Under-Appreciated Monsters of the Ancient World #2 – The Devourers

louvre-stele-quotbaal-foudrequot_0It’s time for another under-appreciated ancient monster from antiquity – or rather multiple monsters – because today we’re looking at the Devourers (ʾaklm), demons from Ugaritian mythology who faced off against Baʿal Hadad, the storm-god and patron deity of the city. Unfortunately no pictures of the Devourers exist, so I’ve had to make do with this image of Baʿal himself, on a stele from Ugarit and now in the Louvre.

We’re very lucky to have a fairly good range of literary, religious and mythological texts from Ugarit, many of which come from the library of the house of the High Priest on the city’s acropolis, between the temples of Baʿal, , and his father Dagan, an important but enigmatic deity whose exact nature remains unclear, but who may be familiar to non-academic readers of this blog from his latter-career success as part of H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos.

Some of the most important mythological texts from Ugarit concern Baʿal. As well as being extremely valuable insights into the beliefs and religion of the city, these texts also tell us a great deal about Ugaritian political philosophy since they revolve around the theme of kingship, with the divine Baʿal serving as a model and prototype for earthly rulers. They also end up having a major bearing on when we date the Ugaritic writing system to, since the main tablets of the Baʿal Cycle are signed by the scribe Ilimilku, who says he is writing during the reign of king Niqmaddu. An important debate is whether this is the same Ilimilku who seems to have served as a scribe near the end of Ugarit’s existence, and whether the king is Niqmaddu II or III, and thus whether the Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform script was a relatively late development, coming in the 13th century BC, not long before Ugarit’s destruction, or whether it existed back in the 14th century BC.

Those are questions I’ll be addressing in my academic research. For now, I’m interested in another Baʿal story, from outside the six principal tablets. In KTU 1.12, two divine handmaidens come to the supreme god El to complain that something is eating them from within. El sends them into the wilderness to give birth to the demoniac creatures inside them: the Devourers and Rippers:

“…Our liver, El, our father,

Our liver they eat like fire,

Our breast they bite like …”

 

El laughs in his heart,

Quivers and shakes in his liver:

“Out you go,

Tulisha, maid ofYarikh,

Damgaya, maid of Athirat;

Take your stool, your satchel, your swaddle.

Off into the woods of TKM,

Into the god-awful wilderness.

Dig, maid, the dust,

with strong hand, the fields.

Writhe, give birth to the Devourers – may they bring you to your knees!

Give birth to the Rippers – may the gods name them!

They will have horns like oxen,

Bulk like that of bullocks;

They will have the face of Baal.”

 

Baal roams around hunting,

Prowls the edge of the wilderness,

That he might reach the Devourers,

That he might meet the Rippers.

Baal is intensely intent on them,

The son of Dagan fixed on them.

Baal seeks them on foot,

Hadad the god …

 

KTU 1.12 Column 1. Translation adapted from Parker 1997.[1]

 

The description is vivid – horned, bull-like creatures bearing the face of Baʿal, that are born from unsuspecting women in a strikingly nasty bit of ancient body-horror. DeMoor[2] interprets the passage as El dispatching the creatures specifically to attack Baʿal, with them having his face ‘probably to allure him’. How alluring you or I would find several murderous bull-creatures bearing our faces is an open question, but Baʿal always did have a bit of a thing for cattle. Regardless, we can add ‘wearing the faces of their prospective victims’ to the list of the Devourers’ charming characteristics.

Sadly, the section of KTU 1.12 dealing with the encounter between Baʿal and the Devourers is missing; all that remains is the aftermath. We do, however, encounter the Devourers again in a few other texts. KTU 1.07 offers an incantation to the Sun-god asking for protection from these creatures, among others – suggesting they were creatures of the night:

Collect, Shapash, the fog from the mountains!

Be strong on earth, collect the poison!

From the mouth of the Biter the destruction,

from the mouth of the Devourer the devastation snatch away!

 

KTU 1.07. Translation adapted from DeMoor 1981-2.

From KTU 1.85 we also know what the Devourers got up to when they weren’t after Baʿal. This is a veterinary text describing what to do if the Devourers are attacking your horse. It’s not entirely clear that these are the same monsters rather than some more conventional parasite, but it’s tempting to imagine these creatures engaging in a bit of chupacabra-style livestock-bothering on the side.

[1] ‘The Wilderness’ by Simon Parker, in Parker, S. (ed.) Ugaritic Narrative Poetry 188ff (1997)
[2] ‘Demons in Canaan’ by Johannes C. De Moor, in Jaarbericht Ex Oriente Lux 27, (1981-2).

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