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.

The Fate of Goddesses

The goddesses Asherah and Astarte are sometimes confused, even by experts. Astarte, also known as Ashtart, Ashtarte, Athtart, and Astaroth, among other names, is the lesser attested of the two among the Ugaritic texts. Indeed, to read some accounts of the latter goddess, she becomes dangerously close to being labelled generic, the sort of all-purpose female deity embodying love and war, and sometimes horses. In the Bible Astarte lived on to become the bad-girl of Canaanite goddesses. Her corrupting ways were a conscious danger to the orthodox (as much as that is read back into the texts). She became, over time, literally demonized. It seems that originally she, like most goddesses, had a soft spot for humans. Since she wasn’t the one true (male) God, however, she had to be made evil. It is an unfortunate pattern as old as monotheism. One of my original interests in studying Asherah (not Astarte) was precisely that—the obviously benevolent divine female seems to have been chucked wholesale when the divine masculine walked into the room. Why? Well, many explanations and excuses have been given, but whatever the ultimate cause, Astarte lingered on.

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In a local pharmacy the other day, I was looking over the Halloween tchotchkes. Amid the usual assortment of pumpkins, skeletons, and ghosts, I found bottle labels reading “Ashtaroth Demon Essence.” Although I’ve spent a good deal of my life cloistered in academia, I was not surprised by this. I know that in popular culture the goddesses of antiquity live on as supernatural powers, sometimes good, sometimes evil. Astarte, once depicted as the friend to at least some of the humans devoted to her, is now commonly a demonic force. The image on the bottle label, however, was most unflattering. I know, this is just kid’s stuff. Still, as I stood there among last-minute costume seekers and distracted parents, I knew that I was witnessing the influence of ancient religions in an unexpected way. Did any of the goddesses survive as a force for good? How could they when the only god was male?

We know very little about ancient Astarte beyond the fact that she took away some of the luster of the omnipotent (as now conceived) deity of the Bible. A jealous God, as Holy Writ readily admits, visiting iniquity down to the third and fourth generation. (That might explain a lot.) Prior to monotheism benevolence and malevolence could arise from goddesses as well as gods. Compassion, it was believed, was largely a feminine trait. Monotheism decided for the jealous male instead. We won’t find a bottle label for the Almighty, although the accouterment of the arch-enemy are everywhere evident this time of year. And speaking of the diabolical, the Ashtaroth Demon Essence, I noted, was available at a steep discount.

Esoteric Goddesses

250px-Statuette_Goddess_Louvre_AO20127One of the nice things about the internet is that you can indulge your unorthodox interests and nobody will much care (except, of course, the US government). The other day, while reading about monsters, I found a fellow WordPress site, EsoterX. More specifically, I found a blog post on Ashtaroth. Those who have more than a passing interest in my background know that I spent a few years of my life writing about the goddess Asherah. Asherah and Ashtaroth are sometimes easily confused by anyone not reading about them in the original languages, but I settled on Asherah because we simply don’t have much textual information on Ashtaroth. Ashtaroth has gone by a number of names over time: Athtart, Astarte, and, as I just learned from EsoterX, Lord Treasurer of Hell. I won’t try to repeat the clever observations of EsoterX, but I can’t help myself add my own two shekels’ worth.

Ashtaroth is clearly one of the bad girls of the Hebrew Bible. She tempts the upright astray, and she seems to have been a perennial favorite among the less-than-orthodox Israelites. The Bible doesn’t take much care to flesh her out fully, and she appears only in minor roles in the Ugaritic texts. Some in the ancient world easily associated her with Ishtar, and their names do seem to bear some kind of relationship. Ashtaroth is connected to the planet Venus, as was the latter goddess Aphrodite—named, appropriately enough by the Romans, as Venus. Ashtaroth was also a militaristic goddess associated with horses. That girl got around.

Unfortunately, in the literature that survives from the earliest period, we are left with only the sketchiest of outlines of this once important goddess. Many of the Semitic deities have been revived in popular mythology of the modern age, and Ashtaroth, with her sexy, yet belligerent nature, is always appealing to the puerile imagination of pubescent boys. She was taken with great seriousness long ago, however, although her origins are lost to history and her attributes have become general enough to fit just about any old generic goddess. I’m glad to see that EsoterX has given her a shout-out and has traced a brief history of the goddess through the ages. Maybe someday we’ll find some accurate information on her early days. If we do, will somebody please give me a poke? I will probably be busy reading EsoterX.

Poe

PoeSilvermanOn his birthday I began reading a biography of Edgar Allan Poe. The last biography of Poe I read, I’m embarrassed to admit, was in high school. To me Poe is like music: deeply appreciated and therefore taken in rare doses. The biography this time was Kenneth Silverman’s Edgar A. Poe, A Biography: Mournful and Never-Ending Remembrance. I picked this book up last time I was on the University of Virginia campus, just after I stopped by to gaze wonderingly into Poe’s room. Like most biographies these days, Silverman’s account is hardly a hagiography. Poe was a perfect man only in his embodiment as a man of sorrows. In the days when “writer” was not really a profession, Poe nevertheless recognized what his strengths were and persisted to try to make a living following those assets. A poverty-stricken living much of the time, but an honest one. It is not pleasant to have a hero’s foibles exposed, but Poe was all the more admirable for having been fully human. We have all experienced arrogance and humility in turns. Poe was a man who knew sorrow from his youngest years, and that cloud stayed with him until his death just forty years later. A personal tempest.

Poe, not a conventionally religious man, nevertheless recognized and drew upon religious imagery. In his poem “Ulalume—A Ballad” Astarte’s ghost appears. Astarte remains a goddess poorly understood, but Poe was likely drawing on her association with Venus. She fails, however, to lead to Heaven. Silverman points out how “Ulalume” was followed closely by Eureka, Poe’s only sustained attempt at metaphysics. Poe came to the conclusion that upon death we become part of the all-encompassing God. This daring deduction cost him friends and supporters, but it also led to a rebuttal by a seminary student. Poe’s reply to his criticisms remains apt, as Silverman quotes him, “‘God knows what’—he cared very little what he was called ‘so it be not a “Student of Theology.”’” Amen, Mr. Poe.

Some lives, like those of Job, seem fated to loss and suffering. Yes, there have been those who lost more than Poe, or even Job, but this is no contest to see who might bear the most weight before being driven to his or her knees. Poe felt it deeply and expressed it eloquently. He recognized, as most writers do today, that business models resent an honest voice. Those who sell are often those who pretend. I’m sure that Poe would nevertheless give a wry smile of irony if he knew how multiple editions of his works, long in the public domain, flow from the presses of publishers hoping to make a dollar or two on his now stellar reputation as a writer and, in full recognition of the paradox, a prophet. Like his raven, Poe could see beyond the confines of this world and paid the price for his vision. Obviously he was no student of theology.

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.