An American Goddess: Mary in the New World

The Spanish explorers and conquerors of the New World saw Mary as their protector. The locals had other ideas. The Virgin of the Navigators, Alejo Fernandez (1536).

Every Christmas Eve at the Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, the residents of the oldest town in America bring out an old, old statue of the Virgin Mary and give her a procession through an eager crowd.  This representation of Mary is more than 300 years old, but the Pueblo and its people go back much, much farther.

Archaeologists confirm that the large apartment-like adobe buildings at the Taos Pueblo (also called the Pueblo at the Red Willows) in which some Pueblo Indians still live, have been here for at least 1,000 years.  They cannot say for certain exactly how far into the past this pueblo existed because their access has been limited by the tribe, whose own traditions say they have been here much, much longer.  Thousands of years into the past, perhaps.  According to their own legends, the people of the Taos Pueblo emerged from inside the earth which is their beloved Mother Nature and climbed up a pine tree at nearby Blue Lake, journeying only a short way to the place where they created the pueblo.

Taos Pueblo, portions of which are at least 1,000 years old, is the oldest continuously occupied settlement in America. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Photo by Robin Loznak.

About 500 years ago they were reached by Spanish conquistadors.  The first of these were seeking the fabled cities of gold.  In their wake would come more Spaniards.  They would bring with them disease, slavery, and the Catholic faith, including a belief in the Mother of God, Mary.  Like all the Spanish rulers of the New World, they believed that Mary was their protector and champion in the quest to subdue and colonize this “new” (to them) world  and its people.  Like so many of their victims, however, the people of  Taos Pueblo saw things a little bit differently.

In 1680, the Pueblo Indians had had enough.  They revolted against their Spanish overlords. During the rebellion, they tore down the original 17th century San Geronimo mission church.  But before they did, they did a very interesting thing: they rescued the santos, the images of the saints, including the greatest among them, Mother Mary.  (A second church was brought down by cannon fire with women and children inside by the American government. Its ruins still stand at the pueblo today. St. Jerome church, where the santos now reside, is the Pueblo’s third.)

The most prominent of the santos is Mary, who occupies the central place in an alcove at the back of the current pueblo church, the spot which would in most Catholic churches be given to her son. She is crowned, appropriately, as she is the Queen of Heaven. This particular representation of the Queen of Heaven has the light-skinned, brown-haired appearance of the Spaniards who constructed her hundreds of years ago.  Her garments, also European in style, are changed with the seasons. She may have been brought by Europeans who once enslaved them but it seems that the Puebloans don’t hold that against her. They have nominally adopted Catholicism while retaining their own faith and strictly guarding their ancient traditions.  The Spaniards may have seen her as a helper in their conquest; the indigenous people of New Mexico saw something else.

At Christmas, she is dressed as if for a wedding, in white, with a bridal veil. On Christmas Eve, she is carried on a litter, under a white canopy in a procession through an eager crowd. A thousand people, or more, of many ancestries, gather to witness and participate in this ancient tradition.  Pueblo dancers accompany the statue, and men with guns who fire shots into the air.  At the front of the procession is the local priest.  This is the anniversary, according to Christian tradition, of the night when she gave birth to God in a stable, on what was, 2,000 years ago, the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. This year I was fortunate to be at that celebration. Although the sun has set, the bitter Rocky Mountain cold and the darkness of one of the longest nights of the year are  pushed back for a time  by the presence of enormous and pungent bonfires of piñon pine. (I wonder, are the fires calling back the sun, ensuring its return in the morning and for the coming year?)

The La Conquistadora santos (saint image), in the Cathedral of Santa Fe is similar to that of the Mary santos at the Taos Pueblo and may be even older. It was brought by Franciscans to New Mexico in 1625. Some claim La Conquistadora is the oldest Marian statue in the U.S. Our Lady of Prompt Succor in New Orleans, Louisiana, also lays claim to the title.

