The Importance of Ugarit

Richard Stanley

Well-Known Member
In 1928 a Syrian peasant plowed into a Mycenaean Greek tomb, and thus the ancient city known from such as the Amarna Letters was discovered. In 1929, clay tablets were discovered there revealing a previously unknown script. As such, the following is copied from Professor Cyrus H. Gordon's 1965 book, The Common Background of Greek and Hebrew Civilization, Chapter 5, titled "Ugarit: Link between Canaan and the Aegean". In this long excerpt Gordon will introduce some bi-directional parallels, that were: "notable overlaps that could not be accidental."

Part 1, from pp. 128-131:
Ugarit is of unique importance for reconstructing the origins of Western Civilisation. The reason is reflected in the nature of the discovery that called attention to the site in 1928. A Mycenaean tomb in the vicinity of a Semitic port meant that the area was one in which the people of Canaan and the Aegean had commingled. The archaeological finds at Ugarit brought this out quite clearly, and comparative archaeologists soon used those finds for studies of Mycenaean civilisation embracing Crete, the Peleponnesus and other parts of the Greek sphere. The late Miss H. L. Lorimer, in her notable book, Homer and the Monuments (London, 1950), went further: she drew heavily on the archaeological finds at Ugarit for illuminating problems arising from the text of Homer. However, she did not make a single reference to any of the Ugaritic texts, even though it seems obvious in retrospect that if the art of Ugarit is related to the text of Homer, the epics found at Ugarit ought to be still more directly related to the epics of Homer. The long delay in recognizing this important fact was due to the circumstances that Semiticists, and not Classicists [Gordon was uncommonly both], deciphered and interpreted the Ugaritic tablets. Those Semiticists were admirably equipped for pointing out biblical parallels, but most of them were unconcerned about the Greek side of the problem.

The scribes of Ugarit required an educational system to train them from the bottom up. The simplest school texts found there are ABC tablets listing the letters of the local alphabet in their fixed, invariable order. The Phoenician alphabet of twenty-two letters is derived from the longer Ugaritic ABC of thirty letters. Contrary to the strict alphabetic principle, the last three letters of the Ugaritic ABC are appendages so that twenty-seven remain for our consideration. Five sounds in the repertoire of twenty-seven came to converge with other sounds because of soundshifts in standard Phoenician. The remarkable fact is that when those five sounds are eliminated, the remaining twenty-two letters appear at Ugarit in precisely the same order as they are still preserved in the Hebrew alphabet. The traditional order of the Greek alphabet reflects its Phoenician origin. The Latin ABC is only a step further removed. Accordingly, whole blocks of letters (such as j, k, l, m, n, o, p, q, r, s, t) appear in the same fixed order in the Latin, Greek, and Hebrew alphabets. When an extra letter appears in Ugaritic (as in l, m, d, n) the order of the letters that survive into Hebrew is always the same (for the Ugaritic d is one of the five letters rendered unnecessary by the soundshifts mentioned above.

It stands to reason that the community that provides us with the most primary form of the ABC so far discovered should be of exceptional importance for the study of the cultures associated with the development and use of the ABC in the East Mediterranean. Aegean influences contributed to the Ugaritic ABC. Then the Ugaritic ABC gave rise to the Phoenician-Hebrew ABC, which in turn was borrowed by the Greeks. The centrality of Ugarit in the basic elements of East Mediterranean culture impresses itself on us again and again.

Ugarit was a city in the hands of a West Semitic community. By water, it joined Western Asia to the Mediterranean. It lay between the Hittite Empire and Canaan. It had enclaves of Assyrians, Hurrians, Hittites, Egyptians, Aegean folk and other foreigners. The polyglot nature of the community is mirrored in the vocabulary texts, whereby the scribal students learned to translate Ugaritic words into Sumerian, Akkadian and Hurrian. The two main scripts were the Akkadian syllabary and the Ugaritic alphabet: both written in cuneiform with a stylus on clay. The normal language for business, law, and diplomacy was Akkadian; the normal language for religion, literature, and local administration was Ugaritic. Hurrian was also used not infrequently for rituals and incantations. A few tablets in Cypro-Minoan attest the intimate connections with Cyprus, Egyptian and Hittite hieroglyphs round out the repertoire of scripts found at Ugarit.

The Ugaritic tablets come from the Amarna and Ramesside Ages (ca. 14th-12th centuries B.C.) in which the traditions of both the Hebrew Patriarchs and the Trojan War are rooted. More that any other excavated site, Ugarit was the meeting place Semite and Indo-European; a cosmopolitan city where a literature was produced reflecting the varied heritages of the component parts of the population. Ugaritic literature, therefore, anticipates basic aspects of the earliest Hebrew and Greek literatures, providing a historic backdrop for both, as we shall bring out later in this chapter.

The poetry of Ugarit is so close to Hebrew poetry that it has cleared up a mystery of long standing. It used to be thought that classical Hebrew was linguistically the creation of "primitive" Hebrew tribesmen, and that it was a sort of miracle for such tribesmen to produce a polished literature from the very start. It turns out that the Hebrews found in Canaan a highly polished literary medium, now attested by the Ugaritic myths and epics. The distinctive contribution of the Hebrews is the content of the Bible rather than the literary medium which they found waiting for them upon their advent in Canaan. In the Old testament, the Hebrews never call their language "Hebrew" or "Israelite," but quite correctly "the language of Canaan."

