אֲשֵׁרָה‎

THE GIST

– God, also known as Yahweh, had a wife named Asherah, according to a British theologian.

– Amulets, figurines, inscriptions and ancient texts, including the Bible, reveal Asherah’s once prominent standing.

God had a wife, Asherah, whom the Book of Kings suggests was worshiped alongside Yahweh in his temple in Israel, according to an Oxford scholar.


God had a wife

by Ronald L. Ecker

from the book ’And Adam Knew Eve’

from Hodge&Braddoc Website


 

YAHWEH – “Thy Maker Is Thine Husband”


The Hebrew God Yahweh is conceived of biblically as a male deity, with the covenant relationship between him and Israel often portrayed as that of a marriage between husband and wife.

 

(The other name by which the deity is most often referred to in the Hebrew Bible is Elohim [translated “God”], an originally plural form meaning “gods.” “The LORD” in English versions translates Yahweh–the assumed pronunciation of YHWH [a name of uncertain meaning], there being no vowels in the original Hebrew text.)


The perception of God as masculine is of course not surprising in a patriarchal or male-ruled society. As noted by Susan Ackerman, there are some feminizations of Yahweh in Isaiah (e.g., “As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you” [66:13]; see also 42:14 and 49:15).

 

But then Isaiah also refers to kings as “nursing fathers” (49:23) and to daughters who “shalt suck the breasts of kings” (60:16), words that cannot be taken literally. In any case, Yahweh outside of some Isaianic imagery is masculine in the Hebrew Bible.

In the New Testament, “God” translates the Greek Theos, with God remaining a male deity. Thus Jesus regularly uses the word Father (Greek Pater, in Jesus’ Aramaic Abba) for God (e.g., Matt. 6:8-9; Mark 14:36; Luke 10:21; John 17:1; see also Paul’s use in Rom. 8:15 and Gal. 4:6).

 

Elaine Pagels points out that some Christian Gnostics thought of the divine in both masculine and feminine terms, with Jesus referring to the Holy Spirit as his Mother in the Gospel of Thomas and in the Gospel to the Hebrews, and with the Apocryphon of John describing the Trinity as Father, Mother, and Son.

 

As Pagels notes, however, such views were suppressed as heretical, with none of the Gnostic texts included in the New Testament canon. (The Nag Hammadi Library)

There is archeological evidence that at least some ancient Hebrews perceived of Yahweh as having a consort or female companion. This could be the origin of the mysterious Lady Wisdom found in Proverbs and the Apocrypha. (She is in some of the Gnostic texts as well.)

 

Wisdom (Hebrew hokma, a feminine noun) is personified in Proverbs not only as a woman but as a preexistent entity with Yahweh.

“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of his way,” says Lady Wisdom, “before his works of old,… and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him”

(Prov. 8:22,30).

It was through Wisdom that Yahweh “founded the earth” (3:19), she is “a tree of life” to those who lay hold of her (3:18), and she offers to reward all who seek her:

“I love them that love me; and those that seek me early shall find me” (8:17).

In the Apocrypha, Lady Wisdom is identified with the Torah or biblical law (Sirach 24:23; Baruch 4:1). In the New Testament, the preexistent Word (Greek Logos) at the beginning of the Gospel of John is reminiscent of Wisdom, and in 1 Cor. 1:24 Paul calls Christ “the wisdom of God” (Greek Theou Sophia).

The metaphor of Yahweh and the Hebrew people as husband and wife is found first in the book of Hosea, and continues in the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel. It is a troubled marriage, for despite Yahweh’s “love toward the children of Israel,” they “look to other gods” (Hos. 3:1).

 

The wife’s infidelity is thus a metaphor for the Israelite people’s idolatry.

“Thy maker is thine husband,” Isaiah tells Israel, yet she beds down with others (Isa. 54:5; 57:7-8).

“Turn, O backsliding children,” Yahweh pleads in Jeremiah (3:14), “for I am married unto you.”

At one point Yahweh divorces Israel for her adultery, only to have “her treacherous sister Judah” commit adultery also (Jer. 3:8). Ezekiel 23 allegorizes Samaria and Jerusalem, the Israelite and Judahite capitals, as two sisters with a host of foreign lovers while both are married to Yahweh.

Particularly disturbing to feminist commentators are the biblical passages that describe Yahweh’s brutal punishment of the women who symbolize Israel’s unfaithfulness. As noted by Kathleen M. O’Connor, the portrayal of physical abuse by the divine in such passages implicitly condones such behavior in humans. Yahweh strips “the virgin daughter of Babylon” in Isa. 47:1-4, and helps the Babylonians rape Jerusalem in Jer. 13:26.

 

In Lamentations, Yahweh trods “the virgin” Jerusalem “as in a winepress” (1:15), and in Ezekiel he tells his wife Oholibah (Jerusalem),

“I will raise up thy lovers against thee,” and they will “strip thee out of thy clothes”; they will take away not only “thy sons and thy daughters” but “thy nose and thine ears,” and “thus will I make thy lewdness to cease from thee”

(23:22-27)

Needless to say, the thought behind these metaphors of Yahweh the husband physically abusing his wife presents a challenge to modern biblical interpreters. Through such imagery “the Bible,” writes Sharon H. Ringe in The Women’s Bible Commentary,

“seems to bless the harm and abuse with which women live and sometimes die.”

The brutality seems hardly ameliorated by Yahweh’s assurances to his mutilated wife of a brighter tomorrow, for they make God sound like the stereotypical wife beater who minimizes what he has done and promises not to do it again:

“In a little wrath I hid my face from thee for a moment; but with everlasting kindness will I have mercy on thee… Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel,… and shalt go forth in the dances of them that make merry”

(Isa. 54:8; Jer. 31:4).

