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Ritual and Cult at Ugarit

Dennis Pardee


Everything you always wanted to know about Ugaritic rituals can be found in this book.

The ancient city of Ugarit, modern Ras Shamra near the Mediterranean coast of Syria, was the capital of a large city-state during the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550-1200 B.C.E.). The excavations at Ugarit, begun in 1929 by the French archaeologist Claude Schaeffer, are famous around the world for uncovering a rich repertoire of objects of high artistic quality. The scholarly value of the silver, gold and ivory artifacts, however, pales in comparison with the hundreds of cuneiform documents that have been, and are still being, discovered at the site.

Dennis Pardee, a specialist in ancient Semitic languages at the University of Chicago, is the only American member of the French team of scholars working on these texts. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit is a modified version of his Les textes rituels (Ras Shamra-Ougarit XII [Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 2000])—which includes all of the texts in Ritual and Cult at Ugarit, as well as a complete commentary on every one. The general reader can only be thankful for this slimmer, popular volume, which provides accessible, up-todate translations of the ritual documents from Ugarit and a very reasonable number of notes.

The cuneiform texts pertaining to ritual matters at Ugarit are composed in three languages: the native West- Semitic Ugaritic, written in a special alphabetic cuneiform script devised for use on clay tablets; East-Semitic Akkadian, mainly the so-called Peripheral Middle Babylonian used as a lingua franca by cultures outside Mesopotamia; and Hurrian, the non- Semitic language of the Hurrian people, who, after apparently migrating from the Caucasus, became a major component of north Mesopotamian and Syrian societies during the second millennium B.C.E.*

In the early days of Ugaritology, prior to World War II, scholars were surprised to discover that Ugaritic texts dealt with themes similar to those in the Bible. There were also striking structural similarities to biblical poetry. Back in those days, scholars were accustomed to speaking of the Ugaritic language, literature and culture as Canaanite. This assumption seemed to be supported by the fact that Ugaritic myths mention many deities known from biblical and Phoenician allusions to the Canaanite pantheon.

Today, however, it is clear that the Ugaritians were not Canaanites. Canaanites were listed as foreigners in their administrative lists. A lawsuit concerning the murder of a Canaanite at Ugarit was adjudicated between the "sons (citizens) of Ugarit" and the "sons (citizens) of Canaan," clearly suggesting that citizens of Ugarit were not citizens of Canaan. A good deal of evidence indicates that Ugarit was never a part of Canaan—not linguistically, ethnically or geographically.

Nevertheless, when dealing with ritual texts, there is much for the biblical scholar to learn. Those of us who work on ancient Semitic languages often wish that we had similar administrative documents from the kingdoms of Israel and Judah of the early first millennium B.C.E., or from pre-Israelite Canaanite city-states of the late second millennium B.C.E. But, alas, such is not the case.

Ritual and Cult at Ugarit begins by grouping texts relating to the sacrificial cult as practiced at Ugarit. First come lists of deities (some listings even mention the animals to be sacrificed to the deities), and then texts dealing with rituals. Some texts are instructions about how to perform sacrificial rituals (prescriptive texts), while others are records of sacrificial rituals that were actually performed (descriptive texts). The texts dealing with the Ugaritic sacrificial cult also include incantations, prayers and manuals for the interpretation of omens.

Another group of texts pertains to ritual acts outside of the sacrificial cult—such as incantations against snakes and scorpions, the evil eye, and the like. Still another group consists of narratives about the acts of the gods, such as ridding the land of snakes.

Although Pardee includes some texts of a literary nature, he does not discuss a number of ritual acts described in the standard Ugaritic mythological texts. One text not included here, for example, consists of instructions to the legendary king Keret on making ritual preparations (purifying himself and invoking the god Baal) before undertaking a military campaign. Another text not discussed by Pardee involves sacrifices made by the goddess Anat to revive her brother, Baal, from the dead. Since these ritual acts were part of the intellectual climate in Ugarit, it would have been interesting and helpful to have Pardee's commentary on them.

Furthermore, what is missing in the impressive repertoire of texts assembled by Pardee is some ideological interpretation of the rituals' meaning. For example, the terminology used for sacrifice in Ugaritic texts has striking parallels in the Pentateuch (or Torah, the first five books of the Bible). In the Ugaritic texts, we find references to s?lmm (peace offerings) and s? rp (burnt offerings). But we are not told what these offerings are or how they are related to one another; the texts themselves simply assume that those using the tablets will know what is meant by a peace offering and a burnt offering. In the Hebrew Bible, on the other hand, great attention is paid to the actual conduct of sacrifices, the disposal of the remains, and the preferred order of offerings in public and private rituals. The Bible also explains the moral-ethical ideology surrounding ritual practices.

Pardee has put us in his debt with his monumental work on the ritual texts from Ugarit. Specialists and non-specialists alike can benefit from his work. No other site in the Middle East has supplied us with such a collection of ritual texts pertaining to ancient West-Semitic practices. Now the material is at the fingertips of all interested parties.

*In tablets from other Near Eastern sites, too, such as Mari of the Middle Bronze Age (2200-1550 B.C.E.), the Hurrian language is found in texts of a ritual, magical or cultic nature. For more information about the Hurrians, see the following articles in Archaeology Odyssey, May/June 2001: Giorgio Buccellati and Marilyn Kelly-Buccellati, "In Search of Hurrian Urkesh: City of Myth"; and Gernot Wilhelm, "When a Mittani Princess Joined Pharaoh's Harem."

Anson F. Rainey is Professor Emeritus of Ancient Near Eastern Cultures and Semitic Linguistics at Tel Aviv University.

This review originally appeared in the January/February 2004 Archaeology Odyssey, Washington, D.C., and is used with permission.

Citation: Anson F. Rainey, " Ritual and Cult at Ugarit," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Dec 2003]. Online:


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