Asherah, Part I: The lost bride of Yahweh

Asherah

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:

Genesis 1:26:

“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.

The Wife of God has disappeared -- or, has She? Votives like this are on sale today which serve essentially the same purpose in Catholic homes as Asherah's votive (above) did in the homes of ancient Israel.

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.

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Meet the wife of God

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The Maiden Warrior and the Sun Goddess in the Epic of Baal

Historical context: Canaanite deities and the Hebrew Bible

If you’ve ever cringed a little with a superstitious fear that uttering blasphemy might get you struck by lightning, you’re recalling God as Baal, who commanded thunder in his role as Storm God of the Canaanites; if you picture God in the shining sky with clouds under his feet, you are also recalling Baal, whose primary epithet was Rider on the Clouds. En route to becoming the only God, the God of the Old Testament borrowed these characteristics from his chief rival Baal. If you are envisioning God as an old man with a beard, however, and as ruler and king of, well, everything, you are recalling another ancient Canaanite God, El, who was the Father God.  The old, bearded man on his throne in the clouds, dispensing lightning as punishment is a composite image taken from both the Canaanite Gods El and Baal.

 

Michelangelo perfectly captured our image of God on the Sistine Chapel.

 

El and Baal were important members of the pantheon of gods worshiped by the Canaanites. Canaan is described in the Bible as the land of milk and honey which was promised to the Israelites by the one true God who introduced himself to Moses as Yahweh.   In reality, though, we cannot really understand the Judeo-Christian religion without understanding it as a younger faith interacting with older traditions. Archaeology informs us that the nation of Canaan, which preceded the nation of Israel, was a prosperous, artistic place with religious forms similar to those of its neighbors.

Archaelogical evidence shows that the worship of the Canaanite gods was continued by the Israelites rather than abandoned and Yahweh’s hold on the people may have been tenuous at best.  His origins appear to be among the semi-nomadic desert people called the Midianites, among whom Moses stayed for many years and where he first encountered him in a burning bush.  But in entering Canaan he was probably added to the Canaanite gods, only replacing them after a long struggle from polytheism to monotheism.

Readers who spent as much time as I did in Vacation Bible School as a kid will no doubt recognize Baal as chief among those pagan deities the “naughty” Israelites reverted to worshiping after they entered the “promised land” (Canaan). The writers of the Old Testament tell us directly that Yahweh battled Baal for supremacy in Israel.  Some of the other deities who played a role in the Epic of Baal appear in the Bible too, just in more hidden forms. El, in addition to being the name of the chief God was a general term for a god.  From this root comes the word Elohim, which is plural (gods) and gender neutral.  One of the writers of the Bible, referred to as the Elohist, probably a priest writing during the time of the autonomous kingdom of Israel, has been recognized as a separate author because he consistently used the name Elohim for God  in his texts, rather than Yahweh (consistently used by another major Bible author from the southern kingdom of Judah). The distinction between the two is played down in English translations where we see Lord and God and have no clear indication that He is being called by different names in different contexts.  The God Moses saw in the burning bush gave his name as Yahweh (or more accurately YHWH). However, it was El Shaddai (translated God Almighty) who appeared before Abraham and promised that he would father the nation Israel (Isra-El) in the land of Canaan.

Canaanite Goddesses are, unfortunately, played down in the Bible to such an extent they can hardly be identified, but they play important roles in the earlier myths, as we will see. Back when I was a kid in Sunday School, I had no idea, for example, that the Asherah poles the Old Testament’s “sinners” kept putting up (even in Solomon’s Temple!) and reformers kept taking down, were emblems of the Mother Goddess of Canaan. I at least had a modern translation, in which her name appears. Readers of the King James Version will find no reference to Asherah at all. There, her name was frequently translated “groves,” leaving one to wonder why God so frequently wanted his zealous reformers to tear down seemingly innocent stands of trees. Other translations mention “poles” without attaching Asherah’s name to them. Two other Goddesses who play major roles in the Epic of Baal are never mentioned in the Bible at all: Anat, the Warrior Maiden, and Shapash, the Sun Goddess.

The Epic of Baal: What is it? The Epic of Baal is an ancient story of war and death and fertility and rebirth which was unearthed in the ruins of the ancient Phoenician city of Ugarit (modern day Ras Shamra in Syria). It was probably written between 1400 and 1200 BC and so would probably have been familiar to the Jewish people, who lived in Canaan, just to the south.  (The earliest confirmation of Israel as a country is in an Egyptian source dated to 1209 BC, meaning the epic could have been written down as many as 200 years before Israel). The Ugaritic religion appears to be essentially the same as the Canaanite faith and included worship of the same deities.  Powerful roles are played by goddesses in the story, especially the goddess Anat, the Warrior Maiden, who heroically (and violently) rescues Baal from the God of Death.  In the process, she saves the world from dying, since Baal is a Storm God, the God of Rain, who was in that arid land the God of Fertility.  To the modern ear, these characters seem like gender reversals. The female goddess is the warrior and the male god brings fertility? The damsel rescues the hero in distress?  In fact, though, the Warrior Maiden is a popular goddess throughout the Middle East in ancient times and is found in Egypt as Sekhmet, and Babylon as Ishtar.  She is often represented with a lion, though this animal is also associated with Mother, Sun, and Earth Goddesses, as it symbolizes strength and the power of the throne.  In the Epic of Baal, Anat receives assistance in her quest from the Sun Goddess Shapash.  Here is another connection which sounds like a gender bender to the western ear, but in fact Sun Goddesses are plentiful throughout the ancient world and common in the Middle East, where Hittites, Arabs, Canaanites, Syrians and early Jews considered the Sun to be feminine and where Egyptians had sun deities of both genders.

