Saturday, June 9, 2012

Animal Symbolism in Natib Qadish

These are animals present in the Canaanite world, and these are their associations according to Canaanite, Near Eastern, and Jewish folklore. A few of the animals' names are given in Ugaritic, a Canaanite language from the city-state of Ugarit, roughly 3200 years ago.

* Baboon

Natufian carvings demonstrate a knowledge of baboon. Archaeologists have discovered primate figurines at Middle Bronze Age Nahariya. The Egyptians connected baboon with Thoth and literacy. If we extend this idea further in modern practice, we could associate it with Kathiru-wa-Chasisu, the magician-craftsman god.

* Beetle

Scarab beetles turn up everywhere in Canaan as amulets from Egypt or amulets created in an Egyptian style. The scarab beetle, represents the Egyptian sun god Khepri and life cycles. In modern thought, we may associate Shapshu with the scarab beetle. Beetle was used in Egyptian healing practices.

* Buffalo, rumu

This animal is not the same as the North American bison. Kathiru-wa-Chasisu forms Aqhat's bow using buffalo sinews. I would see the buffalo as representing wild strength and associations with `Anatu and Ba`lu.

* Cattle, thoru, bull

Near Eastern peoples had domesticated cattle by roughly 8000 BCE. Archaeologists have found cattle figurines at Middle Bronze Age Nahariya. Associated with Ilu and Ba`lu, the bull represents leadership, virility, and strength. Gods and kings are often shown with horns atop a helmet to represent strength or divinity. The Canaanites offered cattle to the deities. Cattle provide us with milk, cheese, yogurt, cream, butter, and meat. In modern associations, cattle represent wealth, wellbeing, fertility, abundance, connection to earth, and sacrifice. Egyptians used cows in healing, and the cow was symbolic of Hathor. In Jewish thought, the bull may represent familial bonds.

* Dog and Wolf, kalbu

Dogs were probably domesticated descendents of wolves, and this domestication could have taken place as early as 10,000 BCE. Archaeologists have discovered remains of wolf bone in a Neolithic settlement. The archaeological record in Canaan attests dog as an infrequent offering. In Ugaritic texts, instructions for healing a hangover include dog hairs placed upon the forehead; instructions for healing an ill child include the removal of fish or dog. The Egyptians used dog for healing. The dog is associated with the moon god Yarikhu, night, and healing. In Jewish thought, the wolf may have come to represent both loyalty and self-determination.

* Donkey, `eru

Peoples of the ancient Near East had domesticated donkeys by the fourth millennium BCE. Donkey burial, an unusual practice, appears in the archaeological record at Middle Bronze Tell el-Dab`a. Far from being viewed as a humble mode of transportation, they were used as exclusive transport for deities and monarchs. In Jewish symbolism, they represent the quality of exaltation. A king will travel donkey-back as a part of a religious festival procession. Athiratu travels donkey-back to visit Ilu on behalf of Ba`lu. From a modern Canaanite perspective, a donkey could symbolize a special visit from Athiratu, or high honors. Jesus's riding upon a donkey to Jerusalem on what became known as Palm Sunday insulted the Romans because it was symbolic of proclaiming himself king and undermining Roman authority.

* Dragon

Ilu created Sha`taqatu the Dragon from clay. Upon giving her a name and holding his cup to her in blessing, she becomes animated. She flies to Kirtu and cures him of an illness. Thus it could be said that dragons can represent vitality, life, healing, reversal of ill-fortune, and they can bestow `second-chances'. In Jewish thought, the dragon may have come to represent the forces of nature.

* Fish, dagu

Some scholars think Dagan originated as a fish god from Mesopotamia because the word for fish is so close to Dagan's name. This idea may support an idea that the Canaanites knew of Dagan as both a fish and a grain god. The Ugaritans may have eaten fish soup in a garden during `Ashuru Ganni (Festival of the Garden) as part of their spring equinox celebration. Because of this possible connection of fish and grain, I associate fish with sustenance and abundance, spring crops, and the underworld.

* Gazelle

Before domesticated animals, hunters primarily relied on gazelle, a type of antelope, as a meat source. In the legend of Kirtu, Kirtu's captains are referred to metaphorically as 'gazelles'. In Egyptian iconography, the Canaanite god Rashpu wears a gazelle head on his crown. The gazelle, at least in Egyptian symbolism, may convey martial or desert qualities. In Jewish thought, the gazelle may symbolize confidence and an awareness of one's surroundings.

* Horse, suswu

Archaeologists hypothesize that ancient Near Eastern people domesticated horse by the end of the third millennium BCE; and in Tell es-Sweyhat they have unearthed a horse figurine dating from roughly 2300 BCE. Horses are associated with Near Eastern sun veneration, and according to legend, even the Hebrews honored the sun by dedicating their horses and chariots to the fiery orb. A sculpture of a horse with a solar disk upon its head may support this idea. The Ugaritans may have associated the horse with Shapshu, goddess of the sun, or with Chôranu, a deity invoked for keeping treaties and as protection from venomous bites. Rashpu and Milku `Athtarti, both underworld deities, are known as probably owning horses, and their associations may enhance the notion of horsepower as a means of conveyance between the worlds. The Canaanites were experts in constructing and driving chariots. Thus the horse may have been associated with swift movement, warfare, and travel.

* Ibex

On an ivory cosmetic jar lid from Ugarit, Atiratu holds vegetation above two ibex, a type of wild mountain goat. The ibex could remind us to depend on our deities and our world to provide for our needs, and to give thanks to the deities for providing for us.

* Lion, 'arwu

In Ugaritic literature, the lion may represent wildness or an irrepressible appetite. The god `Athtaru may have a connection to lion. Rashpu, in Egyptian iconography, may also share a connection with lions. The Egyptians associated the lioness to the goddess Sekhmet. In Jewish symbolism, the lion may represent the divine warrior.

