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In Search of Asherah: The Lost Hebrew Goddess

by July 12, 2014

By Mary E. Naples, M.A.
Did God have a wife? Was a female deity revered alongside the monotheistic Hebrew god, the one most of us in the West know from the Old Testament? It may sound like an outlandish notion, but perhaps there was a lost Hebrew Goddess that, at times, reigned supreme in the ancient Mediterranean cultures.
Goddess Asherah
Asherah, called Athirat in Ugarit, figures prominently as the wife of El, the supreme god, in cuneiform alphabetic texts, dating back to the fourteenth century BCE. Before Abraham (ca 2200-1700 BCE) migrated to what would become known as Israel, Asherah was revered as Athirat, Earth Mother and Fertility Goddess. Upon entering the region, the ancient Israelites adopted her and gave her the Hebrew equivalent name of Asherah. The Ugarit excavation, a second millennium “Canaanite” port city (in today’s northern Syria), put Asherah the goddess, on the map again after having lost her place for thousands of years.
Of course the presence of a Hebrew goddess immediately begs the question: how monotheistic were the pre-exilic Israelites and Judeans? Certainly, the very notion of polytheism is inherent in the quest for Asherah.

Additionally, the many artifacts representing Asherah, and her cult from the region, belies the biblical prohibition against the creation of idols.

At this juncture it is important to make a distinction between the book religion of the ruling classes in the metropolis and folk or popular religion as it was practiced in rural communities, for which most Israelites were a part.
Moreover, it should be remembered that in rural communities of the ancient world, literacy was close to non-existent. Indeed, even rudimentary writing did not become widespread until the eighth century BCE, at which time some were able to write their names, numbers and a few commodities for trade… This was certainly a long way from being able to read or write the literary achievement that we find in the Hebrew Bible!
Thus, the book religion practiced in the cities would likely have had little meaning in the lives of those inhabiting the outlying areas. Instead, the rural communities had their own religious beliefs and practiced their faith locally, even at home using statuary and other artifacts. It was very likely that some form of folk religion had been passed down through the generations, making homespun beliefs an integral part of their everyday lives. Indeed, one scholar defined folk religion as everything that those who wrote the Bible condemned.
By way of contrast, an affinity between the intellectual community and the aristocracy produced a masterful text, which was written entirely from the perspective of the upper or ruling classes.
So if the Bible was authored by and large for the ruling class, then how do we know the way common people worshipped? As mentioned above, there are artifacts from the region to help piece the puzzle into place, but it is also ironically in the Bible itself that we can also find many of the rituals practiced by the rural communities. Indeed, Asherah is mentioned in the early Hebrew Bible some forty separate times, although most often as an object of derision.

For the most part, the biblical writers were unhappy that Asherah, or the “Queen of Heaven”, shared the same platform with their male deity, Yahweh, and repeatedly tried to dissuade their union.

Forasmuch as the ruling elite tried to inhibit Asherah and Yahweh’s “marriage,” their union appears solidified in an ancient blessing seen with some regularity at a number of archeological sites in the region. This is particularly apparent in Kuntillet Ajrud, a 9th-8th century BCE Israelite caravanserai with an attached shrine, which was excavated in 1975-76 near the river of Egypt in northeast Sinai (by Judah’s south border).
The text and drawing of the two deities found there sparked a lively debate within the academic community. The inscription reads: “I have blessed you by Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.” The same text was found a number of times in other locations, such as Samaria, Jerusalem and Teman, where there were known sanctuaries to Yahweh.
More evidence is found in Khirbet el-Qom, an ancient burial site dated to ca 750 BCE, excavated in 1968. The following inscription was found on the tombstone of a wealthy man: “Blessed by Uriah by Yahweh, Yea from his enemies by his Asherah he has saved him, By Onah, By his Asherah and by his Asherah.”

Indeed, the phrase “Yahweh….and his Asherah” must have been a fairly common expression in the region, as sixty miles separates Khirbet el-Qom from Kuntillet Ajrud, not an easy jaunt considering the limited transportation options available at the time.

