The Hunt – Feasting at Ugarit

Helen Hollick Blog Hop LogoIt’s my pleasure today to be taking part in Helen Hollick’s Christmas Party blog hop. Although this was originally focused on Christmas celebrations, several participants, including me, write about places and times where Christmas is unknown. Scroll to the end of the post for the complete list of participants and blog links.

So after casting about for a few culturally-appropriate festivals, I decided to go with an Ugaritic festival, The Hunt. This is suited to the work-in-progress The Flame Before Us, due to be released early next year.

Of course hunting of itself was a regular part of life in the Levant, and much of the time had no particular religious angle. But it seems, from occasional textual mentions and a certain amount of interpretation of archaeology, that from time to time this ordinary secular pursuit was elevated into a sacred ceremony. The perhaps tenuous connection with Christmas is that here in the UK, there has been for many years a custom for landowners to ride out fox hunting over the Christmas holiday. This is typically regarded as senseless and brutal by city dwellers, but is still popular in many rural areas, where it is seen as an essential part of community life and wildlife husbandry. By law nowadays it has been watered down to a less violent version where foxes do not in fact get killed, and a lure rather than a wild animal is pursued. Such measures would be unthinkable in ancient Ugarit.

One of the Ugaritic texts alluding to this idea of The Hunt is The Birth of the Gracious Gods. In one part of this, the goddesses Athirat and Rahmay go out from the presence of the chief god El in order to hunt. The goddess Anat has a hunting bow which features strongly in some other stories. Gods got involved as well as goddesses – usually what one might call “second tier” rather than centrally important deities. Similar ideas are found in texts from other Bronze Age locations in the Levant and Mesopotamia – and indeed across in ancient Greece a little later.

To appreciate the role of The Hunt, a basic threefold division of terrain must be understood. There are populated settlements – cities, towns, and the daughter villages linked to these. A high proportion of the religious literature which has survived focuses on urban life and urban worship. Around these places was the sown land – not just planted fields, but also pastures for flocks. These were regarded as part of a town’s territory and (by and large) were clear of dangerous predators and wild game. Outside that again was the wilderness. This was the province of the wild things.

Our textual record of religious actions to do with the sown land and the wilderness is scant. We are told of sacred processions which go out from the town into these peripheral areas, lay symbolic claim to them, and then return. And the offerings which are recorded are often typical of the zones concerned – dairy produce or domesticated animals on the one hand, and wild animal sacrifices on the other.

The sacred dimension of The Hunt has to be understood from this perspective. Men went out from their homes into the unknown wild places, and, if skill and divine favour coincided, came back again with bounty. Archaeology loosely supports the idea that The Hunt could have a sacred dimension – we find places where considerable numbers of wild animal bones – deer, gazelle, mountain goat, and so on – are found in clusters around altar sites. In terms of the overall diet, such wild food forms a relatively small component, so these finds suggest that from time to time these animals formed part of religious ceremonies.

It may be important that the law code in the biblical book of Deuteronomy specifically allows slaughter of undomesticated animals outside the system controlled by the priesthood – perhaps recognising not only the food value but also a long-standing custom of informal sacred observance. If so, then the practice seems to have attracted the criticism of later – and generally stricter – generations of priests, and the practice is scarcely mentioned favourably in later books. Perhaps the patriarchal story of Jacob and Esau remembers something of this; Jacob is at home in the domesticated world of the sown land, while his brother Esau delights in the wilderness – The Hunt.

Back at Ugarit, we do not know how often, or by whom, The Hunt was celebrated. In The Flame Before Us, I have taken the narrative liberty of assuming that it was not just for the elite, but a male pursuit shared across a broad social range. This would make it loosely analogous to watching sport today, which cuts right across other measures of status and rank. So here following are a selection of extracts from one strand of The Flame Before Us, scattered through the book.

LampTadugari is a high-ranking Ugaritic official, currently a refugee with his wife Anilat and the rest of their family following the sack of their city. Khuratsanitu is a personal guard.

