Saturday 17 December 2011

Misconceptions about the Canaanites and Canaanite Religion

There are many misconceptions about the Canaanites, their culture and religion.  I'm going to go through some of them here.  As you'll see, some are plausible, while some are downright ridiculous.

1. That Canaanite religion involves human sacrifice.
This is obviously one of the major misconceptions people have about the Canaanites, based on the writings of their enemies.  At the moment it is debatable if it ever occured in ancient Canaan, and even if it was it was not very widespread or common.  One major piece of evidence comes from the city of Qart-Hadasht, where a site called the Tophet has been found.  It is a cemetary containing the urns of thousands of children, with symbols dedicating the site to Tanit.  Some people believe that wealthy families in the city sacrificed their children so they didn't need to divide their wealth among many descendants.  However, others believe that child sacrifice never took place here.  They point out that many of the children had not even been born yet, or were born dead in an age when infant mortality was common (and with souls being connected with breath, they were not considered to be 'living souls' and so were cremated here rather than buried in family tombs).  On mainland Canaan, there is little evidence.  In some cities such as Ugarit, there is no mention of it at all.  Modern Canaanites do not practice human sacrifice at all, as it is unethical.

2.  Canaanite rituals include blood drinking.
This is completely absurd and nothing more than slander.  Blood is a taboo in Near Eastern cultures.  The spilling of innocent blood attracts evil spirits.  With the blood being connected to the spirit or 'life force' of a person or animal, drinking their blood is an abomination and unethical.  It is not a practice at all, and I can safely say that it never has been at any point throughout history.

3.  Canaanite temple rituals call for sacred prostitution.
This appears to be cultural confusion.  Canaanites don't practice sacred sex rites, not in a temple context nor anything else.  We have no sacred prostitutes as part of our rituals.  Are we against prostitution?  No, not necessarily.  It is up to the individual.  Our religion doesn't condemn prostitution or sex, as far as I am aware.  But we just don't have any sex rites as part of our worship practices.  Babylonian culture, on the other hand, does.  Sacred prostitutes were found in Babylon as priestesses of Ishtar.  From what I have read, a lot of modern Babylonians do have some clearly sex-related rituals and do hold sex as sacred.  But not Canaanites.

4.  We worship gods called 'Molech' and 'Ashtoreth'.
We don't actually have any gods by those names.  A few years before the Babylonian Exile, certain sects of Yahwist monotheists in Israel attempted to distance themselves from their Canaanite ancestors by demonizing the gods of the Israelites (which they inherited from their ancestors).  They took the word 'boseth' (shame) and inserted it into the names 'Melek' and 'Ashtart' to create 'Molech' and 'Ashtoreth'.  We don't use these names.  I don't know about polytheistic Jews and Israelites (I don't imagine they do, given their meaning), but I know we don't.

5.  All of the men in Qart-Hadasht were named either Hannibaal, Hasdrubaal, Magon, Geskon, Melek, Hadmelqart, Hanno, Himilkat, or Bodmelqart.
To be fair, these names were common.  Among nobles, judges, and kings, we find these names often occuring.  Among the Bariq family, a family of famous warriors, we also find them.  However, we know that names at Qart-Hadasht could vary beyond these for most average citizens.  Some other names include: Akbar, Eshmun-pilles, Eshmun-yaton, Abd-Osir, Abd-Tanit, Melqart-pilles, Eshmun-azzar, Abd-Melqart, and others.

6.  Slaves were used as rowers on ships, especially war-galleys.
This is actually not true.  Slaves most often did chores for wealthy families.  It was usually freemen who were the rowers on war-galleys.

7.  Canaanite culture is largely based on astrology.
Perhaps today it is, to some extent.  A lot of our myths are based on astrology, and it is an *essential* part of our religion.  But these come from the later Iron Age periods.  During the Bronze Age, the Canaanites didn't really have astrology.  It was the Egyptians, Babylonians, Arabs, and Persians who spread astrology to Canaan.  Early on in Canaanite religion we don't see triads of gods in Sun-Moon-Venus, like Shamash-Sin-Ishtar in Babylon, and Shems-Almaqah-Al-Uzzah or Shems-Sin-Atarsamain in Arabia.  It is only during the Iron Age that triads like Shapash-Yarikh-Astart (or Athtar) emerge.  Though it is worth noting that Bronze Age Canaan did have *some* astrological ideas connected with deities, like associations between Athtar and Venus or Resheph and Mars.  They just weren't as widespread and complex in theology, science and mythology until later (when they became extremely important).

8.  Baal as a sun god and Astart as a moon goddess.
Similar to above is the idea that Baal is a sun god and Astart is a moon goddess.  This isn't true, and actually we have a sun goddess and a moon god.  This is an ancient and historical idea, however, it comes from Roman religion and not Canaanite.  In the days of the Roman Empire it was common for the Romans to adopt eastern gods from Egypt, Canaan, Arabia, Babylon and Persia.  All of the gods were considered to be sun gods, and all of the goddesses considered to be moon goddesses.  But this is something not found in any Canaanite ideas.