Moreover, the notable phrase “Yahweh and his Asherah” is in an obscure blessing in the Hebrew Bible itself. The cryptic blessing is in Deuteronomy 33.2-3, in an earlier rendition when Asherah’s influence had not yet been fully subordinated.
The full hymn reads:
“YHWH came from Sinai and shone forth from his own Seir, He showed himself from Mount Paran. Yes he came among the myriads of Qudhsu, at his right hand his own Asherah, Indeed, he loves the clans and all his holy ones on his left.”
However, as the book religion solidified, Asherah became increasingly marginalized in the scriptures… to the point of being reduced to her cult object—the stylized tree or wooden pole which became known as asherah or asherim. Trees were revered as symbols of life and nourishment in arid regions, and so became associated with Asherah and her cult.
Interestingly, many scholars believe that Asherah’s tree functioned in the Garden of Eden parable. Because Asherah’s name was increasingly tied to Yahweh’s in the folk religion of the area, the patriarchal elite may have found it necessary to propagandize against goddess worship by integrating the story of the fall of mankind to the tree which was clearly associated with Asherah.

Asherah’s influence may not have been immense, or even positive, in the official or book religion, but her presence clearly loomed large in the rural communities.

Although we have no text or sacred scriptures from the folk religion of this considerable group of people, we do have much in the way of figurines from the region. To be sure, aniconism was, and still is, inherent in the Hebrew Bible, but ample archaeological evidence suggests that those who lived outside the metropolis—and indeed sometimes right inside it—idolized statuary and cult objects as part of their popular or folk religion.
Anthropomorphically, Asherah is represented many times in various forms scattered throughout the region; the most prolific of these is the pillar figurines. These figurines first started appearing in the late tenth to ninth century BCE and had become common from the eight through seventh centuries. The term “Images of Asherah” is used often in the Hebrew Bible, and it is believed that the pillar figurines are what the writers of the bible had in mind.
But what were these figurines meant to convey? Symbolizing the nurturing aspect of the mother goddess, the breasts are exaggerated with the hands more or less supporting them. The pillar figurines were predominantly found in private houses, suggesting their domesticity, and many scholars contend that the figurines represented fertility to women in a region beset by hardship and drought. Sadly lactation and fertility concerns are indicative of some type of famine for which the region was prone. Considering survival was the ultimate burden for the average Israelite/Judean, apprehension about fertility in general was likely widespread.
Was their concern for fecundity what attracted the rural Israelites and Judeans to the goddess Asherah? Reasonably, in a land prone to famine and drought, Asherah may have been linked to the almighty Yahweh because of her association with abundance.
Fascinating as it is, examining a topic that dates back three millennia has its distinct disadvantages. While there are voluminous artifacts and articles associated with Asherah from the region, there are still a number of pieces missing in the puzzle. This, of course, doesn’t prohibit us from attempting to bring the discussion into greater focus, with the distinct hope for further scrutiny and more scholarship to come.

The War For The Universe and the Rise of the Olympians

by June 4, 2013

In order to properly understand the setting of this myth and to become familiar the birth of the Olympians , be sure you read In Be Beginning, which can be found here. 

Cronus as the the King of Heaven

After Cronus overthrew his father and former ruler of heaven Uranus, he married his sister Rhea. Together they ruled over the universe and for a time, things were peaceful. However, the prophecy of Uranus deeply troubled Cronus. It had been predicted that a son of his would one day depose him and take his place as king.
The entire narrative was detailed by the poet Hesiod in his ancient poem, The Theogony. The poet describes how Rhea fears for her children, yet is in love with Cronus. Hesiod writes:

“But Rhea was subject in love to Cronos and bare splendid children”- Hesiod, from The Theogony

Rhea bore several children,  HestiaDemeterHera, Hades, and Poseidon, but Cronus feared that one of these children would be his downfall. And so, with each birth, Cronus captured the young infant and devoured the child to ensure that his reign as king was never opposed.
Rhea was terrified and deeply saddened to see her children mercilessly devoured by her husband. When it came time for Rhea to give birth to her youngest child, Zeus, she hid away to escape the wrath of her spouse. With the help of Gaia, the earth, she delivered her youngest child in a cave on the island of Crete, far from the eyes of her murderous partner.
eating children

