An important city in Syria whose excavation has provided tablets giving the closest primary evidence available for reconstructing the Canaanite religion Israel faced.
Location The ruins of the ancient city of Ugarit lie on the Mediterranean coast about nine miles north of Latakia. The contemporary name is Ras Shamra, “head [land] of fennel.” Located at the juncture of major trade routes from Anatolia, northwest Mesopotamia, and Egypt and possessing a harbor (modern Minet el-Beida) which accommodated vessels from Cyprus, the Aegean, and Egypt, Ugarit was an important commercial center in most periods until the Sea People destroyed it in 1180 B.C. Its culture was cosmopolitan, so much so that it is difficult to identify those elements which were uniquely Ugaritic. Although it was the capital of a city-state, it was most often under the power or dominating influence of larger states.
The Excavations Although the existence of Ugarit had been known from Mesopotamian and Egyptian documents, its location was uncertain. In 1928, a farmer's discovery of what turned out to be an extensive cemetery just north of Minet el-Beida led in 1929 to excavations in the cemetery and on the tell nearby (Ras Shamra). In that first season of excavations, important texts written in a previously unknown cuneiform script were discovered, one of which mentioned that the document was written during the time of Niqmaddu, king of Ugarit. This was the first indication that the site was indeed ancient Ugarit.
Excavations were carried out annually, 1929-1939, under the direction of C. F. A. Schaeffer. After the hiatus caused by World War II, excavations were resumed and continued on a regular basis through 1976. In addition, adjacent sites have either been surveyed or excavated. The history of the city may now be traced from its earliest beginnings in the prepottery Neolithic period (about 6500 B.C.), through the Chalcolithic, Early Bronze, and Middle Bronze periods, to its complete and final destruction in the Late Bronze period soon after 1200 by the Sea Peoples. We have no evidence that the site of Ugarit was ever occupied again, although artifacts from as late as Roman times have been found.
The Late Bronze city of Ugarit, covering about seventy acres, contained the remains of palaces, temples, private dwellings, workshops, storage areas, and fortifications. There were found temples dedicated to Baal and to El; between these buildings was located the house of the high priest and scriptorium. On the northwestern side of the tell were located the palaces. The material culture of Late Bronze Ugarit was of the highest order, showing cultural influences from all the surrounding areas.
The most significant discoveries at Ugarit for the study of both history and religion are the discoveries of the epigraphic materials. Clay tablets and other inscriptions representing eight languages have come to light. The majority of these documents consist of economic and administrative texts, private correspondence, and liturgical-religious texts which represent major mythological themes.
From the first season of excavation there began to emerge a large number of clay tablets written in an unknown script. The new script, used to inscribe texts in the Ugaritic language, was in alphabetic cuneiform consisting of thirty-one signs, twenty-eight of which were consonants and three of which indicated the letter ‘aleph as used with three different vowels. For the student of the Bible, the religious and mythological texts present a rather full picture of Canaanite religious practice and belief already known from the Bible. See Canaan.
The study and evaluation of all the material remains from Ugarit and contiguous sites will continue until the archaeological history can be clarified, until the fullest possible social and political history can be written, and until the full yield of information from the Ugaritic texts has been achieved.
The Religious Texts The poetic mythological texts and poetic legends have elicited the greatest interest because of the information they provide about Canaanite religion. Foremost is the Baal-Anath cycle which has survived in a number of large tablets and smaller fragments. It is difficult to determine the exact story line because there is little agreement on the order of the tablets. The central figure was Baal, the god of storm cloud and rain or the giver of life and fertility, who struggled against his foes in order to gain a dominant position in the pantheon. The head of the pantheon was El who appears in the epic as far removed, almost a god emeritus, although nothing could be accomplished without his approval. Asherah and Anath were the consorts of El and Baal, respectively. Baal's antagonists were Prince Sea (Yam) and Mot (god of the dry season and underworld). Having received permission to build a house (temple), Prince Sea struck fear into the hearts of the gods by demanding that Baal be surrendered to him. But Baal defeated Prince Sea in an episode reminiscent of Marduk's defeat of the sea monster, Tiamat, in the enuma elish. See Babylon. Then Baal was permitted to build a palace (temple) as symbol of his new status among the gods. However, Baal's mightiest foe, Mot, defeated Baal, crushing him like a kid in his gullet, and taking him down to the netherworld. The world went into mourning. El wept piteously at the news, gashing his back, chest, and arms, while Anath, having found Baal's corpse, put on sackcloth and bewailed the death of the lord of life. Mot boasted of his victory to Anath, whereupon she slew Mot, ground him up and scattered his remains over the fields. Then came the joyous cry that Baal was alive; the rains came, and the world returned to life.