9.  That the ancient Canaanites discovered Brazil or Australia.
One absurd idea I've heard is that the Canaanites colonized Brazil and Australia.  They did sail around the Mediterranean and managed to travel around all of Africa.  But there is no evidence at all that they discovered Brazil or Australia.  I have heard websites claim that there are references in American inscriptions of tribes visiting 'a great temple in the east' (the temple of Solomon in Israel), and of a temple of the goddess Tanit being found in Australia, but these claims are ridiculous as they would be known worldwide by now if they were true.  Claims that the Native Americans are descended from the Canaanites are also ridiculous.

10.  The kings of ancient Canaan were tyrants who controlled the people through fear.
Something common in biblical sources, but how true are they?  They weren't always true.  Kings and queens could vary between being kind and cruel leaders.  However, kings did have to be careful in case they risked offending the gods, so that it something to think about.  In later times, a city council of judges largely replaced the kings in most regards.  Also, Canaanite (and other Near Eastern) culture is based largely upon the ideas of shame and guilt, not fear of punishment.

11.  That Canaanite religion is monotheistic.
One question I often get asked is if we are monotheistic or polytheistic.  I think it is because many people associate the Near East with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  But we are polytheistic.  We have multiple gods and goddesses, though with some schools of thought emphasis might be placed on one or two above the others.

12.  We worship idols.
Another idea people seem to have is that we pray to statues.  This isn't true.  The statue is the body for a spirit.  Idols are mean for the spirit to inhabit.  They aren't the spirit itself, just a representation.  It's comparable to the Temple and Mount Sinai for the Jews, the cross and images of Jesus for Christians, and the Kaaba and black stone for Muslims.  Nobody would accuse them of actually regarding these things as literally being their God.  And yet they treat the objects as if they were the God.  We do have idols, but we are aware of the fact that someone created them and the gods probably don't really look like that.  Not all temples even have idols.  In the city of Gadir, the temple of Melqart had no idols within.

13.  That we have 'evil gods'.
I have also heard websites claim that Yam (for example) is the 'Canaanite Satan'.  This isn't true.  Yam is chaos, but we also worship him and he is a necessary force within our universe.  We do have 'evil gods', but our concept of 'evil' is different to the Christian one.  Evil for us is not absolute, but means malevolent or showing a temporary display of malevolent actions toward someone else.  A person can be good and evil at the same time.  So an evil god is a god who is behaving malevolently like sending floods or plagues.  That same god can also be good, in that it can be benevolent and send gentle rains or healing.

14.  That Canaanite culture is (or ever has been) matriarchal.
Canaanite religion is not matriarchal.  We don't consider women superior to men.  Men and women have more or less equal roles in our religion, though they are certain cults restricted to either gender depending on the deity.  Today, all Canaanites that I have spoken to are for equality between men and women in society.  In the past though, Canaanite society in the ancient Near East was never matriarchal.  The father was the head of the household, and men were higher than women in status.  However, the Canaanites were somewhat more equal than the Greeks and Romans (for example) were.  Canaanite women had more rights than Greek women and were not necessarily 'owned' by their husband.  Our religion has never been matriarchal.  We have always had gods as well as goddesses, and it has always been that way.

15.  That Yahweh was a major Canaanite god.
He wasn't really a Canaanite god.  He was a Hebrew god who was worshiped in ancient Israel (which was founded by groups of Hebrews and southern Canaanites).  Israelite polytheists worship him but not most Canaanites.  At one point in Israelite history he was syncretized into Yahweh-El, which is where I think the confusion arises.

16.  Canaanite armies were ill-disciplined mobs.
It's true that the Canaanites were never violent.  Our religion is not a warrior religion.  But Canaanite armies were not ill-disiplined mobs.  The Canaanites did largely rely on foreign mercenaries and allies, but they did have their own soldiers who were usually more high-ranking.  And they did keep control.  In fact, with Hannibaal, one of his greatest feats was utilizing all of his different soldiers into a formidable army based on their individual strengths e.g Canaanites as spearmen, swordsmen, and heavy infantry; Phutites and Sapanites as spearmen and infantry; Numidians as cavalry; Balaerians as slingers; Nubians as archers.

17.  Canaanite religion is 'intolerant'.
Something else I seem to hear for some reason.  While kings often did force the worship of their personal deity upon conquered kingdoms, they usually allowed them to carry on their own practices.  To the furthest of my knowledge they never warred purely for religious reasons.  This might be a case of cultural confusion with the Assyrians, who smashed the idols of foreign gods and did declare Asshur as the greatest god (though they were warring to expand their empire, not for religious reasons).

18.  Canaanite religion is unethical or immoral.
Actually, no.  We have a strong sense of ethics, morals, and virtues.  In our Canaanite communities we try to keep these ethics.  If you behave immorally then you are bringing shame not only upon yourself, but upon your whole community and anyone who associates themselves with you in any way.  In ancient Canaan, there were laws against murder, rape, adultery, theft, and so on.

1 comment:

  1. This is wildly speculative and bizarre. To assume that the modern dwellers of the land are somehow related to the original ancient Canaanites is ludicrous at best. That land has changed hands so many times and the inhabitants have been dispersed so many times that it would be ridiculous to beleive that any of the people that modernly dwell there could be related to the original Canaanites.