The Goddess

WhenGodWasAWomanMerlin Stone was a sculptor and an artist. I met her only once, a few years back when I was still recognized as an “authority” on ancient goddesses. At one of the many Society of Biblical Literature annual meetings I attended, she came and introduced herself to me, thanking me for my work. Of course I knew who she was—the author of When God Was a Woman, one of the books that was most influential in the revived goddess movement of the 1980s. I have always appreciated those women who have dared to take on the often amorphous patriarchal power structures of society to raise the necessary questions of fairness and justice. Stone was one of those women. Her book, while based on sometimes questionable historiography, nevertheless highlights some of the issues that many male scholars have chosen simply to ignore.

One of the biggest problems faced by authors like Merlin Stone and Marija Gimbutas has been the shifting sands of history. I recently had a deep conversation with a couple of feminist friends of mine where the issue of truth emerged. Truth, as I came to realize, may be a temporary phenomenon. What is true today (the earth is the center of the universe) may not be true tomorrow. It is always contingent. Historians reconstruct a past to which they do not have direct access, and further discoveries will often detail the errors made along the way. When God Was a Woman was originally published in 1978. Some of the historical constructs that Stone uses have since crumbled, but the main point of the book remains firm—women have as real a claim on the divine as do men. (I can’t help but wonder if there is some connection between this and the recent trend towards prominent male thinkers declaring themselves atheists.)

Although I can’t agree with everything Stone wrote, one of her ideas dropped a hook in my brain. In describing the sexuality that apparently attended worship of “the goddess,” she notes how male scholars came to refer, always derisively, to the such religions as “fertility cults.” Turning this phrase about, Stone wonders whether far distant future analysts will look at monotheistic religions that decry sexuality as “sterility cults.” Not that the goddess is all about sex. Religions, however, always weigh in when such spiritually significant activities as sex take place. Men, who are often eager participants, are the ones to construct religions condemning what should be a most obviously sacred human activity.

Merlin Stone may have died just over two years ago, but her book will stand as a yad vashem to half of the human race who have been religiously subjected to the other half. And perhaps there is a goddess out there yet who will bring about liberty and justice for all.

Divine Sex Change

One of the greatest problems in reconstructing ancient religions is the ambiguity of the evidence.  Most ancient artifacts are not labeled (they probably didn’t need to be for the original viewers) and few have textual materials explaining them.  This became clear to me when studying the famed inscription found at Kuntillet Ajrud in the mid-1970s.  The most (in)famous aspect of this artifact was that an inscription overlapped a doodle, and due to the urgent desire to interpret the inscription a particular way, the line drawing was supposed to be an illustration of the inscription.  The inscription is commonly translated as something along the lines of “I bless you by Yahweh of Teman and his asherah.”  Many scholars took asherah to mean Asherah, the goddess, despite no evidence for pronominal suffixes on personal names in classical Hebrew.  The doodle shows three figures, perhaps related, of which two were said to be Yahweh and Asherah.  Despite the very clear resemblance to the Egyptian dwarf-god Bes (Kuntillet Ajrud is between Israel and Egypt), it was argued that the figures in the “foreground” should be considered Yahweh and his main squeeze, Asherah.


The artistic analysis of these doodles has always been torturous. Tiny, perhaps insignificant, details were ascribed great importance—particularly those indicating the gender of the figures.  For the Yahweh-Asherah connection to work, one had to be male and the other female (with the male preferably in front).  The problem was that both figures seemed to have penises (in keeping with Bes’s typical representation).  In order to make it clear that the right-hand figure was female it was claimed that she was wearing a lion skin and the “penis” was literally a tail, the leopard’s tail, seen between “her” legs. The problem seemed to be a possible scrotum appeared to be present.  The left-hand figure, larger (therefore, in front) had a clear scrotum, and that sealed the case, in a manner of speaking.  Little chestal circles were said to be breasts on the right-hand figure, but male nipples on the left-hand figure were lacking.  Oh, and they were dancing, as shown by the woman playing the harp in the “background.”  Believe it or not, seriously scholarly debate raged over this—nothing short of the discovery of Yahweh’s wife seemed to be at stake!  A colleague recently emailed me to tell me the final report of the archaeologists concludes that the “scrotum” on the right-hand figure was a mere dust smudge and so, aha!, she is a female after all!

