Remains of Ras Shamra, Ugarit. Huge field stones form a vaulted ceiling. The city was destroyed by the Philistine in 1190 B.C.

UGARIT ōō’ gə rĭt. Ugarit, modern Ras Shamra, was an important maritime city situated in northern Syria, fifty nautical m. E of the point of Cyprus. The bay on which it was located was known to the Greeks as Leukos Limen (“White Harbor”), modern Minet el-Beida. During the Bronze Age, copper ore passed through Ugarit en route from Cyprus to Mesopotamia. Ugarit had important contacts with the Hittites of Asia Minor and with the Egyptians. It served as the crossroads between Mediterranean culture and the world of the Sumerians and Akkadians in Mesopotamia. With the coming of the Iron Age to the Near E, copper lost its importance and Ugarit lost its position as a major trading port.

The modern discovery of Ras Shamra dates from 1928 when a Syrian peasant accidentally plowed up a flagstone which covered a subterranean passageway. Charles Virolleaud, Director of Archaeological Works in Syria and Lebanon, then administered by the French, excavated the site which proved to be a burial chamber. Pieces of Cypro-Mycenaean pottery were found in the tomb, but the initial dig was not otherwise productive. The systematic excavation of Ras Shamra began in 1929 when Claude F. A. Schaeffer of the Strasbourg Museum and his associate George Chenet conducted a French expedition at the site. Work continued for several months each year until the outbreak of World War II, and it was resumed in 1950 following the war. Excavations have brought to light the royal tombs of Ugarit, two large temples, and artifacts illustrating international commerce between Ugarit, Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Hittites of Asia Minor, and the Cretan-Mycenaean areas. The most significant discovery was the library with inscrs. in several Near Eastern languages, including the previously unknown Sem. language known as Ugaritic written in an alphabetic cuneiform script. Through the efforts of Charles Virolleaud, Edouard Dhorme of the École Biblique, and Hans Bauer of Halle the alphabet was deciphered. Cyrus H. Gordon, an American scholar, published a grammar of Ugaritic, along with a glossary and a transliteration of the extant Ugaritic texts.

Excavations indicate that the history of Ugarit extended back as far as the fifth or sixth millennium b.c. Schaeffer numbered five levels of occupation, the lowest of which contained flint and bone implements of a prepottery, neolithic people. The fourth, or Chalcolithic level yielded fine examples of painted ceramics of the type known as Halafian (from Tell Halaf where they were first identified). During the latter half of the third millennium b.c. the city identified as Level three was destroyed by fire. The people who next occupied the site used the type of pottery which bears the name of Khirbet Kerak. Most of Schaeffer’s work—and that more directly related to Biblical studies—was on the top two levels, Strata II, 2100-1600 b.c., and Strata I, 1600-1200 b.c. The flowering of Ugaritic lit. and culture took place during the time represented by Level I.

The major epics. Of several hundred Ugaritic texts discovered, the epics discovered in the library of King Niqmad II, who is known to have paid tribute to the Hitt. King Suppiluliumas (1375-1340 b.c.) are of greatest interest. The epics prob. had an earlier, oral form, but these copies date from the 14th cent. b.c. They illustrate the religious ideas and mythology of the Canaanites that the Israelites encountered in the land of Canaan, or Pal.

The Baal Epic describes a series of encounters between Baal and his rivals Yam (“sea”) and Mot (“death”). As the epic begins, Yam had a house, and he demanded recognition as the supreme lord of mankind. The waves of the sea, lashing against the seashore, could be interpreted as Yam’s claim of the land for himself. Similarly the flooding of rivers would be looked upon as the work of Yam. For a time Yam seemed the undisputed lord. He had a “house” (hence an abode, a temple) of his own, and Baal did not. Baal was the storm god (also known as Hadad, or Baal Hadad) who showed his claim on the land by the thunder and lightning, and the storms which brought rain to the earth. The battle between Yam and Baal was decided in Baal’s favor when the artisan gods, Kothar-wa-Khasis, gave Baal two magical maces with which to attack his rival. Baal was successful. Yam was destroyed and Anat, Baal’s sister, proceeded to annihilate his foes.

After some hesitation, El ordered that materials be gathered to build a house for Baal. Cedar wood was brought from Lebanon (as it was for Solomon’s Temple), and within seven days Kothar-wa-Khasis built the house. Baal traveled from city to city announcing his victory and claiming each city as part of his realm. From the netherworld, however, Mot issued a further challenge to Baal. Baal, at Mot’s insistence, journeyed to the netherworld. While he was there the world above was dry and barren. The fields did not produce their crops, and animals and humans could bear no young. Anat determined to secure Baal’s release. Finally the Sun goddess who goes to the nether world each night, brought Baal back on one of her appointed rounds. Baal returned to his domain above, accompanied by thunder and lightning and the storms which they heralded.

Baal, representing life, and Mot, representing death, provide imagery for the ideas of conflict between light and darkness, life and death. Death is often personified in the Bible. The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Cor 15:26). Death and Hades are flung into the “lake of fire” (Rev 20:14). Biblical monotheism could not picture Death as an evil god, a rival of Yahweh as Mot was a rival of Baal among the Canaanites. It did, however, employ the concept of battle as a figure of speech to declare the victory of God over the power of death.

