“Storms are the embodiment of Mother Nature’s flair for the dramatic, and the words that we use to write about them are infused with that drama,”—the words aren’t mine, but they express something I often acknowledge.  The quote comes from a Verbomania post about the word “brontide”—a noun for things that sound like distant thunder.  Weather-related words are indeed part of the religious vocabulary as well.  I wasn’t quite daring enough to suggest it in Weathering the Psalms, but it seems that thunder may be behind most basic religious beliefs.  Well, that and bad luck.  Think about it—most cultures have a very powerful storm-deity.  That power is expressed in thunder.  Even in the twenty-first century a sudden clap can made the sophisticated duck and cover.  

We don’t know as much about ancient Mesopotamian culture as we’d like to, but it’s pretty clear that storm deities commanded major of respect.  Eventually in the city-state of Ugarit, in what is now northern Syria, a god named Hadad (aka “thunderer”) became the patron of the city and was known mainly by his title “lord” (Baal).  There may have been more than one lord, but the one in charge of day-to-day affairs was the one who controlled storms.  We’ve entered another rainy season around here (something you tend to notice when the roof leaks), and my thoughts often turn to how very much the weather controls us.  Interestingly, thunder hasn’t been much in the picture.  We’ve lived in our house coming up on a year and I have been awoken by thunder (something that still scares me as much as when I was a kid) only once.  Thunder is the approach of gods.

There’s drama about the weather.  In fact, fiction writers have long known that one of the most effective ways to suggest the mood of a story is the meteorological method.  Weather sets the scene.  The sound of distant thunder has a naturally ominous, almost predatory quality.  The growling, low and loud bursts from the sky sound so like human expressions of rage that it is only natural that they should be interpreted this way.  Since the sky is (or used to be) out of the reach of humans, the sounds from above were from the realm of the divine.  When gods approach the mood is threatening.  We dare not meet them.  That mythology has long informed our perceptions of meteorological phenomenon, acknowledged or not.  Brontide is an underused word that brings the drama of both nature and the divine together.  It could be a psalm word.

Google Me This

Technology frequently flummoxes me. Although I use it daily, it changes more swiftly than I can hope to. Working for a British company, for example, my computer seems to be a loyalist. It supposes that it is in the United Kingdom even as it sits on my desk in New York. I’m told this has something to do with a mystical key called an “IP address.” When I search Amazon, prices come up in pounds. When I google something, I’m told that European laws restrict certain searches. And, interestingly, I discover that Google’s icons of the day have a British theme.

GoogleI’m assured Google is a fun place to work. One of those enlightened companies that believes reducing stress and increasing enjoyment of employees leads to good results. Were that all companies so enlightened. In any case, the famous Google logo is often decorated with a commemoration of the day. This past week, two such icons appeared on my UK searches. The first commemorated Nessie with something like the 81st year of her appearance. The icon puckishly showed Nessie to be a fake, a submarine actually piloted by aliens. Later that same week, on St. George’s Day, a dragon appeared on the icon. I began to wonder about this reptilian connection. If lake monsters are real, many make the claim that they must be plesiosaurs, their dinosaur cousins that most resemble them. St. George, clearly a character cut from the same cloth as Hadad, slays a dragon—an equally mysterious reptile.

We tend to associate dragons with evil, although in world mythology they appear equally as often as harbingers of good. Human interaction with reptiles has always been fraught. Somewhere along our evolutionary track we must’ve shared a common ancestor with them. Even today some responses, such as fight or flight, are referred to as those occurring in the “reptilian brain.” In Genesis 3 the serpent slithers in. According to Revelation, at the other end of the canon, the snake is still there at the end. It was only happenstance that Nessie and George’s unnamed monster appeared in the same week, I suppose. Nevertheless, there is a deep connection between them and us. We can’t seem to get away from them, even should we flee across the ocean.

Thor’s Day

Mythology has visited the big screen in many guises, but among the current spate of superhero films a god may rival mere mortals and mutants. Thor opens in theaters today, bringing a Norse god back into the public eye. Like many young boys I owe my early reading predilection to comic books. One of my favorite heroes was Thor (our birthdays were very close) but I couldn’t quite make out how he was a superhero with the unfair advantage of being a god. Why weren’t other gods down here with us? At some level I sensed Thor’s rage, and perhaps even his estrangement from his father. Was there a sadness to this mighty wielder of thunder? When I was a little older Lester del Rey’s Day of the Giants became one of my favorite books. Norse mythology is plaintive compared to the world of the jovial Greek gods. Even the beloved Balder dies.

Thor is the embodiment of one of the most ancient principles of divinity: control of the storm. A generation after Odin, Thor also experiences that generational divide that all ancient people felt marked the lives of the gods. Zeus likely developed as a more civilized form of Hadad (Baal). In Ugaritic mythology Baal is the lord of the storm; he bears a mace where Thor will grasp a hammer. Baal, however, is often described as the son of Dagan, likely an early Mesopotamian storm god. Back to the earliest levels of civilization miniscule humans have quaked in wonder at the power of storm gods. Making Thor into a superhero humanized him a bit, and with classic comic-book biceps he was sure to be a hit among scrawny boys with dreams of grandeur. We would never have been allowed to read comic books featuring Baal.

The salient point, I suppose, is what makes a god a god? In the mythological mindset, deities are quite human except for their immortality and their strength. The might of gods clashes with the might of other gods. Omnipotence takes the fun out of the equation, for a truly all-powerful deity has orchestrated this whole cosmos and we are just pathetic players on the stage. Thor rages against the machine. If a god cannot be defeated, there is no story to tell. It may be difficult to predict how well Thor will perform on the big screen, but if I am not alone in my fascination of watching gods struggle against even greater gods, this may be like the Day of the Giants for grownups and kids alike.