I argued years ago that this drawing was clearly a representation of Bes. The connection with the inscription is accidental (the jug on which the inscription occurs is full of doodles); if someone wanted to illustrate an inscription, they would not draw figures that actually obliterate part of the caption. Assumption is built on assumption here, however, making for a very shaky foundation indeed. Don’t get me wrong: I would like to see Yahweh as happily married as the next deity. It is not good for the god to be alone. Still, it is going to take more than a divine sex-change operation to transform Bes into Asherah. If nothing else this divine gender-bender ought to serve as a cautionary tale for scholars, yet somehow I doubt that it will. We see what we want to see.

Dearly Beloved

Coptic Christians have been in the news recently. In a late push to be known as the radical orthodox, it seems, the Copts have arrested the headlines. Tensions in the Middle East appear to have shifted to this ancient group and the media finds itself fascinated by them. In an unrelated development, a Coptic papyrus fragment appears to mention Jesus’ wife, according to CNN’s Belief Blog. Naturally, people are curious (read “upset”) at this revelation, although it is not history, just tradition. For decades, perhaps centuries, scholars of Christianity have noted that Jewish guys Jesus’ age would have been, by all social expectations, married. Celibacy was not really an option in the first century of the common era, and yet, no one explicitly mentions Jesus’ wife. This causes a larger crisis for divinity, because once Jesus was recognized as divine what would you do with a wife? She would complicate things (or at least theology).

The female divine is certainly as ancient as the male divine, culturally speaking, if not older. Despite cartoons of Cro-Magnon man dragging Cro-Magnon woman by the hair, all indications are that early people revered the feminine mystique as life-givers. Naturally, this equates to a kind of divinity. Only when society grew to be dominated by politics, no matter how primitive, did the male usurp the role of life-giving image-of-god-bearer. The male part in procreation was upgraded to being the creator, and the female relegated to a mere receptacle. Male gods alone could create universes, and women were downgraded to incomplete men. Still, in the myths around Israel (and perhaps within Israel as well) gods were married. The divine principle included both genders, although in an unequal distribution of power.

Fast forward twenty centuries and we have movements that encourage young women to consider Jesus as a kind of chaste lover. That’s a little hard to do if he was married—issues of adultery, at least in fantasy land, cause a real complication. The fact of history is that we possess very little of Jesus’ biography. Depending on how we parcel out the Gospels, we know only about one year’s worth (or three very scant years) of his life. Many personal details are left out. The Bible is clear that he had brothers and sisters, and even some of their names are preserved. We know his parents and find out that he was a cousin of John the Baptist. The relationships likely continued from there into other connections, but they weren’t central to the story the Gospel-writers wanted to tell. Adding women always complicates a male religion. Only non-gendered religions can be truly universal.

So this newly translated Coptic fragment comes from centuries later when it would seem natural that any Jewish man of the time would have been married. What was his wife’s name? Here’s the beauty of the revelation: for that, we can still offer the consolation, “fill in the blank.”

Rounding up the usual suspects?

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?

Internet Asherah

Things represented on the Internet are not always what they seem. Removed to the back-bench of academia, I don’t have the opportunity for research that I once had. Every now and again, however, I still like to see what people are saying about Asherah. When I check the popular goddess books available off the shelf, my book on the subject is not often mentioned. At least on the Internet some researchers seem to have noticed it. A recent search for Asherah on Google, however, brought some surprising results. The first item of interest was a quinoa-based, organic veggie burger from Asherah’s Gourmet. The Asherah in question here, however, is simply a woman’s name. As a vegetarian I thought I would put a word in for the product, in any case. I found this brand at a health food store last week, but miles from home and with an air temperature of over 100 degrees, I was afraid the frozen products wouldn’t make it home without half baking in the car.

My next stop on the web was Sacred Suds. This New Age-themed site offers hand-made soaps, many of them associated with goddesses. The product entitled Asherah is named for “the Canaanite mother goddess” and is made with milk and honey. The website doesn’t actually state anything about washing away sins, but it seems difficult to go wrong by washing with a goddess. Another selling point—also not on the website—might be to point out that Asherah is known as the one who “walks upon the sea.” There is even a scene in the Baal Cycle from Ugarit where she is presented as doing her laundry in the sea. Asherah and soap, it seems, are a natural match.

