Holy Smoke

I’m not inclined to read news about drug use, and, to be honest, I barely have time to read about the culture of ancient Israel any more.  I very occasionally hear from people who find out that my book on Asherah is free on Academia.edu (it is) that tell me how they plan to use the information.  It’s gratifying, but as with anything put out there for public consumption, you never know which direction it’s going to go.  Thus I found myself on Lucid News’ website.  With the tagline “Psychedelics, Consciousness Technologies, and the Future of Wellness,” ideas begin to form in the mind.  But a citation is a citation, and so I read the opinion piece “Drugs, the Israelites and the Emergence of Patriarchy,” by Danny Nemu.

The story follows on the announcement from some time ago that chemical analysis of an interior altar of an ancient temple at Arad (from ancient Israelite times) revealed that it had been used to burn cannabis.  The biblical story—now questioned by archaeology—is that there was only one official temple and that was the one in Jerusalem.  It was destroyed by the Babylonians in the sixth century BCE and then again by the Romans in the first century CE.  We have no access to the altars that stood in the temple, but we do know that incense, particularly frankincense, was valued for its pleasant smell.  According to the article in Lucid, a second altar in Arad showed residue of frankincense.  Both altars were in a small, enclosed room—the bong of the Lord, as it were—and that together the two forms of smoke would’ve created an intense religious experience for a priest in there for any length of time.  Although the article doesn’t suggest this, it could also explain why animal sacrifices were going on in the courtyard, I guess.

You might be wondering about Asherah.  While the jury’s out on her actual worship and what it entailed, the academic establishment has decided that she was Yahweh’s spouse and was worshipped together with him in the ceremonies that have been forgotten to time.  With all that heavy substance burning I guess it’s not surprising that some things might’ve been forgotten.  I don’t really advocate the use of drugs, but the science behind archaeology shows us that religions have used them for centuries and centuries to reach other levels of consciousness.  I was in chapel services at Nashotah House where the incense was so thick you could barely breathe.  Did such circumstances play a role in the religion that now identifies itself as white-shirted evangelicals?  It boggles the mind.

Ash + Hera

I’ve obviously been reading about the Greek gods.  Apart from being borrowed and renamed by the Romans they’ve remained pretty much unchanged through the millennia.  Those who read a blog like this will recognize the names of many Olympians and would recognize the name of the head honcho as Zeus.  The name of Zeus is Indo-European—this is a linguistic group, and not necessarily an ethnic one.  That is to say, the languages of ancient India and ancient Europe are related.  Zeus, it has been postulated, is related to the word Deus, familiar to many Catholics as a Latin word for God.  In antiquity most gods had personal names as well as titles, but this is something we see a little more clearly in the Semitic linguistic realm.  The texts of the Bible and its surrounding cultures often preserve titles as well as names.

Photo credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen, via WikiMedia Commons

Hera is widely recognized as the consort of Zeus.  It’s a bit of a misnomer to refer to divine couples as “spouses” since they really don’t comport themselves according to human-style conventions.  In any case, Hera in Greek mythology is an underdeveloped character.  She’s jealous of Zeus’ many affairs, and she sometimes punishes his children by other women or goddesses.  Her name is a bit of a mystery, and the other day I was trying to remember where I’d read that she may be a shortened form of Asherah.  My research on Asherah is now nearly old enough to fit in with the classics, but much of it still remains fresh in my mind.  In any case, the reasoning went like this: Asherah always appears as the consort of the high god.  The Greek Zeus was clearly influenced by Semitic ideas associated with Hadad, or Baal.  And while Asherah was not Baal’s consort, Zeus is clearly the high god so his main squeeze should be that of the highest order.

Greek, as a language, had trouble beginning words with a vowel followed by the “sh” sound, like Asherah.  The argument went that if you knock the “as” off the front of that divine name you’re left with Herah, and the final h isn’t pronounced anyway.  This line of reasoning always made sense to me.  Deities in antiquity were defined more by what they did than by what their names were.  In a patriarchal world, being the consort of the highest male was about the most a goddess could aspire to.  Still, we all know of the more colorful individuals who take a more forward position: Athena and Artemis—both powerful virgins—and the somewhat more naughty Aphrodite.  All those names beginning with alpha!  They could teach us something today, I suspect, if we read our classics.

