Canaanite Religion: The Literature
CANAANITE RELIGION: THE LITERATURE
The scope of this article needs definition. The term Canaanite designates the culture of the region often known as the Levant, roughly comprising the modern entities of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, beginning with the earliest extensive written records in the third millennium bce and ending with the start of the Hellenistic period in the fourth century bce. "Canaanite" did not have such a broad definition in antiquity; generally, and especially in the Bible, Canaan is the southwestern part of this region. The sources are not consistent in this usage, however, and many modern scholars apply it to the regions that in the first half of the first millennium bce were divided into the political units of Phoenicia, Israel (later Israel and Judah), Ammon, Moab, Edom, and not infrequently, Aram, especially Aram-Damascus.
The term literature is used here to mean extended works composed in poetic style, specifically several dozen clay tablets, inscribed with an alphabetic cuneiform script, that have been found at ancient Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) on the Syrian coast in excavations since 1929. The much larger body of material found there, and at nearby Ras Ibn Hani, apparently a royal palace, includes a variety of documents not germane to the topic of this article, such as diplomatic correspondence, lists of ritual offerings, economic texts, and notes for the care and treatment of horses. But even these contain valuable evidence for religious practice, especially in the names of the gods listed as recipients of offerings, names that were also used as components of personal names.
Most of the literary texts were found in the temple precinct of ancient Ugarit, on the city's acropolis. This is not merely a result of scribal activity in the sacred quarter, because the secular archives were found in the royal palace area and other libraries existed elsewhere in the city; rather, the presence of these texts in a religious context indicates that they had a religious function. Unhappily, few of them have any rubrics, and other, specifically ritual texts, such as the lists of offerings and the inscriptions on clay models of livers and lungs used for divination, provide no clue to the cultic setting in which the literary texts were used. Presumably, at least some of them were read or recited periodically at festivals, as were the Homeric poems in ancient Greece; others may have been actual librettos for ritual activities.
Characteristics of the Texts
The major mythological and epic texts were written on clay tablets that were fired after having been inscribed on both sides in from one to four columns. The lines are written continuously, with divisions between the words but without other spacing except for occasional dividing lines between sense units and episodes; these, however, are not used systematically. Not infrequently, the tablets have a title at the beginning; thus, two of the three parts of the Kirta cycle are marked "Concerning Kirta," and one tablet of each of the Baal and Aqhat cycles has a similar heading. Such a cataloging device may have been used more regularly, but because a significant number of the tablets are broken at the edges, one cannot be sure. The incomplete preservation of many of the tablets also makes it more difficult to follow the sequence of the narratives and hence to interpret them; this explains the conjectural analyses below.
Five tablets have concluding notations; the most complete reads: "The scribe was Ilimilku from Shubanu, the apprentice of Attanu-Purlianni, the chief priest, the chief herdsman; the sponsor was Niqmaddu, king of Ugarit, master of Yargub, lord of Tharumani." As this colophon indicates, the texts were written under royal patronage, illustrating the close connection between palace and temple. The king in question was Niqmaddu III, the second-last ruler of Ugarit, who lived in the late thirteenth century bce. Ilimilku may have been more than just a scribe to whom the contents of the tablets were dictated. Although the texts show signs of having originally been oral compositions, Ilimilku may have been a writer in the modern sense, one who, like Homer in Greece a few centuries later, took an oral tradition and creatively revised it for a written medium.
Among the characteristics that Canaanite literature shares with other oral literatures is the use of stock epithets for human and divine characters, a technique most familiar from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Thus, El, the head of the pantheon, is variously called "the bull," "the creator of creatures," "the father of years," "the kind, the compassionate," and "the king"; the storm god Baal is "the prince," "the conqueror (of warriors)," and "the lord of the earth"; Kirta, the hero of the epic called by his name, is "the gracious one," "the noble," and "the servant of El"; and Danel, the father of the title character of Aqhat, is "the hero" and "the Healer's man." The poets apparently chose the epithet that was most appropriate for the context and that best fit the meter.
Another device familiar from the Homeric poems is the use of formulaic units to narrate standard scenes: the offering of a sacrifice; the harnessing of a donkey; the preparation of a banquet; the journey of a god or goddess to El's abode. Thus, with appropriate changes of number and gender, the following lines occur some half dozen times in the extant corpus:
Then she headed toward El, at the source of the two rivers, in the midst of the two seas' pools; she opened El's tent and entered the shrine of the King, the Father of Years. At El's feet she bowed down and adored; she prostrated herself and worshiped him.
Also characteristic of Ugaritic literature is the almost verbatim repetition of large blocks of lines; this is found in the giving of a command and its execution, the occurrence of a dream and its telling, and in various specific narratives.
Finally, like other ancient eastern Mediterranean literatures, this originally oral Canaanite literature was poetic. Because the texts were written almost entirely without vowels, it has so far not been possible to establish the metrical principles underlying the poetry, and rhyme was not used. But one formal characteristic can be identified, traditionally called parallelism and fortunately not obscured by translation. In Canaanite poetry the basic element is a unit of two or three lines in which one thought is extended by repetition, paraphrase, or contrast. Thus, in a speech by the craftsman god Kothar-wa-Hasis, the lines
"Let me tell you, Prince Baal, let me repeat, Rider on the Clouds: behold, your enemy, Baal, behold, you will kill your enemy, behold, you will annihilate your foes; you will take your eternal kingdom, your dominion forever and ever"
consist of three units, each of which expresses a complete thought. This stylistic feature is familiar from the other major source of Canaanite literature, the Hebrew scriptures, for the same building blocks of Canaanite verse—parallel pairs—are used there as well:
Behold, your enemies, Yahweh, behold, your enemies have perished, all evildoers have been scattered. (Ps. 92:9)
Your kingdom is an eternal kingdom, your rule is forever and ever. (Ps. 145:13)
The reason for this similarity of form and content is cultural: notwithstanding the significant geographical and temporal differences between Ugarit and Israel, they were part of a larger cultural entity that shared a common poetic and religious vocabulary.
This commonality is significant, for the literature of ancient Israel preserved in the Bible is able to shed much light on obscurities and gaps in the Canaanite literature from Ugarit. Conversely, the Ugaritic texts enable us to understand the Canaanites better on their own terms instead of through the often virulent polemics of the biblical writers. Each body of literature thus illumines the other, as will be seen below.
The texts in this category make no reference to human persons or actual societies. The protagonists are divine and there is no historical time frame.