 

 

 

 

ASHERAH –  The Lord God’s Lady?


The goddess Asherah was the consort of El (“god”), the supreme god of Canaan and father of the popular Baal.

 

In the Bible her name often appears as ha asherah, meaning “the” asherah. In such instances the reference is not to the goddess but to a symbol of her, an object (in the plural asherim) that was apparently a sacred pole, tree, or group of trees (hence the translation “groves”) at Israelite sanctuaries or “high places” as well as by altars of Baal. The erecting of asherim was among the “evil” deeds of kings like Ahab and Manasseh, and cutting the things down was a regular chore of “right” kings like Hezekiah and Josiah.


The presence of Asherah or her symbol at places where Yahweh, the biblical God of the Hebrews, was worshipped raises the question of whether the Canaanite goddess was considered also to be the consort of Yahweh.

 

We know from references to,

  • “the sons of God” (Gen. 6:1-4; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7)
  • “the host of heaven” (1 Kings 22:19)
  • “angels” (Gen. 19:1; Ps. 103:20)
  • God’s statement “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26),

…that Yahweh was not alone in his heaven.

 

We know also that Yahweh supplanted the Canaanite El to the extent that God’s other names in the Hebrew Bible include El, El Elyon (“God Most High”), El Shaddai (“God Almighty”), and the (originally) plural form Elohim (as in Gen. 1:1).

 

But did Yahweh take El’s woman too?

The answer may well be found, appropriately enough, in some graffiti, inscriptions dating from the eighth century B.C.E., found on walls and storage jars at two sites, Khirbet el-Kom and Kuntillet Ajrud, in Israel. (See Dever’s Recent Archaeological Discoveries and Biblical Research.)

 

The graffiti includes blessings such as,

“I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and by his asherah,” and “I bless you by Yahweh of Teiman and by his asherah.”

Does this mean by Yahweh and by his goddess? Or is it saying “by Yahweh and by his sacred pole”?

 

All we may safely assume at this point has been well put by the French epigrapher Andre Lemaire:

“Whatever an asherah is, Yahweh had one!”


Published on Jun 18, 2013

Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou examines how archaeological discoveries are changing the way people interpret stories from the Bible. Stavrakopoulou visits key archaeological excavations where ground-breaking finds are being unearthed, and examines evidence for and against the Biblical account of King David.

Was the God of Abraham unique? Were the ancient Israelites polytheists? And is it all possible that God had another half? Marshalling compelling evidence from archaeology, Islam and the Bible text itself, she identifies and visits the exact site of Eden.

Did God Have a Wife?
Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou asks whether the ancient Israelites believed in one God as the Bible claims.

She puts the Bible text under the microscope, examining what the original Hebrew said, and explores archaeological sites in Syria and the Sinai which are shedding new light on the beliefs of the people of the Bible.

Was the God of Abraham unique? Were the ancient Israelites polytheists? And is it at all possible that God had another half?

In 1967, Raphael Patai was the first historian to mention that the ancient Israelites worshiped both Yahweh and Asherah. The theory has gained new prominence due to the research of Francesca Stavrakopoulou, who began her work at Oxford and is now a senior lecturer in the department of Theology and Religion at the University of Exeter.

Information presented in Stavrakopoulou’s books, lectures and journal papers has become the basis of a three-part documentary series, now airing in Europe, where she discusses the Yahweh-Asherah connection.

“You might know him as Yahweh, Allah or God. But on this fact, Jews, Muslims and Christians, the people of the great Abrahamic religions, are agreed: There is only one of Him,” writes Stavrakopoulou in a statement released to the British media. “He is a solitary figure, a single, universal creator, not one God among many … or so we like to believe.”



Asherah (/ˈæʃərə/; Ugaritic: 𐎀𐎘𐎗𐎚 : ‘ṯrt; Hebrew: אֲשֵׁרָה‎), in Semitic mythology, is a mother goddess who appears in a number of ancient sources. She appears in Akkadian writings by the name of Ashratum/Ashratu, and in Hittite as Asherdu(s) or Ashertu(s) or Aserdu(s) or Asertu(s). Asherah is generally considered identical with the Ugaritic goddess Athirat (more accurately transcribed as ʼAṯirat).

Asherah is identified as the wife or consort of the Sumerian god Anu and Ugaritic El,[1] the oldest deities of their respective pantheons.[2][3] This role gave her a similarly high rank in the Ugaritic pantheon.[4] The name Dione, which like ‘Elat means “Goddess”, is clearly associated with Asherah in the Phoenician History of Sanchuniathon, because the same common epithet (‘Elat) of “the Goddess par excellence” was used to describe her at Ugarit.[5] The Book of Jeremiah, written circa 628 BC, possibly refers to Asherah when it uses the title “Queen of Heaven”, stating: “pray thou not for this people…the children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink offerings to other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.”(Hebrew: לִמְלֶכֶת הַשָּׁמַיִם‎) in Jer 7:18 and Jer 44:17–19, 25.[6] (For a discussion of “Queen of Heaven” in the Hebrew Bible, see Queen of Heaven.)

Queen of Heaven was a title given to a number of ancient sky goddesses in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, in particular Anat, Isis, Innana, Astarte, Hera and possibly Asherah (by the prophet Jeremiah). Elsewhere, Nordic Frigg also bore this title. In Greco-Roman times Hera, and her Roman aspect Juno bore this title. Forms and content of worship varied. The title Queen of Heaven is used by Catholics and Orthodox Christians for Mary.

The goddess, the Queen of Heaven, whose worship Jeremiah so vehemently opposed, may have been possibly Astarte. Astarte is the name of a goddess as known from Northwestern Semitic regions, cognate in name, origin and functions with the goddess Ishtar in Mesopotamian texts. Another transliteration is ‘Ashtart; other names for the goddess include Hebrew עשתרת (transliterated Ashtoreth), Ugaritic ‘ṯtrt (also ‘Aṯtart or ‘Athtart, transliterated Atirat), Akkadian DAs-tar-tú (also Astartu) and Etruscan Uni-Astre (Pyrgi Tablets).