Qohelet’s Advice

Academic hypersensitivity.  I fear it’s on the rise.  I know I’ve experienced it myself—that flushing rage and disbelief that someone has written a book on the very topic on which you also published a book, and didn’t cite you.  How could they have overlooked your contribution?  I’ve seen scholars angered to the point of wanting to ruin someone’s career for not citing them.  Now academics can be a sensitive lot.  Remember, some of them specialize to a point of general social incompetence.  Anyone publishing in their specialization is like making a claim to have slept with their spouse.  This subject is theirs!  They’ve spent years reading and researching it.  How dare some new-comer not know this!

One thing many academics don’t realize is just how much material is published.  The flip side of this is just how obscure their work is.  Trade publishing and academic publishing aren’t the same thing, and the former are the books that really get noticed.  When I wrote my dissertation, back in the early 1990s, I had read everthing I possibly could on the goddess Asherah.  When I proposed the dissertation topic there had been a total of about three books written on Asherah that I knew of.  Enough to have a research base, but not enough to suggest it was a crowded field.  While I was whiling away my time in Edinburgh, another American ex-pat was writing on the same topic in Oxford.  The day of my doctoral defense, the outside examiner came in with a book just out on Asherah—in German, no less—and asked how my dissertation related to it.  Even today when I see a book on Israelite religion I flip to the back to see if my book’s listed.  Generally it’s not.  Today it’s impossible to read everything published on Asherah.

In my own case, however, I’m slowly coming to perceive the reality of the situation.  Books continue to be produced.  Articles are published at a blinding rate.  Even Google has to take a little time to find them all.  An overly inflated sense of self-importance can be a painful thing when it meets with the sharp pin of reality.  Your academic book may well go unnoticed.  Even if it’s good.  It may be priced at over a hundred dollars—I still pause and fret and kick the dirt a few times before buying any book that costs more than twenty.  Silently and slowly, I suspect, the frustration builds.  You see a book, then two, then three, that seem to be oblivious to your contribution.  A new book for review lands on your desk and Vesuvius erupts—why am I not cited?!  Has my work been forgotten?  Calm down.  Breathe deeply.  The book of that neophyte before you will also become obscure in due course.

Aging Goddesses

While not a woman, I am over fifty and I have both a personal and professional interest in goddesses.  Some friends recently asked how I came to write a dissertation on a goddess, and thinking about that has revealed some aspects about my outlook, but those will need to wait a little.  We read Goddesses in Older Women by Jean Shinoda Bolen because my wife wanted my opinion on it.  We read books together while washing dishes—we’ve been doing this since we married over thirty years ago—and despite my not requiring the subtitle, Becoming a Juicy Crone, I was game.  I have been curious about the experience of others since I was quite young.  Since half the others in the world are female, it makes sense to be in dialogue and to be willing to learn.

Bolen uses classical goddesses as Jungian archetypes to help post-menopausal women sort out their feelings and spirituality in what has been called the “crone” phase of life.  This is part of an antique triad that many would rather dismiss: virgin, mother, crone.  Still, Bolen embraces it as fairly common in women’s experience.  Men, although they can be elected to the White House while doddering old fools, don’t pass through such distinctive stages.  In fact, some never mature.  Women’s lives are defined by reproductive capabilities in ways men’s simply aren’t.  Instead of dismissing half of human experience as irrelevant, we should listen to the accumulated wisdom of women.  Bolen, who is an M.D., isn’t an historian of religion, but her remarks about the various goddesses explored (Asherah isn’t one of them) are insightful.  I listened as my wife read, and this was quite a learning experience.

