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?

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.)

One to Tree

Asherah’s in the news again. My book on the old girl safely moldering on obscure library shelves, I figure it is my academic duty to be a staid voice of reason on the subject. The jury’s still out on her status as Yahweh’s wife – no wedding pictures have yet surfaced – and her associations with lions and snakes have always been suspect. It is clear, from the Bible’s perspective anyway, that the physical object called by the goddess’s name was made of wood. Although such a slight association does not a tree-goddess make, it nevertheless runs counter to scholarly orthodoxy to suggest otherwise.

In the Rabbinic period it had become clear that just about any tree in the right location could serve as an asherah. So it was with a double-take that I looked at the cover of my Green Bible. I began using the Green Bible a couple of years ago because of the environmental impact of the millions of Bibles printed annually. Best estimates are that about six billion Bibles have been printed (about half of which have been sent to me by various vendors as textbook options) and I was hoping to at least use a recycled book to ease the burden. Then yesterday it clicked for the first time: the Green Bible has a tree on its recycled cover.

Asherah seems to have had the last laugh. If she was a tree-goddess. The fact remains that Asherah is a difficult goddess to qualify. She may have been associated with trees, or lions, or snakes, or wisdom, but none of these things has been proven beyond reasonable doubt. She was, however, the spouse of the high god El among the people of ancient Ugarit. And the Israelites accepted without qualm that El was essentially the same as Yahweh. Did he bring his former spouse along? We don’t know. Asherah, as her own person nevertheless, is a wonderful example of the feminine divine. Too bad she doesn’t have her own book.

God's wife on the cover of his book?

Yarihk Finally Gets a Drink


Gnu moon

Yarihk once again makes the news as NASA announced yesterday that they have discovered a substantial amount of water on the moon. I’m still reeling as if I’d joined Yarikh at the Marzeah. Although the local paper only deemed it page 2-worthy, this is a paradigm-shifting discovery! The arid, airless, lifeless, dead rock daily racing around our world has suddenly blossomed with new potential. Water on the moon? It seems as unlikely as satisfactory jobs for all graduate students.

Students are generally surprised to learn that in the Ancient Near East the moon was often considered superior to the sun. Given our knowledge of astronomy and physics it is difficult to look behind the curtain to see that it is not self-evident that the moon reflects sunshine without the subsequent development of a scientific outlook. For ancients the moon provided the gentler light that illuminated night — when you really need some light anyway — and was responsible for generating dew, a necessary source of water in regions where summer rains are unheard of. The benevolent moon waxes and wanes, forming a perfect circle and, by degrees, the crescent shape of the horns of divinity, and finally disappearing completely to start the cycle all over.

At Ugarit Yarikh is a thirsty character in text 114. He marries a foxy Hurrian goddess in the myth of Nikkal, a princess much above his station, then he easily fades into the background from the dearth of textual sources. Some have suggested a lunar connection for El as well, the very head of the gods. If El was lunar, perhaps Yahweh also drove the moon. Whoever is in charge, however, thought to pack water for the journey and as we further explore our nearest astronomical companion we will discover that Yarikh is just as interesting as the denizens of Ugarit had suggested.


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

Of Cats and Goddesses

During one of my periodic forays into current Asherah lore on the web, I discovered a new breed of cat. Well, actually, I didn’t discover it, I just became aware of it. Because of a misspelling on a website I learned that the Ashera (trademarked name!) is the most expensive cat in the world, retailing for $22,000. A blend of three species (the mind boggles), the African Serval, Asian Leopard, and domestic cat, this feline comes in at least three varieties, including the especially appropriate Royal Ashera. If you’ve come into an inheritance and want to waste a few grand, take a look at Lifestyle Pets to see the wonder.

According to Kirta she has a temper!

According to Kirta she has a temper!