Cast of characters in the epic:

El, old Father Time and King of the Gods, an old gray bearded divinity who dwells in a mountain at the source of two great rivers. He is also called The Bull.

Asherah (or Athirat), Mother of the Gods, wife of El, is the Lady of the Sea, “kindly Asherah, who loves her children.” Like the Catholic Mary she can be approached to intercede, to plead one’s case with the more remote and less approachable El.

Baal, Rider on the Clouds, Fertility God.  Baal is the star of this story, which is in part an allegory of the seasons in which he represents the rains necessary for the crops to grow, making him the sustainer of life and an extremely important god to agriculturalists in an arid land. From the Epic: “Baal sets the season/And gives forth his voice from the clouds./He flashes lightning to the earth.”

Mot (or Mavet), God of Death and Drought (the bad guy).  He literally chews people (and gods) up when their time has come.  Like the evil fairy in Sleeping Beauty, he turns vengeful when he isn’t invited to Baal’s housewarming party with all the other Gods.

Anat, the Maiden Warrior, sister and possibly wife of Baal. Definitely his best friend, she seriously kicks Death’s ass in this story.  Since she is ordinarily a War Goddess whose preferred place to be is knee deep in the blood of warriors, it’s interesting that in this story she appears not only as death bringer but also death’s conqueror.

Shapash, the Sun Goddess, who helps Anat rescue Baal.

Yam, God of the Sea, Sea Serpent, who represents primordial chaos.

How Anat saved her brother and the world in the Epic of Baal: The opening section of the epic deals with Baal’s battle with Yam, the Ocean God who is symbolic of primordial chaos. Yam has terrorized the gods into offering him the Mother Goddess Asherah until Baal intervenes.  When his long battle with Yam ends in victory, Baal starts feeling pretty important and feels he should have his own palace, atop his own mountain.  He enlists the help of his sister Anat, who bribes Asherah into asking her husband El for permission to have the palace built for Baal.  After permission is given and the palace is built, Baal invites all the gods to come for a grand dinner in celebration of its completion.  All the gods, that is, except one.  Mot, the God of Death, who rules the underworld where the dead reside is not invited.  At this point, things start to go very badly for Baal.

Mot demands that Baal come to a banquet at his home, in the Land of the Dead, an offer Baal feels he cannot refuse without giving away the fact that the real reason he left Mot out of his own party is that Baal the mighty warrior is terrified of Mot, the Lord of Death. From the Epic: “One lip down to the earth, one lip to the heavens/Mot stretches his tongue to the stars/Baal must enter his maw; and must descend into his mouth/like an olive-stuffed bread, like the produce of the earth, the fruit of the trees./Afraid is Baal the Powerful/Terrified is the Rider on the Clouds.”

Baal masters his fear sufficiently that he does indeed descend into the mouth of death, where he eats supper with the dead and, so, dies.  With the death of the Rain God, of course, the consequences for earth are very severe.  The people and the gods cry out as the drought shrivels up all food sources.

Baal’s sister Anat finds his body, suggesting that it is Baal’s soul which is stuck in the underworld. Shapash the Sun Goddess lifts Baal’s body onto Anat’s back.  She carries him home and buries him in the ground, with the shades of the dead, and goes into mourning.

But Anat is a War Goddess and so, naturally, grief quickly gives way to anger, and now Anat does a truly remarkable thing.  She seizes Mot, the God of Death, and cuts him down with a blade, winnows him, burns him, grinds him up and sprinkles the remains of his body across the fields — exactly as a farmer would do with grain. Shapash, who as the Sun, can see everywhere, even into the Land of the Dead, searches for Baal, finds him, and restores him to the throne.  A subsequent fight between the restored Baal and a magically reconstructed Mot is broken up by the Sun Goddess. Shapash convinces Mot to stay in his place below and leave Baal to his place above.  At the end of the epic, Anat bloodily disposes of all the human enemies of Baal. Finally, thanks to Anat and Shapash, the rains can begin.

Where did the Goddesses go?

The names Baal and El are known to us from the Bible, but what happened to the Goddesses described in the Epic of Baal? Some have hidden; others have disappeared. Without archaeology, we might never guess that the Asherah poles, which were so popular they even stood for a time in Solomon’s temple, represented the Mother Goddess Asherah.  She, of course, was a Canaanite goddess; however, she may also have been an Israelite one. Many small Asherah figurines have been found in Israelite homes, as though her popularity mirrored that of Mary, whose image is found in many Catholic homes in much the same way today. Interestingly, the archaeological record now includes inscriptions referring to Asherah as the wife of Yahweh, giving one the impression that some very heavy editing has been done to excise the Mother Goddess from the Jewish record.

Shapash has disappeared, though the ancient Hebrew language referred to the sun as female, using the related word shemesh.

There is no direct reference to Anat, the Maiden Warrior, in the Bible, though she is one candidate for the reference to those, again, rather “naughty” Israelites baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven. Anat is referred to in Egyptian texts by this title.   Another candidate, though, would be the Babylonian Ishtar or her Canaanite equivalent the Love Goddess Astarte, called Ashtoreth in the Bible. (Ashtoreth is a deliberate distortion of Astarte’s name which labels her a whore in the Hebrew language.) Astarte plays only a minor role in the Epic of Baal. In Egyptian texts Astarte and Anat are both identified as Baal’s wives and the two goddesses were sometimes fused into a single Goddess of Love and War.  Ishtar was responsible for both love and war in Babylonian religion, where she was identified as the Queen of Heaven, and was also involved in a similar fertility story to that of the Epic of Baal.

