Upstate Goddesses

Goddesses give you connections. Here in Ithaca, all kinds of specialty shops abound. University towns are like that. This one had lots of goddesses. Ever since writing my dissertation on Asherah I’ve been interested in female divinities. Part of the reason for this is that I fail to understand how many men don’t see the power of women in their lives and insist that men should rule. Goddesses remind us that women have as much to contribute as do men, and they should be honored and respected just the same. Deities, after all, are projections of humanity. In any case, I found myself in a shop with many goddesses. The proprietor noticed my interest and struck up a conversation. This was ironic because where I live no one asks about my academic background; I have to travel to find interested takers, I guess.

She told me of an upcoming conference that would like to hear my thoughts on the topic of Asherah. Since my book on the goddess has been plagued with high prices, it remains hidden down three or four pages on Amazon, while lower priced dissertations easily float above it. My conversation with this stranger brought out that I had planned to write on other goddesses. A friend had done his dissertation on Anat, so I began working on book on Shapshu, the Ugaritic goddess associated with the sun. Some cultures made the sun male, the people of Ugarit, however, knew the true nature of brightness. I was going to make an academic career of goddesses.

Every great once in a while an academic will ask me about Asherah. Chances are their book or article will fail to cite my work, but they do seem to know to make queries. In my hopes to get a job beyond Nashotah House I followed the advice of colleagues to write a biblical book before finishing another book on “pagan” deities. In the career vicissitudes that followed, goddesses had to fall by the wayside. Although there can be money in deities, as this shop in which I stood proved, they aren’t really a marketable commodity in the realm of making an academic living. Now that I’ve found my way back to writing books again, perhaps I’ll return to my goddesses. That brief encounter in an Ithaca store resurrected some of the fascination of learning about the inner lives of divine women. The need to remind the world, it appears, has only become greater since I first wrote about Asherah decades ago.

Like Virgins

If you are reading this, I have safely arrived in the United Kingdom, courtesy of Virgin Atlantic. Given the lens through which I view everything, I somehow supposed that Virgin Atlantic was named after one of history’s two most famous Madonnas—the Blessed Virgin Mary, or just plain Madonna. It turns out that I was wrong on both counts. Virgin Atlantic, famously under the leadership of Richard Branson, borrowed its name from its older sister company, Virgin Records, also founded by Sir Branson. Virgin Records, I had supposed, was named after the only musical Madonna, but again, not so. The record company, new to an inexperienced Branson, was named by a colleague who noted that they were business neophytes, like virgins. The original logo showed an Eve-like virgin with a snake and everything.

Steve Fitzgerald's pic from WikiCommons

Steve Fitzgerald’s pic from WikiCommons

While in the UK I always call on Nick Wyatt, one of my doctoral advisors and now a good friend. As my mentor in Ugaritic, we always joke that I fly Virgin Atlantic because of the Virgin Anat, Baal’s famous warrior sister and sometimes lover. Anat was, of course, not the first perpetual virgin. The Mesopotamians had the idea that a goddess could be a perpetual virgin and still have kids, and what led up to said motherhood. Virginity is a status marker, still unfairly applied to women. I suspect a good part of it is biology (and if this seems weird, blame it on the jet lag), because the essential male reproductive function occurs whether or not a female is present, and even the most saintly men can not, from time-to-time, barring very extreme measures, avoid it. It is difficult to measure virginity in men, so why the double standard?

In this early morning haze (or is it really afternoon?), I suppose it comes down to not wanting to support somebody else’s child. Looks are at best a lackluster proof of paternity, and in the days before effective birth control, the only way you could be absolutely sure was to make sure your spouse was a virgin. Goddesses could get away with sex and still retain their purity. It was less sanguine for the human woman. Thus the Virgin Mary is accorded a special, but not unique status. But it turns out that none of this really matters because the Virgin I fly is merely a business virgin. And with a bit of experience, provides some of the best care in the air.

No God for Women

A friend recently asked me to write a post on the feminine image of God. Specifically, she noted that images of God tend to be overwhelmingly male, even today. Having written a book on the goddess Asherah, and being very interested in gender equality issues, I was intrigued by this request. Growing up male it seems natural in our culture to find representations of God as a man. It stands to reason that in a culture more open to feminine experience we should find female images of God. They are, however, still lacking. This combination of improbable facts kick-started some ideas about both religion and culture. To begin at the beginning, although the Bible makes passing references to God as either non-gendered or even female in rare places, clearly the predominant metaphor is masculine. The third-person masculine singular pronoun (i.e., “he”) is almost always used for God, beginning in Genesis 1 and running straight through. The Judeo-Christiani-Muslim deity is decidedly male in his demeanor. All three religions developed in circumstances of male social dominance.

