As I discussed last week what we know about Canaanite mythology on the whole is murky at best. The very least we can assume of the goddess Asherah is, “that for at least some Israelites, Yahweh had a consort named Asherah” (Penchansky, 2005, p 80), regardless of whether Yahweh and Baal have swapped roles or not. Very little is known of this goddess save that she was Queen of Heaven (no matter whether her husband was El, Baal, or Yahweh), and was at one point an important deity to the people of Cana and Israel. We know that she was often worshipped in forested groves or with the employment of “Asherahs” (wooden totem poles named for their patron goddess). From historical artefacts and religious documents we can surmise Asherah was worshipped at Sidon, Samaria, and Tyre, at least, with the biblical of book 2 Kings recounting a tale in which Queen Jezebel introducing the worship of Baal and Asherah to Israel from her native home of Phoenicia. In the bible “Asherah is mentioned in the… books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Judges, 1 Kings, 2 Kings, 2 Chronicles, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah.” (godandscience), although it appears in some places Asherah may mean the goddess, and others meaning the totem poles of the deity. Nakhai goes on to list numerous other sites in Ancient Irsael where worship of Asherah was prevalent including Judah, Bethel, and Dan.
The Asherah poles are described as “poles, or sometimes stylized trees, [which] stood as a sacred monument and tribute to the Canaanite goddess, Asherah” (Christianity.com) these Asherahs would have been seen as idols, something the bible prohibits in many places, quite possibly because worship of deities like Asherah and Baal included idolatry. Isaiah 44:9-20 discusses idolatry at length and includes references to woods such as cedar and cypress which were sacred in most middle eastern cultures. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the Lebanese Cedar Forest is the home of the gods and their Queen of Heaven, Inanna, is often considered to be Asherah’s equivalent. While not overtly referencing Asherah in this passage, Isaiah 44:9-20, one can infer from it a warning for the Israelites against worshipping her, for surely the relevance of the named woods and the description of how to fashion an idol would not have been lost on the Ancient Israelites. Interestingly, while I have predominantly come across references to these Asherahs being wooden, Nakhai writes, “Judaean pillar-based figurines were common. More than a thousand of these small, simple ceramic pieces depicting a female figure whose arms support her breasts, come from eighth-seventh century Judah” and, “Presumably, they were used to invoke the protection of the Goddess, who would provide succor and sustenance for those who beseeched her… to protect their household interests” (Nakhai, 2019, p7 both).
As I discussed briefly a couple of weeks ago, Asherah was likely to have been worshipped widely by the state (government) at the height of her prominence, and I imagine the majority of her devotees would have been women. Worship of Asherah by the women of Cana is likely to have continued long after “official” worship had ceased in favour of monotheism as we have seen in other similar cultures. Worship of Asherah by women is described in the Bible clearly in Jeremiah, “And when we burned incense to the queen of heaven, and poured out drink offerings unto her, did we make her cakes to worship her, and pour out drink offerings unto her, without our men?” (King James Version, Jeremiah 44:19, biblestudytools.com) this passage indicates not only a mirroring of practises of other ancient cultures such as the Greeks, but that men too worshipped the Queen of Heaven, perhaps past the point of her popularity with the state. Further, research coming from the Arizona Centre for Judaic Studies indicates “the goddess Asherah was worshipped alongside Yahweh; the worship of both deities was essential to some – although not to all – members of the community of Israel” (Nakhai, 2019, p3-4). Indeed Nakhai goes on to state her belief, “the queen mother… presided over the cult of Asherah (1 Kgs 15:13), which was celebrated within the Temple… while women, working within the Temple precinct, wove garments for the cult statue” (Nakhai, 2019, p4).
Yamashita’s dissertation indicates Asherah has a similar story as Freya. She is a goddess who comes from another land and is accepted into the pantheon of the Ugarit gods. This theological migration also makes sense when one considers the variations of names that are believed to be equivalent to Asherah. As mentioned above there is some belief that Asherah is the Inanna of Sumer, Ishtar of Babylon, Astoreth, Astarte, Athirat, and more. She has been paired with most of the major male deities of the middle east (El, Baal, Yahweh, Elkunirsa, Amurru, Anu, and Assur). Wherever she goes she is seen as a Mother Goddess, Queen of the Gods, and Lady of the Waters. It has been posited that “she is connected with the cult of the dying god, the cult of Adonis and Tammuz.” (Yamashita p10) putting her in line with goddesses such as Persephone, Isis, and Inanna, mythologically speaking, and narratives in which the goddess descends to the Underworld to resurrect her deceased lover. This is further compounded by Nakhai’s research indicating “Women shared in the task and ritual acts required to properly care for the dead… wise women, skilled in singing dirges, led laments of mourning… and taught them to their daughters.” (Nakhai, 2019, p7). Asherah has a connection to the ocean, although it is not clear why, and a connection to natural woodland spaces as indicated by her worship in groves of trees like Artemis of Greece.
In The Power of Myth, the writers suggest the murkiness of the origins of this goddess could be due to the deliberate subjugation of her worship. They write
“there is actually a historical explanation based on the coming of the
Hebrews into Canaan and their subjugation of the people of Canaan. The
principal divinity of… Canaan was the Goddess and associated with the
Goddess is the serpent… there is a historical rejection of the Mother Goddess
implied in the story of the Garden of Eden”
(Campbell & Moyers, 1988, p 48)
This would indicate the authors’ interpretation of history was that as the Hebrew god Yahweh established prominence over the existing faith of the Canaanite peoples, worship of the goddess was either discouraged or outright forbidden. The text of Isaiah discouraging idolatry, and other similar passages in the Bible, further lends weight to this assertion. Regardless of how the goddess was suppressed historically, we cannot deny it has happened. It has only been since 1928 that archaeologists have begun to find traces of this fascinating goddess.
My research has led me down several interesting pathways that I would like to explore further, so if these articles have been interesting to you, you can expect to hear more on the subject in the future. The Canaanite deities Yahweh and Asherah are prominent characters in The Lady of Zion, which was one of my motivations for writing these articles about Canaanite mythology. While The Lady of Zion is not a re-telling of the Canaanite myths, there is obviously a link between the two, with my tale having been influenced by a number of mythologies from the middle east.
Next week I’ll discuss the Ugarit Gods a little more, focusing on the ones that feature in The Lady of Zion series.
- Burnett, J. S. (1999). A Reassessment of biblical Elohim. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation & Theses Global. (Order No: 9927030)
- Campbell, J. & Moyers, B. (1988). The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday
- Coogan, M. D., & Smith, M. S. Stories from Ancient Canaan.
- Day, P. L. (1986). “Satan” in the Hebrew Bible (Divine Council, Job (Book of))(Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (Order No: 8704474)
- R. L. (1988). Pagans and Christians: In the Mediterranean World from the second century AD to the conversion of Constantine. London, England: Penguin Group
- Howard, M. (2004). The Book of Fallen Angels. Copal Bann Publishing: Somerset
- Nakhai, B. A. (2019). Women in Israelite Religion: The State of Research Is All New Research. Tucson, Arizona: Arizona Centre for Judaic Studies
- Olyan, S. M. (1988). Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press
- Penchansky, D. (2005). Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press
- Yamashita, T. (1964). The Goddess Asherah. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (Order No. 8103904)