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UGARIT RITUAL TEXTS

By Dennis Pardee, Professor of Northwest Semitic Philology
The Oriental Institute, and the
Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
The University of Chicago

(This article originally appeared in The Oriental Institute News and Notes, No. 172, Winter 2002, and is made available electronically with the permission of the editor.)


Excavations have been going on at the site of Ras Shamra on the Northwest Syrian coast more or less steadily since 1929 and inscriptions have been discovered during nearly every campaign from the first to the most recent, which took place during May/June 2000. Except for some deep stratigraphic soundings, virtually all digging has concentrated on the uppermost levels of the tell, which date to the Late Bronze Age, and approximately one sixth of the surface has been uncovered. The soundings have revealed the site was first inhabited in the eighth millennium BC, and the possibilities for further excavation extend thus into the indefinite future.

The excavation team is French, known as the Mission de Ras Shamra. In 2000, the project became officially a joint Syrian-French enterprise. There has been a great deal of continuity owing to this single archaeological presence, and to the orderly handing down of the direction from one scholar to another (Claude F.-A. Schaeffer, Henri de Contenson, Jean Margueron, Marguerite Yon, and now Yves Calvet [France] and Bassam Jamous [Syria]). The current plans call for going below the Late Bronze Age levels, but choosing an area has not been easy because the latest remains are so well preserved - in order to see what lies under the stone foundations of a house these must be destroyed or at least disturbed. Ras Shamra is an important stop on any cultural tour of Syria, and the authorities are anxious that its educational and touristic value not be reduced.

From the inscriptions it was learned very early on that the tell covered the ruins of ancient Ugarit, known from contemporary documents to be an important city in the Late Bronze Age. More recently discovered texts from Mari, on the middle Euphrates, show Ugarit already to have been famous in the mid-eighteenth century BC. The international language of that time was Akkadian, the principal language of Mesopotamia, and that usage remained constant to the end of the Bronze Age. Hence many of the inscriptions from Ras Shamra were in Akkadian, which was used primarily for international dealings, though a significant portion of the internal administrative records were also in that language.

Of greater interest for West Semitists was the discovery of a new script and language, named Ugaritic after the city, which belongs to the great family of languages of Syria, Palestine, and Arabia (Arabic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Old South Arabian, and Phoenician). For the first time, scholars of these languages had not just a few scattered words datable to the second millennium BC, but texts in a language related to, but older than, the attested forms of any of these West Semitic languages. The script was immediately perceived as an oddity: it was cuneiform and inscribed on tablets, but it was unrelated to Mesopotamian cuneiform. Rapid decipherment showed that it represented an alphabetic system: the number of signs was only thirty, and the consonantal phonemes represented by these signs, only twenty-seven. An archaic phonetic system was revealed wherein still functioned several consonantal phonemes that have disappeared in Hebrew, Phoenician, and Aramaic >; only missing from a common reconstruction of early West Semitic were and .

The texts in Ugaritic cover a broad literary range: from myths to "laundry lists," from incantations to letters, from contracts to medical texts. On the negative side is the fact that most of the tablets are broken and the reconstruction of the culture, economy, and religion of the Ugaritians has for that reason been a long and painstaking one. Moreover, as G. R. Driver (among others!) used to say, dies diem docet, or in modern idiom "you learn something new every day." Hence the work of the pioneers has to be taken up again by following generations who have the benefit of hindsight.

This has been my primary role in the Mission de Ras Shamra. I first seriously practiced true epigraphy (the study of ancient "epigraphs," or inscriptions, with an emphasis on the decipherment and interpretation of these epigraphs) during the academic year 1980/81 thanks to a Fullbright Fellowship. My teaching duties were not heavy and I had a great deal of time to spend studying tablets in the museums of Damascus and Aleppo. I went to Syria naively expecting to find that my predecessors had read everything on all the tablets, but I soon discovered that there was much yet to be done. During that year, I collated some two hundred tablets, comparing the editions with the original and preparing my own (very primitive!) hand copies. I became a member of the Mission de Ras Shamra epigraphic team in the mid-1980s and have since devoted my efforts principally to republishing the Ugaritic texts according to literary genre. My first effort, full of mistakes in my turn, was a re-edition of the hippiatric texts, a genre of which the oldest versions are Ugaritic. These texts, only four in number, reflect empirical medicine practiced on horses, a practice and literary genre that continued until quite recently. The second project was a small group of texts, only nine in number, excavated in a single house in 1961 that showed a striking peculiarity: all contained mythological material but in forms that differed from the long mythological texts for which Ugarit is famous. The most striking is a brief story about the great god El becoming drunk at a feast and having to be carried home by his sons. This atypical myth is followed by a prose recipe for alcoholic collapse that features the first known connection between drunkenness and the "hair of the dog": "What is to be put on his forehead: hairs of a dog. And the head of the PQQ (a type of plant) and its shoot he is to drink mixed together with fresh olive oil." This group of texts I republished as Les textes para-mythologiques in 1985.

