BMCR 2013.02.56

The Ugaritic Texts and the Origins of West-Semitic Literary Composition. Schweich lectures of the British Academy, 2007

, The Ugaritic Texts and the Origins of West-Semitic Literary Composition. Schweich lectures of the British Academy, 2007. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press (for the British Academy), 2012. ix, 149. ISBN 9780197264928. $55.00.

This book is a publication of the 2007 Schweich Lectures on Biblical Archaeology, delivered by the author at the British Academy in November-December of that year. The Schweich Lectures are, in the words of the original stipulation, ‘devoted to the furtherance of research in the archaeology, art, history, languages and literature of Ancient Civilisation, with reference to Biblical Study’,1 and in practice this has meant over the last hundred or so years that they have covered a wide variety of topics, often of an interdisciplinary nature. The focus of Pardee’s 2007 lectures was in the area of ancient ‘languages and literature’, with each of the three lectures highlighting in a different way the importance of the surviving Ugaritic literary texts to the broader study of West Semitic literature.

Consistent with the broader aims of the Schweich Lectures, the book is aimed at those with ‘a general interest in the ancient Near East and, in particular, in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament’ (p. ix), which is to say that it will inevitably appeal to multiple groups and to scholars and enthusiasts of several different disciplines. The interdisciplinary approach underpinning the work is undoubtedly a strength, but inevitably the intended breadth of appeal corresponds with a relatively limited treatment of some aspects of the book’s subject. Broadly speaking, however, a good compromise between accessibility and depth has been reached.

The book reproduces Pardee’s lectures as three separate chapters, adhering closely to the original presentation but adding a great deal of contextual information in the form of copious footnotes throughout the text. Following a short Preface (p. ix-x), the first chapter gives an overview of Ugaritic language and writing (‘Alphabetic Origins’, p. 1-40), the second looks in detail at the Baal Cycle and its composition (‘Ugaritic Literary Compositions’, p. 41-77) and the third compares the Ugaritic and Hebrew belletristic traditions in search of common literary features (‘Literary Composition in the Hebrew Bible: The View from Ugarit’, p. 79-124). There is no separate concluding chapter, but Chapter Three ends with the briefest of valedictory sections, labelled a ‘Summary’ (p. 124).

Chapter One acts as an extended introduction to Ugaritic, with expositions of its decipherment, its linguistic features, its writing system and its textual corpus. Some aspects of this treatment are difficult to pitch to a general audience, and one wonders how accessible, for example, the discussion of the graphic and phonemic inventory of Ugaritic would be to those who are not epigraphic specialists (perhaps more accessible in a spoken lecture than in written form). Although this is not entirely necessary to the book’s overall purpose, we are given a description of the three different forms of Ugaritic script (one ‘standard’ alphabet, a reduced alphabet probably used for another language, and a third with a slightly different inventory that may be linked with South Arabian), which in turn hints briefly at the multilingual population of Late Bronze Age Ugarit. However, the broader context of Late Bronze Age Ugarit as a ‘literal Babel of scripts and languages’, in the words of Thomas G. Palaima,2 does not receive much attention as the focus is placed firmly on Ugaritic literature in Chapters Two and Three. Readers keen to learn more about Ugarit itself would be advised to begin by turning to Marguerite Yon’s 2006 book about the site.3

It is an encouraging sign from the outset that Pardee’s treatment of Ugaritic linguistic and cultural features is methodologically both transparent and sound. Where he is presenting his own opinion about a debated issue, he indicates this clearly, as for example on the date of the invention of the Ugaritic alphabet, in his opinion probably in the thirteenth rather than the fourteenth century BC.4 In discussing the linguistic affinities of Ugaritic, which belongs undoubtedly to the West Semitic group but whose exact place is difficult to ascertain, Pardee makes very clear the limitations of such a survey: he admits, for instance, that although Ugaritic can be seen to belong to the ‘cultural continuum’ of the Amorites at Mari (p. 23), this cannot be quantified linguistically because of the difficulties associated with attempting to classify Amorite, a language surviving in inscriptions of limited number and content. A conclusion on the exact affiliation of Ugaritic is perforce correspondingly vague: it is ‘more closely related to the Canaanite languages than to Aramaic or to Arabic’, while relations with Amorite cannot be quantified, but Canaanite is labelled as a ‘linguistic cousin’ (p. 25).5