Barely suppressed beneath the surface here is Mary’s true identity, which is in two parts: bride, and mother, both of which are more than what they appear to be on the surface.  For if she is the bride, who is the bridegroom? Clearly, God, the father of her child, who is King of Heaven just as she is his Queen. She is dressed for the wedding, and just in time, for the child is due by morning.   Official protests of the orthodox in Rome notwithstanding, Mary’s identity as a Goddess seems plain.

“Great is the might and power a beautiful woman has over a man who is in love with her…she causes him to rave and causes the lover to go out of his mind…the Virgin could do this with God himself,” wrote Lawrence of Brindisi in 1619. (Quoted from In Search of Mary, by Sally Cuneen.)

Another clue to her identity — this time as mother — is the paintings of corn and bean plants around her alcove in the pueblo church. These are the native plants which have been farmed here for at least 1,000 years and are the staples of the traditional diet. A few days before Christmas, we were told during a tour by a member of the pueblo that Mother Mary is revered here as Mother Nature. And in recognizing in her their own Mother Nature, the Pueblo people see her as she once was. For the Queen of Heaven emerged from goddesses of nature in the ancient Near East and Europe and absorbed them everywhere she went in the ancient world. Theology may have served to obscure her identity, but it didn’t fool the residents of Red Willow Pueblo.

If there’s one thing a trip to the southwest will tell you, it’s that Mary is a force to be reckoned with in America today and will likely become even more so as the Hispanic population, most of which is Catholic, increases.  She is considered by Catholics to be the patron saint of the United States, as well as of the Americas in general. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, a survey of 14 of the US archdioceses suggests more Catholic churches are named for her or one of her epithets than for God and Jesus (and their attributes) combined.

South of the border she is perhaps even more impressive. Her most famous representation in the Americas is that of Our Lady of Guadalupe, which is virtually the symbol of Mexico.  Mary arrived here with the Spanish Conquistadors.  She was seen by the Spaniards as their protector and the sponsor of their endeavors to explore and conquer the New World.  And yet, rather than reject her, those of mixed Spanish and Indian descent adopted her and turned her to their own purposes.  When Mexico revolted against Spain, the warrior and priest Miguel Hidalgo (the Father of Mexico) carried the Virgin of Guadalupe’s image on his spear at the head of his army. Mary as Guadalupe was seen as their protector and the sponsor of their fight for freedom. I’m not as certain as the Spaniards and Mexicans were that Mary takes sides in battle (personally, I prefer the Puebloan explanation of the divine mother)  but if Mary did enter the fray, it’s clear whose side she was on. Spain’s influence would wane in the Americas.  Mary’s would not.

The Virgin of Guadalupe. This is the image which is alleged to have miraculously appeared on the cloak of Juan Diego, an artifact currently kept at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico City.

Legend says that Guadalupe is the product of a vision. According to the faithful, in the year 1531 a Native Aztec man called Quauhtlatoatzin (also called Juan Diego, perhaps because none of the Spaniards could pronounce Quauhtlatoatzin), had a remarkable experience. While passing Tepeyac hill on his way to church at the nearby Franciscan mission he had an unusual vision. In it, Mother Mary appeared as a dark skinned woman surrounded by radiant light and requested a church be built for her there.

When Juan Diego presented her request to the local bishop, he was not impressed. Subsequently, Mary instructed Juan Diego to climb Tepeyac hill and collect roses she caused to miraculously bloom there.  It was December and roses were out of season; also, the terrain was rocky and should not have supported their growth even in June. Juan Diego carried the roses to the bishop in his simple tilma (cloak), made of fibers from the maguey cactus plant. He brought them to the bishop, who was impressed by them, but stunned to see the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe appearing miraculously on Juan Diego’s cloak.

According to the Franciscans, Mary’s request (and her promise) was this:

“I wish and intensely desire that in this place my sanctuary be erected. Here I will demonstrate, I will exhibit, I will give all my love, my compassion, my help and my protection to the people. I am your merciful mother, the merciful mother of all of you who live united in this land, and of all mankind of all those who love me. Here I will hear their weeping, their sorrow, and will remedy and alleviate all their multiple sufferings, necessities, and misfortunes.”

