Tuesday, May 19, 2015


Gregorio del Olmo Lete, Incantations and Anti-Witchcraft Texts from Ugarit. Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Records (SANER), 4. Boston; Berlin: De Gruyter, 2014. Pp. vii, 254, 23 p. of plates. ISBN 9781614516279. €99.95.

Reviewed by Bronson Brown-deVost, Brandeis University (bronson@brandeis.edu)

Version at BMCR home site

The remains of Ugaritic literature furnish a rich source for understanding the small but influential Mediterranean village of Ugarit in the late second millennium B.C.E. While one may think immediately of the colorful mythological narratives or even the cultic texts in this regard,1 del Olmo Lete tackles here the less well understood issue of magic at Ugarit.

A comprehensive study of anti-witchcraft literature from Ugarit, both in narrative settings and in stand alone rituals, forms the primary basis for del Olmo Lete's approach to the topic. del Olmo Lete presents transliterations, translations, and discussions of nearly all anti-witchcraft incantations uncovered at Ugarit. This includes texts in the native Ugaritic language as well as Mesopotamian texts in the Akkadian and Sumerian languages (the Mesopotamian texts were prepared by Ignacio Márquez Rowe and receive less discussion than the Ugaritic ones).

del Olmo Lete efficiently defends his selection of KTU 1.82, 96, 100, 107, 169, 178, and possibly 1.179 as valid exemplars of Ugaritic incantation texts, and refutes, often summarily, such a classification for a number of other proposed incantations (KTU 1.12, 13, 20–22, 23, 24, 65, 75, 83, 86, 93, 108, 113, 114, 124, 2.31, 5.2, and 7.5). Classical scholars may find it of interest that del Olmo Lete does not see a hydrophory ritual in KTU 1.12, though he does appear to favor a Near Eastern origin for such rituals in the Hellenistic world (pp. 83–4).

The book opens with a lengthy introduction on magic, and its nature in Ugarit (especially in comparison to magic in Mesopotamia). Much of this is predicated on a problematic opposition between black and white magic—a problem del Olmo Lete is apparently aware of (p. 4, n. 19). Thus, he maintains a distinction between "moralized magic" of the cult and "the actual practice of magic," which is "in some sense amoral, if not immoral" (pp. 13–14). In many ways, interested readers would do well to familiarize themselves especially with the works of Cunningham and Abusch that largely form the bedrock of del Olmo Lete's discussion. I would also note that the references to Akkadian ritual and incantation texts on page 1 (note 2) may be confusing to the non-specialist: Namburbi rituals are not anti-witchcraft, they are intended to counteract the portents of ill-omens; Ušburuda is not a type of bad witchcraft, rather the term is a designation for certain rituals and incantations that counteract witchcraft.

del Olmo Lete proposes that Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft literature, with its common recourse to various deities, exerted a strong influence on the role of the Ugaritian pantheon in dealing with harmful magics. He argues that magic at Ugarit was originally atheistic (p. 205), which explains why even the high god ʾIlu lacked the ability to undo the witchcraft of the snakebite in KTU 1.100 or to personally cure king Kirta's illness in KTU 1.16 V 10–22, though ʾIlu could "set in motion the force of magic" (p. 20). In order shift control of magic into the divine sphere, del Olmo Lete proposes that a proper god of magic, Ḥôrānu, was introduced into the Ugaritic pantheon. In this way, the Ugaritians would have acquired their own equivalent to Mesopotamian Asalluḫi or Marduk, son(s) of Ea and lord(s) of magic and incantation.

The result of integrating this outsider, Ḥôrānu, into the pantheon is a complex set of relationships between him, his consort ʾum pḥl pḥlt or ʾušḫry (?), and the other deities involved in magic: ʾIlu, Šapšu, and Baʿlu. Using such texts as KTU 1.82, 100, 107, and 169, del Olmo Lete attempts to present a schema of the relationships between Ugaritian gods of magic that resembles the Mesopotamian system, but he is ultimately forced to admit that those two systems are not entirely parallel and that the Ugaritian schema itself is not entirely consistent (pp. 32–3).

del Olmo Lete also turns to Mesopotamian evidence for help in defining some of the human agents involved with magic at Ugarit: kšp "sorceror" = Akkadian kaššāpu, dbb "adversary" = Akkadian dābibu and bēl dabābi (it is not clear to me how his dbb "foul-mouthed" fits into this comparison). But he also uses the Ugaritic textual and archaeological data to define native terms, most notably khn "diviner," which he relates to the the Arabic word kāhin-.

