The Middle East is the birth place of the Abrahamic religions; the two dominant religions of the modern world, Christianity and Islam, were born there. Prior to them, Judaism was already present there, and it was the monotheistic Jews that the Romans met and had conflicts with.
Few people in the western world realize that Judaism, and by extension Christianity, Islam and the Baha'i faith, are essentially Written by the Winners versions of older Semitic religions present in the Levant. The gods of the pre-monotheistic Canaanites, Phoenicians, Hebrews, Arabs and other Semitic groups were dominant in what is now exclusively Muslim, Jewish and Christian territory, and the Phoenicians got them spread around the Mediterranean and North Africa. The Assyrians, Akkadians, and Babylonians, on the other hand, adopted Sumerian mythology in a similar fashion to the Roman appropriation of Greek mythology that occurred centuries later. Despite their geographical proximity to Greek and Egyptian deities, these old gods of the Levant are barely remembered by modern people, largely due to the historical efforts of the Israelites/Jews to eliminate competition to their religions. Nowadays, only the gods that were literally demonized (in that they became demons in Judeo-Christian theology), such as Moloch, have any presence in the popular imaginarium.
Knowledge on Canaanite mythology is scarce, but we do have an idea about its cosmology. The world was created by Elion (El for god, ion for upper, uppermost together) and his wife Beruth (which means the city); from them were born all the gods of the Levant (Elohim; in modern Hebrew it means God but used to mean 'Godly beings' and can be seen as the prototype for the Abrahamic angels). The mountains Targhizizi and Tharumagi held the firmament up above the earth-circling ocean, Heaven being the god Shamayim, and the dead went to Sheol (the Underworld; the concept survives in modern Judeo-Christian beliefs, although many equate it to Hell, despite the Bible/Torah confirming it to be far away from the modern fiery Jahanam torture cellar). Many influences from classical religion ensued. Several concepts in Semitic mythology are shared with both ancient Greek religion and Egyptian tradition; indeed, many deities are analogous to classical ones, while others were literally exported from Egypt.note
Where or when the Judeo-Christian god, Yahweh, came from is almost totally unknown. He wasn't attested to before being the Israelites' god, and nothing similar to his character has been seen in the Middle East; even his name isn't totally understood. In fact, the earliest surviving mentions of Yahweh are in reference to him being the God of Israel. Regardless of how Yahweh came to Israel, eventually his followers became the dominant people of Canaan. After cultural diffusion lead to Yahweh absorbing El(ion), the Israelites began absorbing other gods and goddesses into their supreme deity, whether it be their characteristics, deeds, or even familial relationships (For a while God absorbed El's consort Asherah as his own. He also absorbed Hadad's story about killing a giant sea snake, which is where the Leviathan came from. There's plenty of others). Eventually, the worshipers of Yahweh destroyed the rest of the native Semitic religions and wrote everything from their point of view, and the rest is history. As seen by Leviathan, some fragments of the older polytheistic religion remained in parts of Hebrew Bible, which sometimes seem strange when outside their original context. Another example of this are mysterious references to "Nephilim" (sometimes translated as "Giants"), which in Canaanite mythology referred to heroic demigods of the sort that are common in many polytheistic faiths but quite impossible in the monotheistic Judeo-Christian religions.
Modern Hebrew paganism is still practiced in the form of "Jewitchery", although needless to say Jewish pagans are rare and heavily frowned upon by other Jews. Here's a list of the most well known deities, although more information can be obtained in The Other Wiki.
According to the myths:
- Abhorrent Admirer: One myth of Eshmun has him originally as a mortal who was fleeing from an infatuated Astarte. To make it clear how much he wanted to be away from her he castrated and killed himself. That was not good enough however because Astarte was able to bring him back to life.
- Animal Motifs: Lionesses for Tanit.
- Blood Knight: Anat, who prattles off a long list of famous individuals she killed, maimed or otherwise humbled. She even picks a fight with El when he tells her she is about to act in folly and as a result he lets her do as she wishes and suffer from her own mistakes.