The Baal cycle
The major cycle of preserved Canaanite literature from Ugarit has to do with the deity Baal, the most important god in the Ugaritic pantheon. Although the high god El was worshiped at Ugarit, as throughout the Semitic world, and figures in a number of texts, Baal seems to have supplanted him as the major deity by the late second millennium bce; this is confirmed both by nonliterary sources, such as ritual lists and personal names, and by the Baal cycle, whose theme in brief is the affirmation "Baal the Conqueror is our king!"
More than a dozen tablets contain various episodes or variants of the Baal cycle, indicating the god's importance at Ugarit, but many of them are fragmentary, and so any sustained development of the plot of the cycle is difficult to determine. What is clear is the main plot of three episodes: Baal's battle with Sea; the construction and dedication of Baal's house; and Baal's encounter with Death.
Baal and Sea
El, the head of the pantheon, had apparently shown preference to his son Sea (Yamm)—called "El's beloved" and also by the parallel titles Prince Sea and Judge River—over Baal, the son of Dagan (whose name means "grain"). Initially, Sea seems to have gained the upper hand, with El's support. He sends the council of the gods, over which El presides, an ultimatum:
"Message of Sea, your master, your Lord, Judge River: 'Give up, O gods, the one you are hiding, the one you are hiding, O multitude; give up Baal and his powers, the son of Dagan: I will acquire his gold.'"
Although El and the divine assembly are willing to capitulate to Sea's demand, Baal is not, and he proceeds to engage Sea in battle. With the help of magical clubs fashioned for him by Kothar wa-Hasis ("skillful and wise"; the divine craftsman, the Canaanite equivalent of the Greek Hephaistos), Baal defeats his adversary:
The club danced in Baal's hands, like a vulture from his fingers; it struck Prince Sea on the skull, Judge River between the eyes; Sea stumbled; he fell to the ground; his joints shook; his frame collapsed. Baal captured and drank Sea; he finished off Judge River.
This brief episode cannot be fully understood without reference to similar and more detailed Near Eastern myths, especially that preserved in the Babylonian Enuma elish. There the council of the gods is threatened by Tiamat (Deep), the primeval goddess of saltwater. The only deity able to rescue the gods is the young storm god, Marduk, who agrees to do so only if he is given complete authority over gods and human beings. Following their battle, described in lavish detail, Marduk forms the elements of the cosmos from the corpses of his defeated adversaries and is proclaimed supreme ruler. Despite differences between the Babylonian and Ugaritic texts, there seem here to be two versions of a single story that tells how a younger god comes to assume leadership over his fellows; similar myths are found in ancient Anatolia, Greece, and India. Like Marduk, Baal is a storm god: he is called the "rider on the clouds" (compare the Homeric epithet of Zeus, "the cloud-gatherer"); his weapon is the lightning bolt; and he is responsible for the rains in their season.
Many of these aspects of Baal are also attributed to the Israelite Yahweh. Thus, he too is the "rider on the clouds" (Ps. 68:4); he
makes the clouds his chariot, walks on the wings of the wind, makes the winds his messengers, fire [and] flame his ministers. (Pss. 104:3–4)
There are also allusions in various biblical passages to a primeval conflict between Yahweh and the sea; especially noteworthy is Job 26:12–13:
With his power he stilled the sea, with his skill he smote Rahab, with his wind he put Sea in a net, his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.
(Compare Psalms 89:9–10 and Isaiah 27:1.)
The Bible does not, however, present a completely developed version of this primeval struggle, for in ancient Israelite tradition the normative event was not mythical but historical: the defeat of the Egyptian army at the Red Sea. But frequently the language used to celebrate this event was derived from Canaanite myth. Thus, Psalms 77:15–20 incorporates into a remembrance of God's ancient deeds the following:
With your arm you redeemed your people, the sons of Jacob and Joseph. The waters saw you, God, the waters saw you and writhed, indeed, the deeps trembled; the clouds poured out water, the thunderheads sounded their voice, your arrows were in constant motion.… Through the sea was your way, and your path through the mighty waters.… You led your people like a flock, by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
(Compare Isaiah 51:9–10.)
Furthermore, the same parallel terms used of Baal's adversary are put into service by biblical poets, as in Habakkuk 3:8:
Were you not angry at the river, Yahweh, was your rage not against the river, was your wrath not against the sea?
And in Psalms 114:1–3 the formulaic pair "sea/river" is partially historicized:
When Israel came out of Egypt, the house of Jacob from people of a different language … the sea saw and fled, the Jordan turned back.
In the more fully elaborated prose accounts of the story of Israel's deliverance, the splitting of the Red Sea is repeated at the crossing of the Jordan, again reflecting the ancient parallelism.
The ancient Israelites thus made frequent use of the broader ancient Near Eastern myth of the defeat of the primeval sea by the storm god. In the Bible, as in Ugaritic, the watery adversary of the deity is also called Leviathan, the multiheaded monster (Pss. 78:13–14; cf. Jb. 41). Behemoth and Rahab, other biblical names for the sea, have not yet turned up elsewhere. This myth is transformed in the apocalyptic visions of Jewish and Christian writers: in the end of time, the sea will finally be defeated (see Is. 27:1; Rv. 21:1).
After a considerable gap, the Baal cycle continues with a description of Baal's victory banquet. One of Baal's servants prepares an appropriate spread for "Baal the Conqueror, the Prince, the Lord of the Earth":
He put a cup in his hand, a goblet in both his hands, a large beaker, manifestly great, a jar to astound a mortal, a holy cup that women should not see, a goblet that Asherah must not set her eye on; he took a thousand jugs of wine, he mixed ten thousand in his mixing bowl.
Another break in the text occurs here, and there follows a lengthy account of a battle waged by Anat, the most vividly described of the three major goddesses in the Ugaritic texts. The other two, Asherah (Athiratu in Ugaritic) and Astarte (Athtartu), appear only infrequently and generally in formulaic passages that shed little light on their characters. Anat, on the other hand, is a major figure in the Baal cycle, a position that is appropriate in view of her relationship to Baal: she is his sister and his wife. As this description of her martial style indicates, Anat is a violent deity:
Heads rolled under her like balls, hands flew over her like locusts, the warriors' hands like swarms of grasshoppers. She fastened the heads to her back, she tied the hands to her belt. She plunged knee-deep in the soldiers' blood, up to her hands in the warriors' gore; with a staff she drove off her enemies, with the string of her bow, her opponents.
After this gory battle Anat purifies herself:
She drew water and washed, the heavens' dew, the earth's oil, the rain of the Rider on the Clouds, dew that the heavens pour on her, rain that the stars pour on her.