Needless to say, the chapel was built. And the tilma was placed there. (It now resides in the newer Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe near the original site in Mexico City.) According to believers, the tilma is made of a rough sackcloth like fabric which would ordinarily have disintegrated in about 20 years. It has instead lasted for 500.

A unique vision of God painting the Virgin of Guadalupe on Juan Diego's cloak. Anonymous 18th century painting.

That image shows Mary in a star-studded cloak, standing on the moon and surrounded by sun rays.

Catholics interpret Mary’s imagery here to be a reference to the “woman clothed with the sun” who gives birth to the a divine child in the Book of Revelations:

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. (Revelations 12:1)

In this imaginative apocalyptic passage about the beginning of the End of Time, an evil dragon identified as Satan lies in wait, hoping to gobble the child of the celestial woman.  But God rescues the child and war ensues between the angels of  God and Satan.

Another possible source for Mary’s imagery here is suggested by the location of her miraculous appearance. For Tepeyac hill, where Mary appeared and where she asked that a chapel be built for her was a huaca, an Aztec holy pilgrimage site which predated the influence of Spanish Catholicism. One thing that makes Guadalupe unique is her brown skin.  Unlike European images of Mary, she is made in the image of Mexicans of mixed Spanish and Indian descent. (Interestingly, her appearance is probably a more accurate representation of the coloring of the young Jewish girl who birthed Jesus at the turn of the first millennium than are the fair and blond representations so frequently seen elsewhere.) Another unique feature is that the blue green color of her cloak was that associated with Aztec divinities.  And she identified herself as Tonantzen, the Mother of the Gods. The solar rays emanating from her are consistent with both earlier Spanish images of Mary and Aztec images of gods.

The name Guadalupe may be a Spanish translation of the Nahuatl (Aztec language) word used by the Virgin to describe herself, which may have been Coatalocpia (from coatl, meaning serpent and tlaloc, meaning goddess), which could mean either serpent goddess or she who crushes the serpent. The serpent in question might be the Aztec serpent god Quetzalcoatl, but then again, the identification of Goddess as associated with or conquering a serpent is exceedingly ancient and worldwide. (See, for example, my previous post on the goddess Asherah.) Naturally the Catholic interpretation is to identify the serpent with the Christian Satan, but whether the indigenous Mexicans interpreted things this way is another question altogether.

In fact, Mary was probably often recognized throughout the Americas as a variant of local goddesses. Is she any less exalted today? As recently as 1959, at the World Marian Congress she was called the Empress of the Americas.  But then, wasn’t the Mother of God(s) always in charge of the land of the Americas? Perhaps it was only the European conquerors and colonizers who forgot who she really was.

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For information on Mary’s associations with Old World goddesses at the time of her adoption into the Catholic church,see my post on Mary as Theotokos.

Posted in goddess, Goddess in the Bible, Mary, Queen of Heaven, sun goddesses | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Star of the Sea

The Birth of Venus, Sandro Botticelli (1486)

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.”

Asherah, Artwork © Jonathon Earl Bowser - http://www.JonathonArt.com

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.

Lakshmi

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.

Posted in Aphrodite/Venus, Asherah, Canaanite mythology, Goddess in the Bible, Greek/Roman Goddesses, Hathor, Hindu goddesses, Inanna, Ishtar, Mary, nammu/tiamat, Nut, Queen of Heaven, sea goddess, sky goddesses, Sumerian/Babylonian | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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?

Posted in Anat, Asherah, Canaanite mythology, Egyptian, goddess, Goddess in the Bible, Greek/Roman Goddesses, Hathor, Hittite mythology, Inanna, Ishtar, lion goddesses, Queen of Heaven, sea goddess, Sekhmet, sky goddesses, Sumerian/Babylonian, sun goddesses | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

Asherah, Part II: The serpent’s bride

Continued from Asherah, Part I

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Eve with the serpent by the Tree of Knowledge. Painting by John Roddam Spencer-Stanhope (1829-1908).