- Canon Immigrant: Astarte is considered homogeneous with the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna/Ishtar, and is identified with the Egyptian goddess Isis and the Greek goddess Aphrodite.
- Demoted to Extra: Many of the Semitic gods were adopted by Egypt but their former importance rarely carried over. Anat, Ashera and Ashirat for example were combined together and called Qadeshtu, essentially deleting four very different figures. They also turned king of the Elohim Baal-Hadad into Set, god of foreigners (hence his storm powers), and Astarte into Isis. This happened to Melqart so often we hardly know anything about it in comparison to the figures it was equated with.
- Different as Night and Day: Shachar was day, Shalim was night and they were twins.
- Divine Ranks / Our Gods Are Different: El(ion) was essentially what modern people see God as, whereas the Elohim were essentially the morally flawed pagan gods. Elyon is a name in the Bible, most famously in Numbers and Psalms (usually rendered as "Most High") but it is almost always used interchangeably with Elohim (rejecting the divine ranks). Sometimes Elohim refers to men or angels instead, though it refers to God enough times, perhaps as a holdover from the Hebrew's polytheistic past. When Ezekiel relays "...and I YHWH will be your God." the Hebrew reads "...and I YHWH will be your Elohim."
- Dual Wielding: Kothar-was-Khasis once saved Baal-Hadad from Yam by beating him away with two clubs. Anat may be depicted doing this with knives.
- Genius Loci: Shamayim, the god of Heaven. Also in the Bible but not treated much like a living entity there. Beruth too if you take Elion's marriage to her/it literally (it means city, and now you know why the Bible keeps referring to cities as virgin daughters and wives). Maybe Baal-Berith/El-Berith too.
- God of Evil: The pantheon technically has two: Mot (death), Yam (the sea), although only the first was seen as the absolute evil, since he wasn't worshiped.
- God of Good: Sydyk is close enough as being either god of justice or righteousness. Shalim, despite being associated with the Netherworld, was also associated with night and peace (which is strange to modern audiences used to Sheol being called hell).
- Green Thumb: Nikkal, the goddess of fruits and orchards to whom the oldest notated song on record is dedicated to. There is also Dagon, the god of crops and grain as well as Asherath, goddess of trees. Baal-Hammon could be turned to for vegetation needs too as he was a fertility god.
- Healer God: Shadrafa was a benevolent deity whose name translates to "Spirit of Healing". He was the patron deity of the ancient city Leptis Magna, near modern day Tripoli in the country of Libya. He was worshiped in other ancient Semitic cultures such as Palmyra. He is depicted as young, beautiful (like Adonis) with helpful serpents, scorpions, and lions.
- Healing Magic: Eshmun, who had a staff just like Hermes/Mercury. Resheph brought plagues but could also heal their symptoms.
- Hijacked by Jesus: Long before Jesus himself was born, the Israelites created two figures out of one by both demonizing Baal-Zephon as the false god Beelzebub or Beelzebul and accepting Zephon as an angel minus the Baal (Baal means lord and Zephon means out looking, they believed Zephon was a good guy looking out for them but not something to worship; in contrast Beelzebub means lord of the flies. Alternately, Beelzebul more accurately reflects the original name of the god, Baal-Zebul meaning lord of the high or lofty place, and the Israelites deliberately changed it to Beelzebub). Anat becomes Ishtar's mother Antu in later Akkadian texts (Ishtar's earlier equation with her mother Athirat is the least of the problems with this) and the angel Anathiel in the Zohar. Much later, by the New Testament era, Beelzebub was understood as another name for the prince of demons himself, Satan. In the succeeding centuries, Moloch (also Molech) was also literally demonized, this time by the Christians, understood to a demon in hell instead of just a false god like Beelzebub had been.
