strength and power, most likely because of their horns. Goats also provide Canaanites with milk, and are seen as symbols of fertility, sacred to the goddess Malidthu. Oxen are symbols of strength, as they help farmers by pulling the plough through the field. Horses are seen as symbols of the Sun, being sacred to Shapash (as they may pull her solar chariot daily across the skies); and are also seen as symbols of war, power, and the netherworld, being sacred to Choron and his consort Um Pachal. Bulls are symbols of strength, kingship, dominance, masculine fertility and sexuality, and virility, being sacred to El and Baal (though only El is ever called 'the Bull' as an epithet). Buffalo are also symbols of strength and power, being sacred to Baal and Anat.

The donkey is a symbol of royalty and power, being sacred to Asherah. Pigs provide an infrequent source of meat to the Canaanites, and boars are symbolic of the netherworld, being sacrificed to underworld deities. Wild boars are symbols of regeneration, new life, and the return of vegetation, being sacred to Adon (the boar roams the Adon River Valley, and in the story boars are seen as freeing infant Adon from a myrrh tree, and in the end wild boars gore Adon to death). Camels are symbols of the desert and of determination and labour (being a good choice of mount for desert travellers, and also able to survive in the desert heat).

Birds and sea creatures also are sacred to various deities. All sea creatures are sacred to Yam, the ruler of the deep. Fish also serve as symbols of fertility and grain, being sacred to Dagon; and also are symbols of the fisherman who provides food for the deities, being sacred to Qudsh-wa-Amrur. Seashells such as the murex (which provides purple dye) are symbols of royalty, trade, and the Canaanite people, being sacred to Anat (who paints herself with murex and henna, according to some translations), and to Melqart, who discovered the purple dye while walking his dog with the nymph Tyre. Sea serpents and dragons are symbols of the deep, the power of the ocean, chaos and cunning, and the ferocity and primal nature of the sea, being sacred to Yam. Dolphins are symbols of majesty and royalty in the ocean kingdom, being sacred to Asherah. The hippocampus (half-horse, half-fish) is a symbol of Tyre, ships and navigation, and kingship, being sacred to Melqart. With birds, the dove is a symbol of feminine beauty, truthfulness, and glory, being sacred to Astart. The pidgeon is a source of food, being a sacrifice to the deities, as is the quail, which is sacred to both Melqart and Eshmun as it provided food for them in times of need. The owl is a symbol of death, and sometimes in the Near East can be seen as a symbol of the demon-goddess Lilith (who is not worshipped at all, being a demoness who preys on sleeping men, as well as pregnant mothers and young children). Vultures are also a symbol of death, though they are also a symbol of power, and are sacred to their mother Sumul (who ate Aqhat when he had been killed by Yatipan). Hawks and eagles are seen as symbols of power, and are sacred to their father Hirgab (who didn't eat Aqhat but he was flying near). Swallows are symbols of fertility, sexuality, birth and conception, being sacred to the Kathirat. Ostriches are often seen in Canaanite literature, and ostrich shells can be painted and decorated.
Beetles are symbols of the Sun and the Sun's regeneration every morning, and are sacred to Shapash.

Scorpions are symbols of evil, and also protection from evil, being sacred to Shadrapa and Choron, who protect their devotees from evil, and in the case of Choron may have underworld connections. Scorpions are also seen as symbols of sexual arousal (to be stung by a scorpion symbolises lusting after someone in the Near East), being sacred to Ushkharaya (originally a Hurrian goddess). Snakes or serpents symbolise healing, regeneration, and eternal life, being sacred to Eshmun (healing god) and Asherah (the Tree of Life). They, like scorpions, can symbolise evil and protection from evil, being again sacred to Shadrapa and Choron, and to Choron's consort Um Pachal. Snakes, especially venemous snakes, can be symbolic of war and destruction, being sacred to Anat. Snakes also symbolise chaos and cunning, being sacred to Yam (though mostly water snakes living in seas or marshes for him). Dragons share a lot of these attributes, and can be seen as symbols of chaos; or as healing and regeneration symbols, being sacred to Eshmun (also Shataqat, a healer El creates, is a dragon). Dragons and serpents are symbols of wisdom as well as cunning, and Nebo the scribe god has a winged dragon as his sacred animal (and if he is the same as Taat, a scribe god mentioned in a text, he was the first to introduce serpent worship to the Canaanites).