Curious, I searched to find if anyone would tip a hand as to where the name of the cat was derived. Choosing the name of the queen of the Ugaritic divine world seemed a little too much coincidence for me, but then again, homophones happen. When the Prince of Egypt, Dreamworks’ answer to The Ten Commandments, was released, I had several people ask me why the Israelites were singing about “Asherah” after they crossed the Red Sea. I had to watch the movie very closely, but I figured out that they were singing “I will sing,” which, in Hebrew, sounds suspiciously like “Asherah.” I never did discover Ashera’s origins.

Cats, however often maligned as associated with witches and vampires and other creatures of the night, are certainly among the most divine of domesticated pets. If I were free to purchase an animal companion the Ashera would be in the ranking (after I’d won the lottery, of course). Whether intentional or not, who would not want to own a cat named after the only goddess to be mentioned in connubial relations both to El and perhaps even to Yahweh? (The latter association, like the naming of the cat, is entirely open to question!)

Shades of Asherah

When my book on Asherah was first published in 1993, some reviewers criticized my humble effort to sort out the identity of this goddess without resorting to iconography. As I had anticipated this, in the text itself I provided what I thought was a reasonable rationale for my decision. It is a sad fact that ancient polytheists seldom captioned their imagery. Some images so clearly resemble the character of deities described in the myths that correlations are almost certain. Asherah, alas, lacks that privilege.

Could be anybody's mommy

Could be anybody's mommy

No item from ancient West Asia has yet been recovered that bears an inscription identifying the portrait as Asherah. We simply do not know what the ancients believed she looked like. This hasn’t prevented modern scholars from assigning an Aserah value to certain favored artifacts with a great deal of certainty. So much certainty, in fact, that we don’t know which certainties to trust. If iconic emblems for Asherah existed, that might provide a way of connecting images to the goddess. Unfortunately, snakes, lions, and “twigs” — the usual suspects — could fit just about any goddess with a little twisting. So we are forever left with iconic ambivalence.

May be Asherah, but what's with the goats?

May be Asherah, but what's with the goats?

Of all the artifacts recovered from the Levant, where Asherah was actively worshipped, only one, it seems to me, is a potentially clear match. Not as alluring as the Asherahs of popular imagination, she is actually described as a matronly figure, the consort of patrician El. The El images that seem beyond question illustrated him comfortably seated on his throne of state, hand raised in a sign of blessing (or waving good-bye). One image found at Ugarit presents a feminine counterpart in posture and pose. This is likely the image of Asherah. Younger, sexier goddesses need not apply. This one instance reminds us of just how little we know of the immense divine world of Ugarit. If we are careful in our explorations, however, there is much to be learned.

Like hubby like wifie

Like hubby like wifie

What’s a Ugarit?

Self-knowledge for any society begins with a knowledge of its past. We identify ourselves with where we have come from and what we have experienced. As denizens of a highly technological world in which change occurs rapidly, it is easy to forget that in ancient times technology progressed at the rate of centuries, or even millennia. The rapidity of cultural change is closely linked with the efficiency of communication with large groups of people over great distances. Working together we build on the many stories already built below us, we begin on a higher level than those in the stories below us did.

When we think of the Middle East, named from the western penchant for placing itself at the geographic center, we think of it as a region of perpetual conflict. Looking beyond our accustomed frame of reference, this region of the world is also where western civilization itself began. It was here that written communication itself was conceived. Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia have often captured the western imagination. When enumerating the important archaeological discoveries of this region, most informed people would easily tick off the Rosetta Stone, King Tut’s tomb, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. Missing from most rosters would be Ugarit, an ancient city of incomparable importance among the lower stories of the tower of our society.

The great founding nations of civilization grew along the banks of west Asian rivers. Apparently developing independently, Egypt flourished along the Nile and the nations of Mesopotamia along the Tigris and Euphrates. The Euphrates was the quintessential waterway of the ancient world, known by many as simply “the River,” just as the Mediterranean was “the Sea.” Early in human history the city-states of Mesopotamia coalesced into united ventures recognizable as nations. The same unification occurred in Egypt and among the Hittite peoples of what is now Turkey. The basic unit of civilization, however, tended to be the city-state.

(Please see the Full Essays page for the remaining text of this essay.)