Asherah as "Lady of the Sea"
Thank you everyone. The story I am about to tell is unique because there is much controversy over her story today, just as there was during the time of Abraham. There even may be some of you in the audience who may strongly disagree with the ideas I am about to present, but I hope you will be able to keep your minds open to the variations on popular religious themes. To let you know a little bit about myself briefly, I received my PhD in Archaeological Judeo-Christian studies from Harvard in 1981 and for the past 22 years I have been working with the theme of Asherah as Mother Goddess in the Middle East.
To begin my story, Asherah was the great Caananite Mother Goddess since about the 13th century BCE. Abraham of the Bible grew up during these times and as his culture group was nomads, they adopted many beliefs from surrounding cultures as their own. Asherah was one such deity who was an important figure in their religious system. Since he was young, Abraham most likely grew up in a religious environment that believed in the Father God El, and the Mother Goddess Asherah. El was the creator of heaven and earth, the divine judge and was known to be wise and compassionate.
The Hebrew name used for God in Genesis is Elohim, a derivative of El. Many people find the passage in Genesis that says, “Let us make humankind in our own image” a little confusing. If there is only one true God, then who was he talking to? Some have said he was talking to the Holy Spirit, another aspect of Elohim, which is also seen as a male type or at least, as a non-gender. Others have asserted that he was talking to Eloah, the female aspect of Elohim. The world Elohim is actually plural, so that implies there is more than one "Being" involved in Elohim. Since there were only two kinds of people created, male and female, one could probably assume that man was made in the El’s image while woman was made in Eloah’s image. Thus, we were all, male and female, made in Elohim’s image, encompassing both the male and female aspect of God.
Since there are no written or oral narratives of Asherah that we know of, I will tell you a story that may have been told by early Hebrew women to explain creation. This should give you a good idea of Asherah or Eloah's role in creation and how she was important in the people's everyday lives. Following the story I will give you some brief information from which I draw the story....
In the beginning, the earth was formless and void. El and Eloah decided to make the world a livable place for the creatures they wanted to create. El began creating the heavens- all the stars in the sky, the planets, the sun and the moon.
Eloah began creating the earth- she took the form of the sea and washed over all the land, creating rivers and streams. She caused mountains and hills to rise up from the ocean, creating dry land. Trees sprung up along the rivers she had created and on the mountains and hills. El joined her when he was finished with the heavens and he began to create all the animals and insects that crawl upon the earth. They stepped back and El said to Eloah, “This is good. I am happy with this place we created.” Eloah said to El, “Someone needs to watch over the earth and its animals; we should have our children do that. They will be like us so they will know how to take care of this place.” So El and Eloah joined and soon, Eloah gave birth to twins, one male and one female. These children of God and Goddess were called Adam and Eve, the parents of all humanity. El said “This is definitely good. Now we have children to carry out the duty of taking care of this world we created. But to be sure, I will watch over the heavens and you watch over the earth.”
Asherah as the Tree of Life
And so this is how the earth was created and why God the Father watches over us from the heavens and God the Mother watches over the earth in which we dwell. El feeds our plants with water from the rains, he warms us with his sun, and he protects us from our enemies with his eyes that never sleep. Our Mother is our Tree of Life from which all things are born and grow. She watches over the earth to make sure that the rivers flow and that trees grow tall and strong. She gives us shelter in her caves and helps our plants grow to feed us. Our Mother helps our wives in childbirth and comforts us when we are sad.
And now for a brief history of Asherah/Eloah in the early development of Judaism. After Abraham was called by Yahweh and recruited some followers, he had a difficult time cutting out Asherah and the other regional gods. However, as time progressed in the Old Testament, the temptation to worship other gods lessened, while the blatant worship of Asherah along side of Yahweh continued. One reason for this has been suggested by Raphael Patai in his book, The Hebrew Goddess. He compared religions around the world and saw that there was an almost innate need for people to recognize a divine mother as well as a divine father. As you probably know, out of the hundreds of thousands of religions that currently exist or have ever existed, only Islam and Judaism can be seen as wholly monotheistic, and, along with Christianity, lacking a female deity. Patai suggested that it was difficult for the religious leaders in early Judaism to suppress Asherah because of this seemingly universal desire to recognize a nurturing, compassionate, Mother Goddess.