In the next scene, Baal sends messengers to summon Anat; this invitation, which includes one of those extended formulae that recur in the texts, is lyrical in tone:
"Message of Baal the Conqueror, the word of the Conqueror of Warriors: 'Remove war from the earth, set love in the ground, pour peace into the heart of the earth, rain down love on the heart of the fields. Hasten! hurry! rush! Run to me with your feet, race to me with your legs; for I have a word to tell you, a story to recount to you: the word of the tree and the charm of the stone, the whisper of the heavens to the earth, of the deeps to the stars. I understand the lightning that the heavens do not know, the word that human beings do not know, and earth's masses cannot understand. Come, and I will reveal it: in the midst of my mountain, the divine Zaphon, in the sanctuary, in the mountain of my inheritance, in the pleasant place, in the hill I have conquered.'"
When Anat sees Baal's messengers approaching, she is overcome with fear that another enemy threatens Baal. She lists the various enemies of Baal who have been defeated; first among them is Sea, who is given a full range of epithets, including "the dragon," "the twisting serpent," and "the seven-headed monster." Curiously, Anat herself claims credit for Sea's defeat, as for that of the other enemies named. Clearly, there was more than one version of Baal's defeat of Sea, for the one discussed above does not depict Anat as a participant in the battle; similarly, there is no account of combat between Baal and such adversaries as "the divine calf, the Rebel" or "El's bitch, Fire." These gaps in knowledge are salutary reminders of the limited nature of the sample of Ugaritic literature as yet discovered, and of the difficulty of combining the several tablets of the Baal cycle into a continuous narrative.
When Baal's messengers assure Anat that there is no danger and issue Baal's invitation, Anat proceeds to visit Baal. Again a section is missing, and as the text resumes, the main plot line of this tablet is developed: the construction of a permanent abode for Baal. In the gap he apparently complains to Anat that despite his victory over Sea, he has no house like the other gods. The word house in Ugaritic, as in Hebrew, has several senses; here it means not just a dwelling but a permanent abode for the god, hence a temple. The construction of a temple for the god who has been victorious over the forces of chaos is a typical motif; in Enuma elish in particular, after Marduk establishes cosmic order and creates human beings from the blood of Tiamat's spouse, the gods themselves build a temple for Marduk, and after its completion they are his guests at an inaugural banquet. Baal's elevation to kingship over the gods and human beings is therefore incomplete as long as he has no house like the other gods.
Anat goes to El to obtain his approval for the erection of a temple for Baal; her request includes a characteristic threat of violence if she is refused:
"I'll smash your head; I'll make your gray hair run with blood, your gray beard with gore."
Before El can give his assent, however, his consort Asherah has to agree; mollified by a bribe of marvelous gifts specially fashioned by Kothar, the divine craftsman, she intercedes for Baal:
"You are great, El, you are truly wise; your gray beard truly instructs you.… Now Baal will begin the rainy season, the season of wadis in flood; and he will sound his voice in the clouds, flash his lightning to the earth. Let him complete his house of cedar! let him construct his house of bricks!"
Anat brings the news of El's approval to her brother; Baal then gathers appropriate building materials—silver, gold, lapis lazuli—and commissions Kothar to begin work. As they discuss the plans, Kothar recommends that a window be included; despite his repeated urgings, however, Baal refuses. The house is built, and with the other gods Baal celebrates its completion at a banquet, after which he goes on a triumphal tour of his domain. When he returns, he has apparently changed his mind about the window, and at his request Kothar makes one; from this window, appropriately described as a slit in the clouds, Baal thunders, the earth quakes, and his enemies flee. Baal's enthronement as king is complete.
Baal and Death
Near the end of the tablet on which the above episode occurs, Baal proclaims:
"No other king or non-king shall set his power over the earth. I will send no tribute to El's son Death, no homage to El's Beloved, the Hero. Let Death cry to himself, let the Beloved grumble in his heart; for I alone will rule over the gods; I alone will fatten gods and human beings; I alone will satisfy earth's masses."
This challenge to Death is best explained by the incomplete nature of Baal's triumph: while he has defeated Sea and has been proclaimed king by the divine assembly, the major force of Death is still not subdued.
Like Sea, Death is El's son; apparently, Baal's accession to kingship over the gods requires the elimination of this rival as well. The enigmatic dispute between Baal and Kothar about whether Baal's house is to have a window may be an indication of Baal's awareness of this requirement. Baal's initial reluctance can be better understood by reference to Jeremiah 9:21:
Death has come up through our windows, he has entered our fortresses, cutting down the children in the street and the young men in the squares.
Since the decipherment of Ugaritic it has become clear that in many biblical passages that mention death, there is at least indirect reference to the Canaanite deity representing death (Hebrew and Ugaritic, mot ) and not merely a designation of the cessation of life. The verse in Jeremiah is one such passage, and may reflect a popular belief that the god Death entered a house through the window. Seen in this light, Baal is at first unwilling to include a window in his house because he fears giving Death access; later, after his inaugural banquet and triumphal march, his grasp of power is, he thinks, more secure.
In any event, having proclaimed his supremacy, Baal sends messengers to Death; their names are Gapn and Ugar ("vine" and "field," appropriately reflecting Baal's aspect as god of the storm that brings fertility and thus anticipating the coming contest with its antithesis). Baal directs them:
"Head toward the midst of his city, the Swamp, Muck, the throne where he sits, Phlegm, the land of his inheritance."
Death's underworld domain is, like the grave, a damp, dark, unpleasant place; it is reached from his earthly territory, the barren, hot desert, where (Baal continues)
"Sun, the gods' lamp, burns, the heavens shimmer under the sway of El's Beloved, Death."
Suitably warned and instructed, Baal's two messengers leave. Because the text is broken here and even an entire tablet may be missing, it is not wholly clear what the gist of Baal's message is; a plausible guess is that Baal wishes to invite Death to his new palace. But Death will have none of such niceties; Baal is condemned for his destruction of Sea and its cosmic consequences, and the sentence is death at Death's hands. Gapn and Ugar return with Death's reply:
"One lip to the earth, one lip to the heavens; he stretches his tongue to the stars. Baal must enter inside him; he must go down into his mouth, like an olive cake, the earth's produce, the fruit of the trees."
Without any sign of resistance, Baal agrees:
"Hail, El's son Death!"
"I am your servant; I am yours forever."
The tablet is very fragmentary here, leaving only the skeleton of a plot. Baal is to take with him all his companions and accoutrements—cloud, winds, lightning bolts, rain—and to proceed to the underworld; then "the gods will know that you have died." Apparently he does so, for when a readable text resumes, two messengers are reporting to El:
"We arrived at the pleasant place, the desert pasture, at the lovely fields on Death's shore. We came upon Baal: he had fallen to the ground. Baal the Conqueror has died; the Prince, the Lord of the Earth, has perished."
