ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī: reconstructing a Canaanite religion

Cara Schulz —  August 4, 2015 — 20 Comments

“Pagan” is most commonly used in our interconnected religious communities as an umbrella term for any of the religions that either seek to revive a pre-Christian religion, or belong in the New Religious Movement category, such as Wicca. The religions under this umbrella are often more varied than they are similar and Ōraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī is no exception. ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī, which translates as “path of the ancients,” is in the Canaanite family of religions and seeks to revive the practice of the Israelites of the 15th through 9th centuries BCE.  Back then, it was primarily a tribal religion with centralized religious spaces and large festivals focused around a reconstructed lunisolar calendar. The practice also included a strong sense of household and familial tradition, including ancestor veneration, personal prayer, blessings over food, and family events.

ryan dial
The Wild Hunt
spoke to Ryan Dial, who is an ʼAlūp̄, or High Priest, for Ancient Path Assembly in Atlanta about this religion and how it is currently practiced.

The Wild Hunt: I realize it’s probably complex, but can you explain a bit about ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī?

Ryan Dial:  ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī is a revivalist faith, which is similar to polytheistic reconstructions in many ways in that we utilize archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, etc. with academic conjecture to revive an ancient faith system, but unlike recons, we don’t necessarily shy away from unverified personal gnosis (UPG) and we seek to update and move forward beyond simple reconstruction. More specifically, we are a religion within the larger category of Canaanite Reconstructionism/Revivalism, which includes reconstructions of Phoenician, Moabite, Amonite, Judahite, Edomite, and Israelite religions, itself, genealogically speaking, a sub-category of the Northwestern Semitic religious family [Amorite and Ugaritic religions] which is, in turn, a sub-category of the Northern Semitic religious family [Akkadian and Eblaite religions]. All of that is in the modern nations of Israel, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan.

Like many recons and revivalists, not all of our practitioners consider themselves “Pagan.” That tends to be a loaded term, unfortunately, and carries with it many connotations both from the outside world and from within the greater Pagan community. As such, I consider myself an ʼŌrēḥa, first and foremost, and depending on the audience, I may or may not also identify as a Pagan.

TWH: What part of the world did this religion originate from and is it similar to Judaism?

RD:  ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī is a revival of ancient Israelite religion. This is not the religion of the Bible, which was Judahite, but the religion of the northern Kingdom of Israel and its citystate and tribal predecessors. The Israelites were a confederation of Canaanite tribes.

We reconstruct primarily from the 15th through the 9th centuries BCE. The Israelites were conquered by Assyria during the 720s BCE. Prior to this, Judahite religion had already diverged and begun to become monotheistic. With the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel in the 720s, many Israelites fled south and added unique religious elements to the largely monotheistic Judahite national faith. Some of these survived in the Bible as Judahite religion slowly evolved into Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries CE, but by and large, Israelite religion had ended by that point. Some have shown survival of some elements of Israelite religion into the later religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Neoplatonism, thanks to the works of Iamblichus, who was himself of Canaanite stock.

We honor the Canaanite pantheon, which has roughly 150 deities of several “families,” much like the Aesir and Vanir in Germanic religions or the Asuras and Devas in Indo-Iranian religions. We’re monolatrous-panentheists with a emanationist slant. That is to say, while we believe in many gods, we believe that they, like all things in existence, including ourselves, are emanations of a singular divine force which we call Yǝhōwāh (lit. “Existence”). Additionally, while we support the idea that the gods of other peoples exist in some form, we believe that they, too, are emanations of Yǝhōwāh, though only our gods, the ʼĔlōhē͡ī-Kənaʻan, the “Godhead of Canaan,” should be worshiped by members of our faith. The theology is a bit more complicated than that, so think of this as a simplification.

9th Century BCE map showing the Kingdom of Israel [creative commons]

9th Century BCE map showing the Kingdom of Israel [Public Domain]

TWH:  What are the main ethics in your religion and how does it shape your daily life?

