Scholars in religious studies and related disciplines use the term cult to refer to the various forms of religious devotion attested for a civilization. This entry will focus on the Northwest Semitic cultural sphere, which in the period before 332 BCE included much of the coastal and inland Levant, from north of present day Syria and Iraq and south to the Sinai Peninsula. In the mid- to late second millennium BCE, the Northwest Semitic cultural sphere also included the Nile Delta in Egypt. During the first half of the first millennium, that cultural sphere moved west with the Phoenician colonization of much of the western Mediterranean. Northwest Semitic is a linguistic term used to describe Canaanite and Aramaic, the two primary languages spoken by the inhabitants of the coastal and inland Levant during much of the period before 332 BCE; it is also used by specialists to describe the civilizations of the area and their cults. Canaanite dialects include Phoenician, Punic (Phoenician of the western Mediterranean), Hebrew, Ammonite, Moabite, Edomite, and Ugaritic (though some scholars would dispute this categorization of Ugaritic, viewing it as a separate language). Various Aramaic dialects are also attested in first-millennium BCE texts.

A number of important sources are available for reconstructing religious devotion in the Northwest Semitic cultural sphere. Among these are nonliterary material remains from various excavated sites: altars, temples, cultic utensils, and organic matter (e.g., charred bones from sacrifices); tombs and other burials; figurines, plaques, statues and engraved stelae with representations of deities or their symbols. In addition, literary materials of various stripe are well attested: cycles of myth, “epic” texts, royal inscriptions, treaties, pantheon lists, personal names, dedications to deities, and inscriptions on sarcophagi. The major Northwest Semitic literary corpora from the second millennium of significance for reconstructing cult include the Ugaritic texts (the extant archives of a cosmopolitan center on the northern Levantine coast destroyed In c. 1200 BCE); the Mari documents (letters and other materials from the eighteenth century BCE); and various Egyptian inscriptions from the New Kingdom (c. sixteenth-eleventh century BCE). From the first millennium, the most important sources include the Hebrew Bible (an anthology of Israelite literature spanning 1,000 years); various Phoenician, Punic, and Aramaic inscriptions; and the Canaanite mythic lore attributed to a Phoenician priest, Sakkunyaton, preserved by Philo of Byblos (late first/early second century CE), and transmitted in fragmentary form in Greek by the fourth-century church father Eusebius of Caesarea (in his Praeparatio evangelica).

Various aspects of Northwest Semitic cultic devotion have received significant attention from specialists in recent decades. These include general topics that transcend particular cults, such as the relationship of mythic texts to ritual; the functions of sacrifices and offerings; cultic devotion to dead ancestors; gender and the cult; and the relationship of official and popular religion, including attempts to define precisely what constitutes each. In addition, topics pertaining to particular cults, especially that of Israel, have attracted much interest. These include the place of child sacrifice and the role of a goddess or goddesses in the cult of Yahweh, and the broader question of the relationship of Israelite religion to its Northwest Semitic environment. Although all of these topics have attracted sustained attention from the scholarly community and frequently engendered passionate debate, in many cases no broad consensus has been reached.


Many gods and goddesses appear as actors in mythic and epic texts; they receive dedications from worshipers, support rulers and dynasties according to royal inscriptions, and function as witnesses in treaties; their names are listed in pantheon tabulations and appear as theophoric elements in personal names. Gods receiving cultic devotion are frequently imagined as beneficent parents or kin, providers of progeny and the earth's good bounty to their worshipers. The Ugaritic epic stories “Kirta” and “Aqhat,” and Genesis 15, each evidence the motif of the heirless patriarch or king provided with a son by his divine benefactor. Various Ugaritic texts state that Baal's rains bring fructification to the earth; in “Kirta,” El's command cures Kirta's disease. Names such as Binbaal (“son of Baal”), Bodtannit (“in the hand of Tannit”), Ashtartyaton (“Ashtart gave”), and Yoab (“Yahweh is father”) well illustrate the manner in which worshipers imagined their relationship to the divine. Deities such as El, Asherah, Baal/Hadad, and Yahweh are imagined as creators—of the gods, of creatures, of the world. The name Yahweh may in fact be a causative form of the verb to be, meaning “he creates” with the object ṣĕbā'ôt “(the heavenly) armies” (Cross, 1973, pp. 60–71).