El's reaction is, initially, one of grief:
He poured earth on his head as a sign of mourning, on his skull the dust in which he rolled; he covered his loins with sackcloth. He gashed his skin with a knife, he made incisions with a razor; he cut his cheeks and chin, he raked his arms with a reed, he plowed his chest like a garden, he raked his back like a valley. He raised his voice and shouted: "Baal is dead: what will happen to the peoples? Dagan's son: what will happen to the masses?"
Meanwhile, Anat independently discovers Baal's corpse, and she too mourns in the same formulaic fashion. Afterward, with the help of Sun, she brings Baal's body back to Mount Zaphon, where she buries him and offers the appropriate funerary sacrifice. Then she heads toward El's abode, where her announcement of Baal's death occasions El's suggestion to Asherah that one of her sons replace Baal as king; at least two try and are found wanting.
After a considerable gap in the text, Anat is described as she is about to encounter Death:
Like the heart of a cow for her calf, like the heart of a ewe for her lamb, so was Anat's heart for Baal.
Anat grabs Death's clothes and insists that he give up her brother; Death refuses, or at least is unable to grant her request. Time passes; in Baal's absence the forces of drought and sterility are dominant; "the heavens shimmered under the sway of El's son, Death." Again Anat approaches Death; no words are exchanged, but this time Baal's sister is as violent in grief as she is in battle:
She seized El's son, Death: with a sword she split him; with a sieve she winnowed him; with a fire she burned him; with a hand-mill she ground him; in the field she sowed him.
This agricultural imagery is striking: for Baal, the dead god of fertility, to be restored to life and for Death, the living god of sterility, to be destroyed, the mysterious processes of the natural cycle have to be ritually repeated. It is important to note that this is not the ordinary annual cycle but rather the periodic disaster that a prolonged drought can cause; if the life-giving winter rains are to fail, there will be no crops, no food for animals or humans. In myth this is represented by the struggle between Baal and Death; with Baal dead, the forces of sterility prevail, and Baal can be revivified only by Death's death. Only if Death, whose appetite is insatiable, whose gaping jaws have swallowed up Baal like a lamb or a kid, is himself swallowed up, can Baal's power return.
In the next scene, El has a prophetic dream in which he foresees Baal's restoration and its effects:
In a dream of El, the Kind, the Compassionate, in a vision of the Creator of Creatures, the heavens rained down oil, the wadis ran with honey.
Baal is restored to power, and as a later heir of Canaanite tradition would put it (1 Cor. 15:54–55):
Death is swallowed up in victory. Where, O Death, is your victory? Where, O Death, is your sting?
(Compare Isaiah 25:8 and Hosea 13:14.)
The Baal cycle does not quite end here; there remain his revenge on his rivals and yet another successful struggle with Death after a seven-year interval. The latter confirms the analysis of this last episode as the mythical representation of an occasional rather than an annual event.
The relationship between El and Baal is complex. On a narrative level, it is difficult not to sense El's less than enthusiastic acceptance of Baal's dominion. In the first episode he is willing to hand Baal over to Sea, "El's Beloved"; in the second, both he and Asherah are scornful of Baal's position, for "he has no house like the other gods"; and in the third, despite his real (although stylized) grief at Baal's death, he is quick to suggest replacements from his own family. Furthermore, throughout the cycle El remains the head of the pantheon and presides over the council of the gods. Yet this very cycle, the most extensive among the surviving texts from Ugarit, tells of Baal's rise to some kind of preeminence. At the very least it can be suggested that Canaanite ideology was not static, and the mythological literature reflects this fluidity. While Baal had become the patron god of Ugarit, this did not mean that its citizens rejected either the worship of El or the traditional understanding of his role in the world of the gods.
Other mythological texts
In other texts from the same archaeological context as the Baal cycle, El has a dominant, sometimes even an exclusive, role. There follows a discussion of some of the better-preserved texts that also have to do with the Canaanite gods.
Birth of the beautiful and gracious gods
Unlike the other texts treated here, this tablet (of which some seventy-six lines survive) combines mythological material with ritual rubrics; the former is apparently the accompanying libretto for the action prescribed by the latter.
The central portion of the tablet describes the conception and birth of the deities Dawn (Shahar, probably the morning star) and Dusk (Shalim, the evening star). As it opens, El is at the seashore, where two women became aroused as they observe his virility:
El's hand [a euphemism] grew as long as the Sea, El's hand as long as the Ocean.
In language full of double entendre, the text relates how El shoots and cooks a bird, and then seduces the women:
The two women became El's wives, El's wives forever and ever. He bowed low, he kissed their lips; behold, their lips were sweet, as sweet as pomegranates. When they kissed, they conceived, when they embraced, they became pregnant; they began labor and gave birth to Dawn and Dusk.
Two divine sons are thus sired by El, who is in full possession of his vigor and virility. As his offspring, they "suck nipples of the Lady's breasts"; "the Lady" is El's principal consort, the goddess Asherah. But the two young gods have insatiable appetites, comparable (because the same formula is used) to that of Death himself:
One lip to the earth, one lip to the heavens: into their mouths entered the birds of the heavens and the fish in the sea.
So, at El's command, they are banished to the desert; after seven years they are finally allowed to reenter the land by "the guard of the sown." Here the text breaks off.
This summary does not begin to deal with the many problems of interpretation posed by the laconic text, nor is it clear how the first portion of the tablet is related to the material just recounted. The tablet begins with a first-person invocation to "the beautiful and gracious gods," almost certainly Dawn and Dusk, who are minor but established figures in the Ugaritic pantheon; Dawn also occurs in biblical tradition (Is. 14:12). Their exile in the desert may be a mythical explanation of their perceived origin: in the ancient view both day and night rose in the east, and from the Canaanites' perspective the eastern limit of their territory was the great Syrian desert.
The details of the ritual, in which particular words and actions are to be repeated seven times and performed in the presence of the king, queen, and royal court, are highly obscure. Various deities are mentioned, various sacrifices are to be offered, and while there are some verbal connections with the mythic section, it is difficult to interpret the whole with coherence; yet it is improbable that the two parts are not somehow related. What is clear is that the myth depicts El with full enjoyment of his generative powers, and it is likely that the concern underlying both the ritual and the narrative parts is the maintenance of fertility.
Marriage of Nikkal and the moon god
This relatively brief text is a kind of epithalamium, or wedding hymn, celebrating the marriage of the moon god (Yarih), "the heavens' lamp," to Nikkal wa-Ib. The first part of the latter's composite name is ultimately derived from the Sumerian title of the moon goddess Ningal, "great lady," and its second half is connected with the word for "fruit." The tablet opens with an invocation of Nikkal and Hirhib, an otherwise unknown deity called "the king of summer," and then tells of the Moon's passion for Nikkal. To obtain his intended bride he uses the services of Hirhib, the divine marriage broker, offering to pay her father as bride-price a thousand silver pieces, ten thousand gold pieces, and gems of lapis lazuli.
