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).

brought from crusades in the 11th century St. Christophe-les-Gorges

Virgin of St. Chrostophe les Gorges

The Virgin of St. Crostophe les Gorges and the Virgin of Molompize are Black Madonnas believed to have been brought to the rural region of Auvergne, France during the crusades.

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

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An American Goddess: Mary in the New World

Alejo Fernandez 1536 The Virgin of the Navigators

The Spanish explorers and conquerors of the New World saw Mary as their protector. The locals had other ideas. The Virgin of the Navigators, Alejo Fernandez (1536).

Every Christmas Eve at the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, the residents of the oldest town in America bring out an old, old statue of the Virgin Mary and give her a procession through an eager crowd.  This representation of Mary is more than 300 years old, but the Pueblo and its people go back much, much farther.

Archaeologists confirm that the large apartment-like adobe buildings at the Taos Pueblo (also called the Pueblo at the Red Willows) in which some Pueblo Indians still live, have been here for at least 1,000 years.  They cannot say for certain exactly how far into the past this pueblo existed because their access has been limited by the tribe, whose own traditions say they have been here much, much longer.  Thousands of years into the past, perhaps.  According to their own legends, the people of the Taos Pueblo emerged from inside the earth which is their beloved Mother Nature and climbed up a pine tree at nearby Blue Lake, journeying only a short way to the place where they created the pueblo.

Taos Pueblo, portions of which are at least 1,000 years old, is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in America. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by Robin Loznak.

About 500 years ago they were reached by Spanish conquistadors.  The first of these were seeking the fabled cities of gold.  In their wake would come more Spaniards.  They would bring with them disease, slavery, and the Catholic faith, including a belief in the Mother of God, Mary.  Like all the Spanish rulers of the New World, they believed that Mary was their protector and champion in the quest to subdue and colonize this “new” (to them) world  and its people.  Like so many of their victims, however, the people of  Taos Pueblo saw things a little bit differently.

In 1680, the Pueblo Indians had had enough.  They revolted against their Spanish overlords. During the rebellion, they tore down the original 17th century San Geronimo mission church.  But before they did, they did a very interesting thing: they rescued the santos, the images of the saints, including the greatest among them, Mother Mary.  (A second church was brought down by cannon fire with women and children inside by the American government. Its ruins still stand at the pueblo today. St. Jerome church, where the santos now reside, is the Pueblo’s third.)

The most prominent of the santos is Mary, who occupies the central place in an alcove at the back of the current pueblo church, the spot which would in most Catholic churches be given to her son. She is crowned, appropriately, as she is the Queen of Heaven. This particular representation of the Queen of Heaven has the light-skinned, brown-haired appearance of the Spaniards who constructed her hundreds of years ago.  Her garments, also European in style, are changed with the seasons. She may have been brought by Europeans who once enslaved them but it seems that the Puebloans don’t hold that against her. They have nominally adopted Catholicism while retaining their own faith and strictly guarding their ancient traditions.  The Spaniards may have seen her as a helper in their conquest; the indigenous people of New Mexico saw something else.

At Christmas, she is dressed as if for a wedding, in white, with a bridal veil. On Christmas Eve, she is carried on a litter, under a white canopy in a procession through an eager crowd. A thousand people, or more, of many ancestries, gather to witness and participate in this ancient tradition.  Pueblo dancers accompany the statue, and men with guns who fire shots into the air.  At the front of the procession is the local priest.  This is the anniversary, according to Christian tradition, of the night when she gave birth to God in a stable, on what was, 2,000 years ago, the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. This year I was fortunate to be at that celebration. Although the sun has set, the bitter Rocky Mountain cold and the darkness of one of the longest nights of the year are  pushed back for a time  by the presence of enormous and pungent bonfires of piñon pine. (I wonder, are the fires calling back the sun, ensuring its return in the morning and for the coming year?)

The La Conquistadora santos (saint image), in the Cathedral of Santa Fe is similar to that of the Mary santos at the Taos Pueblo and may be even older. It was brought by Franciscans to New Mexico in 1625. Some claim La Conquistadora is the oldest Marian statue in the U.S.  Our Lady of Prompt Succor in New Orleans, Louisiana, also lays claim to the title.

