Discovered by an Arab farmer in 1928, the Ugaritic texts - religious and devotional tablets pertaining to the pre-Jewish religion in Canaan - have shed invaluable light on the history and development of monotheistic Judaism. The Ugaritic texts are so named because they were discovered in the ancient city of Ugarit. They are written in Ugaritic, which is a Semitic language related to Hebrew which uses a cuneiform alphabet1. There is a huge corpus of writings, recorded on clay tablets. The tablets were varied and included not only literary and religious texts, but also lexical and other scholastic texts, lists of countries and towns, corporations and persons, offerings and dedications, commercial and administrative documents and letters, and they were written in the Accadian, Hurrian and Sumerian languages, as well as in Ugaritic.
The Religious Texts
The word 'El' is an important part of the vocabulary of the religious texts. These texts were inscribed between 1400 and 1350 BC, but the myths recorded on them could potentially be much older, and - in some form or other - probably go back to remote antiquity. Many divine characters appear in the texts; the Canaanites appear to have had a sizeable pantheon. Of these, El and his consort Athirat2, along with Baal are the most prominent. El is the supposed head of this pantheon, though his power is often thought to be on the wane, and he seems to have been the primogenitor of the line, often conceiving members of it with Athirat. He and Baal appear to have had some kind of an enmity, and their relationship has been the centre of much argument3. Many eminent scholars have linked El with Yahweh4, and a significant proportion claim that the latter is a later incarnation of the former, whose fellows have fallen into disregard on the route to monotheism. Certainly, the names El and Athirat appear quite frequently in the earlier books of the Old Testament.
El as a Word Meaning 'God'
The etymology of the name El is an interesting one. El is common to all the Semitic languages except Ethiopic as the general appellative meaning 'god' in the broadest sense. It is also the most frequent element of theophorous proper names5 all over the ancient Semitic world. The word el in fact appears very often in ancient texts, and does regularly simply mean god, even in the Old Testament, where it is sometimes employed to refer to the god of the Hebrews. However, from reading the Ugaritic tablets, scholars have been left in no doubt that the word was also a proper name, referring to one single, personal god, with a distinct character and his own attendant myths. How this incongruity came about is a mystery. It seems likely that el was originally an appellative, common to all gods, and that it came to represent one god over the course of time. It could be that the name could have come to be used by a tribe to describe only their own god, until such time as his original name fell into oblivion.
How El is Portrayed
The character of the god El is certainly broad. He can be seen as father, uncle, king, master, ruler, lord; he is a bull, a bear, a lion, a rock; he is light and peace; he is first, great, exalted, perfect, most high, strong, merciful, trusty, honoured; he ordains, produces, builds, commands, speaks, judges, thinks, chooses, lives, knows, remembers, increases, opens, heals, help, forgives; blesses, provides, gives, saves, rescues, hears, loves, makes happy, enriches; the worshipper is El's son, his slave, his warrior, adherent, darling; El is his shepherd, his companion, his song6. The list is exhaustive, and reflects the importance and great age of the deity in question and by the time the tablets had been carved, the cult of El was evidently both huge and quite venerable. Many of El's characteristics are expressed in the form of epithets. One especially common theme of these epithets is of El in the guise of a creator god and father. At one point, for example, he is referred to as 'creator of all creatures', and at another, 'father of man'. On occasion, he is even known as 'father of the gods'. He is clearly designated as the patriarch of the pantheon of which he is head. Another series of epithets describe El as 'the ancient one' or 'eternal one'. In one text, for instance, it says 'indeed our creator is eternal/indeed ageless; he who formed us'. He is depicted with a grey beard and vast reserves of wisdom according to Athirat,
'Thou art great O El, verily thou art wise. Thy hoary beard indeed instructs thee' El is often seen holding court, surrounded by lesser gods and goddesses, who play the roles of courtiers. He sits on a throne, sometimes in the role of a judge, benign in character, adjudicating fairly, and with grace. The court is described in pleasant terms; the lyre is played, and the environs are not hostile. El is evidently a good and revered god. Other aspects of El include a powerful hunter and a vigorous and prodigiously lusty old man. This second category fits in with the idea of El as patriarch: a divine progenitor in ancient religions would surely be a promiscuous one. The passages in which this comes across are certainly vivid: one excerpt sees him conceive two sons at the same time by different concubines and fairly graphic language is used. Although Athirat is his favoured consort, she is by no means the only one.
El's Current Position
Although El is nominal head of the pantheon, there are some doubts as to El's status at the time the texts are written - it seems as though his sovereignty and potency are diminishing. There is one instance in which El shows weakness in front of messengers of Prince Sea. Though he is sitting at the head of a conclave of gods, and is apparently in charge, Baal is the only member of the pantheon present who does not perform an obeisance. The text breaks off before the episode concludes, but it is obvious that El is not master of the situation, and his power and control are hardly what we would expect of the ruler of the gods. Other instances of weakness in El's authority are extant, too, which could well mean that El's power is waning by the time the texts are inscribed.
Athirat is El's chief consort, and has an independent mythology of her own. It is she who supposedly mothered the rest of the gods with El. She appears in the Old Testament forty times, as a fertility goddess, a role from which she may have eventually been deposed by Anat in Ugaritic literature. She is much less significant than her husband, and her role is ambiguous. At times she is quite unfaithful to him, and quite unsympathetic towards him, his status and indeed his amorous advances. One instance which may point to inharmonious relations between them occurs when she enters El's abode in order to make a request on behalf of Baal, refuses his advances, and then leaves his presence. This is taken to mean that they are in some way estranged, though still cordial.
The Ugaritic texts are a fascinating insight into an ancient Near Eastern mythological tradition. They detail the rich religious culture of a small and now largely-forgotten city, and though this is interesting in its own right, the implications they hold for the interpretation of other religions cannot be understated either. There are distinct similarities between this culture and the myriad others that developed at a similar time throughout the ancient near-East; many of these are linked, and were borrowed or evolved from each other. Judaism is one such religion, and though it was a later developer, it still existed concurrently with the Ugaritic religion. No-one is sure as to how much influence the one mythology had on the other, but some similarities between El and Yahweh, and indeed Baal and Yahweh, are too marked to be coincidence. One must draw one's own conclusions as to the importance that this revelation might have.