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CANAANITE GODDESSES

Recently, scholars have shown that, far from goddess power and worship in the Middle and Near East becoming extinct some thousands of years ago, in fact it lasted well beyond the beginning of Christianity. The connection of the Virgin Mary herself with the long line of goddesses of her area is well documented and many feel that the Black Virgins adored in many parts of Europe are still memories of these very same Canaanite deities.

In the last ten years, much archaeological evidence, including excavations in the Sinai area, has shed new light on the Goddesses of Canaan. The area covered comprises the current Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, Palestine with parts of Turkey and Syria. The Canaanites seem to be an indigenous people of the area, added to by the Phoenicians and Philistines from the Mediterranean and Aegean areas, who may very well have been connected with the Cretans.

Constant wars between neighbouring empires between the years of about 2500 BCE - 400 CE made the people into victims of ferocious oppressions; but paramount to them was their religion which, despite all sorts of opposition both military and political, continued until finally officially overcome by the strength and power of the Christian church. The period of the Old Testament stories (about 1800 BCE - 400 BCE) tells how the incoming Hebrew religious leaders attempted to impose the worship of a monotheistic male deity, with very little success until the might of the Roman empire decimated and dispersed the people of the land, leaving only a few religious leaders to re-impose their doctrines. How these were taken up by Christianity and made into a weapon of patriarchal empire is well known.

The Sinai excavations of the 1970s brought to light a shrine with a series of pictures and inscriptions on the walls and on pithoi (the huge jars used for storing food and liquid). A female figure seated on a throne is clearly shown, attended by a male figure and by half-human, half-animal males. There is also a drawing of a cow and sucking calf and a procession bearing gifts to her. Inscriptions read both "May you be blessed by Jahweh and Asherah" and "May Asherah bless you." Jahweh is of course the Father God of the Old Testament {also known as Jehovah); Asherah is a Mother Goddess, one of the most powerful and well known in the land of Canaan. The archaeologist responsible for the findings headed his account with the question "Did Jahweh have a consort?" - startling enough for the traditionally minded. In fact, there is no need to believe that a consort is involved at all. There is the goddess seated, others bring her gifts and wait on her. The cow and calf is universally a sign of the mother goddess.

In texts from Ugarit (now in Turkey) a whole series of stories is told about the goddesses and gods and their relationships with each other and nature. Asherah is named as "the Lady Asherah of the Sea"; we read also of "the field of Asherah and the woman"; Asherah is the mother of seventy gods, she lives in her palace alongside Pidrai, Lady of Light; the Shelter of Tallai, Lady of Rain; and the dwelling of Arsai, Lady of Yebedr (untranslated). The stories concern the struggle of the gods, particularly Father El and son Baal and how Baal, in order to win needs the help of his mother Asherah and sister, Lady Anat. Baal needs Anat to intercede for him with Asherah, when he wants a palace built for himself (like the ones the goddesses have); he can't go to Asherah direct, so asks his sister to do so for him - obviously indicating that the female deities make the decisions and the males have little power to get anything done. Anat takes up his cause, and decides to force El to grant the request. She declares:

 
"The bull, my father will yield,
He will yield for my sake, and his own;
For I shall trample him like a sheep into the ground,
Make his grey hair flow with blood, the grey of his beard with gore,
Unless he grants Baal his wish..."

In the fighting that follows, Baal is first killed, swallowed by the figure of Death, called Mot. Anat avenges Baal: "She seizes Mot, with a sword she cleaves him, with a fan she winnows him, with a fire she burns him, in the millstones she grinds him, in the fields she plants him." Eventually Baal is resurrected through the implantation in the earth of the body of Mot. Here we see the ritual of divine sacrifice of the vegetation god that follows the ritual of nature of destruction and renewal, both in the power of the goddess.

Anat takes a thousand lovers, and is goddess both of Love and War; she is called the Virgin, because she is owned by none of them, and each year ritually renews her virginity in the sacred waters. As is already evident, she is not averse to violence when it suits her. In the actual fight with El's followers, "She hurls chairs at the soldiers, hurls tables at the armies, footstools at the troops." After that she "plunges knee-deep in the blood of soldiers, neck-high in the gore of troops, until she is sated." Eventually she "draws water and washes, dew of heaven, fat of earth, rain of the rider of clouds." Her washing in the dew causes it to rise in abundance.

