Unsettling Sovereignty: Politics and Poetics in the Baal Cycle

By Bodin, Jean | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, July-September 2012 | Go to article overview

Unsettling Sovereignty: Politics and Poetics in the Baal Cycle


Bodin, Jean, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Cosmological speculations hold political ramifications. The breakdown of the hierarchical society of the European Middle Ages, for example, belonged to a general breakdown of hierarchical order in thought, belief, and action. (1) At the level of cosmology, this was exemplified in the turn from the Ptolemaic to the Copernican picture of the universe, since no analogy between above and below is possible in Copernican thought. (2) In the ancient Near East, the Babylonian epic Enama elis offers the most explicit expression of a parallel between political hierarchy and cosmological order. The late twelfth-century B.C. poem was intimately connected with the institution of Babylonian kingship. (3) By telling the story of Marduk's defeat of Tiamat (the primordial waters) and his subsequent organization of the universe, Enuma elis depicts the world as structured according to a fixed hierarchical order. Marduk sets heaven and earth in their proper places. (4) At the same time, the unequivocal acceptance of his kingship by the other gods establishes the hierarchy of rank among them. This hierarchy is reiterated on the spatial plane when Marduk fixes the position of his star Neberu as a reference point for the positions of all the others. (5) At the level of human politics, Marduk's cosmogonic act ushers in the establishment of Babylon. (6) That city's position at the apex of the world political order mirrors Marduk's position among the gods.

I. UGARITIC MYTH AND BRONZE AGE POLITICS

The Baal Cycle has often been compared to Enuma e1is. (7) Discovered in 1929 at the coastal Syrian site of Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), the account of the storm-god Baal's exploits survives in a single exemplar of six fragmentary tablets that were likely inscribed a century or so before the Babylonian poem took shape. (8) Both the Ugaritic and Babylonian poems contain episodes in which their respective heroes battle the sea, but whereas Marduk's battle culminates in a restructuring of the universe that gives it its hierarchical structure, Baal's victory holds no cosmogonic implications. (9) Unlike Tiamat, the Ugaritic sea-god Yamm is not a primordial adversary and his defeat does not usher in a new epoch. The Baal Cycle does not set up a clear, temporally distinguished opposition between current order and primordial disorder. As a result, conflict takes on a different meaning in the Ugaritic poem--it is a constituent element of political life, not a means by which the political overcomes the primordial. In the Baal Cycle political rule does not bring about an eradication of disorder. The Baal Cycle's non-cosmogonic employment of the topos of divine battle against the sea is consistent with the poem's representation of political rank as unstable and ambiguous. (10)

The relationships among the Baal Cycle's divine protagonists run parallel to earthly political relationships. Perhaps the most interesting of these is the fundamentally hierarchical relationship between vassal and suzerain. The supreme god El states at one point that Baal is Yamm's vassal. (11) This has been taken to reflect "Ugarit's limited political situation lying between the great powers of the ancient Near East." (12) Baal was the patron god of Ugarit and Ugarit went through periods of vassalage to both Egypt and Hatti during the Bronze Age. (13) Yet the Baal Cycle offers not just a reflection of terrestrial realities, but critical reflection on the foundational claims of Late Bronze Age political institutions by calling into question the hierarchical principle that justifies them. Focusing primarily on the well-preserved "envoy scene" from the poem's second tablet that provides context for El's declaration, this essay will consider the implications of the Ugaritic poem's particular depiction of suzerainty and vassalage. (14) By presenting political positions that presuppose the idea of hierarchy--without actually affirming the principle that these positions depend upon--the Baal Cycle ultimately unsettles the traditional basis of sovereignty itself. …

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