The Baals in your court

How this doofus storm god became a demonic symbol

Three Baals: a standard Semitic storm-god, Baal-Hadad, from Ugarit (left); a receiver of burnt child sacrifices, Baal-Hamon, from Carthage (center); a Prime Evil and Lord of Destruction, from the video game “Diablo II” (right).

You have to feel a little sorry for Baal. Few other gods get such a bad rap. When you think of Zeus, you probably imagine a bearded old man with a lightning bolt — not a horned demon from the gaping pits of hell. Other ancient gods of the Middle East, like the Egyptian sun god Amun-Ra or the Babylonian storm god Marduk, don’t have such nasty reputations in popular culture (or in popular religion) as poor old Baal.

Who is Baal? It’s actually not the name of a specific god. Baal is a title, meaning “Lord.” In Bible translations, you often see Yahweh’s name written as “The LORD.” The word Baal functions a bit like the ancient Canaanite and Phoenician version of that practice, except it’s been appended to a few different gods’ names throughout history. As such, Baal has come to function as a sort of stand-in for Canaanite/Phoenician religion as a whole — and, in particular, the nastier bits of that religion involving child sacrifice.

Baal-Hadad, the Rider on the Clouds

Perhaps the most famous Baal is Baal-Hadad, the Rider on the Clouds. The name Hadad is associated with an ancient Semitic storm god. Much of what we know about this deity comes from the Baal Cycle, an epic story written in the 1300’s B.C. on tablets found in Ugarit, a Canaanite city in what is now western Syria. The tablets are damaged and the text is fragmentary, but the story that emerges should be familiar to students of ancient mythology.

The major Canaanite cities — later, Phoenician and Jewish cities — lay between a dangerous sea and a lifeless desert.

Like many ancient gods, Baal-Hadad and his adversaries represent forces of nature. Baal, the hero, is a storm and fertility god. In the ancient Middle East, storms could be unpredictable and destructive, but agriculture — and thus civilization — depended on the rain they brought.

Baal battles two adversaries in the story. The first is Yam, the personification of the Sea. The second is Mot, the god of Death, associated with the desert and drought. Yam and Mot represent the hostile natural forces local to the Canaanites, who lived sandwiched between the dangerous, chaotic Mediterranean Sea and the lifeless wasteland of the Syrian Desert.

It’s unclear what exactly precipitates the first fight between Baal-Hadad and Yam, but fight they do, and what a battle it is. Baal wins by smashing Yam with a magical club:

The club swooped from Baal’s hands,
like a vulture from his fingers. 
It struck Prince Sea on the skull, 
Judge River between the eyes. 
Sea stumbled; 
he fell to the ground; 
his joints shook, 
his frame collapsed. 
Baal captured and pierced Sea; 
he finished off Judge River. 
Astarte shouted to him by name: 
Hail, Baal the Conquerer! 
Hail, Rider on the Clouds!
The Canaanites’ cosmology matched that of the Hebrews and Mesopotamians. The ancients believed the ocean — Yam — was an enormous river that surrounded Earth on all sides, hence Yam’s nickname “Judge River.” (source)

You might wonder why the storm and the sea can’t just get along. But a “cosmic battle” between a storm god and a malevolent ocean deity is a common motif in ancient Semitic mythology. East of Canaan, the Babylonians had their own version of this cosmic battle story, the Enuma Elish. You even see echoes of it in the Bible’s Book of Psalms, where Yahweh beats up the sea and its watery monster minions (yam in Hebrew means sea):

You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. 
You crushed the heads of Leviathan. (Psalm 74)

The Israelites, like their neighbors in Canaan and Mesopotamia, probably understood that a major battle against the sea took place before the act of creation in Genesis. The ancients of the Middle East believed our world exists tenuously as a bubble of order within the swirling chaos of the sea, like the interior of a snowglobe — and the point of such a cosmic battle against the sea is to set our world’s boundaries. Baal-Hadad’s victory over Yam also earns him his official status as Lord of the gods.

Baal-Hadad’s second conflict against Mot, the god of Death and drought, also has many parallels in nearby ancient myths, though here the story bears more resemblance to “cycles of fertility” myths. Baal-Hadad’s character is quite different from both Persephone and Osiris, but like these Greek and Egyptian fertility deities, Baal too ends up dragged into the underworld, causing crops above to wither in drought until he re-emerges.

Mot’s characterization is quite vivid: a filthy pit, a voracious mouth. At one point, Mot’s envoys give the following instructions for some sort of parley:

Then head … to the mounds at the edge of the underworld.
Raise the mountain with your hands,
the hill on top of your palms.
Then go down to the isolation ward of the underworld,
you will be counted among those who go down into the earth.
Then head to the midst of his city, the Swamp,
the Pit, his royal house,
Filth, the land of his inheritance.
But, divine servants, be on your guard:
don’t approach El’s son, Death,
lest he put you in his mouth like a lamb,
crush you like a kid in his jaws.

