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Understanding The Canaanite Poem of Baal

Understanding The Canaanite Poem of Baal can be difficult. T.H. Gaster, however, simplifies the poem and provides an excellent literary allegory of the seasons which follows the sequence model of the Canaanite Ritual Pattern.

“The Canaanite Poem of Baal” taken from T.H. Gaster’s Thespis, includes two main sections. The first section contains a synopsis of the poem and the second an interpretation. In his synopsis of the poem Gaster provides a very modern and easy to follow summary of the events that transpire throughout the text. He moves through the lines of the work in a very systematic way, interspersing summary with notes on the condition and availability of the primary sources. He also provides ample notation on points in the poetry that, according to him, have previous been translated incorrectly. Overall, his synopsis is as complete as the primary sources will allow and through enough to establish a basis from which he can move into the main point of his article, which is the interpretation of the Canaanite text.

In the interpretation section of the article Gaster moves from the idle role of narrator to the active role of interpreter and literary critic. According to the author the Poem of Baal is a nature myth, not a simple story about quarreling gods as other’s have previously thought it to be. In fact, for Gaster, the poem is a literary allegory of the seasons which follows the sequence model of the Canaanite Ritual Pattern. The first, and larger, part of the interpretation is spent dissecting the text as a nature poem focused on the alternation of the seasons. Gaster assigns each of the deities represented in the poem with a corresponding “natural” identity. For example, Baal is associated with rain, Yam, the sea, Mot, death, and so on. He provides through textual evidence to support these associations and then, makes brief allusion to the similarities between the gods of this poem and those of classical Greek mythology in an effort to further cement the relationship he makes between the gods and nature.

The second part of the interpretation focuses on delineating the parallels between the Ritual Pattern and the layout of the poem. Gaster moves through this process by associating each separate tablet of the Canaanite text with the distinctive movements of the Ritual Pattern.

Analysis

T.H. Gaster’s article “The Canaanite Poem of Baal” provides a closer textual analysis of an original primary source in a way that Stiebing does not. Gaster’s reading of the Poem of Baal is very insightful and would be very useful in augmenting any description of ancient Canaanite religious beliefs or practices. Often scholars, Stiebing among them, will simply offer the English translation of an ancient text and expect the student or layperson to understand what is being said. However, while an English translation obviously is easier to understand than reading the original language, often the meaning of the text is hard to decipher due to the differences that arise in literary expressions and devices when providing a direct translation. The synopsis that Gaster gives on the poem is very enlightening and helpful for the student because it “translates” the original primary source into a modern, and easily understood, English.

Furthermore, the analytical approach to introducing the reader to the values of the Canaanites differs from the way in which Stiebing describes these same values. Stiebing simply states the beliefs of the ancient Canaanites, providing relatively little evidence to how he arrived at those conclusions. Gaster’s interpretation of the poem, however, is just as educational as Stiebing’s effort, yet the manner in which Gaster interacts with the text, pointing to specific references within the poem, also helps demonstrate to the student how modern scholars treat an ancient literary text in order to elucidate meaning from what might otherwise appear to be a simple story about quarreling gods.

Thus, Gaster’s article is helpful to the student because it augments general statements about Canaanite poetry and religion that are found in Stiebing’s book with a clear easily understood synopsis of an actual ancient Canaanite source, and because it demonstrates to the student the manner in which modern scholars engage with ancient sources in order to understand and learn more about the creators of those sources. It would be very beneficial for the student and prudent of Steibing if he was to include, even as an appendix, an article such as Gaster’s which demonstrates the scholarly process of extracting meaning form ancient sources.

Sources:

Gaster, T.H. "The Canaanite Poem of Baal"

Stiebing, William H. "Ancient Near Eastern History and Culture"

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