Reading about Athtar (a.k.a. Attar)

I had been doing some light research about Lucifer/morning star archetypes before revisiting the Levantine deity Attar, and in the process I discovered a book called The Myth of Cosmic Rebellion: A Study of Its Reflexes in Ugaritic and Biblical Literature by Hugh Page Jr. Originally published in 1996, it contains a brilliant and fascinating study of the Athtar figure from the perspective of Ugaritic and Biblical mythology, and what I’ve learned about the Athtar figure has expanded my view of the obscure morning star deity exponentially.

Little is said of Athtar within the myths he features in, but what is featured apparently demonstrates him as a powerful and mysterious figure, even with a certain degree of autonomy. When Athtar descended from the throne of Ba’al Hadad at Mount Zaphon after attempting to replace him, he wasn’t cast down by the other gods or judged unworthy. Instead, it was written that he decided by himself that he would not rule from Zaphon.

“And Athtar the terrible answered: ‘I will not rule from atop Sapon.’ Athtar the terrible came down, from the throne of Aliyan Baal he descended. And he ruled over the Underworld, god of all of it.”

Two interpretations are given for this decision: the first is that his action is based on a reflection of his own abilities, having come to the conclusion that he is not worthy of the throne of Ba’al Hadad, helped by the fact that the Ba’al Cycle mentions Athtar’s feet failing to reach the stool of Ba’al Hadad’s throne due to being shorter than the aforementioned storm deity; the second is that he decided that he did not want the rule given to him by his benefactors (including the goddess Asherah), preferring instead to make himself king over a region not designated by the other gods. Either he found himself unworthy, or he found rule over Mount Zaphon unworthy. But he was certainly not the impotent substitute for Ba’al Hadad he is often seen as, and is even implied to be an equal to Ba’al Hadad and Yamm, between whom he vies for a house in the domain of the gods at one point and whom he was prepared to do battle with over that very issue. In my view, his rejection of the throne given to him by his patrons in the wake of Ba’al Hadad’s (temporary) death in favor of rule of the underworld amounts to him rejecting the will of the other gods in favor of his own will and decision, possibly viewing the throne as an imposition from the gods that he feels unworthy, either because of his own perceived shortcomings or his view that the throne itself is unworthy.

It is worth noting that Athtar is described as having a kind of freedom of movement between Zaphon and the underworld, mainly so that he could journey to the underworld and challenge his adversaries such as Yamm, though Athtar is never shown fighting Yamm as Ba’al Hadad ultimately did. He may have been viewed as a partially chthonic deity, which would make sense given his decision to rule the underworld. His dominion in the underworld also seems to put him in proximity with the main rival of Ba’al Hadad – Mot, the deity of death who tries to kill Ba’al Hadad. Anyways, this freedom of movement is also worth judging in the context of Athtar not having a house or singular like the other gods, making him effectively homeless (besides his rule over the underworld of course).

There is some data in the book pertaining to Athtar’s general traits. He is a possessor of kingship, he carries a torch (ooh, a morning star deity carrying a torch, what does that sound like I wonder?) and/or a scepter representing his power and sovereignty, he is described by Asherah as someone who “knows” and “understands”, possibly denoting his intelligence, he is associated with the lion and may have zoomorphic lion features, he is simultaneously described as “minute in strength” and “terrible” and “awesome” with regards to his strength and might, his divine locus is listed as both Zaphon and the underworld, he has no wife, he has servants known as Kotharim (but it’s unclear what they are supposed to be other than they wash his body, though maybe they’re related to Kothar-wa-Khasis?), and he is the son of El and Asherah. He is also cited as a specifically astral and martial deity, related to the planet Venus as the morning star, as well as having similar features to Ba’al Hadad (namely being a deity of fertility and being a bearer of rain and the waters) and may have at one point even been treated as a leader deity similar to Ba’al Hadad until the latter deity became more popular in the Levant. Some have speculated that Athtar may have been an androgynous deity, merging features of a male deity of the morning star and a female deity of the evening star (most likely Astarte), and there are male and female names referencing “Estar”, but the deity remains a very male figure historically.

