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Repetition in Ugaritic Narrative: a Novel Theory

September 25, 2008

I am currently working on the Ugaritic texts of Kirta (CAT 1.14-16) and Aqhat (1.17-19). Both texts begin with an immense amount of repetition. While one can simply chalk all the repetition up to literary style, I’m wondering if something else lies behind the reiterations.

In Kirta, ʾIl comes to Kirta in a dream and gives him detailed instructions on how to gain a new wife. These instructions take up the better part of three columns of text (CAT 1.14 i-iii) and then are immediately told verbatim over the next three columns — with, of course, the notable exception of Kirta’s additional vow to ʾAṯirat along the way.

Similarly, after Daniʾil’s initial ritual to petition divine favour, the text of Aqhat repeats the duties of a good son not once, not twice, but three times in CAT 1.17.

In both these texts, the repetitions become less pervasive as the text goes along. While Daniʾil does three times repeat his magical spell to break the wings of birds, this is not a simple repetition but builds tension in the text as to whether the father will find his son’s corpse (see CAT 1.19 iii). At the beginning of both Aqhat and Kirta such a literary argument is less persuasive, and the reiteration seems to be simply repetition for repetitions sake.

Indeed, what if that was precisely the point? How many of us who teach have found ourselves repeating certain important information at the beginning of classes as our students slowly trickle in? Why would we assume less of the audience of an ancient piece of poetry?

On the assumption that Ugaritic narrative poetry was performed/recited, it would be in keeping with human nature for people to arrive only slowly and as a the performance was starting — especially if the audience included members of the aristocracy or nobility. Such a literary device of increased repetition at the beginning would allow latecomers to acquaint themselves quickly to the action without have to bother their neighbours with questions of “what did I miss?”

Granted, this is all thinking out loud; but it is something to consider.

One Comment
  1. Phillip permalink
    October 2, 2008 12:59 pm

    Jim…An interesting thought. It seems to me that a more appropriate analogy might even be modern ‘reality’ TV shows which seem to recape large portions of material with the return from every commercial break. These shows seem to be designed (implicitly) for the part-time viewer or to allow someone to join into the ‘action’ or ‘drama’ at any given moment during the performance. I seem to recall an article by B Strawn that makes an argument along these lines with regard to the repetitious rhetoric of Deuteronomy (although for slightly different purposes). I think you might be on to something interesting.

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