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Asherah – the Goddess who remains in clear view

by David Rankine

“Asherah has made a covenant with us.”
[Inscription from Arslan Tash, C7th BCE]

The process of structuring Jewish monotheism took many centuries, and part of this was the discarding of Yahweh’s divine wife, Asherah.This gained momentum around the 7th-6th century BCE when the Book of Deuteronomy was written, hence Deuteronomy 16:21 says “Do not plant for yourself an Asherah, or any other tree near the altar that you will make yourselves for God [Yahweh] your Lord.

Despite the eventual removal of the worship of Asherah from the Hebrew tribes, she was not viewed or treated as harshly as other gods. This is seen in the Book of 1 Kings 18, where the 450 prophets of Baal were slain by the prophet Elijah and his followers1, but the 400 prophets of Asherah were spared. The fact that forty references to Asherah remained in the Hebrew Bible also indicates a reluctance to completely remove the goddess who had been the consort of Yahweh. As Olyan (1988:33) notes:“(The goddess Asherah) was an acceptable and legitimate part of Yahweh’s cult in non-deuteronomistic circles. The association of the Asherah and the cult of Yahweh suggests in turn that Asherah was the consort of Yahweh in circles both in the north and south.”2

Asherah’s name occurs forty times in the Bible, where it is commonly used to refer to her symbol of a carved wooden pole or tree, “They set up for themselves pillars and Asherim (sacred poles) on every high hill and under every green tree; there they made offerings on all the high places.”3 This carved wooden pole or tree was also known as a tree of life, and may be the antecedent of the Wisdom Goddess reference in Proverbs 3:18, “She is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her”.

Asherah was known as the lady of the serpent (dât batni)4, recalling images of the Egyptian goddess Qudshu to whom Asherah was equated, and likewise the images of the Minoan Serpent Goddess whose worship dates to around the sixteenth century BCE. Lions were also frequently associated with Asherah, she was often depicted standing on the back of a lion, or seated on a lion throne. This was common for a number of Middle Eastern goddesses of the time, including Inanna, Astarte and Qudshu. Indeed there is “a mass of inscriptional evidence from the Levantine Iron Age showing that a frequent epithet of the goddess Asherah was ‘the Lion Lady’”.5

It is clear that Asherah was an extremely important goddess to the cultures of both the Canaanites and the Hebrews. Moreover, Yahweh, the god of the Hebrews, came from the god of the same name worshipped previously by the Canaanites. To make the move to monotheism, the Hebrews outlawed practices and beliefs associated with Asherah and other deities. This process of transformation to the recognisable form defined by the Hebrew Bible and contemporary literary works took several centuries to achieve. It required several more centuries to spread the new standard of ‘worship from the book’ to the various Jewish communities spread throughout the ancient world.

References

1. 1 Kings 18:40 C7th BCE
2. Olyan: Asherah and the cult of Yahweh in Israel [1988]
3. 2 Kings 17: 10-11
4. Cross: Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic [1997]
5. Dever: Did God have a wife? [2005]

Drawn from the chapter “From Canaan”, in The Cosmic Shekinah, by Sorita d’Este & David Rankine [Avalonia, 2011]. To be reviewed in GA21.