Remembering The Queen of Heaven

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  March 19, 2011 — 34 Comments

“We will not listen to the things you’ve said to us in the name of YHWH. On the contrary, we will certainly do all that we’ve vowed. We will make offerings to the Queen of Heaven, and pour libations to her as we used to do – we and our ancestors, our kings and princes in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem – because then we had plenty of bread and we were satisfied, and suffered no misfortune. But since we ceased making offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pouring libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by sword and famine. And when we make offerings to the Queen of Heaven and pour libations to her, is it without our husbands’ approval that we make cakes in her likeness and pour libations to her?”Jeremiah 44:15-19, translation by Graham Harvey, from the Hebrew text of the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, excerpted from “The Paganism Reader”.

I suppose it is somewhat appropriate that I mentioned a Christian sect obsessed with battling the “Queen of Heaven” yesterday, because today I’m looking at a new flurry of press about Her, or as they phrase it, “God’s wife.” The notion that the God of the Jews, and later the Christian God, was once part of a polytheistic landscape is fairly uncontroversial among scholars. Several books have been published on the subject, “The Hebrew Goddess”, “Did God Have a Wife?”,  “Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan”, and “The Early History of God”, among several others. NOVA on PBS even mentioned it back in 2008 for their “The Bible’s Buried Secrets” program. But modern journalism has a short memory, and the story has a new hook via Exeter University’s Francesca Stavrakopoulou, who’s presenting a new BBC production (coincidentally) entitled “The Bible’s Buried Secrets”. Stavrakopoulou and her BBC series have been making the rounds at The Daily Mail (sorry, I still don’t link to them), The Guardian, and The Telegraph.

“Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou has been given a primetime BBC Two series, The Bible’s Buried Secrets, in which she makes a number of startling suggestions. [...]  The idea that God had a wife is based on Biblical texts that refer to “asherah”. According to Dr Stavrakopoulou, Asherah was the name of a fertility goddess in lands now covered by modern-day Syria, and was half of a “divine pair” with God. Dr Stavrakopoulou is a senior lecturer in the Hebrew Bible at the University of Exeter, and gained a doctorate in theology from Oxford.”

Her suggestions are so startling that the story got picked up in America by Discovery News.

“In 1967, Raphael Patai was the first historian to mention that the ancient Israelites worshiped both Yahweh and Asherah. The theory has gained new prominence due to the research of Francesca Stavrakopoulou [...] “After years of research specializing in the history and religion of Israel, however, I have come to a colorful and what could seem, to some, uncomfortable conclusion that God had a wife,” she added. Stavrakopoulou bases her theory on ancient texts, amulets and figurines unearthed primarily in the ancient Canaanite coastal city called Ugarit, now modern-day Syria. All of these artifacts reveal that Asherah was a powerful fertility goddess.”

Her conclusions may indeed be “colorful,” but they are hardly new, as I pointed out above. Discovery News actually does a decent job in taking what were mostly warmed over press releases in the UK and giving the story some depth. Showing that Stavrakopoulou’s research is part of a long continuum of thought and study on this topic, interviewing other scholars to emphasize the points being made in her new show.

The ancient Israelites were polytheists, [Aaron] Brody [director of the Bade Museum and an associate professor of Bible and archaeology at the Pacific School of Religion] told Discovery News, “with only a small minority worshiping Yahweh alone before the historic events of 586 B.C.” In that year, an elite community within Judea was exiled to Babylon and the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. This, Brody said, led to “a more universal vision of strict monotheism: one god not only for Judah, but for all of the nations.”

The Discovery News report is also refreshing in that it avoids discussing her “fragrant air” and “good carriage” as John Preston at The Telegraph does. There’s a certain bitter irony in discussing the looks of a presenter on a program that touches on how the power of women was willfully erased from history. In any case, while the subject of God’s wife may not be new, reminding the world that monotheism didn’t spring forth whole-cloth, that it was artificially constructed and forcefully maintained by its early adopters is still quite needful. Especially in an age where the mere hint of a resurgent Western polytheism, and the endurance of polytheism around the world, seems to bring out irrational anger, fear, and hatred in certain corners.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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  • http://www.hecatedemetersdatter.blogspot.com Hecate

    Interesting post! Also interesting that Asherah must be described as "God's wife," rather than as a deity in her own right. One imagines that at least some of the ancient Israelites may have rather viewed Yahweh as "Asherah's husband."