We have, as a species, often failed our females.  Males, using that “might makes right” physiology and theology, have often assumed masculine agendas are the only ones that matter.  Look around the world today and see where that’s gotten us.  We’re killing our own planet in the name of greed and ignorance just so that nobody can be richer than me.  I think it’s time we let the women have a chance to run things.  Even though ancient mythologies often reflect the patriarchies under which they were written, many allow women more powerful and authentic roles than they currently have.  Even El, the head of the Ugaritic pantheon, could change his mind when approached by Asherah.  I learned much from this book, just as we learn so very much by listening to those who differ from ourselves.  And the goddesses, almost always, are the ones who possess true wisdom.

A Decade

Please pardon my being sentimental, but today marks one decade of blogging on Sects and Violence in the Ancient World.  I realized, thinking this over, that I used to make some interesting, perhaps even quotable statements back then.  Why not, I thought, farm those older posts to celebrate what I was thinking when I was a tenth-of-a-century younger?  So for today’s post, I’m presenting some quotable quotes from July 2009, starting with one of the zingers from my very first post.  For convenience, I’ve even provided the links to the posts so you can see them in context, if your July has somehow not filled itself up already.

Sects and Violence in the Ancient World, by the way, was the name given when one of my nieces thrust a recorder in my face and asked me what I would call a blog, if I had one.  She subsequently set this site up for me.  One aspect of the title may not have been evident: it’s a quasi-anagram for my initials.  It has been, from the beginning, mostly metaphorical.  Without further ado, then, a few of my favorite lines from a decade long gone:

“He had a sidekick called Cypher (sold separately), and arch-enemies with such names as Primordious Drool and Wacky Protestor. I marveled at the missed opportunity here — they could have called them Text Critic and Doctor Mentary Hypothesis!” First post: Bible Guy, July 12, 2009. <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/12/bible-guy/>

“Technology has outstripped reality.” Asherah Begins, July 13, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/13/asherah-begins/>

“Black and white are not in the palette of serious religious studies.”  God is Great (not)?, July 14, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/14/god-is-great-not/>

“When he [Aqhat] refuses to release it to the goddess he is unfortunately pecked to death in a hitchcockian demise by a swarm of buzzards with attitudes.” Sects and Violence, July 15, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/15/sects-and-violence/>

“Indeed, one may think of them [religion and monsters] as fellow ventricles in the anatomy of fear.” Vampires, Mummies and the Holy Ghost, July 16, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/16/vampires-mummies-and-the-holy-ghost/>

“Better to consider it [weather] human than to face unfeeling nature.” Changing Faces of the Divine, July 18, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/18/changing-faces-of-the-divine/>

“As the gods are drinking themselves senseless (how else can the latest Bush administration be explained?)…” Drunken Moonshine, July 20, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/20/drunken-moonshine/>

“As usual, we kill off what we don’t comprehend.” Not Lion, July 22, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/22/not-lion/>

“A bonobo was recently documented as uttering the word ‘yes’ to a keeper’s question, officially making her more articulate than some clergy I’ve known. Even today there are churches that still call their leaders Primates!” Religious Origins, July 23, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/23/religious-origins/>

“I never used a computer regularly until I began my Ph.D., and then it was only a glorified typewriter, qwerty on steroids.” Who We Were, July 27, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/27/who-we-were/>

“I grew up in a blue-collar household where paying ladies for favors was itself considered a sin.” Yes, Mammon, July 28, 2009 <https://steveawiggins.com/2009/07/28/yes-mammon/>

Where do you suppose we’ll be a decade from now?

The Problem with History

The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.  Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.  More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.  My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.  I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.  The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.  Many people don’t like horror.  I get that.  It is, however, part of the larger picture.

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.  Neither really is.  Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.  It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 

Losing Ahab’s Head

Call me Ishmael. There was a time when I heard about archaeological discoveries impacting the Bible soon after they were made. Now I have to wait until they appear in the paper, just like everybody else. When I saw a story asking if a recently found statue head might be that of Jezebel’s husband a number of things occurred to me. First of all, how cool is it that a king is referred to as the husband of a more famous wife? Well, I suppose Jezebel is infamous, but as the Washington Post article I read indicated, some biblical scholars are inclined to view her more sympathetically as a strong woman in a patriarchal morass. Seems like something we should be able to understand these days.

