Do People Still Worship Baal?

By Nero Calatrava.

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Ever since the authors of the Bible portrayed Baal as a wicked god, to whom worshippers would sacrifice their first-born sons, Baal has had an image problem.

It was not always thus. For hundreds of years before the Bible demonized him, Baal was worshipped by the Canaanites as a fertility god, the bringer of rain, the prince of peace, the defender of the people.

Around 1200 BCE, terrifying bands of warriors came from over the Mediterranean and laid waste to the cities of Canaan and thus began the long decline of Baal’s reign and the ascent of a new power in the Levant – the power of Israel’s God, Yahweh.

Imagine my surprise, then, when in April of this year I chanced upon a village in Syria where the locals continue to worship Baal, as their ancestors did thousands of years ago. For over two millennia this community has survived in relative obscurity in the Jabal an Nusayriyah mountain range. Along with other mountain sects such as the Alawites and the Druze, the very remoteness of their settlements has afforded them some protection against the waves of religious intolerance that have swept the Middle East with such alarming frequency.

The villagers were naturally very suspicious of me at first. Even Syrian officials rarely ventured into their community, so the unexpected appearance of an Englishman was cause for some considerable concern. However, after a long conversation with the village elders I was able to convince them that I posed no threat, and they allowed me to stay for several days as their guest.

The villagers were very secretive about their beliefs, but during my brief stay I was able to learn a few interesting details. To my great surprise, all of the villagers had Jewish names, and one of the elders claimed that they were “the true remnant of Israel, the only Jews who have remained faithful to our polytheist origins.” Another villager—an old woman called “Mother Aqra”—informed me that the Hebrews had originally worshipped many gods, including Baal, Anat, Dagon, and Asherah. Then, around three thousand years ago, a tiny sect emerged that proclaimed Yahweh to be the only god—not just the most powerful god, but the only one. This was not an entirely new idea, of course; the Pharaoh Akhenaton had said the same thing about Ra, the sun god, a couple of centuries before. But Akhenaton’s innovation died with him, while the Yahweh-only movement would go on to conquer the world.

I did not witness any ceremonies, rituals, or sacrifices while I was there, so I cannot speak to their religious practices. The women dressed modestly, though they did not cover their hair or wear veils, and there was the usual sexual segregation one finds all over the Middle East.

The high priest of the Children of Baal was known as Sheikh Abu Ibrahim (sheikh is an honorary Arabic title, used widely in the Middle Eastern to designate religious leaders as well as political ones). “Ours is the oldest religion in the world,” he told me one evening while we drank mint tea in his humble living room. When I told him I was a journalist, he asked me to alert the world to the plight of his community and he pled for asylum.

This little community has not escaped the ravages of the civil war, and this ancient religion may be about to succumb to the fate of so many others that are now largely forgotten. The survival of various pre-Islamic faiths such as the Mandaeans and the Yazidis shows that the first Islamic states in the Middle East were often more tolerant of religious diversity than their contemporary iterations. This permissiveness would scandalize the followers of so-called Islamic State (ISIS) today, who present the history of Islam as one of ruthless conquest. Yet the survival of groups like the Yazidis and the Children of Baal demonstrates how one-sided this narrative is, showing that the first Islamic states were more humane and permissive than is often thought.

The longer the civil war goes on in Syria, the bloodier it gets and the worse becomes the plight of the civilian population. I hope that the Children of Baal will survive this conflagration, just as they have survived many others before in their long and painful history. But as I sat talking to Sheikh Abu Ibrahim in his ramshackle house a few months ago, and we heard the deafening roar of Russian jets flying overhead, I couldn’t help but wonder whether his ancient faith may be on the verge of extinction.

 

Nero Calatrava is a pseudonym for a British journalist who must hide his true identity due to his work as a reporter in Syria and Iraq. Follow him on Twitter @CalatravaNero.

 

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Do People Still Worship Baal?

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  • monty’s bones

    Excellent article! I had no idea there were still Canaanite polytheists around.

    It’s worth noting that “Baal” simply translates to “Lord” and was previously applied to many deities. It’s likely that Yahweh was referred to as Baal at some point and in some areas.

  • A fish with no hands

    Best wishes to this community! May they be preserved from intolerance.

  • Cat lover

    There are modern pagan reconstructionists who worship Canaanite deities.

  • http://thetrustworthyword.blogspot.com/ Jerry Schultz

    There is a reason it is a “mystery” religion. It is a religion that has promoted forced prostitution. Not only was child sacrifice practiced, but infants were often “exposed,” as that culture devalued human life. It is a religion of demon worship and the most degrading religion to women that has ever existed. Paul’s missionary journeys frequently led him to the strongholds of this ancient cult, bringing Christian morality, dignity and respect for women. They used wine laced with drugs in the same way as certain Native American tribes used peyote, to get high and have raves–to have hallucinations and communicate with their demon gods. They pierced and cut each other to appease their false gods. They forced women to serve as temple prostitutes. Some leaders claimed 1st night over the women of their cities. They held orgies. At its worst, bands of them would rove around their cities looking for victims to gang rape. The more this cult took control, the more depraved a society would become. No religion has ever done more to degrade humanity.

    • Edwin Woodruff Tait

      Of course, you’re getting most if not all of this from hostile sources.

      • http://thetrustworthyword.blogspot.com/ Jerry Schultz

        Actually Edwin, I researched this subject for an archaeology class. Here is a list of some of my sources:
        Farnell, Lewis R. The Cults of The Greek States. Caratzas Brothers Publishers, 1977.
        Farnell, Lewis R. Greece and Babylon. T & T Clark, 1911.
        Harrison, J.E. Religion of Ancient Greece. Constable and Company Ltd, 1921
        Herodotus. The Histories. Barnes and Noble Classics, 2004.
        Hemer, Colin J. The Letters To The Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1989.
        Herm, Gerhard. The Phoenicians. Morrow, 1975

    • Nemo

      The most degrading to women? Ignoring Islam, which takes the title by a wide margin, since when is a follower of Paul concerned about women’s liberation? As for worshipping demons, prove that demons are real.

      • http://thetrustworthyword.blogspot.com/ Jerry Schultz

        Hi Nemo. Paul was actually like a one man women’s liberation front for his time. In his day Roman women had some freedom, but Greek women were often viewed as one level above slaves. Paul upheld the right of women to attend synagogue, the right to pray and prophesy in public and encouraged them to enter into theological discourse with their husbands. Every time you see the word “submit” in scripture, that is the Greek word “hupotasso.” It means to willingly partner together and CO-operate with. Every time it was used, that word elevated women’s status, not lowered it. He referred to Phoebe as “diakonos,” a minister of the church. He publicly commended women in his letters and he noted in Romans 16 that several women were considered outstanding and highly respected among the apostles. By the way, all of the Greek religion, all of Greek, Roman and Egyptian mythology developed directly from…..the ancient fertility cult of Ba’al. that’s why the Greek women had been treated so badly and that is why the spread of Christianity was the most powerful movement the world had ever seen in granting freedom to women.

  • ravitchn

    What about Jehovah sacrificing his only son on the cross?

    • Duane Locsin

      that doesn’t count.

      :

      Nor when Abraham was tested to sacrifice Issaac, or Jepthah’s vow to kill his daughter for God helping him.

  • Nigel Gc

    Where are the pictures?