Read as straightforward mythical allegories, Baal’s conquest of Yam and Mot represents a mastery over nature — though an impermanent and limited mastery, and one that Baal requires a great deal of help to achieve. In fact, Baal apparently falls to Mot, sucked into Death’s maw; it is Baal’s totally badass sister Anat who defeats Death in battle and rescues Baal, thus returning the storm god’s fertility to a drought-stricken world.

Baal-Hadad himself is not the most sympathetic figure. Like Zeus, Indra, or the Mesopotamian god Enlil, the Canaanite “Rider on the Clouds” is a classic storm god — he’s a haughty, irascible boor. He complains constantly about his palace and his banquets not being perfect. And like Zeus, Baal is also prone to having sex with animals — at one point, for reasons that may involve evading Mot but remain unclear, Baal has sex with a cow, who becomes pregnant and bears him a boy.

But when Baal cooperates with others, he does have his uses. He teams up with the craftsman god Kothar-wa-Hasis, who makes him magical clubs for his battle against the sea god Yam. And he’s lucky indeed that his fearsome sister, the war goddess Anat, always has his back. One way to read this story is as an allegory for civilization itself: with the application of the tools of civilization — technology and warfare — the power of the storm is channeled to drive back chaos and death.

Another Storm vs. Sea: A seal cylinder shows the Babylonian version of this cosmic battle motif; Tiamat (the serpent) is destroyed by the storm god Marduk.

But this simple naturalistic reading misses the story’s more interesting political angle. The first part of the Baal Cycle closely parallels an earlier Mesopotamian creation myth, Enuma Elish. This story also describes a battle between a storm god and the sea: here the hero is named Marduk, who fights a primordial goddess named Tiamat. After Marduk beats Tiamat, he is elevated as the high god of the Mesopotamian pantheon. Crucially, Marduk had been the local god of Babylon, and his ascendancy over the older deities tracks the political ascendancy of Babylon over its regional rivals in Mesopotamia.

In the Baal Cycle, Baal-Hadad also achieves ascendancy over his fellow gods; he orders them to build him a palace, the mark of a king. This supremacy is, after all, what the title Baal signifies — he becomes Lord of the gods.

One god in particular seems rather slighted by the Baal Cycle’s narrative: El, the high father god and former head of the Canaanite pantheon. For sure, El is never cast as an evil or hostile god; he is repeatedly called “El the kind and compassionate.” But the Baal Cycle would not have done any favors for El’s PR. When Yam comes to El’s court and rudely demands he hand over Baal, El cowardly sells Baal out, and even tries to have a palace built for the malevolent ocean deity. When El declines to have a palace built for a victorious Baal, the aforementioned badass goddess Anat openly threatens the ancient high god, saying:

“Don’t rejoice in your well-built house, El, 
Don’t rejoice in the height of your palace. 
Or else I will seize it … with my mighty arm. 
I’ll smash your head, 
I’ll make your gray hair run with blood, 
your gray beard with gore.”

El finally does acquiesce, reflecting the wishes of the other gods to elevate Baal. But when Mot, the god of death, comes calling, El turns around and sells out the storm god again!

You wonder what fans of El thought of this story. You could read El’s actions as resulting from his doting, fatherly nature — he is the father of all the gods, including Baal’s enemies, Mot and Yam, and just wants the best for everyone. But you could also read El as a doddering, incompetent old man who constantly and cravenly submits to the malevolent forces of the desert and the sea, of death and chaos. Like the Enuma Elish’s political elevation of Marduk over other Mesopotamian gods, the Baal Cycle can also be read politically, as an argument or justification to abandon the primary worship of El in favor of Baal.

So what happened to old El’s followers? They might have become Jews. As the Torah tells it, the Jews were native Canaanites who were enslaved by Egyptians, led to freedom by Moses, and then led back into Canaan by Joshua. Scholars are not sure exactly where the Jewish God’s name, Yahweh, comes from, but Yahweh is also called Elohim throughout the Torah, and he is explicitly identified as the God of the Canaanites’ ancestors. Perhaps the rise of Judaism in southern Canaan reflected a kind of traditionalist reaction against the elevation of Baal over El — though that is pure speculation on my part. What is for certain is that the ancient Israelites were not fans of Baal.

Baal-Hamon, receiver of child sacrifices

Like most ancient cultures, the Canaanites (later called Phoenicians by the Greeks) offered sacrifices to their gods. The Phoenicians referred to this practice the letters MLK. Unfortunately, vowels were not a thing yet, but this word — perhaps pronounced molk — is clearly associated with the character Moloch, the Hebrews’ looking-glass version of an evil Canaanite god who, among his crimes, receives children as burnt offerings.

It is not uncommon for cultures to make up atrocities about their enemies. There is no good archaeological evidence that the MLK-sacrifices in Canaan involved children, let alone child sacrifices to the storm god in particular, so we should probably leave poor Baal-Hadad alone in that regard. Go further west a few centuries later though, in the Phoenicians’ North African colony of Carthage, and it is pretty clear that another Baal did receive children as burnt offerings.

