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Ancient Canaanites Religion – 2 / Asherah-Astarte

Original Date
May 20, 2009

Asherah – Atiratu – Aš?r?h -Atirat – Ilatu – Ilat – Elt – Atrt – All?t

Asherah (from Hebrew ????), generally taken as identical with the Ugaritic goddess Athirat (more accurately transcribed as Atirat ), was a major northwest Semitic mother goddess, appearing occasionally also in Akkadian sources as Ashratum/Ashratu and in Hittite as Asherdu(s) or Ashertu(s) or Aserdu(s) or Asertu(s).

In Ugarit. In the Ugaritic texts (before 1200 BCE) Athirat is three times called Atirt ym, Atirat yammi, ‘Athirat of the Sea’ or as more fully translated ‘She who treads on the sea’, the name understood by various translators and commentators to be from the Ugaritic root atr ’stride’ cognate with the Hebrew root šr of the same meaning, and may have been equated with the Milky Way. The sacred sea (lake) upon which Asherah trod was known as Yam Kinneret and is called in English Lake Galilee.

In those texts, Athirat is the consort of the god El; there is one reference to the 70 sons of Athirat, presumably the same as the 70 sons of El. She is not clearly distinguished from Ashtart (better known in English as Astarte), although Ashtart is clearly linked to the Mesopotamian Goddess Ishtar. She is also called Elat (the feminine form of El; compare Ilat or Illatu) and Qodesh ‘Holiness’.

In Egypt. In Egypt, beginning in the 18th dynasty, a Semitic goddess named Qudshu (’Holiness’) begins to appear prominently, equated with the native Egyptian goddess Hathor. Some think this is Athirat/Ashratu under her Ugaritic name Qodesh. This Qudshu seems not to be either Ashtart or Anat as both those goddesses appear under their own names and with quite different iconography and appear in at least one pictorial representation along with Qudshu. But in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman periods in Egypt there was a strong tendency towards syncretism of goddesses and Athirat/Ashrtum then seems to have disappeared, at least as a prominent goddess under a recognizable name.

In Israel and Judah – Israelites Northern and Southern Kingdoms. The goddess Asherah, whose worship Jeremiah so vehemently opposed, was worshipped in ancient Israel and Judah as the consort of Yahweh and Queen of Heaven (the Hebrews baked small cakes for her festival) :Among the Hittites this goddess appears as Asherdu(s) or Asertu(s), the consort of Elkunirsa and mother of either 77 or 88 sons [1].

“Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.” —Jeremiah 7:17–18

“… to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem …” —Jeremiah 44:17

Figurines of Asherah are strikingly common in the archaeological record, indicating the popularity of her cult from the earliest times to the Babylonian exile. More rarely, inscriptions linking Yahweh and Asherah have been discovered: an 8th century BCE ostracon inscribed “Berakhti et’khem l’YHWH Shomron ul’Asherato” was discovered by Israeli archeologists at Quntilat ‘Ajrud (Hebrew “Horvat Teman“) in the course of excavations in the Sinai desert in 1975, prior to the Israeli withdrawal from this area. This translates as: “I have blessed you by YHWH of Samaria and His Asherah”, or “…by our guardian and his Asherah“, if “Shomron” is to be read “shomrenu“.  Another inscription, from Khirbet el-Kom near Hebron, reads: “Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh and by his Asherah; from his enemies he saved him!” [2]

The word asherah also referred to a sacred tree or pole that stood near shrines to honor the mother-goddess Asherah [3] , pluralized as a masculine noun when it has that meaning. In the Book of Judges, the Israelite judge Gideon orders an Asherah pole next to an altar to Baal to be cut down, and the wood used for a burnt offering. Among the Hebrews’ Phoenician neighbors, tall standing stone pillars signified the numinous presence of a deity, and the wooden asherahs may have been a rustic reflection of these. Or asherah may mean a living tree or grove of trees and therefore in some contexts mean a shrine. These uses have confused Biblical translators. Many older translations render Asherah as ‘grove’. There is still disagreement among scholars as to the extent to which Asherah (or various goddesses classed as Asherahs) was/were worshipped in Israel and Judah and the extent to which such a goddess or class of goddesses is identical to the etymologically connected goddess Athirat/Ashratu.