    • lysana

      Doubtful, aside from the notes below about her being El's husband. She was presented as a consort based on the imagery. Her stone at the front of the temples was smaller than his.

      • http://medusacoils.blogspot.com Medusa

        I haven't seen the assertion previously that Asherah's stone was smaller than El's. I would appreciate a reference for this, The information I've seen is that the inscriptions on a single stone, say something like "Yahweh and his Asherah." Of course there may have been differences in the importance given to each of these deities at different times (and in different parts of the Ancient Near East.)

    • http://medusacoils.blogspot.com Medusa

      I agree with Hecate about the description of Asherah as "God's wife" is off the mark for a number of reasons. First, the term "God" in is anachronistic when talking about the ANE, they had many gods. So Yahweh's "wife" or El's "wife" would be more appropriate. But even then, who performed the marriage? A more accurate historical view would be that they were each other's consorts. This "God's wife" thing seems to have caught on from the title of (archeologist and anthropologist) Dever's book, _Did God Have a Wife?_ As I wrote in my review of this book on Medusa Coils, Dever previously used the term consort in papers he wrote on this subject and my guess is the publisher selected this title to have it appeal more to a non-academic readership. I prefer the subtitle of Dever's book: "Archeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel." In any event, if they were going to use the husband-wife thing, I would have preferred the title, "Did Goddess Have a Husband?"

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    My first contact with feminist thealogy [sic] was in a Unitarian Universalist adult education course, "Cakes for the Queen of Heaven," which we can probably thank for the existence of UU Paganism.

  • http://sodiumnoir.com/KAOS/ sodiumnoir

    Well Asherah is El's wife, not Yahweh's. they are different Gods, Yahweh was a Moabite storm God and El and Asherah were (among) the Canaanite Gods. Yahweh and El only got lumped together at a later date. The books talking about El and ones talking about Yahweh are the two clearest divisions in the Old testament. :)

    • http://medusacoils.blogspot.com Medusa

      My understanding is that Asherah was somtimes described as El's consort, sometimes Yahweh's consort, depending on the time and culture. If you have different info, I'd appreciate a reference. Also, btw, Asherah was a also a Goddess worshipped by the Judaens/Israelites/Hebrews. Jason's description is quite accurate, imo.

      • http://sodiumnoir.com/KAOS/ sodiumnoir

        I'll dig out some references (all of those listed in the text will be a good start) but you will find that when Asherah is linked to Yahweh it is becuase the text in question has already confused Yahweh with El. They coem from different cultures and very different Pantheons. Asherah was indeed worshipped by the Judaens/Israelites/Hebrews (is that not the point already made?) as she was a part of the national pantheon from which they sprung. The people who would become the Judaens/Israelites/Hebrews began as Canaanites worshipping El and his crew and the fall of the Canaanite (and other) ruling classes led to their rise in the region. They interacted with others in the region (such as the Moabites) and the Judaens/Israelites/Hebrews belief system evolved within that situation. Hence the name Yahweh arriving in later books.

        • http://norsealchemist.blogspot.com Norse Alchemist

          So Yhvh and El got the same treatment as Amon and Ra did in Egypt? Interesting…

  • Angela Pippinger

    I brought this up yesterday and so far what I get from Christians is that it does nothing to their faith (not that I expected to) and they have no desire to actually research anything in regards to possible polytheism. Which saddens me. If something like this had anything to do with my particular faith, I would certainly be interested in at least researching it further on my own in order to make up my mind how I felt about it.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Some things haven't changed since Jeremiah…

    • happydog1960

      Never try to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time, and annoys the pig.

      • Pagan Puff Pieces

        I saw an animated short about a pig who did learn to sing.

        He died.

    • Goldmoon

      I would surmise it did, you did and it did :D

  • Wendy Griffin

    Wonder if she read Asphodel Long's book on the topic. It came out in 1993. Hardly earth shattering news today. http://www.asphodel-long.com/

    • http://www.decohen.com Daniel Cohen

      I emailed her, referring not so much to Asphodel's book, but to Asphodel's articles on her web site. Reply was an automated one, saying she was on research leave and would reply later. Her program on Asherah is on TV later this week, and I will comment after I have seen it. Her article in the Radio Times (main British listings mag for TV) was a good basic one.
      By the way, I wrote the article on Asherah in Patricia Monaghan's recent "Goddesses in World Culture". There's nothing new in the article, but I do think it's a good summary and guide to the material.

