Posts Tagged ‘Ugarit’

Studying Ancient Canaanite Myths, Part 4: the Baal Cycle

Dear Reader,

Last time we looked at the Canaanite Story of Aqhat. This time, I would like to turn to the third and final story in Coogan’s book, the Baal cycle. If you are familiar with the Old Testament, you should have heard of Baal. He is the primary god of the people of Ugarit and their neighbors. He seems to have been a big temptation for the Israelites, one which they did not always resist.

Once again, I would suggest reading Coogan’s introduction to the myth, though I would not read it to the children. I prefer them to hear the story unfold and to come to it gradually. Stop periodically and have them tell you what they think is happening. If they can’t figure it out, you can help them out (that is why you have read the intro). Here are some of my thoughts on topics that could be discussed:

1. The first bad guy in our story is the Sea. Does this ring any bells? Many myths begin with the Sea or waters needing to be tamed. Genesis 1 also begins with the water that must be divided. The sea equals chaos for the Israelites. They were not big sailors and had a great fear of the waters. Can you think of other times when water equals danger in the Old Testament?

2. Notice that El is called “the Bull.” This should also be going bing-bing in your head. When the Israelites set up idols, what form did they usually take? That’s right, a bull or calf.

3. What does Baal do when he conquers Sea? He drinks him! I love this detail.

4. I will admit I skipped most of the second section in which Anat does battle. It is not completely clear to me who she is battling and why at this point. It is a gory sequence and Coogan’s translation uses the word “b-tch” at one point. Preview it before reading it aloud to see what you think.

5. Baal wants a house. What is the god’s house (you can read about the levels of meaning here in Coogan’s introduction to the tale)? You could take time to compare this to the Lord’s house, ie the temple, in the Bible. Whose idea was building the temple? How did God feel about it?

6. As in the Aqhat story, I love how Anat speaks to her father El when she wants something. And his response: “how gentle you can be . . .” This is not a healthy family.

7. Asherah’s approval must also be won. What are her driving influences (hint: I see two)?

8. For the significance of a window for Baal’s house, read Coogan’s introduction. Initially, Baal rejects the idea of a window. Why does he change his mind? How is he feeling at this point? What does the Bible say about pride?

9. Baal’s ego drives him to the point that he defies Death. How does Death respond? It is funny (weird funny, not ha-ha) that even their most powerful god is subject to Death and immediately quakes in his boots when threatened by Death.

10. Notice the mourning rites that El and Anat observe when Baal goes down to Death.

11. Now the gods  need a new king. Asherah proposes one of her sons (one of her major concerns: see question 7). They are each rejected for some reason. Why? My kids loved the picture of the god who is too small to even sit in Baal’s throne.

12. With no hope left but to get Baal back, Anat makes pretty short work of Death. Once again, as in Aqhat, it is the female that must make things right though the male is always seen at the hero.

13. Baal and Death will have future battles. Relate this to the climate in Canaan (see Coogan’s intro again). They remind me of some pairs of brothers I know that are always wrestling.

14. What limitations do the Canaanite gods have? The earth’s fertility depends upon Baal, but he is not invincible. How do you think you would have felt to live in such a world?

That’s what I’ve got. Once again, if you read through these myths, I’d love to hear any insights you come up with.


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.