(or, What This Ugaritian Storm-God Looks Like Now Will Astound You!)
- Ever since excavations began at the Syrian city of Ugarit in 1929, the importance of the god Baʿal has been clear. Among the first Ugaritic texts discovered at the site were mythological tablets recounting the legends of this god; Baʿal’s temple was excavated in prime position on the city’s acropolis, close to that of his father Dagan. While the supreme god El occupied the pinnacle of the Ugaritian pantheon, as more and more ritual and religious documents have been recovered from Ugarit, it’s become unquestionable that the city’s people felt a particular fondness and affinity for Baʿal, the archetypal king who had his palace on Mount Saphon overlooking the city.
But Baʿal was not solely an Ugaritian god and knowledge of him was far from lost with the destruction of the city around 1176 BC. Through the distorting filters of hostile Judaeo-Christian writings and the medieval and later traditions of demonology and the occult which reinterpreted them, Baʿal has enjoyed quite an afterlife which has taken him from Canaanite king and storm-god to lurid demon in the court of Satan. In this incarnation he’s spread through popular culture. It’s a massive amount of cultural baggage to have built up even before those first Ugaritic texts were discovered.
Let’s back up. Who exactly was Baʿal? The word itself just means ‘lord’ or ‘owner’ and was commonly applied to a wide range of deities across the Bronze and Iron Age Levant. More properly, the Baʿal of Ugarit was Baʿal Hadad, a storm-god also known in Mesopotamia as Adad (or possibly a syncretism of a West Semitic local Baʿal with that Mesopotamian deity), but other Baʿals are also known, probably the most famous being Baʿalat Gebal, the Lady of Byblos. Gradually, though, the title of Baʿal came to be particularly associated with Baʿal Hadad, used essentially as a nickname. While he made his home and was particularly cherished at Ugarit, his cult spread throughout the Levant and even beyond into Egypt. His widespread influence is apparent when we look at some of the myths told of him in the Ugaritic texts. Many of these, such as his battles with the ocean and the sea-serpents Tannin and Leviathan find their way into the Old Testament, attributed to Yahweh. Psalm 29 is widely believed to be a hymn to Baʿal with the name changed. Baʿal’s mythic cycle culminates in his dying, the defeat of Mot, the god of death (with the aid of his charismatic and dangerous sister ʿAnat), and his resurrection and enthronement on high, prefiguring later Levantine resurrecting deities such as Melqart and Jesus.
This influence is only one of very many ways in which the emerging monotheism of first-millennium Israel-Palestine has its roots firmly in traditional Canaanite polytheism. The ‘God’ of the Old Testament is sometimes Yahweh and sometimes El, both deities already worshipped as part of the old Levantine pantheon and the Old Testament abounds with references to other deities, monsters and creatures. How to incorporate these widely-pratised beliefs evidently posed a major challenge for the promoters of monotheism, and it’s common for these deities to be treated as demons or ghosts, or denigrated through puns on their names. So the rpm – deified ancestral kings who appear in the cult of Ugarit and other Levantine sites – appear in the Old Testament as the rephaim: ghosts or giants, while Baʿal zebul – prince Baʿal – is rendered as Baʿalzebub – lord of the flies.
Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.”
But the angel of the Lord said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, ‘Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?’”
2 Kings 1, 2-3
Biblical references to Baʿal became increasingly hostile and in Judaic practice it was common to substitute the name Baʿal for the word bōšet – shame, disgrace – when reading aloud. The way was set for Baʿal’s transmogrification into a demon. By the time of the New Testament, Baʿal zebul had become the chief of demons, associated with Satan and contrasted with God. His powers seem to be associated with possession and exorcism:
Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.
The monstrous, Satanic view of Baʿal was taken up by Christian demonology, elaborated almost beyond all recognition from the original source and splintering into numerous variants. As Baʿal he became one of the seven princes of Hell and a general of its armies. The seventeenth-century grimoire The Lesser Key of Solomon lists him in prime position among the seventy-two spirits supposedly commanded by Solomon:
The first principall spirit is a king ruling in ye East, called Bael. He maketh men goe Invisible, he ruleth over 66 Legions of Inferiour spirits, he appeareth in divers shapes, sometimes like a Catt, sometimes like a Toad, sometimes like a man, & sometimes in all these formes at once. He speaketh very horsly. This is his Character wch is to be worne as a Lamen before him who calleth him forth, or else he will not doe you homage.
