Friday, October 07, 2005

Hair of the Ugaritic Dog

I've been reading some Ugaritic lately, in connection with various duties, and I finally got around to working through the text KTU 1.114, the famous one where El, the head of the pantheon, gets drunk at a banquet (marzeah) and has to be helped home while slipping in his own waste; lovely.

The real point of this text is found in the last few lines, which contains, by common interpretation, a recipe for hangover: "On his brow one should put hairs of a dog, the top of a pqq-plant and its stem. Mix it with the juice of virgin oil" (trans. T. J. Lewis).

I laughed when I read that. Hair of the dog, indeed! Could it be that the old expression for a morning-after shot of spirits, "hair of the dog," has its origin in the Ancient Near East? If so, I'm not the first one to discover it. Dennis Pardee writes:

This atypical myth [KTU 1.114] is followed by a prose recipe for alcoholic collapse that features the first known connection between drunkenness and the "hair of the dog": "What is to be put on his forehead: hairs of a dog. And the head of the PQQ (a type of plant) and its shoot he is to drink mixed together with fresh olive oil."

The same thing is suggested in the Dictionary of the Ancient Near East, s.v. "Drunkenness":
The "morning-after" symptoms were treated with various substances, including "the hair of the dog," as described in an Ugaritic text where the god El suffers from the effects of excessive consumption.
But it won't do. "Hair of the dog" as a hangover remedy is derived from the longer expression "hair of the dog that bit you." The origin lies in an Anglo-American folkloric remedy, not for hangover, but for rabies: if bitten by a dog, one was to take some of the dog's hair and either eat it or otherwise apply it to the wound:
[Remedies for rabies] have included eating grass from a churchyard, consuming some of the "hair of the dog that bit you" fried in oil with a little rosemary, and even eating parts of the dog itself (typically the heart or the liver). (Cassell's Dictionary of Superstitions)
The concept of homeopathic cure, along with the expression itself, was transferred to the hangover remedy — which is not literal dog hair, but a glass of something alcoholic (in my experience, a Bloody Mary is usually recommended).

So the idea that KTU 1.114 is the earliest use of "hair of the dog" for hangover can't be correct. In fact, the idea that the Ugaritic recipe is intended for hangover is itself an inference; it is nowhere stated in the text.

Here's another possibility. In an earlier section of the text, while El is being carried home, a mysterious figure named Habayu appears: "Habayu then berates (?) (נגשׁ) him, he of two horns and a tail." What exactly is Habayu doing to El? The word translated "berates" has also been taken to mean "press, drive," but none of these makes much sense. I am wondering if נגשׁ simply means here "gore," as it does in Palestinian Aramaic. The translation then would be: "Habayu gores him, the one with two horns and a tail." And that would explain why in the next lines El "collapses like one dead, like those who descend to the underworld," and it would explain why Habayu's horns are mentioned: Habayu is some kind of ox or ram.

So maybe this recipe is not for hangover at all, but for the much more serious condition of having been gored or butted by a horned animal. But I would not recommend it in either case.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Text and translation of KTU 1.114: "El's divine feast," trans. T. J. Lewis, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry (Scholars Press, 1997), pp. 193ff.


Duane said...

Nice post. I haven't looked at KTU1.114 in detail for about 30 years, but it was great to see a post on it. You are certainly correct about the "hair of the god" and I like your idea about it being a remedy for being gored. Your suggestion that we should not try this cure reminded me of the Egyptian text "The God and His Unknown Name of Power 9ANET, 12)." At the end of a myth there are instructions on how to use it to treat a scorpion sting. The text ends "really successful, a million times."

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...


Great post! I haven't pulled out my CTU for over a year. Your post got me to dig out the old book and have another look.

Best to You