We Still Need Asherah

A very prominent documentary-making company contacted me today. It is in the research stage of planning a documentary on Asherah. I am overwhelmed that I have been asked for advice and that the old girl has finally received some public interest. Scholars are generally accustomed to spinning in smaller and smaller circles of specialization that have little draw for the wider public. Having said that, Asherah is, my own interests aside, a most fascinating deity.

One of the greatest obstacles to modern readers on ancient religion is the fact that gods don’t neatly fit into predetermined categories. We like to think of deities as the “god/goddess of –” where the blank is filled by some natural phenomenon. This is a fallacy that I once whimsically coined the “divine genitival construct.” It is easy to think of Baal as the god of rain, but he is so much more than that! I tell my students that they must think of deities as “persons” first; they are fictional characters, and like good fictional characters they have many aspects to their personalities. They are complex, multilayered, and often conflicted. This is especially the case with Asherah. She is a goddess who represents the royal female. Kind of hard to picture. Not queenship, but the power behind the throne. She is more familiar in the form of Hera in Greek mythology – the primary spouse who tries to keep a philandering husband in line. She is, however, a powerful goddess. She is mother of the gods, the character without whom no other lesser deities would exist. By extension, she is the producer of the gods who make our world possible.

Publications continue to emerge claiming all manner of hypostases for Asherah, many of which are unfounded. I believe it is because we all need the sacred mother, the female authority figure. Our society, still hopelessly patriarchal, yearns for the goddess who understands. Unfortunately, that is not this historical Asherah, it is the Asherah of the modern imagination. If she helps to assuage some of life’s inequities, however, even a mythical Asherah may still serve a valuable function today.

Not Asherah, unless you need her to be

13 thoughts on “We Still Need Asherah

  1. Good stuff. I am much more entranced by Anat at the moment. Especially her possible connection to the royal court (e.g. “goddess of the house” in some Ugaritic texts). What are your thoughts on the relationship between these two female deities?

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  2. Steve Wiggins

    Hi Jim,

    Well, my initial reaction is that the two are quite distinct. There was a time when scholars tried to argue for a fusion of various Semitic goddesses, but I believe if that ever happened it was very late and largely fueled by a growing interest in monotheism. To me there is no question that Asherah is Anat’s mother in the Ugaritic perspective. Both goddesses are related to the royal house, but then, most gods were. Their character, role, and personae are completely distinct from one another. They tend to be adversarial, but then, Anat’s hooked up with the bad-boy Hadad, so what’s a mother to do? I find the interplay between the goddesses, particularly at Ugarit, to be fascinating.

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  3. Henk van der Gaast

    I hope this doesn’t turn into an essay.

    I enjoy the lectures of Prof Dever a hell of a lot because he presents HIS case with alacrity. I would love to see your lectures on ANE history one day. If there is nothing like a book then there is a hell of a lot to be said for a lecture series to drive your thoughts home.

    Now from what Dever and Wiggins say (I’ll keep outside influences apart) we can safely assume there was a goddess, idol or an easing perceived feminine spirit. We can also say that either all of these are worshiped as transitional forms of the earlier Asherah or that the Hellenised matriarch comes through from a marching Mediterranean perception.

    The singular motif of an overarching feminine comfort and rule appears to be a bronze age notion that travels through time (changing) to recorded but passing observations in current religions.

    So between Dever’s goddess for all occasions and Wiggin’s Royal House Asherah (and yes the arguments can be soundly stated to an appreciative audience); We have a compassion figure. The compassion figure was illegal but roundly venerated in greater Canaan.

    Lastly, I think we have lost a lot in our society in that we have mostly forgotten the symbolism of femininity as a very powerful source for good. Thankfully we do now draw on our own thinking processes.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks, Henk. I don’t see eye-to-eye with Dever; he never lists me on his bibliographies, but he does have some interesting things to say. The lecture circuit will have to wait until more than a dozen people know who I am!

