Michael A Rizzotti
Archaeological findings show that the earliest and the most prevalent type of artifacts discovered in Old Europe show an overwhelming concern with female symbolism. They were, in all probability, connected to some form of cultic origin or purpose.1 The discovery of sculptured images and cave paintings of female figures from numerous sites, some dating as far back as twenty five thousand years, reveals a pervasive interest in female artistic representation that suggests some form of Goddess worship. One typical example of the earliest expressions of these figurines was found in the region of Dordogne, France, it depicts a pregnant woman. These little statues, also called Venuses -named after the Roman goddess of love- outnumber their male counterparts ten to one.
These discoveries have a tremendous implication on the theories of the origin and development of the earliest forms of religious beliefs and mythological expressions. According to the archaeological data, these female cultic representations appear to have been pervasive during most of the prehistory of Old Europe. Although archaeologists and anthropologists do not agree on a single theory to explain these discoveries, they nevertheless recognize that they reveal the basis of an elaborate system of cultic life in connection with attributes associated with the goddess worship.
A great number of the figurines, though not all, are early evidence of fertility cults linked to the emergence of agriculture. The sheer abundance of these Venuses confirms nevertheless, an overwhelming feminine presence in the cultural and religious life of prehistoric cultures.
These artifacts represent a wide variety of female functions such as, maturation, menstruation, copulation, pregnancy, birth, and lactation. These goddesses came in different shapes and forms. In some instances, they are represented by animal forms like a snake or a bird. Among the water and air deities some are believed to be cosmic symbols of regeneration and life. Other cases show the figurines as faceless, nude, and corpulent. Others represent women with enormous breasts, buttocks, and protruding abdomens. While the more common ones show women in an advanced stage of pregnancy.
What is most interesting about these discoveries is the consistency and continuity with which these cults evolved from the early stages of history. Gradually, goddess’ representation developed into a complex symbolism of human needs. They presumably arose with the development of agriculture and domestication, and are believed to be responsible for the development of a more complex form of social organization.
It is during the Neolithic Revolution that we begin to see signs of humans mastering their natural environment. Slowly, the main forms of subsistence evolved from hunting and food gathering, to agriculture and the domestication of herd animals.2
Foremost, goddess artifacts have been associated with the fertility cults. Although the survival of the species must have been a central concern of the fertility cults, these goddesses were also, in a broader sense, life creators, a symbol of renewal and socio-cultural regeneration. It is probable that these symbols reflect an important stage in the evolution of symbolic representation of culture in general. As Marija Gimbutas points out, the Great Goddess is much more than a mere fertility goddess.3 She played an essential part in the development of religious symbolism and culture.
Goddess worship cannot be dispelled as only a stage in the evolutionary process, but must be recognized as a fundamental aspect of the primal representation of the human psyche, which Mircea Eliade calls archetypes.4 These discoveries demand a closer scrutiny and a greater attention. They are an indispensable key to fully understanding the past and present religious and mythological world we live in.
And as we have already outlined, gooddess profane representation has been deliberately overshadowed in the Bible. For this reason alone, the continuous study of the primal essence of her being is important. If one takes notice of the growing interest and the ever greater number of books on the subject, her obscurity may only be temporary. And if the momentum persists, we might find the key to unraveling the whole reality of human spirituality.
Between the fifth and fourth millennia BCE, the peaceful, sedentary and agricultural societies of Old Europe, in which the Great Goddess, it is believed, played a major role, began to endure the invasion of nomadic patriarchal tribes. The warrior mentality of the god(s) worshipers began to challenge the goddess’ dominion and they began to impose their own cults.5 One possible scenario is that, in time, none of the goddesses retained their supremacy; they were forced into subservience and cast into oblivion.
As centuries passed and as the major cultures of ancient Near East like Egypt and Sumer developed, goddess’ worship retained some its popularity as she shared equal devotion with her male counterparts. In the semi-nomadic tribes of Israel, however, the Goddess was undergoing a propaganda campaign to completely eradicate her reality from their cultic practices. Back then, women were literally and legally the property of men who submitted to the tribal rule of the God of the fathers. These laws and practices reflected the exclusion of the goddess principle from the cultic life of Israel: the God of Israel was believed to be the only superior God, no other god could be worshiped except him. In the process, monotheism thrived at the expense of other gods and goddesses.
We have seen in Genesis and all through the text of the Pentateuch how critical it became to control the progeny through the dominion of women’s fertility. The female’s sexuality had to be checked and maintained under male authority so to preserve the racial origin of the offspring. Women’s behavior was closely regulated by the patriarchal laws, in stark contrast with more ancient matrilineal cultures where life in society was ruled by the legitimacy of the mother’s offspring regardless of who the father was.
As the community life developed into more complex forms of social organization, the symbolic manifestations of the gods and goddesses evolved as well. Cosmologies became more elaborate as they reflected a more complex form of the socio-cultural life they depicted.