Northwest Semitic gods were typically paired with goddesses, as in other ancient Near Eastern cults: El with Asherah or Ashtart (according to Sakkunyaton); Baal/Hadad with Anat, Ashtart, Pidray or other goddesses; Yariḥ with Nikkal (KTU 1.24). God and goddess pairs are attested among the hundreds of divine figurines discovered throughout the Levant. According to some scholars, Yahweh was probably no exception to this pattern. Inscriptions discovered in the 1970s at Kuntillet ῾Ajrud in the Sinai Desert, as well as biblical texts, such as Deuteronomy 16:21, suggest the probability of a consort relationship between Yahweh and Asherah, both in popular devotion and in non-Deuteronomistic state religion. However, this view remains controversial (see further, Saul M. Olyan, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel, Atlanta, 1988; for a different approach, see P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., “Aspects of the Religion of the Israelite Monarchy: Biblical and Epigraphic Data,” in Ancient Israelite Religion, edited by Patrick D. Miller, Jr., et al., pp. 137–55, Philadelphia, 1987).

It is clear that the idea of a pantheon or divine council was widespread throughout the Northwest Semitic cultural sphere, including in Israel. In the mythic and epic materials from Ugarit, El heads the divine council; in biblical texts such as Psalm 89:6–9 [Eng. 5–8], Yahweh, Israel's national god and likely a manifestation of El, is described similarly (see further, Cross, 1973, on the relationship of El, Baal, and Yahweh). While, the lesser gods in Yahweh's council are nameless and may possess no independent will or authority, this is not the case in the Ugaritic texts, where gods and goddesses are frequently described in conflict, vying for power. In the Baal cycle, Sea claims kingship over the gods, only to be vanquished by Baal; Anat threatens her father El, head of the council; Shapsh, the Sun, threatens Death in the name of El. A number of scholars have argued that El's authority over the pantheon erodes over time, but this remains unproved; in some formulations, El is thought to be displaced by Baal as head of the council (see, for example, Marvin Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts, Leiden, 1955; and, more recently, U. Oldenburg, The Conflict Between El and Ba῾al in Canaanite Religion, Leiden, 1969). A tendency to elaborate the pantheon through the fusion of divine names to produce new deities is a widely attested phenomenon (e.g., Tannit-Ashtart, Arshaph-Melqart, Eshmun-Ashtart); the divinization of a deity's attributes (e.g., holiness, justice), cultic elements and weapons (e.g., censer, lyre, lance), or the cult place itself (e.g., temple) is also well known in second and first millennia texts.


CULT. Warrior god figure, perhaps Ba῾al-Hadad. Late Bronze Age. (Courtesy ASOR Archives)

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Israel's religion as attested in biblical sources is better described as monolatry than as monotheism; even biblical texts that insist on the worship of one god acknowledge the existence of others (e.g., Dt. 4:19–20,29:25) and divine council scenes are not uncommon in biblical narrative. Yahweh's claim to exclusive worship was one component of his covenantal bond with Israel; in a typical ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal covenant, after which the Yahweh-Israel bond was modeled, the suzerain demands exclusive rights from the vassal. Israel's monolatry was not altogether different from the national cults of the other kingdoms that emerged in the area at about the same time. What little we know of the cults of Moab, Ammon, and Edom suggest that they too were focused on the worship of a national deity, although devotion to that god was very likely not exclusive.

The preeminent gods of mythic and epic texts, royal dedications, and pantheon lists were sometimes the deities who were most frequently worshipped by elements of the wider populace in a given place at a given time, but not necessarily. A god such as Baal Hadad, a major actor in the mythic cycles from Ugarit and Sakkunyaton's lore, whose name appears near the top of extant pantheon lists from Ugarit, enjoyed widespread popularity in the second and first millennia, among Aramaic as well as Canaanite speakers, given the frequency of his appearance in dedications, treaties, and personal names. A contrasting case is the goddess Astarte, a consort of Baal in some contexts. Though Astarte played a significant role in the official cult of New Kingdom Egypt, appearing in a variety of royal inscriptions, very few personal names compounded with Astarte are attested, suggesting that her role in popular worship might have been limited in that context. More difficult to explain is the evidence attested for the worship of the goddess Tannit (probably an epithet of Asherah) in the Punic colonies of the western Mediterranean. Tannit appears in literally thousands of dedications from the mid- to late first millennium, yet personal names compounded with Tannit are rare. Here we touch on the complex problem of the relationship between official and popular religion on the one hand and of various modes of popular devotion on the other. A deity important in the official cult may not necessarily be important in the quotidian lives of worshipers; a god or goddess important in one class of evidence for popular devotion may hardly appear in another class contemporaneous with it. Such disjunction suggests that there is still much we do not understand about the religious devotion of the ancients.

