Ugaritic Narrative Poetry edited by Mark S. Smith, Edward L. Greenstein, Theodore J. Lewis, David Marcus, Simon B. Parker (Society of Biblical Literature) (Paperback) The Ugaritic narrative poems all come from the ancient city of Ugarit, which lies half a mile inland from the Syrian coast opposite the eastern tip of Cyprus. The city was discovered after a farmer's accidental exposure of an ancient tomb nearby in 1928 and has been excavated almost annually since 1929. The excavators have uncovered a large palace; an acropolis with two temples, the house of the high priest, and the house of a divination priest; and numerous other large and small buildings, both sacred and secular. These all date from the fourteenth and thirteenth centuries B.C.E. The levels from this period lie closest to the surface, have been most extensively excavated, and have yielded several archives and libraries. The uninscribed and inscribed remains together disclose many aspects of the city's culture during the Late Bronze Age.
Ugarit was well situated for trade. Trade routes extended by land east-ward to the other major cities of Syria, to Mitanni, and to Assyria; by sea westward to Cyprus and the Aegean; by land and by sea northward and westward to Asia Minor and the territory of the Hittites; and southward to Palestine and Egypt. Through economic and cultural contacts with these various regions, Ugarit became a rich and cosmopolitan city in the Late Bronze Age.
Excavators have found in the city the scripts and languages of several of the cultures with which it had relations. Two languages and scripts predominate, however. Akkadian, the language of the Assyrians and Babylonians, was the international language of the period and was used especially for communications between states, including Egypt. (Ugarit was predominantly under Egyptian influence in the first part of the Late Bronze Age but after ca. 1350 B.C.E. was dominated by the Hittite state to the north.) Akkadian was written in the complex cuneiform writing system, in which each of several hundred signs consisted of a cluster of wedge-shaped impressions on soft clay and represented a syllable, word, or indicator of a semantic category. But Ugarit also had its own native language, related to several Semitic languages, but generally classified as Northwest Semitic, reflecting its proximity to the hypothetical ancestor of the first-millennium languages of Syria-Palestine: Aramaic, Hebrew, Phoenician, and so on. To write this language, the scribes of Ugarit devised their own script. They exploited the alphabetic principle that had already inspired the invention of the Canaanite alphabet farther south, but devised signs using cuneiform impressions on clay, as for Akkadian. The Ugaritic alphabet consists of thirty simple cuneiform signs, each one representing a consonant (except for three which represent the same consonant —a glottal stop—with three different vowels). In this script the scribes of Ugarit wrote numerous internal administrative records of the city government, many letters and religious texts, and a few literary texts.
The Ugaritic texts include the only collection outside of the Bible of native poetry and narratives from pre-Roman Syria-Palestine. These narrative poems are of unique value as a source of information about Syro-Palestinian poetry, narrative, and mythology toward the end of the Bronze Age. As such, they also provide us with a sample of the traditional background of some of the poetic, narrative, and mythological material in the Hebrew Bible. We find in the Ugaritic narrative poems representatives of a developed poetic tradition that lies behind the poetic achievement now pre-served in the prophetic, liturgical, and wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible; versions of traditional tales or motifs that are later recast in Hebrew prose narratives; and a world of gods, with their conflicts and assemblies and interventions in human affairs, that is still dimly reflected in the surviving Hebrew literature.
The Ugaritic narratives are all apparently poetic; that is, they consistently use parallelism and/or poetic formulas. Parallelism, familiar from most biblical poetry, refers to the juxtaposition of phrases or clauses in usually two, sometimes three, and occasionally more, poetic cola of similar syntactic structure and/or semantic import. Poetic formulas include standard epithets for common characters, including gods; standard expressions for the introduction of direct speech, for a character's arrival at or departure from aplace, for the passage of time, and so on; and standard pairs of words or phrases used in parallel cola. Many formulas constitute a complete colon and even appear in pairs or larger clusters of cola. While a prose translation that did away with these features would offer a more fast-paced and engaging narrative to the modern reader, we have retained them in the interest of giving a sense of the traditional, poetic character of narratives that would have been not read silently but recited orally.
