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Mot, also written Mavet, was the West Semitic god of death, infertility, and drought. One of the sons of the high god El, he was the chief antagonist of the rain god Baal, whose life-giving waters brought fertility to the land. Mot was the Lord of the desert dryness, the underworld, and all that is opposed to life.
Mot was particularly important in the land of Canaan, which, unlike Mesopotamia and Egypt, had no great rivers and relied largely on rainfall to water its crops. In Canaanite mythology, Mot, and Baal were bound in a cyclical battle in which Mot temporarily vanquishes Baal, whose body is heroically rescued by his sister Anath, after which Baal is resurrected, finally defeating Mot and returning life-giving rain to the land.
The struggle between Mot and Baal also figures in the biblical story of the prophet Elijah's battle with the prophets of Baal, played out in the context of a period of devastating drought. The Israelites must decide whether they will accept the Canaanite view that only by properly propitiating Baal can they hope for rain to return, or whether they will follow Elijah's teaching that the God of Israel controls both drought and rain alike.
Sources regarding Mot are scarce, but he apparently played a major role in Canaanite mythology. According the Baal Cycle, discovered at Ras Shamra in 1958, Mot was called the "Darling of El" and was one of the primary actors in the annual fertility cycle. In this drama, Baal, the Lord of the life-giving fresh waters, had defeated the sea god Yam and established his throne on Mount Saphon. A struggle then ensued, in which Baal and Mot battled for supremacy.
"Respects I shall not send to Mot," Baal declares, "nor greetings to El's beloved!" Mot responds in kind: "I alone am he who will rule over the gods, yea, command gods and men, even dominate the multitudes of the earth."
Baal commands his messengers to travel to Mot's city in the underworld, where he sits on his throne. However, Baal cautions his minions: "Do not draw near the god Mot, lest he make you like a lamb in his mouth, like a kid in his jaws you be crushed!" The lesser gods must honor Mot: "The heavens halt on account of El's darling, Mot," Baal declares. "At the feet of Mot, bow and fall. Prostrate yourselves and honor him!"
Despite honoring him with words, however, Baal refuses to pay him tribute. Infuriated, Mot sends word back to Baal that he will exact revenge by devouring Baal like a titanic lion, thus bringing a terrible curse of drought upon the earth:
A lip to earth, a lip to heaven, and a tongue to the stars, so that Baal may enter his inwards, yea descend into his mouth, as scorched is the olive, the produce of the Earth, and the fruit of the trees.
Knowing that it is futile to resist, Baal responds in fear and submission, sending his messengers to declare: "Hail, O divine Mot! thy slave am I, yea thine forever." Mot rejoices when the lesser deities bring him this message, because Baal will be delivered unto him, and the fertility of the land will die with him. "Take thy clouds, thy wind, thy storm, thy rains!" Mot declares, "and go down to the nether reaches of the earth, so that thou mayest be counted among those who go down into the earth, and all may know that thou art dead!"
Before dying, however, Baal copulates with a sacred heifer, apparently sewing the seed of his own rebirth: "He lies with her 77 times, Yea, 88 times, so that she conceives." Baal is then found dead in the land of Debar.
Baal's death reaches the ears of the high god El, who is moved to grief over his son's death: "He pours the ashes of grief on his head, the dust of wallowing on his pate." El roams the mountains and forest weeping, lacerating his forearms and back in grief.
Baal's sister Anath, however, does more than merely mourn her brother's passing. She travels throughout the land in search of his body, finally finding him prostrate on the earth. Like El, she lacerates her body as a sign of grief for Baal. Assisted by the sun goddess Shapash, she carries him on her shoulders and brings him to Mount Saphon, giving him a proper burial and sacrificing 70 each of buffaloes, oxen, small cattle, deer, wild goats, and asses.
Anath then travels to the abode of El and his wife Asherah and confirms Baal's death. They appoint Ashtar the Terrible to sit on Baal's throne, but he is inadequate to the task. Now the heroic virgin Anath goes herself to face Mot, holding Baal "in her heart" like "a cow toward her calf." Boldly, she seizes Mot, tearing his clothes and demanding: "Come, Mot, yield my brother!" Mot pleads his case, insisting that Baal's death as an act of nature, of which he, the lion-like god of dryness and death, is merely a part. "I arrived at the goodness of the land of Debar… I met Aliyan Baal; I made him like a lamb in my mouth. Like a kid in my jaws was he crushed." Months pass, and Anath again confronts Mot, this time more violently, succeeding in dissipating his deathly power.
El now has a prophetic dream, indicating that Baal may yet live. "Let me sit and rest," El declares, "and let my soul repose in my breast. For Aliyan Baal is alive, for the prince, Lord of Earth, exists."
Spring is now coming, and Shapash, the "Torch of the gods" descends into the underworld. Upon her return she carries Baal with her. He immediately confronts Mot, smiting him on the shoulder and neck. He then returns to his throne on Mount Saphon, but Mot follows him there, blaming Anath's previous victory over him on Baal's inspiration:
Mot now threatens to destroy Baal utterly and usurp his kingship. Baal is able to drive him out of the heights of Saphon, but Mot vows revenge.
Finally, Mot and Baal join in a fierce battle to determine who will reign supreme:
Shapash intervenes, imploring Mot not to carry on the battle, for Baal now enjoys the support of El, the father of them both. "How will Bull-El, thy father, not hear thee? Will he not remove the supports of thy throne, or upset the seat of thy kingship, nor break the scepter of thy rule?"
The seasons have clearly changed, and now it is Mot's turn to be afraid. The god of sterility thus submits to Baal, the god of fertility, conceding the kingship to him, at least for the present.
The word mot (spelled mt) is cognate with forms meaning "death" in various Semitic and Afro-Asiatic languages: with Arabic موت (mawt), Hebrew מות (mot or mavet), Maltese mewt, and Syriac mautā. In Canaanite, Egyptian, Aramaic, Samaritan, and Nabataean, "death" is מות (mwt), while in Akkadian it is mūtu.
In the writings of the Phoenician author Sanchuniathon, Muth, or Death, is one of the sons of El/Cronus: "…And not long afterward he consecrated after his death another of his sons, called Muth, whom he had by Rhea. This (Muth) the Phoenicians esteem the same as Thanatos ['Death'] and Pluto."
The Hebrew biblical word for death is "mot" or "mavet." Several biblical verses personify mavet, such as the following, from which the concept of death as the "grim reaper" may be derived:
Death (mavet) has climbed in through our windows and has entered our fortresses; it has cut off the children from the streets and the young men from the public squares. Say, "This is what the Lord declares: 'The dead bodies of men will lie like refuse on the open field, like cut grain behind the reaper, with no one to gather them.'"
The biblical story of the prophet Elijah's battle with the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18) is also related to Mot's struggle with Baal. The background of the story involves a terrible drought—a curse brought by Mot in Canaanite myth, but by Yahweh according to Elijah—and a contest between the prophets of Baal and Elijah for control of the high place and altar at Mount Carmel. The people of Israel are torn between belief in the Hebrew God, who is Lord of both life and death, and the Canaanite religion, in which life and rain belong to Baal, while drought and death belong to Mot.
To propitiate Baal, his priests engage in a self-mutilating ritual, recapitulating the story of El and Anath, who lacerated themselves while mourning Baal's death prior to his resurrection. Elijah proves God's superiority over Baal first by a miracle in which God consumes Elijah's sacrifice with fire from heaven, and later by God's providing rain to end the drought. In Israelite monotheistic context, both the drought and the rain are brought by one sovereign deity, and the victory of Elijah over Baal's prophets served to demonstrate this.
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