The study of myth and epic has been the focus of much attention since the initial discovery of ancient Ugarit more than sixty years ago. Three great poetic compositions, the mythic Baal cycle, and the epic stories “Kirta” and “Aqhat,” written in a Canaanite dialect in an alphabetic cuneiform script, were unearthed; many lesser mythic texts of interest have appeared as well, some as recently as the last thirty years (see, for example, texts in Ugaritica, vol. 5, Jean Nougayrol et al., eds., Paris, 1968). These critical discoveries supplement the largely Phoenician mythological lore of Sakkunyaton from the first millennium; they tend to confirm the basic authenticity of much of Sakkunyaton's lore, even though the latter is frequently shrouded in a hellenized, euhemerized form. Together, these two corpora form the basis for any serious discussion of Canaanite mythology.

The Baal cycle tells of the storm god Baal's battles with two foes: the forces of chaos represented by Sea (Yamm) or sea dragon (Lotan; cf. the cognate biblical word Leviathan) and the forces of sterility and death personified in the deity Death (Mot). The battles with Sea and sea dragon are alloforms, both ending in victory for Baal; a third version of this conflict pattern, in which Baal is vanquished by Sea, occurs in Sakkunyaton's lore. This mythic pattern of conflict is widespread, attested elsewhere in the Northwest Semitic cultural sphere, in various Hebrew Bible texts (for example, Ps. 29:10, 89:6–13 [Eng. 5–12]; Is. 27:1) and in the Mesopotamian myth Enuma elish, and has been the subject of much scholarly discussion. The details of each version may differ, but the general pattern is usually the same: Sea or sea dragon, a threatening force, is vanquished by a warrior god (Baal, Yahweh, Marduk) who assumes kingship after victory. The Baal cycle from Ugarit, which is incomplete and sometimes fragmentary, tells of the building of Baal's temple after his victory and his assumption of divine kingship but contains no creation story; in contrast, the Enuma elish tells of the creation of the heavens, earth, and humanity by victorious Marduk. Enuma elish begins with theogony; in contrast, the Baal cycle contains no theogonic narrative. No consensus has been reached on whether the Baal cycle represents a primitive version of the conflict myth without theogonic and cosmogonic elaboration, or it is incomplete in its present form, lacking a theogonic and/or cosmogonic element that was once present.

The precise relationship between myth and ritual has been widely debated for many decades, and on this no consensus has been reached. Many scholars believe that mythic and epic materials such as the Baal cycle, “the Birth of Dawn and Dusk” (KTU 1.23) and “Kirta” had a ritual, or cultic, setting; however, the function of the narrative in such a setting has been difficult to delimit. Some have even argued that ritual drama played a role in the Israelite cult. We know from a colophon that the Baal cycle extant from Ugarit was recited by the chief priest Attanu-Purlianni in the fourteenth century BCE under royal sponsorship (Niqmaddu II, c. 1375–1345), but the purpose of this recitation appears to have been the production of an official written version for the temple archives (KTU 1.6 VI 54–58). It has never been demonstrated convincingly that the Baal cycle, “Kirta,” or any other mythic or epic narrative was actually acted out in the cult in some kind of ritual drama. (see further I. Engnell, Studies in Divine Kingship in the Ancient Near East, Uppsala, 1943, and Helmer Ringgren, Religions of the Ancient Near East, Philadelphia, 1973, pp. 162–164, for favorable articulations of the myth and ritual position).


A deity was worshiped in a holy place that was sometimes located on an elevation, frequently within the confines of a city. A temple, the god's dwelling, or house, often stood within the sanctuary grounds. Divinities were enthroned within their temples; they were served by cultic functionaries—specialists responsible for the upkeep of the sanctuary and its proper functioning. In addition to a cultic image or stelae, the typical temple might also contain incense stands or altars; offering tables, dishes, bowls, or basins; votive items, such as ornaments of precious stone, metal objects, or beads; and burial pits for discarded cultic materials. Where there is evidence for an altar of burnt offerings, it stood outside of the house. A broadhouse structure from Middle and Late Bronze Age Hazor (beginning with stratum III) had a rectangular platform in its courtyard with a drainage channel, evidence of the presence of an altar. An altar of unfinished stones and soil, with plastered channels, was found in the court of the Iron II Israelite temple at Arad (ANE 2, picture 105). At Beersheba, a deconstructed horned altar of ashlar blocks was found.