Enter the 60’s (1960’s, that is. C.E.). Women were able to begin expressing their needs without the whole weight of a social McCarthyism bringing down the girth of the government upon them. Instead of finding feminine traits to the god of the Bible, interest in goddess worship revived. Now, serious scholars disagree on just how much a role the goddess played in the development of monotheistic religions. The end result, no matter how you parse it, is pretty masculine. Therefore some women found the goddess to be more conducive to fulfilling their needs. Problem is, there never was, historically, a goddess monotheism. There were always goddesses, plural. Without the unifying force of a single, female deity societies just never fully coalesced around a single, strong image of feminine deity. Some have tried to put Asherah in that role, but she was defined by her husband El and shared the stage with Anat, Shapshu, Ashtart, and a host of other potent females. In a world of two basic genders, monotheism favored the male.

Are there female images of god? Undoubtedly there are. There will be a great deal of difficulty finding them because Christianity very quickly invented the idea of heresy (something Judaism fortunately lacked). This assured that the “orthodox” voice would always be the loudest in the shouting match that we call religion. This situation has had two millennia to ferment and brew. Theologians (mostly male) early on stated that God really has no gender. After all, a male god does imply a lady somewhere in the wings—otherwise human maleness is really superfluous, theologically speaking. Rather than embrace castration, let’s just keep god male, the thinking seems to go. Religions are conservative by nature. They may breed radical free thinkers, but natural selection comes to their rescue by reinforcing the bearded, chastely clothed, divine father. Until society is ready to embrace true equality, however, religion will continue to privilege the big man upstairs.

Monotheism’s bete noir?

Ultimate God

In a recent op-ed piece in the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Ben Krull published a satirical piece entitled “Strategizing God’s election campaign.” While some, no doubt, took offense at the piece, it is less an indictment of God (Krull is a lawyer) than it is a broadside against those who use God to get elected. As portrayed in the Bible, God is not always a likeable character. As Krull points out in so many words, God is a guy with “issues.” Would he ever be elected on a family values platform? What is happening here is that God is being recast as those who most vociferously claim him an ally want him (always him) to be. Using Yahweh as a springboard, they vault over the compassionate Jesus and land firmly at the disapproving God of Jonathan Edwards, who, along with the God of John Rockefeller, wants them to be rich. It’s not as much an election as it is a catalogue where you can order just the deity you want. The God they claim America follows is a god of their own making.

Paul Tillich, a theologian, once famously declared that God is a person’s ultimate concern. While other theologians instantly and continuously disputed this, the idea still has some currency. The distorted versions of Christianity that we constantly see in the political and sports scenes today is a god that adores the free market and loves football, especially when the Broncos are playing. Somehow, incredibly, he couldn’t get tickets for the Super Bowl. If you listen closely you’ll see this god resembles nobody so much as Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum, Newt Gingrich, Herman Cain, Sarah Palin, Michele Bachmann—wait a minute… has god packed up and gone home? Since undisputed God sightings are as rare as undisputed UFO sightings (maybe even rarer) we are free to fill in the enormous lacunae with our ultimate concerns. Ourselves.

At least in the world of polytheism you had a choice of gods and a ready source on which to blame unpleasantness. If Baal’s not answering your prayer, maybe Anat is standing in the way. Ancient folk were not conscious of the fact that they were making gods in their own image, after their own ultimate concerns. But modern Christians, trapped with the God of the Bible, feel that they can at least give the big guy a makeover. This is God on-demand. The beauty of this deity is that he is a poseable action figure who is a picture-perfect image of one’s personal ultimate concerns. A God so malleable, so fluid, and so idiosyncratic should have no trouble getting elected. To find the God of popular politics, just look in the mirror.

Who does your God look like?

Dead Sea Souls

The Dead Sea Scrolls are coming to Times Square. Times Square is the kind of place where you know your being sworn at, but you’re never really sure in what language. It is a place of the people. So the sacred meets the profane. Mircea Eliade would be scratching his great head with his pipe firmly in hand. The Dead Sea Scrolls are the sexiest of ancient documents. Their story has it all: mystery, intrigue, conspiracy, romance—well, maybe not romance. A chance discovery by dirt-poor Bedouin in a desert, ads being taken out in the Wall Street Journal, clandestine meetings with ancient texts being viewed through a hurricane fence in a forbidden zone. And do those scrolls ever get around! I first saw them (those that are accessible to the public) in Jerusalem. The next time was in the Field Museum in Chicago. Now I’m feeling a bit blasé about the whole thing.