Besides this, however, it is acknowledged that there is not much historical data concerning the Canaanite/Ugaritic Athtar, and there is certainly less information about him than there is about Ba’al Hadad. What little information we are left with, however, gives us a picture of what might have been a powerful deity, possibly an equal to Ba’al Hadad in stature (besides height of course) and in at least some of his abilities, a being who not only rules the underworld, having rejected the throne given to him by his fellow gods in Zaphon, but is free to move between the underworld and Zaphon, and a mysterious personality, one that is sadly not as exposed within the myths as Ba’al Hadad or other deities. A powerful, intelligent cosmic force, yet to be understood in the way Ba’al is, who dwells in the underworld after deciding the heavenly throne unworthy or out of his league. That is the morning star of Canaanite myth. And, if you ask me, he strikes me as a very Luciferian figure, in a way that almost seems like it’s too good to be true and yet all too fitting for the deity whose myth was the original inspiration for what would come to be taken as the modern Lucifer (that is, the prophecy against Nebuchadnezzar II in the Book of Isaiah where the idea of a fallen morning star is first referenced). He may not have all the hallmarks of a Luciferian archetype (would it kill him to share the knowledge of the gods to us lowly humans in his myths?), but he is certainly a powerful and rebellious figure, having defied the gods to take his own path and all, let alone in the netherworld, still shining on as a force of light in that region.

Of course there is the issue of Athtar’s relation to the Helel ben Shahar referred to in the Book of Isaiah. Well, if you look at the character of Athtar, there isn’t much. Hell, the only thin you know about the morning star of the Book of Isaiah is that he supposedly was once in heaven before being cast down to the earth, and that was actually supposed to be referring to Nebuchadnezzar II. In contrast, Athtar was never cast down by the gods, he just spurned them, and there is no evidence of him usurping the throne of Ba’al Hadad or El and in fact El ultimately approved of Asherah’s request to make Athtar king of the gods in the first place. The primary relation is probably limited to an allusion to the original myth. The Jews probably decided to interpret the morning star’s descent to the underworld as a banishment from heaven or fall from grace, and it could be assessed that this might be caused by ignorance of the source material, or possibly them interpreting the myths in a manner that suits the Yahwist slant.

Jebel Aqra, better known as Mount Zaphon, the mythological seat of the throne of Ba’al Hadad, and (for a time) Athtar (sorry there really are no good images of Athtar)

Satan’s origins in the god Baal

We’ve all heard of the Christian Satan (a.k.a. Lucifer, Beelzebub, etc. yada yada yada I’ve said this before), and thus you may have noticed his appearance throughout culture. You may also have heard that Satan’s design is a composite of pagan gods. Baal is one of those gods, and his role in the birth of the devil is a large and important one.

Let’s first start with Baal himself. While the word Baal (or Ba’al) itself simply means “lord”, and was also used as a title for a number of gods in the Canaanite religion, it is also a common way of referring to Baal Hadad, who for the purpose of this post we’ll refer to simply as Baal. He was a god of storms, thunder, rain, weather, and fertility. Among his notable features includes horns (or a horned headdress) and a thunderbolt, usually three-pronged, the latter of which would later appear as a weapon wielded by gods like Zeus and Indra. Baal was also equated with the Egyptian god Set, who, like Baal, was a strong and virile god of storms, but he was also a god of deserts who was also associated with foreigners and worshipped by Egyptian armies and soldiers, until later myths were he was a god of evil, darkness, and chaos (Egyptians really didn’t like chaos).

An ancient coin featuring a bull-headed deity. Notice he looks a lot like Set and with features of Baal.

Now we move on to Baal in Judaism. While there is no concept of the devil within Judaism, let alone as a being who opposes God, a similar kind of being is found in Ba’al Zebub. In Rabbinical texts, the name Ba’al Zebub (meaning “lord of the flies”) was the Jewish way of mocking the religion of Baal that surrounded them, and its followers, and it may have been a way of referring to Baal as a pile of dung and his followers as flies. They saw Baal as a false god, unworthy of worship. Does that sound familiar? Of course,  it’s a lot like the later Christian concept of Satan. The term Ba’al Zebub is the source of the name Beelzebub, and may have come from a Philistine deity named Baal Zebul.

In Christianity, we have Satan (who the Jewish Beelzebub is now synonymous with), who is most commonly shown as a horned male figure with a trident or pitchfork, along with other features like wings and a tail. The horned devil with a trident actually calls back to the god Baal with his horns and thunderbolt. It should be noted that Baal, or more or less the religion of Baal, was the biggest rival to the Jewish and Christian religions, so it seemed only natural for them to vilify him, and for the Christians to co-opt him into the design of the devil. Images of Baphomet may also be similar, being a horned entity holding objects.

A standard depiction of the devil.

So there you have it, Satan’s primary origins lie in the Canaanite god Baal, and in the Jewish (and later Christian) transformation of him (Beelzebub). There’s the traditional devil in Christianity, then before that a mockery/vilification of Baal in Judaism, and before that, Baal in the pre-Christian world. Baal does seem to me like the archetypal (male) pagan god, and that would probably make sense with regards to his vilification.