Engraved stelae portray deities receiving offerings from kings (e.g., Yehawmilk of Byblos, ANE 1, picture 130, where the goddess, the “Lady of Byblos,” raises her right hand in a gesture of blessing). In some cults, royal personages served as hereditary priests or priestesses for their patron deities; Sidon is one example of this, as evidenced in the Tabnit and Eshmunazar inscriptions (KAI 13 and 14; English translations in ANE 2.227–229). [See Eshmunazar Inscription.] Kings frequently boasted of their temple building activities, a pattern ubiquitous in the ancient Near East. When Israel emerged as a significant regional power in the tenth century, a national shrine was constructed under royal patronage for Yahweh in Jerusalem, the imperial capital. A house of cedar, it stood next to the royal palace, a symbol of order, stability, and the eternal rule of both the Davidic dynasty and its patron god. Evidence for the king as a quasi-divine figure, the adopted son of his patron god, is found both in “Kirta” and in Judean royal propaganda (e.g., Ps. 2:7–9, 89:20–38 [Eng., 19–37]; 2 Sm. 7:11b–16).

A number of architectural patterns are attested for temples in the Northwest Semitic cultural sphere. The most common temple design in Canaan proper was the “broad house,” with an entry on one long side into a single room; often, a niche was placed in the wall opposite the entrance, within which a divine image or images might rest. This temple design is exceedingly ancient, predating the beginnings of the so-called Bronze Age at Chalcolithic ῾Ein-Gedi in Israel (Aharoni, 1982, pp. 43–45); it was utilized at such sites as Hazor, Megiddo, Jericho, and Lachish, as well as at Israelite Arad. Another temple pattern, the “temple tower,” is attested at such sites as Shechem, Megiddo, and Hazor in Israel at Alalakh in Syria; it was a broad room with towers flanking the entry area. A third model, the “long house,” was used for the Jerusalem temple built by Solomon in the tenth century BCE. It consisted of three rooms, with an entry on one short side. The closest architectural parallel to the Jerusalem temple comes from Neo-Hittite Tell Ta῾yinat (ninth century BCE). It has been argued that this version of the long house, along with other Neo-Hittite cultural features, was borrowed during the tenth century BCE, Israel's imperial era.

Many cultic icons have been unearthed, some of which stood on platforms, in cultic niches, or elsewhere within temples. Some of these are clearly representations of deities or divine pairs in a variety of poses; others, such as images of bulls, appear to have served as thrones for deities; in some instances, deity and throne were discovered attached. Icons were often cast in metals such as bronze or copper; some were covered with silver, gold, or electrum. These figurines are generally quite small, especially in comparison to Mesopotamian examples. One example of a divine image is the seated stone figure found in the niche of the Late Bronze Stela Temple excavated at Hazor (ANE 2, picture 103). Along with the statue of the deity, there were a number of standing stones (stelae), well-known symbols of divinity found elsewhere. Interesting metal icons from the Levant include a divine couple standing on the back of a bull (Ora Negbi, Canaanite Gods in Metal, Tel Aviv, 1976, no. 14) and a consort pair in a chariot (no. 22). Though the cult of Yahweh apparently eschewed images of the deity, the use of stelae to symbolize Yahweh's presence was probably common before the Deuteronomistic reforms of the eighth and seventh centurie BCE, to judge from the archeological finds at Israelite Arad and the textual evidence (e.g., Gn. 28:11–22; 35:14, 20). Besides stelae, some Israelite temples contained icons that functioned as thrones upon which the invisible Yahweh was seated (e.g., the bulls found at Bethel and Dan and, according to biblical texts, cherubs in the Jerusalem Temple). An asherah, likely a stylized wooden tree symbolizing the goddess Asherah, stood in various Yahwistic sanctuaries in Israel and Judah, according to a variety of biblical texts; it is also mentioned in inscriptions from Kuntillet ῾Ajrud, Khirbet el-Qom, and Tel Miqne.