Astarte riding in a chariot with four branches protruding from roof, on the reverse of a Julia Maesa coin from Sidon

According to scholar Mark S. Smith, Astarte may be the Iron Age (after 1200 BC) incarnation of the Bronze Age (to 1200 BC) Asherah.[10]

Astarte was connected with fertility, sexuality, and war. Her symbols were the lion, the horse, the sphinx, the dove, and a star within a circle indicating the planet Venus. Pictorial representations often show her naked. Astarte was accepted by the Greeks under the name of Aphrodite. The island of Cyprus, one of Astarte’s greatest faith centers, supplied the name Cypris as Aphrodite’s most common byname. Asherah was worshipped in ancient Israel as the consort of El and in Judah as the consort of Yahweh and Queen of Heaven (the Hebrews baked small cakes for her festival):[11]

“Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.” [12]

“… to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem …”[13]

Worship of a “Queen of Heaven”, in Hebrew Malkath haShamayim (מלכת השמים) is recorded in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah, circa 628 BC, in the context of the Prophet condemning such religious worship as blasphemy and a violation of the teachings of the God of Israel. In Jeremiah 7:18:

“The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes of bread for the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to provoke me to anger.”[14]

In Jeremiah 44:15-18:

“Then all the men who knew that their wives were burning incense to other gods, along with all the women who were present—a large assembly—and all the people living in Lower and Upper Egypt, said to Jeremiah, “We will not listen to the message you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD! We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our fathers, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.” “[15]

It should be remembered in this context that there was a temple of Yahweh in Egypt at that time that was central to the Jewish community at Elephantine in which Yahweh was worshipped in conjunction with the goddess Anath (also named in the temple papyri as Anath-Bethel and Anath-Iahu).[16]

The goddesses Asherah, Anath and Astarte first appear as distinct and separate deities in the tablets discovered in the ruins of the library of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra, Syria). Some biblical scholars[who?] tend to regard these goddesses as one, especially under the title “Queen of heaven”.

John Day states that “there is nothing in first-millennium BC texts that singles out Asherah as ‘Queen of Heaven’ or associates her particularly with the heavens at all.”[17]

William G. Dever (born November 27, 1933 in Louisville, Kentucky) [1] is an American archaeologist, specialising in the history of Israel and the Near East in Biblical times. He was Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Arizona in Tucson from 1975 to 2002. He is a Distinguished Professor of Near Eastern Archaeology at Lycoming College in Pennsylvania.

Dever was Director of the Harvard Semitic MuseumHebrew Union College Excavations at Gezer from 1966–71, 1984 and 1990; Director of the dig at Khirbet el-Kôm and Jebel Qacaqir (West Bank) from 1967–71; Principal Investigator at Tell el-Hayyat excavations (Jordan) 1981-85, and Assistant Director, University of Arizona Expedition to Idalion, Cyprus, 1991, among other excavations.[2]

He used his background in Near Eastern field archaeology to argue, in Did God Have a Wife? Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (2005), for the persistence of the veneration of Asherah in the everyday religion of ‘ordinary people’[3] in ancient Israel and Judah. Discussing extensive archaeological evidence from a range of Israelite sites, largely dated between the 12th and the 8th centuries BC,[4] Dever argued that this ‘folk’ religion, with its local altars and cultic objects, amulets and votive offerings, was representative of the outlook of the majority of the population, and that the Jerusalem-centred ‘book religion’ of the Deuteronomist circle set out in the Hebrew Bible was only ever the preserve of an elite, a ‘largely impractical’ religious ideal.[5]

Dever’s views on the worship of Asherah are based to a significant extent on inscriptions at Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud (though see also his discussion of the significance of a cultic stand from Taanach[6]). His views on worship of the goddess as expressed in this book have been criticised. On his methodological approach more generally, Francesca Stavrakopoulou has suggested that his use of the term ‘folk religion‘ ‘ultimately endorses the old stereotype of ‘popular’ or ‘folk’ religion as the simplistic practices of rural communities’, so perpetuating existing ‘derogatory assumptions’ that more recent discourses on the topic have sought to counter.[7]

In retirement, Dever has become a frequent author on questions relating to the historicity of the Bible. He has been scathing in his dismissal of “minimalists” who deny any historical value to the Biblical accounts. However he is far from being a supporter of Biblical literalism either. Instead he has written:

I am not reading the Bible as Scripture… I am in fact not even a theist. My view all along—and especially in the recent books—is first that the biblical narratives are indeed ‘stories,’ often fictional and almost always propagandistic, but that here and there they contain some valid historical information. That hardly makes me a ‘maximalist.’[8]

and

Archaeology as it is practiced today must be able to challenge, as well as confirm, the Bible stories. Some things described there really did happen, but others did not. The Biblical narratives about Abraham, Moses, Joshua and Solomon probably reflect some historical memories of people and places, but the ‘larger than life’ portraits of the Bible are unrealistic and contradicted by the archaeological evidence.[9]

However, Dever is also clear that his historical field should be seen on a much broader canvas than merely how it relates to the Bible:

The most naïve [misconception about Syro-Palestinian archaeology] is that the rationale and purpose of ‘biblical archaeology‘ (and, by extrapolation, Syro-Palestinian archaeology) is simply to elucidate the Bible, or the lands of the Bible[10]


Original from The Queen of Heaven

Asherah, Part I: The lost bride of Yahweh

Posted on October 27, 2010

Asherah, Part II: The serpent’s bride

Posted on November 1, 2010

Asherah, Part III: The Lion Lady

Posted on November 16, 2010

They worshiped Her under every green tree, according to the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament).  The Bible also tells us Her image was to be found for years in the temple of Solomon, where the women wove hangings for Her.  In temple and forest grove, Her image was apparently made of wood, since monotheistic reformers demanded it be chopped down and burned.  It appears to have been a manmade object, but one carved of a tree and perhaps the image was a stylized tree of some kind.

