Definitions

Asherah

Asherah

[uh-sheer-uh]
Asherah or Asheroth, Canaanite fertility goddess and the wooden cult symbol that represented her. She is the consort of El in the Ugaritic texts. Several passages in the Bible may refer to the planting of a tree as a symbol of Asherah, or the setting up of a wooden object as an asherah—the Hebrew words for "tree" and "wood" are the same.
Asherah (from Hebrew אשרה), generally taken as identical with the Ugaritic goddess Athirat (more accurately transcribed as ʼAṯirat), 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 BC) Athirat is three times called ʼaṯrt ym, ʼAṯirat 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 ʼaṯr 'stride' cognate with the Hebrew root ʼšr of the same meaning, and may have been equated with the Milky Way.

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 ʿAshtart (better known in English as Astarte), although Ashtart is clearly linked to the Mesopotamian Goddess Ishtar. She is also called Elat ("Goddess", the feminine form of El; compare Allat) and Qodesh 'Holiness'.

Among the Hittites this goddess appears as Asherdu(s) or Asertu(s), the consort of Elkunirsa and mother of either 77 or 88 sons.

Among the Amarna letters a king of of the Amorites is named Abdu-Ashirta, "Slave of Asherah".

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 ʿAshtart or ʿAnat 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

The goddess, the Queen of heaven whose worship Jeremiah so vehemently opposed, may have been Asherah or possibly Astarte. Asherah was worshipped in ancient Israel as the consort of El and in Judah as the consort of Yahweh and Queen of Heaven (the Hebrews baked small cakes for her festival):

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’YHVH Shomron ul’Asherato" was discovered by Israeli archeologists at Quntilat 'Ajrud (Hebrew "Horvat Teman") in the couse of excavations in the Sinai desert in 1975, prior to the Israeli withdrawal from this area. This translates as: "I have blessed you by YHVH 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!".

The word asherah also referred to a sacred tree or pole that stood near shrines to honor the mother-goddess Asherah, 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 אשרה, 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.

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." 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

  • Rogers, Robert William. Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament. New York: Eaton & Mains, 1912.
  • Albright, W. F. "A Prince of Taanach in the Fifteenth Century B.C." Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 94 (1944) 12-27.

Ashira in Arabia

A stele, now at the Louvre, discovered by Charles Huber in 1883 in the ancient oasis of Tema (modern Tayma), southwestern Arabia, and believed to date to the time of Nabonidus's retirement there in 549 BC, bears an inscription in Aramaic which mentions Ṣalm of Maḥram 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 ), 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 ʼṯr 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 ʼAšira عشيرة meaning "clan" shares the same root ʼšr, 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": عاشر/معاشرة.

Asherah and `Ashurah

In the ancient lunar calendar that became the Islamic calendar, the Day of ʿAshurah, transliterated also as Aashurah, Ashura or Aashoorah, falls on the 10th day of Muharram. On that day, in the year of the Hejira 61 (AD 680), Husayn bin Ali, the grandson of Muhammad was killed by Umayyad forces at the Battle of Karbala (now in Iraq). Still called by its ancient name, the Day of Ashurah, it has been observed ever since as a day of mourning by Shī`ites.

The name `Ashurah is interpreted as meaning "ten" in Arabic. (The normal Arabic word for ten is `asharah cognate to the Hebrew root `śr = "ten", the differing forms of s being the normal correspondence found in cognate roots between Arabic and Hebrew.)

Some try to connect the Arabic :Ashurah instead to the goddess Athirath/Asherah through the Ashira of Tema.

Yet cognate Semitic roots display this switching between ain and alif, and some Arabian accents pronounced, and indeed still do pronounce `ain as a glottal stop (like the tribe of Tamim whose name is given to this way of pronunciation).

Asherah in fiction

In the science fiction book Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson, Asherah is portrayed as a meta-virus brought to earth naturally or by alien broadcast. The Sumerian figure Enki is a proto-hacker or as Stephenson puts it "a neurolinguistic hacker" who uses his ability to manipulate people through language to introducing sentience to mankind and save them from the restrictive dogma of Asherah. Modern day glossolalia is attributed to a resurgence of the "cult of Asherah" and the meta-virus in humanity.

The worship of 'Asherat of the Sea' plays a large part in the plot of Jacqueline Carey's novel Kushiel's Chosen, placed in a fantasy version of Venice.

In the video game, Fire Emblem 'Path of Radiance', Ashera is a goddess, worshipped by the entire world. Armor blessed by the goddess can only be penetrated by weapons that are also blessed. Ashera plays a much larger part in Radiant Dawn. Her name is translated as "Astarte" in the Japanese version of the game.

The Mortal Kombat Character, Ashrah, is perceived as a holy character forced to fight her way out of 'Hell'.

The krautrock band Ash Ra Tempel sometimes goes by Ashra.

Anita Diamant's book The Red Tent refers to Asherah the mother goddess and to the Asherah pole as part of the pre-Judaic pagan roots; the book indicates that the wives of Jacob worshipped Asherah and other gods and goddesses, and claims that Jacob's son Asher was named by his mother for the goddess.

See also

Notes

Related publications

  • Tilde Binger: Asherah: Goddess in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament (Sheffield Academic Press,1997) ISBN 1-85075-637-6.
  • William G. Dever: Did God Have A Wife? Archaeology And Folk Religion In Ancient Israel (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company 2005)
  • Judith M.Hadley: The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah (U of Cambridge 2000)
  • Jenny Kien: Reinstating the Divine Woman in Judaism (Universal 2000)
  • Asphodel P. Long: In a Chariot Drawn by Lions (Crossing Press 1993).
  • Raphael Patai: The Hebrew Goddess (Wayne State University Press 1990 and earlier editions)
  • William L. Reed: The Asherah in the Old Testament (Texas Christian University Press, 1949).
  • Steve A. Wiggins: A Reassessment of "Asherah": A Study According to the Textual Sources of the First Two Millennia B.C.E. (Kevelaer: Verlag Butzon & Bercker; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1993). Second edition: (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2007) ISBN 1-59333-717-5.

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