Neo-Canaanites

The world of religious studies is full of surprises. Since people are forever seeking new forms of fulfillment, the endless variety of religions itself comes as no surprise, but the results of religious experimentation sometimes lead into uncharted waters. One of my students at Rutgers recently pointed me to a new religion called Natib Qadish, “the sacred path” in potentially vocalized Ugaritic. (Ugaritic, like most ancient Semitic languages, was written without vowels. Some modern scholars, basing their reconstructions on likely vocalizations known from other Semitic tongues, have tried to give voice to this dead language.) I have no idea how large a following this religion has, but it does maintain a substantial website explaining its core beliefs — the modern worship of the Ugaritic/Canaanite gods.

Unsatisfied with the tradition monotheism that eventually drowned out polytheistic voices in western religions, followers of these reconstructed religions are looking back to something more ancient, more primal, and perhaps, more human. What strikes me as odd concerning all of this is that religions such as Natib Qadish are based on extremely fragmentary understandings of ancient religions. We have perhaps a 101-level understanding of Ugaritic religion; some parts are very well attested, but there are huge lacunae that confuse the overall aspect. As I tell my students, ancient religion was based less on belief than it was on practice. Belief-centered religion is a relative newcomer on the historic scene. Ancients inherited their “religions” without question, based on where they were born. Tess Dawson, the founder of Natib Qadish, writes: “I have yet to find any word that means ‘religion’ in any of the ancient texts.” I would argue that it is because the concept of religion itself is a modern one.

Humans seem to have believed in gods from very early times. If gods are there, they must be placated. This is not religion; it is commonsense. Not to placate gods is to invite disaster. In Ugarit these gods included Hadad (Baal), El, Asherah, and Anat, among a host of others. These were the gods people “discovered” as they tried to fumble their way through a difficult existence. And gods like to eat meat, they learned. Sacrifice was born. What is a feast without ceremony? Ritual must emerge. I know this is overly simplistic, but belief doesn’t really enter into this scenario until late in the game. Heterodox belief was normative until Christianity assigned eternal consequences to correct belief, and now we are free to believe whatever we will.

As far as I can tell, Natib Qadish does not actually involve animal sacrifice to the gods (although it is based in Chicago, long known for its slaughterhouses). Like many modern Christians, the followers of this religion wish to reach back to a more pure form of ancient belief. It is an exercise in futility, however, in many respects. The framework has changed beyond recognition and we have no way of knowing what any ancient god would require of us in an internet age.

SAWHadad

A young Dr. Wiggins meets Hadad in Paris

7 thoughts on “Neo-Canaanites

  1. Hi:

    Interesting article.

    I put up my website, Qadash Kinahnu, in 1997 at:
    http://www.geocities.com/SoHo/Lofts/2938/
    and it was in the ‘net until 26 October 2009, when Yahoo shut GeoCities down. It’s now at a mirror site:
    http://webspace.webring.com/people/nl/lilinah_haanat/

    At least one of your publications is in my bibliography.

    Modern people in the West have been very influenced by Christianity, including Jews and neoPagans, and “belief” and “faith” feature a lot in discussions of religions and religious practices.

    Orthopraxy seems ill understood, but was common in the ancient past: one did what one’s parents and community did.

    I can say that none of the modern neoCanaanites i know, and i’m in touch with quite a few, practice animal sacrifice. It’s just not very practical for those of us who are urban. Instead, we make offerings of the same sort of things as were made in the past, but are compelled to leave the animal killing to the professionals.

    I’ve heard that some neoPagans, who have farms and raise animals for meat, kill and butcher them in a sacred way, without the brutality of modern commercial slaughterhouses.

    And, yes, we do have a lot of Baals 🙂

    As for the god of the internet, perhaps it’s Yahu…

    Like

    • Hi Lilinah,

      Thanks for joining the conversation. I am a staunch supporter of religious freedom, and I like to learn what I can from those who know more than I do about any particular tradition. Thanks for the insight into neo-Canaanite practice! (I agree with you on the orthopraxy point.)

      Like

  2. Perhaps i’m out of line commenting here, but to me it doesn’t appear that the rituals and sacrifices were just to “placate” the gods, a one-sided activity with humans groveling before the fearsome deities.

    In smaller human communities, people often have to rely on each other in times of difficulty (such as in farming communities in America’s not-so-distant past). So it seems to me that there is a quality of mutuality between an ancient polytheistic community and their deities. Certainly humans offer sacrifices and feed the deities, while the deities in return make sure the rains fall, the sun shines, the crops grow, the livestock reproduce, and the human community thrives.

    It seems to me, however, that it doesn’t just work one way. The deities are powerful, but in my reading of Canaanite myths and tales, they do not appear to be all-powerful. If the deities are too hard on humans: too many floods, too many droughts, too much cold weather, then the human community cannot “feed” the deities, i.e., perform the necessary rites and sacrifices, and the deities suffer. The two communities depended on each other for their, as i see it mutual, well-being.

    Like

    • Please do not suppose you are out of line in commenting! I appreciate what you have to say.

      Sacrifice is an extremely complex phenomenon. I am currently supervising a senior thesis for a student trying to grapple with this very issue. On this blog, as in the classroom, I present simplified versions of very complex ideas. Anthropologists and scholars of religion have been researching sacrifice and its ideology for over a century. Nobody really has all the answers.

      You are correct that ancients did not believe in omnipotence. No one god was all-powerful until the idea was, in a very late stage, applied to Yahweh in a monotheistic context. Before that gods shared power and some of the power fell out of the divine realm as well — chaos is a good example.

      Modern religions that have roots in sacrificial religion (Judaism and Christianity obviously) have sublimated sacrifice into other forms in keeping with the expectations of culture. I am glad they have, since I detest animals having to suffer for human weaknesses.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.