RD: Personally, I think the observance of Šeḇaʻ hāʼĪmărōṯ, “The Seven Teachings,” is by far the most important. They are seven philosophical teachings that form the core of our faith system, and as such, all practitioners, regardless of level, are expected to keep them. …

  1. Yəhōwāh is one and all things are unity.
    All that exists is part of the divine and, therefore, forms a singular existence. A human, an animal, a plant, and dirt are all part of a unity and there is no separation between them. We must recognize the divine in all things, in all people, and within ourselves.
  1. All actions will have consequences.
    We are all responsible for our actions, regardless of the circumstances, and nothing can absolve us of that responsibility. The choices we make are up to us, and every choice has consequences, many far-reaching and incapable of being predicted.
  1. Will governs actions.
    It is intent, the force of will, that governs our actions. Through proper intent, we can commit to a life of proper action. Approaching the world with selfish, individualist intent will most assuredly result in actions with negative consequences for all affected.
  1. Speak support, practice harmony, and in all things, be at peace.
    Our actions should always strive to create harmony, peace, and beauty in this world. We should strive to teach others through our example, not our words.
  1. Generosity, humility, calm, and joy are the path to wellbeing.
    Through generosity, we can aid our world. Through humility, we can be content with ourselves and with others. Through calm, we can maintain proper intent and see the world for its beauty. And through joy, we can spread wellbeing to those who need it most. Through these concepts, we can learn to love ourselves and others.We should be careful to guard ourselves against their opposites: greed, jealousy, anger, and self-loathing. It is through the concept of greed that the illusion of possession arises, and through the illusion of possession, we are prone to jealousy, anger, and self-loathing.
  1. One who is merciful, compassionate, and kind to the smallest creatures joins to Yəhōwāh.
    We should always seek mercy, compassion, and kindness, whenever possible. From the insect in our home to the poverty-stricken on the street, we should strive to honor the divine within all. We should always seek to aid those in need and prevent malevolence, cruelty, and hostility to all of creation.
  1. Love others freely and with deep passion.
    Without crass individualism and selfish concepts of ownership, we can freely love one another. We should seek to love others purely, with our whole soul, and love them for the unique expressions of the divine that they are. In all of our relationships, we should be devoted wholly and love them as the entirety of existence.

TWH: Could you explain what a religious observance might look like and why explain how it is still relevant today?

RD:  One of our more important holidays is Ḥaḡ haMaṣōṯ, a week-long festival celebrating the beginning of the barley harvest. It begins with the Pesaḥ ritual, a protection ceremony which originally secured the gods’ protection over the barley while it was being harvested and stored. During the ritual, we make an offering of barley into a sacred flame. This offering is followed by a week of feasting and merriment, with song and dance and firelit stories. We reenact these rituals with a modern twist, asking for protection over our livelihoods, our modern subsistence methods.

Ḥaḡ haMaṣōt ritual, observed by firelight [courtesy photo]

Ḥaḡ haMaṣōt ritual, observed by firelight [courtesy photo]

TWH: How did you learn of this religion? And how long have you been a part of it?

RD:  I began this path as an Orthodox Jew, actually. I wasn’t raised in a religious home, but I came to Orthodox Judaism on my own in college while looking for some of those “big question” answers. My pursuits began in Kabbalah and moved into Chasidism and eventually the religion of my more recent ancestors, Sephardi Judaism. I began a path that led to me seeking to join the rabbinate.

During this same time, I was studying cultural anthropology and anthropology of religion at Emory University, focusing on the early phases of Near Eastern religion. Over time, my intellectual pursuits and my religious pursuits came into conflict, and I found myself leaving the rabbinical path and, ultimately, Judaism altogether. My draw was always to the ancient Near East — it felt like home to me — so I said to myself, “There must be something to this, to the religion of the ancient Canaanites, that draws me in. If I am so in love with their faith, why not practice it in the modern era?” From there, I began seeking out groups that were doing what I was doing. I’ve now been on this path for almost 3 years. It’s an evolving religion, tied in so closely with academic research and archaeological discovery, but we’ve stabilized over those 3 years and have really come into our own as a living faith.

TWH:  Do you know how many people practice your faith and are there groups who meet in person?

RD: ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī is a communal faith, a tribal religion formed from an intentional tribe bound not by blood but by choice. As such, meeting in person is rather necessary for our practice. Thanks to the wonders of the internet, we have individuals with varying levels of interest and practice quite literally across the world, but our central home is Atlanta, GA [Ancient Path Assembly Atlanta], where our physical group currently meets. As with most Pagan groups, it’s hard to get a good number on just how many members and interested parties we actually have. Rituals tend to stay small, most likely due to their rapid frequency and non-western calendar, we don’t move rituals to the weekend. I know of two other extant groups that identify as somewhere within the Canaanite sphere — Natib Qadish and Am HaAretz, AMHA or the Primitive Hebrew Assembly, though, again, it is hard to get a definite number on the total size of the Canaanite polytheist community.

