Weeping for Tammuz: The Queen of Heaven and the dying god.

The Queen of Heaven mourns her loss

Nothing sums up the meaning of the Christian Good Friday like Michelangelo’s gorgeous sculpture of Mary grieving over her crucified son. Scenes like this, called pietas, or lamentations, became popular especially among women in 14th century Europe. Perhaps without even realizing it, the artists who created these images were restoring the Queen of Heaven to one of her oldest roles – that of the one who sheds tears over the loss of the dying god who will conquer death.  This is a very old motif, far older than Christianity.

Before Mary and Jesus entered the roles, Isis wept in Egypt over the broken pieces of her husband Osiris, whose subsequent rebirth from death was aided by her reassembly of the pieces of his corpse and whose presence in the afterlife helped assure Egyptians that they too would live beyond death.

In a similar vein, the grain goddess Demeter wept over her daughter Persephone, who was kidnapped and taken to the underworld by Hades, the god of the dead. Demeter mourned so heavily that she refused to allow the crops to grow. All mankind were in danger of dying from the famine when the gods of Olympus finally intervened. Unfortunately for her, Persephone ate six seeds from a pomegranate, an act which prevented her escape under the obscure rules of the underworld. The best deal even old Zeus himself could broker was for her to spend six months above ground with her mother each year. Rules are rules and even the king of the gods cannot break them, apparently. Ever afterward Persephone visited her mother above ground in the summertime. In winter, she remained below ground and became the queen of the dead.

This Greek version of the dead-and-reborn deity theme formed the central myth of the Eleusinian Mysteries. This was a cult in which devotees practiced rites probably intended to help ensure they would experience a pleasant afterlife rather than waste away in gloomy Hades with the other shades. The mysteries, which were practiced in the time of Christianity’s birth as a religion and may have significantly impacted its traditions, were a carefully guarded secret. Naturally, then, a number of exciting theories have sprung up about their nature.  Some scholars believe they conjured visions of the afterlife by taking drugs with psychedelic properties and some believe that the mysteries predate classical times, extending backward to the Bronze Age pre-Greek  Myceneans or even to the Minoans who came before them.  Since the latter were a culture whose religion appears to have been heavily dominated by goddesses and female priestesses, this myth could represent a holdover of feminine religion in a fairly severely patriarchal culture. Greek women were allowed into the mysteries, providing another parallel with early Christianity. Whatever the big secret was, the mysteries clearly combined themes of death and rebirth of a goddess and accompanying themes of that event being tied to the agricultural cycle, fertility, and the fate of the dead.

In the Near East, the dying-and-reborn god was Tammuz, who was worshiped well beyond the borders of his original Mesopotamian homeland. The Hebrew Bible reports that even the women of Israel were mourning for the dying god Tammuz in the time of the prophet Ezekiel, just before Babylon conquered Judah and took over the holy city of Jerusalem.  Tammuz, like Persephone, spent half the year in the underworld, returning with the vegetation. Why?  He was ordered to do so by the Queen of Heaven herself, the goddess Ishtar.

Tammuz was the Babylonian version of the even earlier god Dumuzi, a shepherd and farmer god who ancient hymns tell us married  the great Sumerian Queen of Heaven Inanna, daughter of the moon and sister of the sun. Inanna’s accomplishments were many.  She had stolen the tablets of wisdom from the god of wisdom himself, Enki. She was a fierce War Goddess and she was the Goddess of Love, linked in ritual and hymn with the life giving force of fertility. When Inanna and Dumuzi made love they were allowing the crops to grow, the herds and flocks to thrive and people to carry on through their children. The Sumerians did not share our embarassment about sex and were quite explicit in using it as a religious metaphor.

Says Inanna, calling Dumuzi to the marriage bed:

My vulva, the horn,  
The Boat of Heaven,  
Is full of eagerness like the young moon.  
My untilled land lies fallow. 

As for me, Inanna,  
Who will plow my vulva?
Who will plow my high field? 
Who will plow my wet ground?

His marriage to Inanna confers upon him the kingship of the land, a fact made clear by the speech of Inanna’s servant Ninshubur:

My queen, here is the choice of your heart,
The king, your beloved bridegroom.
May he spend long days in the sweetness of your holy loins.
Give him a favorable and glorious reign.
Grant him the king’s throne, firm in its foundations.
Grant him the shepherd’s staff of judgment.
Grant him the enduring crown with the radiant and noble diadem….
Let his shepherd’s staff protect all of Sumer and Akkad.

Ninshubur continues, making the new king’s role as a fertility god clear:

As the farmer, let him make the fields fertile,  
As the shepherd, let him make the sheepfolds multiply,  
Under his reign let there be vegetation,  
Under his reign let there be rich grain. 

In the marshland may the fish and birds chatter,  
In the canebrake may the young and old reeds grow high,  
In the steppe may the mashgur-trees grow high,  
In the forests may the deer and wild goats multiply,  
In the orchards may there be honey and wine, 

In the gardens may the lettuce and cress grow high,  
In the palace may there be long life. 
May there be floodwater in the Tigris and Euphrates,  
May the plants grow high on their banks and fill the meadows,  
May the Lady of Vegetation pile the grain in heaps and mounds. 