Another place in which Anat may be hidden in the Bible is in the figure of Yahweh as a bloodthirsty War God. Mark S. Smith, Professor of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at Yale University, notes that much of the Biblical imagery of Yahweh the Warrior seems to be borrowed from imagery of Anat the Warrior, including imagery found in the Epic of Baal.  Anat’s characteristics (like those of the Storm God Baal and the King of Gods, bearded El) may have been folded into those of the One True God, while she has faded away into obscurity.

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Quotations from the Epic of Baal are taken from two translations which can be found here and here.

Posted in Anat, Asherah, Canaanite mythology, goddess, Goddess in the Bible, Queen of Heaven, sun goddesses | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Is the Sun male? Part 2: The lion, the warrioress, and the sun.

At the height of the Hittite Empire (red), its borders and those of the Egyptian Empire (green). Note the latter encompasses Canaan on the eastern Meditteranean Coast (later Israel). Sun Goddesses were loved, and sometimes feared, by Hittites, Canaanites, and Egyptians. Copyright D. Bachman, Wikimedia Commons.

Sekhmet, Lion Goddess of the Egyptians, daughter and Eye of Ra, wearing a Sun Disk above her head. Photo by Gerard Ducher

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.

The countries of the Middle East today. Sun Goddesses were worshiped throughout large portions of this area in ancient times.

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.

Posted in Anat, Canaanite mythology, Egyptian, goddess, Hittite mythology, Ishtar, lion goddesses, Queen of Heaven, Sekhmet, sky goddesses, Sumerian/Babylonian, sun goddesses | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Is the Sun male? Part 1: The Northern Sun

Image of Saule used for Lithuanian rituals in the 19th century.

Even the most avid reader of ancient mythology could be forgiven for assuming that humanity has forever and always looked up at the brightest object in the sky and venerated it as a masculine source of energy, warmth and creation, the brother or husband of the soft, gentle, and lesser light of the moon.  One might think that sun goddesses are a rare exception to the rule, found in isolated pockets of humanity where people just didn’t get the message that the solar orb is a perfect symbol of male strength and virility, yang to woman’s dark, watery, and lunar yin.

So, is the popular perception accurate?  Is the Sun male?  Interestingly, the question itself suggests an answer, for when we ask about the gender of the sun, the very word we use for the greatest of lights in the sky is derived from the name of a goddess.   Sunna, or Sunnu, is the name of the sun goddess of the Germanic peoples, the peoples who became not only the Germans, but the Scandinavians, the Franks (after whom France is named), and the Anglo-Saxons (who entered Britain in the Dark Ages and spoke the first version of the English language). So the correct answer to the question is clearly no, the Sun is not necessarily male.  To the cultural ancestors of northwestern Europe, the sun was female. They weren’t alone.

In fact, as it turns out, the more you look for a female Sun, the more you find her. In religion and myth, in language and fairy tale, her story is incredibly ancient.  How ancient, it’s hard to say, as her symbols are often consistent across vast expanses of time and space.  In seemingly unrelated cultures she is trapped in caves or towers and/or by old hags at midwinter; she is captured or brought back by mirrors; she spins light or gold or perfect flax; she is accompanied by or appears as cats or lions, leopards or tigers (a phenomenon we’ll see more of in Part 2).  In many cases she is directly remembered, but in others these well known associations with her are fragmented and reflected back in fairy tales like those told by the Brothers Grimm.

There is too much of the Sun Goddess to condense into a single post, so we will return to her stories individually from time to time.  Here’s a summary of some of the more interesting facts about the feminine sun:

THE CHARIOT OF THE SUN:

The Indo-European people whose language forms the root of virtually all the languages spoken in the western world today (as well as that of India) are often presented in feminist theory as the baddies in the development of patriarchal ways throughout the lands they entered.  It is likely that these peoples originated in eastern Europe and spread outward from there, either by conquest or migration or both.  It’s also likely that they brought with them a Sky God who began to dominate ancient pantheons, and that they were warriors who probably invented chariots and first tamed the horses who pulled them.

But all the powers in the sky may not have been male to the Indo-European mind.  The popular image throughout Europe of the fiery sun deity riding across the sky in a chariot  presents a challenge to the idea that these ancient ancestors thought of women as weaklings. It’s true that as the sun flew over the skies of the Greeks and Romans (both descended from Indo-Europeans), he was called male, and his sister was the moon; up north, however, it was the other way around.  Sol is the Roman name for the Greek Sun God Helios; however, it is also the name of a Viking Sun Goddess, also called Sunnu, and both are related to the Lithuanian Sun Goddess Saule.  Both Sunnu and Saule ride across the daytime sky in horse drawn chariots,  just like Roman Sol. All these cultures are related to Indo-Europeans.

WARMING THE NORTH:

The most widespread and clearly attested area of Sun Goddess worship is in the north, where the Sun Goddess’ range extends from Japan in the east, across Siberia, to the Baltics of eastern Europe, across the lands of the Vikings and Germans and all the way to Anglo-Saxon England.  In all these places, the sun is female.  There are even hints that the Celts (yet another branch of the Indo-European family tree) had a Sun Goddess as well as the better known Sun God, Lugh. The Gaelic word for sun, grian, is feminine, just like the Germanic word for sun is, and goddess-turned-saint Bridget is remembered with peculiarly solar imagery in her stories and festival. ( She returns annually in February as the sun increases its power, wearing a white dress; she could hang her cloak on a sunbeam; a perpetual flame is lit in her honor; as a baby she shone with such unearthly radiance the neighbors thought the house was on fire, and so on.) More definitely, Sol or Sunnu in Scandinavia, Saule in the Baltics, and Amaterasu in Japan, are all Goddesses of the Sun.