Hirhib suggests that Moon marry instead Baal's daughter Pidray ("misty") or someone else, but Moon is adamant; the marriage with Nikkal is arranged, and the bride-price is paid:
Her father set the beam of the scales; her mother the trays of the scales; her brothers arranged the standards; her sisters took care of the weights.
This portion of the tablet ends with another invocation: "Let me sing of Nikkal wa-Ib, the light of Moon; may Moon give you light."
The brief second part of the tablet consists of another hymnic invocation of the goddesses of childbirth, the Wise Women (Kotharatu). Their presence, as in the account of the birth of Aqhat (see below), guarantees the conception and safe delivery of babies.
This short tablet provides a candid glimpse of the gods, and especially El, as they participate in a ritual symposium. El invites the gods to his house, where he has prepared a feast; among those present are Moon, Astarte, and Anat.
The gods ate and drank; they drank wine until they were full, new wine until they were drunk.
At this point the party becomes rowdy, and El's gatekeeper rebukes the guests; El too is chided, apparently for allowing the unruly behavior. Then, however, El himself becomes intoxicated and decides to retire; en route he has an alcoholic hallucination of a figure with two horns and a tail (a possible satanic prototype). Despite the support of two attendants,
He fell in his excrement and urine, El fell like a dead man, El, like those who go down into the earth.
In other words, he is dead drunk. The reverse side of the tablet is extremely fragmentary, but, appropriately, it seems to contain a remedy for hangovers.
In the middle of the text, El is described as seated, or enthroned, in his mrzḥ ("symposium"). The mrzḥ (Hebrew marzeaḥ ) was a chronologically and geographically widespread ritual institution, mentioned several times in texts from Ugarit (including once in the fragmentary Rephaim texts, discussed below), twice in the Bible (Jer. 16:5, Am. 6:7), and in Phoenician/Punic texts from Sidon and Marseilles. It is also mentioned in Aramaic texts from Elephantine in Egypt, from Petra in Jordan, and from Palmyra in Syria. Scholars disagree as to the precise character of this institution, especially its possible connection with funereal practices and memorials; there is no doubt that this text contains at least part of its mythological background.
The two major Canaanite literary cycles with human protagonists are Aqhat and Kirta. As in more familiar classical heroic epics, however, and as in other ancient Near Eastern sources, such as the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh epic, the gods play a significant role in the narrative; from a temporal point of view, actions in both the divine and human realms occur on a single continuum. Thus, while a specific time is not indicated in either of these two texts, the time frame in which the narrative takes place is historical at least in the sense that the cosmic order has been established.
This title is an ancient one, appearing as a cataloging device at the beginning of the third major tablet of the cycle that is preserved. Nevertheless, the story is part of a larger one about Aqhat's father, Danel, a royal figure whose righteousness and wisdom were legendary (see Ez. 14:14, 20; 28:2). The surviving remnants of the cycle deal with the relationship of Danel and his son, and as the extant story begins, Danel is described performing a seven-day incubation ritual, occasioned by his lack of progeny.
A period of seven days or seven years occurs some five times in Aqhat, and elsewhere in the Ugaritic corpus as well: Baal's initial defeat of Death lasted seven years, and in the Aqhat text (see below), Danel cursed the land by calling for an absence of Baal's generative powers:
"For seven years let Baal fail, eight, the Rider on the Clouds: no dew, no showers, no surging of the double deep, no benefit of Baal's voice."
This is reminiscent of the alternation of seven years of plenty and seven of famine in the biblical story of Joseph. The frequent use of the number seven applies to days as well; in both the Ugaritic texts and the Bible, seven days is the conventional length of a journey, and the revelation about to be made to Danel recalls God's call to Moses on the seventh day (Ex. 24:16). Other biblical examples include the seven days of creation at the beginning of Genesis and the literal tour de force of the collapse of Jericho, which occurred on the seventh day after seven priests blowing on seven trumpets had marched seven times around the city. It is unlikely that this repeated use of seven is much more than literary convention, but its frequent occurrence in Ugaritic and biblical literatures underscores the close relationship between them.
On the seventh and final day of Danel's ritual, Baal, Danel's patron, addresses the assembly of the gods on Danel's behalf:
"Unlike his brothers, he has no son; no heir, like his cousins; yet he has made an offering for the gods to eat, an offering for the holy ones to drink."
In response, El blesses Danel and then catalogs the benefits that a son will provide:
"When he kisses his wife she will become pregnant; when he embraces her she will conceive: she will become pregnant, she will give birth, she will conceive; and there will be a son in his house, an heir inside his palace, to set up a stela for his divine ancestor, a family shrine in the sanctuary; to free his spirit from the earth, guard his footsteps from the Slime; to crush those who rebel against him, drive off his oppressors; to eat his offering in the temple of Baal, his portion in the temple of El; to hold his hand when he is drunk, support him when he is full of wine; to patch his roof when it leaks, wash his clothes when they are dirty."
Heartened by the divine promise, Danel returns to his palace, where with the assistance of the Wise Women, the goddesses of marriage and childbirth, conception occurs after seven days.
This list of ritual and personal filial duties suggests that one of the epic's purposes was didactic: to school its audience in proper social behavior, which included not only the responsibilities of a son to his father but the model conduct of kings, of daughters and sisters, and in fact, of all humans in their complex relationships with one another and with the gods.
The picture of the childless patriarch is a commonplace in Canaanite literature. In the Ugaritic texts, the opening of Kirta (see below) is remarkably similar to that of the Danel cycle, and in Genesis, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob each are initially either childless or lacking descendants from their favorite or principal wives. In each case, offspring are promised by their patron deity: in Abraham's case, in the context of a nocturnal revelation, like Danel's (Gn. 15), and in Isaac's, in response to a prayer by the patriarch (Gn. 25:21). In the more extensive Jacob cycle, the promise of numerous descendants is made at night (Gn. 28:11–17) and is granted in response to Jacob's favorite wife Rachel's specific prayer (Gn. 30:22). The stories of Hannah (Samuel's mother), of Samson's parents, and to some extent of Job are further variations of this motif. In the biblical narratives of Israel's ancestors as preserved in Genesis it is further significant that the patron deity who pronounces the blessing on each patriarch, although called Yahweh in the present sources, is elsewhere unequivocally identified as El (see Ex. 6:3; cf. Gn. 14:19–20; 49:25). As his epithets in biblical literature and especially in Genesis make clear, this is none other than the head of the Canaanite pantheon. It is noteworthy that in Aqhat, even though Baal is Danel's patron (as his epithet, "the Healer's man," indicates), the blessing is given by El; Baal acts only as mediator between the childless king and "El, the Bull, the Creator of Creatures."