O my Queen of Heaven and Earth,
Queen of all the universe,
May he enjoy long days in the sweetness of your holy loins.

–excerpts from “The Courtship of Inanna and Dumuzi,” in Inanna, Queen of Heaven and Earth: Her Stories and Hymns from Sumer, by Diane Wolkstein and S.N. Kramer, a book I highly recommend for those interested in learning more about this ancient goddess.

Sadly, the two had a rather terrible falling out later, which led to Inanna’s literally telling her husband to go to Hell.

To the Babylonians, Inanna’s name was Ishtar, and traveling westward, she became the Canaanite/Phoenician Astarte, the Queen of Heaven and Ashtoreth in the Bible, and ultimately probably became Aphrodite to the Greeks and Venus to the Romans. By all these names she was also known as the planet we call Venus, also known as the Morning and Evening Star.

She was extolled in hymns as the great lady of heaven, the holy torch, and called “mighty, majestic and radiant.”  She was the “Proud Queen of the Earth Gods” and “Supreme Among the Heaven Gods,” and so on. She brightened the night and the morning and could make the earth tremble.

One of her greatest accomplishments, however, may have been her role as the original victor over death. Before she ever condemned Dumuzi to the underworld, she visited the place herself. Thousands of years before the Christian era, Inanna decided to face the ultimate challenge: she descended into Hell, died for three days, and returned to tell the tale. But there was a catch. She was tailed by demons upon her return because even a goddess could not just leave the underworld in Sumer any more than she could in Greece. In order to be allowed to remain above ground, she must provide a substitute to appease the demons. When she arrived home to find her faithless lover all gussied up in fine robes and celebrating in her absence, she chose him to pay her price: ever after he was to take her place in the underworld. Even so, the Sumerians said Inanna wept for her lost husband.

Inanna’s Homeland
The place where Inanna and Dumuzi were beloved was the land between the lower Tigris and Euphrates rivers, up to the point where they empty into the Persian Gulf. It is now home to the troubled and arid Muslim nation of Iraq. But thousands of years ago this land supported the first ever complex city-based civilization. Sumer was basically a nation made up of allied and culturally related city states which formed in the lush and fertile green section between the rivers (known as Mesopotamia) beginning about 3,500 B.C. To give a little historical perspective, that’s about 5,500 years ago, about 3,500 years before Jesus’ lifetime, about 2,500 years before the nation of Israel came into being, and about 1,000 years before the Great Pyramids were constructed.  There in Sumer, humans first invented writing and the wheel  and first wrote the original versions of many of the stories still preached from the pulpit today (including the creation of humans from clay and the original version of Noah’s Ark). Their land may have been the source of the Eden legend, as its boundaries included four rivers and two of these were the Tigris and the Euphrates. Abraham is also said to have come from the city-state of Ur in Sumer. So the stories of this ancient place are deeply related to our stories. Its history is our history. Once upon a time there was Jesus, yes, but once upon a time much longer ago, there was Dumuzi. And in both times there was a Queen of Heaven. In her later incarnation she is pure and sorrowful, a mother who has lost a god-son. In her earlier incarnation, she was a bit more…feisty.

Inanna’s Trip to Hell

Inanna’s trip to Hell begins for no clearly stated reason.  Perhaps she was bored; perhaps she just wanted to visit her sister Erishkigal, who as queen of the underworld was always trapped below the earth with the shades of the dead; or perhaps, as is implied by some of the other gods’ reactions to her behavior, she hoped to take over the underworld and become a goddess of both Heaven and Hell. Whatever the case, the realm she entered was conceived as a gloomy one, even though the sun shone by night there after it descended below the horizon. Access to the underworld came by grave or by descent through special portals, one of which was apparently in Inanna’s home city of Erech. The underworld was reached by crossing the river of the dead and passing through seven successive gates.

As she arrived at each gate, Inanna met with guardians who removed articles of her finery until finally she reached the inner level completely naked.  Here she was in the realm ruled over by her sister, the fierce and gloomy Erishkigal, goddess of the dead. Erishkigal welcomed her sister less than warmly. She had her judges give Inanna the look of death, whereupon Inanna was turned to a corpse and hung on a meat hook. This dysfunctional family gathering might have ended on this sour note but for Inanna’s cleverness. She held no illusions about her sister’s gruesome tendencies apparently. Before leaving she instructed her servant Ninshubur to seek the aid of her above-ground relatives should she fail to return.  Accordingly, once three days had passed, the dutiful Ninshubur visited Grandpa Enlil, the chief god, Inanna’s father Nanna, the moon god, and finally her great uncle Enki, god of wisdom, in search of aid. The first two refused her, but good old uncle Enki, apparently holding no grudge over Inanna’s theft of his tablets of wisdom, stepped in.  Enki gave Ninshubur two sexless entities made out of the dirt in his fingernails. He gave them the water of life and the food of life and ordered them to accompany her to the underworld to aid in the rescue of Inanna.  These two entities, apparently immune to the ordinary effects of the death goddess’ realm, carried the food and water of  life to the lowest level of Hell where they used them to revive Inanna. Thus released from the grip of death, Inanna was allowed to return from the underworld, but only on condition that she send back a substitute. Demons accompanied her, ready and willing to haul her back underground should she fail to procure a replacement.

