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Mot: The Canaanite God of Death

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

Mot was the ancient Canaanite god of death and the Underworld. He shared similarities with the Devil, is thought to be present in the Bible, and may have been the inspiration for the Grim Reaper.

Mot was the ancient Canaanite god of death and the Underworld. He shared similarities with the Devil, is thought to be present in the Bible, and may have been the inspiration for the Grim Reaper.

Mot: God of Death

Death doesn’t mean the end, at least in the eyes of the ancient Canaanites. It was simply part of the cycle that played out before them in an arid land. In Canaanite mythology, Mot, the god of death, battled and briefly won against Baal, the god of fertility and life. He was soon after defeated and killed by Anath, Baal’s sister, who would resurrect Baal in time to bring life to the land. In spite of Baal's survival, Mot’s rebirth would inevitably take place, and this cyclical battle would continue.

Like many gods within the pantheon of Canaanite mythology, Mot was a god that symbolized a vital part of the cycle of seasons. In this case, he represented the “death” of crops and the dry, infertile seasons that afflicted the present-day Middle Eastern region.

In addition, he was a god that existed well before the emergence of Judaism and eventually found himself losing influence and “dying” out in the region. Or did he?

Much like the cyclical battles he was known for, Mot never really went away. The Old Testament of the Bible doesn’t mention him by name—unlike his nemesis, Baal—but many scholars believe that his name, translated, has become the personification of death mentioned in the sacred text. There are also indications that Mot may have been the inspiration for the iconic Grim Reaper.

Furthermore, there also appear to be modern interpretations of him emerging in a fledgling religion and within the current “myth-making” medium of interactive video games. In this sense, we could say that Mot has cheated death.

Earliest known figurine of Mot.

Earliest known figurine of Mot.

Death Is Born

Mot’s origins date back to the Canaanite city of Ugarit (more famously known as Ras Shamra), an ancient port city found in present-day Syria. The city is believed to have existed as far back as 6000 BCE and was abandoned around 1185 BCE. During that time, the city and its people gave birth to their own mythology. It’s not known exactly when Mot and the Ugarit mythology started. However, the emergence of the Ugarit alphabet, and later the Phoenician alphabet, indicates that the written accounts have existed since 1400 BCE.

The Canaanites—a West Semite tribe—lived in a region that is now occupied by Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian territories (historically known as the Fertile Crescent for its fertile soil in this predominately arid region). It is believed that the Phoenicians and the people of Cartridge existed alongside the Canaanites, sharing certain aspects of each other's religion.

Mot (also known as Mavet) was at the center of this blended religion. Many accounts—including some of the first written literature in existence—stated that he was one of many children of the supreme god El. In addition, El (a deity that has a surprisingly vital afterlife in the Bible) considered Mot to be his “favorite son.”

The Hebrew biblical word for death is "mot" or "mavet."

— New World Encyclopedia

While considered a prodigal son, other accounts of Mot were not positive. He had several titles associated with him, including the following:

  • The god of sterility
  • The god of dryness
  • The god of barren places
  • The god of the desert
  • The god of drought
  • The god of the Underworld

In addition, as previously mentioned, he was the chief antagonist of Baal (also known as Ba’al or Baal-Hadad), and so his name became synonymous with death.

Cycles of Life and Death

Mot holds several distinctions. For starters, he may have been one of the first deities to be recorded in writing (despite being lost to time until 1958 when the city Ugarit was discovered and excavated).

Several fragments of poems and stories have been found. Among them is a collection known as Ba’al’s Tales or The Baal Cycle. It is in this collection that the antagonism between Baal and Mot plays out.

Every year, Mot and Baal battled each other. And, every year, Mot prevailed (some translations state that Mot ate Baal, “like a lamb”), only to have Baal's sister Anath (the goddess of War) defeat and kill him. Afterward, Anath would cut up Mot's body and sprinkle its parts on Baal’s remains, bringing the god of fertility back to life. Over and over, this battle continued with the same outcome.

Image supposedly meant to represent Mot and Baal battling one another.

Image supposedly meant to represent Mot and Baal battling one another.

Their struggle represented the Canaanites' yearly harvest, especially in the arid environment they resided in. Like most ancient cultures, the Canaanites saw the acts of nature as the will of the gods.

To them, the conflict between Mot and Baal was a metaphor for the changing seasons. Baal came to represent the harvest seasons when food and water were at their most plentiful. Mot, on the other hand, was the antithesis, for he represented sterility and death.

Is Mot the Devil?

Mot was not the Canaanite devil; however, he was very close to it. The place he came from wasn't Hell, either. The Underworld was a place for the dead and happened to be where Mot sent Baal after killing him. In fact, Mot's underworld is similar to (and was possibly the basis for) those described in Egyptian and Greek mythology.

It's possible that Mot and the Underworld would become the basis of Satan and Hell in the Judeo-Christian tradition. However, the Canaanites didn't see him as evil. Instead, he was venerated, feared, and respected. His power was simply part of the chief Semitic god El's plan, a plan that revolved around the formation of seasons.