The archaeological record suggests that Asherah was the Mother Goddess of Israel, the Wife of God, according to William Dever, who has unearthed many clues to her identity. She was worshiped, apparently throughout the time Israel stood as a nation.  In many homes, images like the one above decorated household shrines.

Who was She, this lost Goddess of the Hebrews? And why is She no longer worshiped in the Judeo-Christian religions of today?

The Asherah votive emphasizes Her breasts, suggesting Her role as a fertility goddess, but Her stance represents Her nature as a mother in general.  She no doubt aided in the concerns of mothers, including conception and childbirth, but was probably also the mother of all, a comforter and protector in an uncertain world. Inscriptions from ancient Israel tell us that Yahweh and “his Asherah” were invoked together for personal protection. Her identification with trees suggests that Asherah was, in effect, also Mother Nature — a figure we remember in our language, but unfortunately have lost as a part of our mainstream religions. She was, in other words, everything you would expect from the feminine half of the divine creative duo, a Great Mother.

Asherah’s image was lost to us not by chance, but by deliberate action of fundamentalist monotheists.  First Her images were torn down, then Her stories were rewritten, then Her name was forgotten.  In fact, Her name appears 40 times in modern translations of the Bible, but not at all in the first English translation, the King James Bible.  Since no one knew who Asherah was anymore in the 17th century when the King James Version (KJV) was being created, Her name was translated as groves of trees or trees or images in groves, without understanding that those trees and groves of trees represented a mother goddess.

When archaeologists unearthed a treasure trove of Canaanite stories and other writings in Ugarit, in modern day Syria, they discovered that the mysterious “Asherah” was not an object, but a Goddess: the mother goddess of the Canaanites. When archaeologists discovered Her in Israel as well, a whole new picture of early Hebrew religion began to emerge.  The argument is straightforward: 1. Asherah was a known Canaanite Goddess, the Mother Goddess and wife of the Father God. 2. The name is mentioned repeatedly as having been worshiped by the Israelites, to the dismay of monotheists. 3. Her name is found in inscriptions with Yahweh and 4. A mother goddess image is found frequently in the homes of ancient Israel. 5. She was worshiped, according to the Bible, in the woods with Baal AND in Yahweh’s temple. The common sense interpretation is that Israelites worshiped the mother goddess Asherah. And that She was the wife of whichever male God had the upper hand at the time: El, or Baal, or Yahweh.  Israelite religion was not much different from Canaanite religion. The gods vied for supremacy, but the goddess remained.

Since archaeologists in the Holy Land tended to be religious and to enter the field of biblical archaeology in order to unearth evidence substantiating the Bible’s story, it has taken awhile for the plain truth to become clear.  Gradually, however, more objective archaeologists, such as Dever, are making headway in proving Asherah’s case.  The Bible says Hebrews kept worshiping Asherah; the archaeological record confirms it. What the Bible doesn’t say, and the archaeological record shows, is that Asherah was a mother goddess.

In Ugarit, She was known as Athiratu Yammi, She who Treads on the Sea.  This suggests She was responsible for ending a time of chaos represented by the primordial sea and beginning the process of creation.  The Sea God, or Sea Serpent Yam is the entity upon which She trod.  In a particularly bizarre and suggestive passage in the Bible, 2 Kings 18:4, one monotheistic reformer, pursuing the typical course of smashing sacred stones and cutting down Asherahs records this additional fact: He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)

Um, say what?  This odd passage opens up a whole can of worms for me.  Here are the serpent and the tree being worshiped together. (Garden of Eden anyone?) So, ah.. what exactly were people doing out there in the woods? They were worshiping idols, of course, burning incense, we are told.  This passage from Hosea is instructive: Hosea 4:12,13 condemns those who “inquire of  a thing of wood,” suggesting they were asking questions of an oracle,  and who sacrifice under oak, poplar and terebinth “because their shade is good.” They are accused also of playing the harlot, which could be a reference to sexual activity, or simply an analogy in that the monotheists are claiming the people sold out to the “false” Canaanite gods.  Israel was considered the bride of Yahweh in monotheistic thought, so worshiping other gods was whoring after them.

These passages make sense when you understand that this tree symbolism is closely connected with Asherah.  Now we know She was worshiped in the wood,  with an image made of wood and that people sought knowledge and made sacrifices there.

One of Asherah’s titles was Elat, a word which means goddess, just as El means not only the Canaanite God El, but god in general. Interestingly, the word Elat is translated in the Bible as terebinth, a large shade tree found in Israel. A great deal of the time, God is a translation not of Yahweh, his particular name given to Moses, but of the Hebrew name Elohim, which is plural, gender neutral, meaning “gods.”  This word is also related to the word for oak tree.  What did it really mean to the ancients to worship in a grove of trees? To see the gods as like the oaks? The goddess as a green tree spreading Her leaves over the worshiper, providing shade in a hot country?

Hebrews were not alone in worshiping gods of the forest, of course.  Celtic, Greek, and Germanic peoples also worshiped in groves.  Their gods were gods of nature.  Were the Israelites really so different?

In the Bible, Elohim created a man and woman. Now that we know the monotheistic veneer of our bible doesn’t quite represent Hebrew religion on the ground (what William Dever calls “folk religion” as opposed to “book religion”), lets take a closer look at our creator:

Genesis 1:26:

“Then Elohim said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’

So Elohim created man in his own image, in the image of Elohim he created them; male and female he created them.”