Peterson 2001, 7
I’ve often wanted a cat, and one that grants me the power of invisibility and can advise me on Ugaritian research questions would be particularly useful, but I probably won’t be attempting to call up Baʿal and have him do me homage. Still, there you go, the instructions are there on the internet if you look for them.
Baʿal-worship has been an evergreen metaphor for Christians decrying moral collapse, from Catholicism to TV and general ‘liberalism’. You could write reams on this, but it would mean a depressing amount of time looking at right-wing Christian fundamentalist literature so, you know, let’s not do that. It’s much more fun to stick with the literal Baʿal (though a quick glance at some right-wing websites suggests at least some of them do take their accusations of modern Baal-worship literally).
Baʿal makes a cameo in Milton’s Paradise Lost, alongside another Bronze Age Levantine deity, the goddess Aštarte, who follows a similar trajectory to demonhood:
Yet thence his lustful orgies he enlarged
Even to that hill of scandal, by the grove
Of Moloch homicide, lust hard by hate;
Till good Josiah drove them thence to Hell.
With these came they, who from the bordering flood
Of old Euphrates to the brook that parts
Egypt from Syrian ground, had general names
Of Baalim and Ashtaroth, those male,
These feminine. For spirits when they please
Can either sex assume, or both.
Paradise Lost 1.415-24
In the 19th century, the French occultist Jacques Collin de Plancy included Baʿal in his Dictionnaire Infernal, the 1863 edition of which includes some wonderfully lurid illustrations by Louis le Breton. The one of Baʿal is clearly based on the description in the Lesser Key of Solomon (with bonus spider-legs!) and is a far cry from his Ugaritian iconography.
Since then, depictions have varied wildly across popular media, but often hark back to aspects of the original mythology or post-Christian demonological tradition. Here’s an alien Baʿal in the sci-fi series Stargate SG-1. I’m not sure what’s going on with the Egyptian hieroglyphs but they at least hint at the Bronze Age Near East; I presume his largely human aspect was essentially a budgetary consideration (I’m not very well-versed in Stargate; does it show?).
Naturally Baʿal has also found his way into that grab-bag of mythology, Dungeons and Dragons, where his vital statistics in Gary Gygax’s Monster Manual II read as follows:
frequency: unique (very rare)
no. appearing: 1
armor class: -3
hit dice: 106hp
% in lair: 55%
treasure type: g, p
no. of attacks: 2
damage attack: by weapon type +6
special attacks: see below
special defenses: see below
magic resistance: 70%
alignment: lawful evil
size: l (8′ tall)
psionic ability: 206
Attack/Defense Modes: all
S: 18/00 I: 16 W: ? D: ? C: ? CH: ?
level/xp value: X/35,000 (material form only)
Bael is vassal to Mammon, commanding 66 companies of barbed devils. In battle array Bael wears armor of bronze fashioned in the ancient style and uses a +2 morning star with a long bronze handle which telescopes magically from 4-8 feet in length as Bael desires. In addition to normal attacks, Bael can, at-will, once per round, use the following spell-like powers as a 20th-level magic user: alter self, animate dead, cause serious wounds, detect invisible, detect magic, dispel magic, invisibility, know alignment, produce fire, pyrotechnics, read languages, read magic, shape change twice per day, suggestion, teleportation, wind walk, fulfill another’s limited wish. Once per day Bael can employ a symbol of stunning. He radiates fear within a 20-foot radius when he so desires. He can summon 1-4 barbed devils with a 65% chance of success. Bael regenerates 1 point per round.
Bael is a well-formed humanoid with golden skin. His head is rather long and has small, forward curling bull’s horns. His features are rather bovine with large, round eyes, a long and broad nose, and protruding ears.
Taken from this website.
Or here’s Baʿal in the video-game Bayonetta 2, with the toad-aspect from the Lesser Key of Solomon showing through, but now apparently a female ‘Empress of the Fathoms’. Sorry, I can’t elucidate on that any further; I never made it very far with Bayonetta…
So there you go, king, fertility- and storm-god living on a mountain in Syria to giant toad-empress in a Japanese video-game in just three-thousand-ish years. It’s amazing the paths a god’s afterlife can take.
Callot, O. 2011 – Les sanctuaires de l’acropole d’Ougarit: les temples de Baal et de Dagan
Peterson, J. 2001 – The Lesser Key of Solomon: Lemegeton Clavicula Salomonis
van der Toorn, K. et al. (eds.). 1999 – Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, 2nd ed.