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.

Cybele

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

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?

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28 Responses to Asherah, Part III: The Lion Lady

  1. Chiron Cane says:

    .:.

    Here is the transcription, phonetic transliteration and translation of this inscription *


    centre :

    Qadesh
    The Lady of Heaven
    Mistress of All the Gods


    to Her right :

    Min-Amun-Ra
    Lord of Strength


    to Her left :

    Reshpu
    The Great God
    Lord of Eternity
    Ruler of Infinity
    Lord of Strength

    Here is a hieroglyphic image of Her titles :

    Here the hieroglyph of the double lioness head which appears in the titles of both Her two consorts :

    .:.

    centre :

    Qadesh
    Nebe.t Pe.t
    Henu.t Netjeru Nebu

    to Her right :

    Min-Amun-Ra
    Neb Pehty

    to Her left :

    Reshpu
    Netjer Oa
    Neb Noheh
    Heqa Djet
    Neb Pehty

    (* except for a few glyphs at both edges which seem too damaged to read):

    .:.

  2. Carisa says:

    Cool info Chiron. Thank you.

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  6. Richard808 says:

    Qadesh sounds about the same as Kaddish. I’ll go ask the Rabbi.

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  8. straw walker says:

    The lady atop the seal from Crete, which the article describes as a mountain, looks very much the same as Sumerian reliefs depicting their Ziggurats. The curved triangles stacked upwards is a depiction of a Ziggurat.

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  10. Mary Weiss says:

    I so appreciate the work you do.

  11. thematrixq says:

    Reblogged this on ?verything!.

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  14. richard katz says:

    isn’t this a stone carving from the British Museum? and isn’t it noteworthy that Asherah’s right hand man is fully erect? That is an unusual image, and a graven image at that. We’re at a crisis in Western art because of centuries of the sexualization of images of women, like Aneeta Sarkeesian is campaigning openly against in the ridiculously popular world of online gaming — and EVERYWHERE else. So here we see that a few thousand years ago there was the ordinary sexualization of images of men, subservient to women — women who were on lions; regal; goddesses or god-like; power figures. Put it this way — have you ever seen an erect male in ANY artform (porn in not an artform)? Things were obviously quite a bit different before the monotheist mafia burnt all the ashera poles and ground all the ceramic into dust.

  15. richard katz says:

    http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/aes/s/stela_of_the_chief_craftsman_q.aspx

    oh, my, I was wrong! That’s a different image; a different stone carving! Similar, very similar, but … that is very interesting.

  16. Richard_VII says:

    Carisa let me say up front I mean no harm or controversy in my reply here, as I really appreciate this series on a topic that is still polarized into the scholarly camp on one hand, and sheer speculative fancy on the other [and that’s putting it politely, as I suspect you realize]. At the very least, your 3 parts here are lucid, and cover a lot of important ground in a readable/apprehendable form. You have obviously put in some careful work on this project which I hope readers appreciate.

    Let me suggest that if you corrected a couple of errors [the dating of the painting included in part 2 would be one] and/or biases, it would strengthen, rather than weaken, your case and raise the viability of the whole, regardless of the bias of the reader. The mention of the “400 prophets” slain by Elijah the Prophet, “as is”, would unfairly predispose a knowledgeable reader to the conclusion that this entire 3 part series is “booby-trapped” [no pun]. Those were 400 prophets of Ba’al [one of them anyway], but actually more to the tone of your work, those were 400 Prophets subservient to Jezebel. Really – that is the larger point on the human-history side of the equation. Jezebel was a powerful figure that obviously knew her stuff on the cultivation of Occult Power and could invoke unholy havoc on the targets of her wrath.

    The scholarly world does not have the whole picture of Asherah put together yet. The data so far discovered and assessed is incomplete. It is in my view something of very high priority in understanding the ‘real powers’ behind the scenes of our world and its history, and its future direction. I would like to see you apply your skill to an assessment of the various Moon Gods/Goddesses through the ages. If there is a clear path from Asherah/Astarte/Ishtar to a major Lunar Goddess motif, it needs to be brought to light in a disciplined way.

