Trudy Tannen (c) 1998
The earliest religious practices of human societies seem to have focused exclusively on female deities, great mother goddesses who ruled over all creation and sometimes lesser divinities. However, based on the information regarding the religious practices of the Canaanites recorded in the Hebrew Bible, the ancient Canaanites worshipped male gods rather than female goddesses. Now other documents from the area have been discovered. While the information contained in these documents is highly fragmented and tightly linked to the locations where they were found, the documents do shed further light on the beliefs of people in the Middle Eastern region once called the Land of Canaan.
The most significant find was a collection of texts found at the site of an ancient city called Ugarit. Although the pantheon of the Canaanites who settled at Ugarit was headed by masculine deities, the feminine counterparts were not silent partners. Two female members of the pantheon are of particular note: Asherah (or sometimes Athirat) and Astarte. Asherah was one of the two wives of El, the chief god of the pantheon. Astarte was a goddess whose name appears in a list of deities who are to receive sacrifices; however, her name has been preserved by other cultures. At some point in time, these two goddesses were apparently mingled. Of the two, Asherah most closely parallels other “divine mother” goddesses such as Inanna who were common within the region.
The largest collection of early documents from the Canaanite lands was found in Ugarit. The first Semitic settlement was formed there around 3000 BCE. The texts offer insights into the religious practices of the community. However, the extent of these practices throughout the region cannot be known. It is doubtful that the practices of the Ugarit settlement were found throughout all of the Palestinian region referred to in the Hebrew Bible as the Land of Canaan. (Eliade, History 149-150.)
Asherah was first the wife of the creator-god named El. Later Baal acquired her as his wife. The myths that were developed concerning these deities held close parallels to the events of nature that bring the rains to the Canaanite lands. Asherah is identified as the mother of gods and is the divine nurturer of the pantheon. Astarte, on the other hand, seems to be more closely identified with flocks and herds than the overall fertility of the region.
What is known of the mythology from Ugarit centers on how Baal supplanted El as the supreme god of the pantheon. In the course of his conquests, he also overthrew two other gods: Yamm, Prince of the Sea, and Mot, a deity representing death. El, a name meaning “god” that is found almost universally in Semitic cultures, was regarded as a personal god rather than some type of divine force. He is identified in the texts as the creator of the universe; however, despite being a personal god, he was seen as remote from creation. Asherah, as his designated wife, was called “the Mother of the Gods” and was said to have borne seventy sons. With the apparent exception of Baal, whose parentage is uncertain, all gods of the Ugarit myths were born to El and Asherah. (Eliade, History150-1). Although El had two wives, Anath in addition to Asherah, it was Asherah alone who nursed the newly born gods (Eliade, History151; Grimal 87).
Baal is identified both as a son of El and as “Son of Dagan.” Although a god named Dagan who was affiliated with grain was known in the Upper and Middle Euphrates regions, there is no mention of a deity named Dagan in the Ugarit texts (Eliade, History152). According to the myths, Baal seized the throne of El with a surprise attack in the palace of El on Mount Sapan. Baal then claimed Asherah and Anath as his wives. Yamm formed an alliance with his father, El, and attempted to drive Baal from the throne. However, Baal defeated Yamm, who had taken the form of a sea dwelling dragon. After Baal’s victory, Anath, the other wife of El who had become Baal’s wife, hosted a banquet for Baal and then fell into a murderous rage. It was Baal who deterred her from her destructive ways (Eliade, History 152-5).
With his place on the throne secure, Baal desired a palace that would befit his status as chief of the gods. Through Asherah, Baal presented his request to El. El agreed to the request and the palace for Baal was built. After construction was complete, Mot, the deity personifying death, requested Baal to visit him. Baal mated with a cow before he descended to Mot and the cow bore him a son. The exact means are not known from the texts, but it is clear that Baal either submitted to or was conquered by Mot . Upon hearing the news of Baal’s apparent demise, El mourned the loss and instructed Asherah to seek a successor for Baal. Anath, on the other hand, sought out the body of Baal. When she found Mot, she cut him open. El then dreamt that Baal was alive again. Seven years later, Mot returned and Baal reappeared. The two began their combat again which ended with Mot’s surrender to Baal as the supreme deity (Eliade, History 156-8).
Although the myth recorded in the Ugarit texts centers on the masculine deities Baal, El, Yamm, and Mot, the female deities are not minor players in the story. It is the goddess Asherah who seeks out a successor to Baal as the supreme deity. The other wife of El, Anath, seeks the corpse of Baal. Everyone seems to wait upon the actions of these two goddesses. It seems that these myths were shaped during a period of time in which the image of divinity was being reformed from a feminine image into a masculine one.
