goddesses archaeomythology magazine
October 2005

Hebrew Goddesses

Archaeological finds in the Middle East and passages from the Bible reveal that in early Old Testament times cedar trees were often thought to be feminine.

Cedars were often carved by early Hebrews and Canaanites in the region into representations of a goddess known variously to them as Asherah, Asher, Astarte, or Anat.

If these names are unfamiliar to you, it is because awareness of them descended into the rich soil of prehistory as male dominated history progressed. Yet they have been studied by scholars interested in the early years of Hebrew / Canaanite interaction on the lands we know today as Israel, Palestine and Lebanon.

Back five thousand years ago, Asherah-shaped loaves of bread were baked by Hebrew and Canaanite women, then blessed and ritually eaten. These loaves of Asherah bread predate the communion wafer. Asherah idols were found under trees, carved out of living trees, or set into the Earth as poles or pillars beside altars.

Asherah, the tree of life, later evolved into Syria's early goddess named Artemis.

Sexual rituals worshipping Asherah have been labeled cult prostitution, rather than their more probable function within a social order that assured inheritence would flow through mothers, with their partnership values as opposed to male dominator values.

Many early Hebrew conservatives went to great lengths to purge goddess worship from their midst.

A passage from Deuteronomy (16:21) orders: "You shall not plant for yourself an Asherah of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord your God..."

A sentence from Second Kings (18:4) notes: "He removed the high places and broke down the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah."

Prehistoric Hebrew goddesses probably inspired the still surviving concept of Shekhina, who is found as the all-encompassing feminine diety of the Kabbalistic and Hasidic mysticism. They probably also inspired the Kabbala's wanton virgin love-goddess, known as Matronit.

Let's go back for a moment to the roots of this cedar tale.

250,000 years ago, anatomically modern Homo Sapiens lived in the Middle East. They buried their dead carefully and kept their caves tidy.

From 115,000- to 65,000-years-ago, Neanderthals moved south into the region, due to colder conditions that made their European homelands less habitable.

Moving right along, we'll fast forward 45,000 years.

Jericho was founded about 9000 years ago. Back then it didn't have any wall to come tumbling down. The earliest artifacts discovered at Jericho include an oval ring of stone footings that once secured columns made from tree-trunks.

Several hundred miles northwest of prehistoric Jericho, the world's first known city Catal Huyuck (meaning forked-mound) was already a thousand years old. In Turkey, on the Central Anatolian plateau, goddesses had been conceived of, repeatedly painted on fresco-style walls, sculpted from clay, and presumably worshipped for over a millenium.

Folks known as the "Sea People" to archaeologists sailed to the shores of the Middle East. They almost certainly brought their goddess theology with them from Crete, Cyprus and the Aegean islands from which they came. They settled into a landscape that now spreads from Palestinian Gaza, along Israel's Mediterrainian coast and up into Lebanon, the land once known as Canaan.

By the time the Sea People arroved, Jericho was a crescent-moon-shaped city and its walls had begun to grow. The Sea People most likely brought their goddesses with them from Crete and other islands, worshipping the goddesses in their Middle East settlements.

When Abraham and Sarah led their Israelite family-clan-community into the rolling hills of Canaan, they settled in an area already populated for at least 250,000 years. Not only did they probably bring with them the goddess Inanna, they settled among people who included goddesses among their dieties.

Following are sentences from the Old Testament of the Bible, containing the word "cedar" and/or containing the names of the Hebrew/Canaanite goddesses.

The sentences were retrieved for your perusal by using an Internet Bible search engine.

"Take your father's bull and a second bull seven years old, and pull down the alter of Baal which belongs to your father, and cut down the Asherah that is beside it; and build an altar to the Lord your God on the top of this stronghold in an orderly manner, and take a second bull and offer a burnt offering with the wood of the Asherah which you shall cut down.

"When the men of the city arose early in the morning, behold, the altar of Baal was torn down, and the Asherah which was beside it was cut down, and the second bull was offered on the altar which had been built. Then the men of the city said to Joash, "Bring out your son, that he may die, for he has torn down the altar of Baal, and indeed, he has cut down the Asherah which was beside it." (Judges 6:25 - 6:30)

"If she is a wall, we will build towers of silver on her. If she is a door, we will enclose her with panels of cedar." (Missing citation)

"And Ahab also made the Asherah. Thus Ahab did more to provoke the Lord God of Israel than all the kings of Israel who were before him." (First Kings 16:33)

"This is what the Sovereign Lord says: A great eagle with powerful wings, long feathers and full plumage of varied colors came to Lebanon. Taking hold of the top of a cedar.

"...I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain.