Mot as the Personification of Death

Judaism soon swept the region. The Hebrew tribes ruled and off-set the Canaanites and their religion as the prime influence in the area. If one goes by the biblical account, the Canaanites were wiped out by the Israelites. However, recent research involving DNA indicates that 90% of the modern Lebanese population have genes that share characteristics with ancient Canaanites.

Contrary to popular belief, the Canaanites and their belief didn’t vanish. Instead, they were absorbed into the new, predominant culture. This includes their religion—for better or worse.

Canaanite Gods in the Bible

Baal is mentioned a lot in the Old Testament of the Bible, but not as a true deity. The once-powerful and benevolent god and his followers became symbolic adversaries. In numerous accounts, he becomes a false god that people seemingly pray to when they lose faith in the “one true God.”

Even El can be found in its pages, albeit, in a very complex way that involved both the biblical God and some of the prophets. El is a Semitic name for "God.” The English translation of the Bible refers to "Elohim," which also translates to mean "God" (whether El and the biblical god—also known as "Yahweh," meaning “the Lord”—are the same is still up for debate).

“By disease their skin is consumed, the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs.

— Job 18:13 NEV Bible

Mot's Presence in the Bible

Many biblical scholars point out that Mot, too, is present in the Bible. In fact, the story of the prophet Elijah in 1 King 18 of the Old Testament shares the following similarities with the cyclical Baal stories:

  • It takes place during a drought.
  • People (who have abandoned Yahweh) pray to Baal to bring the rain.
  • Reference to animal sacrifice mentions lambs.

However, the differences are striking:

  • Elijah challenges Ahab, the king of the group that prays to Baal.
  • Thus, Elijah seemingly takes the role of Mot.
  • Yahweh brings the rain, proving Baal is a false god and that people need to choose wisely (or die a horrible death, as many Old Testament stories ended).

Mot’s indirect references pop up in other verses in the Bible. Most notably, when death is personified in some way, it is Mot. The evidence of this goes back to the Hebrew language. In this case, Mot (or its alternate spelling of Mavet) translates to mean “death.”

A wood sculpture depicting death as the Grim Reaper. Made in southern Germany in the late 18th century, this sculpture is in the Museum Schnütgen in Cologne. Was Mot the inspiration for this famous and frightening character?

A wood sculpture depicting death as the Grim Reaper. Made in southern Germany in the late 18th century, this sculpture is in the Museum Schnütgen in Cologne. Was Mot the inspiration for this famous and frightening character?

Here is an example from Habakkuk 2:5:

  • “Moreover, wealth is treacherous; the arrogant do not endure. They open their throats wide as Sheol; like Death they never have enough. They gather all nations for themselves and collect all peoples as their own.”

And here is one from Job 18:13:

  • “By disease their skin is consumed, the firstborn of Death consumes their limbs.”

In these passages, Mot (as death) is presented by Yahweh as the one that he will turn the wayward Israelites over to if they don’t recognize him (Yahweh) as the true God.

There is speculation that the use of Mot/Death in the Bible led to the creation of the Grim Reaper or the Angel of Death that emerged in 14th-century Europe (however, the Black Plague did much to popularize the image and character).

Is Mot Really the Personification of Death?

To note, not everyone agrees that the personification of Death is Mot. One site calls it “ridiculous." A reference to a line from Psalm 49:14 also supports this line of thinking:

  • "Like sheep they are laid in the grave; death shall feed on them; and the upright shall have dominion over them in the morning; and their beauty shall consume in the grave from their dwelling."

The argument is that there was no need to refer to a god barely known in Ugarit mythology. And that death, as a word, fits, rather than a personification, and that the word death was used elsewhere without the indirect reference to Mot.

Still, the passage does refer to “sheep” and “death shall feed on them,” a reference that appears to coincide with Mot feeding on Baal like a lamb.

Mot Lives Again?

The belief in Mot and other Canaanite gods may have been a part of an ancient religion. However, an attempt to resurrect these gods and goddesses has started. Natib Qadish (also known as Canaanite Paganism, Canaanite Neo-paganism, or Canaanite Reconstructionism) is a revival of the polytheistic, pre-biblical religion. All the deities of the original religion are present in this revival.

However, this religion was not founded in its original place. According to the now-defunct site, Wikibin, the religion, supposedly founded in the 1990s, has found new life in the Internet world by means of social networking. Another site, however, mentions that the religion started in the early 2000s.

In addition, Mot has found a new medium to exist in. Mot has become a character within the realm of the popular Japanese media franchise known as Shin Megami Tensei. While being faithful to the character’s origin, the series of role-playing games (including multiple-player online games) depict Mot as an evil entity and have him listed as the Grim Reaper (or a character very similar to him).

It's an ironic twist. A god known to live and die has been reborn for the 21st century. Now, Mot lives—and dies—in cyber-space and beyond.

A modern depiction of Mot.

A modern depiction of Mot.

Work Cited

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Dean Traylor