The Baal Cycle stands out in that it does not use the type-scene to reaffirm the legitimacy of the reigning law and the political positions that the law enshrines. Instead, it turns matters on their head by placing the protagonist in the position of the rebel who disrupts order, thereby rendering questionable the principles according to which that order is defined...
Ugarit's experience as a vassal state subservient to Hatti informed this representation. According to Bronze Age conventions, vassal status was grounded in an international order that reflected the organization of a kin-based household -- with its fathers, sons, brothers, slaves, and masters. The extension of these relations to the international sphere rested upon a legal fiction that aimed to bolster the idea that politics confirmed to a natural hierarchy. Instead of reinforcing this fiction, the Baal Cycle throws it into doubt. As a witness to (and participant in) a world of incessant power struggles and competing assertions of authority, Ugarit produced a poem that encourages its audience to engage with the idea of a universe that lacks the comforts of order. The story of Baal's rise in such a world served as the vehicle for a critical form of political wisdom....
That Ilimilku continues Baal's story beyond the point of enthronement implies an understanding of politics in which struggle is everlasting. There is no telos of peace and joy. Aaron Tugendhaft Baal and the Politics of Poetry (93, 95-6, 120)+
There are two classical conceptions of myth: first, myth is associated with superstition and something to be overcome by modernity and rationalization. On this view, which takes myth seriously as the necessary stepping stone toward a political or ethical decision that removes us from the state of myth. The only question is if modernity is a permanent achievement or if back-sliding into myth remains a live possibility. As Tugendhaft reminds us in his fascinating book, the post-1933 Cassirer, for example, came to see that his early progressive optimism was a mistake and that back-sliding was always a life possibility in times of crisis: "we are always living on volcanic soul." The other, second, classical conception is that myth just is the stuff of everydayness, an ordinary comportment or way of being in the world. This Tugendhaft, a classical philologist, associates with Heidegger.*
What the classical conceptions disallow is that myth -- an "ancient poem about the gods" (17) -- itself can be a means toward or expression of rational thinking. That is, because what the poetic form portrays is from the point of view of monotheism or science obviously a fable, then it can't be a source of rational insight. In the Phaedrus (recall), Socrates famously and explicitly has no time for the attempts by fellow intellectuals to "play the sophist" (sophizomenos) (229C) and naturalize the hidden, kernel in myths, that is, reduce them to what is likely. Now, one can have some sympathy for Socrates's stance if the project is to find the natural event that gave rise to the myth. (For example, a common rationalizing reading of the Baal cycle is to see in it a story of nature's fertility cycle.) But in context (albeit not elsewhere) Socrates refuses to engage with an other alternative, namely that myth is an allegorical representation of reality. That is, while literally a myth cannot be true, that's perfectly compatible with its elements symbolically standing in for intelligible bits of reality.
There is nothing mysterious about an allegorical representation of reality (if you possess the interpretive key that unlocks the allegory). But this conception of myth is disallowed by the classical conception, and so the possibility of a mythic instruction in reality is systematically occluded. One can kind of see that the in the progressive classical view, in which modernity is understood as an overcoming of myth, the idea of myth as a means of rational reflection is almost unthinkable. This need not be the case in the second classical conception, but because it is often a response to the progressive view of myth it tends to inherit this blind-spot.
Tugendhaft's scholarly book -- it is not a popularization, and while written very cleanly can be challenging at times -- is one long argument for the conceptual possibility of myth being a representation of political reality at a certain level of abstraction. And that, in fact, that the Baal Cycle, which was written ca 1220bc in a semitic language (and for a long time primarily studied to provide cultural background to the Hebrew Bible), is in fact, such a representation not as a roman a clef about political local agents, but a more abstract representation about what is taken to be (by the poet) the enduring nature of political reality which is not, simultaneously, a form of propaganda or justification for the existing political order. Rather, the audience of the poem is put in the position to question the forms of justification of authority found in existing political society.
Tugendhaft nicely shows that the poem was written in the periphery of an empire that was crumbling. If I understand him correctly Ugarit was a commercial town which itself was, by Bronze age standards, relatively egalitarian and despite being long lasting, itself never a great empire often a vassal of much larger states (Egypt, Hittites etc.). One member of this society, the poem's likely author, Ilimilku seems to have been an experienced diplomat in late bronze age game of thrones. Perhaps because I am Dutch, but I suspect that it is significant that in virtue of being in the imperial margins in a society where natural hierarchy could not be taken for granted, that Ilimilku could discern the reality behind the dueling imperial orders more starkly and live to tell it.
One striking contextual fact that Tugendhaft points out is that as the Hittite empire was collapsing the ruling kings of that empire started to claim that they themselves were divine in order to shore up their authority and legitimacy (127). It's one thing to believe in the divinity of invisible agents, it's quite another (although since familiar enough) to believe in the divinity of fellow mortals.
Hume points out that not "every Alexander meets with a Lucian, ready to expose and detect his impostures." Even if there is somebody who could expose the imposture, it may often not be prudent to do. If your overlord tells you he is divine you may keep your mouth shut, too. Moreover, even if somebody is secure enough to do so, there is not always an audience that can use the information in an actionable way. Ilimilku must have thought it important to represent the nature of political reality to his king or society.
Tugendhaft's argument will have to be evaluated by his scholarly peers.++ I could close here, but I was surprised that Tugendhaft did not spend more time on the reality represented by his poem. (Tugendhaft's focus is on the way political authority and legitimacy is represented, and here I am not doing justice to his argument.) For, it is significant that Baal's first major opponent is the sea-god Yamm. For, while the sea was a source of commercial riches for Ugarit, it was also a permanent source of political danger. A wealthy town like Ugarit is a permanent target for opportunistic raiders and pirates, especially when its citizen-soldiers/sailors are out of town defending the empire in far-away lands. And, in fact, there is considerable evidence that suggests that within a generation or so Ugarit was attacked, perhaps destroyed, by its traditional enemies from the sea. If that's right then Ilimilku was not merely giving a general analysis of the nature of political reality, but also trying to remind his audience that in the context of collapsing protection of the empire, the city needed (and this is fully compatible with Tugendhaft's analysis) to be on guard against its enemies waiting for an opportunity.** I shall return to the Baal Cycle with the aid of Tugendhaft before long.
PS UPDATE: the initial version of this post did not have quotes around the 'first political philosopher. Obviously I did not really wish to convey that Ilimilku was the firs political philosopher. For on my reading, political philosophy is a permanent possibility. But Chike Jeffers reminded me that he is published on an earlier (Egyptian) political philosopher in a paper I much admire. So, I changed the title of this post accordingly.