From the early stages of prehistory to the emergence of more developed cultures, worship of the Goddess remained more or less pervasive. Although she may have assumed different identities, her essence remained basically the same. Many such goddesses in the ancient Near East were extremely popular and could be found in the most important cultures at the dawn of history.
Among them is Asherah, a Canaanite goddess, alluded by tree symbol in Genesis.
The 1929 discovery of the Ugarit tablets in Ras Shamra, Syria, enabled scholars to decipher that Athirat, of which Asherah is a dialectical variant, is described as the wife of El, the chief god of the Ugaritic pantheon. While El is described as the God, the strong, powerful one, the father, and the creator of creatures, Athirat is portrayed as the creatress of the gods.6 As we have mentioned, El is one of the most ancient references to the Semitic God.
The presence of Asherah in the Bible has provoked considerable scholarly debate. This goddess was worshiped by the Canaanites, a people who spoke a Semitic language in the area that is commonly known today as Palestine and Israel. At different periods of Israel’s history, the goddess was also revered by the Hebrews to the great consternation of the prophets. Ample evidence of her influence is related in the Bible.
One particular episode of Israel’s history is revealing. Following the secession of the northern kingdom of Israel from the southern kingdom of Judah, during Jeroboam’s reign, Asherah was worshiped in the temple of Jerusalem as late as 586 BCE. Even Solomon, who built the temple, worshiped Asherah.7
The goddess principle is a blend of several Near Eastern goddesses: among them, the Canaanites Athirat and Astarte, the Egyptians Qudshu and Anat, as well as the Mesopotamian goddesses Inanna and Ishtar. Asherah was a giver of life and a symbol of fertility, and her cult involved some form of temple prostitution.
The extent to which this particular form of worship had influenced and penetrated Judaism can be seen in details in Biblical texts themselves.8
2 Kings 17:16 And they forsook all the commandments of the lord their God, and made for themselves molten images of two calves; and they made an Ashe’rah, and worshiped all the hosts of heaven, and served Ba’al.
Asherah, in the Old Testament, mostly refers to a cultic place or to objects in the form of a wooden stela representing a tree. The tree, as we have outlined, is a predominant symbol of the creation in Genesis. These upright pillars, usually carved with inscriptions, were, for the most part, symbols of human and agricultural fertility. These sculptured wooden images set in the ground next to the god Baal were located on hilltops.9
The Asherah was an important household cult. Numerous small clay figurines of nude women were found all over Palestine. They can be dated from all ages of the Israelite period. These nude clay figurines were kept for private use by the worshipers. Several of these are typical representations of Asherah shown as a woman with protruding breasts. According to this evidence, the worship of the goddess must have been popular among all segments of Hebrew society. The cult, it seems, did not meet serious opposition until the end of the Israelite monarchy.
Asherah was known to the Hebrews since the first settlement in Canaan, after the exodus. Having to depend on agriculture as a means of survival, they probably also turned to the local customs related to the fertility cults, of which Asherah was a predominant goddess.
There is no such thing as a Hebrew goddess in the Bible. There is, however, ample evidence of a strong opposition to her cult. There are numerous passages attesting to the threat that the goddess posed to Yahweh.
Among the many interesting accounts that reveal the presence of Asherah, is the episode in the royal court of Israel during the reign of King Ahab (873-852 BCE). He had married Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Sidon, in order to cement an alliance with her father. Acting under her influence, King Ahab built an altar to Baal in Samaria and made an Asherah.10 In Sidon, Asherah had been worshiped for at least five centuries prior to that. Evidence of her popularity is reflected by the number of guests that are said to have been invited at a feast. On that occasion, the king’s court was filled with 450 prophets of Baal, and 400 prophets of Asherah. The intrusion of these aliens infuriated the prophet Elijah who challenged the Baal prophets to a rain-making contest. The Canaanite god was defeated in a violent uproar led by Elijah and his people. Yahweh was vindicated. Although the account mentions the slaughter of all of Baal’s prophets, there is no word of the outcome of Asherah’s prophets. Why were they spared Yahweh’s wrath? One explanation could be that she was a popular deity among the people. Perhaps, as David Noel Freedman suggests, Yahweh defeated Baal to take Asherah as his own consort. 11
2 Kings 13:6 …the Ashe’rah also remained in Samar’ia.
Although Asherah was a predominant figure, other goddesses were also popular; among them, Astarte, also called Anat, the daughter of Asherah and El. Although Astarte is mentioned 9 times in the Bible compared to 40 times for her mother, she nevertheless surpassed her mother in popularity during certain periods of history. The name Astarte means literally the womb, and she was often called she of the womb. The name is in itself revealing. She, like her mother, was a goddess of fertility, and her brother and consort, was the symbol of male fertility. They were known as the divine couple, and as the begetters.