Tadugari turned back again to look downhill. Little eddies of onshore breeze stirred the cloud bank, allowed glimpses of the sea beyond the city. At this distance it looked calm, placid. He wore a confused, haggard expression.

“It was to be the hunt tomorrow. One of the king’s own sons wanted me to ride beside him on the chase, and sit beside him at the feast. I won’t be able to do that now. How will I earn his favour again now that I ran away?”

Anilat stared at him in disbelief, and her voice sharpened in anger.

“How can you be thinking of the hunt? My city is ruined. My mother died, and her body was treated vilely before my eyes. My brother and sister are gone, and I have to believe them dead. Out of all this I have my own three children, and my brother’s two. And all you can talk about is missing the hunt?”

He hunched down under the torrent of words and said nothing. She looked around in exasperation. The hillsides around the hut were empty and desolate, and the west was shrouded and gloomy. It was a bitter place.

Ahead of them Anilat could hear the two men talking. Tadugari was once again lamenting the hunt that he would not be able to join. Her thoughts filled briefly with a burning rage: was there nothing else to talk about?

To her surprise, though, it seemed that Khuratsanitu had also been a regular participant. The common soldiers apparently had their own part in it alongside the nobility, and all shared alike in the drinking afterwards, regardless of rank. The anxiety that had been building within her for several days suddenly burst out.

[“Should we not stay in Shalem rather than go on further?”]

“The Mitsriy land is good. But the journey to reach it can be desolate and harsh, depending which way we choose. I hope it does not come to that; better by far to find that Shalem is the safe harbour that we have been looking for all this time.”

“Sir, look, they still have the hunt in the Kinahny lands. You have often spoken of how you missed it: you could enjoy it again here. I do not think the Mitsriy have it, though. I hear they snare fish and birds, rather than hunt wild beasts.”

“Their great kings boast of the hunt. But I have not heard that others in their land go out like that. But see, you and I could enjoy it together again: it would not be me alone.”

“Then, sir, would it be so bad to stay among the Kinahny? Their ways are more like ours than those of the Mitsriy. You would find a place among the nobility here; I could serve with their guardsmen. Should we stop here rather than continue south? Surely it is a long way yet if we kept going.”

Other participants are listed below… please follow the links and check them out! Please note also that some items may not be accessible until Saturday 20th December so be patient.. there is some great holiday reading here.

Thank you for joining our party now follow on to the next enjoyable entertainment…

1. Helen Hollick : “You are Cordially Invited to a Ball (plus a giveaway prize) –
2. Alison Morton : “Saturnalia surprise – a winter party tale (plus a giveaway prize) –
3. Andrea Zuvich : No Christmas For You! The Holiday Under Cromwell
4. Ann Swinfen : Christmas 1586 – Burbage’s Company of Players Celebrates
5. Anna Belfrage : All I want for Christmas
6. Carol Cooper : How To Be A Party Animal
7. Clare Flynn : A German American Christmas
8. Debbie Young : Good Christmas Housekeeping (plus a giveaway prize) –
9. Derek Birks : The Lord of Misrule – A Medieval Christmas Recipe for Trouble
10. Edward James : An Accidental Virgin and An Uninvited Guest and –
11. Fenella J. Miller : Christmas on the Home front (plus a giveaway prize) –
12. J. L. Oakley : Christmas Time in the Mountains 1907 (plus a giveaway prize) –
13. Jude Knight : Christmas at Avery Hall in the Year of Our Lord 1804
14. Julian Stockwin: Join the Party
15. Juliet Greenwood : Christmas 1914 on the Home Front (plus a giveaway) –
16. Lauren Johnson : “Farewell Advent, Christmas is come” – Early Tudor Festive Feasts
17. Lucienne Boyce : A Victory Celebration
18. Nancy Bilyeau : Christmas After the Priory (plus a giveaway prize) –
19. Nicola Moxey : The Feast of the Epiphany, 1182
20. Peter St John: Dummy’s Birthday
21. Regina Jeffers : Celebrating a Regency Christmas (plus a giveaway prize) –
22. Richard Abbott : The Hunt – Feasting at Ugarit
23. Saralee Etter : Christmas Pudding — Part of the Christmas Feast
24. Stephen Oram : Living in your dystopia: you need a festival of enhancement… (plus a giveaway prize) –
25. Suzanne Adair :The British Legion Parties Down for Yule 1780 (plus a giveaway prize) –
26. Lindsay Downs : O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree​