Another issue is that underlying bugbear of wanting to prove the Bible true. There is little doubt that Jezebel’s husband, a king by the name of Ahab, existed. Quite apart from the Bible he is historically attested—one of the earliest biblical characters to have received outside verification. If he actually struggled with a prophet named Elijah or not, we can’t know. In any case, the non-talking head of the statue looks like just any other pre-Roman guy with a crown. The article wistfully wishes the rest of the statue could be found, but one thing that we know from ancient iconography is that ancient figures, be they gods or heroes, are seldom inscribed. As I long ago argued about Asherah, without definitive iconic symbols to identify them, ancient images must remain ambiguous.

What would iconically identify good old Ahab? Certainly not a white whale—it’s far too early for that. He was represented in the book of Kings as the worst monarch Israel ever had. Politically, however, he seems to have been somewhat successful. Would he have been represented with the grapes of Naboth’s vineyard? Or, like a saint, holding the arrow that eventually slew him in his chariot? Ahab is a mystery to us. Unlike Melville’s version, he’s a man eclipsed by those in his life, notably the prophet Elijah and his wife Jezebel. Although the latter’s been baptized into the acceptable form Isabel, her name is synonymous with being a woman who knows what she wants. In the biblical world her main crime was being born into a family who worshipped Baal. The difference between her day and ours is that if a Republican president declared himself a Baal worshipper, evangelicals would cheer and joyfully follow along. Rachel, after all, cannot stop mourning her lost children.

The Republican National Convention?

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.

Rookie Mistakes

So now it’s got a stain on the cover. And it didn’t even come with a book jacket. Perhaps it’s symbolic? The year was 1993. I’d finished my doctorate at Edinburgh the year before, and, against all odds, had landed a full-time teaching position. That position was at Nashotah House, but never mind. Like all doctoral students I’d sent out my dissertation for publication. It’d been accepted by the prestigious series Alter Orient und Altes Testament, produced by the dual publisher Verlag Butzon & Bercker and Neukirchener Verlag. Most European houses print these books cloth-bound (mine in blue!), no dust jacket, straight to the library market. I was proud. I had my first copy in hand in time to show around at the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting. There I spied William Holladay, my Hebrew teacher, now deceased. He was sitting on the floor in a corridor, eating his lunch. I joined him and showed him my book. In his inimitable way, he snatched it (leaving a grease stain on the cover) and within seconds said, “there’s a word misspelled in your title.”

Crestfallen, I took my first copy back. I wrote to the publisher, but these things only ever receive one printing and I never heard back. How embarrassing! Your first foray into academic publishing, and you look like an idiot who can’t spel. Now, in my defense, the cover is simply what I thought was a photomechanical replication of the the title page. The world “Millennia” was spelled correctly where I’d proofed it inside. How they left out an “n” on the binding die is a mystery. I never got proofs of the cover. Besides, a book’s title is on the title page, right? Never judge a book by it’s cover! Mine has a stain on it.

The book, although on Asherah, never got much notice. It’s still routinely overlooked. One of the truly sad things, though, came from a senior scholar in the field, nameless here, who did mention my work. In his book he put a [sic] after the ailing word on the cover. That was an intentional slight. Had he looked at the title page—from which I’d been taught to take bibliographic references—he would’ve found the word spelled correctly. Many publishers do not let authors proof the binding die for their cloth-stamped covers. A senior scholar knocking down a struggling junior with an obscure three-letter word. Welcome to academia. The book did get a kind of second life when Gorgias Press reprinted it, with additional material. I still sometimes pull that first copy off the shelf, however, and wonder what can take the stain out of blue canvas. As long as someone can feel superior citing a mistake beyond a young colleague’s control, I suspect it will remain.