Is the world good, or bad? Who made us, and why? These are some of the questions ancient myths and religions attempt to answer.  And the answers matter. A belief in a goddess who is Mother Nature personified is different from a belief in a jealous and vengeful warrior creator. It’s different because it shapes how we feel about the world, and what we do while we’re in it. When the writers and compilers of our historic religion decided to edit out the Hebrew Goddess Asherah, they changed how we see the world.  They changed us and, so, they changed our world.

Eve and the Serpent

Some of the Bible’s most devout readers seem unaware of the impossibility of literal belief in its accounts.  Take creation, for example. The account of humankind’s creation by the Elohim  (translated God, but technically a plural word) in Genesis 1:26 is followed in Chapters 2 and 3 by another creation story which contradicts it on several key points.  In this second account, the personal God Yahweh is given as the name of the Creator in the original Hebrew text.  This God is spoken of in the singular, unlike the first account, in which Elohim says “let us” create man in “our” image. Rather than speaking as the head of a council, Yahweh clearly creates alone.  He walks in the Garden of Eden in which He has placed his creations, implying that He has physical form.  Whereas Elohim created both male and female in “our” image, at the same time, together, Yahweh creates only the man at first. He places him in a garden with two trees, the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge.  He is instructed to eat from the first, but not the second and told that if he eats from the Tree of Knowledge he “will surely die.”

In the first account, there is no mention of the Garden of Eden or the magical trees. Humans are made last, after everything else: light and dark, earth and sea, plants and animals.  God (or the gods) pronounces the creation good and creates man and woman to rule over the creatures, which have all already been created. In the second account, man is made after plants and the animals are created afterward, to amuse Adam, because he is lonely.  Unlike the first account, in this version of the story, woman is made later, when the animals fail to relieve Adam’s loneliness.  She is not even conceived in the same fashion.  Adam is made of mud (his name means both mankind and red earth) and filled with the breath of God.  Eve is made from Adam’s rib while he is sleeping.

The author of the second account then goes on to tell what is certainly one of the best known stories in the Judeo-Christian tradition:

Now the serpent was more crafty than any of the wild animals the Lord God had made.  He said to the woman, “Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.’ “

“You will not surely die,” the serpent said to the woman.  “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.”

When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.  She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it.  Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden.  But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”

He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”

And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”

The man said, “The woman you put here with me — she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”

Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”

The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:1-13)

God goes on to administer several punishments for the offense of eating from the Tree of Knowledge.  The humans are cast out of the garden and so prevented from eating of the Tree of Life.  The man will toil in the earth with difficulty; the woman will be ruled over by her husband and give birth to children in pain; the snake will crawl on his belly (some commentators have inferred from this that the snake originally had legs) and be hated by humans.  Two angels and a flaming sword guard the entrance to the garden. We can never go back.

A small votive statue of the Mother Goddess Asherah, typical of those archaeologists have found in many ancient Israelite homes.

The Serpent God

The great historian of mythology Joseph Campbell dryly observes that nothing is said in the story to indicate that the serpent in the story was a deity in his own right throughout the ancient world.  Likewise, it should be observed that no ancient Hebrew reader of this story would have had any difficulty identifying the Tree of Life with the Mother Goddess Asherah, whose Tree of Life image according to the Bible was worshiped “under every green tree” and which also resided in the temple of Solomon for 236 of the 370 years it stood in Jerusalem.

It may also be that Eve herself is an allegory for Asherah, as her name means mother of life and is linguistically related to Asherah’s.