CULT. Bronze figurine of warrior god standing on an oxhide ingot. From Enkomi, height 35 cm. (Archives CFA Schaeffer, Paris)

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Animal sacrifice and the cultic collection of the products of agriculture and horticulture were activities widely practiced throughout the Northwest Semitic cultural sphere. Sacrifices and offerings had many purposes: they were intended as gifts for deities, from whom worshipers frequently sought blessing; they served as food for the gods; and they were a form of taxation to support the cultic establishment. Other attested purposes include the correction of sin, the fulfillment of vows, and communion with the deity. The system of sacrifices and offerings evidenced in the most detail is Israel's, but there are significant data from Ugarit and the western Phoenician colonies. In many respects, Israelite sacrifice resembled that of other Northwest Semitic peoples. Israelites offered up unblemished sheep, goats, and cattle; birds such as turtledoves and pigeons; oil, wine, and grains in various forms; and incense. From sacrificial lists found at Ugarit there is evidence that cows and sheep were offered to deities of the city's pantheon (CTA 34, 35, 36). “Kirta” describes impressionistically a sacrificial ritual in which a lamb and bird are offered, wine is poured out, and prayer is directed toward heaven. Punic sacrifices included goats, sheep, cattle, birds, and grain products. Much Israelite sacrificial terminology is not unlike that found in inscriptional evidence from the Punic west, Ugarit, and elsewhere. Sacrificial tariffs from Marseille (KAI 69; English translations in ANE 1.221–223) and Carthage (KAI 74; translations in ANE 1.223–224) list offerings that include such sacrificial terms as zbḥ, kll, and mnḥt, all with biblical cognates [See Marseille Tariff]; they bear witness to sacrifices shared by priests and worshipers, as in Israel's cult (cf. Heb., šĕlāmîm, “sacrifices,” in Lv. 3).

Differences between Israelite sacrifice and that of other Northwest Semitic cults are evident. While the manipulation of blood played a central role in the former, there is little or no indication that it did at Ugarit or in first-millennium Phoenicia or the Punic west (cf. Mesopotamia, where blood played no significant role). Furthermore, purity concerns, so central for Yahweh's cult, are virtually unattested outside of Israelite sources. For example, the Hebrew term ṭāmē' (“unclean”) and other derivatives from its root, are unattested in the Ugaritic-Phoenician lexicon (however, note the apparent concern for the purity of the sanctuary in Lucian's description of the cult at Hierapolis [The Syrian Goddess 52–53] and the evidence for purity concerns in the cult in Mesopotamia). There are indications that a feeding and pleasing element was present in Israelite sacrifice to Yahweh, but it was at best vestigial (see Gn. 8:20–21; Lv. 21:22; Nm. 28:2; and Dt. 33:10, where it occurs).

Textual and archeological evidence indicates that child sacrifice was practiced in much of the Northwest Semitic cultural sphere, including Israel. Sacred precincts (tophets) have been unearthed at a number of sites in the central and western Mediterranean where the Phoenicians had established colonies (e.g., Nora, Sulcis, and Tharros in Sardinia; Motya in Sicily; Carthage and Hadrumetum [Sousse] in North Africa); in the east, the only major site to have been discovered thus far is at the Amman Airport in Jordan. The largest site was found at Carthage. This precinct, which was utilized for nearly six hundred years, contains thousands of burial urns filled with the charred bones of infants, children, or small sacrificial animals and birds, which very likely functioned as substitutes for children; the burials were marked in some phases by stelae, some of which record dedications to Baal Hamon (very likely an epithet of El) and his consort Tannit (very likely an epithet of Asherah). Sakkunyaton records two versions of a myth in which El (called Kronos) sacrifices his “only son” in a threatening situation (war/plague). Various Greek and Latin sources bear witness to Punic child sacrifice and may even allude to the myth of El recorded by Sakkunyaton (e.g., Diodorus of Sicily, Library of History 20.14.7; Tertullian, Apology 9.4). El and Asherah appear to be the preeminent deities of child sacrifice, at least in the Punic West; for the East only conjecture is possible.