- Human Sacrifice: The Israelites claimed this was done for Moloch (well, Milcom, scholars are convinced it's another word for Moloch since the monotheistic Hebrews preferred not to call gods by their true names) while the Greeks and Romans claimed this was done for Baal-Hammon. Even if this is true all three of those societies did this themselves at some point or another. Emperor Tiberius had to put down some child sacrifices being done by the cult of Tank (a nickname for war goddess Tanit).
- It Is Pronounced Tropay: The name of the Hebrew God is not written with vowels in the Hebrew texts, hence YHWH. Over time the pronunciation was lost since the name was deemed off-limits to speak. The form "Yahweh" is considered to be the most probable by scholars, based in part on the name being recorded in other contemporary languages. The form "Jehovah" is thus considered to be derived from pronouncing the four letters (hence "Tetragrammaton") with the vowels from "Adonai" (Lord), which was supposed to be substituted for it in practice, plus filtering through Latin and English, etc. Also, "W" is pronounced as "V" in modern Hebrew, but ancient Hebrew does not have a "V" sound as modern English speakers know it.
- Insult Backfire: A common insult in those days was to tear down a revered landmark and replace it with a toilet. When the Israelites did this to the temple of Baal-Peor, though, it was considered an outstanding show of reverence for "the lord of openings".
- A Kind of One: El is both a generic word for god and the name of a singular father god. Scholars have not really reached a definite conclusion on whether the singular El and Elion were two different figures or if singular El was an aspect of Elion (El tends to be more humanized than Elion and the two seem to be separated in some listings).
- Kraken and Leviathan: Lotan, who would later become the biblical Leviathan. Lotan is harder to define than the Biblical analog (which is saying something) and can be interpreted as a pet of Yam or a part of Yam himself, as a seven headed serpent or literally being seven living seas.
- The Lad-ette: Astar/Astarte the morning star/evening star. Even the Baal Cycle confuses her gender at times and the god Shapash mentions that "he" doesn't have a wife.
- Light 'em Up: Subverted with Astar the morning star, who was strangely associated with water (morning dew?)note . Oh yes, he did usurp Baal-Hadad's throne while the sky god was dead and was spectacularly thrown out of heaven by the Elohim in response, why do you ask? Shachar played this trope straighter.
- Love Goddess: Qadeshtu. It is debated among scholars whether or not her worship amounted to "sacred prostitution" along with Astarte, whose worship definitely included it.
- Lunacy: Yarikh the moon god. He was the husband of Nikkal and provided the water for her orchards (the Hebrews explanation for nighttime condensation). One of his epithets was "lord of the sickle".
- Making a Splash: Yam, the sea god and his rival Baal-Hadad the storm god, as well as some other deities associated with water obviously like Yaw, judge of the rivers.
- Monster Progenitor: Athirat/Asherah is sometimes referred to as the first god and mother of the Elohim through El. Sometimes El is described as the first god and the father of them through Asherah. Sometimes Elion is the first god and created the rest for the sake of the "city" or the "covenant". As of now there does not seem to be enough data to straighten the whole thing out.
- Not So Different: The Bible recounts a few different occasions where the Israelites provoke God's wrath by shaping golden calves for worship. There is some evidence the other Hebrew tribes had just as much disdain for those idols by records of a negative figure known as Atik, "the quarrelsome calf of El", who was slain by Anat.
- Odd Job Gods: Several cases, as to be expected from any pantheon. Baal-Marqod, Lord of the Dance, for instance, the Kotharat, divine midwives and maybe Kothar anything (see below). Resheph was known to be a deer god in addition to his other listed jobs. Tanit became goddess of weaving in Egypt as Neith but strangely did not lose her war goddess status.
- Order Versus Chaos: This is the rivalry between Baal-Hadad and Yam. Both are known for causing storms but Baal-Hadad's are beneficiary while Yam's are destructive and associated with the unpredictability of sea waves.
- Our Angels Are Different: Actual angels are only truly present in the Abrahamic branches of the Semitic religions, but the gods had servants. The phrase Elohim in the Bible has been interpreted to mean angels when it is not directly referring to God, but the Elohim here all acted and were worshiped independently from Elion, instead of being his servants and messengers.
