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.”
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.