The middle third of this first of the cycle's three tablets is missing; in this section the birth of Danel's son Aqhat must have been related. The story then resumes. As Danel is engaged in typical royal judicial activity at the city gate, judging the cases of widows and orphans, he sees Kothar approaching with a bow and arrows. The divine craftsman gives this weapon to Danel as a gift for his son; after a suitable feast, prepared by Danel's wife for their divine guest, the god departs.
In the next episode Anat, having seen the wonderfully crafted weapon, offers to buy it from Aqhat; the latter refuses, proposing instead that he will supply the raw materials necessary for the construction of another one by Kothar. Anat goes further:
"If you want life, Aqhat the Hero, if you want life, I'll give it to you, immortality—I'll make it yours. You'll be able to match years with Baal, months with the sons of El."
Again Aqhat refuses, and this time his response goes beyond the proper limits:
"Don't lie to me, Virgin, for to a hero your lies are trash. A mortal—what does he get in the end? what does a mortal finally get? Plaster poured on his head, lime on top of his skull. As every man dies, I will die; yes, I too will surely die. And I have something else to tell you: bows are for men! Do women ever hunt?"
The first part of Aqhat's response, while realistic, is bad enough: he implicitly denies Anat's ability to provide what she had promised, because from his perspective, old age and death are inescapable. But in insulting her prowess with such weapons, Aqhat is challenging the goddess's very essence. Anat replies with a characteristically furious threat, and goes to report the matter to El.
The second and shortest tablet of the cycle retains only two of its original four columns. In the first column El accedes, apparently with reluctance, to Anat's insistence on revenge, and in the last Anat carries out her threat:
When Aqhat sat down to eat, the son of Danel to his meal, vultures swooped over him, a flock of birds soared above. Among the vultures swooped Anat; she set him [Yatpan, Anat's henchman] over Aqhat. He struck him twice on the skull, three times over the ear; like a slaughterer he made his blood run, like a butcher, run to his knees. His breath left him like wind, his spirit like a breeze, like smoke from his nostrils.
The end of this tablet and the beginning of the next are badly broken; apparently Anat regrets her action, at least in part because while Aqhat was being killed his bow dropped into the sea.
When the text becomes legible, Danel is again sitting at the gate presiding over legal matters. His daughter Pughat notices that the vegetation has withered and that vultures are swooping over her father's house; both are clear signs of violent, unnatural death. With his clothes torn in mourning, Danel
cursed the clouds in the still heat, the rain of the clouds that falls in summer, the dew that drops on the grapes.
Thus, Danel invokes a seven-year drought (see above), the absence of Baal's pluvial benefits. Then, at her father's instructions, Pughat,
who got up early to draw water, who brushed the dew from the barley, who knew the course of the stars, in tears she harnessed the ass, in tears she roped up the donkey, in tears she lifted her father, she put him on the ass's back, on the splendid back of the donkey.
At this point neither Danel nor Pughat is aware of Aqhat's death; together they set out on a tour of the blasted fields. There, Danel poignantly wishes that they could be restored, so that
"the hand of Aqhat the Hero would harvest you, place you in the granary."
While they are still in the fields, messengers appear and relate the facts of Aqhat's death. Danel is stricken:
His feet shook, his face broke out in sweat, his back was as though shattered, his joints trembled, his vertebrae weakened.
Finally, Danel lifts up his eyes, sees the vultures overhead, and curses them:
"May Baal shatter the vultures' wings, may Baal shatter their pinions; let them fall at my feet. I will split their gizzards and look: if there is fat, if there is bone, I will weep and I will bury him, I will put him into the hole of the gods of the earth."
Three times Danel examines the innards of various vultures for remains of Aqhat; they are found at last inside Samal, the mother of vultures, and presumably are given proper burial. Danel then curses the three cities near the scene of the crime and returns to his palace to begin the mourning period. For seven years the mourning goes on, and at its conclusion Danel dismisses the mourners and offers the appropriate sacrifice.
In the last surviving brief episode, Pughat asks her father's benediction:
"Bless me, that I may go with your blessing; favor me, that I may go with your favor: I will kill my brother's killer, put an end to whoever put an end to my mother's son."
The blessing having been given, Pughat, like the Jewish heroine Judith, applies cosmetics and puts on her finery, under which she hides a sword. She reaches Yatpan's tent at sundown, and he welcomes her, boasting:
"The hand that killed Aqhat the Hero can kill a thousand enemies."
Our text ends tantalizingly:
Twice she gave him wine to drink, she gave him wine to drink.
Interpretation of this epic is difficult because of the gaps in the narrative and the abrupt break at the end of the preserved portion, but some light is shed on the main lines of the story by other ancient sources. The encounter between Anat and Aqhat is reminiscent of similar episodes in classical literatures, and especially of a portion of the Gilgamesh epic. There, the goddess Ishtar (Inanna) tries to seduce Gilgamesh; he repudiates her advances and reminds her in arrogant, insulting detail how she had behaved toward other mortals she had loved after she had finished with them. Ishtar is naturally furious and complains bitterly to her father, Anu, the head of the pantheon. At first he resists her desire to take revenge on Gilgamesh by setting against him a powerful animal adversary, the Bull of Heaven, telling her that if her request is granted there will be seven years of drought. Finally, however, Anu relents, when Ishtar tells him that she has stored up sufficient grain and fodder.
The parallels between this episode and Aqhat are numerous and striking, but there are also significant differences. While Ishtar is the Mesopotamian counterpart of Anat, a goddess of love and of war, Gilgamesh and Aqhat are not simply literary cultural variants. In particular, it seems unlikely that the bow in the Ugaritic epic is a symbolic substitute for Aqhat's sexual organ: because it had been manufactured by Kothar, a substitute could be made for it, and after Aqhat's death it dropped into the sea.
The Egyptian myth of Osiris offers another avenue of comparison. In that tale Isis, the sister (and wife) of the dead Osiris, retrieves the murdered corpse of her brother, gives it a proper burial, and then encourages their son Horus to avenge his father's death; Osiris is, significantly, the god of the regenerating vegetation.
It seems, then, that the Gilgamesh, Osiris, and Aqhat cycles have a common thread, the threat to continued fertility. Extrapolating from these links, it is likely first that Pughat does avenge her brother's death, probably by destroying Anat's henchman Yatpan—it turns out that women hunt after all! Second, given the importance assigned to Danel's lack of an heir and the positive recollection of him in Ezekiel, it is difficult not to assume that he, like Job, is granted rehabilitation, that the land is restored to production, and that a substitute son is born, all in other episodes of the Danel cycle not yet discovered.
