Goddess Lore

From where I sit to write this blog in this particular season (when it’s too cold to sit in an unheated attic) I watch Venus rise in the eastern sky.  While it is still dark, I notice a bright yellow glow appearing over the top of a business located on the eastern side of the block.  It hovers there a moment before disappearing briefly behind various rooftop accoutrements of the building across the street, appearing again minutes later on the other side.  The planet rises rapidly before sunrise, and with the unnatural markers of human structures, it’s fairly simple to keep track of her progress with occasional glances out the window.  Venus is, as I’ve mentioned before, both the morning and evening “star” of antiquity.  We now know her identity as a planet rather than a goddess, but we’re becoming more attuned to planets’ roles as mothers, or at least we should be.

Some ancient peoples considered our own earth as a mother.  It is the womb in which we gestate as living beings.  Without the warmth she gives we could not survive, and even our forays into nearby space are possible only with the replication of her body heat through artificial means.  It may be metaphor, yes, but metaphors may be truer than bald statements of chemical compositions and mathematical formulas.  Scientist, politician, or theologian, none of us survive without our planetary nurture.  This thought is sobering in the light of government policies over the past two years, which have denied that human pillaging of nature is problematic.  The Republican Party, which collectively lacks respect for our earthly home, has followed thoughtlessly in the tracks of a man proud of his refusal to read.  And so I look to Venus.

Venus is beautiful.  We know, however, that her surface is hot enough to melt lead.  Soviet-era probes landed there and melted.  Planets, it seems, can unleash fury that mere humans can’t hope to withstand.  One of the forgotten graces of nature, it seems, is the warning sign.  Even as the rattlesnake warns before striking, our mother has been sending messages that we’ve been going too far.  Hurricanes are growing stronger and threaten to scour us off the very face of the land we disrespect and exploit.  Venus, it turns out, is too hot to handle.  Mars, whom the ancients feared for his propensity to irrational war, is too cold.  It’s difficult to imagine where politicians think we might go when our own mother turns us out.  I would invite them over to watch Venus perform her morning dance outside my window, but to see it you must first believe in goddesses.

Upstate Goddesses

Goddesses give you connections. Here in Ithaca, all kinds of specialty shops abound. University towns are like that. This one had lots of goddesses. Ever since writing my dissertation on Asherah I’ve been interested in female divinities. Part of the reason for this is that I fail to understand how many men don’t see the power of women in their lives and insist that men should rule. Goddesses remind us that women have as much to contribute as do men, and they should be honored and respected just the same. Deities, after all, are projections of humanity. In any case, I found myself in a shop with many goddesses. The proprietor noticed my interest and struck up a conversation. This was ironic because where I live no one asks about my academic background; I have to travel to find interested takers, I guess.

She told me of an upcoming conference that would like to hear my thoughts on the topic of Asherah. Since my book on the goddess has been plagued with high prices, it remains hidden down three or four pages on Amazon, while lower priced dissertations easily float above it. My conversation with this stranger brought out that I had planned to write on other goddesses. A friend had done his dissertation on Anat, so I began working on book on Shapshu, the Ugaritic goddess associated with the sun. Some cultures made the sun male, the people of Ugarit, however, knew the true nature of brightness. I was going to make an academic career of goddesses.

Every great once in a while an academic will ask me about Asherah. Chances are their book or article will fail to cite my work, but they do seem to know to make queries. In my hopes to get a job beyond Nashotah House I followed the advice of colleagues to write a biblical book before finishing another book on “pagan” deities. In the career vicissitudes that followed, goddesses had to fall by the wayside. Although there can be money in deities, as this shop in which I stood proved, they aren’t really a marketable commodity in the realm of making an academic living. Now that I’ve found my way back to writing books again, perhaps I’ll return to my goddesses. That brief encounter in an Ithaca store resurrected some of the fascination of learning about the inner lives of divine women. The need to remind the world, it appears, has only become greater since I first wrote about Asherah decades ago.