  • Star Foster

    Asherah is El's wife, not Yahweh's, and that is my favorite part of the Bible. The women lamenting the loss their old ways of worship tug at my heart.

  • happydog1960

    John Preston seems like he has a crush on Dr. Stavrakopoulou. I suggest he just go ahead and ask her out. I don't know if good reviews in the paper will facilitate that process, but I bet he's hoping.

    I find it amusing (and probably not coincidental) that this is coming to the notice of the general public about the same time that the anti-Goddess, anti-Democracy nutjobs are becoming more noisy.

  • Kathy Nance

    I am pleased at the timing. The Akkadian/Sumerian New Year was celebrated at the time of the Spring Equinox. It was one of Inanna's chief festivals, the time of the Sacred Marriage between the Goddess and Dumuzi in the heavens. Her Priestess and the Sumerian King celebrated the rite honoring Her on Earth. It is fitting the Canaanite/Near Eastern Goddesses should receive renewed attention now.

    And if you'd like to celebrate with beer, honeycakes and some hot, sweet loving–I am sure They would approve.

  • http://godsrbored.blogspot.com anne johnson

    2 Kings 22-23 explains where the revisionist history began. Wow, they found a book, hidden and forgotten in a church! Archeology backs up the assertion that none of the events in the Pentateuch happened as described.

  • http://egregores.blogspot.com/ Apuleius

    Here is an interesting piece (by an Anglican priest) on the Francesca Stavrakopoulou BBC series, written before the first part aired: http://clayboy.co.uk/2011/03/gods-wife-on-the-bbc

    "I think we may safely assume that, as Senior Lecturer in Hebrew Bible at the Department of Theology and Religion, in the University of Exeter, Francesca Stavrakopoulou is well aware of a whole host of literature and wide-ranging discussions dealing with the development of Israelite monotheism, the persistence of the older Canaanite pantheon, the frequent confusions of Baal and Yahweh, and the equally frequent mentions of a female consort."

  • Anna Helvie

    My husband and I saw Dr. William Devers lecture on this a few years back; he's the biblical archaeologist (emeritus) who wrote "Did God Have A Wife," which by the way, is a very accessible and interesting book.

  • http://medusacoils.blogspot.com Medusa

    Since the discovery of the inscriptions at Kuntillet and Khirbet-el-qom, of "Yahweh and his Asherah," we can no longer identify Asherah only with El (sorry ;-). I believe Dever mentions this inscription in his book. You can also do a web search for "Yahweh and his Asherah." Two online sources are http://www.matrifocus.com/LAM04/spotlight.htm
    and http://www.jstor.org/pss/1585374

  • Caroline Tully

    Did "God" Have a Wife? This is OLD news, and it's only in the papers as a form of publicity for this current BBC archaeology documentary.

  • http://www.maidtoqueen.blogspot.com Laura M. LaVoie

    Even as a little kid I always thought somewhat intuitively that there were likely more gods than just Capital-G God. No only was I a tiny scholar of Greek Mythology but also the wording of the commandment itself implied additional gods. "Thou shalt have no other gods before me" rings with the voice of the jealous God often described in the old testament. He didn't say "There *are* no other Gods" but really commanded that no one should honor them.

    I think ultimately this research is not really going to affect mainstream Christianity. I can't imagine the religious right making an announcement that they are really sorry, they've been wrong all along and there are multiple gods. The scholarship is merely interesting on an academic level.

  • Adon

    Asherah is mostly a late Hebrew version of the Canaanite Athirat "Great Lady of the Sea" and co-creator of the universe with Elu.
    Great info can be found here: In the Queen’s Hands: Athirat, Goddess of Creation

  • Tanith Astlik

    Asherah isn't El's wife.That's an unfortunate conflation of separate pantheons.

    El is the husband of Athirat, and she' has a good deal of power. (Please see Tess Dawson's "In the Queen’s Hands: Athirat, Goddess of Creation " : http://tessdawson.blogspot.com/2010/11/in-queens-… ) Tess has done an amazing amount of research and I believe she has come up with the most definitive look at the Canaanites thus far.