The various Ugaritic narrative poems draw on and adapt in different ways a common stock of material: accounts of births and arrangements of marriages, of journeys and banquets, of appeals and of conflicts (physical, political, and verbal). Within the individual stories too, there are recurring blocks of material (commonly called epic repetition)—the word-for-word repetition of instructions given and then acted upon, of messages entrusted to someone and then delivered, and so on. Appreciation of these works evidently depended on delight in recognition of the familiar and in the playing off of one version of a statement, speech, or episode against another—more analogous to the aesthetics of modem Western music than narrative literature.
The plots of the larger works are episodic, one crisis being resolved and then followed by another. Only Aqhat seems to have a progressive large structure in which each part plays a necessary role. Of course, an episodic plot is no bar to a unified theme, and the episodes of both Baal and Kirta contribute to overarching interests. Despite the common narrative material, the episodic structure, and the frequent use of epic repetition and formulaic language, however, the passions of the characters, human and divine, are often still apparent to the sympathetic reader.
The first three narratives translated here, Kirta, Aqhat, and Baal—stories of a king, a patriarch, and the gods respectively—are recognizably literary works, whatever the social purposes they served. Several of the other, shorter narratives, however, appear to have some more immediate, practical use, as is suggested by references to ritual acts, prescriptions, or social circumstances in conjunction with which the narratives were recited. This suggests the immediate power of specific narratives in relation to specific situations.
The world of the gods, in which the action of Baal and the shorter texts takes place, is also prominent in the story of Daniel and his son Aqhat, and is clearly in the background of the story of Kirta. The patriarch of the gods is E1,4 who presides over the divine assembly in Baal and Kirta. It is to him that individual gods turn with requests or for final approval of their plans.
Sometimes the best way to El's favor is through his consort, Asherah, the mother of the gods. Kirta, however, having been already assured of El's intervention on his behalf, makes a vow to Asherah to get additional sup-port. Despite this, on the evidence of Kirta, El is also the patron of kings. Another side of El appears in texts 19 and 23, where we see his drunkenness and sexual activity.
The most prominent deity in the preserved narratives is the god known as Baal, "Lord" (the title of the Syrian storm god, Hadad). Baal resides on the mountain north of Ugarit, Mt. Saphon, where his thunder and lightning can be seen; and he is the protagonist for monarchic rule among the gods, challenging Yamm, "Sea," and Mot, "Death," in the episodic Baal myth. His strongest supporter is his sister, Anat, a fierce and tender young woman—indeed, in modern terms, a young teenager or girl—here operating outside the normal sphere of family, and so, as a woman, unmonitored by father or husband. Baal and Anat cooperate also in text 15, in which Baal fathers a bull. In Aqhat, however, the two seem to be working at cross-purposes: Baal supports Daniel in his initial request for a son; Anat later arranges the killing of Aqhat; and Baal then responds to Daniel's appeals for assistance in his attempts to recover Aqhat's remains.
Unfortunately, almost none of the narratives is preserved in its entirety. Further, even where a text is perfectly preserved, we often encounter individual words or lines whose meaning still escapes us. One or both of these facts limit our understanding of almost every work included here, even of the apparently complete and clear portions (since to some extent under-standing of the parts depends on understanding of the whole). Thus there are significant limits to the adequacy of any translations of these texts, and we are aware that our versions are no exception.
The first three works are best known and have been translated several times. The other, shorter texts have in many cases not been included in the standard translations of Ugaritic texts, and the translations that are available sometimes exhibit the translator's creativity and imagination where a sound basis for determining the meaning of the original is lacking. The more fragmentary and obscure texts are included because of their obvious relations with those that are better preserved and understood and also because they have been used in some bold hypotheses concerning Ugaritic mythology and religion. Other fragmentary and ill-understood texts have been omitted altogether. The reader's patience will be sufficiently tried by the gaps in the present translations. We have generally tried to restrain our-selves from speculative reconstructions and to limit our imaginations and creativity to the task of converting what is preserved of the poetry of these ancient texts into a contemporary English that also has some literary qualities. This has been a more realistic aim in the case of the larger and better understood narratives. The more fragmentary and less understood texts demand, for the time being, a more cautious, plodding approach.
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