The Rephaim texts
Three other tablets, extremely fragmentary ones, give some hint of the outcome of the story. Like most of the texts treated in this article, they were written down by Ilimilku, and because one of them mentions Danel by name, they are part of the larger Danel tradition. Most scholars refer to them as the Rephaim texts, after the Hebrew pronunciation of the name of their principal figures, the Rephaim; this title is probably to be translated (despite the Hebrew vocalization) as "the Healers," although some scholars prefer "the Healthy (or Healed) Ones." These "Healers" seem to have been minor deities of the underworld. (See Job 26:5; in other biblical passages the term Rephaim is used for the legendary pre-Israelite inhabitants of the land of Canaan, probably by extension from the sense of the deified dead.) They also seem to have been connected with Baal; recall Danel's epithet, "the Healer's man."
In these texts the Healers visit Danel's threshing floor and plantation, presumably to restore them. Four broken lines read as follows:
"Behold your son, behold … your grandson … the small one will kiss your lips."
It is tempting to see here the promise, if not the fact, of a new heir for Danel. It has even been conjectured that Aqhat himself was restored to life, somewhat analogously to Baal's resurrection, but this is unlikely because Aqhat was human, not divine, and he himself had stated the Canaanite view of mortality: "As every man dies, I will die."
This epic, consisting of three tablets, is incomplete: at least one additional tablet is missing, for the third ends abruptly in mid-sentence. Its eponymous hero, Kirta (a name also vocalized as Keret), was, like Danel, a king, and as the story begins he too has no heir. As he laments his lot, he has a revelatory dream in which El appears to him; parallels in Aqhat and in the ancestral stories of Genesis indicate that his sleep may have been part of a formal incubation ritual. El's instructions to Kirta amount to more than ninety lines of text, and they are immediately repeated, with only minor variations, as the childless ruler carries out the divine commands.
First, Kirta offers a sacrifice to the gods, and then he prepares an army for his campaign against King Pabil of Udm, whose daughter, the Lady Hurraya, is to be given to Kirta as his wife. There is almost universal conscription:
The bachelor closed his house; the widow hired a substitute; the sick man carried his bed; the blind man was assigned a station; even the new husband came out: he led his wife to another, his love to a stranger.
This army proceeds like a swarm of locusts for three days, after which it arrives at the sanctuary of Asherah of Tyre. There Kirta vows that if his suit is successful, he will donate double the bride-price to the goddess. On the evening of the seventh day he reaches Udm and lays siege to the city:
They attacked the cities, they raided the towns; they drove the woodcutters from the fields, and the gatherers of straw from the threshing floors; they drove the water carriers from the well, and the women filling their jars from the spring.
After seven days of siege Pabil begins to negotiate, offering Kirta silver, gold, slaves, and chariots. But Kirta rejects these, insisting that there is only one thing he wants:
"Give me rather what is not in my house: give me the Lady Hurraya, the fairest of your firstborn: her fairness is like Anat's, her beauty is like Astarte's, her eyebrows are lapis lazuli, her eyes are jeweled bowls."
This is the end of the narrative of Kirta's fulfillment of El's command, and also the conclusion of the first tablet. The beginning of the second tablet is damaged; as the text resumes, Pabil accedes to Kirta's suit, with regret:
"As a cow lows for her calf, as recruits long for their mothers, so will the Udmites sigh."
After some missing lines, the council of the gods assembles in procession. Some of them are listed: the Bull (El), Baal the Conqueror, Prince Moon, Kothar-wa-Hasis, the Maiden (Anat), and Prince Resheph. This assembly gathers to witness El's blessing, at Baal's behest, of Kirta's marriage:
"Kirta, you have taken a wife, you have taken a wife into your house, you have brought a maiden into your court. She will bear seven sons for you, she will produce eight for you; she will bear Yassib the Lad, who will drink the milk of Asherah, suck the breasts of the Virgin Anat, the two wet nurses of the gods."
The close association with the gods of the offspring of royal but human parents is a feature of the Canaanite ideology of kingship.
Seven years passed, and El's blessing proves effective, but Asherah is angry because Kirta has forgotten his vow. Meanwhile, Kirta plans a feast for his nobles, but during its preparation he is stricken with a mortal disease, apparently as a punishment from Asherah.
As the third tablet opens, Kirta's son Ilha'u is expressing consternation at his father's illness:
"How can it be said that Kirta is El's son, an offspring of the Kind and Holy One? Or do the gods die? Do the Kind One's offspring not live on?"
Ilha'u shares his dismay with his sister Thitmanit ("the eighth," or Octavia), who repeats her brother's words of confusion. After another gap the text tells of the disastrous consequences of Kirta's illness:
The plowmen lifted their heads, the sowers of grain their backs: gone was the food from their bins, gone was the wine from their skins, gone was the oil from their vats.
Again there is a break in the text, and then El intervenes personally; he asks the divine council seven times if any of their number can cure Kirta, "but none of the gods answered him." Finally he takes the task upon himself:
"I will work magic, I will bring relief; I will expel the sickness, I will drive out the disease."
To do so he takes clay and creates the goddess Shataqat (whose name means "she causes [disease] to pass away"), then sends her to Kirta. She succeeds; "Death was broken," and Kirta's appetite returns.
In the final scene, after Kirta has been restored to his throne, his rule is challenged by one of his sons on the ground that because of his weakness, he has ceased to perform the expected functions of a king:
"You do not judge the cases of widows; you do not preside over the hearings of the oppressed; you do not drive out those who plunder the poor; you do not feed the orphan before you, the widow behind your back."
Kirta's response is to curse his son, praying that Horon, an underworld deity, and Astarte, "the name of Baal," will smash his son's skull.
The plot of the Kirta cycle is relatively straightforward (at least where the text is continuous). Kirta also provides a perspective on the Canaanite ideology of kingship. Among the duties of the king was to maintain the social order; he did so by his effective support of the powerless in society—the poor, widows, orphans—all groups who are mentioned in innumerable ancient Near Eastern sources as the special responsibility of kings, both divine and human. Thus, his son's attempted coup to seize Kirta's throne was motivated by the alleged lack of justice for the powerless; Absalom's revolt against his father, King David, in 2 Samuel 15 was initially successful because Absalom was able to appeal to a similar failure in the royal administration of justice. Another aspect of the maintenance of the social order was the provision for an orderly succession; Kirta's (and Danel's) desire for male descendants was prompted by the recognition of this royal responsibility.
