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Ugaritic Texts as Ritual Event

July 21, 2008

I’ve been thinking a lot about Ugaritic ritual texts. The Ugaritic corpus provides us with a number of ritual texts. Given the nature of the destruction of the ancient city, these texts give us a freeze-frame of the ritual life of the cult.

As best as can be discerned, the ritual texts at Ugarit are not canonical. There was no extensive editorial process of native self-selection that brought these texts together into an authoritative corpus of ancient Ugaritic life. Rather, these are simply the texts that have survived.

From an anthropological perspective this a very good thing. It allows us to speak in terms of the reality of the cult rather than simply the canonical tradition remembering that historical reality. It allows us to speak of the ritual event.

When I write “ritual event” it should be noted that the texts do not provide us with all the details. We don’t know the exact mechanics of a šlm or šrp sacrifice. However, we aren’t exactly sure of many of these details of these sacrifices in the biblical corpus either. The reason I can write about a ritual event is that these Ugaritic texts, as best we can tell, were meant to and were actually used in the cult.

There are several pieces of data that point to the actual use of the Ugaritic ritual texts being used in the cult. Some texts have little “check marks” next to line items of sacrificial victims and recipients. Even apparently “duplicate” ritual texts bare uniqueness that point to an ad hoc usage. Etc.

If these texts were actual performance lists for various cultic occasions, I think that it opens up new avenues for our research. Inclussion and exclussion of details indicate what was important from an emic perspective. For example, there are repeated apparently identical lists of deities receiving sacrifices. Were these written down because they were some “canonical series” that everyone knew, or where they written down specifically because they weren’t known or remembered? Or perhaps because there is always the danger of performing an infilicitous ritual?

I’m still working through the implications of such a methodology, but it sure beats arguing about whether P was utopian or not.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Rochelle Altman permalink
    July 23, 2008 2:36 am

    If there are check marks, then the ritual was performed and points to the variations being the result of an individual’s choices with regard to the ritual involved. The relevant word is “individual” and probably accounts for the lists of deities — not for the priests, but for the individuals. Easy enough to mentally picture the routine: “Yes, sir; you wish to sacrifice? Good. To which god or gods?” To avoid an infelicitous ritual? You wouldn’t want to sacrifice the wrong thing to the chosen god, would you? Inclusion or exclusion would also depend upon which sacrifice was appropriate to this god or to that god. Check lists would help a great deal when the supplicant wandered in. Further, those check marks indicate that the records (tablets) were discarded periodically — after some set period of time. Millard, is of course, right. (“Only Fragments from the Past: The Role of Accident in our Knowledge of the Ancient Near East. _Writing and Ancient Near Eastern Society_. T & T Clark, 2005. pp 301-319.)

  2. July 24, 2008 3:33 pm


    Thanks for the comments and the reference.


  1. Det omrejsende Bibel-tivoli 32 : PergaMent

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