Wolves will pursue the Sun Goddess Sunnu and the Moon God Mani until the end of time, according to Norse legend.

Outracing the wolves until the end of time:  Norse Sunnu, the “bright bride of the heavens” rides in a horse-drawn chariot across the sky by day, while her brother Mani, the moon, does the same by night. The Poetic Edda of  Norse mythology, first recorded in the 13th century, tells us that the Sun Goddess races so quickly because she is pursued by a terrible wolf called Skoll, who will at the end of time devour her.  Fortunately, it is foretold that she will give birth to a daughter, a future sun for a future earth, before she — and the world with her — are destroyed in the final battle of  Ragnarok. Mani is also pursued by a wolf.

Spinning sunlight: Saule, the sun goddess of the Lithuanians and Latvians near the Baltic Sea in eastern Europe is an ancient and still very well remembered goddess.  As late as the 15th Century Baltic people were celebrating a festival at winter solstice at which the goddess Saule had to be released from imprisonment in a tower by means of a metal hammer wielded by the 12 signs of the zodiac.  The hammer was evidently also used to create a golden cup for her light.  On the solstice she then emerged in a horse-drawn chariot to fly through the skies bearing the cup of light.

The women there still sing her songs, in which they say Saule spins threads on her spinning wheel — threads of light, of gold and silver, of fate. She cries amber tears for her daughter, Ausrine, who is the morning star and a descendant of the Indo-European Goddess of the Dawn.  Ausrine was abducted by her father, Saule’s husband, Menuo, the moon. (He is repeatedly punished for his crime by being cut in half every month.)

Amber tear drops and amber spindles are among Saule’s symbols which can be found in very ancient gravesites.  Her symbols are consistent with those of  artifacts dating back to the Neolithic and her stories are told in a language which may be the closest living relative of the later Bronze Age Indo Europeans.  Her chariot identifies her with the Indo-European sun, but this attribute might have been grafted on to an earlier goddess.  There are only two genders which could be assigned to the sun, of course, and it may be that both the older and newer cultures chose the feminine, with the two combining into the single figure of the Baltic Sun Goddess. Symbols of the Sun Goddess live on not just in the songs of the Lithuanians but also in the stories of western Europe, where she was less clearly recalled and passed out of myth and hymn and into fairy tale.  When princesses with golden hair are trapped in towers or on glass islands, when they must spin thread or hair or gold to save themselves, these are memories of the same Sun Goddess  at winter, trapped and in need of saving. The Brothers Grimm tell us, for example, that  Rapunzel, with her long, golden hair, trapped by a hag, escapes eventually from her tower. Later she cries bitter tears over her handsome, would-be rescuer, a  prince who has been blinded by the witch for his efforts.  Her tears, powerful as the amber tears of a goddess, cure his blindness.

Amaterasu emerges from her cave

Mother of an empire: Sun Goddesses once worshiped across the far north included the Finnish Paivatar, Finno-Ugric Akanidi, and the Siberian Kajae. The sun was also female in Korea.  In all these places she was served by female shamans and in Siberia she was served later by male shamans who wore metal breasts and hair braided like women. There they remembered that the first shaman was a woman who mated with an eagle.

From Korea, she probably passed even further east into the stories of Japan, where the Sun Goddess is alive and well today.  There, religious tolerance helped her escape the persecution she faced in ancient (and modern) China and Korea as more male oriented religions like Confucianism and Buddhism took hold (and again as Communism persecuted religion in general.)

In the Middle Ages, when Korea was ruled by China, the female shamans who served the Sun Goddess were poisoned, jailed, or starved to death and their books were burned. As a result, their tradition has all but disappeared.

By contrast, Shinto worshipers of the Sun Goddess Amaterasu still leave carefully written prayers in her shrines today.  Ancient dances by women in masks reenact a myth in which Amaterasu retreated to a cave to avoid the noise of her brother, the Storm God.  Her disappearance, of course, led to chaos in which darkness and demons took over the world.  She was lured out by the Goddess Uzume who danced an obscene dance which made her laugh.  Amaterasu’s symbol is the mirror, a fact which connects her to the shamanic practices of Siberia, in which mirrors are used to communicate with the world of the gods. Though female shamans have been replaced by male priests and Shinto has been peacefully merged with other religions, like Buddhism, Amaterasu is remembered. Perhaps the reason the Sun Goddess and her followers survived in Japan is just as political, though, as the reasons she didn’t in Korea.  For, you see,  the Emperors of Japan have from 660 BC right down to the present day claimed to be descended in an unbroken line from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu.  That’s right, the  Emperor Jimmu (660-585 BC), first in the Yamato dynasty, said his grandmother was the Sun.  Or at least his descendants said so.  Whatever her origins and date of birth, Amaterasu is clearly part of the same system of beliefs held across the northeastern part of Asia, probably for millennia, and she’s still worshiped today — a last holdout of the ancient northern religion of the female Sun.

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See Part 2 here.

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Is the Moon female?

It is popular in modern times, especially in neopagan circles, to think of the moon as representing a goddess. But what did the ancients think?  Was the moon female to them?

Selene (Roman Luna), Titan Goddess of the Moon. Photo from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to Antmoose.