Cronus devours his children
painting by. Peter Paul Rubens

The young Olympian Zeus was left on the island. His mother wrapped a stone in a blanket and presented it to Cronus. The titan devoured the substitue, believing it to be his son. Assured that the baby Zeus was no longer a threat, Cronus continued his rule, though unbeknownst to him, his youngest son was being raised in secret under the Aegean mountains. Some versions of the myth describe that the infant Zeus was raised on the island of Crete surrounded by armored dancers. These armored guardians would clap and sing whenever the baby would cry so that Cronus would not hear the screams and come to slay the infant god.
Zeus grew quickly, and when he came of age, he became determined to confront his father and take his place as ruler of the heavens. His grandmother, Gaia, gave him an emetic that would force Cronus to regurgitate the children he had devoured. Cronus bent over in agony and threw up all the children he had devoured. Poseidon, Hades, Hera, Hestia, and Demeter were brought to life again, now fully grown.  In some versions it is told that Zeus cuts open his fathers stomach with a dagger and his siblings come pouring out.
fall of the titans

The Olympians casts the Titans into Tartarus
painting by. cornelis van haarlem

It was at this point that a violent war waged for ten long years. On one side was the Olympians who were aided by the Cyclops, the Titans Prometheus and Epimetheus as well as the hundred armed  Hecatonchires. They waged war against the original Titans and the Giants that had been born from the blood of Uranus.
The violent war was fought for ten years with no clear victor. Zeus and his allies took up a stronghold on mount Olympus where Zeus cast his thunderbolts upon his enemies. After much battling, the Olympians were victorious over the Titans. Zeus cast his father and the other Titans into the depths of Tartarus, the prison of the underworld.  There they would remain for eternity, while their children ruled the universe. The prophecy of Uranus had been fulfilled, the age of the Olympians had arrived.

Hesiod’s Theogony: The Creation Of The World

by June 3, 2013

The telling of the creation of existence and the rise of the gods is a tale that has survived through the writings of Hesiod, in his epic poem The Theogony. For the ancient Greeks this was their answer to the most fundamental question of existence. And as with all Greek mythology, the story of the creation of the world is shrouded in fantasy and wonder.

Gaia, by. Anselm Feuerbach (1875)

 It was said that in the beginning of time there was chaos. Chaos existed without form or purpose. And from chaos there came Gaia who was the earth and who created all the land. She was the primordial being of the earth and she would give birth to the heavens, who was known as Uranus. Gaia and Uranus who were the earth and the sky became husband and wife and together had many children.
The earth, Gaia, gave birth first to the mighty Titans. These creatures were immortal and possessed great strength and power. As Hesiod describes it:

“she lay with Heaven and bare deep-swirling Oceanus, Coeus and Crius and Hyperion and Iapetus, Theia and Rhea, Themis and Mnemosyne and gold-crowned Phoebe and lovely Tethys. After them was born Cronos the wily, youngest and most terrible of her children, and he hated his lusty sire.” – Hesiod, from The Theogony

Gaia then gave birth to the Cyclops’s, who were monstrous creatures with one bulging eye in the center of their foreheads. Then Gaia birthed the hideous  Hecatonchires, who were creatures with broad shoulders, fifty heads, and one hundred arms. Uranus saw the Cyclops’s and the Hecatonchires’s as vile creatures. With the birth of each, he would imprison them away beneath the earth. The imprisonment of her children saddened Gaia and she devised a plan to seek vengeance.

The Cyclops

Gaia gathered her children, the mighty Titans, and told them of her plan to overthrow her husband, Uranus. In Hesiod’s own words, Gaia declares:

`My children, gotten of a sinful father, if you will obey me, we should punish the vile outrage of your father; for he first thought of doing shameful things.’