The One Who Seeks

Academics and social media are, at times, an uneasy fit. In my work as an editor I come across many of the professorate who have virtually no web presence at all. If you’re wanting to write a book these days and you aren’t yet famous, you need what they call a “platform.” That is to say, you need to be easily found on internet searches, you have to have “followers” on various social media, and people have to know where to look to find information about you. A starter site that does fairly well is the for-profit venture called academia.edu. Because of that final “edu” extension, many suppose this is an educational site with no money in mind, but that’s not really the case. Still, it’s free to post your academic papers there and many intellectuals, public and otherwise, have vested some of their effort on getting academia followers.

J. C. L. Gibson, someone, and Nicolas Wyatt

My own profile on academia, which has copies of most of my papers available for free downloads, at one time was in the top 2%. I felt so special. Being kept out of academia for so many years, one does begin to wonder. In any case, one of the features of the site is that when someone lands on your page you receive a notice telling you how they found you. More detailed information is available for a fee (this is one of the not not-for-profit aspects I was mentioning). Sometimes they will provide you with the search terms used and the paper found. My site has quite a bit about Asherah. I wrote a book on the goddess, still largely overlooked, and several discrete papers. The other day I received a notice that someone found my page with this notice of how:

Someone from India found “A Reassessment of Asherah:…” on Google with the keyword “sex photos hd com R A N ilaku.”

I have the feeling someone left my site keenly disappointed. Although my book does discuss sexuality a little—you kind of have to with Asherah—I did wonder about the “photos” and “hd” and “ilaku” parts of the equation. You must be pretty desperate in your pornography quest to stumble across my academia page. Not that I’ve replicated the search, but I must be thousands of pages down in the results. Still, someone found my first book that way. And that’s the lesson—an internet platform may bring your work unexpected fame. Whether or not that fame is ill, will, however, remain an open question.

Giving Trees

They’re not exactly worshipping the tree, but the Basking Ridge Presbyterian Church is holding a memorial service for the old oak tree. I’ve written about the Basking Ridge oak before. I learned about it only in January, and I visited it this summer. Some say it’s the oldest tree in the state, while others make that claim for the Great Swamp oak, which isn’t too far away. The climate change we’ve introduced, as well as natural aging, appear to have doomed the tree. It had leaves this summer, but not in the profusion that signals health to botanists. The decision has been made to take the tree down before any massive branches fall and cause injury or damage. In the light of these sad developments, holding a service seems perfectly natural. The tree is older than the church over which it presides, after all. It’s even older than John Calvin who started the Presbyterian tradition.

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My first book was on Asherah, the goddess often associated with trees by scholars. As those who’ve read my book will know, I’m a bit skeptical, on the basis of the actual evidence, that Asherah was a “tree goddess,” but it is also clear that trees are ancient objects of veneration. From the human perspective, they can live a very long time. There is a bristlecone pine in this country that dates back to before Noah’s flood (something the creationists conveniently ignore). With that much life-force, which, we’re told, is really a fiction, these trees deserve special respect. After all, they were in the neighborhood long before we got here. Still, the Basking Ridge oak has been artificially preserved before. It’s been on life support for years. Concrete was poured to support the massive trunk, and many ponderous branches are shored up by support rods. We respect our elders.

Maybe it’s not tree worship. Maybe it’s worship beside a tree instead of worship of a tree. Prepositions can make all of the difference. Nevertheless, it’s an occasion to stop and consider our place on the planet. The fear many of us feel regarding this week’s election is a mere second in arboreal memory. The independence of this country came after the oak had been here centuries already. It may not be tree worship, but we should respect the memories of such a tree. A country young and optimistic rather than old and jaded. Maybe this tree knows a secret that it’s willing to bequeath to those of us whose lives are but a few leafing seasons in length. Good-bye, Basking Ridge Oak. It was a pleasure to meet you.

