Asherah’s Ashes

Academics are often poor communicators. The stunning irrelevance of most research should stand as a rather obvious clue to that. Of course, I’m old school in my approach to research. When afforded the opportunity to do so, I produced at least one scholarly article per year, and these were based on extensive research. One of the misconceptions about research is that it involves only that which supports your theory. My first article and first book, both on Asherah, demonstrated that rather clearly, I hope. A kind of scholarly orthodoxy had grown up around the goddess, originating largely in Frank Moore Cross’s work, but also in that of a few other scholars. Nobody challenged these results although they were clearly built on shaky ground. Before I finished my dissertation it had been decided that Yahweh was married to Asherah, and the two merrily danced together on a pathos graffito from Kuntillet Ajrud. After my work was published, I was surprised to see how completely it was ignored. I, like John Mellencamp, had challenged authority. And we know who always wins.

I recently read an article entitled “Iconism and Aniconism in the Period of the Monarchy: Was There an Image of the Deity in the Jerusalem Temple?” by Garth Gilmour, in a Routledge volume entitled Visualizing Jews Through the Ages. Gilmour uses a crudely incised sherd originally found in 1920 in Jerusalem, to build a turret on the house of cards of conjecture. The incised stick figures which, if you squint just right, may be a male and female, it is suggested, are none other than Yahweh and Asherah. Probably grooving together in the temple. Now don’t get me wrong—I’ve always found the idea of Yahweh having a consort conceptually satisfying. We know that other deities in the ancient world often paired off, and that Asherah was generally the main consort of the high god. The proof, however, was in the pithos. Seeing what you want to see is a constant danger to researchers. That’s why my bibliographies tended to be encyclopedic. Gilmour’s article does not mention any of my several works on Asherah, or even my articles on Baal. Apparently my work harshes the easy conclusions already drawn. Or is insignificant. Caution often is.

Consigned to while away my time in publishing, I’m aware that there’s far too much out there for anybody to be able to read it all. Indeed, when I have rare moments to engage in research during my busy, commuting lifestyle, I find myself increasing aware of obsolesce. New results are published before the proofs get to the author. Still, the number of books out there on Asherah are fairly small. Those supporting the unofficial scholarly consensus are many and top the rankings on Amazon. Nobody likes to be reminded that the dissenting view has logic firmly on its side. We see what we want to see. Research should, in the opinion of this disregarded scholar, involving searching again, even as its name implies. The foundations should be reexamined now and again to make sure the tower’s not about to topple. That’s old school. And old school is now, apparently, understood as merely old fashioned.

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Anomalies in Paradise

In 1874 (C.E.) a mysterious ghost of an artifact from Brazil was announced. In a story full of twists and turns and multiple Spanish surnames, a director of the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro had received a copy of a Phoenician inscription allegedly found in Brazil. Efforts to trace the letter to its source and to find the actual artifact both ended unsuccessfully, leading the director, Ladislau de Souza Mello Neto, to conclude the letter was a hoax and the artifact non-extant. The story might have ended there had not Cyrus Gordon, one of the premier Semiticists of the last century, allowed his open mind to reexamine the evidence. Gordon, in an article in 1968, argued that the inscription had to be authentic because of advances made in the understanding of Phoenician that would have been unavailable in the 1870’s. Gordon’s interpretation was in turn challenged by Frank Moore Cross, noted Harvard epigraphist, and scholarship heaved a collective sigh of relief and returned to the status quo. No Phoenicians ever crossed the Atlantic.

Neto's un-copy of the un-inscription

This little incident highlights one of the persistent conundrums of academic life. Anomalous objects are found/reported every once in a while and mainstream academia immediately debunks them to come back to center. A student of Hinduism asked me recently about the correlation of ancient calendars; before British colonialism hit India artifacts were dated to much earlier periods. Under the influence of Britain Dravidian culture grew younger and the background to European culture was considered more ancient, more time-honored. Those with investment in the system do not like to have privileged positions challenged.

While a post-graduate student at Edinburgh, my advisor had me read Peter James’ Centuries of Darkness, a study that challenged the accepted chronology of the ancient world. Intrigued, we set up a seminar with representatives from the Archaeology Department to discuss whether this was a feasible approach to the many problem areas of ancient chronology. The archaeologists duly trooped in, set up their weapons and took pot-shots at the book, blowing multiple ugly holes in its arguments. After about an hour, when the archaeologists were unable to answer a very specific question by my advisor, he asked, “How many of you have read the book?” Sheepishly, not a hand was raised. The premise of the book was sufficient for its well-deserved snubbing. I learned a valuable lesson about academia that day — open minds lead to trouble. It is a lesson that demonstrates a very basic insecurity of those who do not wish to have their assumptions challenged.