Review of N. Wyatt, Word of Tree and Whisper of Stone
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

N. Wyatt, Word of Tree and Whisper of Stone, and Other Papers on Ugaritian Thought (Gorgias Ugaritic Studies, 1; Piscataway NJ: Gorgias Press, 2007).  Pp. xv + 230.  Hardcover, US$90.00.  ISBN: 978-1-59333-716-2.


    This is the third volume of collected essays produced by this prolific scholar of Ugaritic and biblical studies. (There is a fourth in the works, entitled, The Archaeology of Myth. Papers on Old Testament Traditions.)  This particular volume is focused on information about religion in Ugaritic literary texts.  Among a number of contributions in this volume, Wyatt is to be credited for taking polytheism seriously.  This is often lacking in biblical studies and it is salutary to see Wyatt’s efforts in this direction put before the field in the context of a book.  Hopefully, this effort will receive the recognition that it deserves.

     The organization of the volume is chronological, in the order of the publication of the essays from 1992 to 2007.  The advantage of this approach is that it shows some progression in the author’s thought.  On the other hand, it yields a volume that begins with three short technical papers (essays #1-3), followed by three broader treatments of religion and epic (essays #4-6), followed then by two more technical studies (essays #7-8).  Furthermore, the two specific studies (essays #1 and #3) that relate to the text KTU 1.23 are separated in this arrangement, which are in turn separated from the discussion of 1.23 on pp. 110-11.  It might have been more user-friendly to have the general treatments of essays 4-6 begin the volume in order to provide a context for the more specific, opening studies into context. 

     The first essay is a technical study of šdmt in KTU 1.23.10, which Wyatt takes to mean “shoot.”  The etymology offered is said to be “dm, meaning that part of the plant which produces (causes to grow? A Š-stem formation?) the juice.”  This proposal is offered without supporting evidence, although the congruence with the related biblical šdmt term is explored.

     The second essay treats the titles of the god, Baal.  This survey is serviceable, and most of the results are fairly well known in Ugaritic studies.  Some conclusions have been disputed (e.g., hmlt as a divine title).  For a substantial treatment of divine titles, readers may consult the new, detailed study by Aicha Rahmouni, Divine Titles and Epithets in the Ugaritic Alphabetic Texts (trans. J. N. Ford; HdO I/93; Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2008).

     The third essay addresses KTU 1.23.8-11.  In particular, the picture of pruning of the figure of the figure named as Mt-w-Šr in these lines is for Wyatt an allusion to hieros gamos or sacred marriage.  Most scholars have taken the figure to be the god Mot (Death), whose name is spelled the same as the initial element of this binomial form.  The view that Wyatt promotes here is contingent on accepting his ideas about sacred marriage and on his identification of the figure not as Mot, but as El.  However, the evidence for sacred marriage at Ugaritic is weak at best, and between the similarity of the names and the destructive character of the figure described in this passage, the god of Death seems a better candidate for this context.

     The fourth essay deals with what Wyatt calls “Structure and Dynamic in a West Semitic Pantheon.”  This is arguably the most engaging and important essay in the volume, in particular for its effort to understand polytheism.  It also offers speculations that are considered “possible.”  For example, Wyatt (p. 61 n. 32) connects the name of Yahweh, the form yw in KYU 1.1 IV 14, and the old Vedic sky-god Dyaus and Greek Zeus and Germanic Tiw (also Tyr).  This particular instance combines a number of links.  Wyatt does not address the issue of evidence for linking Yahweh and yw, or what other scholars have said about this matter.  The further connection with the Indo-European evidence is given the same level of argumentation and evidence.  This is fine for readers familiar with the evidence and the issues, but this not the case for readers not conversant with the issues.  Another problem that readers may have with this essay is its psychology of religious origins.  Wyatt speculates about the origins of religious imagery in terms of the psychological development of “infantile consciousness” (p. 60).  This sort of notion needs to be worked out in considerable depth and discussion, but what we have here is a general discussion.  This approach has a long modern history (one of its most eloquent expressions was Erich Neumann’s Origins and History of Consciousnsess, which applied the theory of his teacher, Carl Jung, to “primitive societies”).  This would all be well worth a long hard look accompanied by a critical discussion.  Despite such caveats, the survey of the Ugaritic evidence for groupings of deities and deity-lists is serviceable.

     The fifth essay involves an overview of religion at Ugarit.   Like the fourth piece, this one provides a broad and rich survey of religious thought and expression.  Topics include cosmology, directional orientation, the nature of the pantheon, and the character of individual deities. Wyatt’s commentary indicates a serious consideration of ancient polytheistic divinity.  At times, the discussion veers into speculation lacking in evidence (e.g., the androgynous character of El on p. 99).  Overall, though, the discussion gives food for thought.

     The sixth essay discusses the question of epic in Ugaritic literature.  He claims that the literary texts of Baal, Kirta and Aqhat are not myths but mythic, “since each moves in a world peopled either exclusively by gods …or has gods and men interacting in a matter-of-fact fashion” (p. 144).  It is not clear why the adjective, ”mythic,” fits but the noun, “myth,” does not, and Wyatt does not say why.  He also regards all three as “epic,” “based on a minimalist view of epic as heroic and ideological narrative, generally poetic in form, which seeks to promote the identity, values and concerns of a culture, and perhaps specifically of the ruling classes within a community” (p. 144)  For many critics, epic also has a connotation of length (as in an “epic story”), as reflected in some of the epics that Wyatt discusses here (such as the Iliad and the Odyssey), but this aspect of epic is not raised.  The discussion then moves to a survey of the three narratives and closes with a discussion of the scribe Ilimilku.  Wyatt favors a rather considerable role for this scribe in shaping these three texts as we now have them, and he suggests a royal wedding as the occasion for the composition of the middle two tablets of the Baal Cycle.  This string of assumptions is interesting.

     The seventh essay treats a curse from KTU 1.2 IV 7-19 paralleled by 1.16 VI 55-58.  Wyatt sees in this curse involving the god Horon a “quasi-cultic and ideological dimension” (p. 158) in the curse formulary in these two contexts.  He ties these expressions to the smiting ritual of kings, as found in Egyptian contexts.  He also associates the Egyptian god Horus with Horon, which leads to a discussion of Horus in Egyptian material.  With this background about Horus, Wyatt returns to the Ugaritic curse formula and reads it in light of the Egyptian material that he surveys.  The series of posited linkages exceeds the evidence, yet such an expansive exploration is valuable for broadening the horizons of the field.

     The eighth and final essay is the essay that gives the better part of the title to the volume.  It comes from a beautiful passage of the Baal Cycle, and it expresses many rich resonances, including an oracular one.  This is quite right, and it has been broached by other scholars.  See, for example, S. OBryhim, “A New Interpretation of Hesiod, ‘Theogony’ 35,” Hermes 124 (1996) 131-39.  Wyatt treats the blessing in Kirta (1.15 II 16 – III 16) as an “oracle narrative.”  It has been generally regarded as a blessing, and its treatment as oracular material is offered as a given.

     The volume closes with a considerable bibliography and an index of subjects.  It is easy to be critical of the volume for its speculations, in many instances involving the backgrounds of texts.  At the same time, the volume is informed by considerable learning.  Without getting locked into large reconstructions that lack for evidence, the field will need to continue to be open to such possibilities as new evidence appears.  For his serious consideration of the living realities behind the Ugaritic texts, the field is in Wyatt’s debt.  For serious students who can handle the Ugaritic evidence, this book is worth reading.

Mark S. Smith
New York University