*   *   *

If you’d like to learn more about ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī or the Ancient Path Assembly Atlanta you can check out their website or go to their Facebook discussion group.

Cara Schulz

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Cara Schulz is a journalist and author living in Minnesota with her husband and cat. She has previously written for PAGAN+politics, PNC-Minnesota, and Patheos. Her work has appeared in several books by Bibliotheca Alexandrina and she’s the author of Martinis & Marshmallows: A Field Guide to Luxury Tent Camping and (Almost) Foolproof Mead Making. She loves red wine, camping, and has no tattoos.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The website comes up “under construction” so I’ll ask in this space what Ryan Dial can tell me about the reconstructed lunisolar calendar. From what was it reconstructed? Does it have a family resemblance to the Jewish lunisolar calendar in use today? What kind of dodges (like intercalary months) does it use to reconcile the solar and lunar years?

    • Hi! Yes, unfortunately the site is still “under construction” (actually re-construction) but large areas of the site are still functional — basically everything in the menu. You can access the ritual calendar here: http://pathofancients.org/live/calendar/
      Many of the holiday links there go nowhere at the moment, though.

      We have utilized linguistic, anthropological, and archaeological evidence to reconstruct the dates, seasons, holidays, etc. In cases where very little evidence exists in the records (which is unfortunately common), we’ve had to revive the practices and observances for holidays through educated conjecture. While many recons would cringe at such a notion, this is something we consider necessary for our faith. Should new archaeological evidence come to light, we adjust our practice accordingly.

      We share some holidays with the modern Rabbinic calendar, but most are only casually related by name. The Pesaḥ ritual, for instance, lends its name to Pesach or “Passover” in the Rabbinic calendar, but we have no seder (a Roman-period innovation) and our Pesaḥ only lasts one day, kicking off the week-long celebration of Ḥaḡ haMaṣōṯ, where we eat fresh barley bread or maṣāh (similar to a pita, not the cracker-like matza of modern Ashkenazi Judaism). We share other holiday names in common, like Yōm haKīpūrīm (Rabbinic Yom Kippur), but unlike the great fast day of Yom Kippur, ours is actually a feast day.

      The calendar itself is constructed around a 354 day year of 12 lunar months (alternating between 29 and 30 days in length, as the mean synodic month is 29d 12h 44m 2.757068s). With interspersed leap days and months, we get a 19-year cycle with years consisting of of 384, 354, 354, 384, 354, 355, 384, 354, 355, 384, 354, 384, 354, 355, 384, 354, 355, 384, and 354 days, respectively. There are cycles of cycles as well, each which have their own rules to maintain synchronicity. All in all, it creates a far more accurate lunisolar system than the Jewish calendar. Across a great cycle of 5678 years, our calendar only deviates from the mean tropical year by -8h 24m 3.317210s. The Rabbinic calendar, during the same 5678 year period, would deviate -26d 10h 57m 20.35091s. A loss of 26 days results in huge seasonal synchronicity issues, as you could imagine.

      I hope that helps provide a little clarity into what we do!

      • Baruch Dreamstalker

        Thank you!

    • The site’s reconstruction is in a bit of a hiatus at the moment, though, until we finish our book. At that point, the site will be a bit like an interactive and abridged form of said book.

      • Diana Sinclair

        Are you a member of the group mentioned in the article?

        • I am the individual interviewed for this article.

        • My Disqus ID uses my google account, which is tied to my forge and several other businesses which use the moniker “Mulciber Volcanus.”

  • Deborah Bender

    With your deep study in the ancient cultures of the land of Canaan, you can design rites in the language and style and with the sorts of offerings that Canaanite divinities were once accustomed to. No doubt you have Their attention and likely Their favor. I would imagine that these gods are offering guidance on the redevelopment of their cults; if it’s a group process, it’s more than UPG.

    • I say UPG because I don’t like to assume or push concepts that may have been outside of the Canaanite sphere as authentic to the time or culture, regardless of whether or not they may be in the vein of thought that could have potentially evolved should that culture have survived. Thanks for the supporting words though!

  • Fascinating article! The map shows a better view of the ancient Near/Middle East than I’ve seen before, and improves my understanding of the geography of the area at that time.

    I like what I see in your Seven Teachings. Good ethics, good life-goals. Very Buddhist/Sikh in places. Small world, eh?

    Should you ever wander over to PCon, and make a presentation, I’d be happy to attend.

    • Where is PCon?