Barely suppressed beneath the surface here is Mary’s true identity, which is in two parts: bride, and mother, both of which are more than what they appear to be on the surface.  For if she is the bride, who is the bridegroom? Clearly, God, the father of her child, who is King of Heaven just as she is his Queen. She is dressed for the wedding, and just in time, for the child is due by morning.   Official protests of the orthodox in Rome notwithstanding, Mary’s identity as a Goddess seems plain.

“Great is the might and power a beautiful woman has over a man who is in love with her…she causes him to rave and causes the lover to go out of his mind…the Virgin could do this with God himself,” wrote Lawrence of Brindisi in 1619. (Quoted from In Search of Mary, by Sally Cuneen.)

Another clue to her identity — this time as mother — is the paintings of corn and bean plants around her alcove in the pueblo church. These are the native plants which have been farmed here for at least 1,000 years and are the staples of the traditional diet. A few days before Christmas, we were told during a tour by a member of the pueblo that Mother Mary is revered here as Mother Nature. And in recognizing in her their own Mother Nature, the Pueblo people see her as she once was. For the Queen of Heaven emerged from goddesses of nature in the ancient Near East and Europe and absorbed them everywhere she went in the ancient world. Theology may have served to obscure her identity, but it didn’t fool the residents of Red Willow Pueblo.

If there’s one thing a trip to the southwest will tell you, it’s that Mary is a force to be reckoned with in America today and will likely become even more so as the Hispanic population, most of which is Catholic, increases.  She is considered by Catholics to be the patron saint of the United States, as well as of the Americas in general. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a survey of 14 of the US archdioceses suggests more Catholic churches are named for her or one of her epithets than for God and Jesus (and their attributes) combined.

South of the border she is perhaps even more impressive. Her most famous representation in the Americas is that of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is virtually the symbol of Mexico.  Mary arrived here with the Spanish Conquistadors.  She was seen by the Spaniards as their protector and the sponsor of their endeavors to explore and conquer the New World.  And yet, rather than reject her, those of mixed Spanish and Indian descent adopted her and turned her to their own purposes.  When Mexico revolted against Spain, the warrior and priest Miguel Hidalgo (the Father of Mexico) carried the Virgin of Guadalupe’s image on his spear at the head of his army. Mary as Guadalupe was seen as their protector and the sponsor of their fight for freedom. I’m not as certain as the Spaniards and Mexicans were that Mary takes sides in battle (personally, I prefer the Puebloan explanation of the divine mother)  but if Mary did enter the fray, it’s clear whose side she was on. Spain’s influence would wane in the Americas.  Mary’s would not.

The Virgin of Guadalupe. This is the image which is alleged to have miraculously appeared on the cloak of Juan Diego, an artifact currently kept at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Legend says that Guadalupe is the product of a vision. According to the faithful, in the year 1531 a Native Aztec man called Quauhtlatoatzin (also called Juan Diego, perhaps because none of the Spaniards could pronounce Quauhtlatoatzin), had a remarkable experience. While passing Tepeyac hill on his way to church at the nearby Franciscan mission he had an unusual vision. In it, Mother Mary appeared as a dark skinned woman surrounded by radiant light and requested a church be built for her there.

When Juan Diego presented her request to the local bishop, he was not impressed. Subsequently, Mary instructed Juan Diego to climb Tepeyac hill and collect roses she caused to miraculously bloom there.  It was December and roses were out of season; also, the terrain was rocky and should not have supported their growth even in June. Juan Diego carried the roses to the bishop in his simple tilma (cloak), made of fibers from the maguey cactus plant. He brought them to the bishop, who was impressed by them, but stunned to see the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appearing miraculously on Juan Diego’s cloak.

According to the Franciscans, Mary’s request (and her promise) was this:

“I wish and intensely desire that in this place my sanctuary be erected. Here I will demonstrate, I will exhibit, I will give all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind of all those who love me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow, and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities, and misfortunes.”