Arriving back in the upperworld, she was pleased to find many gods properly mourning her passing by wearing soiled sackloth. Her husband Dumuzi rather starkly contrasted with the others in that he was dressed in glittering finery, sitting on her throne, and generally giving the appearance that he was not exactly torn up over his wife’s recent demise. When he discovered too late that reports of Inanna’s death had been greatly exaggerated, he found himself dragged off by the demons to serve as a substitute for his wife.

Dumuzi’s sister Geshtinanna offered to spend half the year underground for Dumuzi. And so a pattern was established in which Dumuzi went underground when the earth was barren and returned with the vegetation in the growing season.The annual descent of Dumuzi/Tammuz was accompanied by the wailing of women throughout the Near East in the Bronze Age and well into the Iron Age.

Their tears joined those of Inanna for her lost husband.  Even though it was she who condemned him, we are told:

Inanna wept for Dumuzi:
Gone is my husband , my sweet husband
Gone is my love, my sweet love.
My beloved has been taken from the city.
O, you flies of the steppe,
My beloved bridegroom has been taken from me
Before I could wrap him with a proper shroud.

In the same ancient text, we are told that Inanna’s mourning is accompanied by that of Dumuzi’s mother and of his sister and even that the whole city laments with her. Dumuzi even cries for himself and, stumbling about on the steppe, his “heart filled with tears” he begs nature to mourn for him as well:

Oh steppe, set up a wail for me!
O crabs in the river, mourn for me!
O frogs in the river, call for me!
O my mother, Sirtur, weep for me!

–quotes from Wolkstein, Inanna Queen of Heaven and Earth (see also above)

There is no evidence I am aware of which suggests that human participation in the rituals commemorating these events was believed to carry the promise of an afterlife.  Sumerians already expected that they would live on in the afterlife, though they seem to have viewed this afterlife as a gloomier, paler reflection of life on earth. Those who had ruled in life were still kings below and the dead were judged by the sun god (or goddess in the western variation on the theme) and assigned an appropriate fate. People in the afterlife ate and drank and lived in houses and carried out their duties just as did those above ground.

So in this most ancient of cosmologies, the individual’s shot at life after death was not at stake in the death of the goddess. What happened if Inanna (or her spouse) didn’t return was that fertility failed.  We are accustomed to hearing the term “fertility cult” bandied about as if it were a somewhat insignificant, if titillating, religious oddity.  But fertility is no small thing. It is life itself. Without fertility, there is no life.  It is interesting to note there is also an  obscure reference in the myth to Erishkigal being a mother who has just given birth. It is through offering her their sympathy that the fingernail-dirt creatures are able to obtain permission to take Inanna’s corpse off the hook so they can bring it back to life.

Humans participated in the rituals of the dying-and-reborn gods because they were the stuff of nature. Returning from the underworld in his appropriate agricultural season Dumuzi brought the Sumerians (or became?) their food. I can’t help but think of the eucharist as something of a parallel here.  The people remembered Inanna’s and Dumuzi’s journeys below and their return to the earth and the heavens because their presence among the living was necessary to ensure that the cattle, and donkeys, and people shared the gift of love and made little copies of themselves. It brought nothing less than the continuation of life on earth. In that unending cycle of death and rebirth lay all their hopes for the future.

Posted in goddess, Inanna, Queen of Heaven, Sumerian/Babylonian | 20 Comments

Did God have breasts?

Artemis (Diana) of Ephesus seems exotic to us today. Is it possible she has more in common with our own God than we realize?

In medieval times, the followers (or alleged followers) of the goddess Diana were greatly feared as witches. It was believed that they could cast curses upon men, change themselves into animals, and fly. They were believed to be in league with the Devil and a plague upon their fellow citizens. They were also believed to be primarily women.

By contrast, the worshipers of the Christian god (er, excuse me, God) were following the path of virtue. They were obedient followers of the one true God and his glorious son, Jesus, who was the very personification of goodness and mercy, love and light. They were saved from their inherent tendency toward wickedness, called to do good works, and promised a place in heaven at the end of it all. Their priests were, of course, exclusively male.

All this misogynistic mythologizing tends to obscure the fact that the God of the Bible and the (again, alleged) goddess of the witches share several important and surprising traits. They both come as a trinity, they both absorbed other deities over time to become uber-gods, and – perhaps most surprising – they may both have had breasts.

(This is a long essay, even for me. I have divided it into four parts for the reader’s convenience. I deal with that last and most controversial claim–that the God of the Bible had breasts–in part 4. You are, of course, free to skip ahead.)

1. Diana absorbs other goddesses on the way to becoming Queen of Heaven:

Diana was originally a goddess of the woodlands, a maiden huntress who spurned romance and men in general. She preferred the company of nine-year old girls, maiden nymphs, and her hounds. She was identified by the Romans as being the same as the Greek Artemis. Artemis was the daughter of Zeus and the twin sister of Apollo. Shortly after being born she helped her mother Leto deliver her brother. Because of that she gained a reputation as a comforter and aid to childbearing women, which seems almost paradoxical given her refusal to become a wife and mother herself. Artemis was probably not originally a lunar goddess. However, her character began to change over time as she assimilated two other goddesses into her persona. These were Hecate, the Queen of Night, and Selene, the moon goddess.