Son of Stone Flies

One of my favorite comic books growing up was Turok, Son of Stone. We couldn’t afford as many comics as our friends, but among brothers we’d share our resources and get a fair variety of reading material. Turok belonged to my older brother. It felt so ancient and sophisticated, tinged with primal urgency as Turok and Andar attempted to make their way from the Lost Valley where dinosaurs daily threatened their existence. The comics had a gravitas that even The Valley of Gwangi lacked. In one installment, a scroll-keeper joined Turok and Andar and claimed his sacred scrolls would show them the way free of this accursed valley. Turok doubted this and was rebuffed with “Fools scoff at what they don’t understand!” as their erstwhile companion decisively re-rolled his scrolls for storage in a handy leather pouch.

One pilgrim's progress

That image comes back to me when I think of how ancient writers sometimes used ridicule to castigate competing religions. It even happens in the Bible. A friend recently inquired into the figure of Baalzebub, the famous “Lord of the flies.” The Bible attributes worship of such a deity to the Philistines, the popular pagan foil of the children of Israel. The Philistines, as we know today, were a sophisticated group of Indo-European settlers on the coast of the eastern Mediterranean who showed up about the same time as the early Israelites were emerging from their “Canaanite” milieu. Since they didn’t practice circumcision and didn’t worship Yahweh, the Philistines were shackled with the worship of ineffectual fish-and-insect deities. (Dagon would never regain his proper significance until he was rediscovered by H. P. Lovecraft many centuries later.)

A different pilgrim's progress

With the discovery of the Ugaritic tablets, the common usage of the term zbl (let’s say zebul, so it can be pronounced) was clarified. Zebul commonly designed “prince.” One of the recipients of this honored title was the deity formerly known as Baal. Baal-Zebul, “Prince-Lord,” the great thunderer Hadad. From the sketchy evidence of Philistine religious practice, it seems the new-comers did adopt some of the gods of their new land, and perhaps among them the lordly Baal. In order to disparage the cafeteria choice of their neighbors’ gods, a biblical writer renamed Baal-Zebul, Baal-Zebub, Lord of the Flies. There have been other explanations for the title, but the lessons learned from our youngest days often furnish our adult interpretative lenses. This explanation makes sense to me, and it reminds me of a bit of wisdom from Turok, Son of Stone.

Baal Necessities

Baal has been on my mind lately, despite the limited time I’m able to dedicate to research. You see, Baal and I share a common interest in weather. One of those people whose moods synchronize with the atmosphere, I have always felt what the sky projects. So when a colleague asked me to lecture his class on the Baal Cycle, I felt it was a kind of catharsis after all the gray skies and snow we’ve had this year. Baal, or properly Hadad, was doyen of the skies. In modern perspective it is often difficult to realize that the seasons and climate of ancient Aram were quite distinct from our own. Whatever came from the sky came from Baal.

In the documentation we have on this god, we find him particularly associated with thunder, lightning, and rain. These were more common in the Mediterranean basin than the snows of the higher elevations. It stands to reason, however, that Baal meted out the weather to the denizens of Ugarit, no matter how wet or cold. Even his daughters’ names reflect their meteorological roles. Thunder and lightning may be the most dramatic expressions of divine power, but nothing makes you shiver like a good snow.

It is difficult not to take the weather personally when my long commute days are permeated with ice and snow. Continuing a pattern initiated last spring semester, my lengthy drive to Montclair has been accompanied by snow each class session I’ve been assigned so far this semester. Even the students have begun to notice. One co-ed asked why it always snows when I’m teaching. Meteorologists may have their naturalistic explanations, but somewhere deep down, I’m afraid that Baal has it in for me. It’s time to go and shovel the front steps again.

A Baal's eye-view

Hadad in Copenhagen

Let us talk plainly about the weather. Global warming is a reality, and yet the issue is clouded by religious conservatism. To be precise, it is difficult to determine whether it is really greed or the religious right that stands so firmly behind free-market capitalism that is driving this chariot of the sun. The strange and unholy alliance between religious and political conservatism, however, has become a force daily striving against reality and its proponents want to be on the top of the pile when the whole thing collapses.

I can not speak to the political end of this continuum; I am not a political scientist or economist. As a “religionist,” however, I recognize a deeply disturbing trend that I have followed since my youth. Fundamentalists have consistently taught their young that the “Second Coming” is only minutes, possibly seconds, away. Undaunted by the two-millennium delay in wish-fulfillment, they suppose the words supposedly uttered by Jesus indicate a kind of divine “I’ll be right back” just before pushing off from the Mount of Olives. The signs of the times given in the Bible describe the then current condition, yet modern-day Fundamentalists wish to force the almighty hand, call the bluff of the Texas Hold-‘em expert above. If the general in the sky said wars would come, well, we’ll make wars. If the only way to get his attention is by destroying the planet around us, so be it. Deny global warming for the sake of the religious right, since their world is about to end.

Baal in Copenhagen?

The rest of us might want to stick around for a while. Ancient meteorologists believed that particular gods controlled the weather. At Ugarit Baal, or Hadad, took responsibility for drought and plenty. If there was a problem, they knew just to whom to offer a sacrifice. In our monotheistic western world, we’ve pared the gods down to a single man. Not everyone agrees on his mood or character, but some are convinced that he has his bead trained right on this planet and they want to help from here below. Others believe — o the heresy! — that natural processes control the weather and that we can do something to make our situation better. We might be in a better place if those who believe the gods control the weather were relegated to theology classes rather than political offices.


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.


A young Dr. Wiggins meets Hadad in Paris