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UGARITIC, a Northwest Semitic language spoken and written in northern Syria during the second millennium B.C.E. Documents written in this tongue have been discovered at Ras Shamra, site of the ancient *Ugarit , and at nearby Ras ibn Hani.

The texts were written on clay tablets in a unique cuneiform alphabetic script. This represented a revolutionary adaptation of the Mesopotamian writing method, which was in its original form syllabic and logographic and required hundreds of symbols; thus there were separate symbols for ba and ab, ik and ki, etc. The Ugaritic repertoire consisted, in contrast, of 27 basic consonants. An additional sign for samekh and two supplementary alefs served to distinguish the three fundamental Semitic vowels in combination with that consonant, i.e., aʾ, iʾ, uʾ. Rare instances have been noted in which these consonant-plus-vowel signs were utilized as pure vowel indicators and in two texts the yod seems to stand for a final vowel; otherwise the Ugaritic method of writing was entirely consonantal. Five small inscriptions show certain unusual features such as minor divergences in the shapes of letters and especially a preference for only 22 consonants as in the traditional Canaanite *alphabet . Three of these texts with the shorter alphabet were found not at Ugarit but in Ereẓ Israel.

The corpus of Ugaritic inscriptions so far published represents a wide range of literary and nonliterary types. The former have attracted the widest attention because of their parallels to biblical poetry and epic prose. Of special interest are the tablets pertaining to the adventures of Baal and his consort Anath which outnumber the other literary works discovered. In many instances, the language and poetic style are – as shown especially by U. Cassuto and H.L. Ginsberg – very close to passages in the Hebrew poetry, e.g., the god of death, Mot, warns Baal not to boast "because you have smitten Lotan [Leviathan] the evil serpent, you have destroyed the crooked serpent, the mighty one of seven heads." The analogy with Isaiah 27:1 is indeed striking.

Other mythical works include an ode on the marriage of the Moon god (masculine) with the goddess Nikkal (a deity of Mesopotamian origin), and a drama about the birth of the good and lovely gods which even contains stage directions for the cast and parenthetical remarks by the narrator. Two legendary stories are worthy of special notice, viz. that of a certain renowned king named Keret (Kirta) and a judge known as Danʾil. The latter is probably to be equated with the Daniel of Ezekiel 14:14, 20; 28:3; he was famous for his fairness as a judge, revealed especially in his care for the widow and the orphan. A major theme of both the Keret and the Danʾil epics is the desire for an heir to maintain the family line.

As the archaeological researches at Ras Shamra continue, the variety of religious and literary texts increases. Ritual inscriptions include dedicatory formulae on stelae and votive objects, lists of sacrifices to the various deities of the Ugaritic pantheon, and descriptions of ceremonial acts of worship. Extispicy, the "science" of omens, is also represented. One unpublished tablet deals with ominous predictions founded on unusual births; another is a clay model of a sheep's liver with textual allusions to certain marks and other features which the examining priest had to learn to recognize and interpret. All of these have their counterparts or prototypes in Mesopotamian and Hittite sources; it is quite clear now that all these facets of cuneiform science and culture had made their mark on the life of Ugarit. For the first time scholars can compare the linguistic expressions in these ancient literary genres in both the East Semitic Akkadian and the West Semitic Ugaritic (with many Hittite and Hurrian parallels as well).

The classification of Ugaritic within the Northwest Semitic family is a disputed issue. Many scholars hold that it is Canaanite or north Canaanite. It certainly is not identical with the dialect(s) spoken further south in the original land of Canaan as reflected in Egyptian transcriptions and glosses in the *El-Amarna letters .

The Ugaritic language bears many resemblances to other members of the Northwest Semitic family, and to Hebrew and *Phoenician in particular. There are, however, also a number of significant differences: Ugaritic used a shin-causative stem instead of h(ifil), a(fel) or y(ifil); its long [a] vowels had not shifted to long [o]; the old Semitic case system was still in full force and short final vowels had generally not been elided from various verb forms. Barth's law of thematic and preformative vowels in imperfect verb tenses is shared by both Ugaritic and Hebrew but, unlike the latter, these forms still distinguished four modes, indicative, volitive, jussive, and energic, in correspondence with classical Arabic (except that the jussive had already begun to assume the function of a past or completed-action tense).

