Qadash Kinahnu, A Canaanite Phoenician Temple

A Canaanite-Phoenician Sacred Year

Part One: An Introduction

General Introduction

The Canaanite and Phoenician sacred year must be reconstructed for contemporary use, as no actual explicit sacred cycle has survived. In fact, the annual cycle would have varied a bit from region to region, since the agricultural cycles would be a little different, and each city had its own patron deities who displayed, however, numerous similarities. I have incorporated information from a variety of sources to create a single calendar, bearing in mind that this is not a replica of an ancient Canaanite-Phoenician calendar, only a structure for our convenience today.

Lunar and Solar Year

The year was divided into 12 lunar months. Each month began at the New Moon which would be marked by some sort of special activity. This day was called the Head of the Moon/Month - Rash Yarikh. There is some evidence that in Ugarit, the king performed purificatory and offeratory rites connected with the New Moon. The Jews celebrated the first siting of the New Moon, which they call Rosh Chodesh, with out-door singing and dancing at moonrise. It is qute possible that the Pagan Levantines did something similar. I propose the adoption of such practice. The Full Moon, the 15th day of the month, is usually a special ritual of some sort, relating to the various myths and deities honored.

A lunar year lasts approximately 354 days. Even today, Moslems operate on a strictly lunar year with no solar adjustment. Thus, a holiday falling in summer one year will eventually fall in winter in another. In our modern Western calendar, the months have no particular relationship to the cycle of the moon. A solar year is only approximately 365 days, which is why we add a day to make up for the discrepancy in Leap Year, every 4 years, except centenary years not evenly divisible by 40. Obviously, the lunar year does not exactly match the solar year. The ancients of the Levant knew that these two cycles did not coincide and adjusted their calendar accordingly to get lunar and solar years to rematch. The Jewish calendar adds 11 days every 2 or 3 years to the lunar calendar, close to the beginning of the Year in the Spring.

The Cycles of the Seasons

The cycle-of-the-seasons-of-the-year is called naqufat in Canaanite, t'kufah in Hebrew. The Canaanite words for season are unu - season - and adanu - a specific time or season in general. In the Levant, there are three seasons. The year begins in March at the Spring Equinox, when the weather is mild and there are only occasional rains. By mid-June, the second season, summer is felt. It is generally hot and dry. The only moisture available from the atmosphere is dew. The grasses dry to a golden color and the earth is parched. The summer ends at the Autumn Equinox. Relief comes in October with the beginning of the Rainy season. Although this is technically Winter, it is not the deathlike hibernation of northerly climes. Rather, the earth and the plants imbibe the moisture and come back to life, turning green, with trees budding often by the end of January, which is also true in California and everywhere else which has a Mediterranean climate.

The Four New Years

It is sometimes said that there are four New Years in the Jewish calendar. They fall near the Spring and Autumn Equinoxes, with additional holidays near what most neo-Pagans call by Celtic cross-quarter holiday names of Imbolg/ Oimelc in early February, and Lammas/ Lughnassadh in early August. Cross-quarter days fall half-way between Solstices and Equinoxes, and between Equinoxes and Solstices. Since dates of the Solstices and Equinoxes fluctuate, so do cross quarters, coming usually between the 3rd and the 7th of our standard month, not on the 1st as is the general neo-Pagan convention.

The true New Year in the Canaanite year-cycle falls on the New Moon close to Spring Equinox, as in many ancient and modern Near Eastern cultures. Since the Hebrew term for New Year is Rosh ha'Shonnah, which means "Head of the Year," and the language of the Canaanites is basically the parent of Hebrew, I will make an Ugaritic adjustment to Rash Shanah, since we do not have the exact Canaanite term. The Mesopotamians had a two week festival at this time, called Akitu, during which the King first was purified, then atoned for any failings during the previous year. It is likely that a similar, shorter festival was held in the Levant.

The second "New Year" is in early August. It served two purposes. First, it was for tithing animals for the temples. At this time, animals were brought down from the summer pastures in the highlands, a good time to cull the flocks in preparation for the rainy season which begins in October. It was also the time that wood was gathered and given to the temples.