Needless to say, the chapel was built. And the tilma was placed there. (It now resides in the newer Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe near the original site in Mexico City.) According to believers, the tilma is made of a rough sackcloth like fabric which would ordinarily have disintegrated in about 20 years. It has instead lasted for 500.

A unique vision of God painting the Virgin of Guadalupe on Juan Diego’s cloak. Anonymous 18th century painting.

That image shows Mary in a star-studded cloak, standing on the moon and surrounded by sun rays.

Catholics interpret Mary’s imagery here to be a reference to the “woman clothed with the sun” who gives birth to the a divine child in the Book of Revelations:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. (Revelations 12:1)

In this imaginative apocalyptic passage about the beginning of the End of Time, an evil dragon identified as Satan lies in wait, hoping to gobble the child of the celestial woman.  But God rescues the child and war ensues between the angels of  God and Satan.

Another possible source for Mary’s imagery here is suggested by the location of her miraculous appearance. For Tepeyac hill, where Mary appeared and where she asked that a chapel be built for her was a huaca, an Aztec holy pilgrimage site which predated the influence of Spanish Catholicism. One thing that makes Guadalupe unique is her brown skin.  Unlike European images of Mary, she is made in the image of Mexicans of mixed Spanish and Indian descent. (Interestingly, her appearance is probably a more accurate representation of the coloring of the young Jewish girl who birthed Jesus at the turn of the first millennium than are the fair and blond representations so frequently seen elsewhere.) Another unique feature is that the blue green color of her cloak was that associated with Aztec divinities.  And she identified herself as Tonantzen, the Mother of the Gods. The solar rays emanating from her are consistent with both earlier Spanish images of Mary and Aztec images of gods.

The name Guadalupe may be a Spanish translation of the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word used by the Virgin to describe herself, which may have been Coatalocpia (from coatl, meaning serpent and tlaloc, meaning goddess), which could mean either serpent goddess or she who crushes the serpent. The serpent in question might be the Aztec serpent god Quetzalcoatl, but then again, the identification of Goddess as associated with or conquering a serpent is exceedingly ancient and worldwide. (See, for example, my previous post on the goddess Asherah.) Naturally the Catholic interpretation is to identify the serpent with the Christian Satan, but whether the indigenous Mexicans interpreted things this way is another question altogether.

In fact, Mary was probably often recognized throughout the Americas as a variant of local goddesses. Is she any less exalted today? As recently as 1959, at the World Marian Congress she was called the Empress of the Americas.  But then, wasn’t the Mother of God(s) always in charge of the land of the Americas? Perhaps it was only the European conquerors and colonizers who forgot who she really was.


For information on Mary’s associations with Old World goddesses at the time of her adoption into the Catholic church,see my post on Mary as Theotokos.

Posted in goddess, Goddess in the Bible, Mary, Queen of Heaven, sun goddesses | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Star of the Sea

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli (1486)

Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, the most beautiful of all the goddesses of Greece has an unusual origin.  She was born out of the penis of the sky when it fell into the sea. The penis in question belonged to Ouranos, the deity who was the personified sky, and it landed in the ocean not at all by chance. It was cut off by his son Cronus, who subsequently became the ruler of all things. (Cronus would later be deposed by his own son Zeus.) Leave it to the ancient Greeks to add an element of disturbing violence to an otherwise perfect metaphor.  Take out the dis-membering aspect, however, and we are left with a gorgeous image of feminine beauty, power, and love rising out of the sea.  In Botticelli’s archetypal image of the scene she sails to the shore of Cyprus upon a clam shell. But if her birth is from the womb of the sea, the contribution of the sky is important too. For Aphrodite is not just a Sea Goddess; she is also a star, known to the Romans (and us) as Venus.  More properly, she is a planet, but to the ancients, the planet Venus was the Morning and Evening Star.

Be that as it may, Aphrodite likely did travel across the sea. Most likely in Phoenician boats.  That’s because the Goddess of Love who is the Morning Star was already an ancient deity in Western Asia, where she was known as Astarte, or Ashtart, to the Phoenicians and Ashtoreth or the Queen of Heaven to their neighbors, the Israelites.

