General term for religions marked by rites that reenact a myth accounting for the orderly change of the seasons and the earth’s fruitfulness. Such myths often involve a great mother-goddess as a symbol of fertility and a male deity, usually her consort but sometimes a son, who like vegetation dies and returns to life again. In Mesopotamia the divine couple was Ishtar and Tammuz (who is mourned in Ezek 8:14); in Egypt, Isis and her sons Osiris: in Asia Minor, Cybele and Attis. In Syria the Ugaritic myths of the second millennium B.C. pictured Baal-Hadad, the storm god, as the dying and rising god. (A local manifestation of this god is mourned in Zech
12:11; Syrian kings derived their names from this deity, 1 King 15:18; 2 Kings 6:24; 13:24). He wife was the goddess Anath. In the earliest Ugaritic myth Asherah, the great mother-goddess, was the consort of E1, the chief god in the pantheon. AS Baal replaced E1 as the major deity, he became associated with Asherah (Judg 6:25-30; 1 Kings 18:19). Ashtoroth, the daughter of Asherah, is used as the Hebrew word for womb or the fruit of the womb (Deut 7:13; 28:4; 18, 51).
Fertility cults attribute the fertility of the cropland and herds to the sexual relations of the divine couple. Sacral sexual intercourse by priests and priestesses or by cult prostitutes was an act of worship intended to emulate the gods and share in their powers of procreation or else an act of imitative magic by which the gods were compelled to preserve the earth’s fertility (1 Kings 14:23-34; 15:12; Hos 4:14). Transvestism (prohibited in Deut 22:5) may have been part of a fertility rite like that practiced by the Hittites. Sacrifices of produce, livestock, and even children (2 Kings 17:31;23:10) represented giving the god what was most precious in life in an attempt to restore order to the cosmos and ensure fertility.
Elijah’s struggle with the priests of Baal and Asherah at Mount Carmel is the best-known conflict between worship of Yahweh and a fertility cult (1 Kings 18:17-40). Under Ahab, Baalism had become the state religion (1 Kings 16:31). The account of the priests of Baal lacerating themselves (1 Kings 18:28) is illuminated by the Ugaritic myths where E1 gashes his arms, chest, and back at the news of Baal’s death. The priests of Baal customarily reenacted this scene from the myth at plowing time. Both skin and earth were cut as a sign of mourning (prohibited by Deut 14:1). Baal’s resurrection came with the return of the rains. The biblical narrative is clear that Yahweh, not Baal, is the Lord who withholds and gives rain (1 Kings 17:1; 18:20-45).