Hollow, Sleepy Hollow

Legend_of_Sleepy_Hollow_U.S._Stamp

It was recently announced that Fox has renewed Sleepy Hollow for a fourth season. Please! No spoilers in the comments (as if)! I’m running a season behind so I want to protect my innocence. The announcement coincided with the happy news that my article on the Bible in Sleepy Hollow has been accepted for publication in the Journal of Religion and Popular Culture. I’m irrationally chuffed about this since my past publications have been primarily textual explorations of documents in languages nobody reads any more. Having something contemporary accepted for publication felt—dare I say it?—cool. As if I were part of the supernatural television crowd. It also affirmed my decision for which book to pursue next. When I say “pursue” I mean “write.”

You see, as a young scholar I struggled trying to decide what direction my research would take. After writing my book on Asherah, I was a bit sated with Ugaritic goddesses, although I started a book on Shapshu, goddess of the sun. The sun gave way to the weather and I wrote Weathering the Psalms. I lost my job in the midst of my revision of that project and it has taken a decade to find my way back to academic publishing. Research, however, takes on a vastly different form when you’re not hired to do it. Colleagues say, “I can get you access to my university library.” Such a kind thought, but my mind always says “when?” When would I have time to visit a library? I get up at 3:30 for my commute and get home in time to go to bed so that I can wake up again at 3:30 the next day. Research reading on the bus is dicey at best. Weekends are for getting the things done that are neglected all week long. Research has to be squeezed into the interstices.

That’s why I’m pleased about Sleepy Hollow. Watching television, even if on DVD, can be research. I’ve got decades of backlogged reading upon which to draw. When my tastes for light horror integrate with what I’m interested in researching it is a happy day. “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” captured my imagination as a child. It was probably based on the Disney version, but even so, I never lost the fascination. Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow is still one of my favorite movies. Watching the episodes of the Fox series takes time, but now I know that time is not just simple relaxation. No, it’s research. Now to find the time to write that book that’s brewing in my head. Inspired, perhaps prophetically, by a Headless Horseman.

Apes’ Asherah?

As a part of my class on Ancient Near Eastern Religions, since we were dealing with the earliest textually recorded religions, I explored origins. Specifically, the origins of religion. For years I told my students that biologists had observed behavior among chimpanzees that was proto-religious. Imagine my delight in seeing an article on New Scientist headlined “What do chimp ‘temples’ tell us about the evolution of religion?” The article, by Rowan Hooper, describes chimpanzees banging rocks before a “sacred tree” and storing the rocks in the tree in a ritualized fashion. That’s a long way from Episcopalians putting on their Sunday finery, but it is a fascinating piece of a larger puzzle. As the article points out, other symbolic action among chimps has been observed—some of it the basis for what I discussed with my students. The impulse to acknowledge the power of the Other runs deeply within animals, particularly mammals and birds.

This may seem an odd thing to suggest. We do know, however, that among the earliest attested behavior or Homo sapiens, along with hunting and seeking shelter, is religious behavior. It is part of who we are. Primatologists, such as Frans de Waal, have noted that the great apes engage in altruistic behavior. It is only when they become billionaires, apparently, that the urge dies. Again, other mammal species and some birds also show altruistic behavior. We are part of the natural world. Our religion, rather than being a collective insanity, is part of a continuity with that natural world. It is much a part of who we are as is seeking food or putting on clothing.

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The more rakish side of my imagination goes to the fact that this article begins with a sacred tree. Tree worship is part of early religions. Some scholars suggest it is part of Asherah’s cult in the ancient world. (I discussed this in technical terms in an article some years back; take a look at my Academia page if you can’t sleep without reading it.) Goddess or not, trees are essential for our survival—call them a godsend. Would it not make sense for religion to include reverence for trees? It seems that some great apes, at least, agree. Are these primates religious? We can’t say. One thing, however, is certain. Our fellow animals show more moderation in their use of the environment than our species does, and that in itself is both logical and religious.