The Phoenicians (the Greek name for the people the Bible calls Canaanites) were wealthy seafaring traders whose gifts to western civilization included a deep purple dye which they obtained from  sea snails in a process so expensive the color became associated with royalty (hence royal purple), an alphabet with an innovative new way of writing in which each letter stood for a sound (called a phonetic alphabet), and the Temple of Solomon, which they designed and decorated. Of course the temple is now gone, but we still have its description in the Hebrew Bible, where it remains a symbol of ancient Israel at the height of its glory.

Often (to the chagrin of the Jewish priests and prophets), the Hebrews worshiped the same goddesses as their neighbors. “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,” complained the prophet Jeremiah. This verse very likely refers to the worship of Astarte. Confronted with their apparent apathy toward monotheism, the Israelites were remarkably unrepentant: “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 ancestors, 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.”

Asherah, Artwork © Jonathon Earl Bowser - http://www.JonathonArt.com

The Canaanites and apparently many Israelites also worshiped Asherah, who was described by Canaanites as the mother of the 70 gods.  Her full name, according to documents unearthed in the ancient city of Ugarit, was Athiratu Yammi, meaning She Who Treads on the Sea. Asherah was the wife of the god El, the Father God, who made his home in the mountains, at the source of two rivers.  El appears as the chief Canaanite god, but also is one of the names for God given in the Bible. Archaeological evidence also suggests that Asherah was considered the wife of the god Yahweh, who introduced himself to Moses in the burning bush, and whose name also was frequently given as “the” God of the monotheistic tradition. Eventually, the 70 gods of El’s council were demoted to angels or disappeared altogether, but the Bible (backed up by archaeological evidence) makes it clear that the Hebrew people kept right on worshiping Asherah, just as they did the Queen of Heaven, no matter what the monotheists thought of them. In fact some scholars suggest that Asherah and Astarte were really just two aspects or variants of the same goddess, thus, the star who walks upon the sea.

While the mother goddess once walked upon the Mediterranean Sea west of Palestine, the Babylonian mother of the universe was the sea.  Tiamat, the Babylonian mother of the gods, out of whose body the earth and sky were eventually formed, was called the bitter (or salt) sea, in contrast to her husband, Apsu, who was fresh water.

When there was no heaven,
no earth, no height, no depth, no name,
when Apsu was alone,
the sweet water, the first begetter; and Tiamat
the bitter water, and that
return to the womb, her Mummu,
when there were no gods-

When sweet and bitter
mingled together, no reed was plaited, no rushes
muddied the water,
the gods were nameless, natureless, futureless, then
from Apsu and Tiamat
in the waters gods were created…

Interestingly, the Christian Mother of God, too, is associated with the sea. The meaning of the Hebrew version of the name of Mary is also bitter sea. Miriam, or Maryam, is formed from the word for bitter (Mar) and the word for sea (Yam, just as in Athiratu Yammi) . Mary is also known by the epithet Star of the Sea. In Latin that’s Stella Maris.  Here, maris means sea and stella is star.  Some say scribal error caused this epithet to be formed from an original interpretation of Miriam as stilla maris, meaning a drop of the sea.  But then, perhaps, this error was Freudian in nature, or an act of divine will, for Stella Maris lets Mary be known by the ancient images of the Goddess. Coincidence? To this day it is the Star of the Sea, Stella Maris, who guides both the sailor and the Catholic devotee “home” — the former to shore and the latter to Christ.


In Hindu religion, the ocean born Lakshmi is the goddess of wealth and good fortune. She is also an intercessor between the prayerful and her husband, the God Vishnu, reminding us of Mary. Like Venus, Lakshmi is born of  the sea and is depicted in popular art standing on floating object — in this case, on a lotus blossom. She appeared after the gods churned the cosmic ocean for 100 years using the snake Vasuki to turn Mount Mandara. They turned the sea to milk — perhaps a reference to the Milky Way — which brought forth a drink of immortality and a gorgeous golden goddess, Lakshmi. (The connections between serpent, water, immortality and goddess can be explored further in my previous post on Asherah.)

