Aqhat Epic Is Composed in Ugarit Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Aqhat epic recounts the tragic death of Aqhat, Daniel’s only son. This epic, together with the whole corpus of Ugaritic literature, reveals a culture that illumines the biblical world.

Summary of Event

In 1929, the ancient city of Ugarit (Ras Shamra in modern-day Syria) was discovered. The written texts from this ancient port provide insight into the fabric of the biblical world. The Ugaritic tablets from Ras Shamra are written in an alphabetic cuneiform script known to have been in use by the mid-fourteenth century b.c.e. The literary texts are almost entirely in the form of poetry. One of these principal literary texts is The Legend of Aqhat, preserved on three clay tablets found in 1930.

Not a single character from the Aqhat epic is a known historical personage. Neither Aqhat nor his father, Daniel, is known to have ruled as king in Ugarit. The mythic element of the plot compounds the difficulty of identifying the context in which the epic was used. Perhaps the story had no real function but was preserved because it was, in the end, a good story.

The story begins with Daniel, a patriarchal chieftain akin to Abraham who has no son but desires one. In response to prayer, El decrees that Daniel and Danatay, his wife, shall have a son. Daniel is delighted on hearing the divine promise. He will now have a son who will care for him during his lifetime and perform the correct funerary rites. In the words of the epic as translated by Dennis Pardee in William Hallo’s The Context of Scipture:

Someone to raise up the stela of his father’s god, in the sanctuary the votive emblem of his clan; To send up from the earth his incense, from the dust the song of his place; To shut up the jaws of his detractors, to drive out anyone who would do him in; To take his hand when (he is) drunk, to bear him up [when] (he is) full of wine; To eat his grain (-offering) in the temple of Ba’lu, his portion in the temple of ‘Ilu; To resurface his roof when rain softens it up, to wash his outfit on a muddy day.

Aqhat is born and grows to be a dutiful son. One day, Kothar wa-Hasis (skillful and clever), the craftsman god, visits Daniel, giving to him a special bow and arrows that, in turn, Daniel presents to Aqhat. The goddess Anat sees the bow and wants it for herself. She offers silver and gold for the bow. When Aqhat refuses, she offers life, even eternal life. Aqhat again refuses, perceiving that the goddess is offering what she cannot deliver. Old age and death are the common lot of all humankind.

Enraged, Anat seeks permission from El to destroy Aqhat and calls on the services of her henchman Yatpan to murder him. Disguised as a hawk, Yatpan attacks Aqhat during a meal and kills him. Pughat, the hero’s sister, after noticing hovering hawks in the sky, concludes that a murder has been committed. She communicates her suspicions to her father, who then travels around his territory to determine the source of the trouble. He learns of the death of his son and vows vengeance upon the murderer, whose identity is still unknown to him. Daniel begs Baal to bring down the hawks that he may cut them open to see if he can find the remains of his son. No remains are found, so Baal is asked to restore the birds and they fly away. Daniel then spies Hirgabu, the father of the hawks, who is also brought down, but no remains are found. When Samlu, the mother of the hawks, is brought down, Daniel finds the remains of his son, which he then buries.

After seven years of mourning for Aqhat, Pughat discovers that Yatpan was responsible for her brother’s death. With a sword hidden in her flowing robes, Pughat disguises herself as Anat and pays a visit to Yatpan. The villain invites the disguised Pughat into his house for a drink. As he drinks, his tongue is loosened, and he boasts of his murderous treachery. Just as Yatpan’s confession falls from his lips, and Pughat’s revenge is exacted, the clay tablet is broken and the end of the story is lost.

Even though the incompleteness of the text makes the precise meaning and interpretation of the narrative uncertain, many of its themes are familiar from other ancient literature: the concern for a son and successor, mortality, and vengeance for an act of murder. Although the context in which the epic was recited at Ugarit is unknown, it has been speculated that the virtuous king (Daniel), the ideal son (Aqhat), the dutiful daughter (Pughat), and the rash young prince (Aqhat) are sketched as models or as a warning. These models have parallels in the wisdom or sapiential literature of the ancient world such as the biblical Book of Proverbs.

Significance

The extant literature from Ugarit not only reveals an ancient culture in its own right (Syria in the Late Bronze Age) but also sheds light on the language, literature, and religion of biblical Israel. These ancient cultures valued virtue in the palace (Daniel and Aqhat) and in the home (Aqhat and Pughat). The epic also provides an alternative view of Middle Eastern cultures and religions—such as the worship of Baal—to those presented by the Old Testament. The acts of the goddess Anat furthermore bear a strong resemblance to those of Ishtar in the Gilgamesh epic (c. 2000 b.c.e.; translated into English as Gilgamesh Epic, 1917), illustrating the continuity and close relationship among the mythologies of the various cultures of the ancient Middle East.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coogan, Michael David. Stories from Ancient Canaan. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978. Coogan offers a lively translation of the myths of the Canaanites, introducing the reader to the world of the Canaanites and to the world of ancient Israel.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Del Olmo Lete, G. Mitos y leyendas de Canaan segun la tradicion de Ugarit. Madrid: Ediciones Cristiandad, 1981. This work is an important Spanish translation of the literary texts from Ugarit.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pardee, Dennis. “The Aqhatu Legend.” In The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World. Vol. 1, edited by William W. Hallo. New York: E. Brill, 1997. An English translation by a preeminent scholar in the field.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Smith, Mark S. Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2001. This work is a delightful survey of the history of Ugaritic scholarship over the course of the twentieth century, focusing attention on its contributions to the study of ancient Israel and the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).

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