Takes on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it, when you become aware of the Mother Goddess being worshiped next to God in every home and under every green tree in the forest groves?  Who is this “US” doing the creating? Well, evidently, the creator(s) is/are male and female, like the creatures he/She/they created.

Now move on to a later passage, in 1 Kings 18: 19 , which makes it clear that  Asherah was served by 400 prophets. This is no minor religion. Maybe when the prophets complained She was worshiped under every tree, they meant it. Every tree, every home, and also, sometimes, in the temple.

In Exodus, we are told that God warned the people to get rid of Asherah’s emblems when they conquered the land of Canaan; in the periods of the books of the Judges and the Kings, we are told that the “good” prophets, kings and reformers continually had to burn and smash the idols of Asherah; finally, in Jeremiah, we are told that worship of Asherah has resulted in the fanatical monotheistic God’s decision to wipe out Israel and Judah (the southern portion of the formerly united kingdom) via the invasion of outside peoples.  The thing is, we are told most of these things by a single author, or group of authors: the Deuteronomist.  This is a character (or possibly group of characters) writing and rewriting portions of the Bible in later days, around the 7th century BC, either just before or during the exile of the Jews to Babylon. According to the Deuteronomist, the priest Hilkiah claims in 2 Kings, chapter 22, to have “discovered” the ancient laws of Moses during temple renovations.  These writings, “The Book of the Law” were mysteriously mislaid leading Israel to get its religion all wrong, apparently.

The works of the Deuteronomist conveyed a story that the Israelites had a covenant with Yahweh to worship him and only him. He claimed the Israelites had taken Canaan by force through a holy war in which they massacred the original inhabitants, putting to death (by God’s command) men, women and children in Jericho.  (This claim is not supported by the archaeological record.) And he claimed that God was a jealous God, one who demanded to be worshiped alone and who would punish the unfaithful by bringing other nations to conquer them if they worshiped others.

Was this really the religion of Israel? Apparently not.  The common folk kept right on putting up their Asherahs in the woods and the temple and the little votive Asherahs in their home shrines.  Only after Israel was conquered and the people of Judah returned from exile in Babylon did the fundamentalist fanatics with their violent, patriarchal, monotheistic God win the argument. The Deuteronomist’s work, along with the works of two other primary authors, the Yahwist and the Elohist, were compiled by a fourth source, called the Priestly source, to become the Bible we have today.

Is the world good, or bad? Who made us, and why? These are some of the questions ancient myths and religions attempt to answer.  And the answers matter. A belief in a goddess who is Mother Nature personified is different from a belief in a jealous and vengeful warrior creator. It’s different because it shapes how we feel about the world, and what we do while we’re in it. When the writers and compilers of our historic religion decided to edit out the Hebrew Goddess Asherah, they changed how we see the world.  They changed us and, so, they changed our world.

Eve and the Serpent

Some of the Bible’s most devout readers seem unaware of the impossibility of literal belief in its accounts.  Take creation, for example. The account of humankind’s creation by the Elohim  (translated God, but technically a plural word) in Genesis 1:26 is followed in Chapters 2 and 3 by another creation story which contradicts it on several key points.  In this second account, the personal God Yahweh is given as the name of the Creator in the original Hebrew text.  This God is spoken of in the singular, unlike the first account, in which Elohim says “let us” create man in “our” image. Rather than speaking as the head of a council, Yahweh clearly creates alone.  He walks in the Garden of Eden in which He has placed his creations, implying that He has physical form.  Whereas Elohim created both male and female in “our” image, at the same time, together, Yahweh creates only the man at first. He places him in a garden with two trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge.  He is instructed to eat from the first, but not the second and told that if he eats from the Tree of Knowledge he “will surely die.”

In the first account, there is no mention of the Garden of Eden or the magical trees. Humans are made last, after everything else: light and dark, earth and sea, plants and animals.  God (or the gods) pronounces the creation good and creates man and woman to rule over the creatures, which have all already been created. In the second account, man is made after plants and the animals are created afterward, to amuse Adam, because he is lonely.  Unlike the first account, in this version of the story, woman is made later, when the animals fail to relieve Adam’s loneliness.  She is not even conceived in the same fashion.  Adam is made of mud (his name means both mankind and red earth) and filled with the breath of God.  Eve is made from Adam’s rib while he is sleeping.

The author of the second account then goes on to tell what is certainly one of the best known stories in the Judeo-Christian tradition:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ “

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.  “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:1-13)

God goes on to administer several punishments for the offense of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.  The humans are cast out of the garden and so prevented from eating of the Tree of Life.  The man will toil in the earth with difficulty; the woman will be ruled over by her husband and give birth to children in pain; the snake will crawl on his belly (some commentators have inferred from this that the snake originally had legs) and be hated by humans.  Two angels and a flaming sword guard the entrance to the garden. We can never go back.

A small votive statue of the Mother Goddess Asherah, typical of those archaeologists have found in many ancient Israelite homes.

The Serpent God

The great historian of mythology Joseph Campbell dryly observes that nothing is said in the story to indicate that the serpent in the story was a deity in his own right throughout the ancient world.  Likewise, it should be observed that no ancient Hebrew reader of this story would have had any difficulty identifying the Tree of Life with the Mother Goddess Asherah, whose Tree of Life image according to the Bible was worshiped “under every green tree” and which also resided in the temple of Solomon for 236 of the 370 years it stood in Jerusalem.

It may also be that Eve herself is an allegory for Asherah, as her name means mother of life and is linguistically related to Asherah’s.

