Studying Ancient Canaanite Myths, Part 3: What?

Dear Reader,

If you have read parts 1 and 2, you will be prepared now and eager to jump right into those Ugaritic myths. For the actual text of the myths and  a little background on the gods involved, I am going to refer you to Stories from Ancient Canaan by Michael David Coogan. There are other books out there, but this is one I own and I like the translation. 

My suggestion would be to read the introduction, paying attention especially to the information on the main gods and goddesses. Then turn to one of the myths. In Coogan’s book, the story of Aqhat comes first. It is a good one. The plot is discussed in its introduction. This could be good for you as the teacher to read. I would be careful about telling the children the whole story from the start though.

When you turn to the text, you will find that it is poetry. Did this surprise you? It shouldn’t. I don’t know how the people of Ugarit used these stories, but I picture them being recited orally around the campfire at night. You will notice that there are whole sections which get repeated three or so times in the course of the story. This to me screams oral narrative. If your kids are young in particular, I think this will appeal to them. Younger kids love repetition. They love that they know what comes next. I think those Ugaritic children probably said the words along with the storyteller.

In addition to the repeated passages, you will notice that parallelism is used throughout the epic. Nothing is said once if it can be said twice or thrice. If you know much about biblical Hebrew poetry (and if you don’t look for my other posts on the psalms), you will recognize this. If anything, the parallelism is here more obvious. It is how the poem is structured and it serves to gradually move the action forward. And it also serves as our first evidence that the Israelites did not live in  a vacuum. Their poetry was influenced by the culture in which they were. It may not be identical to that of their neighbors, but neither is it very different.

As I read through the story of Aqhat with my kids, I stopped periodically to have them tell me what they thought was happening. Some things they got more easily than others. If they didn’t get it all, I would explain it to them (having read the introduction to the poem helps with this). There are also other topics that may come up as you read it or that you may want to use as a springboard to other discussions. Here are some that occurred to me:

1. Danel prays for a son. Why is this so important to him? (We find out later that he has a daughter but this does not seem to carry the same weight.) I love the list of what a son will do for Danel which is one of those repeated passages. Some bits are serious: he will erected a memorial stele, for example, shows that they had a  desire to be remembered. But what about he will hold my hand when I’m drunk or do my laundry?? My kids loved this bit.

2. What is Danel doing when the god Kothar-wa-Hasis approaches? What does this say about his standing in society? Can you think of biblical parallels?

3. Danel and his wife provide hospitality to the visiting god. Can you think of biblical parallels? (Off the top of my head: Abraham and Sarah and Samson’s parents.) How can we be hospitable? Why is it a good idea? Why was it even more important in ancient societies?

3.  When Aqhat is given the bow and arrows, how does the goddess Anat feel? What does she do about it? There are great character lessons in here.

4. Why does Aqhat refuse Anat’s offer of immortality? What does this say about the Canaanite view of human life and existence?

5. What does El say to Anat when she comes to him? I find the irony of his response very amusing.

6. Notice the Yatpan is called “the Lady’s man.” This will be important at the end of the story. If you are discussing literary techniques, here is an example of foreshadowing.

7. When Aqhat is killed, it says, “Strike him twice on the skull; three times over the ear.” This use of numbers, saying first one number and then in the parallel verset saying the number that is one more, is frequent in ancient Semitic poetry. It is used in the Bible as well. We, with our modern tendency to precision, tend to be made uncomfortable by it. Which is it, we want to know, twice or thrice? The poet does not seem to have the same conception of numbers. He has no problem with this vagueness. Similar examples can be found in the book of Proverbs. And one famous one is when Saul hears the people praising Saul who has killed his thousands but David has killed his ten-thousands. He is irate because he thinks they are extolling David above him. He too misunderstands the poetic device.

8. Danel seems to be a leader among his people. How does he spend his days and what are his concerns? As in the Bible, the leader is especially charged with caring for widows and orphans.

9. What can we deduce about their burial practices and views of death? It seems essential that they bury Aqhat. There is also a period of mourning.

10. The story is lacking a complete ending though I think the text gets us far enough that we can easily imagine what comes next. My kids enjoyed guessing what would happen.

11. In the end, it is Pagat, the daughter, who gets revenge. Older children could discuss the role of women in Canaanite society and in this story.

These are just some of my thoughts as to what could be discussed. Don;t be limited by them! If you read, this story I would love to hear other ideas you and your kids come up with.

Next time: The story of Baal.


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