Hecate was a goddess of the threshold, who could be found at crossroads, in doorways, and in graveyards. Dogs were sacred to her, especially black ones. Hecate is depicted in the tale of Jason and the Argonauts as the helper to the wicked witch Medea, a willing accomplice to murder and mayhem. However, this may be a demonization of an earlier, more benevolent goddess. She is also identified as the “tender-hearted” and the torchbearer. It is Hecate who hears the maiden goddess Persephone’s cry when the underworld god Hades kidnaps her, and Hecate who helps Persephone’s mother, the Grain Goddess Demeter, find her daughter in the underworld. When Diana merges with Hecate, she becomes a goddess of the night, an identity made complete when she assimilates the moon goddess into her person as well. Selene was a titan of the generation before the Olympian Gods came to power. It was she who carried the moon into the sky each night in a chariot pulled by white horses. These three — Diana, Hecate, and Selene — were represented as a trinity, three gods in one person.

The gorgeous statue of Diana of Ephesus, above, represents yet another merger undertaken by Diana.  This is the direction in which she was developing in the region of Asia Minor (Turkey) during the Roman Empire, at the time when Christianity was also spreading there. The Temple of Artemis where she was worshiped in Ephesus was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. This Diana is represented with the characteristics of a very ancient goddess of the region, who was named Cybele. Cybele was called by Romans the Magna Mater, which means the Great Mother. She was believed to be the mother of all the gods and was known as a mountain goddess and earth mother. The crown on top of her head signifies the walls of a city and represents her power to protect the people within the walls.  Her many breasts signify the nourishment she offers her people as the Earth Mother. Her ebony skin may signify the earth.

Cybele was more commonly depicted as she is here, still with the city crown, but placed on a throne flanked by lions. She also paraded around Rome in a chariot pulled by lions.

Cybele was, in late Roman times, already becoming the “Mother of all that exists” as one Roman hymn called her. Another late Roman hymn, quoted in The Myth of the Goddess: Evolution of an Image, by Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, has this to say about her:

The food of life
Thou metest out in eternal loyalty
And, when life has left us,
We take our refuge in Thee.
Thus everything Thou dolest out
Returns into Thy womb.
Rightly Thou art called the Mother of the Gods
Because by Thy loyalty
Thou hast conquered the power of the Gods.
Verily Thou art also the Mother
Of the peoples and the Gods,
Without Thee nothing can thrive nor be;
Thou art powerful, of the Gods Thou art
The queen and also the goddess.

Could Artemis/Diana/Cybele of Ephesus have morphed from greatest of the gods to the one and only God, given enough time and less serious competition for the role? We’ll never know. Another God grabbed the golden ring.

2. The Goddess vs. the God.

The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus

Ephesian Artemis receives a brief mention in the New Testament, when her worshipers resisted the preaching of Paul, the Jewish Christian who took on the mission of spreading Christian teachings to the Greco-Roman world. Allegedly, the confrontation led to a riot. As the author of the Book of Acts reported events:

About that time there arose a great disturbance about the Way. A silversmith named Demetrius, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought in a lot of business for the craftsmen there. He called them together, along with the workers in related trades, and said: “You know, my friends, that we receive a good income from this business. And you see and hear how this fellow Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people here in Ephesus and in practically the whole province of Asia. He says that gods made by human hands are no gods at all. There is danger not only that our trade will lose its good name, but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis will be discredited; and the goddess herself, who is worshiped throughout the province of Asia and the world, will be robbed of her divine majesty.”

Russian icon, 18th century, of the Apostle Paul.

When they heard this, they were furious and began shouting: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”  Soon the whole city was in an uproar. The people seized Gaius and Aristarchus, Paul’s traveling companions from Macedonia, and all of them rushed into the theater together. Paul wanted to appear before the crowd, but the disciples would not let him. Even some of the officials of the province, friends of Paul, sent him a message begging him not to venture into the theater.

The assembly was in confusion: Some were shouting one thing, some another. Most of the people did not even know why they were there. The Jews in the crowd pushed Alexander to the front, and they shouted instructions to him. He motioned for silence in order to make a defense before the people. But when they realized he was a Jew, they all shouted in unison for about two hours: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”

The city clerk quieted the crowd and said: “Fellow Ephesians, doesn’t all the world know that the city of Ephesus is the guardian of the temple of the great Artemis and of her image, which fell from heaven? Therefore, since these facts are undeniable, you ought to calm down and not do anything rash. You have brought these men here, though they have neither robbed temples nor blasphemed our goddess. If, then, Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen have a grievance against anybody, the courts are open and there are proconsuls. They can press charges. If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly. As it is, we are in danger of being charged with rioting because of what happened today. In that case we would not be able to account for this commotion, since there is no reason for it.” After he had said this, he dismissed the assembly. (Acts 19:23-41)

The “image which fell from heaven” was a black meteor which was worshiped as an image of the goddess Cybele. The confrontation described in this passage seems unlikely in Christianity’s early days, but we can see here the importance and popularity of the merged Cybele-Diana Great Mother. The two religions would most definitely clash once Christianity began gaining a significant following. Christianity won, of course, and history records that the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus was torn down in 401 A.D. Arguably, Diana of Ephesus could have eventually evolved to become the God of the western world. Instead, we got Yahweh.