Joseph Campbell believed that the serpent in the Eden story was lifted directly from either the Sumerian God Enki, God of Water and Wisdom, or his son Ningizzida. Both of them were identified as Serpent Gods, among other things.  Enki was possessed of the food and water of life as well as the tablets of wisdom. Ningizzida was Lord of the Tree of Truth. These gods may have been carried into Canaan with the Israelites after they left the Sumerian/Babylonian city of Ur, or absorbed from their eastern neighbors at a later time. (Much of the Hebrew Bible was compiled, edited and rewritten after the Hebrews were conquered and exiled in Babylon in the 6th century BC.) Virtually all of the first 11 chapters of Genesis are rewritten from the much older Sumerian tales.  In them, Enki rather than Yahweh creates humans from mud, and saves the prototype of Noah from the flood by teaching him to build an ark. (For more on the Biblical links to the creation stories of the Sumerians, see my earlier post, In the Beginning…)

We know that Asherah worship was connected with prophecy. Serpents were also connected with both wisdom and prophecy throughout the eastern Mediterranean: in Greece, the oracle of Delphi was called Pythia, after a great serpent (python) who was defeated by the god Apollo there; in Sumer/Babylon the god Enki was lord of water and wisdom and symbolized as a great walking serpent (dragon), as was his son Ningizzida whose symbolic image was a staff surrounded by two twining serpents.

The Sumerian god Ningizzida, appearing as two serpents twining around a central pole, as depicted on a vase from Sumer about 4,000 years ago. Ningizzida was the son of Enki. Enki, a water god and the God of Wisdom, created humans from clay in Sumerian myth. Either one of them could have been the inspiration for Eden’s serpent.

Ningizzida was an underworld deity and paradoxically a guardian of the Sky God Anu’s celestial palace.  He was also a god of trees. The Greek god Hermes, messenger of the gods, had a staff entwined by serpents, too.  This image of mystical knowledge has been conflated by the medical profession with the Rod of Asclepius (originally a single serpent wrapped around a staff) which was an ancient image of healing.  Thus, both life and knowledge have been connected with snakes for a very long time.  So have goddesses.

The Serpent Goddess

In Minoan Crete a mysterious goddess bearing serpents is very ancient; in classical Greece, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, bears the serpent covered head of Medusa on her shield.  Throughout ancient Canaan, images can be found of a goddess holding or surrounded by serpents.  Some believe she is Astarte (the Canaanite version of Ishtar, who is in turn the Babylonian version of Inanna).  Inanna is said to have stolen the me, the magical tablets of wisdom, from Enki, and to have delivered that knowledge to her own people. Others believe the Canaanite serpent goddess is Asherah, in part because this goddess is often depicted standing on a lion and Asherah is also called the Lion Lady (a topic for another day).

The Serpent Goddess of ancient Crete, from the Minoan culture which predated Israel’s but traded with the earlier Canaanites.This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snake_Goddess_Crete_1600BC.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 2.5 license.

Asherah is a shortened version of the Mother Goddess’ full name, which is Athiratu Yammi, She Who Treads on the Sea. Yam, the Sea God, like many deities of the primordial sea, was represented as a serpent. Serpents, water and wisdom all suggest an unconscious connection to the depths of everything, the place out of which creativity comes. Perhaps her ability to walk on water identifies her as one who can wield serpent powers (powers of wisdom, prophecy and/or healing).  Asherah, would then be not only the Goddess Life, but the Goddess Wisdom. Accompanied by her serpent totem she can dispense knowledge from deep within the source of all things. The one who created life from formlessness knows how to create and can share this ability with us.  Unless, of course, we are barred from knowing her.

And that is no doubt the real meaning of the tale.  For here the message to its ancient reader is plain.  You are in this vale of tears because you worshiped at the foot of the Tree Goddess.  And in conveying this message, the Yahwist turns the old meaning of these symbols on their head.  For this reason Campbell calls this story a “conspicuously contrived, counterfeit myth.”  Yahweh appears here as a tyrant.  Do not pursue wisdom, or you will suffer my wrath.  Also, unlike all comparable pagan myths, instead of presenting nature, right here on earth, as sacred, we now see ourselves as locked out of paradise.  Nature is Adam’s enemy; he is to toil and sweat to eke out a living from the land. Man is woman’s enemy; she is to serve her husband.  Under the Deuteronomist’s law she is in fact the property of her husband, given a status no better than that of a slave. Whereas women no doubt saw Asherah as especially their protector in childbirth, they are now told their worship of her caused all the pain of labor.

This is a very sad story.  In rejecting the goddess, we now know that Yahweh was in fact rejecting his own wife.  Asherah was the wife of the Canaanite El in Phoenicia, and the wife of Baal in Israel, but archaeologists have now uncovered evidence from ancient inscriptions showing that many also considered her the wife of Yahweh.

A portion of the Nine Dragon Screen in the Forbidden City, China. These beneficial dragons are controlling wind and rain. Photo by Shizhao, Wikimedia Commons.

Serpent Power

We can certainly find the origins of the particular images of Mother of Life, Tree of Life and serpent without leaving the ancient Near East. However, it’s probably worth pointing out that these ideas are so widespread as to be literally worldwide. In Viking mythology, the World Tree, Yrggdasil, sits at the center of the world.  It has a dragon within it and more serpents lie beneath it than anyone could imagine.  The God Odin hangs himself on the tree in order to acquire power over the runes (both knowledge and prophetic knowledge.) In the East, the water/wisdom/serpent power is considered benevolent. Chinese dragons are water gods with powers over rains and rivers and the ability to bestow good luck.  Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree, protected from the rain by a giant cobra. In Hindu yoga, a serpent power called kundalini is said to reside at the base of the spine and practitioners attempt to raise the serpent upward toward the top of the head, creating mystical awareness if they succeed.  In the New World, a feathered Serpent God named Quetzalcoatl was the God of Wisdom, associated with priestly power.  Serpents were also part of African mythology and many Egyptian gods and goddesses as well as pharaohs bore an image of a cobra around their heads.

