The Afterlife of Baʿal

(or, What This Ugaritian Storm-God Looks Like Now Will Astound You!)

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Ba’al on a stele from Ugarit, now in the Louvre

 

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Reconstruction of the Temple of Ba’al on the acropolis of Ugarit. From Callot 2011

 

Ever since excavations began at the Syrian city of Ugarit in 1929, the importance of the god Baʿal has been clear. Among the first Ugaritic texts discovered at the site were mythological tablets recounting the legends of this god; Baʿal’s temple was excavated in prime position on the city’s acropolis, close to that of his father Dagan. While the supreme god El occupied the pinnacle of the Ugaritian pantheon, as more and more ritual and religious documents have been recovered from Ugarit, it’s become unquestionable that the city’s people felt a particular fondness and affinity for Baʿal, the archetypal king who had his palace on Mount Saphon overlooking the city.

But Baʿal was not solely an Ugaritian god and knowledge of him was far from lost with the destruction of the city around 1176 BC. Through the distorting filters of hostile Judaeo-Christian writings and the medieval and later traditions of demonology and the occult which reinterpreted them, Baʿal has enjoyed quite an afterlife which has taken him from Canaanite king and storm-god to lurid demon in the court of Satan. In this incarnation he’s spread through popular culture. It’s a massive amount of cultural baggage to have built up even before those first Ugaritic texts were discovered. Continue reading

Decorating Eggs in the Ancient World

It’s Easter! Which means everyone’s developed a bizarre preoccupation with eggs. How we chortle as adverts everywhere wheel out the same old egg-puns as if they’re the first to think of them. Egg-straordinary! Never mind; it means we get some chocolate. I’m particularly partial to Mini Eggs myself.

As you probably know, for many it’s traditional to paint and decorate eggs at Easter. Like many Christian festivals, there’s a healthy vestige of earlier practices in Easter, as the Church sought to appropriate and sanitise pagan spring fertility celebrations. The name Easter itself most likely derives from the Germanic goddess Ēastre, which in turn seems to come from the Proto-Indo-European word for dawn, and so is cognate with classical goddesses such as Eos or Aurora. So it’s no surprise to learn that decorating eggs is a practice with roots much older than Christianity. In fact we have painted eggs from the ancient Near East which date as far back as the third millennium BC.

How do egg-shells manage to survive for nearly five thousand years in the archaeological record?

Two answers. One: lots of them were found in tombs. Two: they used ostrich eggs.

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Minoan ostrich egg rhyton. Late Bronze Age

Continue reading

The Writing Systems of The Legend of Zelda

I wrote a little while ago about the storytelling of the Legend of Zelda games, flushed with excitement for the then-forthcoming latest instalment ‘Breath of the Wild’. Well, that came out five weeks ago now, and I’m still playing it. As anyone who’s glanced at a video games review site recently will know, it’s very, very good. At some point I’ll write something about the archaeology of Breath of the Wild, which I find fascinating, but for now I want to bring all this Zelda talk a bit closer to the day job and talk about writing systems.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the Zelda series has always placed game mechanics and fun over world-building and internal consistency. It’s largely eschewed the reams of invented lore that populate the bookshelves of other fantasy games, and it’s certainly not the kind of series that would bother itself with Tolkien-esque invention of fictional language. But, perhaps curiously, it has been very willing to experiment with inventing writing systems, and in true Zelda style there’s little consistency from one game to the next, which means it offers us some remarkable diversity. Continue reading

The first CREWS conference: Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets

Last week the CREWS Project held its first international conference. Read about it here!

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Last week the Faculty of Classics at the University of Cambridge played host to the CREWS Project’s first international conference, Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets.[1] This was a wonderful opportunity for us to bring together experts on ancient writing systems from around the world and discuss each other’s research.

As with all good academic conferences, despite having a unifying theme – early alphabets – the range of papers was extremely broad. We heard about writing systems from across thousands of years of history and thousands of miles, from the earliest probable alphabetic inscriptions from the Sinai peninsula or the Egyptian desert at Wadi el-Hol, through the Phoenician and Ugaritic alphabets of the Levant, to ancient Greece, Italy and Spain. We heard from epigraphers, linguists and archaeologists, and people who stand somewhere in between.

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Sock Puppets and Cult Leaders: The False Prophet Alexander

My friend Daniel has written an excellent post about the cult of Glycon, the ancient sock-puppet snake-god Abonoteichus. I highly recommend checking it out.

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Content warning:  Cults, Sexual Abuse, Snakes

One of the strangest stories from the ancient world comes from the pen of the Second Century CE writer Lucian of Samosata.  Lucian, a Greek-speaking Syrian, was part of the great flowering of Greek culture under the Roman Empire that we refer to as the Second Sophistic.  To generalize greatly, the Second Sophistic was characterised by great erudition, self-consciously elaborate language, and a playful attitude toward history, myth and literature.  Lucian is one of the most emblematic of this movement, and many of his works are wonderful examples of wit, learning and subtle self-parody.

The work I’m discussing today, though, is a bit more exotic.  Apparently at the request of a friend named Celsus, Lucian recounts the career of a notorious con-man who has become known as the False Prophet Alexander.  Combining stage-magic, razzmatazz and careful puppetry, this man briefly created a new religion,

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CREWS at the Cambridge Science Festival 2017!

I wrote a bit for the CREWS blog about the outreach event I attended for the Cambridge Science Festival.

UntitledIt’s been a busy week for the CREWS Project. We’ve just held our first conference – Understanding Relations Between Scripts II: Early Alphabets – which we’ll be writing more about soon, but before that, last weekend we took part in the Cambridge Science Festival at the McDonald Institute for Archaeological Research.

The Science Festival is a major event giving the public the chance to find out more about the research that goes on at Cambridge. There are countless talks and events all across the University, aimed at a broad range of audiences. In particular, the Science Festival attracts families and small children, so we were keen to be involved and to share our enthusiasm for ancient writing.

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