3. Yahweh absorbs other gods on the way to becoming King of Heaven.

Moses and the Burning Bush by Sebastien Bourdon. 17th century.

Just as Diana probably had humble beginnings out in some forest grove somewhere, Yahweh probably got his start among some desert tribe. Who was this god who became God? Some think he was originally a god of the Midianites, the people among whom Moses found a wife. It was in Midian that Moses encountered Yahweh in the form of a burning bush. Wherever he originally came from, Yahweh, like Diana, followed a pattern of absorbing other deities on his way to becoming an uber-god.

The Iron Age occupants of Israel have a reputation as the creators of monotheism, but objective biblical scholars (the ones without a religious motive behind their research) believe that archaeological and religious records indicate this development was slow in coming. To be blunt: most of the Israelites through most of their history were probably, as it turns out, polytheists. And this was not simply a matter of falling into the habit of taking on foreign religion. Rather, the Israelites were probably themselves Canaanites and their original gods appear to have been Canaanite gods. The most prominent of these were Father El, Mother Asherah, Baal the storm god, his sister the warrior Anat and his spouse Astarte (aka Ashtoreth), the Queen of Heaven.  Most of these are, of course, mentioned by name in the Bible.

During Yahweh’s long bid for monotheistic supremacy, some of these rivals were demonized and some were assimilated. Baal and Yahweh often appear as competitors for Jewish affection in the Bible itself, but Yahweh also borrowed his metaphors from Baal. In Psalms, he becomes the Rider on the Clouds, a storm god just like Baal: He parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet. (Psalms 18:9) Baal’s sister Anat the warrioress is not mentioned in the Bible. However, some of the more unpleasant, bloodthirsty warrior imagery given to God may have been borrowed from her, as it is comparable to descriptions of her in the Epic of Baal. In Deuteronomy 32:42, for example, God says: I will make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours flesh: the blood of the slain and the captives, the heads of the enemy leaders. In Isaiah 49:26 the devouring and blood drinking is left to the enemy: I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh; they will be drunk on their own blood, as with wine. Compare Anat’s delight in battle: For Anat’s hand is victory; For knee-deep She plunges in the blood of soldiery; Up to the neck in the gore of troops. Until She is sated She smites in the house. Fights between the two tables, shedding the blood of soldiery. She also is described as gleefully stacking up the heads of the enemy.

El of Canaan.

Perhaps the most obvious God merger of all is between the two father gods. The Bible refers to God primarily by two names: Yahweh and El. But El is also the father god of the Canaanites, a bearded old king of the gods. There is no real reason (outside of religious apologetics) to think that the Canaanite God El is a different person than the Hebrew God El.

Even more interesting, the particular El who made a covenant with Abraham was called El Shaddai. El Shaddai is translated into English as God Almighty. Scholars now agree that this translation is wrong. What they do not agree upon is what might be the correct translation of El Shaddai. The majority opinion is that this means the God of the Mountain, which makes perfect sense given that old Daddy El of the Canaanites lived in a mountain where he led the council of the 70 gods. There is, however, a second opinion which would, if it is true, revolutionize everything we understand about our God. According to Professor David Biale, the more likely interpretation of El Shaddai is the God with Breasts. Which brings us to our next point.

4. Maybe our God has breasts too.

The word shadu, in Akkadian, means mountain; the word shad, in Hebrew, means breast. One of these is likely the root of the name El Shaddai. But is “he” the God of the Mountain or the God with the Breasts? I think the likely answer to this question is BOTH.

But let’s backtrack a bit, starting with a timeline of the major events relevant to determining just who El Shaddai was. First, Father Abraham left Ur in Mesopotamia (where they spoke Akkadian) and  moved to Canaan (aka the land of milk and honey). Subsequently he began the family from whom all Israel descended. During his exciting life he had the distinct honor of personally encountering a god who called himself El Shaddai. Whether Abraham was real or not is a matter for debate but his lifetime, legendary or real, would have been around 2,000 BC, give or take a couple hundred years. Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat  Jacob (aka Isra-El), and Jacob begat Joseph, who led the family to Egypt when the milk and honey dried up for awhile. All of these patriarchs of Israel were blessed by El Shaddai, a fact recorded with flowery language about being fruitful and multiplying. El Shaddai, in Genesis, acted like a fertility god.

Somewhere around 1400-1300 BC, the whole Egypt thing turned into kind of a bad deal and the Israelites were led out of there and back toward Canaan by Moses. This famous leader, who, again, could be either real or legendary, encountered a God too. He introduced himself (from a flaming bush) as Yahweh. This desert deity, we are assured by a later priestly editor, was identical to the God with whom Abraham interacted: God spoke to Moses and said to him, ‘I am Yahweh. To Abraham, Isaac and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai, but I did not make my name Yahweh known to them.’ (Exodus 6:2-3). Well thank goodness we got that settled.