There are only two explanations for this widespread similarity of belief.  Either the idea of serpent power is an archetype deeply rooted in the human unconscious (our own primordial sea), or it is so ancient that it traveled with us when some of our ancestors came out of Africa and spread around the world.

Unlike many of our Eastern neighbors, we in the Christian West are used to thinking of dragons as bad guys in need of conquering by heroes.  Many are also used to thinking of the serpent in Eden as Satan, but this was a later, Christian adaptation of the tale.  He is never identified as such in the Hebrew story, nor is he considered to be the Devil in Jewish tradition.

Yahweh Gets All Snakey

And now we are about to enter some pretty weird territory. There are some indications that Yahweh himself claimed Serpent Power.  Perhaps the most peculiar imagery in the Bible (and that’s saying something) connects Yahweh himself with the serpent. We are told in 2 Kings 18:4, for example, by an angry prophet that the bronze serpent of Moses was worshiped alongside the image of Asherah.  The people of Israel were burning incense to this bronze serpent head, as they would to a god, and they called it Nehushtan (related to nachash, the Hebrew word for snake).

We first encounter the serpent powers of Yahweh in connection with Moses in Exodus Chapter 7, when that great leader is attempting to persuade Egypt’s pharaoh to let the Israelites (who are slaves) go free. In this account, Moses and his brother Aaron each cast down their staffs and both turn into serpents. Pharaoh’s wizards cast down their staffs which turn into serpents as well, but Aaron’s serpent staff proceeds to swallow the Egyptian serpents.

Moses also uses his magical staff in bringing the plagues on Egypt. Here are two examples:

Then the Lord said to Moses…”Go to Pharaoh in the morning as he goes out to the water.  Wait on the bank of the Nile to meet him, and take into your hand the staff that was changed into a snake.  Then say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go…By this you will know that I am the Lord. With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood.  The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink; the Egyptians will not be able to drink the water.’ “ (Exodus 7:14-18)

And later:

When Moses stretched out his staff toward the sky, the Lord sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground.  So the Lord rained hail on the land of Egypt.(Exodus 9:23)

Notice the staff’s power over the waters of river and sky (like those of the Chinese dragon). Later we are told, significantly, that this serpent staff parts the waters of the Red (or Reed) Sea:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “…Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.” (Exodus 14: 15-16)

Next, we are told that the Hebrews wandering in the desert are saved from a plague of snakes via a similar magical snake:

Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:6)

This is the serpent image being worshiped alongside Asherah’s tree image to the dismay of later reformers.

The Serpent’s Bride

Like the serpent, the Mother Goddess is one of humankind’s oldest symbols.  Often depicted in the nude (like Eve), she is to be found in Neolithic and Paleolithic sites throughout Europe and the Near East, reminding us that in the original creation stories, it is likely that humankind drew a parallel between a mother giving birth from her own body and the earth, or the universe, giving birth to all things, including us.  One of the most striking features of the Myth of Eden is that Eve is born out of the body of Adam, a fairly obvious reversal of biological fact.  All men are born of mothers.

A divine pair of Creators, such as El and Asherah, or Yahweh and Asherah, also makes good metaphoric sense. But the Yahwist priests made an entirely unheard of claim: they said their God was male and ruled alone. There was a Father, but no Mother.  Yahweh absorbed the old bearded man image of Canaanite El and the Storm and War God attributes of the Canaanite God Baal.  Left behind were the serpent, the tree, and the mother. Scratch the surface of the Bible stories just a little and you’ll find the serpent staff and the tree worship of Asherah under every green tree, but in official monotheistic doctrine the obvious meaning of these symbols is disavowed.

Mary treads on a serpent in this German painting by an unknown artist from around 1700 BC.

And so we lost Asherah, the Bride of God, the Tree of Life, and the ability to access Divine Wisdom.  I believe this loss has created a collective wound in the Western psyche, one which is continually returned to in our stories:   Cinderella covered in ashes  must be sought by the prince who has only her shoe; Sleeping Beauty is knocked out for 100 years by the witch who wasn’t invited to her party, until she too is found by her prince; the Grail (a deeply feminine/womb image) must be sought by the true knight; a medieval legend claims Mary Magdalene as the secret bride of Christ; and Mother Mary is enthroned in Heaven (without ever admitting who She really is, even though she is still pictured sometimes treading upon a serpent.)

If we seek this lost mother and Bride of God, however, we may yet find that her fruits are available to us. Could it be that wisdom, and long life, are  still to be had here in the grand garden created for us, male and female, the only creatures who were made in the image of the divine? Is our mother only waiting for us to find our way back to the foot of the tree? Perhaps when we eat of the fruit, the “eyes of our minds,” as one gnostic author wrote, will be opened.  Maybe we will finally recognize that we have been in Eden all along, and then we can begin working toward recreating the Paradise Garden we were meant to have all along.

The lion rider:

stele_of_qadesh_upper-frame2

These days a naked lady holding a snake and riding a lion is not the first image which comes to mind when the word “holy” is spoken. However, that is exactly the title of the goddess at the center of the picture above. This particular example is Egyptian, but this is a Canaanite (pre-Israelite) goddess from the Bronze Age, who is depicted much the same way throughout the region all the way up to Syria in that time period.  She is labeled Qadesh (Qudshu), which means “the Holy One.” Who is she?  Some say an as yet unknown deity whose name is Qadesh. Most, however, assume this is an epithet of one of the major Canaanite goddesses.  She might be Astarte (Ashtart, biblical Ashtoreth), the western variant of Babylonian Ishtar, goddess of the planet Venus (a.k.a. the Morning and Evening Star) and the Goddess of Love and War.  This goddess was associated with a lion there. But more likely she is Asherah, the Mother Goddess,  who is called in some written documents the Qadesh and also is frequently given the title the Lion Lady.