Foxes are symbols of cowardice and cunning in the Near East. Wolves and dogs are symbols of healing (dogs especially), being sacred to Baau (originally a Sumerian goddess). Dogs are also symbols of the night (when they prowl the city streets), and of a kind of youthful virility, being sacred to Yarikh. Dogs can also be symbols of cowardice and greed. Tortoises are a fertility symbol, being sacred to Malidthu. Baboons symbolise wisdom, knowledge, skilfullness, and learning, being sacred to Kothar. Deer and gazelles symbolise speed and mountains, being sacred to Amurru (god of the Amorites); and can also be symbols of a kind of hidden (not noticeable on first sight) strength and destruction, being sacred to Resheph.

Lions symbolise war and destruction, and can be sacred to Anat, the powerful warrior goddess. They also symbolise majesty and power, being sacred to Athtar. They can be symbols of the divine feminine, being sacred to Asherah and Qadshu. Lions also are a symbol of fear, being the terror of shepherds and those who wander through wilderness or the desert, and Shadrapa is shown holding a lion by its tail to show his protection over devotees. Kingdoms and cities who earn the disfavour of the gods in times of war or a siege may be said to have been 'thrown to the lions'. Lions are often shown as greedy as well. Like the lion, the bear is also a symbol of fear, being the animal feared most alongside the lion. Bears are not commonly seen, but when food is rare they often come down from the mountains into villages and attack humans, where they are feared. Leopards are also symbols of destruction, like the lion and bear, though they are rarer in Canaan and so not as much of a threat as the lion and bear. Jackals are symbols of desolation, as they haunt gravesites and tombs, and ruined cities are often said to have been 'given to the jackals'. The elephant is shown as being a proud and majestic creature, and in Sumerian animal fables often brags about how none are greater than him.

Sphinxes are symbols of the divine feminine, being sacred to Astart. Griffins are often seen as symbols of greed and the destruction that greed can bring. Unicorns (most likely rhinos) are often shown as strong, and a mighty god may be said to be 'as strong as the unicorn'. The unicorn fights the elephant, who is his enemy.

Well, I'm sure you can see why animal fables were so interesting to me as a young boy in my first year at school. You can have a read of some Sumerian animal fables online here: You can also find animal disputes (such as Bird and Fish) online here: (in the 'Myths and Knowledge' section, at the bottom under 'Disputations').

Do you see reflections of the divine in animals? Do you regularly see animals which have at some point in time been found in Canaan (could be anything from lions to camels, from tortoises to goats, from scorpions to elephants)? What are your thoughts on them? Have you interacted with them?
As you can see, animal symbolism is important to me and is often used in my Canaanite art (see the background image for this blog for an example).


  1. It's very interesting to compare how the animals were viewed in Kemet, compared to Canaan.

    For instance, in addition to being deadly, scorpions were also sacred to Serket, who has a strong protective function.

    By contrast, the jackal was viewed as swift, beautiful, and protective. Wepwawet, the opener of the way, also had the epithet of "Your sweet God of love!"


  2. Thank you for reading Seshathotep.

    Yes, it is interesting with scorpions how with the Canaanites and the Hittites, the scorpion is a symbol of danger, but also of lust. Being stung by a scorpion is comparable to being overcome with burning passion, which is probably why the scorpion is sacred to Ushkharaya

    The references to jackals come mostly from descriptions of ruined cities being 'the haunt of jackals'.

    The animal that fascinates me the most at the moment is the lion though. My last encounter with this creature was at the zoo of a town by the sea where I was staying in summer, with a pride consisting of one male lion and two lionesses. They are such powerful and aggressive creatures, yet admired for their protective nature (especially of their own young) and their majesty and courage.