Some centuries after they finally settled in Israel, folks decided they wanted a king.  One of the most famous of these was David and it may have been in David’s time, around 1,000 BC, that somebody thought maybe they ought to start writing this stuff down. After that, a number of books were written, rewritten and spliced together over several centuries. Some things weren’t written down until after Israel was destroyed by Assyria and the Babylonians sacked Judah (the southern kingdom in which Jerusalem stood) and took everybody who was anybody off to Babylon. Priestly editors put a lot of the Hebrew Bible together then, in about 500 BC. (Some say later). In later texts, El Shaddai appears as a war god, completely consistent with Yahweh. The older conception, says Professor Biale, was probably the one associated with fertility in Genesis. One of the oldest of these is the blessing conferred upon Joseph, the “prince among his brothers” by his father Jacob, who is on his death bed. Jacob says his favorite son will be blessed

…because of your father’s God, who helps you, because of the Almighty [Shaddai], who blesses you with blessings of the heavens above, blessings of the deep that lies below, blessings of the breast [shadayim] and womb.” Genesis 49:25

Notice the pairing of Shaddai with shadayim, the word for breast(s). Could this be the original meaning of Shaddai? The one who blesses with “his” breasts? If so, we are in some pretty strange territory here. A thousand years have passed between the time when Jacob gave his blessing and the time when it was recorded. The author is deliberately making wordplay here. But why? Is he carrying on an old but forgotten tradition or making an allusion which would be accepted by his reader in his  own time?

I think we should keep in mind archaeologist William Dever’s assertion here that Yahweh and El were each believed  by their worshipers to have been married to this woman:


This Goddess is Asherah, often mentioned in the Bible as one of the “false” gods of other peoples who was wrongly worshiped by the Israelites. Modern archaeological evidence suggests, however, that she was actually a local goddess, the Mother Goddess of both Canaan and Israel, and the wife of both El and Yahweh. (Hear the archaeologist speaking about those discoveries here and learn more about Asherah in my previous series on her, beginning here.)  Notice the prominent display of her breasts. Is she offering her devotee milk? Imagine believing in a God who would literally suckle you. With her breasts, Asherah offers nourishment to her people. She is the source of life and an aid to mothers, in much the same way as was the Ephesian uber-Diana. Does El Shaddai have the same power? After conferring the blessings of breast and womb upon his son, Jacob goes on to talk about the “blessings of ancient mountains” and the “bounty of everlasting hills.” We have seen this combination of associations in the Magna Mater. Is it possible that El Shaddai combines them as well? It turns out that shadu, Akkadian for mountain comes itself from the earlier Akkadian word for breast. Isn’t it possible, suggests Biale, that it continued to mean both?

I like this argument. In fact, Biale says, it could be taken one step further: If you are going to have a monotheistic God, why not give him/her the trademark traits of both the Mother and Father Goddesses? Why not call this God by a name which immediately calls to mind both Father of the Mountain and Mother of the Breast?  If  God as El Shaddai takes his name from both mountain and breast, then perhaps “he” has assimilated Asherah. Now, like Cybele, El Shaddai IS mountain and breast, mother earth, feeding her people and making them fertile.

A monotheistic God must be more than a father to his people. He needs also to be a comforting mother and a source of life (fertility) to his people. He needs to be not just God but God/dess, transcending gender. Sometimes he succeeds in this in the tradition. For example, in Isaiah 66:13, God says: As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you… When he fails to do this and becomes too much the angry, bearded man in the sky he has had to be balanced, in Christian tradition, by the ever merciful mother Mary. (To whom Diana’s Ephesian titles Queen of Heaven and Mother of God(s) were given. More on that here. )

In the the long journey toward monotheism, Goddess eventually lost out to God. Asherah was largely forgotten as was Diana of Ephesus. Diana became the goddess of the witches and not the God of the western world. God’s breasts were forgotten. Perhaps his beard grew too long for them to be noticed anymore.

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Aphrodite documentary in the works

This is the trailer for a very interesting documentary project on Aphrodite in her original homeland on the island of Cyprus:

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I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.

Joyce Kilmer

What is it about trees, anyway?  To walk through a grove of them is almost to sense the presence of a Goddess around you.  Today I walked through a plum orchard, past an oak grove and toward a field in which we are preparing to plant hazelnuts.  There was no wind and even if there had been, there were no leaves for it to rustle.  In February, the trees are all graceful branches growing out of smooth or knobbly trunks.  They almost look  — well — human.

Perhaps this is why many Goddesses have been worshiped in groves of trees, and why some have been pictured as trees.  Asherah, the Canaanite mother goddess who was apparently (according to the Bible) worshiped by a great many Hebrews, was identified with a tree and worshiped in groves. Brigit of Ireland, who was first a goddess and then a saint was served by 19 nuns who tended a sacred flame at Kildare, which  means the  Church of the Oak.  Back in the day, the nuns were no doubt priestesses and the goddess associated with springs, wells, and groves. Lithuanian Sun Goddess Saule was said to perch atop a tree at the summer solstice each year. Diana, the Roman Goddess of the hunt and later the moon, whose cult eventually came to compete with Christianity for the hearts of the Roman Empire was originally a goddess of the grove.

If events had turned out differently, significant numbers of people in Europe, the Americas, and other Christian countries might be dancing in groves this Sunday instead of visiting buildings with stained glass windows.

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Black is Beautiful: A Black Madonna gallery

Virgin of Montserrat

Who are they?