    Also, if I could bait you into another dig: take a crack at the larger identity of the “Whore of Babylon” in The Revelation. It really surprises me how little attention She has drawn from Christian scholars and their opponents on the other side. This is the only place in the major literature of primitive Christianity where we encounter a major Feminine Deity figure, and yet she has gotten away with little scrutiny. She has a “kingdom over the” kingdoms of earthly geopolitical fifedoms [my bias showing, but look at the Greek carefully]. In the past, polemicists have tried to reduce her to Roman Catholicism-at-large but the vision is of something far more powerful, far more pervasive and apocalyptic than the RC denomination – which resembles something more akin to Jezebel’s eunuchs by comparison. She is at work yet, and has not quite reached her Zenith imho.
    regards!

  17. richard katz says:

    In one of the books of Kings, it’s pretty clear that there were the Prophets of Baal , and then there were the Prophets of the Asherah . It’s just a Bible story but it’s a pretty good story, especially the part about how these Prophets of the Asherah worked for Jezebel; and after the Baal prophets lost the Biblical showdown at sundown with an “off with their heads”, the Prophets of the Asherah apparently — ie as far as WE know — just walked home like everybody else. The story is pretty clear on that, that for quite a while Queen Jezebel was the First Lady of Israel ( or was it Judah? I forget, and i don’t feel like looking up the details of Bible stories) and no doubt there was no problem with Phoenician Asherah worship right out there in every village, and in the Capital, with El worship. The story continues, and then gets picked up in all the subsequent Bible stories, about how ALL of that was wiped out. Sad. All the research you gotta do is just go ask an Israeli — a fluent speaker of Hebrew — what’s Hebrew for “goddess”; he or she will be the first to tell you that there ain’t no Hebrew for goddess. (the word that should be goddess is a word for a tree; and there’s another homonym too , which I can’t remember what it means, but no word for goddess, nope.) (btw, the same Israeli — esp a sabra — will be more than happy to tell you also that the word baal means “my idol” in exactly the same way that an American woman refers to her boyfriend or husband ; like “my jewel” with the same inflection as “honey”.

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  19. Rich M says:

    I’ve been hunting this Goddess for a long time. That’s not Hathor. Good guess. That sun disk is actually a “moon disk”. That is “Isis” with the horn crown and moon disk. This is absolutely Asherah in Egypt.

    My research says this is, the same as the “Minoan Snake Goddess” as well. And she has a temple in Egypt, where she is called: “Mistress of the Wild”, as well. This Great Mother Goddess, was based on a real person, Aahotep, mother of Aahmose I, founder of the new kingdom of Egypt. Some Greeks called her Artemis, others called her Io.

    The reason for the “moon disk”, by the way, is it is derived from the moon god: “Iah”.

  20. Gina Marie says:

    This has been totally fascinating for me as I have never heard of Asherah or these ancient connections in history to goddesses. I’m afraid too often women have been denied their herstory, whether relevant to our lives today or not. I would like to contribute to everyone who reads this column, about the book “Secret Places Of The Lion”, wherein the author, George Hunt Williamson, talks about the lion being used as a symbol of the occult, or that which is “hidden”. This, I believe, ties in with knowledge which is hidden from the world and only shared with an “inclass”, like royalty and priests who serve such gods. Also, in the Garden Of Eden tale, I have read in other literature, that the Tree of Knowledge Of Good And Evil, is about the true nature of what we are, that we are neither good nor evil because there are no such qualities, because the world truly does not exist. A friend told me a long time ago (when I was studying A Course In Miracles) that the course was actually Buddhism, and we are in a dream world projecting a so-called reality. This is based on the belief of karma and reincarnation, wherein we “work out our problems with each other” and get back to love, which is God. I believe this is what the Matrix movies were based upon.

  21. Adrija Bose says:

    Very Informative.Thanks a lot!I had been wondering about the connection between lions and mother goddesses for long time.I would like to add to this list the Hindu Mother Goddess Parvati also called Durga-who rides a lion as well.Her Consort Shiva,similarly,has a bull called Nandi as his familiar.Parvati’s fiercer aspect Kali-associated with Time and Shakti-the primeval Energy of the universe is also depicted nude.

  22. Maya says:

    You might also add that the curiously shaped hair that is seen on the figure of Qadesh is not only unique in Egyptian iconography to Hathor. That particular omega shaped hair or helmet is the symbol of Sumerian Ninhursag, ancient Mother goddess, who al also associated with a lioness or lion cub.

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  24. stijnvandenhoven says:

    Reblogged this on stijnvandenhoven and commented:
    Great readup on the lion and godess

  25. DINAMYTE says:

    Goddess in Hebrew is Elat Elat Ela feminine singular 🙂

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