Ola Wikander is Reader and Senior Lecturer in Old Testament Exegesis at Lund University, and Pro Futura Scientia Fellow, with the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study, Uppsala. He is spending part of his 5-year Pro Futura fellowship as a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH.
Q. You recently joined CRASSH as a Pro Futura visiting Fellow. Could you tell us a little bit about what you are working on during your fellowship?
My personal speciality is ancient Northwest Semitic languages, which means Classical Hebrew and its closest relatives. In my case, this especially means Ugaritic, a language spoken and written on the coast of Syria in the Bronze Age – and texts about, among others, the god Baal and his friends, from the 13th and 12th centuries BCE. More specifically, I’m working on poetic formulae and motifs that have survived from early Northwest Semitic times into the literature of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament – and sometimes beyond that. The culture reflected in the Hebrew Bible was an integrated part of the greater Northwest Semitic-speaking milieu out of which it grew, and its narrative-poetic techniques and phraseology emerged from that same background.
When people tell poetic stories, they often do so using set phrases that they have learned, and this is to a large extent what I am studying. So: poetic stories told, so to speak, around the campfires of the Northwest Semitic world, about battles between storm gods and great serpents, terrible droughts destroying the climate (a very modern topic, in fact!) and people transcending the boundaries between the human and the divine. How were these stories told, how was language creatively used to express them as motifs, how did these survive, and how did they transform? There are specific poetic phrases that literally survived for about a thousand years between the Bronze Age and the later parts of the Hebrew Bible – I’m studying how that happened and how they changed along the way.
Q. What drew you to your research initially and what parts do you find particularly interesting?
I’ve been working with ancient languages for most of my life; it’s been a major part of my personal history. The first thing that drew me more specifically, many many years ago, into the field of ‘etymological poetics’, as I like to call it, was reading the Indo-Europeanist scholar Calvert Watkins, who did this sort of work for the Indo-European language family (to which English belongs). His way of studying specific poetic phraseology that was inherited through linguistic development was an eye-opener for me already when I was in my adolescent years. Watkins’s methodology has inspired me quite a lot. I did similar work in my earlier monographs (one on the ‘drought’ thing specifically, and one on early Indo-European borrowings in Northwest Semitic poetry). One of the things that has grown more and more important as a research interest of mine is what happens when these old motifs and formulae are found in relatively late texts – i.e. when they have moved far away in time from their origins. To see the resilience – as well as the transformations of meaning over time – is fascinating. The same poetic phrase can survive more or less unchanged for a millennium but then be used in a completely different way. That tension fascinates me.
Q. If you are currently working on a publication, could you tell us about it?
I’m working on the monograph part of my present project; the working title is ‘The Water is Never the Same’, alluding to the resilience of the poetic motifs I study as well as their ever-changing use and recontextualisation. In it, I present a survey of Northwest Semitic poetic motifs and analyse them in detail in a number of texts, e.g., the biblical Joseph story, the battle narrative of Genesis chapter 14, a number of the Psalms – and even in one case, in order to exemplify their resilience, their survival into an 18th century CE esoteric order in France! I’m also working on a number of articles, e.g., one on the ancient pronunciation of certain consonants (the so-called emphatic ones) in ancient Hebrew, Ugaritic and Phoenician as compared with contemporary transcriptions into ancient Egyptian.
Q. If you recently published a book, could you tell us about it?
My latest book in English was called Unburning Fame, and it’s on how speakers of early Northwest Semitic borrowed poetic ideas and motifs from their Indo-European-speaking neighbours in ancient Anatolia and other places (and partly the other way around). One of the main things here is the way in which speakers from both linguistic cultures told stories about gods battling great serpents of chaos (and how they talked about horses!). I study the overlaps and cross-pollinations here – at the phrase level. So: not simply similar stories, but actual borrowed phraseology, which is easier to show and argue for convincingly, I think. My most recent article (which should be out in December 2021) is on word-play using lateral fricatives (sounds of the sort that one finds in the famous Welsh ll) in early pronunciations of Biblical Hebrew – and yep, the chaos serpents turn up in that one, too!