Finite Gods

Just how many gods are there, anyway? Well, that’s not really a fair question. For one thing, do I mean “real gods” or gods that people believe in? Do I mean “believe in” or made up? Do I mean “made up” or intentionally fabricated? And the nesting questions could go on and on. Over the years in my professional capacity as an erstwhile teacher, I accumulated books listing the deities of various cultures with brief descriptions. I once even argued that using “god/goddess of” (the divine-genitival construct) as a phrase distorted ancient concepts of divinity. The fact is people have believed in many gods in many different ways. As modern scholars of religion we’ve only begun to reach the heavens (or underworld, or anywhere in between, for deities may be found anywhere). This issue comes to mind because a friend recently shared a story from IFL Science about a new Etruscan goddess. The piece by Ben Taub mentions a stone recovered from Poggio Colla, a site in Italy, written in Etruscan. The stone seems to mention a new “fertility cult” goddess. And once again religion and science have met, but not quite kissed each other.

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Photo credit: Jastrow (2006), Wikimedia Commons

Let’s begin with the Etruscans. Before the Romans, Etruscans lived in Italy, giving Tuscany its name. We know very little about them, as their language (Etruscan) is rarely found and imperfectly understood. Some of the classical gods may go back to Etruscan originals, and the Etruscans seem to have known of at least some of the cultures of the ancient Near East, or ancient West Asia. We have no idea how many deities the Etruscans recognized. Polytheism, for all its heathenish exuberance, never had a problem with adding more gods. Interestingly, the “new” goddess mentioned here, Uni, is someone I used to talk about in my Rutgers classes on ancient Near Eastern religion some five-plus years ago. Pardon my crowing—I seldom get to suggest I was ahead of my time.

What really interests me here is that websites that advocate science still take an interest in religion. Although belief is relegated to inferior minds (generally) science does admit, from time to time, that it’s interesting. The study of religion, in at least some schools, is a scientific enterprise. No, we don’t put gods under microscopes (telescopes might be more useful) but we use the same techniques as empirical studies of nature use in order to try to draw some conclusions about religion. Despite the fact that the vast majority of humans on the planet are believers, higher education has consistently under-funded or disbanded departments who apply rational thought to religion. We suppose that someone else can pick it up and study it, coming to useful conclusions without putting in all the homework. Don’t mind me, though. I’m just basking in the light of having known about Uni years before she was discovered.

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