However the Titans were very afraid of their father; at first, none would volunteer to overthrow the ruler of the heavens. Then it was Cronus, the youngest of the Titans who hated his father Uranus, who stepped forward to do the deed. Gaia gave to the youngest titan a sickle and told him to lie in wait for his unsuspecting father.

While Cronus hid away from his father,  Uranus was crossing the earth bringing the night. Uranus then appeared before Gaia, planning to lay with her, and it was then that Cronus struck. The young titan approached from behind and used the sickle to cut off the genitals of his father. He then flung them across the earth before they landed in the sea.

cronus and Urans

Cronus attacks Uranus

The blood from the detached member of Uranus mixed with the foam of the ocean. From the mist and the foam rose a beautiful figure. She was a goddess unmatched in beauty and grace, she stepped upon the land and the flowers and vegetation grew around her. She was Aphrodite, one of the original Olympians.

It was said that as Uranus lay bleeding upon the earth as Cronus stood over him. The blood spilled from the now deposed ruler of heaven and mixed with the earth, Gaia. Instantly several creatures were born from Gaia as her husband lay dying.

From this blood sprang the Giants, the Erinyes (the avenging Furies), the Meliae (the ash-tree nymphs). These creatures sprang from the blood of Uranus and then began to wander the earth.

Cronus was now the king of heaven. He had deposed his father and taken his place as ruler of the universe. However with the dying breath of Uranus, he prophesied a terrible fate for his traitorous son. Uranus predicted that one of Cronus’s children would overthrow him one day, just as he had overthrown his father. The prophecy would hang heavy on the head of the Titan.

Prometheus The Creation of Man and a History of Enlightenment

by May 20, 2013

The story of Prometheus, Epimetheus and Pandora is a popular myth of ancient Greece. It has been told and retold through the ages with several variations. It is a tale of Prometheus, the son of a titan who was punished for playing his part as the benefactor for mankind. It is a myth that recounts the creation of men and women as well as the birth of enlightenment and the unleashing of misery.
The story goes that during the creation of the universe, the earth formed out of chaos. The air collected and became transparent while the land and seas became solidified and structured. As the earth became suitable for life, the gods decided that it would be wise to bestow upon the planet creatures of life that might thrive and live through the graces of the gods.
Prometheus creates man

Creation of Man

The task of creating man and beasts was awarded to the titan brothers Prometheus and Epimetheus, whom had not been imprisoned with the other titans by Zeus. Prometheus was said to be wise and possessed the gift of foresight and often considered what would be needed several years in the future. Epimetheus was said to be rash and impulsive, unable to plan for the future and instead only cared for what had happened in the past.
The brothers set about creating life upon the earth. Epimetheus swiftly created several creatures that would live in the forests, swim in the seas and rivers, and fly through the air with the gift of flight. Epimetheus was so impulsive that he bestowed upon these creatures several gifts. Swiftness for some beasts, flight for others and the gift of strength and frightening claws for the most terrifying of creatures.
While his brother foolishly crafted creatures with little thought, Prometheus toiled diligently over the creation of man from a lump of clay. Prometheus shaped man after the image of the gods and allowed him to walk upright so that he might look towards the heavens. In some versions it is said that Epimetheus created man and Prometheus merely provided guidance. Regardless of whom the architect was, man was designed to be nobler than any other beast and was constructed so as to resemble the gods.
However upon completion of man, Prometheus discovered that his rash brother had bestowed all the gifts from the gods upon animals and had left none for humans. While the beasts possessed strength, swiftness, hardened shells and warm coats, man was left naked and weak with no means to live prosperously.
Prometheus was overcome with sadness for his creations, whom were living painfully and harshly on earth. Prometheus devised a plan to bestow upon man a great gift that will make them formidable against the beasts of the earth.
Prometheus steals fire