* Murex and Shellfish

The Canaanites may have used two different species of shellfish for their purple and deep red-violet dyes: Bolinus (Murex) bradaris and Phyllonotus (Truncularis) trunculus. A substance made from shellfish may have served as skin dye, much like henna. Onycha, a substance comprised of dried ground mouth membranes from certain species of shellfish, found its way as an ingredient in a biblical incense recipe. Marine life is connected to Yammu, but these animals can also symbolize wealth, trade, and royalty.

* Ostrich

Although rare, the Natufians first used ostrich eggshell containers, as evidenced at sites in Negev. The Phoenicians decorated ostrich eggs with geometric and floral designs, palms, suns, moons, snakes, and lotuses, and human faces. The Phoenicians and their daughter-cultures would cut these eggs into forms such as bowls, cups, vases, and masks. Ostrich shells were difficult to obtain but were included in some burial and religious practices perhaps as an act of sacrifice. The Egyptians used ostrich egg in healing head wounds.

* Pig

Ancient Near Eastern peoples had domesticated the pig later than they had domesticated sheep, goats, and cattle. The Canaanites may have used pigs as an infrequent source of meat; they may not have had the same aversion to swine as the later Israelites. The Mesopotamians ate pork, although it may have been considered an inferior meat source.

* Pigeon, yantu qartu

Some of the Ugaritic sacrificial lists call for a sacrifice of a `city dove'. Archaeological evidence from Late Bronze Lachish indicates that Canaanites elsewhere also sacrificed pigeons. I think chicken, although not available in the ancient world--chicken was not domesticated until Persian times--would make a good modern substitute for pigeon offerings. Cornish game hen also substitutes well.

* Scorpion

Scorpion carried varied symbolic meanings in the ancient Near East including reproductive fertility, evil, and protection from evil.

* Sheep, ta'otu

Ancient Near Eastern peoples had domesticated sheep by roughly 8000 BCE. The Ugaritic sacrificial lists include sheep as offerings. Sheep provide meat and wool.

* Snake, nachashu

'Athiratu may have an association with snakes. The Israelites associated snakes with poison and venom as well as healing, as demonstrated in the Nehushtan, Moses's bronze serpent on a pole. In Jewish symbolism, the snake convinced Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. Archaeologists have found bronze snakes at Middle Bronze Megiddo and Late Bronze Hazor, and a votive snake figurine at Late Bronze Pella. As the snake sheds its skin, it gives the appearance of moving between life to death, to return to life once again, and snake may therefore also represent a state between living and dying, or death and birth. The god Choranu, a god of exorcism and protective magic is associated with snakes. In Egypt, art depicting the Canaanite god of Rashap shows a goddess holding snakes out to him.

* Sparrow or Swallow, naparu

The Ugaritans sometimes characterized the Katharatu, the seven goddesses who oversee the mysteries of conception, as sparrows or other small songbirds.
* Vulture or Eagle, nashru

In the legend of Aqhat, the warrior Yatspan does `Anatu's bidding as she plots against Aqhat. Yatspan strikes down Aqhat, and vultures feed upon the prince's corpse. Some translations of the tale use the words vulture, eagle, hawk, and bird interchangeably; basically the sense of the word is "large soaring bird." The vulture or eagle may represent seizing an opportunity or taking power over another.

The information listed here comes from Whisper of Stone: Natib Qadish, Modern Canaanite Religion published through O-Books in 2009, and there are more there than what I've listed here. These animals I have listed are mostly from a Canaanite and Egyptian point-of-view, with some later Jewish symbolism added in. I have Ugaritic words for some of the animals--Ugaritic is the language of Ugarit. Ugarit is often considered to be part of the Canaanite culture.

Today is:
Day 20 of [Gapnu] (month), Shanatu 84 (year)

Image Credits:
My reproduction of a primitive bull found in ancient Canaanite art.


  1. In Egypt, the baboon also had the role of greeting the dawn, because they would apparently raise a ruckus at that time.
    The reversal of the donkey from being a royal animal to a humble one is interesting. In sunday school they used to say the Palm Sunday ride indicated humility and peace, that Jesus wasn't riding a horse. The "in your face" aspect gives it a nicely ironic twist.

    1. A baboon as a herald of the morning...I like that. I shall have to keep it in mind.

      And, yes, I too found the reversal of the symbolism of the donkey to be truly interesting. Talk about thumbing one's nose at the Romans...

  2. Hello, my name is Yael, I got here from your facebook page.

    Since many of the Ugaritic nouns and names are similar to the Hebrew ones, I'm assuming a few more animal names would follow the same logic:
    For example, the God Ilu is called in Hebrew El (I turns to E, drop the final U). 'A' and 'U' stays the same (nachashu becomes the Hebrew nahach, drup the final U but the vowel stays)

    So the ibex, ya'el in Hebrew (as my name, as the biblical name)would probably in Ugaritic sound like Ya'ilu.
    Scorpion, a'qrav in Hebrew, would probably be A'qrabu (like Anatu becomes the Hebrew Anat).

    It's like an Italian person reading Latin- it dosen't always make sense, but it seems strangely familiar.

    By the way, the name for pigeon (yantu quarti) would be in Hebrew 'Yonat Qeret', meaning Dove of the City. I'm sure you know all this, I jut wanted to share my joy that finally knowing Hebrew is useful for something ;)

    Best reagards, and with many thanks,

    Yael, Israel

    1. Hi Yael: that's quite close. My sources indicate "ya'lu" as ibex or wild goat. Since I cannot at the moment find a source for the word for scorpion, I will say that you are likely close or correct, since the b's and v's change. How wonderful, and thank you for sharing, Yael.