They worshiped Her under every green tree, according to the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament). The Bible also tells us Her image was to be found for years in the temple of Solomon, where the women wove hangings for Her. In temple and forest grove, Her image was apparently made of wood, since monotheistic reformers demanded it be chopped down and burned. It appears to have been a manmade object, but one carved of a tree and perhaps the image was a stylized tree of some kind.
The archaelogical record suggests that Asherah was the Mother Goddess of Israel, the Wife of God, according to William Dever, who has unearthed many clues to her identity. She was worshiped, apparently throughout the time Israel stood as a nation. In many homes, images like the one above decorated household shrines.
Who was She, this lost Goddess of the Hebrews? And why is She no longer worshiped in the Judeo-Christian religions of today?
The Asherah votive emphasizes Her breasts, suggesting Her role as a fertility goddess, but Her stance represents Her nature as a mother in general. She no doubt aided in the concerns of mothers, including conception and childbirth, but was probably also the mother of all, a comforter and protector in an uncertain world. Inscriptions from ancient Israel tell us that Yahweh and “his Asherah” were invoked together for personal protection. Her identification with trees suggests that Asherah was, in effect, also Mother Nature — a figure we remember in our language, but unfortunately have lost as a part of our mainstream religions. She was, in other words, everything you would expect from the feminine half of the divine creative duo, a Great Mother.
Asherah’s image was lost to us not by chance, but by deliberate action of fundamentalist monotheists. First Her images were torn down, then Her stories were rewritten, then Her name was forgotten. In fact, Her name appears 40 times in modern translations of the Bible, but not at all in the first English translation, the King James Bible. Since no one knew who Asherah was anymore in the 17th century when the King James Version (KJV) was being created, Her name was translated as groves of trees or trees or images in groves, without understanding that those trees and groves of trees represented a mother goddess.
When archaeologists unearthed a treasure trove of Canaanite stories and other writings in Ugarit, in modern day Syria, they discovered that the mysterious “Asherah” was not an object, but a Goddess: the mother goddess of the Canaanites. When archaeologists discovered Her in Israel as well, a whole new picture of early Hebrew religion began to emerge. The argument is straightforward: 1. Asherah was a known Canaanite Goddess, the Mother Goddess and wife of the Father God. 2. The name is mentioned repeatedly as having been worshiped by the Israelites, to the dismay of monotheists. 3. Her name is found in inscriptions with Yahweh and 4. A mother goddess image is found frequently in the homes of ancient Israel. 5. She was worshiped, according to the Bible, in the woods with Baal AND in Yahweh’s temple. The common sense interpretation is that Israelites worshiped the mother goddess Asherah. And that She was the wife of whichever male God had the upper hand at the time: El, or Baal, or Yahweh. Israelite religion was not much different from Canaanite religion. The gods vied for supremacy, but the goddess remained.
Since archaeologists in the Holy Land tended to be religious and to enter the field of biblical archaeology in order to unearth evidence substantiating the Bible’s story, it has taken awhile for the plain truth to become clear. Gradually, however, more objective archaeologists, such as Dever, are making headway in proving Asherah’s case. The Bible says Hebrews kept worshiping Asherah; the archaeological record confirms it. What the Bible doesn’t say, and the archaeological record shows, is that Asherah was a mother goddess.
In Ugarit, She was known as Athiratu Yammi, She who Treads on the Sea. This suggests She was responsible for ending a time of chaos represented by the primordial sea and beginning the process of creation. The Sea God, or Sea Serpent Yam is the entity upon which She trod. In a particularly bizarre and suggestive passage in the Bible, 2 Kings 18:4, one monotheistic reformer, pursuing the typical course of smashing sacred stones and cutting down Asherahs records this additional fact: He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)
Um, say what? This odd passage opens up a whole can of worms for me. Here are the serpent and the tree being worshiped together. (Garden of Eden anyone?) So, ah.. what exactly were people doing out there in the woods? They were worshiping idols, of course, burning incense, we are told. This passage from Hosea is instructive: Hosea 4:12,13 condemns those who “inquire of a thing of wood,” suggesting they were asking questions of an oracle, and who sacrifice under oak, poplar and terebinth “because their shade is good.” They are accused also of playing the harlot, which could be a reference to sexual activity, or simply an analogy in that the monotheists are claiming the people sold out to the “false” Canaanite gods. Israel was considered the bride of Yahweh in monotheistic thought, so worshiping other gods was whoring after them.
These passages make sense when you understand that this tree symbolism is closely connected with Asherah. Now we know She was worshiped in the wood, with an image made of wood and that people sought knowledge and made sacrifices there.