An intermediary project, a joint one with my French colleague Pierre Bordreuil, head of the epigraphic team for the Mission, was a catalogue of all inscribed objects from Ras Shamra (La trouvaille épigraphique de l'Ougarit, 1989). We actually touched and measured every inscribed object we could find (and a surprisingly small number were missing lo these many years and a World War later), which permitted us to provide in the catalogue the basic data regarding the physical properties of the item, the language/script, and the most basic publications. Because the publications of the various texts over the decades were widely scattered, an account of what text corresponded to what excavation number was necessary and has proved immensely useful for the members of the Mission - as well, we hope, as for our colleagues near and far who previously did not have these most basic data regarding the inscriptions at their fingertips.

The other two types of texts collated in 1980/81 were the letters and the ritual texts. Though the letters were my first interest and the project that I had in mind when the opportunity arose to work in Syria, for reasons associated with my teaching responsibilities in this university I settled on the ritual texts as my next publication project. There are over eighty texts that deal with the everyday cultic activities in the city of Ugarit. After the typical ups and downs associated with a thick manuscript, Les textes rituels appeared in February 2001 (though the imprint date is 2000), all 1,307 pages of it, including those bearing the hand copies and photographs.

Most of these texts are dry - and I mean dry - prescriptions of the sacrifices to be offered during a particular period of time, which may range from a single day or a part of a day to two months. For example, the beginning of RS 1.001, the very first text discovered at Ras Shamra reads: "A ewe as a -sacrifice; a dove, also as a -sacrifice; a ewe, also as -sacrifice; two kidneys and the liver (of?) a bull and a ram for El." It goes on like this for twenty-two lines.

It is clear that the Ugaritic cultic system was centered around bloody sacrifice (that is, the slaughter of animals in honor of a deity), that it went on continually but was particularly tied in with the phases of the moon (the festivals of the new moon and the full moon were the most important, but sacrificial activity also increased at the second and third quarters, i.e., at the beginning of the lunar "weeks"), and that a great number of deities figured in the Ugaritic pantheon (well over two hundred are known at present). From the mythological texts, we know that the Ugaritians had highly developed views of how the deities interrelated with each other and with humans. There is not, unfortunately, a clear overlap between the mythological texts and the ritual ones - other than in the fact that certain deities appear in both - that would allow us to see more clearly the ideology and theology behind the ritual acts so abundantly described. The basic sacrificial types appear to reflect a need to feed and to care for the divinities and to establish a form of communion with them. The sacrifice, for example, appears to reflect a cultic meal in which the offerer partook of the same meal as was offered to the divinity. This last term, cognate with Hebrew conventionally translated "peace offerings," opens a window on the interconnections between these West Semites of Northwest Syria and the better-known inhabitants of Canaan, the birthplace of the Jewish and Christian religions. Space does not permit a discussion here. Suffice it to say that there are long lists of both similarities and differences between Hebrew and Ugaritic religion and cult.

There are some texts included in this collection that go beyond the narrow bounds of the typical variety just cited. One, RS 1.002, the second tablet discovered at Ras Shamra in 1929, ventures into areas not even hinted at in the texts just described: mentioned there are such things as "sin," "anger," and "impatience." The burden of the rite, which has six sections divided into three for the men of Ugarit and three for the women, appears to be to foster national unity by erasing all sources of friction among the various elements of society. Specifically mentioned are the king and the queen, the men and the women who live within the walls of the city of Ugarit, and a whole series of other categories defined by ethnic, social, and geographical terms. At the end of each section, the sacrifice of a single animal is prescribed, the species being specific to the theme treated there. For example, the sacrifice of a donkey in each of the last two sections appears to underscore the theme of political rectitude announced in the first line of each of these sections.

One of the most interesting of the sacrificial texts is that of a funerary rite, probably for the next-to-the-last king of Ugarit, whose name was Niqmaddu, a name that reappears several times in this dynastic line. This king died some time during the last decade of the thirteenth century and, in the last lines of the text, blessings are called down on his successor, Ammurapi, and on the queen mother:

Well-being for , well-being for his house!
Well-being for , well-being for her house!
Well-being for Ugarit, well-being for her gates!