"On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches."

Now from what the Sovereign Lord says, to what Second Kings (21:3) says about an Asherah: "For he rebuilt the high places which Hezekiah his father had destroyed; and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them."

Here are a number of the Bible's other cedar-related-statements. For the moment we have lost the Bible references. When you read these, recall the cedar as representative of the Hebrew / Canaanite goddess:

"Like a cedar of Lebanon he will send down his roots; his young shoots will grow. His splendor will be like an olive tree, his fragrance like a cedar of Lebanon."

"Flocks and herds will lie down there, creatures of every kind. The desert owl and the screech owl will roost on her columns. Their calls will echo through the windows, rubble will be in the doorways, the beams of cedar will be exposed."

"Wail, O pine tree, for the cedar has fallen; the stately trees are ruined! Wail, oaks of Bashan; the dense forest has been cut down!"

(Editor notes the obvious: To this day, the forests that graced the Middle East during prehistory have not yet returned.)

Now here're a few construction tips captured in the Bible for buildings made with cedar.

"So Hiram sent word to Solomon: I have received the message you sent me and will do all you want in providing the cedar and pine logs.

"In this way Hiram kept Solomon supplied with all the cedar and pine logs he wanted

"So he built the temple and completed it, roofing it with beams and cedar planks.

"And he built the side rooms all along the temple. The height of each was five cubits, and they were attached to the temple by beams of cedar.

"He lined its interior walls with cedar boards, paneling them from the floor of the temple to the ceiling, and covered the floor of the temple with planks of pine.

"He partitioned off twenty cubits at the rear of the temple with cedar boards from floor to ceiling to form within the temple an inner sanctuary, the Most Holy Place.

"The inside of the temple was cedar, carved with gourds and open flowers. Everything was cedar; no stone was to be seen.

"The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty wide and twenty high. He overlaid the inside with pure gold, and he also overlaid the altar of cedar.

"And he built the inner courtyard of three courses of dressed stone and one course of trimmed cedar beams.

"He built the Palace of the Forest of Lebanon a hundred cubits long, fifty wide and thirty high, with four rows of cedar columns supporting trimmed cedar beams."

"The Palace of the Forest of Lebanon was built in 1.2 ratio. It was 150 feet (46 meters) long, 75 feet (23 meters) wide and 45 feet (13.5 meters) high.

"It was roofed with cedar above the beams that rested on the columns--forty-five beams, fifteen to a row.

"He built the throne hall, the Hall of Justice, where he was to judge, and he covered it with cedar from floor to ceiling.

"He described plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of walls. He also taught about animals and birds, reptiles and fish."

"The king made silver as common in Jerusalem as stones, and cedar as plentiful as sycamore-fig trees in the foothills."

"But Jehoash king of Israel replied to Amaziah king of Judah: "A thistle in Lebanon sent a message to a cedar in Lebanon, `Give your daughter to my son in marriage.' Then a wild beast in Lebanon came along and trampled the thistle underfoot.'"

"Then they gave money to the masons and carpenters, and gave food and drink and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre, so that they would bring cedar logs by sea from Lebanon to Joppa, as authorized by Cyrus king of Persia."

"His tail sways like a cedar; the sinews of his thighs are close-knit."

"The righteous will flourish like a palm tree, they will grow like a cedar of Lebanon."

"If she is a wall, we will build towers of silver on her. If she is a door, we will enclose her with panels of cedar

"I will put in the desert the cedar and the acacia, the myrtle and the olive. I will set pines in the wasteland, the fir and the cypress together."

"I will send destroyers against you, each man with his weapons, and they will cut up your fine cedar beams and throw them into the fire."

"Does it make you a king to have more and more cedar? Did not your father have food and drink? He did what was right and just, so all went well with him."

"You who live in Lebanon, who are nestled in cedar buildings, how you will groan when pangs come upon you, pain like that of a woman in labor!"

Okay, perhaps you've read enough of these disjointed sentences to give you to good whiff of cedar ("the other red wood") with your mental nostrils.

We end our Biblical quotes with the following words from Second Kings (13:6):

"And the Asherah also remained standing in Samaria."

These cedar "shavings," along with their Asherah references, are mentally aromatic. They conjure thoughts of a prehistoric Canaanite belief in Mother Nature, a belief seemingly shared by at least some percentage of Hebrew tribe members, much to the dismay of some other percentage of the tribe.

We have inherited a text edited by the winners of this protohistoric debate, those who banished the goddess from their midst. Interesting, however, are the tantilizing clues that still remain visible in the Bible to the fervency of the Hebrew goddess worship and the equally great fervency with which it was suppressed.