Venus engages in a complicated dance with the Earth which creates a 584 day cycle of relationship as the two planets journey in orbit around the Sun. In one half of this cycle, she is the Evening Star, shining her brightest in the west just after the Sun has set there. In the other half, Venus shines most brightly in the east just before the Sun rises there. Then she is the Morning Star, heralding the dawn of the Sun, a new day. Facing east, the people of the Middle East saw a lioness awake, or a mistress of lions; a Goddess of War; a protector of pharaohs; the strength and majesty of a kingdom, or an empire.
To the Egyptians and the Hittites, the Lion Goddess was expressly a Sun Goddess and represented the power of the king, or the queen. The Egyptians worshiped the lion-headed Sekhmet, a ferocious warrior and protector of her father Ra, the Sun God, as well as of the pharaohs who were viewed as his sons on earth. She was one of several goddesses to be referred to as the Eye of Ra and was depicted bearing a sun disk on her head. To the north, the Hittites of Anatolia (Turkey) worshiped a deity whose name is lost but who was referred to as the Sun Goddess of Arinna and who was believed to be the ruler of all the kingdoms of earth and who was associated with lions.
The Canaanites were sandwiched in between these two great powers and sometimes ruled by Egypt. They were a group of peoples who lived along the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea and part of their lands would eventually become the nation of Israel and home to most of the tales in the Judeo-Christian Bible. For them, the War Goddess Anat and the Sun Goddess Shapash were separate deities who worked together to rescue the Storm God Baal from the land of the dead. Archaeologists have discovered many ancient images of a goddess riding a lion in sites of ancient Israel. Some identify this goddess as Anat, others as the Love Goddess Astarte, or the Mother Goddess Asherah, or some combination of two or three of these. In Babylon, the Goddess of Love and War, symbolized by a lion, was Ishtar, represented by the planet Venus. (Astarte, also called Ashtart, is the Canaanite version of Ishtar. Her name is perverted into Ashtoreth in the Bible, a spelling which insults her by calling her a whore.) Ishtar’s brother was Shamash, the Sun, but he, too, may once have been a goddess.
The forerunners of the Amorites, who ruled Mesopotamia from Babylon, and the forerunners of the Canaanites, the Jews, and the Arabs, were a group of proto-Semitic language speaking peoples who considered the Sun to be female. They are believed to have had a Sun Goddess named Samsu. This goddess and her consort, the Moon God Warihu, were the origin of many of the words for Sun and Moon used by speakers of Semitic languages throughout the Middle East.
The Hebrew word for Sun is shemesh and the Arabic is shams, both bearing testament to the Sun Goddess of their ancient ancestors. Canaanite Shapash takes her name from this older Sun Goddess, too. She shared her kindly light with the peoples of the land of Canaan long before Yahweh brought his people there to take charge of all that milk and honey. Shapash (sometimes Shemesh or Shapsu) appears as the “torch of the gods,” a goddess of justice and clear sight in the Epic of Baal, an ancient story explaining the role of the gods in cycles of fertility and drought. Babylon’s masculine Shamash appears to be the exception to the rule. Note the ancient name has been retained, only the gender has changed.
The Morning Star is also the Evening Star. When she lies in the west, she appears after sunset, and it is at sunset that the Goddess of War becomes the Goddess of Love. Again, this goddess can be represented either by Venus or by the Sun. In Babylon and Canaan, it is Venus as Ishtar or Astarte. In Egypt, Hathor, another Sun Goddess and Eye of Ra, is the Goddess of Love. She is depicted with cow’s horns with a sun disk in between them and associated with the west and the setting sun. A third goddess referred to as an Eye of Ra is Bast, the gentle goddess represented with the head of a domestic cat. Since cats were necessary to protect the food supply, they, too, were associated with joy and fertility. Cats have never been so loved as they were in ancient Egypt, where the death of one of these beloved pets was marked by the shaving of its owner’s eyebrows and cats were often mummified as if they were human. In later, Greek dominated times, Bast would be associated with the moon. Cats can see in the dark and love the nocturnal life, it’s true, but they also are great lovers of the warmth of the sun. Originally, Bast was depicted bearing a sun disk and the sun itself was seen as a cat’s eye. Often, Bast was pictured facing West, while Sekhmet faced East, each representing one of the sun’s directions. It should be noted, too, that Sekhmet wasn’t all blood and gore. She was a bringer of battle, of drought and of sickness. But she was also a goddess who could be appealed to for healing and her temples were medical centers where physicians trained and practiced. Apparently a goddess who was a bringer of death could also be appealed to for a reprieve.