An Asherah Tree by David Hostetler
Asherah’s name means “Lady of the Sea,” “Tree of Life,” “She Who Gives Birth” and for the Caananites, “Mother of the Gods.” In reference to the Tree of Life, an object called an Asherah was a sacred pole carved out of the terebinth tree and placed next to the altars of Yahweh, thus worshipping both the mother and the father at once. Her own specific places of worship were on hilltops, (called "High Places" in the Bible), and in forests and groves. Through her association with trees, she was seen as the part of Elohim who brought fertility, new growth, successful crops and watched over nature. Along with life in nature, she was also seen as the Bread of Life for the Hebrew people. Hebrew women would make special loaves of Asherah bread, which would be blessed, then ritually eaten. Some scholars say this is the precursor of the communion wafer.
Hostetler's Asherah Tree
Hebrew women, in general, had a closer attachment to Asherah, seeing as how they did not play much of a role in their religion. Of course, there were some great women such as Esther, Deborah, and Rebecca, but women playing a part in early Judaism was definitely the exception instead of the rule. In archaeological sites that date back to Biblical times, small statues of Asherah are found in what would most likely be bedrooms and kitchen areas. It is widely accepted that although the religious leaders frowned on the worship of Asherah, the common people, mainly women, would still have small figures of Asherah in their households.
Left: An Asherah Statuette like many found in Archeological sites referred to in this text
This should not come as a surprise, since women of that time had a considerably lower status than they do today, and since there were no priestesses for them to go to for support, they had to find their own faith. What could Yahweh know about childbirth without epidurals? How could they pray to him for relief of menstrual pain in a time before Ibuprofen? What did Yahweh know about being beaten by a husband or raped by a neighbor? There were no Battered Women’s Shelters then, or anti depressants for post-partum depression. It would not make sense for them to pray to a male god for female issues. I’m sure that if there was ever a society that had only one Deity and it was a Goddess, the men might feel strange praying to a Goddess to cure him of impotence or premature ejaculation..... I see you all chuckling..... But now you see the reality of the Hebrew women’s world.
I think the Hebrew men slightly understood this dilemma that their wives and sisters faced and they were more lenient on Asherah worship than they were of Ba’al worship or other gods. An interesting, but little known fact about the Temple of Jerusalem is that an Asherah statue was housed there for two-thirds of the time that the Temple stood during Biblical times. Apparently, one of the wives of Solomon brought it with her when she married him, and he allowed it to remain in the Temple for quite some time. And he was viewed as the wisest man who ever lived! Also, when Elijah wanted to prove the power of God or Yahweh, he called out the 450 priests of Ba’al and the 400 priestesses of Asherah. Although he was there to disprove both Ba’al and Asherah, he focused on the priests of Ba’al and derided them during their prayers, eventually killing them all, but he does nothing to the priestesses of Asherah.
My time is too short to tell you of all the other mysteries of Asherah and of the hidden faith of early Hebrew women, so I will conclude by saying that religions of the world are not so different as some may think. It seems that people are made with a psychological longing to believe in a divine mother and father, and no matter how different religions try to suppress that desire, it will never be completely silenced. Asherah is just one such example.
[Emily Maloy]: Wow. Thank you Bathia, for that great story. You know, I grew up in a Christian environment, and no matter how much my parents and religious leaders tried to tell me that God understood all of my problems, I never really felt like he could. I could never figure out how God could have a son without the son having a mother. There were just too many holes that a male God could not fill, so I am glad to hear that there were other women like me back in Biblical times! Having a Mother Goddess and a Father God takes care of many of the unanswered questions that have been nagging me since childhood.... But now, we must move on to Brenna Long who will tell us about the Celtic Mother Goddess Brigid who was also closely related to earth and nature as Asherah was.
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