Phoenicians founded colonies throughout the southern Mediterranean — in part to gin up sufficient tribute for their domineering neighbor to the east, the Assyrian Empire. Carthage emerged as the most powerful Phoenician colony — and would soon come into conflict with expanding Greek colonists and the Roman Republic.

This god, Baal-Hamon, was not a storm god. He functioned as the civic god of Carthage, along with his divine consort Tanit. He was more closely associated with El, the high god, though by the time Carthage became prominent in the 600’s B.C., Phoenician religion had changed a great deal from the Bronze Age days of the Baal Cycle so such comparisons are inexact. Baal-Hamon also seems to have incorporated aspects of Egyptian and other North African deities. The Greeks, for their part, associated Baal-Hamon with their primordial deity Cronus.

The Hebrew stories about Canaanite/Phoenician child sacrifice become harder to dismiss as invented smears when they’re coupled with similar Greek and Roman stories about the Carthaginian practice. Roman historians reported vivid gruesome details of the Phoenician colonists burning infants alive in special structures called tophets. Surely enough, in the 1920’s, archaeologists uncovered burnt infant remains near Carthage’s remains. At first, it wasn’t clear if the infants were offered to Baal-Hamon alive, or if they were offered after having died of naturally causes. But archaeologists have since uncovered inscriptions making it clear that the children were given to Baal alive. One example from Carthage:

“It was to the Lady Tanit [Baal’s consort], Face of Baal and to Baal-Hammon that Bomilcar son of Hanno, grandson of Milkiathon, vowed this son of his own flesh. Bless him you!”

Baal, Demonic Lord of Destruction

There’s no defense or excuse for Carthaginian child sacrifice on morally relativist or “they didn’t know better” grounds. The practice of child sacrifice was recognized as abhorrent by the Phoenicians’ contemporaries, and probably — since cultures are not monoliths — by many Phoenicians themselves.

Baal and Zeus: both storm gods, both jerks — but only one ever gets portrayed as a spider-squid-demon.

Regardless of how widespread Phoenician child-sacrifice actually was, it’s fair to say that it’s given the name Baal a bad reputation. I’ve never played the game Diablo 2 and I don’t know if its “Lord of Destruction” Baal villain receives offerings of roasted infants, but he appears wantonly demonic in a way that other polytheistic deities do not. Much like Hitler, the name Baal in modern culture functions as a kind of heuristic shorthand for “evil.”

Don’t name your kid after Baal: Hannibal (“Grace of Baal”) Lecter, the psychotic cannibal, and Princess Jezebel (“Where is Baal”), often pictured as a vain whore.

Baal’s reputation has even filtered down to people named after him. When you hear “Hannibal,” a common name in the Phoenician colony of Carthage meaning “Grace of Baal,” you may think of the famed general of the Second Punic War who handed Rome its worst defeat in history, or perhaps the affable comedian Hannibal Buress. But I’m guessing the villainous Hannibal Lecter rings a louder bell for most people. The Phoenician princess Jezebel — meaning “Where is Baal?”, a ritualistic phrase — is enjoying something of a reclamation by feminists nowadays, but historically, Jezebel is associated with vanity, disgrace, and whoredom.

But is it fair to cast Phoenician religion as singularly evil on the sole grounds that at least some Phoenicians sacrificed children to their gods? I don’t think so. Most cultures and religions have some pretty nasty skeletons in their closets. The Romans didn’t sacrifice children, but they were willing to accept the occasional murder of children for political gain — such as the great emperor Augustus’ killing of Cleopatra’s young son Caesarion — not to mention their fondness for mass crucifixions. And while the ancient Israelites made it clear that their God Yahweh is against child sacrifice, their holy text does include instructions for the full-scale genocide of Canaanite communities in Deuteronomy 20:16 — “let nothing that breathes remain alive” — an act which is narrated repeatedly and glowingly throughout the Book of Joshua.

History is written by the winners, and the winners of Western history are very much the ancient enemies of the Phoenicians — Romans, Greeks, and Christians, the latter of which co-opted the Jewish Torah with its anti-Baal rants. So it’s not surprising that the Phoenicians’ most recognizable god came to be cast as a symbol of pure evil. Which is a real shame, because this nasty reputation has obscured an ancient, long-lived religion that’s both fascinating in its own right and illuminating in its many connections to nearby cultures — including, of course, the cultures of Judaism, Greece, and Rome.

I’m not saying we should give Baal-Hamon a pass for demanding infants as sacrifices, let along that anyone should restart the worship of these imaginary characters today — but let’s not throw stones at the ancient Phoenicians from glass houses, either.

Note: Passages from the Baal Cycle are taken from the translation found in Stories from Ancient Canaan, edited by Michael D. Coogan and Mark S. Smith. The inscription about the Bomilcar’s poor son is from Carthage Must Be Destroyed, by Richard Miles.

Feel free to follow me, @DanielKenis, on the Twitters. And for more stories about our Phoenician friends, check out my publication, The Purple People:

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