Feb. 6, 2003
Vol. 22 No. 9

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    Pardee’s careful scrutiny of ancient texts reveals colorful world of Ugaritians

    By Seth Sanders
    News Office

    Ugaritic is a uniquely hybrid early writing system similar to the Hebrew alphabet, in that it basically represents consonants. The difference is that the letters were written not in script but in wedge shapes with a stylus on clay tablets. This form of writing the alphabet was thus a formal imitation of the better-known Babylonian writing of Mesopotamia. Above is a drawing of the original text that tells the tale of how the god El holds a big feast at which he becomes drunk. The story is appended with medical instructions at the end, which Pardee interprets as a hangover cure.
    When the ancient Syrian city of Ugarit was first discovered in 1929, scholars expected to come face-to-face with the pagan Canaanites of the Bible–a hedonistic people with a hypersexual religion of fertility and blood sacrifice. They were not disappointed; in addition to elaborate rituals, they found what they interpreted as gory epics and strange myths of incest between Baal and his sister Anat.

    But Dennis Pardee, Professor in Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations and the College–who is considered by top scholars to be the world’s expert on Ugaritic ritual–has learned through careful scrutiny of these texts that Biblical narratives and early scholars greatly exaggerated the Canaanites’ wickedness.

    For example, the early scholars’ visions of incest and magic were fudged through a combination of cultural prejudice and the problems of translating damaged texts written in a difficult, new language.

    Pardee has recently produced a massive, new edition of all the Ugaritic rituals transliterated into French and accompanied by extensive notes and tables. It will provide a new starting point for understanding the religion of the Israelites’ close neighbors and relatives. The two-volume edition presents scholars with the evidence they need to decide the texts’ meanings for themselves.

    An English paperback version, with a selection of the better-preserved texts in the original Ugaritic and more succinct notes, gives nonspecialists a more accurate and unprejudiced look at the sacrificial cult, with its thousands of offerings to hundreds of divinities. Along with the bald ritual prescriptions are included prayers and poetic rituals that reveal the lyric side of the Canaanite cult.

    Pardee, who earned his Ph.D. at Chicago, explained that for decades scholars had to rely on quickly produced publications of the content of the official texts, making the painstaking task of understanding the texts all the more difficult. Without traveling to Damascus, where the tablets were kept, the vast majority of scholars could never be certain that what they were reading was actually on the tablets.

    By the early 1980s and with Pardee at the forefront, a new wave of scholars, including Pierre Bordreuil of the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, Wayne Pitard of the University of Illinois, Mark Smith of New York University and Theodore Lewis of Johns Hopkins University, were producing new editions that gave readers a far more detailed and complete picture of what existed. The results are sometimes surprising.

    In a recent lecture given to the Committee on the Ancient Mediterranean World, Pardee showed how a combination of physical misreading and literary misunderstanding had led an incantation text, designed to cure the effects of the evil eye, to be interpreted as a description of a goddess’s cannibalistic orgy.

    In rereading these texts, traveling again and again to view the originals in Paris, Damascus and Aleppo, checking over detailed photos and trying to make sense of the content, Pardee found that there was a constant interplay between deciphering the writing and comprehending the language. “The epigraphy makes you rethink the philology, then the philology makes you take another look at the epigraphy.”

    The problems Pardee tackled were both technical and cultural. One basic issue was that the writing system was new to everyone. Unlike such long-familiar scripts as ancient Greek or Hebrew, Ugaritic is a uniquely hybrid early writing system. It is similar to the Hebrew alphabet in that it basically represents consonants, but different in that the letters were written not in a script but in wedge shapes with a stylus on clay tablets. This form of writing the alphabet was thus a formal imitation of the better-known Babylonian writing of Mesopotamia.

    Culturally, the people of Ugarit had the deck stacked against them. To an earlier generation of scholars, often filtering the evidence through Protestant religious sensibilities, the Ugaritians represented the Canaanites of the Bible, precisely the people against whom Western culture defined itself. To the Hebrew prophets, the Canaanite god Baal was such a symbol of decadence and his popularity within Israel such a threat that the book of Kings describes how Elijah took 450 priests of Baal “to the brook ... and slew them there” at God’s command.

    Pardee’s translations, by contrast, reveal the day-to-day spiritual life of a people for whom Baal was one of the most important deities of the pantheon. They were a wealthy and sophisticated society that imported alabaster from Egypt and special woods from as far away as Africa and Anatolia, and their religious services and hymns strikingly resembled those of the ancient Israelites.

    “Several of the deities that appear in the Ugaritic pantheon appear in the Hebrew Bible as acceptable names for God, or alternatively as deities against whom the prophets rail,” said Pardee.

    In Ugarit, the worship of Baal was led by the king, who would climb the acropolis overlooking the city and offer sacrifices of sheep, bulls, birds and grain to insure the favor of the lord of thunder and El, the creator of all things. In Pardee’s book, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit, ordinary readers can see how the names of the sacrifices such as the “peace offering”–the sacrifice of an unblemished animal to give thanks to the Lord–were similar in ancient Israel and Ugarit, and how the sins of the whole people are atoned for in a sweeping ritual that shows similarities to Yom Kippur as it is still practiced by Jews today.

    While the city was burned by invaders from the sea around 1200 B.C. and never rebuilt, the gods of the culture–of which Ugarit was only a part–were not forgotten. Archaeological evidence reveals that the Israelites originally worshipped Baal and other Canaanite deities alongside the God of Israel. But in biblical texts Israel’s Canaanite roots are misrepresented as a late corruption: “And they forsook the Lord and served Baal and Ashtaroth. And the anger of the Lord was hot against Israel, and he delivered them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and he sold them into the hands of their enemies” (Judges 2:13-14).

    Pardee’s work shows a not-so-sinister Ugarit world, but one just as colorful. Alongside the blood and thunder of the epic battles and atonement rituals are short texts with less monumental aims. These include what amount to grocery lists of gods and short poetic stories. One tells the tale of how the head god El holds a big feast at which he becomes drunk. This text appears with medical instructions appended to the end, which Pardee interprets as a hangover cure.