Saturday, June 16, 2012

Canaanite Source Texts for Religious Studies

Ugaritic abecedary, circa 1200 BCE 
I am often asked, or even told point-blank that there isn’t enough information on which to understand or revivify Canaanite religion. This is exceedingly erroneous. While Canaanite religion doesn’t have the same vast quantities of resources as do the Romans, Greeks, and Egyptians, it has considerably more than the Celts, and even the Norse.

In March of 1928, a farmer accidentally discovered the ruins of the Canaanite city-state of Ugarit which initiated the excavation of the site, and on May 14, 1929, archaeologists found the first of the cuneiform tablets written in Ugaritic. (1) Ugaritic cuneiform letters were largely deciphered and translated by July of 1931(2) and linguists classified the language as Northwest Semitic, in the same language family as are Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic. These languages are related to each other much like the Romance languages are related to one another. They are not the same language and all of them are written in different alphabets, yet they share many similarities such as syntax and word roots.  

What follows is an accounting of the texts found at Ugarit:

“There are approximately 50 mythological texts in poetry and some 1500 texts in prose (including decipherable fragments). The primary types of prose texts are: religious (ritual, deity lists, votive), ominological (astral, malformed births, extispicy), medical (hippiatric), epistolary, administrative (contracts, lists of many sorts), and didactic (abecedaries, exercises).” (3)
The texts are written in Ugaritic, Akkadian, and Hurrian, and even include musical scores. (4) The texts date to the Late Bronze Age, approximately 1350 BCE (3350 years ago) (5), and the poetic narratives detailing the deities’ adventures come from a far older oral tradition.(6) Archaeologists believe there are even more texts which await excavation.(7) The history of Ugarit itself is known from the city’s own documents, correspondence exchanged with other kingdoms, and from the written documents found from their neighbors in Mesopotamia, Anatolia, and Egypt. We’re dealing with a literate culture located in the heart of where recorded history began. Given that they were a literate people surrounded by literate people, reconstructing a religion based on these primary and secondary documents is hardly building castles in the air. Compare this with Celtic religion which relies on documents written by Romans, and then by Christians living later than the Celts: i.e. secondary and tertiary documents if the scholar’s luck holds.

Among these texts are ritual texts giving bare outlines as to ritual activity and offerings with month names and solar occurrences noted; texts on omens; and tales about the deities themselves. These tales include the story of King Kirtu, the story of Aqhat, the Baʻal Epic, The Tale of the Gracious Gods; and many more. We also have a seasonal calendar documented from Gezer in 925 BCE.

If you would like to read translations of these texts yourself, read more than one translation since translations differ in accordance to our changing and growing understanding of the language, technological advances in epigraphy, and shifts in scholars’ attitudes, theories, and biases. Here is a list of books which include translated Ugaritic texts:

·         Cohen, Chaim and Daniel Sivan. The Ugaritic Hippiatric Texts: A Critical Edition. American Oriental Society, New Haven, CT, USA, 1983.
·         Gibson, John C.L. Canaanite Myths and Legends, 2nd Edition. T. and T. Clark, Ltd., Edinburgh, UK, 1978.     
·         del Olmo Lete, Gregorio. Canaanite Religion According to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit. Eisenbrauns, Winona Lake, IN, USA, 2004.
·         Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, GA, USA, 2002.
·         Parker, Simon B., ed. Translated by Mark Smith, et al. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry. Society of Biblical Literature, USA, 1997.
·         Smith, Mark S. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Volume I: Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU 1.1-1.2. E.J. Brill, Leiden, the Netherlands, 1994.

In addition to the written word, we also gain information looking into the archaeological record. Here are a few suggestions, should you wish to learn more:

·         Nakhai, Beth Alpert. Archaeology and the Religions of Canaan and Israel. The American Schools of Oriental Research, Boston, MA, USA, 2001.
·         Negbi, Ora. Canaanite Gods in Metal. Tel Aviv University, Institute of Archaeology, Tel Aviv, Israel, 1976.
·         Yon, Marguerite. The City of Ugarit at Tell Ras Shamra. Eisenbrans, Winona Lake, IN, USA, 2006.

1. Bordreuil and Pardee. A Manual of Ugaritic. Eisenbrauns. 2009. p. 1-2
2. Bordreuil and Pardee, p. 5.
3. Bordreuil and Pardee, p. 9. Schniedewind and Hunt also have the count at over 1500 texts: Schneidewind and Hunt, a Primer on Ugaritic Language, Culture, and Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2007.
4. For more about the Hymn of Nikkal, and for links to audio recordings of the song, see Canaanite Music Links Bazaar here on this blog.
5. Schniedewind and Hunt, p. 12.
6. Bordreuil and Pardee, p. 10
7. Bordreuil and Pardee, p. 10

Today is:
Day 27 of [Gapnu] (month), Shanatu 84 (year)

Photo Notes: 
Image has expired Syrian copyright, and thus is public domain.

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