The Black Madonnas are ostensibly medieval images of the Christian Mother of God, often with her child, the incarnate God Jesus, in which she is depicted as black.  Mary is so typically presented throughout medieval Europe as white and often even blonde (even though the human Mary would not have been) that many believe that black depictions of Mary are intended to convey a specific, perhaps secret, spiritual belief about her.  The most popular theories are:

1-Her color is a reference to the Song of Solomon (aka Song of Songs), a biblical book containing a love story about a man (often assumed to be King Solomon) and his beloved, who is described as black. (“I am black, but comely, O ye daughters of Jerusalem,” she sings in Song of Solomon 1:5)

2-Her depiction as black refers to a “dark secret,” a hidden truth. Some assert that the secret identity of this woman is Mary Magdalene, alleged to be Jesus’ wife, and the child is theirs, allegedly the carrier of the royal blood (the Holy Grail).  This theory has been presented clearly by Margaret Starbird’s book The Woman with the Alabaster Jar, which was one of the sources for Dan Brown’s popular (and controversial) conspiracy thriller novel The DaVinci Code.  It has also been suggested that the black color might refer to a less literal, more abstract identity of the Feminine Divine as, for example, personifying wisdom.

Isis nursing Horus

3-The dark color is due to the fact that the Christian converts of Middle Ages France and Spain (where most are found) were still actually worshiping older earth goddesses, which were often thought of as black, like the earth. In particular, both France and Spain were areas where Isis with her son Horus were worshiped during the days when they were part of the Roman Empire, and Isis was often depicted as black.  It’s worth noting that these explanations are not mutually exclusive. More than one of them could be true.  The Feminine Divine has great staying power and many of her devotees have been less concerned with dogma than with felt experience.  Her maternal presence, and her evoking of the idea of the bride or beloved (directly or by analogy the beloved of God) are what is sought.  Her name may have been less important.

Where are they?

There are several hundred Black Madonnas found throughout Europe but most of these are to be found in France and Spain. Famous Black Madonnas also appeared in Mexico, Brazil and the Philippines after contact from Spanish explorers/conquerors.

Some Black Madonnas:

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa

The Black Madonna of Czestochowa (above) is a Polish icon at least 600 years old and possibly much older. It was allegedly created by St. Luke himself while Mary told him the story of Jesus’ life, later to be retold as the Gospel of Luke. The fleur-de-lis, the symbol of France, must necessarily have been added later. Whatever her origins, the Madonna arrived in Poland sometime during the Middle Ages and is credited, like so many Black Madonnas, with both personal healings and wartime victories. She is said to have protected Poland from Swedish invasion in the 17th Century. The scars on her cheek were made by the sword of one of the thieves who attempted to steal the painting from the monastery in which she was living in the 15th Century. They were unable to steal the painting. Those familiar with Black Madonnas have learned that her images turn up where they want to, demand to dwell in particular locations, and cannot be moved from them unless they choose to go. This Madonna was crowned Queen and Protector of Poland in 1656 and was more recently beloved by John Paul II (1920-2005), the first Polish pope.

Black Madonna of Einsielden

The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, Switzerland (right) was given by Abbess Hildegarde to the hermit St. Meinrad in the 9th century.  Poor Meinrad just wanted to worship alone but continued to be sought out by the faithful no matter how far he retreated into the wilderness.  Once his retreat in the Dark Forest near Lake Lucerne was discovered, he felt it necessary to build a chapel and placed this statue in it. She gained a reputation for answering prayers and thus the chapel became a pilgrimage site.  In the 10th century, a church was built around the chapel. Allegedly the night before the church was to be consecrated, God himself was seen standing at the altar of the church.  Also in attendance was the Queen of Heaven on a throne of light surrounded by angels.  Interestingly, the angels purportedly altered the usual prayers by saying of Jesus  “blessed be the Son of Mary” rather than “he who cometh in the name of the Lord.” In the 11th century the church was destroyed by fire, but the older chapel inside and the Black Madonna within it survived. This same pattern — church burned to the ground but chapel survived — repeated itself four more times over the centuries.  Despite the evidence that the chapel could fend for itself, the faithful eventually decided to surround it with marble — just in case.

Our Lady of Vassiviere

The original statue of Our Lady of Vassiviere (above) was unfortunately destroyed during the French Revolution. (It was recreated in 1805.) The original was located near a sacred spring in the mountain town of Vassiviere, France, whose name means the temple of water. Reportedly, unorthodox rites performed there earned the disapproval of the church. The modern replica is semi-nomadic.  She is carried to Vassiviere every summer and remains until just before the Autumn Equinox.  She spends the school year in another town, Besse et Saint Anastaise.

Virgin of Montserrat

Legend has it that the Virgin of Montserrat (above) was carved in Jerusalem in the early days of the Christian church and brought to Spain. It reportedly disappeared in the 7th century when the Saracens invaded Barcelona and was rediscovered 200 years later, in 890, in a cave in Montserrat mountain.  She was discovered because shepherds saw mysterious lights and heard singing coming from that place and brought the Bishop, who witnessed the phenomenon as well. The current statue may be a 12th century replica of the earlier one. Her popularity has never decreased. More than one million people visit her each year.