Those of use who’ve spent much time (too much time) with ancient documents relating to the Bible know that the Dead Sea Scrolls require no introduction. The far more interesting (and sexy–yes, literally sexy) Ugaritic tablets still receive slack-jawed stares of unrecognition, despite their importance. Those who read the stories of Baal, Anat, El and Asherah wonder why the “Classics” only begin with Homer. People have been creative with the gods since writing began. The theme of the human race might be summed up as, “if the gods are so powerful, what am I doing in a dump like this?” Fill in the blanks—that’s religion. From the beginning, once we’d come up with gods, we began to wonder why they treat us so. People are on the receiving end and so many things can put gods into a bad mood. It’s your basic dysfunctional family.

No doubt the Dead Sea Scrolls are important. We have learned much about the context of early Christianities from them. They provide the earliest manuscript evidence for the Hebrew Bible. And they’ve got that Dead Sea mystique. When I read the story of their discovery, I understand why crowds will flock into a tight room to stare through the glass at a bit of shriveled parchment that most of them cannot read. It’s like standing next to someone famous and powerful; maybe Moses or King David. Or more famous and powerful, like George W. Bush. I know, that was the last administration. But the Scrolls come from an even earlier one. I just hope somebody will give me a call when they find one that tells what happens when Baal meets Astarte. That will be worth the price of admission! And, who knows? It might even fit in with the spirit of Times Square (pre-Disney, of course.)

Patriarchal Goddesses

My fascination with goddesses began when I decided to research Asherah. Having grown up in a monotheistic milieu, goddesses were strangely, but not surprisingly, irrelevant. I had, of course, read about them in mythology classes, but they seemed less defined than the gods who had strong, striking characteristics. Now that I’m revisiting many classical goddesses in the course of preparing my class on Mythology, I’m discovering a renewed appreciation for the feminine divine and its contribution to the ancient world.

Athena saves a hero

Athena and Artemis have been on my mind for the past several weeks. Among the Olympian deities they are among the strongest female figures (Aphrodite, of course, provides her own feminine form of power, and Hera, although mighty, remains largely in the background). Perhaps what creates such a striking form for Athena and Artemis is that they blend the traditional masculine and feminine roles in a way that the ancient Greeks were prescient to devise – they both possess weaponry and strength that frequently brings mortal men to their demise. They don’t wile with “feminine charms” like Aphrodite; instead they meet men on their own tuft – hunting and warfare, bravery and muscle. They are virgins, not needing male approval. Together they form the basis of many ancient aspects of divine nobility.

Artemis and her man-dog

Today, however, when we think of Olympians Zeus and Poseidon come to mind almost immediately as the two major figures. No one disputes the unstoppable power of Zeus’ thunderbolt or Poseidon’s earthquake. The goddesses, however, display their power on the human level. They may set the fortunes of armies going to war or individuals out for personal glory or fame. They touch the characters on a more human level. They also have their counterparts, unfortunately often eclipsed, in the world of the ancient Near East. Astarte is still poorly understood, and Anat, although more fully fleshed out at Ugarit, largely remains an enigma. The importance of Athena and Artemis thus stands out in sharper relief for having survived the overly acquisitive masculine ego to remind people everywhere that goddesses also will have their due. Given enough time, perhaps even the gods will understand.


The world of religious studies is full of surprises. Since people are forever seeking new forms of fulfillment, the endless variety of religions itself comes as no surprise, but the results of religious experimentation sometimes lead into uncharted waters. One of my students at Rutgers recently pointed me to a new religion called Natib Qadish, “the sacred path” in potentially vocalized Ugaritic. (Ugaritic, like most ancient Semitic languages, was written without vowels. Some modern scholars, basing their reconstructions on likely vocalizations known from other Semitic tongues, have tried to give voice to this dead language.) I have no idea how large a following this religion has, but it does maintain a substantial website explaining its core beliefs — the modern worship of the Ugaritic/Canaanite gods.

Unsatisfied with the tradition monotheism that eventually drowned out polytheistic voices in western religions, followers of these reconstructed religions are looking back to something more ancient, more primal, and perhaps, more human. What strikes me as odd concerning all of this is that religions such as Natib Qadish are based on extremely fragmentary understandings of ancient religions. We have perhaps a 101-level understanding of Ugaritic religion; some parts are very well attested, but there are huge lacunae that confuse the overall aspect. As I tell my students, ancient religion was based less on belief than it was on practice. Belief-centered religion is a relative newcomer on the historic scene. Ancients inherited their “religions” without question, based on where they were born. Tess Dawson, the founder of Natib Qadish, writes: “I have yet to find any word that means ‘religion’ in any of the ancient texts.” I would argue that it is because the concept of religion itself is a modern one.