The particular interest of this text is that it goes far beyond the dryness of the standard sacrificial texts and the repetitiveness of RS 1.002 by its form of expression - it is in poetry rather than in prose - and by its subject matter - the shades of the dead king's ancestors are called up to participate in the ceremony and, once the ceremony is launched, the principal actor is the sun deity, who assumes the role of enabling the deceased king to join his ancestors. This is achieved by the sevenfold lowering of the king's body into the realm of the dead. I have hypothesized that this portion of the ceremony would have centered on a large pit that the archaeologists discovered situated between the two principal chambers of the royal tomb in the palace. Once this ceremonial lowering and raising, accompanied each time by a sacrifice, was completed, the mortal remains would have been laid to rest in one of the tombs.

Another type of inscription takes its interest from the object on which they are written: clay liver models representing the liver of an animal sacrificed in the rite known as hepatoscopy, observing the features of a liver as a means of divining the future. Each model reflects a specific case of consulting a divination priest and the purpose of the text was to express the question that was posed to the priest. The clearest of these reads: "(This liver model is) for when he was to procure the young man of the Alashian." Specialists in the markings on the model tell us that the result of this consultation was a "yes" answer, that is, that should proceed with his plan to acquire a new servant.

Alongside these texts that reflect the actual practice of divination are manuals or catalogues of previous results of previous divinatory consultations. One such tablet provides a long list of omens based on malformed animal fetuses, for example: "If it (the fetus of a sheep or goat) has no right ear, the enemy will devastate the land and will consume it." Another tablet lists omens associated with lunar phenomena, for example: "If the moon, when it rises, is red, there will be prosperity [during] that month."

The incantatory genre is very poorly attested at Ugarit. The first text was discovered at the neighboring site of Ras Ibn Hani in 1978, but its language was so difficult that its precise literary structure and character were not easy to determine. A more recent example, RS 92.2014, is clearly incantatory in nature. It reads:

(When) the unknown one calls you and begins foaming,
I, for my part, will call you.
I will shake bits of sacred wood,
So that the serpent not come up against you,
So that the scorpion not stand up under you.
The serpent will indeed not come up against you,
The scorpion will indeed not stand up under you!
In like manner, may the tormentors, the sorcerers not give ear to the word
of the evil man,
To the word of any man:
When it sounds forth in their mouth, on their lips,
May the sorcerers, the tormentors, then pour it to the earth.
For Urtenu, for his body, for his members.

The final ascription to a known personage, plausibly the last inhabitant of the house in which the tablet was found and a member of the queen's administration, permits the classification of the text as an incantation prepared by a "magician" to ward off Urtenu's enemies, both serpentine and human.

The work just described is a technical edition, with hand copies, photographs of tablets previously unpublished in photographic form, copious remarks both epigraphic and philological on each text, a structural analysis of each text, extensive indices laying out the data in these texts according to several categories (deity named, type of act, contents of offerings, time, and place), and an exhaustive concordance of all words attested. It is intended for scholars and students who know an ancient Semitic language well enough to work with the original Ugaritic.

In the next few months a very different book will appear, this time in English and intended for a much broader audience. It is published by the Society of Biblical Literature in the series Writings from the Ancient World, which is intended to gather together the most important collections of ancient Near Eastern texts. The format includes the text in the original language with accompanying translation into idiomatic English, some notes in lieu of commentary, and good indices. The inclusion of the original text makes these works of interest to students and scholars, while the English translation and notes open up their usefulness to anyone who reads English and is interested in the original texts upon which we base our views of the ancient world.

This version differs from the French edition in several respects. First, only relatively complete texts are included, those that permit a fairly continuous translation. Second, because of the nature of the French edition the texts were not arranged there by subject matter, but the insights gained in preparing that edition permitted such an arrangement in the English version. Third, the sacrificial texts are laid out according to the structure of the rite therein depicted, permitting the non-specialist to follow the progress of the liturgy more easily. Fourth, the commentary in the notes is much briefer and less technical; repetition is avoided by putting many explanations into a glossary. Fifth, this freeing up of space allowed for the inclusion of a broader range of texts, notably those of the "para-mythological" texts described above that have a reasonably clear link with ritual as practiced at Ugarit. This broader purview is reflected in the English title, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit.


Since earning his doctorate in this university in 1974, Dennis Pardee has been teaching the Northwest Semitic languages and literatures in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the Oriental Institute. In addition to his work in Ugaritic, he has published books and articles on Biblical Hebrew poetry and on Hebrew inscriptions.

Revised: July 30, 2007

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