In classical Greece and Rome, the answer to that question is clearly yes.  The original Greek Moon Goddess was Selene, a Titan, or one of the gods of the generation prior to the more famous Olympians.  Selene, as the moon, was the sister of Helios, the sun, and Eos, the dawn.  Eos is an extremely ancient goddess, descended from an Indo-European Goddess of the Dawn, who was seen as the shining morning sun and daughter of the Sky God. In Greek myth she opened the gates of the east each morning and rode out in a chariot.  Soon after, she was followed by Helios who ruled the day in a glowing chariot pulled by fiery horses.

Like her brother and sister, Selene rode a chariot across the sky. Hers was led by moon-white horses who pulled her upward from Ocean as her brother Helios  finished his descent at Ocean’s western edge.

Later, Selene’s lunar traits were absorbed by Artemis, the virgin huntress, one of the 12 Olympians.  Artemis was a daughter of Zeus and sister to Apollo, who absorbed the solar traits of Helios.  Her mother, one of many mistresses of Zeus, gave birth to Apollo and Artemis in hiding from Zeus’ jealous wife, Hera.  The story says that Artemis was born first and acted as midwife for her mother.  Thus began the paradoxical idea attached to Artemis of a virgin who refused marriage and motherhood, but who was responsible for the protection of mothers and young children.  When Rome conquered Greece, they identified Artemis with their own hunting goddess, Diana, and carried her story and worship throughout the western world as they grew their empire.

Roman fresco of Diana the virgin huntress.

In late Roman times, Diana absorbed the traits of many goddesses, becoming an all encompassing divine figure.  In Ephesus, in modern day Turkey, she merged with the mother goddess Cybele and became a sort of virgin-and-mother who influenced the development of the Christian Mary.  Paradoxically, those who continued to worship her as Diana were eventually condemned as witches by the Catholic church.  Thus the source of neopagan lunar goddess mythology may simply be Greco-Roman religion carried on in the country side (pagan meant a rural person). Just as is true today, country people tended to be conservative, which in medieval times would mean sticking to the old Roman religion.

So much for Greece and Rome, but, ancient as they were, they were hardly the first civilizations on the block.  What about the really ancient cultures, the ones who emerged in the fertile crescent 5,000 years ago, creating the first cities and the first written records in history?  Was the moon female to the ancient Egyptians or the Sumerians and Babylonians of Mesopotamia (Iraq)?  It may surprise you to learn that the answer is no.  To these very old cultures, the moon was male, a god. In Sumer this god was Nanna, in Babylon the same god was called Sin.  Nanna was the father of the sun god Utu and the Queen of Heaven, Inanna (later Ishtar), who was identified with the planet Venus, known then as the morning and evening star.  Nanna was the patron god of the city of Ur  (from which Father Abraham left before going on to found the Jewish nation).  Ancient Sumerian documents describe Nanna as  “The lord [who] has burnished the heavens; he has embellished the night…When he comes forth from the turbulent mountains, he stands as Utu stands at noon.”  Another description says he has “great strength inspiring awe in the Land, with the just crown and the shining sceptre, sparkling over the high mountains.”

The Egyptian Moon God Thoth.

In Egypt, the Moon God was Thoth, God of Wisdom and Magic, who was credited with the invention of writing.  Thoth was depicted with the head of an ibis.

The Egyptians thought the Ibis' beak looked like the crescent moon. Photo by Cyron Ray Macey.

In later times, Egypt’s Queen of Heaven, Isis, would be one of several goddesses whose original solar connections would be replaced by lunar ones, but this is probably due to the fact that first the Greeks and then the Romans took over Egypt and made Isis popular throughout the Hellenized and Roman world, where she began, like Diana, to absorb other characteristics on her way to becoming a sort of uber-Goddess of everything.  It’s worth noting that Diana and Isis were among Christianity’s chief rivals for popular worship in Christian Rome and both goddesses bear more than a little resemblance to the newest Queen of Heaven, Mary, who is often depicted standing on the moon.

Over time, then, in the foundational cultures of Western Civilization, the Queen of Heaven went through a metamorphosis, switching from an earlier association with Venus, the sun, and the dawn, to an identification with the moon.

Mary on the Moon, Bartolome Esteban Perez Murillo (1617-1682)

Posted in Artemis/Diana, Egyptian, goddess, Greek/Roman Goddesses, Inanna, Isis, Mary, moon goddesses, Queen of Heaven, sky goddesses, Sumerian/Babylonian | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Dawn

The Gates of Dawn, Herbert James Draper, 1900. Eos opens the gates of the east prior to riding her chariot through the sky.

The Greek Goddess of the Dawn, Eos (Roman Aurora), is thought to be an exceedingly ancient divinity, dating back to the early speakers of the Indo-European language which forms the root of  most of the languages now spoken in the Western world and in India.  Her earliest name has been reconstructed as Hausos, meaning to shine, and she was a chariot riding dawn goddess, daughter of the Sky God Dyeus. Dyeus became Zeus to the Greeks, though they identified Eos as being not his daughter, but a deity of the older generation of divinities they called the Titans.

Hausos’ worship spread with her people as they spread throughout Europe and India.  Traveling west from her original home (probably in Eastern Europe), she became the Germanic Goddess of the Spring, Eostre, who gave her name to our Easter (because the Germanic month roughly corresponding to our April was originally named for her). Traveling southward she became Ushas, dawn goddess of India.  Traveling southwest with the ancestors of the Greeks, she became Eos, remembered as the rosy fingered, saffron (yellow) robed Titan who opened the gates of the east (a direction which still bears her name) and rode forth in her chariot just before her brother, Helios, the sun, emerged to traverse the sky in his.