      • PCon = PantheaCon. At the DoubleTree San Jose (Airport) over the Presidents’ Day weekend, frequently overlapping Valentine’s Day. Lots of different programs & presentations.

        • I’ll have to look into it!
          I’ve never been to San Jose.

          • If you do, and can stay longer (at a less expensive place), do so, because it’s a great place to explore.

            Less expensive places tend to have free WiFi, too.

  • Vision_From_Afar

    Not to tell anyone “How to Pagan”, but isn’t this much closer to Monism than Polytheism (though both are definitely Pagan)? A bit more clarification might have been helpful to make sure terms were correctly defined.

  • Julia Traver

    I am surprised at the lack of research in this article. Ancient polytheistic Caananite religion has been and is still being reconstructed by Tess Dawson. She has been working on this for more than ten years and does have a web presence. For her, the gods of the Canaanite pantheon have been a labour of love, bringing them forth again into the world. She felt their essences are still with us. I follow her blog as I do most all other reconstructionists of many differing pantheons. It seems as though the staff of The Wild Hunt has forgotten the wonderful essay a short time ago by The Anomalous Thracian. We are not seeking to find still more monists in the uncertain goal of appealing to general society.

    • Deborah Bender

      I’ve read your comment several times. It seems to me that what you wrote logically implies that you are making at least one of the following assertions. I don’t want to put words in your mouth or attribute positions to you that you don’t hold. So I’m asking, do you agree with any of the following statements, or are you saying something else?

      1. None of the religions that people are attempting to reconstruct as living religions were ever monist, or contained monist tendencies in their past manifestations. Consequently, if anyone who is attempting to reconstruct a religion incorporates monism in the reconstruction, it’s a distortion of the religion and doesn’t deserve to be called a reconstruction.

      2. There are examples of dead religions that were monist or contained monist tendencies. However, you have examined ancient Canaanite religion specifically and thoroughly enough to be certain that it never had a trace of monism. Therefore, the monism Ryan Dial espouses comes from some non-Canaanite source. This renders the entire reconstruction inauthentic.

      3. All the scholars and practitioners who are making efforts to reconstruct a particular religion ought to reconstruct it the same way. If they don’t, at least one of the reconstructions is wrong.

      4. The only reason why a person who worships a pantheon of deities from a particular culture would hold monistic views is a desire to fit in with other people who hold monistic views.

      5 The Wild Hunt should not give respectful coverage to anybody who is trying to build or reconstruct a religion along theological lines that combine or reconcile polytheism with monism, because you despise that kind of religion.

    • Deborah Bender

      The comments window may close before you get a chance to respond to my question, which seems unfair. Here is how I would write a complaint about the journalism on a site like this one.

      “As a polytheist, I was happy to see The Wild Hunt giving coverage to reconstruction of the Canaanite religion, something that most people don’t know much about. I was disappointed that you only interviewed a single source who is relatively new to the subject. You overlooked Tess Dawson, who has been working on this for more than ten years and does have a web presence. I follow her blog, as do many others. Now that TWH is aware of Canaanite reconstructionism, I look forward to future coverage that is broader and better informed.”

      You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

  • Jonathan Agathokles

    At the beginning of the interview Ryan Dial says that “Ōraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī is a revivalist faith, which is similar to polytheistic reconstruction.” and at the end he says “it is hard to get a definite number on the total size of the Canaanite polytheist community.”, indicating that he considers ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī as a polytheistic religion. But then he also clearly defines ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī thusly: “We’re monolatrous-panentheists with a emanationist slant.” and further adds that ʼŌraḥ Qaḏǝmōnī espouses the belief that all the Gods are part of one Godhead which he calls “Yəhōwāh”. I have yet to see any shred of evidence that the Canaanites or their Iron Age descendents had any such ideas. Concerning the Jewish religion we have evidence of an evolution from polytheism > henotheism > monotheism, but not from polytheism > “monolatrous-panentheism with a emanationist slant”. It’s also important that “monolatrous” indicates only *one* God is worshipped, not many Gods who are considered emanations of a “One God”.

    Ryan Dial also says “Some of these survived in the Bible as Judahite religion slowly evolved into Judaism and Christianity in the early centuries CE, but by and large, Israelite religion had ended by that point.” No it didn’t. To this day there are still Samaritan communities, practicing their own Israelite religion, which is separate and distinct from Judaism. The Samaritan religion is the direct continuation of the ancient Israelite religion, just like the Jewish religion is the direct continuation of the ancient Judahite religion.