Humans seem to have believed in gods from very early times. If gods are there, they must be placated. This is not religion; it is commonsense. Not to placate gods is to invite disaster. In Ugarit these gods included Hadad (Baal), El, Asherah, and Anat, among a host of others. These were the gods people “discovered” as they tried to fumble their way through a difficult existence. And gods like to eat meat, they learned. Sacrifice was born. What is a feast without ceremony? Ritual must emerge. I know this is overly simplistic, but belief doesn’t really enter into this scenario until late in the game. Heterodox belief was normative until Christianity assigned eternal consequences to correct belief, and now we are free to believe whatever we will.

As far as I can tell, Natib Qadish does not actually involve animal sacrifice to the gods (although it is based in Chicago, long known for its slaughterhouses). Like many modern Christians, the followers of this religion wish to reach back to a more pure form of ancient belief. It is an exercise in futility, however, in many respects. The framework has changed beyond recognition and we have no way of knowing what any ancient god would require of us in an internet age.


A young Dr. Wiggins meets Hadad in Paris

Anat, Kali and the Violent Femmes

“Women and men,” runs the chorus of the They Might Be Giants song of that same title, “… everywhere they go love will grow.” Women and men. Thus it has always been. The Sumerians seem to have speculated, on a broken tablet concerning the creation of humanity, that some six varieties of gender had been ordained by the gods. This story reminds me of just how dicey gender definition can be. Despite the howls of protestation from man + woman = marriage crowd, the concept of gender is actually complex and diverse. The lowly slime mold of the genus Physarum has a combination of multiple sex-controling genes mixed with several different types of sex-cells, leading to a bewildering 500 different sexes. You’ve got to wonder what the Physarum bar-scene is like! So the whole women and men combination seems a little tame by comparison.

The ancients did, however, toy with standard gender role concepts. The Ugaritic goddess Anat, sometimes described as a “tomboy,” was perceived as a literal femme fatale, joining her in the company of Ishtar and Kali as warrior women-goddesses. She was a proto-Amazon (before they laid aside their male-bashing and set up a very lucrative web-site). Anat wears the severed heads and hands of slain warriors and stomps in blood-puddles, laughing all the while. Where did the ancients derive such violent feminine images as Anat and Kali? Some sociologists suggest that these myths were intended to solidify gender roles, although they seem to confuse the violent male with the shy and retiring female stereotypes. Perhaps the Ugaritians and other ancient folk knew deep down that gender is only a vague attempt to classify something that is really far more complex than it seems. Just when gender is nailed down you find yourself in a bloody mess as Anat swats at you again and again.

Anat ready to smite Egyptians who just don't understand the Violent Femmes

Anat ready to smite Egyptians who just don\’t understand the Violent Femmes

Nashotah is not far from Milwaukee where the folk-punk, genre-defining band the Violent Femmes started out. In college many of my overtly Christian radical friends told tales of how the Violent Femmes were a closet Christian rock group, based on some of the religious themes in Gordon Gano’s lyrics. When I listen to their CDs, however, I hear the same old angst that has plagued humankind for ages — what does a guy have to do to impress a girl (the same question may be reversed, turned upside-down, or dis-and-re-articulated, depending on whether you are female, male, or slime mold). At Ugarit they would have understood the Violent Femmes — listen to “to the kill” and tell me it’s not so! I would suggest that Gordon and the guys aren’t as much closet Christians as closet Ugaritians, struggling with the Anats and other violent femmes of their world and trying to make sense of it all.

Sects and Violence

Religion-sanctioned violence has a long (overly long) pedigree. Early myths going all the way back to the Sumerians incorporate violence on the part of the gods. Depending on one’s school of interpretation, this could be seen as “form following function” — people saw the violence inherent in nature and projected its causation onto the source of nature, namely, the gods. Ancient people did not perceive of the world in terms of natural phenomena. “Nature” behaved the way it did with will and reason, the will and reason of the gods.

The stories preserved from ancient Ugarit stand as witness to this conceptual world. In one story, Kirta by title, the eponymous king Kirta seeks a family and has his wish granted by El and Baal. Hedging his bets, he makes a vow to Asherah that he forgets to fulfill. Asherah sees to it that Kirta’s divine gift comes undone. More obvious is the tale of Aqhat, another divinely granted child. Aqhat is given a bow by the craftsman god Kothar-wa-Hasis, only to have it coveted by Anat. When he refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes. Violence is introduced into the human realm by the gods themselves.

Today, some 3,000 years after Ugarit, we still find ourselves living with violence sanctioned by religion. Whether it is as obvious as extremist factions of a religion calling for outright attacks on others, or as subtle as self-professed righteous believers destroying a colleague’s career in the name of Jesus, religion is used as a mental crutch for striking others. While I can not walk all the way with Christopher Hitchens, I do have to acknowledge that when it comes to human-on-human violence religion is a socially accepted motivation, no matter how pure its original intentions.

Hypatia, a scholar-martyr due to religious violence

Hypatia, a scholar and martyred victim of religious violence