Good Goddess

This past week Asherah has been on my mind. Some of my readers will know that I wrote a book on Asherah, based on my doctoral dissertation. Those who’ve read it (admittedly few) will know that in it I lament the easy association of generic goddesses with a mythological figure with a distinct background and character. The complication has a number of sources, but became particularly acute when inscriptions reading “I bless you by Yahweh… and his asherah” were discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud a few decades back. Since then it has become neo-orthodoxy that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife and she represented trees, lions, goats, fertility, water, wisdom, and any number of other phenomena. Those who question this are called “conservatives” and evidence deniers. Those who write popular books on this assumption end up on news programs and some start appearing at conferences in very nice clothes.

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Deror avi, Wikimedia Commons

So why am I thinking of Asherah? A friend sent me the news story of a female figurine discovered in an accidental find at Tel Rehov in Israel. Upon seeing the story, I was awaiting the inevitable equation with Asherah, but was surprised to read that Amihai Mazar, the archaeologist consulted, suggested it might be Astarte, or someone else. You see, figurines of naked females were quite common in ancient Israel. No consensus has arisen as to which goddess is represented, if any. They don’t have names inscribed, and they may have been like, ahem, action figures for the woman hoping for a child, or for the safe delivery of a child. We simply don’t know. The other reason I’m thinking of Asherah is that I recently read a book where it was simply assumed that Asherah was Yahweh’s wife.

Don’t get me wrong—I’d like to see Yahweh as happily married as any other god. In fact, I think it would be odd if nobody thought he was. There is a difference, however, between thinking this makes sense and grasping at minimal evidence to declare it a fact. If someone were to discover an unambiguous inscription reading, for instance, “Asherah and Yahweh sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g,” then I’d be the first to say mazel tov. I have no theological bias against it. The problem is we simply do not know enough about the goddesses of antiquity. We know there were many. And we know there were women who didn’t claim divinity as well. Who these figurines represent, we just don’t know. Perhaps Yahweh, even now out on a date with Asherah, is smiling down knowingly. If so, I wish them well. Until I see some unambiguous evidence, however, I will be a doubter.

Swamped

The word “venerable” is often applied with the connotation of age. Although the word in its own right really means to “adore,” or “worship,” objects of extreme age evoke that response. Perhaps the fact that “time-honored” is used as a synonym helps create that impression. As human beings, many of us experience an awe at being in the presence of something much older than ourselves. When I read about the Great Swamp Oak, then, I knew I would eventually need to see it. Reliable indications of a living tree’s age are difficult to assess for a non-botanist. Websites don’t give much thought to checking out the oldest tree in the state (although I did discover The NJ Big Tree Registry), but there are those who give that honor to the white oak of Basking Ridge, not far from the Great Swamp Oak. Others seem to indicate that the swamp denizen is older—somewhere in the range of 700 years. In the state of New Jersey, where things are constantly being reinvented and reconstructed, it is a source of comfort to find something so old leaving peacefully in a swamp.

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Now that I’ve used the words “tree” and “worship” together, I am inevitably brought back to the conceit of Asherah. As my academic writings have adequately demonstrated, I have doubts about the goddess’s association with trees. Nevertheless, there is something venerable about an ancient tree. If the Great Swamp Oak is 700 years old, it was already alive well before the “Age of Exploration” began. The only people to know of it, when there was as yet nothing to know, were First Nations inhabitants of the region. It was a time when, to American Indians, Europe did not even exist. Meanwhile across the ocean the plague could have been raging. A century or two later, Europeans would bring their plagues to these shores, forever changing the landscape. And not in a good way.

Trees, without human interference, can have tremendous life spans. In our short-sighted way, however, we have often understood them as nuisances in the way of some great shopping mall or industrial site. The “lungs of the planet,” trees have been wantonly destroyed in the name of progress. It is amazing that, especially on the East Coast, a few of them managed to avoid the axe and saw. Looking up into the branches of this great oak, I marvel at the changes that have taken place that, in its own way, this tree has “seen.” The world outside this swamp would be completely unrecognizable. Whether an asherah or not, I find myself reacting to the venerable nature of this sentinel of the ages. If only we could learn to keep our hands off young trees that nature plants, who knows what wonders future generations might experience in places even more unlikely than a swamp.