Perhaps most fruitful is del Olmo Lete's usage of Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft literature to explain the form and nature of Ugaritic incantation texts. This comparison has aided in the decipherment of some of the more damaged or poorly understood Ugaritic texts (e.g., KTU 1.179 and the famous KTU 1.96). The Ugaritic texts do imitate Babylonian ones in several respects, using similar motifs and formulae. Furthermore, del Olmo Lete notes that the presence of an Akkadian lexical list on the reverse of KTU 1.96, which he reads as an incantation against the evil eye, underscores the close proximity of Mesopotamian and Ugaritic literature in the scribal training at Ugarit, and may even suggest an Akkadian background for the evil eye incantation in KTU 1.96.

I do wonder at the double treatment of KTU 1.96 (once on pp. 129–39 and "once again" on pp. 140–56); an integrated presentation would have been simpler. The second treatment deals extensively with the previous literature, and ends up being largely a rebuttal of Tarahazi's recent work on the text. The close reading of this and other texts in the book benefit greatly from del Olmo Lete's mastery of comparative Semitics and his thoughtful and nuanced approach towards lexicography. One innovation in this respect is his understanding of Ugaritic bṯy(t), which he proposes is etymologically related to Ethiopic (Geʿez) budā "one who causes harm by means of the evil eye," (Tigre) bozzay "magician" (and also the C-stem verb ʾabzaza "to stare [with one's eyes wide open]"); a very tantalizing and apt proposal. The proto-Semitic (ps) root of the word would most likely be bḏy; the shift of ps / ḏ/ to /z/ in Ethiopic is well attested, but should result in or d in Ugaritic, as del Olmo Lete notes. Nevertheless he offers the well-known ṯd/ḏd/zd "breast" as support for the phonetic realization of ps /ḏ/ > in Ugaritic; this is possible, but ṯd/ḏd/zd is likely the result of babble talk and the three realizations may not properly be the result of established phonetic shifts (cf. Hebrew dad, šad, but zîz, with a different vowel).

In general I prefer to see s1 (/š/), s2 (/ś/), and s3 (/s/ or better /ts/) in linguistic discussions of the Semitic sibilants. This would help prevent confusing arguments such as the "Ugaritic-Ethiopic isogloss ṯʕy // šwʕ" (p. 139), which del Olmo Lete presents as a parallel of "the supposed /ḏ/ > /š/ shift" (p. 139 n. 56), even though the above cited isogloss is really a rare example of /ṯ/ > s2 (with s1 /š/ as an intermediary?), for š in Classical Ethiopic (Geʿez) is s2 (i.e., the so-called lateral fricative /ś/; so Renfroe, as cited in the note).

As regards the second -n of ʕnn in KTU 1.96 line 1 (p. 143), I am unsure that the complicated discussion in note 15 is necessary or correct; the use of -n as a determiner/deictic is common in ESA. (One may also note that the odd ESA verbal form yknnn [root kwn, CIS IV 609:5] may provide an analogous orthography to the suffix -nnn found in RS 15.174:17 and RS 1.026+:12 = KTU 2.7; in both cases only one or two sets of geminate n's are anticipated, not three).