One final product seems to be biding its time, although I suspect there is a market for it. The Asherah action-figure, privately made, does not appear to be commercially available yet. Garbed in an Egyptianizing cobra headdress, armed with a cobra staff, this heroine looks to be a suitable partner for Captain America, bringing the United States and Middle East together in an attempt to bring peace to a troubled region. Maybe heroes can accomplish what gods apparently can’t.

Not exactly big business yet, nevertheless Asherah appears to be on the move. Maybe once she breaks into the big time, those of us who’ve tried to make a living on her cape-tails might be dragged out of obscurity as well. In the meantime, it is about time for a veggie burger and a luxuriant bath.

Asherah to Asherah

Every great once-in-a-while I regret no longer being in a position to conduct active research and publication. In the days when a full-time teaching position afforded me that option one of my favorite subjects was the exposure of facile arguments made by otherwise careful scholars. Most of those arguments focused on the presence of Asherah as a fully formed goddess in ancient Israel. Extremely tenuous evidence for the association of the goddess with a variety of ambiguous artifacts has polluted the discussion for decades now. Any vaguely abstract image suggesting a female was declared an “Asherah” representation, sometimes even images as simple as a triangle or a mother cow.

A colleague of mine just pointed out the recent article by Garth Gilmour in Palestine Exploration Quarterly 141 (2009), entitled “An Iron Age II Pictorial Inscription from Jerusalem Illustrating Yahweh and Asherah.” Having more than a passing acquaintance with the goddess, I read his article with considerable interest. A potsherd discovered in the 1920s, but unpublished until now, bears an incised “inscription” of two figures that Gilmour plausibly argues to be highly stylized female (left) and male (right). Basing his analysis of possible identities for this Picassoesque pair on the now canonical interpretation of the Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom inscriptions, he suggests this is none other than the happy couple of Yahweh and Asherah.

Loving spouses or battling foes?

I encourage creativity in scholarship; otherwise it has a way of becoming deadly dull. The supposed pairing of Yahweh and Asherah, however, has been excessively overblown by scholars who should know better. When it comes to the point that escapees from Flatland who bear the suggestion of gender must be Israel’s most famous bachelor and his main squeeze, I have to wonder what the basis of solid scholarship is. There are no words obliquely hinting that this is a divine couple, nor is there a sacred context to suggest this shard was in any way religious. Given the fact that the image had formerly been on a spouted jar, perhaps holding water, would not a suggestion of Marduk and Tiamat be more appropriate?

Rorschach tests aside, this incised image is an important piece of a puzzle with far too many pieces missing – the puzzle of the artistic life of ancient Israelites. Given the all-too-human interest in relationships between women and men, I would see no necessity of making deities out of a pair of prospective lovers or foes. Why can’t people just be people?

Asherah Overcomes

In the constant struggle of humankind against nature, we often find things out of place to our refined sensibilities. With the advent of autumn we frantically rake the fallen leaves into Brobdingnagian piles and anxiously await the colossal vacuum truck to come by and suck them all away. Leaf litter just doesn’t fit the suburban image. Or perhaps there is a dead tree that threatens to fall on our artificial habitat. We call the tree removal experts to have it taken out. All animals reshape their environment. We humans recreate it.

Long ago I argued that divinized trees in the ancient world do not necessarily represent Asherah. I stand by that assessment — asherahs were apparently constructed of wood, but it does not follow that all wooden cultic objects are asherahs — this does not meet the logical requirement of sufficient condition. Nevertheless, the book of Deuteronomy suggests that in times of necessity any tree might serve as an asherah (16.21), although this is soundly condemned. Perhaps the power of the tree represents the feminine vitality of the goddess. Like a tree, Asherah often outlives humans.