A technical term, molk, occurs occasionally in Phoenician and Punic inscriptions, usually compounded with a second term (e.g., molk 'adam; molk ba῾l; molk ῾omor); in such compounds, molk seems to mean a type of sacrifice, either of a child or of an animal substitute for a child (see Eissfeldt, 1935). The biblical molek is best explained as a sacrificial term cognate to the Punic molk, although some scholars argue that molek is the name of a god of child sacrifice (e.g., George C. Heider, The Cult of Molek: A Reassessment, Sheffield, 1986; John Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament, Cambridge, 1989). Child sacrifice in Israel was more likely directed to Yahweh than a supposed god Molek, as the development of the so-called law of the firstborn (Ex. 13:1–2, 11–16, 22:28b–29 [Eng.29b–30], 34:19–20; Nm. 3:11–13, 41), certain prophetic texts (Ez.20:25–26; Mi. 6:6–8), and Genesis22 all strongly suggest. The cultic function of child sacrifice is not entirely clear. Evidence suggests that parents sacrificed their children to fulfill a vow; to petition for blessing, health, and happiness; to give thanks for blessings received; or to obey the order of a patron god. Some texts present child sacrifice as a response to crisis and danger (2 Kgs. 3:27; Diodorus of Sicily; the El myth recorded by Sakkunyaton); Micah6:6–8 suggests that such sacrifices to Yahweh were presented as sin offerings. Whatever the function of child sacrifice, animal substitution was a widely attested option for parents (see especially the second/third century CE Ngaous inscriptions from Algeria, which contain substitution ritual formulas [Eissfeldt, 1935, pp. 1–7]).

Ancestor Cults.

Life after death, the abode of the dead, the archaeology of death, the ritual state of mourning, and cults devoted to dead ancestors have all attracted serious attention from the scholarly community in recent years. Ancestor cults were apparently quite widespread, attested among both Aramaic and Canaanite speakers, to judge from the archaeological and textual evidence. Various sources suggest that members of royal and aristocratic elites, and perhaps others, communed with dead ancestors in the home, in temples, and possibly in the context of a property-owning, feasting society called the marzēaḥ (there is, however, much that we still do not understand about this institution, including the extent of its associations with ancestral cults). The Hadad inscription from eighth-century Zincirli (KAI 214) mentions the obligation of the heir to invoke the name of the dead king in Hadad's temple in a sacrificial context. This notion of the heir invoking the dead father's name occurs in the Hebrew Bible as well, where the erection of a memorial stela by David's son Absalom is mentioned (2 Sm.18:18; cf. the Ugaritic “Aqhat,” where the heir is obliged “to set up a stela for his divine [dead] ancestor,” KTU 1.17 I 26). The heir may have cared for and fed the dead, as in Mesopotamia, although the exact nature of this activity has been the subject of vigorous debate (see Theodore J. Lewis, Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit, Atlanta, 1989, for a discussion). It seems clear that the dead were deified, even in Israel (1 Sm. 28:13 and possibly Is.8:19), but the exact nature of their “divine” status remains unclear. Ugaritic pantheon lists typically begin with or include 'il'ib, most convincingly explained as “the divine (dead) ancestor.” A class of ancestors called Rephaim is mentioned in materials from both the second and first millennia BCE. The meaning of their title (“hale ones”; “healers”; “weak,” or “sunken, ones”; and even “great ones”?) and even their status as dead ancestors has been much discussed. No consensus has emerged regarding the meaning of their title, but most scholars now view the Rephaim as dead ancestors rather than living heroes.

Cultic Specialists.

Religious practitioners and cultic functionaries such as priests, prophetic figures, mediums, diviners, and professional mourners are all attested in texts from the Northwest Semitic cultural sphere. Each specialization had its own area of influence and control; each probably mediated skills through forms of apprenticeship. The priesthood controlled the sanctuary complex, collecting and processing offerings and sacrifices from worshipers; they oversaw the care of the property, provided for the music and song of cultic rites, blessed worshipers, and practiced divination in some contexts. Evidence suggests that priests also functioned to mediate mythic and epic lore and probably other forms of knowledge (see for instance the role ascribed by tradition to Sakkunyaton, allegedly a Phoenician priest, or the activity of Attanu-Purlianni in fourteenth century BCE Ugarit, as witnessed in the Baal cycle colophon [KTU 1.6 VI 54–58]). Aside from priests, other specialists and functionaries are attested in various Northwest Semitic cults. A Phoenician inscription from Kition in Cyprus mentions, among others, “servants” (n῾rm), “sacrificers” (zbḥm), “barbers” (glbm), “masons” (ḥršm), and a chief scribe (rb sprm); other lists mention singers, musicians, male and female “holy ones” (some claim these were cult prostitutes, others deny it. See further, Kavel van der Toorn, “Female Prostitution in Payment of Vows in Ancient Israel,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108 [1989]: 193–205, on the problem of sacred prostitution). Sacrifices and offerings functioned partially to support the cult and its specialists, a form of taxation in kind. There is evidence that at least some temple complexes also had their own flocks and herds: lists of cultic functionaries from Ugarit mention nqdm, “herders,” along with the priests and other temple officials. In Israel, the priesthood of Yahweh was all male, in contrast to the cults of other Northwest Semitic deities, where women sometimes played a priestly role (e.g., Sidon and Carthage). There is evidence that at least some priesthoods were hereditary elites. A stela from Carthage lists three generations of high priests from the same family (KAI 81); a tomb inscription lists five generations of priests. In Israel the priesthood developed over time from a group of specialists (Levites) open to the adoption of outsiders as apprentices (e.g., Samuel) into an increasingly exclusive, hereditary elite. Conflict between various priestly clans is well attested in biblical sources.