Prior to the development of the myths recorded in the Ugarit texts, the Phoenicians of Byblos worshipped a goddess they called Baalat, or “lady” of Byblos; there is no specific name for this goddess (Grimal 85). Although not technically part of the Canaanite lands, Byblos, also known as Gebal, was a Phoenician city just north of the territory settled by the Israelite tribe of Asher (Richards 657-8). The earliest mythologies of the region were derived from Sumerian sources (Grimal 85). Therefore, it seems likely that the unnamed “Lady of Byblos” was a local variation of the Sumerian goddess, Inanna.
Even as a masculine image of divinity was replacing a feminine one in the region, female divinities were not completely stripped of power or a role in the working of the universe. The Ugaritic myths reveal male deities who reflect a fixed reality such as fertility or warriorhood; the female deities are shown as the ones who translate that reality into action. It is the goddesses, not the gods, who bear the offspring and fight the battles. (Eliade 1987:492). The goddess Asherah is the one who is to choose who will sit on the throne as the supreme god of the pantheon. While everyone else mourns the demise of Baal, it is the goddess Anath who actually looks for the body.
The most likely candidate for the deposed “mother goddess” in the Ugaritic pantheon seems to be Asherah or, as she is called in the Ugaritic texts, Athirat. “Her full title is rbtatrt ym, Lady Athirat of the Sea” (Eliade 1987:492). Athirat was one of the two consorts of the El, the supreme god of the pantheon until the rise of Baal. She was not, however, the mother of all of El’s offspring and she had children of her own who were not considered El’s. Athirat also appears to be a desert goddess who was given connections to the sea when she was adopted into the Ugaritic pantheon. Her connection with the desert is affirmed when she goes out to the desert to nurse newborn gods. She was called “creatress of the gods” in juxtaposition to El’s title as “creator of creatures.” Her name was also used by people in the region to create a name meaning “Athirat is my mother” (Eliade 1987: 492).
In the Hebrew Bible, the Israelites who worship Yahweh struggled against the native religion of the Canaanite lands which centered on the god Baal. The name Asherah has been found linked to Yahweh at some Hebrew sites in the region. However, in the Bible Asherah is linked to the Baal typically by reference to an “Asherah pole.” Wooden figures were involved in her worship, but it is not clear how. Some sources suggest a wooden pole was set into a stone base as a phallic symbol (Cavendish, p. 133) while others suggest a sacred tree or even a sacred grove of trees (Richards 60). All sources concur that male prostitution was an element of the worship of Asherah.
The other name linked to Baal in the Hebrew Bible is “Ashtoreth.” This appears to be a combination of the words Ashtart, a Phoenician variation of Astarte, and boshet, a Hebrew word meaning shame (Eliade 1987:471). In all likelihood, the name was created to reflect the opposition of the biblical writers to the native Canaanite religions. Because references to Astarte have been corrupted, as in the case of the Hebrew scriptures, or commingled with other goddesses, as in the Greek sources, the cultural understanding of Astarte of that time is difficult to determine.
The goddess Astarte is frequently mentioned in lists of deities receiving offerings at Ugarit. Unlike most of the great mother goddesses of the region, Astarte does not appear to have a consort although one reference does call her a manifestation of Baal. At a later date, she was linked to love and fertility through identification with the goddesses Aphrodite and Ishtar; her most ancient association may have been with animal husbandry (Eliade 1987:471).
Although they were initially separate goddesses, Astarte seems to have been blended into the Ugaritic goddess Athirat and acquired her attributes. Astarte came to be used as the Greek name for Ishtar of Mesopotamia and Asherah of the Phoenicians and Canaanites (Cavendish 132). Like many regional fertility goddesses, Astarte was identified with the moon and depicted with a crescent moon. There is evidence from both biblical and non-biblical sources that her worship included frenetic dancing and self-mortification with knives and whips. Cult prostitution was practiced in the worship of Astarte, but there were also eunuchs among the temple attendance. The eunuchs were reported to have castrated themselves in worship of the goddess; thereafter they would dress in women’s clothing (Cavendish 134)..
Although the Hebrew Bible portrays the native religion of the Land of Canaan as dominated by the male deity Baal, the texts found at Ugarit reveal a different image of Canaanite religion. This is not surprising since the authors of the biblical texts were openly critical of and opposed to the religious practices of the Canaanites. The Ugaritic texts reveal an epic mythic saga with prominent male deities. However, the female deities are not minor characters supporting the male actors. The goddesses, particularly Asherah (or Athirat) and Anath, are often the true actors in the story. Of the two primary goddesses, Asherah shares many of the characteristics of the great mother goddesses found in many of the Middle Eastern cultures in the earliest times. Beyond the goddess Asherah in the Ugaritic texts, there are even earlier references to a mysterious goddess known as Baalat, or Lady, linked to the port city of Byblos which bordered the northern reaches of the Land of Canaan.