To date the Ugaritic lexicon consists of over 2,000 words. Many personal names are similar in form and construction to those in the Bible. The Ugaritic script was even utilized to write texts in the Hurrian language and Hurrian names appear alongside those of local Semites. Although the royal scribes of Ugarit carried on their international correspondence and drew up most of their local documents in Akkadian, they also used Ugaritic for various administrative purposes.

The decipherment of Ugaritic was achieved almost simultaneously by H. Bauer, E. Dhorme, and C. Virolleaud, each working independently. Various scholars have contributed to the analysis and elucidation of the inflection, syntax and lexicography of the language. A major pioneer was H.L. *Ginsberg , whose fundamental researches put the grammar on a solid, scientific basis. C.H. *Gordon made a systematic presentation of the various aspects of the grammar, to which a comprehensive glossary was added, along with transcriptions of all texts published to date. Interest in the linguistic, literary, religious, and cultural information in this newly discovered body of inscribed material has been international. Relationships with the Bible and biblical Hebrew have received most of the attention. As more examples of major compositions from the Mesopotamian sphere have come to light at Ugarit, the influence of Babylonian literature on that of Ugarit has attracted further research. Attention has also been paid to Ugarit against the larger world of ancient Syria including Emar and *Mari . Since the 1970s Ugaritology has emerged as a discipline in its own right rather than a handmaiden of biblical studies. Ugarit Forschungen ("Ugaritic Researches"), 1969ff., which has been publishing articles in several languages, is in the main devoted to Ugaritic studies. A scholarly series is published by Ugarit Verlag in Muenster, Germany.


A. Herdner, Corpus des tablettes en cunéiformes alphabétiques, 1 (1963), includes a comprehensive bibliography, 293–339; C. Virolleaud, Le palais royal d'Ugarit, 2 (1957) and 5 (1965); C.H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965), with glossary; H. L Ginsberg, The Legend of King Keret (1946); idem, in: Pritchard, Texts, 1929–55 (Eng. tr. of texts); C.H. Gordon, Ugarit and Minoan Crete (1966), ch. 4 (Eng. tr. of texts); F. Gröndahl, Die Personennamen der Texte aus Ugarit (1967); C. Virolleaud, in: Ugaritica, 5 (1968), 545–606. TEXTS IN THE "SHORTER" ALPHABETIC CUNEIFORM SCRIPT – FROM UGARIT: C.H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965), 176 (no. 57), 180f. (no. 74), 185 (no. 94); A. Herdner, Corpus des tablettes en cunéiformes alphabétiques, 1 (1963), 285 (no. 207), 274 (no. 187), 284f. (no. 206); (parallel texts to the preceding source, see above); Virolleaud, in: Comptes rendus de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1960), 85–90. FROM EREẒ ISRAEL: Yeivin, in: Kedem, 2 (1945), 32–41; Albright, in: BASOR, no. 173 (1964), 51–53; Hillers, ibid., 45–50; S.E. Loewenstamm, in: World History of Jewish People, ed. by Mazar, 2 (1970), 9–23. ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: GENERAL: M. Yon, in: ABD, 6:695–706; D. Pardee and M. Bordreuil, in: ibid., 706–21; W. Watson and N. Wyatt, Handbook of Ugaritic Studies (HdO; 1999; extensive bibl.). GRAMMARS: S. Segert, A Basic Grammar of the Ugaritic Language (1984); J. Tropper, Ugaritische Grammatik (2000); D. Sivan, A Grammar of the Ugaritic Language (HdO; 2001); P. Bourdreuil and D. Pardee, Manuel d'Ougaritique, 2 vols. (2004). TEXT COLLECTIONS: M. Dietrich, O. Loretz, and J. Sanmartin, The Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras ibn Hani and Other Places (1995). TRANSLATIONS: G. del Olmo Lete, Mitos y leyendas de Canaan segun la tradicion de Ugarit (1981); B. Margalit, The Ugaritic Poem of AQHT (1989); M. Smith, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle (1994); D. Pardee, in: COS, I, 241–45; 287–98; 302–9; idem, Les texts rituels, 2 vols. (2000); DICTIONARY: G. del Olmo Lete and J. Sanmartin, A Dictionary of the Ugaritic Language (HdO; 2004).

[Anson Rainey / S. David Sperling (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.