This Egyptian version is from the wealthy New Kingdom era, after Egypt had thrown off its West Asian warlords, the Hyksos, and gone on to conquer the Canaanites who worshiped this goddess.  She is depicted in both Canaan and Egypt wearing the wig of Hathor, an ancient Egyptian Goddess of Love and Fertility, and here she also bears Hathor’s cow horns and sun disc.  These are no doubt intended to show that this Canaanite goddess is equated with Hathor, that they are aspects of the same divine feminine power.

The flower and the nudity are natural symbols of fertility; the snake is associated with wisdom. This fits with the archaeological evidence that Asherah was worshiped by the Canaanites and later Israelites as the Mother Goddess and the Tree of Life.  (See Asherah Part I and Part II.) But why is Asherah the Lion Lady?

I don’t know the answer to that question. But I do know that Asherah’s association with lions is far from unique in the ancient world. In fact, the Lady of the Lions is an image that extends across time for more than 6,000 years and across a wide geographic region as far as Minoan Crete to the west, Anatolia (Turkey) to the north, and Mesopotamia (Sumer, Babylon, modern Iraq) to the east. More than 40 goddesses in Egypt were associated with lions or other felines. Asherah herself would continue to be depicted with lions past the heyday of the Canaanites and through the days when Israel was the nation ruling that region.

Often, a goddess with lion symbolism is associated with a god identified with the bull.  This is the case with Asherah, whose spouse was originally El, the Bull God, Father God of the Canaanites.  Mythologist Joseph Campbell associated lions with the sun and bulls (and snakes) with the moon.  So it is possible we have the remains here of an ancient identification of Sun Goddess and Moon God (just the reverse of the later pattern, interestingly).

Some Lion Goddesses are warriors. Lion-headed Sekhmet once battled the enemies of the sun god in Egypt and the lion (sometimes tiger) riding goddess Durga battles demons in India. One of the primary associations with lions is clearly strength, power and protection.  They often appear in positions suggesting they are guarding a person or place of importance.  Lions were emblems of the ruling tribe of Judah (the tribe of King David). According to the Hebrew Bible, the throne of King Solomon was covered with ivory, overlaid with gold and featured lions on each side of the armrests.  Six steps led up to it and twelve lions stood on them, one at either end of each step. (I Kings 10:18-20.) The biblical passage claims nothing like it had ever been seen before. Maybe Solomon’s throne was the fanciest ever, and maybe not, but the lions guarding it certainly weren’t a new idea. In fact, lions were guarding the thrones of deities and kings well, all over the place before, during, and long after Solomon’s day. Lions are considered so powerful that their images eventually came to protect the thrones of kings as far away as China and England. Lions also guarded the gates of the great cities of the ancient empires of the Babylonians, the Hittites, and the early Greek Mycenaeans.

Variations on the lion often served as guardians of the sacred. Two cherubim, which are depicted in ancient art as winged lions, sometimes with human heads, are said to be guarding the way back into the Garden of Eden. (Later, cherubim were seen as angels.) Two cherubim of gold sat atop the Ark of the Covenant, guarding it with their wings. The enigmatic human-headed lion, the Great Sphinx, guards the Great Pyramids still today.

Perhaps most importantly, lions guarded the thrones of goddesses long before Solomon’s day, perhaps before even the invention of kingship. Long, long ago, back into the murky past of the Neolithic towns of the world’s first farmers in Anatolia, these giant felines guarded the throne of the Goddess. Lions have been the companions and perhaps the guardians of the Goddess, in other words, since the beginnings of what we might call Western Civilization and spread from there throughout the entire Old World.

The Lion Ladies

Ancient goddess whose name is unknown from one of humankind’s most ancient towns, Catal Hoyuk, in what is now Turkey. She was created about 8,000 years ago. Photo by Stanisław Nowak, Wikimedia Commons.

The figure to the right was created by an unknown artist about 8,000 years ago in an Anatolian town called Catal Hoyuk in what is now the country of Turkey.  Although she was created long before writing was invented, we can clearly see she is a figure of some power, seated on what appears to be a throne. Her armrests are supported by two large felines, just as were Solomon’s 5,000 years later.  These are sometimes identified as leopards, and they may be, but it seems more likely to me that they were lionesses. At the time this statue was made, Asiatic lions roamed this area and throughout the rest of western Asia.  They could be found as far eastward as India, where their only living descendants (about 400 of them) can still be found today.

Notice that the Lion Lady here is, like Asherah and a great many Mother Goddesses, naked.  We do not know her name, but we recognize her anyway.  Unless she represents a queen who inexplicably rules in the nude (an assumption which might make conservative scholars squirm even more uncomfortably in their seats), the common sense interpretation of this figure is that she is a goddess–and a powerful one at that.

Cybele

Compare this image to the sketch (left) of a statue of the Greco-Roman Goddess Cybele.  Cybele comes originally from the same area as the Catal Hoyuk goddess, just much, much later (6,000 years later).   Although lions are often considered a solar symbol and some goddesses associated with them are Sun Goddesses, Cybele is an Earth Goddess. The Romans called her Magna Mater, or Great Mother, Mountain Mother, and Mother of the Gods.  Originally a Nature Goddess, she could be a powerful protector of nations as well.  The crown on her head represents the walls of a city and her lions could also be found hitched to her chariot. She was adopted into Rome about 200 BC with the hope she would defend them against Hannibal in the Second Punic War. Apparently, Rome’s confidence in her was well placed, as they defeated Hannibal and eventually went on, of course, to become the greatest empire in the ancient world.

About arnulfo

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