While we may at first be surprised at the nature of her violence, I find I take heart from it. She allows us to recognise our own violence, our own need for demonstrative anger at injustice, for physical movement and release. She shows us we may rightly resist both the injustice and capriciousness of the "Father God" and also the oppression that tells us we may only be timid and complaisant and swallow our anger. I particularly feel drawn to the homeliness of the account: Anat beats them up with tables, footstools and chair legs; she does not go for weapons of war as such, and I think there is a message there too. Hopefully, the gory details are poetic license.

However, Anat, when she has avenged, becomes cleansed with the dew, and in so doing, again makes the dew to come in abundance. She is nature personified, and through her nature renews itself.

Lady Asherah of the Sea is also known as Atargatis or Derketo, and one of her symbols is a fish. However, in the Old Testament we see Asherah in the form of a tree, or of a tree trunk, or a wooden pole (possibly the origin of our own May Pole). This was set in high places, in green groves, and there the festivals of moon and season took place with rejoicing and sexual celebration. These are the "high places" that Israel's monotheistic male prophets were most keen to destroy, although they never entirely succeeded. Time and time again we read of the Hebrew people "backsliding" into worshipping Her, and even as late as the period into which Jesus was born, we have the figure of the Lady Wisdom, still divine, a creatrix figure, which he eventually took over. Atargatis, another aspect of Asherah, was called "Lady of Life"; she is usually shown with a spindle and a fish. A spindle because she is also "goddess of useful appliances", and a fish because as lady of water she produced life. She was also worshipped as "Universal Mother Earth." It is interesting that a fish is the cuneiform symbol of the city of Nineveh - this is the place to which the biblical Jonah was sent, and on the way was swallowed by a whale and stayed "in the belly of the fish" for three days. There seem some connections there.

Atargatis, who is prominent at the time of Jonah, say 700 BCE, is also celebrated as late as 200 CE by a classical writer called Lucian, who writes of her as the Syrian Goddess. There seems to be an unbroken 1000 years or so of her worship.

Alongside these goddesses in the land of Canaan is the great Astarte, sometimes called Ashtaroth, whom we also meet in the Old Testament many times. She has been called "the great universal female principle." Lady of Heavens, the Sea, the Earth and the Underworld, in her hands are the life, death and renewal of all Nature. Astarte's name is another form of Ishtar, and the goddess is often called Ishtar-Astarte. A famous hymn to her was written in about 1600 BCE. Here is part of it:

 
"Praise the goddess, the most awesome of the goddesses,
.... She is clothed with pleasure and love
She is laden with vitality, charm and voluptuousness
... In lips she is sweet, life is in her mouth,
She is glorious....
The goddess, with her is counsel,
The fate of everything she holds in her hand
At her glance is created joy,
Power, magnificence, the protecting deity, the guardian spirit.
She dwells in, she pays heed to compassion and friendliness
Besides, agreeableness she truly possesses,
Be it slave, unattached girl or mother, she preserves her,
One calls on her; among women one names her name."

I find this description so appealing because her magnificence is described alongside her compassion and agreeableness, especially the latter which makes her so approachable. Her physical beauty is part of the life-affirming spirit of the goddess; she holds the fate of everything, and she is also voluptuous -she symbolises the totality of the physical, intellectual and spiritual. Again, it is "among women, one names her name." She is especially loved among women.

Ishtar-Astarte was the Queen of Heaven for whom the women in the Book of the prophet Jeremiah made cakes, saying that when they did so, all went well with them. Her sister, Tanit, on the shores of North Africa also had cakes made for her, and we have inscriptions actually stating that payment must be made to the "bakers of loaves for the Queen of Heaven." Tanit is designated by the universal triangle female symbol, which is also the capital Greek "D" standing for the Greek word for womb (Delphos), and she was worshipped throughout North Africa until about the 5th century CE, when again the Christians took over and destroyed her sacred places and her priestesses and priests. A century or so later, Islamic warriors bulldozed the last remnants of the Queen of Heaven in their lands.