According to Greek myth, Eos was ever young and beautiful because she was renewed each morning and she liked to steal away young, handsome men to be her lovers.  She was the mother to all the stars and to the winds named for the four directions. The dawn goddess’ name forms the root of our word east, the direction in which the sun rises.  So tomorrow, should you rise in time, consider taking the opportunity to face east and when you feel the sun’s rays upon your face remember the divine daughter/mother who never ages and always returns, painting the world anew with her gentle light, giving us each a fresh start.

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Who is this mystery goddess? The serpent-wielding woman of Crete.

This serpent-wielding Goddess belongs to the Minoan culture which pre-dated the Greeks in that part of the Mediterranean. The Minoan Culture was contemporaneous with ancient Egypt and Sumer, but their writings remain undeciphered. (Photo by Chris 73, Wikimedia Commons.)

What’s her name and what divine power did she represent? No one knows.  Whoever made her did so in about 1600 BC on Crete, during a time when a people called the Minoans lived there.  They did leave writings, called Linear A, but no one has deciphered them.

When women ruled the world? The impressive and predominantly feminine nature of the artwork of the Minoans excited the imaginations of those who first saw it.  There was a popular theory, circulating from the late 1800s that the earliest cultures of Europe were matriarchal and that they had religions based – literally – on sex.  These had been replaced, one way or another (but probably in a way that involved a lot of blood and gore), by patriarchal civilization. This idea was very exciting to the Victorian mind, naturally.  Sex and violence sold a story just as well a century ago as it does today.  Anyway, the man who discovered the relics of ancient Crete believed he had found proof that this theory was correct.

What do we really know about the people who made the Snake Goddess? The short answer is: not much.  The longer answer is that she was found at the palace of Knossos on the island of Crete, where a major urban seafaring culture thrived from about 3,000 BC until its overthrow by the early Greeks in about 1400 BC. Archaeologist Arthur Evans began excavating their remains in 1900 and dubbed them the Minoans after the Greek legend of King Minos of Crete.  The most extreme claims about this culture, made by Evans, were that it was the clearest known example of a matriarchal civilization and that it was an entirely or almost entirely peaceful civilization.  Most scholars feel these claims are exaggerated. It’s worth noting, however that no one has ever actually disproved this theory.  They’ve only — correctly — pointed out that there is no real proof the mythical matriarchy existed on Crete (or elsewhere.)

Leaving aside the matriarchal controversy, we are on much more solid ground in asserting the following very remarkable traits of this ancient culture:

1- The Minoans were a highly developed ancient urban culture whose wealthy civilization was built on a foundation of trade. They traded widely throughout the eastern Mediterranean, as far away as Palestine and Turkey and were even trading with Egypt at the time the Great Pyramids were being built.

2- There is little evidence of this being a warrior culture. Though some more recently discovered fortifications and weapons suggest it was not purely pacifistic, its artwork and other remains show no glorification of warriors, no hint of war, and no suggestion of killing or capturing enemies such as became highly favored topics in the art of the cultures of other places and of Greece in later times.

3- This society was relatively egalitarian.  Uncovered remains of their dwellings show that there was a much more narrow gap between rich and poor than would be common in later civilizations — including our own.

4- We can’t say for certain what the political structure of the Minoans was, but the religion, according to the artwork which has been found here, appears to have involved primarily goddesses and to have been  run by women.

So, a culture based on trade not conquest, where equality rather than hierarchy was the norm, and with a religion based on goddess worship run by women.  That’s radical enough, frankly, for me.  Riane Eisler, in The Chalice and the Blade, recommended the ancient Cretans as a model for our own cultural self improvement.  I tend to agree.

What happened to the Minoans? The Minoan civilization had a string of bad luck in the middle of the second millenium BC (the 1,000’s). The beginning of the end for them happened when the Minoan owned island of Santorini suffered one of the largest volcanic eruptions on Earth in recorded history. The explosion turned most of the nice circular island into a thin C shape and then triggered a massive tsunami which wiped out the coastal cities of Minoan Crete.  Remember this was a  culture whose economy was based on seafaring trade, so that was probably a pretty big blow.  Not long afterward the Minoans were conquered by the Myceneans, a warrior people who were the original Greeks.  These were the people Homer later said fought the Trojan War.  Their culture was probably originally quite different from Minoan as their early ancestors were Indo-Europeans (nomadic, possibly patriarchal people from eastern Europe whose language is at the root of the languages now spoken throughout the western world).  But as warriors often do, they seem to have adopted a lot from the more advanced culture of the people they conquered.

Did they abandon or continue worship of the Snake Goddess? And if they continued it, did they give her a Greek name  still familiar to us today? Could one of the Olympians be a Minoan memory? The Myceneans left writings which have been translated, called Linear B. Already here, according to these, are Poseidon and Zeus, as well as several goddesses. If they wrote down the Snake Goddess’ name, then the suspects for mystery goddess include:  Diwia, a feminine form of Zeus’ name; Diktynna, a mountain and hunting goddess; a minor Greek goddess of childbirth; one of the Furies; and a Lady (Potnia) of the Labyrinth (Ariadne?). The Snake Goddess could be any of these or none, but I’ve left out my prime suspect. One more name on the list is Potnia Atana, most likely an early version of Lady Athena.  Athena, of course is the Goddess of Wisdom, so if she were originally the Minoan Snake Goddess, then the Minoan Snake Goddess might well be the original Goddess of Wisdom.  They say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I’ll leave you with my final thought in the form of two pictures–one, again, the snake goddess, and next to it, for comparison, a picture I also included in my most recent post discussing the relationship of Athena and the snake-headed Medusa:

Here again, with snakes in hand, and an animal which appears to be a cat on her head, the ancient Minoan Snake Goddess.