- Playing with Fire: Moloch, the god of fire. Also Ishat, "the bitch of the gods".
- The Power of Creation: Kothar-wa-Khasis (meaning skillful and wise), he also opened Baal-Hadad's window to let the rain out.
- The Power of the Sun: Shapash, the sun goddess. She typically tried to mediate conflicts between the Elohim to prevent Elion from getting involved and protected humanity from Mot after he killed Baal-Hadad. On the other hand she also ruled in favor of Yam, who was not very popular among the Canaanites.
- Rage Against the Heavens: Paghat aims to take revenge on Yatpan and Anat for their accidental murder of her brother Aqhat and for their accidental bringing of a drought. Since Yatpan is a shape shifter though she does not realize he is with her when she sets out for revenge (the end of the story has not yet been found).
- Resurrective Immortality: The gods could die through enough violence against them but could be restored back to life. The amount of effort needed to resurrect them seemed to be proportional to the nature of the death. Anat had to cut Baal-Hadad free from Mot, who had eaten him. Mot comes back to life seven years after Anat goes through a prolonged effort to make sure there is nothing left of him too. Baal-Hadad and Yam also killed one another at various points only for each of them to be brought back to life by Elion. They could apparently grant this kind of immortality to mortals too, as many offered it to Aqhat in exchange for his bow but he refused.
- Shock and Awe/Bolt of Divine Retribution: Baal-Hadad, the sky god. These traits were later given to Yahweh in the Bible.
- Spell My Name with an "S": Because the Northwest Semitic languages were pretty much the same everywhere just with different alphabets per each soceity, many names of Biblical figures show up among the records of non-Israelite peoples, though not always without little variation. Some, like Elion and Elyon, are probably different interpretations of the same thing, others like "Danel the judge" and "Daniel the adviser" are probably coincidental and unrelated beyond etymology.
- Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Of all the old Semitic deities, only YHWH has survived to the modern day as the sole deity of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Then again, we know he wasn't a Canaanite deity before being adopted by the Israelites, so he probably stole the show in more ways than that.
- Swallowed Whole
- Mot to people, animals, and other Elohim. He considers cooked food an insult which is revealed when Baal-Hadad tries to be nice and invites him to a feast, which ends with him eating Baal-Hadad instead of anything served. It backfires on him when Baal-Hadad makes him eat his own family...though why he complains about this is lost to time, as from what we know the Elohim are his family and he had no problem eating Baal-Hadad.
- In some versions rather than eating Baal-Hadad Mot swallows a cow that he and the other Elohim mistake for Baal-Hadad, which says a lot both about Mot's ability to swallow and the gods' vision. (Naturally Baal-Hadad does not need to be resurrected by Anat in this version after she kills Mot in "revenge").
- Tyrant Takes the Helm: After being badmouthed by Baal-Hadad, Elion allows Yam to overthrow the sky god and become the new king of the Elohim. Yam proves to be very oppressive to the other gods though and tries to use their agony to blackmail Ashera into sleeping with him, so the gods beg Elion to forgive Baal-Hadad and let him be king again, which Elion does. They then cast Yam out of heaven. In the epic of Baal it is El and Baal-Hadad who have the feud and Yam does not successfully become king, though they might just be two separate events rather than contradictory stories.
- Walk on Water: An Athirat/Asherah epithet was "She who treads on the sea". It may have double meaning, as the sea god Yam is a perennial enemy of hers in the mythology.
- War God: Anat, Tanit and by popular theory so is Yahweh, who became identified with El (hence the Tanakh's particularly harsh demonization of Asherah, El's consort), from there El is pretty easy to confuse with Elion and suddenly Yahweh has taken over the entire religion. Interestingly, all three of them were virgins.
- We Hardly Knew Ye: Rahmay, Elion's wife who disappears from the texts after being married to him.