  • http://www.suppressedhistories.net Max Dashu

    Kuntillet 'Ajrud and Khirbet el Qom, where the most famous inscriptions attesting to Asherah veneration were found, both refer not to El and not to Yahweh, but to Yah. Yah of Shomron, in the first case, "of Samaria." While it is technically true that Athirat (the earlier-attested form) and Asherah belonged to separate pantheons, it is also true that they represent the same name, with expected phonological differences between Hebrew and Ugaritic. This is not controversial. While El and Yah and Yahweh originally were not identical, they became conflated, so the pairing of Elu / Athirat and Yah / Asherah are consonant. As Qaniyatu Elima, progenitrix of the gods, Athirat definitely had an identity far beyond "God's Wife" and doubtless Asherah did too. Even with a huge campaign to wipe out her worship, it remains attested in the Hebrew Bible itself. That says volumes.

  • http://www.decohen.com Daniel Cohen

    Francesca Stavrokopoulou’s BBC TV programme on Asherah was the second in a series of three. The first, shown last week, discussed whether Davidand Solomon’s kingdom really existed, and next week’s is about the origins of the Garden of Eden story.

    Thiw week’s programme was an excellent presentation of the current state of scholarship about Asherah (with much mention of Baal and El, as well). It is, of course, new to the general public, but not to those interested in the subject, and she did not have any new insights. I felt it was a mistake for her to say quite often “I believe”, “In my opinion” and the like, as this could lead people to think it was an isolated view. She did interview Judith Hadley and Ze’ev Meshel, but I would have liked her to have spoken with more scholars.

    She spent some time discussing Deuteronomy 33:2, which is not one of the forty mentions of Asherah/asherah in the Bible. This verse is obscure in the original Hebrew, and has differeing translations into English, none of which make much sense. She follows the view of Dijkstra and others that there was an error in transcription at one stage, and that the text originally referred to Asherah. The textual emendation is simple, and certainly makes for a more natural reading. I wish I had known of this when I was writing my article on Asherah for Patricia Monaghan’s “Goddesses in World Culture”, as it would have been a useful addition – I should have known as I had read Dijkstra’s article.

    For me the most exciting moment came when she showed the Taanach cult stand. This shows a female figure standing between two lions, and also a tree between two ibexes, both most likely images of Asherah. I had seen pictures of it, but to have a view of the original, with the camera showing different it from different angles, brought it to life. She also showed a replica of the pottery fragment from Kuntillet Ajrud, with its inscription referring to Asherah – the original is currently missing, but it is probably among the items belonging to the Egypt Museum that recently resurfaced.

  • Adele C

    I wanted to laugh at this SO CALLED scholar trying to argue against ALL the fundamental beliefs of anyone who worships the ONE true God. She is TRYING to make a name for herself and may I remind everyone of this one thing- She is a fool. The Bible, which she is insistent on putting down, clearly says that the fool has said in his heart that there is NO God and she is one such fool. I could make a better argument without spending all those years on my doctorate and wasting time arguing against the God of the universe who gives her her next breath. God is NOT mocked.

  • Bookhousegal

    Heh. Don't look at *us,* it's *your* Bible, as well as history, that says this stuff. We're pretty much a bunch of Pagans, here, and it's no surprise to us. ;)

    I don't see where you think there's mockery of your God involved. :)

  • Adele C

    hey….me again…..didnt actually notice this was a pagan website until I was leaving site!! LOL….ah well….just fancied a wee rant about Bible bashers…..reckon I picked the wrong site to do it!!! Anyways God loves US all….there is no us, your as u put it. Surely each one is an individual with a brain (God given) and a mind to think for themselves. How did you all get into paganism? I love the Lord Jesus Christ and worship Him ALONE and cant imagine a life WITHOUT Him…..

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      Each of us got into Paganism by her or his own path. I daresay most of us, as would I, would talk of it as the product of a spiritual revelation. It's a response to what calls to us, as your Lord calls to you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/elizabeth.joy.rose Elizabeth Rose

    When asked why I am a Pagan, I have often said, "I am here for HER." Everything else, for me, is incidental. I do believe, as the women of 'Jeremiah,' that since we stopped honoring Her (the feminine principle of divinity – I don't care what name you give Her) as a culture we have "been consumed by sword and famine", and that the masculine principle has run amok, burning the surface of our world and hardening the tenderness of its people's hearts. For this reason, and for the reason of a vision of a tender, compassionate vision of power (both masculine and feminine aspects of G-d), I was born, am and remain, a Pagan.