Unfortunately, the text suffers from numerous typos—too many to be listed here—I offer only a few of the more important examples: kispu for kišpu (p. 1); šỉmtu for šimtu (p. 2, n. 4); the sentence "From ... supremacy" (p. 15) is mangled and now a fragment; ṣu-bur-ri in RS 17.155 obv. 41 (p. 50) should be šu-bur-ri; the line numbering is off for the translation of RS 17.155 obv. 30–32 (p. 53); ušn in KTU 1.40 line 28 for ủ šn (p. 107); tšsy for tššy (p. 118 n. 40); 2kysmsm for 3kysmsm (p. 130); ina bi-rit ŠEŠ.MEŠ (p. 144, n. 16) should be ina bi-rit ŠEŠ.MEŠ DUG3.MEŠ; in the transliteration for KTU 1.107 (pp. 159–162) missing r at beginning of line 2, at end of line 18 kʕn should be kpʕn, beginning of line 39 [bʕl. should be [bʕl.], in line 45 lp[. should be lp[.]; del Olmo Lete notes that Pardee omitted the dividing line between lines 14 and 15 of KTU 1.107 (p. 163, n. 21), the dividing line is also absent in del Olmo Lete's edition (p. 160); 2ʕṣ for 3ʕṣ (p. 173). The representation of and is problematic throughout the book: nḫš for nḥš (p. 159, KTU 1.107 l. 5) and nḫš ʕảqšr for nḥš ʕảqšr in the index; ḥph for ḫph (p. 160, KTU 1.107 l. 32); šḥr for šḥr (p. 160, KTU 1.107 l. 43); yḫr<n> for yḥr<n> (p. 196, KTU 1.100 l. 73) and elsewhere with in the DN Ḥôrānu. Sometimes the index is incorrect (no reference to Hebrew ˀefod on p. 100).

Several issues arise with the translations of Ugaritic and Akkadian texts: "penetrate" seems inappropriate for Ug. tbủ on p. 20; y.mt.mt in KTU 1.23 line 45 is translated "Oh, father, father!" (p. 22), it should be "Oh man, man!" (also remove comma after "Oh" here and in l. 42); tql in KTU 1.19 II 35 is translated "he fell" (p. 25), it should be "she fell;" a-mat-[ki in RS 25.420+ iii 22' should be translated "[your] word" not "[your] spittle" (= imat[ki) (p. 44); gim.me.en in RS 17.155 obv. 6 occurs twice but is translated only once (p. 52); missing translation for [mim]ma sakkigâ kuššid in RS 17.155 obv. 15 (p. 53), it is "remove [an]y head disease;" the reconstructed line 14 of KTU 1.96 (p. 130) should be translated "[Incantation against the restless eye (or) evil-doer/sorcerer(?)];" "approached" for ủqrb in KTU 1.169 line 5 (p. 167) should be D-stem "brought near." The Assyriologist may find qi2-e2 to be an odd transliteration in RS 25.420+ iii 19' (p. 40) and RS 17.155 obv. 14 (p. 49), qi2-bit would have been simpler.

I can't help but wonder why del Olmo Lete did not use the Arslan Tash amulet inscriptions in some of his discussion. The first amulet makes mention of Baʿal and Ḥôrānu (ḥwrn) together in a prophylactic context, suggesting the association of these two deities for anti-witchcraft purposes beyond Ugarit. The first amulet also contains a parallel to KTU 1.96: bt ʾbʾ bl tbʾn (KAI 27 ll. 5–6) = bt.ủbủ.ảl.tbỉ (KTU 169:16); such phrases are common in Mesopotamian incantations (see, e.g., Tummu bītu). What is more, the "eye" (ʿyn) figures largely in the second amulet, and may provide some clues to wider ancient Northwest Semitic evil eye traditions.

del Olmo Lete is to be commended for making this volume available to a wide audience in the English language, and the infelicities due to translation from Spanish can easily be overlooked (e.g., "/ḏ/ y /d/" for "/ḏ/ and /d/" on p. 139, and numerous other odd phrases throughout). The several references to Spanish language are colorful, and in the case of alcabalero (p. 154, n. 54) particularly enlightening.

The book is accompanied by hand copies of the Ugaritic texts (by Lluis Feliu) and by photos of the Akkadian and Ugaritic texts (by Faansa Saad and Dibbo ed-Dibbo). The process of photographing with ammonium chloride powder indeed provides an image generally superior to physical inspection of the tablet itself (let alone copies by hand).

The discussion of Ugaritic texts in this volume is exemplary, insightful, and thought provoking. del Olmo Lete is to be commended for bringing Mesopotamian anti-witchcraft literature to bear on the interpretation of Ugaritic incantations, and with this work he opens a much needed and welcome discussion of magic in Ugarit.


1.   For collections of these texts, see especially N. Wyatt, Religious Texts from Ugarit, 2nd rev. ed., The Biblical Seminar 53, Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 2002, S. Parker ed., Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, SBL Writings from the Ancient World 9, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997, D. Pardee, Les Textes Rituels, 2 vols., Ras Shamra-Ougarit 12, Paris: Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations, 2000, and idem, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit, Writings from the Ancient World 10, Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.

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