Chapter Two moves the focus to literary and contextual study, looking at the small proportion of Ugaritic texts (only about fifty out of two thousand) that can be described as belletristic in nature. Of these, an obvious choice for close study is the Baal Cycle, which survives on a set of six clay tablets written by the scribe ʾIlîmilku. A part of the chapter is dedicated to an in-depth examination of the tablets in question, with a view to demonstrating rather than assuming that they can be seen as part of the same ‘cycle’ of stories (p. 61-72). This section more than any other demonstrates the strength of the interdisciplinary enquiry underpinning the book, with the author not only approaching the question of the Baal Cycle from an inter/intra-textual literary perspective but also presenting the results of his own research on the epigraphy and pinacology of the texts.

The discussion of the Baal Cycle also benefits from a prosopographical investigation into their scribe, ʾIlîmilku (p. 42-9), beginning with the long colophon with which he signed the last tablet of the cycle, CTA 6. The investigation complements the study of the texts themselves very well, and goes some way towards illuminating the role of the inscribers of Ugaritic literary texts. However, it is rare to find such texts signed and so ʾIlîmilku remains an isolated example which cannot be assumed to be representative of the mechanisms of the literary tradition at Ugarit. Pardee’s argument that this ‘scribe’ was also the author/poet of the cycle is thought-provoking, but he admits that he may be reading too much into the damaged text from which his hypothesis arises (RS 92.2016), which requires partial restoration and a small amount of imaginative interpretation.

Chapter Three shifts the focus yet again, towards a comparative literary study of Ugaritic and Hebrew texts. The belletristic priorities of Hebrew literature can be shown to be somewhat different from those of the Ugaritic examples, with a move away from long narrative poetry so that long narrative sections are in prose and poetry is represented only in shorter pieces. However, Pardee successfully and concisely demonstrates that common motifs may be found, pointing towards the inheritance of some aspects of a pre-existing West Semitic literary tradition by the authors of certain texts of the Old Testament. The literary strategy of ‘parallelism’, illustrated in long quotations from a number of Ugaritic and Hebrew texts, is presented as a structural device that can be seen to evolve from one tradition to the other (p. 79-91). Further common strands may be found by considering shared poetic imagery (p. 92-106). The final section of the chapter, which considers types of writing, might appear at first to present some tenuous links between particular attested texts (for example, the attempt to isolate examples of Ugaritic literature that conform to the Hebrew model of ‘wisdom poetry’, p. 110-12), but overall is a convincing exposition of shared literary trends in the two languages.

The lack of a concluding chapter might be taken to imply that the various strands of Pardee’s investigation into Ugaritic literature are never quite tied together, but in fact his argument progresses with such clarity from beginning to end that the cumulative impact of the work is not in doubt. His aim to trace ‘the general outlines of one of the foundations of that cornerstone [i.e. the Hebrew Bible as a cornerstone of Western culture]’ (p. 124) has been achieved, and he has also provided an account of Ugaritic language and literature, and its import for the general study of West Semitic literary traditions, that will appeal to enthusiasts of the ancient Near East and of Old Testament studies. This is not a book that one can easily dip into and out of, but reading it from cover to cover is a journey into several fascinating areas of linguistic, epigraphic and literary study.


1. See the British Academy web page on the Schweich Lectures.

2. T.G. Palaima, ‘Cypro-Minoan Scripts: Problems of Historical Context’ in Duhoux, Y., Palaima, T.G. and Bennet, J. (eds.), Problems in Decipherment, Louvain-la-Neuve 1989, p. 147.

3. M. Yon, The City of Ugarit at Tell Ras Shamra, Winona Lake 2006.

4. P. 11 and n.18. Pardee has discussed the issue of dating further in D. Pardee, ‘The Ugaritic Alphabetic Cuneiform Writing System in the Context of Other Alphabetic Systems’ in C.L. Miller (ed.), Studies in Semitic and Afroasiatic Linguistics Presented to Gene B. Gragg, Chicago 2007, p. 181-200.

5. A useful and more exhaustive treatment of the linguistic affiliation of Ugaritic may be found in J. Tropper, ‘Is Ugaritic a Canaanite Language?’ in G.J. Brooke, A.H.W. Curtis and J.F. Healey (eds.), Ugarit and the Bible, Münster 1994, p. 343-353.