Tilde Binger notes in her study, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel and the Old Testament (1997, p. 141), that there is warrant for seeing an Asherah as, variously, “a wooden-aniconic-stela or column of some kind; a living tree; or a more regular statue.” A rudely carved wooden statue planted on the ground of the house was Asherah’s symbol, and sometimes a clay statue without legs. Her cult images— “idols”— were found also in forests, carved on living trees, or in the form of poles beside altars that were placed at the side of some roads. Asherah poles are mentioned in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Judges, the Books of Kings, the second Book of Chronicles, and the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. The term often appears as merely ????, Asherah; this is translated as “groves” in the King James Version and “poles” in the New Revised Standard Version, although no word that may be translated as “poles” appears in the text. Scholars have indicated, however, that the plural use of the term Asherahs, as Asherim or Asherot, provides ample evidence that reference is being made to objects of worship rather than a transcendent figure [4] .

The majority of the forty references to Asherah in the Hebrew Bible derive from the Deuteronomist, always in a hostile framework: e.g., Deuteronomy 16:21 reads: “Do not set up any [wooden] Asherah ‘[pole]‘  beside the altar you build to the LORD your God [5]“. The Deuteronomist judges the kings of Israel and Judah according to how rigorously they uphold Yahwism and suppress the worship of Asherah and other deities: King Manasseh, for example is said to have placed an Asherah pole in the Holy Temple, and was therefore one who “did evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 21:7); but king Hezekiah “removed the high places, and broke the pillars, and cut down the Asherah“, (2 Kings 18.4), and was numbered among the most righteous of Judah’s kings before the coming of the monotheistic reformer Josiah, in whose reign the Deuteronomistic history of the kings was composed.

Asherah In the Book of Kings Ta’anach Text 1 – Letter from Guli-Adad to Talwashur of Ta’anach  – Date of Discovery: c. 1903 – Excavator: Ernst Sellin Language Akkadian – Clay Tablet:

Line 21 – “Furthermore, if there is a diviner of Asherah, then let him discern our fortunes and the omen and the interpretation send to me.”

1 Kings 18:19 The four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table

Asherah and the Tanach Cult

Asherah / Ashira in Arabia. A stele, now at the Louvre, discovered by Charles Huber in 1883 in the ancient oasis of Tema (modern Tayma) [6] , southwestern Arabia, and believed to date to the time of Nabonidus’s retirement there in 549 BCE, bears an inscription in Aramaic which mentions Salm of Mahram and Shingala and Ashira as the gods of Tema.
This Ashira might be Athirat/Asherah. Since Aramaic has no way to indicate Arabic th, corresponding to the Ugaritic th (more pedantically written as t), if this is the same deity, it is not clear whether the name would be an Arabian reflex of the Ugaritic Athirat or a later borrowing of the Hebrew/Canaanite Asherah.

The Arabic root atr is similar in meaning to the Hebrew indicating “to tread” used as a basis to explain the name of Ashira as “Lady of the sea”, specially that the Arabic root ymm also means “sea”.

On the other hand, the Arabic word Ašira ????? meaning “clan” shares the same root ašr, resonating with a theory of a goddess mother clan. From the same root derive several words meaning both to “live with/socially know” and “copulate”:

Astarte  -  Attaru  -  Ištar  -  Attrt  -  Aštrt/Astarte  -  Aštoret

Astarte (from Greek ???????  – Astárt?) is the name of a goddess as known from Northwestern Semitic regions, cognate in name, origin and functions with the goddess Ishtar in Mesopotamian texts. Another transliteration is ‘Ashtart; other names for the goddess include Hebrew or Phoenician ????? (transliterated Ashtoreth – Aštoret ), Ugaritic attrt (also ‘Attart or ‘Athtart, transliterated Atirat), Akkadian DAs-tar-tú (also Astartu) and Etruscan Uni-Astre (Pyrgi Tablets).

According to Mark Smith’s “The Early History of God[7], Astarte may be the Iron Age (after 1200 BCE) incarnation of the Bronze Age (to 1200 BCE) Asherah.

Astarte was connected with fertility, sexuality, and war. Her symbols were the lion, the horse, the sphinx, the dove, and a star within a circle indicating the planet Venus. Pictorial representations often show her naked.

Astarte was accepted by the Greeks under the name of Aphrodite. The island of Cyprus, one of Astarte’s greatest faith centers, supplied the name Cypris as Aphrodite’s most common by name.

Other major centers of Astarte’s worship were Sidon, Tyre, and Byblos. Coins from Sidon portray a chariot in which a globe appears, presumably a stone representing Astarte. In Sidon, she shared a temple with Eshmun. At Beirut coins show Poseidon, Astarte, and Eshmun worshipped together.

