The cult of Asherah, the great Mother Goddess of Canaan, flourished in ancient Israel, despite the persistent efforts of the religious establishment to suppress and eradicate all traces of it.
With the progress of archaeological excavations in this century, actual material remains of the cult of the Mother Goddess have come to light throughout the Western Semitic world. The discovery of the 14th-century B.C.E.a cuneiform library of mythological texts at Ras Shamra have left no doubt about the persona of Asherah and the extent of her role in fertility cults.
The very polemic in the Hebrew Bible against the Asherah cult attests to the cult’s popularity in Iron Age Israel (1200–586 B.C.E.). King Josiah’s religious reform (seventh century B.C.E.) described in 2 Kings is prima facie evidence of an attempted suppression of the cult of Asherah.
Is there, however, any complementary archaeological evidence? I believe that there may be. Kathleen Kenyon found in Jerusalem a hoard of several dozen broken female and zoomorphic figurines of the seventh century B.C.E., including many examples of Mother Goddess or Asherah figurines, deposited in a cave a few hundred yards south of the Temple Mount. Few Biblical historians have taken note of this discovery, although it is well published. But in my view—and I think that I, of all people, can hardly be labeled a “Biblical archaeologist” of the “prove-the-Bible” sort—it is entirely reasonable to see, reflected in this cache of figurines, the Sitz-im-Leben of the reforms of Josiah, who, according to 2 Kings 23:12–13, dismantled the shrines of Ashtoreth and other deities on the Temple Mount, smashed their paraphernalia and then had the debris thrown out into the Kidron Valley below. John Holladay has recently shown that this cave in all probability had been a functioning shrine of the “nonconformist” type.1 I would simply add that just such shrines were the focus of the Deuteronomic reforms—both Hezekiah’s (eighth century B.C.E.) and Josiah’s.
Of course, objections may be offered. Indeed, it has been argued by some that our Iron Age figurines—of which we now possess more than a thousand tenth- to sixth-century B.C.E. examples, popularly dubbed “Astarte” figurines—cannot be connected with any of the known Canaanite female deities, much less identified with a specific reference in the Hebrew Bible. Thus many scholars regard these figurines in minimalist fashion, at most as talismans to aid women in conception or childbirth—certainly not “idols” actually portraying Asherah as Mother Goddess, apparently because that would be unthinkable. To whom? I doubt to those who made and used them.
Here I cannot resist mentioning a recent article of Phyllis Bird.2 She writes perceptively of the lost “popular cults” of women in ancient Israel, mentioning some of the archaeological data now available but lamenting somewhat wistfully that the female figurines cannot be connected directly with any references in the Hebrew Bible. But that is true of nearly the whole range of Israelite and Judean cult paraphernalia we now possess: miniature horned altars, terra cotta offering stands, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic figurines, clay rattles, amulets, “trick-vessels,” kernoi and other items. Are we to dismiss these as evidence for the cult, too, simply because the Hebrew Bible does not seem to mention them—as though the texts, and not the artifacts, constitute the primary data? And why should the Bible happen to be silent concerning these long-lost cultic remains—unless the omission is deliberate? Here we have, I think, further proof of attempts by later Biblical writers and redactors to suppress even chance allusions to the popular cults, although some of them were probably regarded by many at the time as acceptable versions of Yahwism. Here we must confront openly the biases and limitations of the literary tradition as it has come down to us.
As is well known, there are more than 40 references to “Asherah” in the Hebrew Bible. All but a handful are construed to refer merely to some enigmatic “symbol” of the goddess. Yet at least a few must signify the goddess Asherah herself—proof, I think, that in antiquity the term already had been allowed to become ambiguous, precisely because it was somehow embarrassing to orthodoxy, yet could not be expunged completely from the textual tradition. That this deliberate obfuscation continued seems transparently clear from the later Masoretic pointing of “Astoreth,” originally Canaanite ‘Athtar/‘Athtart, with the vowels of bôsheth, “shame.”
In ancient Israel, the Deuteronomists obviously opposed the cult of Asherah out of extremist Yahwistic zeal. In part this was because the religious establishment was exclusively in the hands of 065males. As feminist scholars in particular have pointed out, however, males seem to have been preoccupied with the public aspects of religion: impressive structures, ceremonial rituals, liturgy, the shaping of the literary tradition, the interaction of religion with politics—in short, the display of power. Females, on the other hand—in part because they were excluded from participation in much of public life—tended to be concerned rather with household rites, local shrines and saints, private rituals involving other women and especially with all those activities connected with bearing and raising children—in short, nurturing.
It may be said that the official cult “externalized” religion, while the more popular cults “internalized” it. And only the external, or literary, traditions have survived—until modern archaeology redressed the balance.
Whether these differences between the formal, official, externalized religion and the informal, unoffical, internalized “popular” religion are biological or cultural, bound to specific time and space or universal, need not concern us here; nor need we make a value judgment on which, the male or the female role, was (and is) more important socially. The point is that a male-dominated religious establishment instinctively and almost inevitably tended to marginalize what were considered “feminine” manifestations of religion, even though these rites probably characterized much of folk religion, among both women and men. The disenfranchisement was often neither subtle nor benign; from time to time, the establishment resorted to persecution and even systematic extermination. Orthodoxy, after all, with its rigid theological systems and its moralism, is not noted for tolerance.
But there is more to all this than simply orthodoxy’s instinct for self-preservation, particularly in the suppression of the cult of the Mother Goddess. I am convinced that the essential phenomenon we confront is a matter not so much of history as of psychology: the deep-seated ambivalence of men regarding women—a mixture of awe and jealousy, lust and chivalry, fascination and fear. We don’t need Freud to recognize that men desire women because they can provide sexual adventure and pleasure, yet fear their unbridled sensuality. Men reluctantly admit their need of the opposite sex to reproduce themselves; yet they envy women’s mysterious ability to create and sustain life. Men regard themselves as stronger, and therefore inherently more important; yet they know instinctively that in many ways they themselves may be the more fragile sex. Above all, men are confounded by female physiology and psychology, connected as the feminine is with the primordial rhythms and forces of nature. The unique power of women, and the corresponding fear of men, are almost atavistic. What one fears, one denies and ultimately seeks to eradicate.
The cult of the Mother Goddess, in my view, was suppressed by the religious establishment—precisely because it was thought of primarily as a “women’s cult,” celebrating as it did menstruation, conception, pregnancy, childbirth, lactation. Such a cult was simply too visceral for men; so they sought, if not to eradicate it, then at least to “spiritualize” and sanitize it.
(Adapted from a paper by William G. Dever.)