Fertility and health, love and war, are pretty powerful stuff for the goddess in the sky, whether sun or star. For the Hittites, however, the Sun Goddess of Arinna was even more powerful. They went one step further and called their Sun Goddess the Mother Goddess, mother of the gods, and “Queen of all countries.” A prayer attributed to Queen Puduhepa of the Hittites has been found which reads:
“To the Sun-goddess of Arinna, my lady, the mistress of the Hatti lands, the queen of heaven and earth. Sun-goddess of Arinna, thou art queen of all countries! In the Hatti country thou bearest the name of the Sun-goddess of Arinna; but in the land which thou madest the cedar land thou bearest the name Hebat.”
Hebat is the Mother Goddess of the Hurrians, a people who lived on the eastern edge of the Hittite Empire and just north of the Babylonians. She was the wife of their Storm God and was sometimes depicted standing on her sacred animal which was — you guessed it — a lion. Her husband, like Canaan’s Baal, was part of a myth in which he entered battle, was killed, and got stuck in the underworld for awhile. The Hittites also worshiped a Sun Goddess paired with a Storm God and God of Thunder, so it was natural for them to assert that the two were one and the same. The Hittite capital city, Hattusha, dedicated to the Sun Goddess and Storm God, featured a large gate carved with lions in the southern wall, just as Ishtar’s gate in Babylon was decorated with lions. An open air temple of the city consisted of two rock cut rooms guarded by winged, lion-headed figures with human bodies. You can see a few pictures of the remains of the city of Hattusha at Turkey’s tourism site.
In the Hittites’ part of the world (centered in modern day Turkey, which the ancients called Anatolia or Asia Minor), Indo-European mythology from eastern Europe met and mingled with Babylonian mythology. There is an ancient strain of thought here coming from two directions and planted in fertile soil. For it is in Turkey that agriculture was first invented and here, a goddess flanked by large felines appears in the artwork as early as 6,000 BC. The lion has a continuous association with powerful goddesses, including Sun Goddesses, throughout the Middle East. The Semitic people of the Middle East saw the sun as female, and, as we saw in Part I, many Indo-European cultures also thought of the sun as female. Did two separate Sun Goddesses meet in Turkey, combine, acquire lions and spiral back outward with her feline companions? Or could Turkey be the origin point of the solar Lion Goddess? We may never know.
The Hittites bumped up against Canaan at its northern edge. Hence, Canaan (part of which was to become Israel) can count among its influences the Hittites to the north, Babylonians to the east, and Egyptians to the southwest. Since Israel conquered (or developed out of) the land of Canaan, these ideas formed the melting pot out of which Judaism and its daughters, Christianity and Islam, formed. In these traditions, Ishtar, Astarte, and Anat would be denounced as whores, the sun would lose its divinity, becoming just a shiny orb in the sky, and Baal’s cloud riding and thunder-wielding attributes would be absorbed into the persona of Yahweh (the guy we know as God), while the priests of Baal would be remembered only as foolish worshipers of a false god. One odd reflection of ancient traditions, however, besides the name for the sun in Hebrew, appears in the Hanukkah tradition. For the central candle, used to light the others on the menorah at this midwinter festival, is still called the shamash.
For those who are interested, I’m including here a modern map of the regions mentioned in today’s post:
See also Is the Sun male? Part 1.