End of excerpt Part 1​

It should be noted that Gordon is writing long before the later archaeologists, such as Finkelstein have shown that the Hebrews and Israelites of the OT were indeed Canaanites. That had later been converted through various means, and that there is no evidence for the enslaved sojourn in Egypt and subsequent Exodus, - as recorded at least. Therefore, the import of the last paragraph above is that the redactors of the Hebrew 'Bible' were able to make use of pre-existing texts, themes and motifs that were already long existing and polished - just as was the case for the Greeks.


Richard Stanley

Well-Known Member
Gordon excerpt, Part 2, from pp. 132-135:

For twenty years after the first discovery of the Ugaritic tablets, a vast number of biblical parallels were pointed out by many scholars in many lands. In comparison, the Greek parallels went virtually unnoticed. Meanwhile, I had been noting literary resemblances between Ugaritic and Greek epic. In the briefest way, I mentioned the relevance of Ugarit for the study of Homer, in a publication of 1941. World War II interrupted my studies, but the break enabled me to return to them in 1946 with a fresh outlook instead of depending on "authoritative" attitudes. In gathering the Homeric parallels to Ugaritic literature, a striking fact impressed itself upon me: there was a notable overlap that could not be accidental. The two-way parallels unmistakably linked Homer and the Bible. The most important of these parallels had to do with the central themes of the Kret Epic. King Kret (named after the eponymous ancestor of the Cretans) had lost Hurrai, his only wife destined to bear him the children who would carry on his line. Accordingly, he mustered an army and marched to the land whee she was being held, and recovered her so that the divine promise of predestined progeny could be fulfilled.

This theme is completely lacking in the older literatures of the ancient East, including the Gilgamesh Epic, and the Middle Egyptian Romances. On the other hand, the Helen of Troy motif is central in Indo-European epic, both in Greece and India. I refer to the hero who must recover his destined wife from here abductors. The divine promise of progeny through the destined wife is central in early Hebrew literature from Abraham and Sarah on, though this too is alien to the older Near Eastern literatures, such as the Gilgamesh Epic or the Egyptian stories. Moreover, the biblical narratives themselves assumed a new aspect because of the Ugaritic parallels. The destined bride of Abraham, was twice wrested from him, once by the King of Egypt and once by the King of Philistine Gerar. (The latter king, or one of his subjects, also came close to wresting Rebecca from Isaac.) But the hero Abraham retrieved the destined mother of his royal line, both times. In other words, the Helen of Troy motif permeates the Patriarchal Narratives of Genesis, but no one noticed it because ingrained attitudes kept our Greek and Hebrew heritages in water-tight compartments. Ugarit, being new and not part of our traditional heritage, was able to bridge the gap between Homer and the Bible. We shall note more of these triple parallels (Ugaritic, Hebraic, and Greek) in this and the following chapters.

I pointed out a group of Ugaritic and other Near East parallels to Greek epic in the American Journal of Archaeology 56, 1952, pp. 93-94. ...

As we have already observed, the whole subject of early Greco-Hebrew relations is touchy. While a galaxy of Classicists, Orientalists, and Biblical scholars have understood and elucidated various aspects of the problem, the academic rank and file tend to shun this kind of topic. It would be overoptimistic to expect at this time a universal understanding of the role of Ugarit in linking early Greek and early Hebrew literature. The subject is not for those who have developed a mental block before they examine the evidence. Nor have we any right to demand that every student of antiquity be perceptive in the field of comparative culture.

Note the mention of 'predestined progeny' by Gordon, which is the proper contextual usage of the NT term 'Predestination' where many of today's Christians all believe that they are 'predestined' to be 'saved'. This was a major aspect of contention between Protestants and Catholics, all a phony and deceptive argument, but in any case, it really meant that the human progeny of the elite were predestined to thrive over the not so predestined. Caveat Emptor

Three paragraphs later he goes on regarding the Kret Epic of which was the first known example (at least at the time - maybe so even today?) of the Helen of Troy motif:

The scribes of Ugarit called the text "Kret" after the hero: a king, whose very name shows Cretan affinities. He had betrothed his rightful wife by paying the dowry, but she departed. The word "departed" is never used as a euphemism for "died." Nevertheless, until I pointed out the Helen of Troy theme in this text, tb(c)t "departed" was taken to mean that Kret's wife had died, and that the heroine of the Epic was, therefore, another woman. The element of romantic marriage whereby (no matter how polygamous the society, nor even the household of the hero himself) there is only one woman who counts in his life, is generally alien to the earlier literatures of the Near East. It comes in with the advent of the Indo-Europeans and appears at Ugarit and in the Bible (from Abraham to David) as well as in the Iliad.

One should be careful to distinguish between "romantic marriage" and the later courtly "romantic love" which did not enter the mainstream of western culture until the Chivalric Age via the troubadours. With the latter, elsewhere in the book Gordon discusses professional guilds of such singer-musicians and prophets who are 'called' to and fro to influence respective cultures. Sound familiar? Such guilds were in parallel with the building craft guilds, such the masons.

Finally for our purposes here, Gordon next quotes from the Kret Epic regarding its Helen of Troy motif, and of which I'll extract the following from:

Sleep overcame him
And he lay down in a deep sleep
And he was disturbed, an in his dream El descended
In his vision the Father of Man
And he drew near while asking Kret:
'Who is Kret that he should weep?
Or shed tears, the Good One, Lad of El?
Does he desire the kingdom of the Bull, his father,
Or sover[reignty like the Father of Ma]n?

'Father of Man', 'Lad of El'? --- Son of Man?