Photo credit to Christopher Chung

This picture appeared in today’s paper. A crew trying to remove an out-of-place tree near an expensive home had a little trouble as the tree pulled over the crane, and not vice-versa. Seeing the all too masculine crane truck dangling helplessly in the air while the tree holds its ground, I thought again of Asherah. I do sympathize the homeowners, but my sense of wonder is temporarily restored. Perhaps nature still has the means to prevent humans setting things in their own preferred order. Perhaps Asherah still lurks at the edge of the forest. Let’s hear it for the trees!

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

Athirst for Knowledge

A couple of years back, when I was still with Gorgias Press, a colleague pointed me to a website advertising Ugarit Cola. (A product of the Ugarit Trading Company, not far from Latakia, Syria. Their logo boldly features the image of the two boys suckling a goddess found among the royal ivories of Ugarit. Guess what they’re pulling down! Check out their website for more information on this environmentally friendly soft drink producer.) It seems that yet another gift bestowed upon the world has its origins near those of the alphabet: the sweet, sticky, carbonated, yet refreshing elixir of kings — cola! (You can’t drink the Syrian water, in any case.) Ugarit Cola reminds me of my days volunteering at Tel Dor under the hot Israeli sun, and passing the afternoon by trying to down a Maccabee Beer or two. Named after Judas Maccabeus (“the hammerer”), the name, although not the taste, has remained near the top of my favorite tipple title list, along with Skullsplitter, Bishop’s Finger, and He-Brew (Exile never tasted so good!). When my former boss returned from Syria last year he wasn’t allowed to transport the beverage on the plane, but he did bring me a label off the bottle.

The real real thing

The real real thing

In the parts of the world where poverty is a reality for far too high a percentage of the population, the exploitation of what should be one of the world’s most famous ancient cities is but a venial sin. These were, after all, the people who gave the Greeks a workable alphabet. And the color purple! Why not celebrate with a cola? At least they are trying to do something about it!

Sitting around dusky tables with colleagues at professional conferences back in a former life, I used to discuss the amazing disappearance of Ugarit from the cultural radar screen. Apart from a low-budget Indiana Jones knock-off movie entitled “Jack Hunter and the Lost Treasure of Ugarit,” the city has failed to excite the modern imagination. My colleagues and I decided that what was needed was a scandal. The Dead Sea Scrolls, boring by comparison, have done very well by finding a scandal to hook onto. So today’s assignment is to invent a scandal for Ugarit! Perhaps an Ugarit Cola bottle might be unearthed there, making the Ugaritans the inventors of cola. (For the real story of cola, however, see Tom Standage’s excellent A History of the World in Six Glasses, Walker & Company, 2005.) Or it may take a miracle and the Bible-reading public might begin to wonder about one of the best resources available for understanding the Hebrew Bible that has ever been unearthed. Better pour yourself a cold one; this could take some time.

Asherah Begins

Back in the Dark Ages when I was working on my dissertation on Asherah, web research had not been born, or even conceived. Its parents might not have even met yet at that stage! When Gorgias Press decided to print a second edition of my book on the goddess a couple of years back, I utilized the opportunity to peruse the web to find out where the old girl is these days.

It seems that Asherah worship is alive and well, according to the internet. I suspect that the ancients would be scratching their heads — and not just because of the omnipresent lice — at the ways she is portrayed these days. The matronly bearer of the gods of Ugarit is a lithe and whimsical girl, walking on the water just like so many other ancient divine figures. She has become a patroness of witches and is identified with any number of pet causes. She is chic, sexy, and alluring.

Unfortunately, what we know of the actual goddess is quite a bit less exciting than all that. Asherah is best attested at Ugarit, a city on the northern coast of Syria that has been extinct for 3000 years. Here she is matronly, passive, and interested in doing the laundry. Her role in the mythology is small, despite being the mother of the gods. She does become notorious in the Hebrew Bible and still has the power to inspire the “bad girl” dreams of many a rebellious youth. She is a fascinating figure — some pundits even think she might have been the main squeeze of someone very high on the spiritual food chain!

Perhaps this is one of those “disconnects” that pop-up like toadstools during a wet and rainy summer. Technology has outstripped reality. A goddess once feared and revered as the ancestor of the gods has become a pin-up girl in a digital era. If a mirror could be held up to time itself, I’m not sure that Asherah would recognize herself even if she long gazed into it.