Mother Divine

GoddessReligions, by nature, exercise a distribution of power. That power is perceived to be on several axes at once, the “vertical” is intended to represent the power of deities over humanity, and the “horizontal” is that of humans over humans. Historically all we can know is the latter dimension, and during the time of written records, that has been a male-dominated plane. Several years ago a theory developed which would be wonderful, were it true. The goddess hypothesis suggested that before male dominated civilizations took over, culture was run in a more egalitarian way and the goddess was the main deity. Since this theory sets itself before recorded history, artifacts had to be interpreted as evidence, and certainly such bits and pieces of past times have emerged. The goddess interpretation has, however, has faced severe criticism, and not just from male scholars. There are still those who find it tenable, and one such pair is David Leeming and Jake Page. Goddess: Myths of the Female Divine was a book intended to demonstrate the commonality of goddesses, but it didn’t always rise to the challenge.

No doubt, the motivation behind the book was noble. It is important to show that goddesses have been just as important as gods in the history of mythology. The problem emerges when the evidence is forced into a mold it doesn’t fit. “Goddess” is not a singular figure, any more than “woman” implies that all women are the same. Each chapter retells stories of various goddesses, and again this is problematic. Specialists in any one tradition are sure to spot errors and oversimplifications that suggest descriptions of other goddesses may not be completely trusted. There’s an overcompensation here. Men, at least some men, wish to show their support of women by suggesting that women once held esteemed places in the cult as well as in the throne room. What we know of history, however, gainsays this concept since, in one form or another, might has always made right.

Goddess is one of those little reference books whose main value lies in bringing previously disparate characters together to show some commonality. There is utility in placing goddesses side by side to form a phalanx of resistance to a hierarchy that has established itself as normative, backed by a more powerful male deity (or deities) in the sky. Goddesses have been part of religious thinking from the beginning. The early abstractions of natural powers, reason would seem to dictate, would have involved both masculine and feminine powers. We don’t know how such societies were organized, but the divine female was clearly present. By consciously acknowledging what we know, and creatively applying such knowledge, there may be a hope for the future of religions that is far more certain than a reconstructed past.

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.

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.

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.

To a Fallen Goddess

One of my favorite places to visit in New Jersey is Grounds for Sculpture. Over the past several years that we’ve domiciled here, we’ve had the opportunity to take several friends and family members to see the whimsical, creative, and inspirational park over in Hamilton. When my daughter graduated from high school, she requested a visit to Grounds for Sculpture, and, since family were near at hand, we took the opportunity to see it again.

I’ve always been aware of the religious aspect of creativity. Perhaps it is because I like to flatter myself into thinking that I’m the creative sort, despite my years of academic training, or perhaps it is the kind of pipe dream for which the liberal-minded are easily accused. In either case, I have always found that the best art evokes something similar to a religious experience. There is an element of wonder, emotion, and awe here. Not every piece of art conjures it, just as a single god isn’t sufficient for the whole of humanity. As I wander the grounds, I grow convinced that this or that sculpture had a vision akin to what I’d call religion, that led to the creation of such a trenchant piece. I always leave feeling blessed.

Photo credit: Grounds for Sculpture, postcard

Photo credit: Grounds for Sculpture, postcard

On this most recent visit, a very conscientious relative found, and later sent, a postcard of a sculpture I’d never seen. (It is possible that the sculpture is not currently on display, as the Grounds are continually evolving.) The piece is entitled “Excerpts of a Lost Forest: Homage to Ashera,” by Tova Beck-Friedman. Several of my relatives have me to blame for their awareness of Asherah; she is, after all, a relatively obscure goddess in the Hebrew Bible. The sculpture, however, speaks to me of the continuing ability of even extinct gods to inspire artists. Just as Asherah occupied several years of my academic life, I suspect she also haunts the work of sculptors who’ve come to realize that not all gods must be male, and not all gods must be real to be important. Quite the contrary, the collective deities of our heritage may still be found where art thrives.