Joseph Campbell believed that the serpent in the Eden story was lifted directly from either the Sumerian God Enki, God of Water and Wisdom, or his son Ningizzida. Both of them were identified as Serpent Gods, among other things.  Enki was possessed of the food and water of life as well as the tablets of wisdom. Ningizzida was Lord of the Tree of Truth. These gods may have been carried into Canaan with the Israelites after they left the Sumerian/Babylonian city of Ur, or absorbed from their eastern neighbors at a later time. (Much of the Hebrew Bible was compiled, edited and rewritten after the Hebrews were conquered and exiled in Babylon in the 6th century BC.) Virtually all of the first 11 chapters of Genesis are rewritten from the much older Sumerian tales.  In them, Enki rather than Yahweh creates humans from mud, and saves the prototype of Noah from the flood by teaching him to build an ark. (For more on the Biblical links to the creation stories of the Sumerians, see my earlier post, In the Beginning…)

We know that Asherah worship was connected with prophecy. Serpents were also connected with both wisdom and prophecy throughout the eastern Mediterranean: in Greece, the oracle of Delphi was called Pythia, after a great serpent (python) who was defeated by the god Apollo there; in Sumer/Babylon the god Enki was lord of water and wisdom and symbolized as a great walking serpent (dragon), as was his son Ningizzida whose symbolic image was a staff surrounded by two twining serpents.

The Sumerian god Ningizzida, appearing as two serpents twining around a central pole, as depicted on a vase from Sumer about 4,000 years ago. Ningizzida was the son of Enki. Enki, a water god and the God of Wisdom, created humans from clay in Sumerian myth. Either one of them could have been the inspiration for Eden's serpent.

Ningizzida was an underworld deity and paradoxically a guardian of the Sky God Anu’s celestial palace.  He was also a god of trees. The Greek god Hermes, messenger of the gods, had a staff entwined by serpents, too.  This image of mystical knowledge has been conflated by the medical profession with the Rod of Asclepius (originally a single serpent wrapped around a staff) which was an ancient image of healing.  Thus, both life and knowledge have been connected with snakes for a very long time.  So have goddesses.

The Serpent Goddess

In Minoan Crete a mysterious goddess bearing serpents is very ancient; in classical Greece, Athena, Goddess of Wisdom, bears the serpent covered head of Medusa on her shield.  Throughout ancient Canaan, images can be found of a goddess holding or surrounded by serpents.  Some believe she is Astarte (the Canaanite version of Ishtar, who is in turn the Babylonian version of Inanna).  Inanna is said to have stolen the me, the magical tablets of wisdom, from Enki, and to have delivered that knowledge to her own people. Others believe the Canaanite serpent goddess is Asherah, in part because this goddess is often depicted standing on a lion and Asherah is also called the Lion Lady (a topic for another day).

The Serpent Goddess of ancient Crete, from the Minoan culture which predated Israel's but traded with the earlier Canaanites.This Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons image is from the user Chris 73 and is freely available at http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Snake_Goddess_Crete_1600BC.jpg under the creative commons cc-by-sa 2.5 license.

Asherah is a shortened version of the Mother Goddess’ full name, which is Athiratu Yammi, She Who Treads on the Sea. Yam, the Sea God, like many deities of the primordial sea, was represented as a serpent. Serpents, water and wisdom all suggest an unconscious connection to the depths of everything, the place out of which creativity comes. Perhaps her ability to walk on water identifies her as one who can wield serpent powers (powers of wisdom, prophecy and/or healing).  Asherah, would then be not only the Goddess Life, but the Goddess Wisdom. Accompanied by her serpent totem she can dispense knowledge from deep within the source of all things. The one who created life from formlessness knows how to create and can share this ability with us.  Unless, of course, we are barred from knowing her.