And here, for comparison, the picture I posted two days ago of Athena, Goddess of Wisdom. In this statue, created 1200 years later than the Snake Goddess, Athena is pictured with a snake by her side and a cat woman (Sphinx, a lion goddess) on her head. Coincidence? You decide.

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Mirror, mirror: Reflections on Medusa

Medusa_by_Carvaggio

Could this be the face of the sun? Medusa by Michelangelo Merisi da Carvaggio (1573-1610)

Pallas Giustiniani. This statue of Athena from the 4th century BC shows her with a snake and wearing a Sphinx (lion goddess) on her helmet.

When Athena looks in the mirror, does she see Medusa? When Perseus cuts off the head of the Gorgon Medusa, he does so with the aid of a mirror shield given to him by Athena, Goddess of Wisdom.  Later, he gives her head to Athena, who wears it on her aegis, a shield or protective covering.

The funny thing is that Medusa, now being worn as a weapon, is herself said to be a Goddess of Wisdom.  This suggests they might be two faces of the same deity — one light, the bright eyed Athena, favorite daughter of the king of heaven (Zeus), and one dark, the serpent-headed demon Medusa whose very look brings death.  Her story intersects with Athena’s at every turn.  Her beautiful coils of golden hair are turned into serpents by Athena after, in one version, she is raped in her temple or, in another, she boasts her beauty is greater than Athena’s.  There is one telling difference between these two mortal enemies, however.  Whereas Athena is a great friend to men, aiding heroes like Odysseus, Hercules, and Perseus in their quests, Medusa’s gaze turns them to stone. One doesn’t have to be Freud to suspect repression might be at work here.  Athena separates herself from her dark, serpentine side, which she then appropriates in order to kill but does not acknowledge as part of herself.  It has been suggested that Medusa represents suppressed female rage at the abuses of patriarchy, or, on the other hand, that she is a projected image of  male fear of female power.

Whatever the intent, it seems clear that Medusa represents a revision of an earlier, more powerful goddess, and her story may even be an allegory of her overthrow by the sky gods of Olympus.  This line of thinking is given strength by the fact that Medusa means guardian, or to protect, or rule over.  Serpents are associated with the great goddesses throughout the early civilizations of  humankind — from Mesopotamia to Egypt to Crete. In earlier stories, the serpent is associated with wisdom and fertility; only in later stories does this creature receive a more negative interpretation.

Medusa is of the family of the Titan Ocean, as is Athena’s mother Metis, whose name means wisdom and who was said to possess all the wisdom of gods and men.  Notice the similarity in name, Metis-Medusa.  Could these originally have been the same Goddess? Who is really being slain here? Was she the serpentine Goddess of Wisdom who once ruled over, or guarded the ancients?  Has Athena murdered her own mother, the original Goddess of Wisdom, when the authors tell us she guides Perseus’ sword hand to cut off Medusa’s head?  If so, she is only copying her father, who swallowed Metis before she was born and gave birth to Athena himself out of his head.  In this way, old powers are appropriated for the gods of Olympus.  Intentionally or not I think the authors of these myths have embedded a subversive message:  the gods claim to have wisdom, but they show us that they have only stolen it.  Wisdom was here already and it belonged to woman.  In fact it still does.  How remarkable that in the brutally patriarchal world of Greece wisdom is still assigned to a Goddess.

As both a water and a serpent divinity, Medusa’s attributes parallel those of Babylonian Tiamat, who was once the Primordial Sea Goddess who created all things, but was overthrown by the Sky God Marduk.  She, too, became demonic and serpentine and battled her conqueror.  And she, too, was murdered and her carcass appropriated by the victor.

It is the conqueror who writes history (and mythology), so what we know of Medusa is what the victors in Greek history have told us.  Who knows what roots Medusa may have had ancient days?  In O Mother Sun, Patricia Monaghan, presents the unconventional theory that the seemingly dark and serpentine Medusa is really the brightest thing in the sky.

Were Medusa’s Serpentine Curls once the rays of the sun? Before they were turned to serpents, those golden coils would have given the head of Medusa a distinctly solar appearance. Right next door to Medusa’s stated homeland of Libya, in the land of Egypt, the sun goddess Sekhmet was depicted with the head of a lion, crowned by the disc of the sun, wrapped in a cobra. Other goddesses including Bast and Wadjet were also similarly depicted. This constellation of images — sun, lion, serpent —  is associated with two other interesting correlations.  First, Sekhmet is said to be the eye of Ra, a sun god, and the sun is said to be a cat’s eye. Eyes figure strongly in the narrative of Medusa, whose look can kill.  Second, the mirror was necessary in conquering Medusa and mirrors are associated with the Egyptian goddess Hathor, whose name means house of Hor, another sun god, and who also wears the solar disk.  Symbols with reflective surfaces like mirrors and wells are associated with sun goddesses throughout the ancient world, from Japan, to Siberia, to Ireland.

Goddesses were depicted with lions in many places,too, from Anatolia, where agriculture was invented, to Mesopotamia, to ancient Palestine, Crete, and Egypt.  The oldest of these depictions has been found in archaeological remains of one of the earliest villages humans ever built, in Anatolia (Turkey). The Goddess Cybele was still being depicted with lions in an almost identical pose  right through to the time of Greece and Rome.  That’s more than 6,ooo years as mistress of the king of beasts.