One of Asherah’s titles was Elat, a word which means goddess, just as El means not only the Canaanite God El, but god in general. Interestingly, the word Elat is translated in the Bible as terebinth, a large shade tree found in Israel. A great deal of the time, God is a translation not of Yahweh, his particular name given to Moses, but of the Hebrew name Elohim, which is plural, gender neutral, meaning “gods.” This word is also related to the word for oak tree. What did it really mean to the ancients to worship in a grove of trees? To see the gods as like the oaks? The goddess as a green tree spreading Her leaves over the worshiper, providing shade in a hot country?
Hebrews were not alone in worshiping gods of the forest, of course. Celtic, Greek, and Germanic peoples also worshiped in groves. Their gods were gods of nature. Were the Israelites really so different?
In the Bible, Elohim created a man and woman. Now that we know the monotheistic veneer of our bible doesn’t quite represent Hebrew religion on the ground (what William Dever calls “folk religion” as opposed to “book religion”), lets take a closer look at our creator:
“Then Elohim said, ‘Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.’
So Elohim created man in his own image, in the image of Elohim he created them; male and female he created them.”
Takes on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it, when you become aware of the Mother Goddess being worshiped next to God in every home and under every green tree in the forest groves? Who is this “US” doing the creating? Well, evidently, the creator(s) is/are male and female, like the creatures he/She/they created.
Now move on to a later passage, in 1 Kings 18: 19 , which makes it clear that Asherah was served by 400 prophets. This is no minor religion. Maybe when the prophets complained She was worshiped under every tree, they meant it. Every tree, every home, and also, sometimes, in the temple.
In Exodus, we are told that God warned the people to get rid of Asherah’s emblems when they conquered the land of Canaan; in the periods of the books of the Judges and the Kings, we are told that the “good” prophets, kings and reformers continually had to burn and smash the idols of Asherah; finally, in Jeremiah, we are told that worship of Asherah has resulted in the fanatical monotheistic God’s decision to wipe out Israel and Judah (the southern portion of the formerly united kingdom) via the invasion of outside peoples. The thing is, we are told most of these things by a single author, or group of authors: the Deuteronomist. This is a character (or possibly group of characters) writing and rewriting portions of the Bible in later days, around the 7th century BC, either just before or during the exile of the Jews to Babylon. According to the Deuteronomist, the priest Hilkiah claims in 2 Kings, chapter 22, to have “discovered” the ancient laws of Moses during temple renovations. These writings, “The Book of the Law” were mysteriously mislaid leading Israel to get its religion all wrong, apparently.
The works of the Deuteronomist conveyed a story that the Israelites had a covenant with Yahweh to worship him and only him. He claimed the Israelites had taken Canaan by force through a holy war in which they massacred the original inhabitants, putting to death (by God’s command) men, women and children in Jericho. (This claim is not supported by the archaelogical record.) And he claimed that God was a jealous God, one who demanded to be worshiped alone and who would punish the unfaithful by bringing other nations to conquer them if they worshiped others.
Was this really the religion of Israel? Apparently not. The common folk kept right on putting up their Asherahs in the woods and the temple and the little votive Asherahs in their home shrines. Only after Israel was conquered and the people of Judah returned from exile in Babylon did the fundamentalist fanatics with their violent, patriarchal, monotheistic God win the argument. The Deuteronomist’s work, along with the works of two other primary authors, the Yahwist and the Elohist, were compiled by a fourth source, called the Priestly source, to become the Bible we have today.
Asherah, tree goddess, mother of life, was lost. Truly, we were cast out of the Garden of Eden by Yahweh, or at least, his supporters. Separated from the Tree of Life, our mother, we flounder like orphans. America’s religiosity is more comparable to Iran’s than to that of Western Europe, where Yahweh’s religion is in decline. Is it coincidence that we, the worshipers of a male warrior, spend our money on war while children are allowed to live in poverty without health care? Worshipers of a sky god, we are so alienated from our earthly mother that we endanger all of human life by our activities. And the hard edge of the fundamentalist who claims to have found the one true law and believes those who think otherwise are worthy of death (or eternal damnation) is still with us today.
Still, I think it has only ever been a relatively small percentage of people who hold to the hardest edge of monotheism. We are surrounded by Mother Nature and she seeps into our traditions. The Shekinah, Mary, the Mother of God, the Christmas Tree and the Easter Egg, the bumper sticker imploring us to Honor Thy Mother with an image of the earth as seen from above, the fairies and elves and lost brides of our children’s tales are all ways in which the Mother Goddess seeps back into our lopsided psyche. The Goddess is lost, officially, but remembered deep within. Archaeology’s gift of restoring Asherah to our consciousness reminds us of what we already know: God does indeed have a wife. He must. For if we are his children, then we must have a mother.
See also: Asherah, Part II.