The Keret Epic tells of a prosperous and godly king who was distressed because he had no heir. He had lost a succession of wives, and feared that his line would soon become extinct. El, the head of the Ugaritic pantheon, appeared to Keret in a dream and ordered him to mobilize his armies and proceed to the land of Udm and demand the hand of Huriya, the beautiful daughter of King Pabil. After making appropriate vows to the goddess Athirat, Pabil marched against Udm and besieged the capital city of Pabil. Pabil offered tribute to Keret, but Keret insisted that the siege would be lifted only if the fair Huriya were offered as his wife. Reluctantly Pabil gave his daughter to Keret, and in due time Keret was blessed with sons and daughters of his own. Keret, however, forgot his vow to Athirat, and the goddess caused him to fall sick. The youngest son and daughter, Elhu and Thitmanet, were genuinely grieved at their father’s condition, but the firstborn Yassib thought only of his own prospects as his father’s heir. The God El, however, intervened to restore Keret’s health. Here the epic breaks off, but its conclusion may be surmised. The faithless Yassib would certainly have been disinherited, and the faithful Elhu and Thitmanet would be rewarded. Doubtless Elhu would succeed to the throne after Keret died in a ripe old age. The idea of the elder brother losing his rights in favor of a younger brother is common in the Biblical record. Esau, the firstborn, lost his birthright to Jacob (Gen 25:29-34). In blessing Joseph’s sons, Jacob gave his best blessing to Ephraim, rather than to the firstborn, Manasseh (48:14).

The Aqhat Epic tells of a son of the pious King Danel (a variant of the name Daniel) who accidentally acquired a bow which was meant for the goddess Anat. The goddess was so anxious to get the bow from the lad that she offered him riches and immortality in exchange for it. Aqhat, however, did not recognize the girl who spoke to him as a goddess, and he dismissed her promises as meaningless. Anat, however, decided to use force to get her bow. She employed a ruffian, Yatpun, to knock out Aqhat, and take the bow. The breath of life was knocked out of Aqhat, with the result that he died, much to Anat’s dismay. The bow was dropped into the sea, so Anat did not get it after all. A vulture ate the body of Aqhat. Danel, his father, and Pigal, his sister, mourned the death of Aqhat. The story breaks off here, but one can be sure that it went on to tell how Pigal identified the murderer of her brother, and brought about his death in retaliation.

The Ugaritic texts give us firsthand information on the Baal cult, and the ideas and ideals of the people of Canaan at the time of the Biblical patriarchs.

Sacrifices mentioned in the Ugaritic texts bear names similar to those of the Biblical sacrificial system. The Ugaritic texts speak of burnt offerings, whole burnt offerings, trespass offerings, wave offerings, peace offerings, firstfruits offerings, new moon offerings and others. As in the Biblical sacrifices, it was necessary that animals offered be without blemish.

The mythological figure Lotan (Biblical Leviathan) appears in the Ugaritic texts as an enemy of Baal. The Baal Epic says, “When thou smotest Lotan, the slippery (serpent) (and) madest an end of the wriggling serpent, the tyrant (with seven heads)...” (Baal I. i. 28-30). The words are reminiscent of Isaiah 27:1: “In that day the Lord (i.e. Yahweh) with his hand and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.” Biblical Leviathan, like Ugaritic Lotan, had a multiplicity of heads: “Thou didst crush the heads of Leviathan” (Ps 74:14). Biblical Leviathan, unlike his Ugaritic counterpart, was not a god. Leviathan was a rebellious creature of Yahweh. He represents the forces of evil that come under divine judgment. The high ethical monotheism of the Israelites is not paralleled at Ugarit. Both Israel and Ugarit had a common linguistic and cultural heritage, but Israel alone contributed her high religion to the rest of mankind.

Ugarit has provided textual and linguistic material for the Sem. scholar. The word bamot is used often in the OT in the sense of “high places.” In Ugaritic texts the word can signify the back of a person or animal. This usage makes good sense in Deuteronomy 33:29 which would read, “Your enemies shall come fawning to you; and you shall tread upon their high places (bamot).” Artistic portrayals from the ancient Near E frequently depict a conqueror with his foot on the back of his victim. The rendering “backs” (KJV) is more meaningful than “high places.” In David’s lament over the death of Saul and Jonathan, he cries out:

Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew nor rain upon you, neither fields of offerings (2 Sam 1:21 KJV).

Biblical scholars have puzzled over the expression “fields of offerings.” In the Aqhat Epic from Ugarit we read a curse that is similar to that uttered by David:

Seven years may Baal fail

Even eight, the rider of the clouds;

Nor dew, nor rain, nor upsurging of the deep,

Nor sweetness of the voice of Baal.

The Heb. word for “fields” is similar to the Ugaritic word for “upsurging,” and the Heb. “offering” is similar to Ugaritic “deep.” H. L. Ginsberg suggested that David’s prayer should read:

Ye mountains of Gilboa, let there be no dew nor rain upon you, neither upsurging of the deep.

The “upsurgings of the deep” were mountain springs, as we know from Ugaritic texts. Dew, rain, and mountain springs were the three sources of moisture in Syria and Palestine. David prayed that Mount Gilboa might be barren as a sign of mourning for Saul and Jonathan.


H. L. Ginsberg, “Ugaritic Myths and Legends,” Ancient Near Eastern Texts, J. B. Pritchard, ed. (1953); G. R. Driver, Canaanite Myths and Legends (1956); J. Gray, The Legacy of Canaan (1957).

See also

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