Astarte in Ugarit. Astarte appears in Ugaritic texts under the name ‘Athtart’ (Attrt), but is of little importance in those texts. ‘Athtart and ‘Anat together hold back Ba‘al from attacking the other deities. Astarte also asks Ba‘al to “scatter” Yamm “Sea” after Ba‘al’s victory. ‘Athtart is called the “Face of Ba‘al“.

Astarte in Egypt. Astarte first appears in Ancient Egypt beginning in the Eighteenth dynasty of Egypt along with other deities who were worshipped by northwest Semitic people. She was worshipped especially in her aspect of a warrior goddess, often paired with the goddess Anat. In the Contest Between Horus and Set, these two goddesses appear as daughters of Re and are given in marriage to the god Set, here identified with the Semitic name Hadad. Astarte also was identified with the lioness warrior goddess Sekhmet, but seemingly more often conflated, at least in part, with Isis to judge from the many images found of Astarte suckling a small child. Indeed there is a statue of the 6th century BCE in the Cairo Museum, which normally would be taken as portraying Isis with her child Horus on her knee and which in every detail of iconography follows normal Egyptian conventions, but the dedicatory inscription reads: “Gersaphon, son of Azor, son of Slrt, man of Lydda, for his Lady, for Astarte.” See G. Daressy, (1905) pl. LXI (CGC 39291) [8] .

Plutarch, in his On Isis and Osiris, indicates that the King and Queen of Byblos, who, unknowingly, have the body of Osiris in a pillar in their hall, are Melcarthus (ie. Melqart) and Astarte (though he notes some instead call the Queen Saosis or Neman?s, which Plutarch interprets as corresponding to the Greek name Athenais).

Astarte in JudahSouthern Israelite Kingdom. The Masoretic pointing in the Hebrew  Bible (Tanakh) indicate the pronunciation as ‘Ašt?ret instead of the expected ‘Ašteret, probably because the two last syllables have here been pointed with the vowels belonging to b?shet “abomination” to indicate that word should be substituted when reading. The plural form is pointed ‘Ašt?r?t. For what seems to be the use of the Hebrew plural form ‘Ašt?r?t as the name of a demon.

Astarte, or Ashtoret in Hebrew, was the principal goddess of the Phoenicians, representing the productive power of nature. She was a lunar goddess and was adopted by the Egyptians as a daughter of Ra or Ptah.

In Jewish mythology, She is referred to as Ashtoreth, supposedly interpreted as a female demon of lust in Hebrew monotheism. The name Asherah (see above) may also be confused with Ashtoreth, but is more than probably a different Goddess. In Judaized Christian demonology, Ashtoreth is connected to Friday, and visually represented as a young woman with a cow’s horns on her head (sometimes with a cow’s tail too), resembling Hathor.


[1]  William G. Dever, “Did God Have a Wife?” (Eerdmans, 2005)
[2]  Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts  – Free Press, New York, 2001
[3]  Nelson’s Compact Illustrated Bible Dictionary, 1964, pp. 25-26.
[4]  Van der Toorn, Becking, van der Horst (1999), Dictionary of Deities and Demons in The Bible, Second Extensively Revised Edition, pp. 99-105, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
[5]  Note that wooden and pole are translators’ interpolations in the text, which makes no such identification.
[6] Tayma (Arabic: ?????‎; also transliterated Tema) is a large oasis with a long history of settlement, located in northeastern Saudi Arabia at the point where the trade route between Yathrib (Medina) and Dumah begins to cross the Nefud desert. Tayma is located 264 km southeast of the city of Tabouk, and about 400 km north of Medina. In ancient times the oasis was noted as a prosperous Jewish colony, rich in water wells and handsome buildings. According to Arab tradition, Tayma was ruled by a Jewish dynasty during the late classical period, though whether these were exiled Judeans or the Arab descendants of converts is unclear. The town fell to the Muslims in the 630s and the inhabitants were subjected to a dhimma pact, and later expelled.
[7]  Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (with a foreword by Patrick D. Miller. 2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans; Dearborn, Mich.: Dove, 2002
[8]  G. Daressy, Statues de divinités, (CGC 38001-39384), vol. II (Cairo, Imprimerie de l’Institut français d’archéologie orientale, 1905).
Imge note - Julia Maesa (ca. 165 –ca.  224 CE) was a Roman citizen and daughter of Julius Bassianus, priest of the sun god Heliogabalus, the patron god of Emesa (modern Homs) in the Roman province of Syria, and grandmother of the Roman emperor Elagabalus. Like her younger sister Julia Domna, she was among the most important women to exercise power behind the throne in the Roman empire.


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