Baal and the Problem of Politics in the Bronze Age

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By: Aaron Tugendhaft, New York University
National Endowment for the Humanities Fellow
W.F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research

Aaron Tugendhaft

Aaron Tugendhaft

My research explores the intersections between conceptions of the divine, forms of human artistic making, and the foundations of politics in the Near East. As an NEH Fellow at the Albright Institute from December, 2012 to March, 2013, I was given the opportunity to spend four months working on my current book manuscript—a revision of my 2012 New York University dissertation, “Baal and the Problem of Politics in the Bronze Age.”

The book, which is part of a longer-term project to rethink the theologico-political problems in the ancient Near East, considers how traditional Bronze Age mythological themes were adapted in 13th century Ugarit to produce a literary work that provided a critical perspective on the reigning political norms of the day. By reading the Ugaritic Baal Cycle within its Hittite imperial context, I argue that the poem’s irregular representation of political order challenged Hittite imperial domination
by undermining contemporary notions of sovereignty’s sacred foundations. Abundant contemporary documentation survives to provide context for the Baal Cycle’s depiction of politics. Thanks to these documents (letters, political treaties, and royal edicts), it is possible to reconstruct the political world of the Late Bronze Age—in terms of both the events and the norms that defined relationships of power.

This was a world characterized by great kings who called each other “brother” and petty kingdoms that vowed allegiance to one or another of the dominant empires. Ugarit, which belonged to this latter group, had since the mid-14th century BCE pledged fealty to the kings of Hatti—a situation that yet endured when Ilimilku inscribed the Baal Cycle for his city’s penultimate king a century later. Ilimilku was in a privileged position to write a political poem for he had served as an envoy to the Hittite court and was an intimate of the queen and other members of Ugarit’s political elite.

Rather than beginning his poem in primordial, pre-political times, Ilimilku sets the Baal Cycle at a time when a political order already exists: Baal’s first adversary Yamm is depicted, not as a force of chaos, but as an imperial suzerain who rules with El’s blessing, while Baal himself is presented as Yamm’s vassal. Baal’s defeat of Yamm and rise to kingship is presented as a usurpation of a divinely legitimate throne by a strongman who acts against the will of El. Baal’s success reveals that even a “divinely beloved” political power can be defeated. Not divine sanction but the successful use of cunning and force is the primary instrument of political wellbeing. In sum, the narrative of Baal’s rise to power ultimately undercuts contemporary accounts of politics’ divine sanction by representing political action in such a way as to elicit critical reflection about the working of politics and the norms that undergird it.

In a world where Hittite, Assyrian, and Egyptian poets were regularly linking the authority of their kings to the majesty of the gods, Ilimilku’s poem calls such political theology into question and so provides an illuminating example of what may be called a “non-legitimating myth”—hence complicating standard accounts of the political role of literature in the ancient world. I would like to thank the Albright Institute for providing me an ideal environment in which to make progress on this project.

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