Astarte and Anat/Tanit were also connected with the Etruscan Uni, source of the universe. Uni-Astarte was represented by a three-lobe lily; her name may stem from yoni, womb, and source.

Other goddesses with Canaanite interest have recently been discovered in the excavations of the biblical land of Elam. The religion there, according to one writer was "characterised by uncommon reverence and respect for womanhood" (!) and a common symbol was a snake curled round a Tree of Life. The goddesses were worshipped in sacred groves. An inscription is extant reporting the victory of the Assyrian king Assurnipal over the Elamites: "I have razed the temples of Elam, I have made their gods and goddesses as the wind. My soldiers penetrated Her secret grove where no stranger has ever trodden or been to the edge. They saw its secrets and destroyed them by fire."

The religion of the Elamites centred on the Festival of the Great Mother held at a New Moon towards the beginning of autumn (comparison with the Jewish New Year is clear). Throughout the rejoicings, priestesses divined, scryed, and foretold the future through various means. Goddesses worshipped included Pinikir, Lady of Heaven, the Great Mother of all the Gods and humans, set apart from all other deities. Next came Kiririsha, Great Goddess, Mistress of the High Temple, Parti, Mother of the Gods in a different area of Elam, Ishnikarab, Goddess of oaths. The last named also became Lady of Justice, and consequently Judge of the Dead, and Mistress of the Underworld. In this she resembles Egyptian Ma'at, Goddess of Truth and Right, also symbol of justice and Lady of the Dead whom she judges and renews. Another Elamite goddess is Karibatu "Lady of many blessings", while Utu-Sal, Lady of the Sun, joins a number of Near Eastern sun Goddesses. Among these are Arinna of the Hittites, Shapash and Pakhat of the Canaanites. An inscription concerning either Shapash or Pakhat (it is not clear which) says:

 
"She rises early in the morning,
She wipes the dew from the grasses
She carries the cloud on her shoulder
She informs the course of the stars."

Because most goddesses are connected with the moon, and Ishtar-Astarte particularly so, it is often thought that the moon is always feminine and the sun masculine. This is far from being the case in the Near East. The Canaanite identification of the sun as female is also reflected in some Egyptian goddesses; I believe we have to see the usual symbolism of a male sun as a patriarchal take over of the brightness and daylight.

The Canaanite goddesses of Anat, Asherah, Astarte, Atargatis, the Elamite and Hittite goddesses and their Egyptian sisters, Tanit and the Lady of the Heavens of Africa, were all immensely influential in the near east for many thousands of years and are in the womb of our own culture. Based on the supremacy of the Mother Goddess and the power of her daughters for renewal of all life and the care of the dead, they also reflected abstract principles of justice and order, truth and right. They would defend by violence if necessary, but they were celebrated by life-affirming ritual and rejoicing. They were All-Life, affirmed through the body, received in the soul and spirit. Their service in the Canaanite world involved the work of priestesses and women and men attuned to nature's rhythms and cycles. Today, after the long iron years of patriarchy, can we hear the Goddess Anat breaking up its furniture and renewing Herself again through us?

Arachne 5, 1986

Acknowledgements:

Material on the Sinai Inscriptions: Z. Meshel: Did Jahweh Have a Consort?, Biblical Archaeological Review, March 1979.

Canaanite texts: see a mass of material under Ras Shamra: in particular, C.H. Gordon, Before the Bible, Collins, London, 1962.

Hymn to Ishtar. J.B. Pritchard. The Ancient Near East. Vol. 1., 1958, Princeton, p. 231-33.

Elam material: see W. Hinze, The Lost World of Elam, Sedgwick & Jackson, London, 1972.

Material on sun goddesses: Scholar in this area is Sinead (Janet McCrickard, Glastonbury).

Material on Shapash/Pakhat: see works by Helner Ringgren and John Gray.

 

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