And that is no doubt the real meaning of the tale.  For here the message to its ancient reader is plain.  You are in this vale of tears because you worshiped at the foot of the Tree Goddess.  And in conveying this message, the Yahwist turns the old meaning of these symbols on their head.  For this reason Campbell calls this story a “conspicuously contrived, counterfeit myth.”  Yahweh appears here as a tyrant.  Do not pursue wisdom, or you will suffer my wrath.  Also, unlike all comparable pagan myths, instead of presenting nature, right here on earth, as sacred, we now see ourselves as locked out of paradise.  Nature is Adam’s enemy; he is to toil and sweat to eke out a living from the land. Man is woman’s enemy; she is to serve her husband.  Under the Deuteronomist’s law she is in fact the property of her husband, given a status no better than that of a slave. Whereas women no doubt saw Asherah as especially their protector in childbirth, they are now told their worship of her caused all the pain of labor.

This is a very sad story.  In rejecting the goddess, we now know that Yahweh was in fact rejecting his own wife.  Asherah was the wife of the Canaanite El in Phoenicia, and the wife of Baal in Israel, but archaeologists have now uncovered evidence from ancient inscriptions showing that many also considered her the wife of Yahweh.

A portion of the Nine Dragon Screen in the Forbidden City, China. These beneficial dragons are controlling wind and rain. Photo by Shizhao, Wikimedia Commons.

Serpent Power

We can certainly find the origins of the particular images of Mother of Life, Tree of Life and serpent without leaving the ancient Near East. However, it’s probably worth pointing out that these ideas are so widespread as to be literally worldwide. In Viking mythology, the World Tree, Yrggdasil, sits at the center of the world.  It has a dragon within it and more serpents lie beneath it than anyone could imagine.  The God Odin hangs himself on the tree in order to acquire power over the runes (both knowledge and prophetic knowledge.) In the East, the water/wisdom/serpent power is considered benevolent. Chinese dragons are water gods with powers over rains and rivers and the ability to bestow good luck.  Buddha achieved enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree, protected from the rain by a giant cobra. In Hindu yoga, a serpent power called kundalini is said to reside at the base of the spine and practitioners attempt to raise the serpent upward toward the top of the head, creating mystical awareness if they succeed.  In the New World, a feathered Serpent God named Quetzalcoatl was the God of Wisdom, associated with priestly power.  Serpents were also part of African mythology and many Egyptian gods and goddesses as well as pharaohs bore an image of a cobra around their heads.

There are only two explanations for this widespread similarity of belief.  Either the idea of serpent power is an archetype deeply rooted in the human unconscious (our own primordial sea), or it is so ancient that it traveled with us when some of our ancestors came out of Africa and spread around the world.

Unlike many of our Eastern neighbors, we in the Christian West are used to thinking of dragons as bad guys in need of conquering by heroes.  Many are also used to thinking of the serpent in Eden as Satan, but this was a later, Christian adaptation of the tale.  He is never identified as such in the Hebrew story, nor is he considered to be the Devil in Jewish tradition.

Yahweh Gets All Snakey

And now we are about to enter some pretty weird territory. There are some indications that Yahweh himself claimed Serpent Power.  Perhaps the most peculiar imagery in the Bible (and that’s saying something) connects Yahweh himself with the serpent. We are told in 2 Kings 18:4, for example, by an angry prophet that the bronze serpent of Moses was worshiped alongside the image of Asherah.  The people of Israel were burning incense to this bronze serpent head, as they would to a god, and they called it Nehushtan (related to nachash, the Hebrew word for snake).

We first encounter the serpent powers of Yahweh in connection with Moses in Exodus Chapter 7, when that great leader is attempting to persuade Egypt’s pharaoh to let the Israelites (who are slaves) go free. In this account, Moses and his brother Aaron each cast down their staffs and both turn into serpents. Pharaoh’s wizards cast down their staffs which turn into serpents as well, but Aaron’s serpent staff proceeds to swallow the Egyptian serpents.