The most complex feature of Canaanite royal ideology, however, was the quasi-divine status of the king; as the repeated question of Kirta's children—"Do the Kind One's offspring not live on?"—shows, it was puzzling to the Canaanites as well. The Kirta cycle probably recounts the legendary tale of the founder of a Canaanite dynasty. While there is evidence that the kings of Ugarit, like those of the Hittites, were deified after their death, there is no suggestion of actual divine parentage for them. Kirta's epithet "El's son" must therefore have a nonbiological sense, expressing in mythological language the close connection between human and divine rule. Thus, just as Baal was responsible for the continuing fertility of the earth, which failed during the period of his subjugation to Death, so the king shared in this responsibility; when Kirta was ill, the natural order was upset. (Psalm 72, one of the Israelite royal hymns, is an extended elaboration of the positive connection of natural prosperity with the king.)
The evidence of a number of biblical passages that speak of the king as the son of Yahweh is instructive here. The language of divine sonship is not just a literary device but seems to have been part of the actual coronation ceremony, in which the newly anointed king would proclaim:
"I will tell of Yahweh's decree. He said to me, 'You are my son; this day I have given birth to you.'" (Ps. 2:7)
Similar language is found in 2 Samuel 7:14 and in Isaiah 9:2–7, a prophetic coronation oracle, the divine council itself proclaims:
"To us a child has been born, to us a son has been given."
The language of sonship also occurs in Psalms 89:26, immediately after a passage that expresses in the clearest way the close relationship between deity and king. Earlier in the psalm Yahweh is praised as the one who (like Baal) rules the raging of the sea, scattering his enemies with his mighty arms (vv. 9–10); in verse 23, using the traditional parallel formula for the storm god's enemy, the deity states that he will share his cosmic powers with the Davidic king:
"I will set his hand on the sea, and on the rivers his right hand."
This article has dealt primarily with the corpus of Canaanite literature from Ugarit and has not discussed in detail the many other Canaanite sources extant. Most prominent among these are hundreds of inscriptions from the first millennium bce in the Phoenician, Aramaic, Hebrew, Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite languages; references to Canaanite religion in various Greek and Roman writers; and, more remotely, scattered material in Mesopotamian sources. It should be realized, however, that with rare exceptions, this material is not literature in the sense in which the term has been interpreted above.
Throughout this article there has also been an effort to adumbrate the significance of the Ugaritic texts for the interpretation of the other great corpus of literature that may be subsumed in the designation Canaanite —the Bible. Much more could be added on this topic, including discussion of the council of the gods; the enthronement festival of the deity as represented in Psalms ; and, in general, the pervasive use of Canaanite imagery, formulas, and ideology by biblical writers, especially when describing the character and activity of Yahweh. The writers were themselves aware of this relationship and the problems it raised; this partially explains the consistent portrayal of ancient Israel as—at least in the ideal—a people set apart from their historical context, their hostility toward their non-Yahwistic neighbors, and the insistence on the uniqueness of Yahweh. Yet biblical tradition can, on occasion, be remarkably candid about the origins of Israel and its culture. In the light of Canaanite religious and mythological literature, the declaration of the prophet Ezekiel to Jerusalem is strikingly apposite: "Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites" (Ez. 16:3).
The official publication of the major Ugaritic texts is Andrée Herdner, Corpus des tablettes en cunéiformes alphabétiques découvertes à Ras Shamra-Ugarit de 1929 à 1939 (Paris, 1963); the first volume contains the texts, preceded by extensive bibliographies and copiously annotated, and the second contains photographs and hand copies. The standard edition used by most scholars is Manfred Dietrich, Oswald Loretz, and Joaquín Sanmartín, The Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani, and Other Places, 2d ed. (Munster, Germany, 1995); it is generally abbreviated as CAT (or sometimes KTU, from the title of the original German edition).
Several accessible translations for the general reader exist. The translations in this article are the author's own, revised from those first published in Michael David Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan (Philadelphia, 1978) and used by permission of Westminster John Knox Press. That work also includes helpful introductions to each of the four cycles that are translated, as well as to the Canaanite material from Ugarit in general. The best recent translation of the Ugaritic texts into English is Simon B. Parker, ed., Ugaritic Narrative Poetry (Atlanta, 1997), in which translations by a number of scholars are juxtaposed to transcriptions of the original Ugaritic; unfortunately there is no consistency in this volume, so that the same Ugaritic words and phrases are translated differently by different scholars. Also important are Gregorio del Olmo Lete, Mitos, leyendas y rituales de los semitas occidentales, 2d ed. (Madrid, 1998), and the translations, mostly by Dennis Pardee, found in William W. Hallo, ed., The Context of Scripture, vol. 1, Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World (Leiden, 1997), pp. 237–375. Nicolas Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit: The Words of Ilimilku and His Colleagues, 2d ed. (London and New York, 2002), which includes a number of ritual texts as well as the myths and epics considered here, is often idiosyncratic. Among older versions, especially valuable are Textes ougaritiques, vol. 1 of Mythes et légendes, by André Caquot, Maurice Sznycer, and Andrée Herdner (Paris, 1974), and Canaanite Myths and Legends, by John C. L. Gibson, 2d ed (Edinburgh, 1978).
A number of studies have been devoted to individual myths and epics. Among the best are Mark S. Smith, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle (Leiden, 1994), and Simon B. Parker, The Pre-biblical Narrative Tradition: Essays on the Ugaritic Poems Keret and Aqhat (Atlanta, 1989). It is also important to understand the myths and epics in the larger context of the ritual texts from Ugarit; a good starting point is Gregorio del Olmo Lete, Canaanite Religion according to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit (Bethesda, Md., 1999), translated by W. G. E. Watson.
Grammars and dictionaries are also important resources. Among the most comprehensive are Gregorio del Olmo Lete and Joaquín Sanmartín, A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language in the Alphabetic Tradition (Leiden, 2003), translated by Wilfred G. E. Watson, and Josef Tropper, Ugaritische Grammatik (Munster, Germany, 2000).
Since their discovery and decipherment, the Ugaritic texts have been the focus of a steady stream of investigation. A useful summary of the history of scholarship is Mark S. Smith, Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century (Peabody, Mass., 2001). A fuller view of Ugaritic studies at the turn of the millennium is provided by the essays in Handbook of Ugaritic Studies, edited by Wilfred G. E. Watson and Nicolas Wyatt (Leiden, 1999). See also the lengthy review of that volume, providing many corrections especially on matters of detail, by Dennis Pardee, "Ugaritic Studies at the End of the 20th Century," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 320 (November 2000): 49–86.
Michael D. Coogan (1987 and 2005)