Perhaps its golden mane, or its power and strength are the reason, but to be or subdue a lion is mythologically to rule the sun.  If Medusa is linked to these ancient archetypes of feminine divinity, then it’s possible that long ago Medusa was a bringer of both wisdom and light.

It is only  men who fear to gaze upon the face of Medusa.  We women might want to take a good long look at what they are afraid to see.  For Monaghan believes when we reflect upon the image of Medusa, we are staring the truth in the face: “Few simply look at Medusa and ask, what does she look like? Let us consider this simple answer: She looks like the sun.”

Sekhmet, with the head of a lion, wearing a solar disk with a serpent. Photo by Gerard Ducher.

Cybele, flanked by lions. This Roman image has ancient origins. Cybele originates from Anatolia (Turkey) where archaeologists have uncovered a statue of a similar goddess with large felines from 6,000 BC.

 

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Devouring Wisdom: Why the Sky God ate his first wife

I sometimes think a volume compiling the Greek Myths ought to be labeled Gods Behaving Badly.  No heavenly bad boy exhibits worse behavior than does Zeus, King of the Gods, wielder of lightning bolts, ruler of Olympus. Zeus is father to many gods and heroes by multiple wives and, well, other ladies who struck his fancy — whether they were willing or not.  One did not say no to Zeus, apparently.  His crimes against women included not only rape but cannibalism, as he ended his first marriage by the bizarre act of swallowing his wife.

Zeus

To be fair, Zeus came from a terribly dysfunctional family and it’s possible he just didn’t know any better.  Zeus’ father, Cronus, had castrated and deposed his own father, Uranus, who personified the sky in Greek mythology.  And Cronus had then topped that act by gobbling up most of his own children.   Zeus was rescued from his siblings’  fate when his  mother saved him by tricking his father into swallowing a stone instead of her infant son.  After he grew up, he rescued his brothers and sisters and went to war against his father.  Metis, Zeus’ first wife, gave Cronus a drug which forced him to vomit up Zeus’ siblings. The Gods (Zeus’ generation) defeated the Titans (Cronus’ generation) and Zeus ruled the skies for the remainder of Greek and Roman history.

Since Metis played such a pivotal role in Zeus’ success, why did he repay her so badly? Well, it turns out that just as prophecy had warned Cronus that he would be overthrown by a son, it was foretold of the next generation that Metis would give birth to a son who would overthrow Zeus.  So Zeus solved the problem by swallowing Metis when she was still pregnant with their first child, a girl.

Sometime after this unusual act of domestic violence, Zeus woke up with a whopping headache and subsequently gave birth to a daughter, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom.  She emerged fully grown and fully dressed in battle gear, from her father’s head.  And so, Zeus neatly managed not only to keep his throne, but to steal wisdom from a woman and give birth to it in the form of another.

Who was Metis?

 

 

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Hylas_and_the_Nymphs_(1896)

 

Metis was a water goddess, a nymph, and a daughter of the Ocean (the Titan Oceanus). Even today, the name nymph is associated with sexuality independent of marriage.  In ancient times, these daughters of Ocean were freewheeling nature spirits, often associated with springs.

The nymph Metis was also a clever trickster with magical abilities who evolved by classical times into a more respectable Goddess of Wisdom.   She was said to be an equal to Zeus, unlike his later wife Hera, and Hesiod wrote that she  knew more than did all the gods and humans put together. Another of her names was Prudence, but she showed an unfortunate lack of this virtue in one respect: she was the first to tell Zeus that her son would overthrow him.  So Zeus turned her into a fly and swallowed her.

Metis kept busy while in  Zeus’ interior, hammering away to create Athena’s armor and helmet.  It was this hammering which caused Zeus’ terrible headache prior to his daughter’s unconventional birth.

 

The daughter of wisdom:   Metis’ daughter Athena took over her role as Goddess of Wisdom and became the patron goddess of the city of Athens.  The Athenians chose her as patron after she presented them with the olive tree and built the Parthenon in her honor.  Athena ruled over all the arts of civilization and was a champion of heroes, leader in battle, and patron of craftsmen.   While her mother faded into obscurity, Athena is well remembered.  She became one of the 12 Olympians and her symbol, the owl, is still used to represent wisdom today.

But I have the strong feeling something important was lost in the transition from Metis to the classical portrayal of Athena.  Athena was a good friend to gods and men, but not always to women.  She turned her own priestess, Medusa, from a beautiful woman into a snake headed monster after the latter was raped by Poseidon in her temple. Subsequently she helped the hero Perseus (her half human half brother), defeat Medusa and afterward wore her serpent covered head on her shield.  The relationship between Athena and Medusa is complex and their ancient connection to each other is suggested by the fact that both entities are much more ancient than the times of classical Greece, both are associated with feminine wisdom and both are connected with the symbolism of snakes. (More on this subject to come in a future post.)

It is possible that Athena is deliberately used by patriarchal authors to contain an ancient association of women with wisdom; hence, she is the daughter of  one swallowed Goddess of Wisdom (Metis) and participates in the slaying of another (Medusa) in order to establish her place in the patriarchal order. In the tragic tale of Oresteia, Athena helps to validate male supremacy when she acquits Orestes of the crime of  murdering his mother — not because he hasn’t killed her, but because the act is not a crime.  How did she come to this startling conclusion? Athena accepted the argument of Apollo (acting as defense attorney) that it is not a crime for a man to kill his mother if she has first  killed his father, even if the father started the whole thing by killing the defendant’s sister. (Aren’t these Greek family stories charming?)  Part of Apollo’s argument revolved, sadly, around the “fact” that Athena had no mother.  Poor Metis, how soon they forgot her!

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