Thank you for joining us – please read, enjoy, and leave comments to encourage all the participants!


28 thoughts on “The Hunt – Feasting at Ugarit

  1. Pingback: Christmas Time in the Mountains 1907 | JL Oakley Author of Historical Fiction

  2. Thanks Ann. The Phoenicians were around in “my” Late Bronze period, and the current plans for another novel include them. But you are right, Jezebel belongs to the Iron Age and has her own interesting story to tell – her age was a fascinating one of political and religious interplay among the little kingdoms which filled the relative vacuum left after the Bronze Age collapsed. Jezebel has been tackled by other authors but not (to my perhaps rather specialised eyes) very convincingly. It would be great to read your own treatment of her as and when you finish the novel!

  3. I found this particularly interesting, Richard, because I’ve done research into a slightly later period in a nearby region, Phoenicia. I have a novel in draft about the real Jezebel, who was a Phoenician princess and not at all the monster depicted in the Old Testament. One of these days I’ll finish it, because it’s high time she was rehabilitated. It’s often awe-inspiring, isn’t it?, just how advanced these very ancient civilisations were. Great post!

  4. That’s right Alison, on the coast of what is now Syria. The main trading routes from which the city earned wealth were north/south between the Hittites and Egyptians, and also across the sea to Cyprus, Crete etc.

  5. Thank you for a reminder of the Ugarit. Somewhere, in the back of my brain lurks some information about this early civilisation – It was based on the Mediterranean coast and a trading seaport, if I remember correctly.

    The hunt was a big deal in many civilisations – the proving ground/acquisition of status/religious ritual – and as you say is now diminished as a ritual in the UK. But I wonder if it’s been replaced by the hunt for status in other ways – wealth/political power/influence?

  6. My pleasure Andrea, Ugarit deserves to be better known for its own right, and also as one means by which ancient near eastern thought contributed to Greek and later Roman classical myth and story-telling

  7. It was lost to the world from soon after 1200BC through until 1929 when rediscovered by chance, Lauren, so a lot of people are not familiar with the city. Between those times it was indirectly known through Egyptian and other texts, but the location was a mystery. Since then both the written and archaeological finds there have revolutionsed some aspects of near eastern and biblical studies.
    The c.1200BC destruction was in the aftermath of the sack of Troy, as some of the attackers continued on round the eastern Med creating havoc as they went. This period is the setting for my forthcoming book, The Flame Before Us (from which the extracts were taken).

  8. This is all new to me, and completely fascinating! Thanks for introducing me to a civilization I’d yet to encounter.

  9. Pingback: How to Be a Party Animal | Pills & Pillow-Talk

  10. Pingback: Celebrating a Regency Era Christmas on the Christmas Party Blog Hop + a Giveaway of “Christmas at Pemberley” | ReginaJeffers's Blog

  11. Pingback: Christmas 1914 on the Home Front | Juliet Greenwood

  12. Thanks Celia, the names are all period-authentic – one difficulty is finding a name which not only works for the place and time, but also is reasonably easy to pronounce for a modern readership

  13. A really fascinating article, giving a fresh perspective on sacred celebrations and the Hunt. Images of going forth into the wilderness are very powerful and evocative, and it’s easy to see why your character feels the loss so keenly!

  14. Pingback: Good Christmas Housekeeping | Debbie Young's Writing Life

  15. Pingback: Christmas at Avery Hall in the Year of Our Lord 1804 |

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