A month and a half later is the third "New Year" near the Fall Equinox. Although the Jewish holiday is called Rosh ha'Shonnah, the Head of the Year, i.e., the New Year, and have a major festival at this time, the Jewish year actually begins near Spring Equinox. This is, however, the final harvest celebration of the year, Festival of the In-gathering. It is worth noting that this is month number seven, a very magical number in the Near East. It is the equivalent in the year cycle to the Full Moon of the month cycle. For Jews it is closely followed by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which resembles many intercalary holidays, similar to the purificatory rites of Akitu, but in a shorter time frame and applied equally to everyone.

The fourth "New Year" occurs in late January or early February and is a tithing of the produce of the trees. This may seem odd to those living in the snowy North, blanketed by what seems a cold and dark sleep of death. In Mediterranean and other semi-arid climates, this is near the end of the winter rains when the world is bursting back into bud and bloom. And yet even in cold England, there was a tradition of wassailing the trees near this time, making offerings to them and toasting their health. An interesting coincidence.

Equinoxes and Solstices

Thus the chiefly remarkable times of the seasonal cycle are the Equinoxes and Solstices and there is a Fast Day associated with each. In the Near East it is considered dangerous to drink water from a well or spring at this time. For some Jews these liminal moments are also bound with traditions. Freshly drawn water is considered dangerous at these times, unless it is salted or has a piece of iron in it. Even then, no one is to drink water half an hour before and half an hour after the marking of the event, in this case, sun-down on the day in question. Shortly after the Summer Solstice is the Feast for the Dead, when Ba'al is swallowed by Mot-Death. This is a community holy day to feast all one's ancestors. In late summer, there is the return of Ba'al from the Land of the Death. At Winter Solstice is another Feast for the Dead, a time it is likely that the Marzeach societies met privately., and is followed by the Festival of the Returning Light.

Other Year Cycles

Among the Jews are a several cycles based on the number seven. Every 7th Year is a Sh'mitah or Year of Release. Theoretically, as a Year of Rest for the land, a farmer cannot till his own soil and the poor can gather whatever grows wild. There is also supposed to be a moritorium on all debts. Every 28 years, which is the magically potent 7 multiplied by 4, the number of Solstices and Equinoxes in one year, is what the Jews call Birchat ha'Shamah, Blessing of the Sun. A special prayer service is held on a Tuesday evening, the middle day of the Jewish week, near Spring Equinox, sort of the New Year of this 28-year cycle. There will be one in the year 2009. The final festival year is the Jubilee Year, the 50th year which marks the end of a cycle of 7 X 7 years. Ideally, every slave was given freedom and every impoverished peasant regained any inheritance he may have been forced to sell. These cycles reflect the common Near Eastern motif of seven as a special, magical, and potent number. In the Ugaritic myths of Baal and of Keret are several suggestions of cycles of seven years honored in that culture, and it is quite likely that the Jewish tradition grew out of an already existing Levantine custom.

Moons: The Cycle of Months

Each of the 12 lunar months began on the day of the New Moon; the mid-point, the 15th day, is the Full Moon. Both of these days were marked with rituals and celebrations. We do not at this time have a complete calendar listing a full year of months in order. We do know the Babylonian names, which are closely parallelled by the later Hebrew names. From the sacrificial lists of Ugarit, we have several partial lists of months. A possible reconstructed order is:

first unknown
rish yn
(possibly means "new wine")
-or- pgrm
-or- dbchm

Vowels are not filled in because the Canaanites didn't write most of them. Again, it is likely that since the climate and growing seasons vary from the northernmost Canaanite area in northern Syria to the southernmost in the Sinai, there were differing local festivals, especially those oriented to specific agricultural harvests.

Here are the approximate times of modern harvests in the Levant and traditional harvest festivals:

  • March/April - Barley
    First Harvest Festival
  • April/May - Wheat
    Second Harvest Festival
  • July - Flax
  • June through September - Grapes
    Grape Harvest/New Wine Festival
  • August/September - Figs
  • August/September - Pomegranates
  • September through November - Olives
    Autumn Harvest Festival
  • After the last harvest comes the time to plant grain crops, shortly after the first rain has softened the soil, in October or November.

stonewallThe Sacred Year, Part Two - The Festivals
Purple ArchReturn to the Gateway for a complete directory of all the rooms in this Temple.

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updated 23 December 2007
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