Virgin of Rocamadour

The Virgin of Rocamadour (right) is believed to be about 1,000 years old. Her shrine, reached by climbing 216 stairs carved into the rocks of a large gorge, was one of the four most popular pilgrimage sites of the Middle Ages.  She was reportedly visited by Charlemagne and by Henry II of England (which included western France at the time. Henry was the father of Richard the Lionheart, the “true king” of the Robin Hood stories).

Virgin of St. Chrostophe les Gorges

The two  images below are of Black Madonnas believed to have been brought to the rural region of Auvergne, France during the crusades. Below left is an 11th century statue which resides at St. Christophe les Gorges. Below right is the virgin of Molompize, thought to have originally come from Antioch.

Virgin of Molompize

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World’s oldest song

The oldest known song (written with both words and musical notation) comes from the remains of the ancient city of Ugarit in Syria. It was written about 1400 BC  and  is one of two hymns to the goddess Nikkal and to the seven goddesses of childbirth, the Kotharat, found in an ancient wedding myth.  It’s part of the story of the goddess Nikkal’s  marriage to the Moon God. Nikkal is the daughter of the God or King of Summer, but her own role is less clear.  She may be a goddess of  fruit or of the moon.  Her full name is Nikkal-wa-Ib and Ib may be translated either as “fruit” or as “bright.”  She is the western version of the Sumerian (pre-Babylonian) goddess Ningal, the “Great Lady” and beloved wife of the Moon. (Ningal is the mother of the more famous Love Goddess Inanna/Ishtar  and of the Sun God. The equivalent western sun deity was a goddess).

Whoever Nikkal was, the Moon God Yarikh (Yarih) was clearly smitten with her.  In the myth he offers to pay her father a bride price of a thousand shekels of silver and ten thousand of gold, along with some lapis lazuli.  The language of the story is erotic.  He promises to turn “the steppeland of her love”  into an orchard and a vineyard.  Her desire for him is laid out in very explicit terms in the most straightforward way imaginable (and I’ll let the reader go ahead and do the imagining.)

The story and song appear to be designed to be recited and performed as part of a wedding ritual.  The summer represented by Nikkal’s father is  late summer/early fall, the time of harvest, which was considered a fortuitous time to wed.  The language in which the story and song are written is Hurrian, the language of a nearby north Mesopotamian culture. Ugarit was part of an area often referred to (especially in the Bible) as Canaan.  Its culture and language were very similar to that of ancient Israel, but this song goes back to a time before Moses, if he existed, ever led the Hebrews out of Egypt.

If you play an instrument and would like to play the world’s oldest song for yourself, you can find sheet music here. Here is another musician’s interpretation of the song:

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Virgin of Guadalupe, Spain

The Black Madonna of Guadalupe, Spain.

Since writing my previous post on Mary in the Americas, it has come to my attention that yet another possible source for Our Lady of Guadalupe (besides religious vision and Aztec mythology) is a Black Madonna in the town of Guadalupe, Spain (pictured right).  According to legend, this image of the divine mother was created in 580 A.D. but hidden away in the 8th century, during the time when Spain was conquered by the Islamic empire.  One version says she was hidden in a cave; another that she was buried.  Either way, it is said that she was hidden with written information about her origin and that she was found by means of a vision.  In a scene reminiscent of the Aztec Juan Diego’s encounter with the Mexican Guadalupe,  a cowherd named Gil Cordero was approached by a radiantly shining woman.  The woman, identifying herself as Mother Mary, asked that a shrine be built to her on the spot.  Subsequently her ancient statue was discovered and placed in the shrine.

It is said that a replica of this image was carried by Christopher Columbus when he headed to the New World and that replicas were carried by the conquistadors.   If so,this might undermine the theory that Our Lady of Guadalupe in the Americas was based on an Aztec goddess.  Then again, the Aztec Tonantzen (Mother of the Gods, a title applied to multiple mother goddesses of ancient Mexico), could be seen as the same mother goddess known throughout most of the world –  “old” and “new” before Christianity’s arrival.

One explanation for the ubiquitous Black Madonnas of Europe, many of which are found in Spain and France, is that they were copies of earth goddesses (the black referring to the color of fertile soil) which predated Christianity.  The statue of Diana of Ephesus – the place in Asia Minor (modern Turkey) where Mary was officially pronounced Mother of God – was said to have been made of ebony. Equally prominent in the Roman world was a Greco-Roman adaptation of Isis who assimilated a number of goddesses into her persona and who was often pictured with her child Horus on her lap. Isis’ story paralleled Mary’s in that her child was a sun god and Jesus’ birth story was linked to the sun’s birth when the date for its celebration was set at the Winter Solstice. Also, Isis’  husband Osiris was torn to pieces, died and was brought back to life, after which he took on the responsibility of welcoming the dead to the afterlife, a story which parallels that of Jesus (who is identical to the God who fathered him in Christian tradition).

Another Black Madonna from Spain is the Virgin of Montserrat, also reportedly found by divine intervention when Mary appeared to shepherds and asked them to build a chapel for her rediscovered statue.

The goddess Isis, also called Queen of Heaven, suckling her son Horus.


See also: Black Madonna gallery

For information about Guadalupe and Mary in the Americas see An American Goddess: Mary in the New World.

For more about Mary’s goddess connections, see Theotokos: How the Mother Goddess became Mary

Posted in Artemis/Diana, goddess, Isis, Mary, Queen of Heaven | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments