For the Love of Aqhat

It seems that a new season of The Simpsons is upon us. With the release of season twelve on DVD last week, recession-ridden families everywhere are piling up on their couches to be entertained. Initially I had a hard time accepting The Simpsons; I had seen too many failed adult cartoons to give me much encouragement that this would be something worth wasting my time on. Surprisingly, it became clear after just a couple of seasons that The Simpsons was witty, smart, and surprisingly ethical. This final point was so pronounced that Mark Pinsky wrote a book focusing on it entitled The Gospel According to The Simpsons (Westminster John Knox, 2001). As to be expected in a book with a foreword by Tony Campolo, it was a little devious, but still retained a kind of sugar coating. Nevertheless, I found the book worth reading.

Bart after the birds?

Bart after the birds?

The Simpsons frequently pokes fun at all of us who take ourselves too seriously. Most of the time it is evident that the writers have done their homework as well, pulling in sometimes obscure references to classical or biblical literature. Recently while watching the episode entitled “Bart the Mother” I was struck by an ancient theme which was surely accidental. In the episode, Bart, trying to prove himself to the neighborhood bully, shoots a mother bird with a b-b gun. Guilt immediately sets in and Bart is haunted by his cold-blooded act. In a dream he sees a bird tribunal doling out the punishment for his crime — having his face pecked off. I’m sure this owes more to Hitchcock than to Ugarit, but I can’t help shaking the idea that the scene is somehow informed by the Epic of Aqhat. In one of Ugarit’s classic stories, Aqhat is given a divine bow that is coveted by the goddess Anat. When he won’t relinquish it, Anat has Aqhat pecked to death by raptors, “twice upon the noggin, thrice upon the ear!” Ugarit remains shrouded in cultural obscurity, so no easy cultural reference can point to it. Everyone has seen Hitchcock’s The Birds.

The story of Aqhat, although sadly broken, is a classic of ancient literature. So much more to pity is that it remains nearly as unknown today as it was while buried under the ground for three and a half thousand years. A colleague of mine approached Penguin a few years back trying to pitch the idea that they sell a translation of the Ugaritic texts in their classics series. They flatly turned him down on the basis of “no public interest.” If the publishers won’t put these world heritage classics out there, how will there ever be interest generated? Perhaps those of us bitten by the Ugaritic bug simply circulate in circles too small to have any impact on what the world thinks. Beyond a few souvenir-hawking vendors in Syria and a few crusty scholars sheltered away in dusty academic libraries, nobody knows the story. It seems that Aqhat’s fate is equally grim — pecked to death by birds and completely forgotten because the story just doesn’t possess sales potential.

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