Prometheus steals fire

Prometheus defied the will of Zeus and traveled to Mount Olympus and stole fire from the gods, a gift that before was unknown to mankind. Some versions of the story describe how Prometheus was aided by the Goddess Hera. Other stories recall that Zeus stole fire from men and Prometheus took the fire back in defiance of Zeus.
At any rate, fire was bestowed upon mankind by Prometheus and with it came the beginning of civilization. Prometheus taught man how to craft tools from iron ore. He showed them how to plant crops and live through agriculture. Man learnt to craft weapons to defend themselves from wild animals. With fire they learnt to survive cold winters and defy the seasons. With fire man began to thrive and became superior to the animals of the wild.
Zeus was outraged by this transgression. He set in motion plans to punish Prometheus and mankind for their obstruction of the gods’ will. The punishment he devised was twofold.
First, Zeus commanded Hephaestus, the blacksmith for the God’s, to craft a creature so beautiful that it would plague the hearts of men. From a lump of clay, Hephaestus created the form of a woman. This woman was bestowed with gifts like a pleasing voice and unmatched beauty by the gods. They named her Pandora and she was commanded to marry Prometheus’s brother Epimetheus.
Pandora's box

Pandora’s box

Pandora was the first woman, bestowed with beauty and grace. She is described by the Greek poet Hesiod in less than flattering terms when he wrote…

“From her is the race of women and female kind:
of her is the deadly race and tribe of women who
live amongst mortal men to their great trouble,
no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.”

Epimetheus married Pandora despite Prometheus’ warnings to be wary of accepting gifts from Zeus. The warning was well placed. Before Pandora departed Olympus she was given a box or, in some versions of a story, a jar. She was warned by the gods to never open the box under any circumstances.
At first Pandora abided by this rule, however her curiosity was soon overwhelmed. She opened the box out of blind curiosity, so that she might see what it held.
Immediately, innumerable evil creatures flew out of the box and began to disperse themselves across the earth. Creatures like disease, famine and plague sprang from the box and began to wander the earth and haunt mankind. Pandora, in her fear, quickly shut the box. She closed the vessel on one last creature before it could escape, Hope.
As a result, it is said that while evil haunts this world, mankind will still have hope.


Prometheus was punished as well. He was sentenced by Zeus to spend eternity chained to a mountain where each day an eagle will devour his liver from his body. Prometheus was an immortal, so each night his liver regrew and his wound healed, only so that it may be ripped from his body the next day.
Prometheus spent thousands of years suffering this punishment, having his flesh devoured by a ferocious bird. It is said that he was chained to the mountain for so long that he eventually became one with the rock; all the while he looked on in agony as his creations, mankind, suffer the plagues that were released from Pandora’s box.
Some versions of the myth of Prometheus describe how he was eventually rescued by the hero Heracles. In some versions it is a vulture, not an eagle that feasts on the liver of Prometheus. Regardless of the details, the theme is a powerful one. It is a theme that has been revisited and examined by artists and writers for centuries to come.
Prometheus has often been viewed as a metaphor for human enlightenment and the disasters that can come from overreaching our limits. There are allusions to his legend in several later works of literature. Mary Shelly’s classic 1818 novel Frankenstein is subtitled “The Modern Prometheus”. It has been generally understood that this was done in an attempt to accentuate the theme of scientific progress and the dangers that may come with it.
In the 1937 novel Anthem by Ayn Rand, there are references to Prometheus and the bringing of fire. The novel depicts a dystopian future society which is characterized by being devoid of individualism, emotions or technological advances. The main character defies the laws of the elders and explores the arena of science in secret. He creates a rudimentary light bulb with the intent of sharing it with the world. This character is punished for his defiance of the tyrannical rulers and for his creation of light. After escaping the society, the character renames himself Prometheus, a very obvious tribute to the original benefactor of man.
As can be seen in Anthem, the story of Prometheus can also be viewed as a symbol of defiance of tyranny and authority. Comparisons have been drawn between Prometheus’ defiance of Zeus and the French revolution. His mission of helping humanity despite his own sufferings is often compared to the story of the crucifixion of Christ.
The story of Prometheus remains one of the most popular of the Greek myths. The original creator of man, he sought to help us live plentifully even while he heroically suffered the consequences. He is a reminder that human progress often comes from the selfless actions of others; that, with every advancement, there are often those who accept outrageous sufferings on our behalf.
“Prometheus the Creation of Man” was written by Van Bryan