Continued from Asherah, Part I
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).
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.
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)
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