The myth was closely related to the cycle of the year and described the ongoing struggles between life and death. While Baal ruled half the year, giving rain and crops, Mot held dominion over the other half: the dry season. Fertility religion consisted in part of various magical and ritual practices designed to bring Baal back to life. Hints of these practices are given in the Baal-Anath cycle. El, upon hearing that Baal was dead, gashed his body: “He harrows the roll of his arm, he plows his chest like a garden, harrows his back like a plain.” Like the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:1), he was practicing imitative magic as though preparing the fields to receive the rain. For her part, Anath wept for Baal, the falling tears intended to encourage the rain to fall. In addition to these acts, in actual practice the Canaanites employed sacred prostitution and other imitative practices to restore fertility to the world. See Fertility Cults.
The Legend of King Keret and the Legend of Aqhat are also related in some way to the fertility cycle. King Keret, having lost his seven wives to various tragedies before they could give him an heir, bewailed his fate. In a dream, El told him to attack another kingdom to obtain another wife who could produce an heir. Keret succeeded in this, and eight sons and eight daughters were born to him. However, apparently because of an unfulfilled vow, Keret fell sick; his impending death seemed to affect the fertility of the land. El intervened, death was shattered, and Keret returned to normal life. The full significance of the Keret legend is difficult to determine, whether it is a cultic myth or a social myth with a historical basis, but it does seem to affirm the central role of the king in the fertility of land and people.
The legend of Aqhat also treats the typical elements of the birth of a long-awaited son, the tragedy of death, and the possibility of immortality. Danel's son, Aqhat, was given a composite bow which the goddess Anath coveted. Anath promised Aqhat immortality if he would give her the bow, but Aqhat refused and was killed. The rains then failed for seven years. Aqhat's sister was sent to avenge his death, but the text broke off before the story was completed, leaving unanswered the question whether Aqhat was restored to life and the drought ended. While the connection of the legend with fertility is clear enough, there is no clear consensus on how to interpret the legend.
These myths and legends, together with others like Shachar and Shalim and Nikkal and the Kathirat, may have been used as the spoken parts of annual or periodic rituals. In any case these texts, together with other artifacts, provide a more complete picture of Canaanite religious practice which proved such a temptation to the Israelites (compare the Book of Judges) and against which the prophets protested.
Importance for Old Testament Study The Ugaritic texts and material remains offer Old Testament scholars primary resources for much of their study.
1. Lexicography. The Ugaritic texts have provided a welcome resource for clarifying the meanings and nuances of unknown and obscure words and phrases in the Old Testament. Although we must use due caution because of the chronological, geographical, and cultural factors which separate the Ugaritic texts from the Old Testament texts, no scholar today would neglect the linguistic data provided by Ugarit. New readings of biblical texts in the light of Ugaritic grammar, syntax, and lexicon open up innumerable possibilities for new or revised interpretations and translations. Translators now do not hasten so quickly to emend the Hebrew text on the basis of early translations. They look first to Ugaritic evidence.
2. Poetic studies. Poetic parallelism, the chief characteristic of Hebrew poetry, is characteristic of Ugaritic poetry as well. Indeed, the study of Ugaritic poetic texts makes one more sensitive to the sophisticated techniques of the psalmists and other poets. Clear Ugaritic cases of chiastic construction, composite divine names separated within a verse, nouns and verbs serving a double-duty function, characteristic word-pairs, and the analysis of meter by the counting of syllables are helpful in the analysis of Hebrew poetry, especially the Psalms.
3. Religion. While about 250 deity names occur in the texts from Ugarit, a much smaller number actually comprised the pantheon. Many of these names are known in the Old Testament: El, Baal, Asherah, Anath, Yarih (moon), Shahar, Shalim, Mot, Dagon, for example. The existence of the divine assembly (Psalms 82:1;
Job 1-2) is attested at Ugarit, especially in the Baal-Anath cycle. The practice of imitative magic in order to manipulate deity and the natural order is mentioned often (compare
1 Kings 18:28;
Jeremiah 41:5). So too was religious prostitution (compare
Hosea 4:14). All in all, the texts from Ugarit give a rather full picture of the type of fertility religion, characteristic of an agricultural people, which many Israelites adopted in most periods of Israelite history. A comparative study of Hebrew and Ugaritic texts allows one to see the common cultural and religious possessions as well as the distinctive characteristics of each.