Here we begin to see that the Sea Goddess is more than an ocean deity in the ordinary sense; instead she is of the Primordial Sea, which is the whole universe.  There are infinite stars in that sea and we are surrounded by them not just in the watery oceans surrounding our land masses but in the celestial spheres of the heavens above.  In this vein I am reminded of the Sky Goddess Nut (pictured in the banner at the top of the blog) who, in Egyptian mythology is traversed every night by the Sun God Ra in a boat, and of Hathor, the Heavenly Cow, who is associated with stars and milk, fertility and love. Hathor’s image was mingled with that of Asherah (who treads upon the sea) and possibly also Astarte (the Queen of Heaven) during the time when Egypt’s empire ruled Canaan.

The sea here is Source, the source of all things, and its substance as well. In Tiamat, we encounter the One who is the substance of all things.  The Primordial Sea separates into sky and earth and creation is born; the gods issue from her substance and then create us out of matter, which is really just…Her.  We are all ocean stuff, or, if you prefer, star stuff, made of the substance of our Mother. She is the sea and the one who walks upon the sea and the star which guides us to where we need to be.

Posted in Aphrodite/Venus, Asherah, Canaanite mythology, Goddess in the Bible, Greek/Roman Goddesses, Hathor, Hindu goddesses, Inanna, Ishtar, Mary, nammu/tiamat, Nut, Queen of Heaven, sea goddess, sky goddesses, Sumerian/Babylonian | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

Asherah, Part III: The Lion Lady

Qadesh, standing on a lion, posed between the Egyptian gods Min and Resheph. Photo by Rama, Wikimedia Commons.

The lion rider:

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 archaelogical 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.



Compare this image to the sketch 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.

One of many lions patrolling the Ishtar Gate

Inanna, with a lion on a leash.

The lion on the left is patrolling the wall of the Ishtar Gate, built by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II  in about 600 BC.  This was the king who conquered Judah and brought its residents captive to his city.  Ishtar, after whom the gate was named, was the Babylonian Goddess of Love and War. Below the picture of the gate is a relief showing the earlier version of Ishtar, the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna who can be seen with a lion on a leash. The Sumerians created the first complex cities, writing, and the wheel, among other things, about 5,000 years ago. They believed much of their knowledge was given to them by Inanna, who stole the tablets of wisdom from the Wisdom God Enki. A few more Lion Ladies are shown below.

This seal impression from the great palace of Knossos in Minoan Crete shows a goddess on top of a mountain flanked by lions. Another seal found in Knossos depicts a goddess walking with a lion and carrying a staff, much like the Sumerian Inanna above. The Minoans were an advanced pre-Greek maritime Bronze Age civilization with a very broad sphere of influence from about 2700 BC until 1400 BC when they were taken over by the early Greek Mycenaeans.

Sekhmet, the lion-headed Warrior Goddess of Egypt. Photo by Gerard Ducher, Wikimedia Commons.

OK, not technically a Lion Goddess, but the Norse goddess Freyja, with her cat-drawn chariot is certainly reminiscent of Cybele, with her lion-drawn chariot. It may also be relevant that the Egyptian Cat Goddess Bast was originally a Lion Goddess. Sometimes the kitties get scaled down and a bit more domesticated as time passes. Freyja is a Goddess of Love and Fertility.

Forteza (fortitude) from the Tarocchi tarot deck created in the 15th century. The equivalent card in later decks is typically referred to as Strength and nearly always depicts a woman as the lion’s tamer. Could she represent a late symbolic memory of the ancient Lion Goddesses?

Posted in Anat, Asherah, Canaanite mythology, Egyptian, goddess, Goddess in the Bible, Greek/Roman Goddesses, Hathor, Hittite mythology, Inanna, Ishtar, lion goddesses, Queen of Heaven, sea goddess, Sekhmet, sky goddesses, Sumerian/Babylonian, sun goddesses | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 35 Comments

Asherah, Part II: The serpent’s bride

Continued from Asherah, Part I


Eve with the serpent by the Tree of Knowledge. Painting by John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope (1829-1908).

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.

Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT


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