The World of Phoenicia
Around the 12th century BC, the Greeks gave the coastal region of the eastern Mediterranean the name Phoenicia. This name was so widely accepted that even the Romans adopted it at a later date. Phoenicia was the land between the Orontes River and Mount Carmel. The land was characterized early as the homeland or origination of the surviving Syro-Canaanite civilization. This unique civilization survived the many threats from other cultures of the 12th century BC. The Syro-Canaan civilization produced many interesting objects. Such objects included institutions, handicrafts, and maritime trading. All of these flourished immensely in Phoenician in this period (CANE, 1321). Phoenicia was neither a nation nor a country. Instead, Phoenicia was simply a “conglomerate of city-states that was distinguished from adjacent areas by its habitual outreach into the Mediterraneanworld” (Freedman, 349). Phoenicia was also known for its preferred dealing and trading with the Greeks and Indo-Europeans. Although it dealt and traded mainly with the Greeks, Phoenicia maintained a unique culture with its own religious beliefs, language, preferred trading techniques, and political setup. With help from their unique ways, the Phoenicians eventually began to expand through the Mediterranean, Near East, and the Middle East (Freedman, 349).
Religion for Phoenicia, like many other Semitic cultures, played a very important role in the Phoenician culture. In the 12th century BC, the Phoenicians strongly believed in paganism and worshipped many gods. The gods’ names, however, were not always consistent. Phoenicians had their own religious text, their own forms of prayer, and even had sacrifice within their culture. Gifts were also used as offerings and the Phoenicians also had a personal structure within their beliefs. All of these things helped form and keep the Phoenician religion quite unique and peculiar as well. Literary and epigraphic texts are part of the written sources of information about Phoenician religion. Literary texts include many sources such as the Hebrew Bible, Greek texts by Christian, classical, and Hellenistic writers. Epigraphic texts included cuneiform texts in Akkadian language and inscriptions in Phoenician language. One can easily notice all the different sources in which the Phoenician religious texts came about. Hence, the Phoenicians were exposed to many groups and many beliefs in which they built their own religious beliefs. It must be noted, however, that any source other than texts written by Phoenicians can not be solely relied upon and are secondary (Freedman, 358). Another vital part of Phoenician religion was sacrifice. In the Phoenician culture, sacrifice was often used to show faith and dedication to the gods. They used sacrifice in their culture beginning at a very early period, however, the procedures undoubtedly changed and varied over time. Phoenicians used both floral and animal sacrifices. Animal offerings included bulls, sheep, oxen, deer, and goats. Doves and pigeons seemed to be the popular birds to sacrifice. The floral sacrifices would often include offerings of cereal grain and plant derivatives such as oil. The entire sacrificial process was much like the Israelite sacrifice in structure. Phoenicians operated in a male dominated society where the women were treated as minimal or marginal participants, however, Phoenician texts also mention that a genealogy of the offerers was kept for both the males and the females (359, ABD).
The most popular Phoenician sacrifice known is narrated in the Bible. In I Kings 18:20-40 there is a sacrificial contest that is staged by Elijah, an Israelite prophet, to prove that his God, Elohim, is the one and only true God. The contest took place on Mt. Carmel, which was known as the mountain that was “sacred above all other mountains” (359, ABD). The Phoenicians and Elijah would each sacrifice separate animals. The victims of the sacrifice were to be bulls. The bulls was killed, butchered, and arranged in pieces in which the pieces were placed on wood in which the wood was placed on the altar as an offering. The Phoenicians then called upon one of their gods, specifically known as Ba’al, but no one answered. Seeing this Elijah began to mock the Phoenicians saying that he must be sleeping or preoccupied. The Phoenicians continued dancing around the offering and crying aloud. They even began cutting themselves, with swords, until they bled for this is what their culture called for. They continued to rave on but no one answered. Elijah then built a trench around the altar, put the wood in proper order, and laid the bull pieces on the wood. Four jars were then filled with water in which they were poured on the bull and the wood filling the trench with water as well. With everything being wet Elijah called upon his God, Elohim. “Then the fire of the Lord fell, and consumed the burnt offering, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench” (Oxford, 445). Elohim was revealed destroying the beliefs of Ba’al. Elijah then ordered that the prophets of Ba’al be seized and killed. The purpose of this story was to make Phoenician sacrifice and their gods
The World of Phoenicia