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  4. Henk van der Gaast

    Steve, I’d like to expand this a little further.

    Without preamble; Devers presents in his Guest lectures slides of many artefacts. He makes comparisons from period to period and from site to site of these artefacts. I know your position on the self same artefacts.

    It does become difficult not to question; If Israelite and Judean “pantheons” changed so much in visual representation, why should it always be the same goddess? Couldn’t his data be better represented as just different motifs carried on? Furthermore, if the motif imagery is so variable, how variable was the supreme deity?

    From his slides, one could easily glean that religious practices described in the bible are amasingly consistent but it appears to swap gods around on a whimsical basis (from our point of view). It wouldn’t come as a surprise that his research extrapolates to; Baal was worshipped in what we think is an “Israelites” tradition.

    How many more supreme deities were holding fort in “Phoenicia” only to be swapped around? How does that lend to the sometimes quoted Yaw and Lahamu being worshipped in Bronze Age Canaan (Steve; wild card posit)? At the time of “David” it appears that everyone had a religious axe to grind and the notional clan we now call Israel.

    So as to Ashera;
    a) One motif (tree) being replaced by another (queen of lions) within one region and remaining consistent within others.
    b) One art motif remains constant for a long time the (visual austerity goddess)
    c) A mass off artefacts from one region having a statement of that site and that period (the fertility goddess).
    d) A series of Hathor goddesses (forgive me; the bad 60’s hairdo).

    This goddess seems to be changed around so much that I fear I can’t agree with Bill. I think there maybe three or four goddesses that give notional comfort to people who worship them in private.

    The question still remains to be asked; With so many non Kosher artefacts in greater Israel, is it a wonder to you that the yahwists made it through? You do realise where we could be if the Assyrians could have been just a little more touchy?

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    • Steve Wiggins

      I believe the shifting of goddesses is due to 2 things: our distance in time, and the inherent lack of uniformity in religion. The ancients knew who the goddesses were, but not many people were “theologians” (oh, that word!). They recognized deities by the symbols and their actions. Ancient religion was more a matter of action than belief.

      As to Asherah, we have a difficult time determining her iconography. I believe there are fairly certain depictions of her, mostly from Ugarit. I doubt the dendritic association in general, but she is associated with trees in the Bible. She is not the Hathor goddess with the 60s hairdo, nowhere is she associated with lions or snakes. Her iconography is matronly and regal. I’m a voice in the wilderness here, however.

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  5. Edward T. Babinski

    Hera was one kick ass “mother.”

    But do we need a divine mother anymore than we need a divine father? Does adding the word “divine” in front of something really make it more meaningful or “better?” Conversely, does adding the word “diabolical” in front of something really make it much worse?

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Hi Edward. Agreed. The “divine” part is problematic. It seems to fill some deep-seated psychological need, but does not necessarily make a “parent” better or worse. Your point about Hera is well taken.

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  6. Edward T. Babinski

    Your site features interesting links and articles!

    And an H.P. Lovecraft link? Dr. Robert M. Price is a Lovecraftian scholar and also a theologian. You must know him, or at least have visited his website?

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Thanks for the tip! Actually, I didn’t know about Dr. Price — I’ve explored his website and added a link. Looks like a most interesting person!

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  7. Edward T. Babinski

    I’ve known Robert (Bob) Price since the 1980s when he was still working on his master’s degree. He now has two Ph.Ds (NT theology & history). He comes out of a fundamentalist Baptist background. His mentor was Clark Pinnock–not your usual fundamentalist, but still an Evangelical. Price’s first book about why he left fundamentalism behind is titled, BEYOND BORN AGAIN, which can be viewed for free online.

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  8. Edward T. Babinski

    Oh, and . . .

    Price and I both contributed chapters to a book that was published literally yesterday, THE CHRISTIAN DELUSION. There’s a book discussion website for that book on google sites.

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