Friday, August 10, 2012

Ilu, The Reigning God of the Canaanite Pantheon

Statue of Ilu from Megiddo 1400-1200 BCE
22 Rashu Yeni (month), Shanatu 84 (year)

The name Ilu literally translates as "God," implying "the preeminent god" or the "embodiment of divinity." Scholars speculate that the original Israelite deity may have been El. The Israelites later assimilated elements of him and elements of other deities with Yahweh. It must be noted however, that Ilu and Yahweh are not the same god.

Ilu is the Creator or Creatures, the baniyu banuwati. As the Father of Years, abu shanima, he maintains the sacred rhythm of the cosmos. As the Father of Humanity, abu adami, he assists his people as he assisted Kirtu in the king’s time of need. Ilu holds rank as the King of the Pantheon, malku, and his epithet, Bull (thoru), reflects his universal divine kingship.

The bull symbolizes kingship because bulls lead the herd with their strength and power and demonstrate the creative dynamic of the universe. Ilu bears the epithet qadashu, holy, and the title "Beneficent Ilu the Compassionate," latsipanu da-pa’idu. The texts describe Ilu as compassionate and wise, benevolent and loving. He makes universal decisions with the counsel of Athiratu. In the texts, he perhaps displays a playfulness by taunting Athiratu; and in another text, he enjoys himself at a marzichu drinking rite, holds banquets and feasts, and demonstrates impeccable hospitality. At Ba‘lu Haddu’s death, Ilu not only mourns Ba‘lu Haddu the storm god, but mourns the fate of all humanity who depend on Ba‘lu Haddu’s life-giving rains.

Older scholarly hypotheses assert that Ilu is old, impotent, distant, castrated, and later replaced by Ba‘lu. Modern hypotheses dispute these older points of view. Newer translations seem to show Ilu playing an active role in maintaining order and making decisions, but nothing to indicate impotence. He is the highest power, the final authority, and only Athiratu can come close to him in power, wisdom, and influence. Together Ilu and Athiratu are the co-creators and co-guardians of the universe.

The Ugaritic texts portray Ilu as having grey hair and a long beard and describe him as solid, active, graceful, solicitous, magnanimous, and filled with wellbeing (shalamu). Ilu is associated with building, and with possessing tools such as an axe, a yoke, and fire. A pillar, perhaps a symbol of "the creator," may represent Ilu in biblical times. Ilu has the ability to affect the dreams of humans and can also have prophetic dreams himself. He possesses the magic inherent in the "word of tree" and the "whisper of stone," that is, he knows every fiber of creation.

Ilu lives on Mount Kasu at the source of two waters--rivers, springs, floods, or oceans--and at the "confluence of the deeps." The two waters may represent upper and lower waters, or salt and fresh water. The idea of lower waters hearkens back to "the Deeps," the cosmological view of an underworld body of freshwater. Some scholars have proposed Ilu’s home as located at the Lebanese Khirbet Afqa, Syrian Mount Haman, somewhere in the Amanus mountain range, and Mount Hermon. Scholars discuss the possibility that Ilu’s mountain abode could represent a tent as opposed to a building, but it is also described as a palace. Ilu has a gatekeeper to his abode, one of his sons. Ilu’s home has at least seven rooms; he sits enthroned in the seventh or eighth room.

El and Athirat are mentioned in a Hittite fragment of what’s called the Elkunirsa myth: Athirat tries to run away with Ba’al. It’s an interesting tale, but I usually don’t use it as part of my own religious canon because I think it doesn't quite fit the characterizations of Ilu and Athirat as portrayed in Ugaritic myth; it is Hittite and not Canaanite, and it runs contrary to my own experiences.

Ancient Canaanite prayers to Ilu
Translated from primary documents written in Ugaritic cuneiform from 1200 BCE (3200 years ago):

“Your decree, O Ilu is wisdom. Your wisdom is eternal. A victorious life [or: declaration of fate] is your decree.” (Parker, et al., in Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, Society of Biblical Literature, 1997.)

‘Anat’s blessing on Shapshu as Shapshu searches for Ba’al: “With strength upon strength, O Shapshu, with strength upon strength may Ilu guard you. May you, Shapshu, be guarded.” (Parker, et Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, Society of Biblical Literature, 1997)

“Ilu, the sons of Ilu,
The circle of the sons of Ilu,
The assembly of the sons of Ilu,
Ilu and Athirat;
The grace of Ilu,
The solidity of Ilu
The wellbeing of Ilu;
Solicitous Ilu, active Ilu;
Ba’lu of Tsapunu,** Ba’lu of Ugarit;
By Ilu’s blade,
By Ilu’s axe,
By Ilu’s yoke,
By Ilu’s crusher,
By Ilu’s fire,
By Ilu’s foundation,
By Ilu’s care
Did Ilu build.”

(Pardee in Ritual and Cult at Ugarit, Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.)
*The youngest of Ilu and Athiratu's children. He is responsible for bringing Ilu home when Ilu becomes inebriated at marzichu, a drinking club.
**Ba'lu Haddu, the storm god, of Mount Tsapunu. Tsapunu is his holy mountain home and it lies north of Ugarit (modern-day Ras Shamra.

My Personal Experience with Ilu

I sense him as quiet, strengthening, compassionate, grounding, and as embodying stillness. He is a force for peace in the world. I've sometimes felt his hand (feels heavy, strong, and warm) on my shoulder (usually my right shoulder) when I need guidance and support. I feel that I've had a good and long relationship with him that extends back even unto the days when I was engaged in my birth-family's religion. I associate him with olives, olive oil, olive wood, olive trees, and olive groves. He is heavily associated with wine. I often associate him with the color purple because purple signifies royalty and wealth to the Canaanites and the Phoenicians. Often children in Sunday school are chided for believing in a god as a Santa Claus figure--Ilu is similar to that Santa Claus figure, and there are times when portrayals of Christmas Present in most dramatized versions of Dickens's A Christmas Carol vaguely remind me of Ilu. 


  1. Matthew Nathaniel HuntAugust 11, 2012 at 6:54 PM

    Great article, Tess!

  2. I am trying to find a source where I can find the pantheon names written in cuneiform for making talismans etc please email me if anyone has a source. thanks

    1. James, you would need two items: the list of Ugaritic cuneiform letters, and primary texts or some texts that spell out the deities' names as they were spelled out in the primary texts. The Horned Altar is such a book which will have both items. Each deity's name is listed with the transliteration in English letters of the name as it was written in Ugaritic, and the book includes a list of the Ugaritic cuneiform letters. Take each transliterated English letter and look up its Ugaritic cuneiform counterpart.

  3. I found myself drawn to certain passages in the bible. Especially Psalms - words about the Firmanent and other poetic writings. I have had a sense for quite some time, of a male, large (like.. HUMUNGOUS ) presence. Quiet. Peaceful, Utter strength. This odd feeling has taken me back time and time again to the Old Testament. Perhaps it was the glimpses of Ilu that made it into the OT that I was drawn to. Also have had an affinity to the Female Presence of God, especially in the manner of the Shekinah coming on the Shabbat. When I learned of El/Elat/Ilu/Athirat - it occurred to me that perhaps I was sensing remnants within the OT. This is why I was not satisfied with Judaism (as I was raised) nor mainstream Christianity (as I grew older)
    Very glad to find your writings.