Moses also uses his magical staff in bringing the plagues on Egypt. Here are two examples:

Then the Lord said to Moses…”Go to Pharaoh in the morning as he goes out to the water.  Wait on the bank of the Nile to meet him, and take into your hand the staff that was changed into a snake.  Then say to him, ‘The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go…By this you will know that I am the Lord. With the staff that is in my hand I will strike the water of the Nile, and it will be changed into blood.  The fish in the Nile will die, and the river will stink; the Egyptians will not be able to drink the water.’ “ (Exodus 7:14-18)

And later:

When Moses stretched out his staff toward the sky, the Lord sent thunder and hail, and lightning flashed down to the ground.  So the Lord rained hail on the land of Egypt.(Exodus 9:23)

Notice the staff’s power over the waters of river and sky (like those of the Chinese dragon). Later we are told, significantly, that this serpent staff parts the waters of the Red (or Reed) Sea:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “…Raise your staff and stretch out your hand over the sea to divide the water so that the Israelites can go through the sea on dry ground.” (Exodus 14: 15-16)

Next, we are told that the Hebrews wandering in the desert are saved from a plague of snakes via a similar magical snake:

Then the LORD sent poisonous serpents among the people, and they bit the people, so that many Israelites died. The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned by speaking against the LORD and against you; pray to the LORD to take away the serpents from us.” So Moses prayed for the people. And the LORD said to Moses, “Make a poisonous serpent, and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.” So Moses made a serpent of bronze, and put it upon a pole; and whenever a serpent bit someone, that person would look at the serpent of bronze and live. (Numbers 21:6)

This is the serpent image being worshiped alongside Asherah’s tree image to the dismay of later reformers.

The Serpent’s Bride

Like the serpent, the Mother Goddess is one of humankind’s oldest symbols.  Often depicted in the nude (like Eve), she is to be found in Neolithic and Paleolithic sites throughout Europe and the Near East, reminding us that in the original creation stories, it is likely that humankind drew a parallel between a mother giving birth from her own body and the earth, or the universe, giving birth to all things, including us.  One of the most striking features of the Myth of Eden is that Eve is born out of the body of Adam, a fairly obvious reversal of biological fact.  All men are born of mothers.

A divine pair of Creators, such as El and Asherah, or Yahweh and Asherah, also makes good metaphoric sense. But the Yahwist priests made an entirely unheard of claim: they said their God was male and ruled alone. There was a Father, but no Mother.  Yahweh absorbed the old bearded man image of Canaanite El and the Storm and War God attributes of the Canaanite God Baal.  Left behind were the serpent, the tree, and the mother. Scratch the surface of the Bible stories just a little and you’ll find the serpent staff and the tree worship of Asherah under every green tree, but in official monotheistic doctrine the obvious meaning of these symbols is disavowed.

Mary treads on a serpent in this German painting by an unknown artist from around 1700 BC.

And so we lost Asherah, the Bride of God, the Tree of Life, and the ability to access Divine Wisdom.  I believe this loss has created a collective wound in the Western psyche, one which is continually returned to in our stories:   Cinderella covered in ashes  must be sought by the prince who has only her shoe; Sleeping Beauty is knocked out for 100 years by the witch who wasn’t invited to her party, until she too is found by her prince; the Grail (a deeply feminine/womb image) must be sought by the true knight; a medieval legend claims Mary Magdalene as the secret bride of Christ; and Mother Mary is enthroned in Heaven (without ever admitting who She really is, even though she is still pictured sometimes treading upon a serpent.)

If we seek this lost mother and Bride of God, however, we may yet find that her fruits are available to us. Could it be that wisdom, and long life, are  still to be had here in the grand garden created for us, male and female, the only creatures who were made in the image of the divine? Is our mother only waiting for us to find our way back to the foot of the tree? Perhaps when we eat of the fruit, the “eyes of our minds,” as one gnostic author wrote, will be opened.  Maybe we will finally recognize that we have been in Eden all along, and then we can begin working toward recreating the Paradise Garden we were meant to have all along.

Photo by Jean-Pol GRANDMONT

 

Posted in Asherah, Canaanite mythology, goddess, Goddess in the Bible, Inanna, sea goddess, Serpent and the Goddess, Sumerian/Babylonian | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

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.

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