Prophetic activity associated with the cult is attested in Israel and elsewhere in the Northwest Semitic cultural sphere. Through the oracles of prophets, often delivered in an ecstatic state, a god's message to a king or community was mediated. The twelfth-century narrative of Wenamun, a cultic official from Karnak, reports an incident in which an attendant of Zakarbaal, ruler of Byblos, entered an ecstatic state during a sacrifice and delivered a divine oracle (see ANE 1.18). The Mari texts attest to the activity of male and female prophetlike figures (e.g., āpilu and āpiltu, muḫḫu). The Aramaic Zakkur inscription from Ḥamath claims that Baal Shamayn (Baal Shamêm) spoke to the king through intermediaries (KAI 202). Various anthologies of prophetic oracles survive from Israel, where prophets claimed to mediate Yahweh's word. Intermediation was accomplished by persons peripheral to the cult, as well as by those who occupied a central position, and positions could change over time (see further, R. R. Wilson, Prophecy and Society in Ancient Israel, Philadelphia, 1980, for an interesting comparative perspective). Prophetic figures, like priests and others, practiced forms of divination.


CULT. Gypsum statuette from Tell Asmar. (Courtesy Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago)

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Other religious specialists included mediums and necromancers and professional mourners. Mediums and necromancers, many of whom were women, consulted the dead on behalf of the living (1 Sm. 28; Is. 8:19); some texts suggest that the dead possessed useful information that the living might want to know, as well as the power to bring well-being to those who survived them. Mediums and necromancers apparently communicated with the dead by means of imitating their characteristic speech: bird sounds (Is.8:19, 29:4, 38:14; and cf. “Gilgamesh,” ANE 1.58; “Descent of Ishtar,” ANE 1.81; and “Nergal and Ereshkigal,” ANE 2.9, for Mesopotamian texts in which the dead have the appearance of birds and/or make birdlike sounds). Because they competed with priests and prophets in the arena of divination, mediums and necromancers were attacked by their increasingly powerful rivals in Israel during and following the period of the Divided Kingdom (Dt.18:10–12; Lv. 19:31; 20:6, 27). Professional mourners, frequently women skilled in weeping, wailing, and the composition of lamentations, are attested in a number of contexts (“Kirta”; Jer.9:16–18, 19–20 [Eng. 17–19, 20–21]; 2 Sm. 1:20, 24). It is clear that women played an important role in death-related specializations in at least some Northwest Semitic cults.

[See also Arad; Beersheba; Canaanites; Kuntillet ῾Ajrud; Mari Texts; Temples, articles on Mesopotamian Temples and Syro-Palestinian Temples; Ugarit. In addition, most of the other sites mentioned are the subject of independent entries.]


  • Aharoni, Yohanan. The Archaeology of the Land of Israel. Translated by Anson F. Rainey. Philadelphia, 1982.
  • Albright, William F. Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968). Reprint, Winona Lake, Ind., 1990.
    Classic reconstruction, by one of this century's most talented and influential scholars
  • Anderson, Gary A. Sacrifices and Offerings in Ancient Israel. Atlanta, 1987.
    Recent contribution to our understanding of sacrifices and offerings in Israel and the Northwest Semitic cultural sphere
  • Anderson, Gary A. A Time to Mourn, a Time to Dance: The Expression of Grief and Joy in Israelite Religion. University Park, Pa., 1991.
    Insightful study of mourning and rejoicing as ritual antitypes
  • Attridge, Harold W., and R. A. Oden, Jr., eds. and trans. Philo of Byblos: The Phoenician History. Washington, D.C., 1980.
    Useful text, translation, and introduction to the Sakkunyaton material
  • Baumgarten, Albert I., ed. and trans. The Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos: A Commentary. Leiden, 1981.
    Alternative to the edition by Attridge and Oden
  • Ben-Tor, Amnon, ed. The Archaeology of Ancient Israel. New Haven, 1992.
    Recent survey, period by period, by one of Israel's leading archaeologists
  • Bloch-Smith, Elizabeth. Judahite Burial Practices and Beliefs about the Dead. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament, Supplement 123. Sheffield, 1992.
    Excellent, comprehensive survey of archaeological materials pertaining to death, burial, and ancestor cults in Israel
  • Coogan, Michael David, ed. and trans. Stories from Ancient Canaan. Philadelphia, 1978.
    Helpful translation and introduction to the mythological and epic material from Ugarit
  • Craigie, Peter C. Ugarit and the Old Testament. Philadelphia, 1983.
  • Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge, Mass., 1973.
  • Cross, Frank Moore. “The Epic Traditions of Early Israel: Epic Narrative and the Reconstruction of Early Israelite Institutions.” In The Poet and the Historian, edited by Richard Elliott Friedman, pp. 13–39. Chico, Calif., 1983.
    The author develops his position on the use of the term epic to describe material such as JE in the Pentateuch and “Kirta” and “Aqhat” from Ugarit
  • Dietrich, Manfried, Oswald Loretz, and Joaquin Sanmartín. Die keilalphabetische Texte aus Ugarit, vol. 1, Transcription. Neukirchen-Vluyn, 1976.
  • Donner, Herbert, and Wolfgang Röllig. Kanaanäische und aramäische Inschriften. 3 vols. Wiesbaden, 1962–1964.
  • Eissfeldt, Otto. Molk als Opferbegriff im Punischen und Hebräischen und das Ende des Gottes Moloch. Halle, 1935.
  • Halpern, Baruch. “ ‘Brisker Pipes Than Poetry’: The Development of Israelite Monotheism.” In Judaic Perspectives on Ancient Israel, edited by Jacob Neusner et al., pp. 77–115. Philadelphia, 1987.
    Interesting and insightful treatment of a daunting problem
  • Herdner, Andrée. Corpus des tablettes en cunéiformes alphabétiques découvertes à Ras Shamra-Ugarit de 1929 à 1939. Paris, 1963.
  • Ottosson, Magnus. Temples and Cult Places in Palestine. Uppsala, 1980.
    Very useful survey of the archaeological data up to the late 1970s
  • Pope, Marvin H. “The Cult of the Dead at Ugarit.” In Ugarit in Retrospect: Fifty Years of Ugarit and Ugaritic, edited by Gordon D. Young, pp. 159–179. Winona Lake, Ind., 1981.
    One of a number of articles by Pope on this subject. Audacious, controversial, stimulating
  • Pritchard, James B., ed. The Ancient Near East: An Anthology of Texts and Pictures (ANE). 2 vols. Princeton, 1958–1975. Easily accessible translations of important texts, as well as photographs of sites, inscriptions, and coins. An abridgment of his Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, 1950), and The Ancient Near East in Pictures Relating to the Old Testament (Princeton, 1954).
  • Stadelmann, Rainer. Syrisch-Palästinensische Gottheiten in Ägypten. Leiden, 1967.
    Interesting study of the data from Egypt on the worship of Northwest Semitic deities there
  • Stager, Lawrence E. “The Rite of Child Sacrifice at Carthage.” In New Light on Ancient Carthage, edited by John G. Pedley, pp. 1–11. Ann Arbor, 1980.
    Excellent recent overview of the archaeological and epigraphic evidence
  • Vaux, Roland de. Ancient Israel. 2 vols. New York, 1961.
    Classic reconstruction of social and religious institutions in Israel, by this century's most accomplished French scholar
  • Vrijhof, Pieter Hendrick, and Jacques Waardenburg, eds. Official and Popular Religion: Analysis of a Theme for Religious Studies. The Hague, 1979.
    Useful text on a widely discussed issue

Saul M. Olyan