There are abundant archaeological discoveries that link Egyptian and Canaanite divinities. The discovery at the malachite mines of Serabit el Khadim, on the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, reveals a similarity between the goddess’ cults in Canaan and Egypt. Numerous small relief plaques have been found in these areas on which the image of the goddess Astarte bears a very close resemblance to the Egyptian images of Isis and Hathor. The latter was also called the Lady of the Sycamore, a common representation that links the symbol of the tree to Asherah. These plaques, for the most part, were found marked with the inscription quadosh -holy. Albright observed that the Canaanite divinities might be more primitive than other forms of worship. He also noted that these Canaanite gods and goddesses have a fluidity of personality and function. In other words, these divinities can change physical shape and form, alter their relationships and identity with other divinities at will, and adopt names of other goddesses with incredible ease.12
As we explained, Yahweh emerged from a revelation in the desert. The exodus was the return to a semi-nomadic way of life similar to the herdsmanship of the Patriarchs before their move to Egypt. Furthermore, the journey toward the promised land was favorable neither for agriculture nor for the cults related to fertility, as evidenced by the manna, the food God sent from the sky. Yahweh thrived in the desert where the isolation helped to develop the fundamental precept of the opposition to other gods and Asherah.
Judg. 2:13 They forsook the lord, and served the Ba’als and the Ash’taroth.13
The worship of the goddess Asherah was reported in the scriptures as continually antagonizing Yahweh.14 The texts often refer to the deity as Ashtoreth, a derogative name that implied shame.
1 Sam. 7:3 Then Samuel said to all the house of Israel, “If you are returning to the lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ash’taroth from among you, and direct your heart to the lord, and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So Israel put away the Ba’als and the Ash’taroth, and they served the lord only.
The commandment is very explicit. It does not allow the worship of any molten image or any goddess. Although the prohibition to worship any other gods does not exclusively refer to Asherah, the goddess of fertility is, without a doubt, a primal target. Was the first commandment specifically directed toward the popular goddess Asherah? One thing is certain, the goddess’ worship was a threat to Yahweh’s patriarchal precepts.
What is remarkable about Exodus is that it remains, for the people of Israel, the most sacred event, and the most sacred narrative. Everything in Judaism is centered around the text: Yahweh, Moses, the alliance, the commandments, the law, the ark, and the promised land. Most of the original religious experience stems from the revelation of Yahweh as a jealous God opposed to any other god.
Yet Judaism is not devoid of the feminine aspect of the divinity. The shekhinah is often used by the Talmudic tradition to describe a mystical presence of God. The concept eventually developed into a spiritual entity that personified a compassionate figure, mostly with feminine attributes, that sometimes argued with God in defense of the humans. The shekhinah was a mediating agent between the divine and the human. The Hebrew word shekhinah means dwelling or resting place, but it is more commonly used in the sense of presence. The word first appeared in early rabbinical literature as it referred to the divine presence in the tabernacle. It eventually came to signify God’s presence among the people of Israel.
The rabbis believe that the shekhinah had a close and privileged relationship with Moses. According to the Talmudic tradition, the feminine companion was present from his childhood through his adult life, continually communicating with him. Moses even left his wife to be closer to his shekhinah.15
The Mother of God
The Gospels herald a new era. A transition from the Old tradition to the New. The Bible’s emphasis on God of the Fathers is shifted to God the Son. The imageless features of the Father become visible in the Incarnation of the Word. The promised land of old is replaced by the quest for the kingdom of Heaven. The two kingdoms are visionary anticipations of an-other world created by the Word.
The new Christian era also inaugurates new relationships: between the divine Father and his Son, but also between the Mother of God and her child Jesus.
The Incarnation brings forth the question of the birth of Jesus. Although John the Evangelist identifies the origin of Jesus with the Word in Genesis, Matthew and Luke relate the birth of Christ to his virgin Mother. Mary’s motherhood is, henceforth, put in the foreground. In Genesis, man’s inception is shaped by divine hands, with the dust from the ground, then God breaths life into it, while the woman is an afterthought, ironically born of man’s own flesh. In Matthew and Luke, however, Mary is the matrix of the Messiah’s birth. Perhaps inconspicuously, the narratives open the door to Mary as the Mother of God, a symbolic link toward the primordial Great Mother.
Except for the birth narratives, her image is overshadowed by her son’s mission. Yet while Jesus speaks constantly of his absent Father, it is his mother who is present at the most crucial moments of his life. She conceives Jesus Christ with the spiritual intervention of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is born human through her, and divine through the Spirit; hence, the Incarnation. At Cana, Mary asks Jesus to perform his first miracle, the first of his signs, which inaugurates his public life. At his crucifixion, the culmination of her son’s mission, she witnesses her son’s whole life cycle: his birth, his mission, and his death. Her presence symbolizes her son’s sacrifice as well as hers.
It is another Mary, however, that is present at Jesus’ resurrection. It is Mary Magdalene, Jesus’ loved one, who first sees the resurrected body of Christ. Finally, at the Pentecost, both Marys and all of the other disciples are reunited and are filled with the Holy Spirit.
Mary is described, in the Gospels, as the mother of Jesus. Only later, at the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD, would she gain the title of theotokos; ie, the Mother of God.
Ephesus, by a freak historical coincidence, was also the site of the most famous temples of Artemis. In Greek mythology, she was the goddess of chastity and of the hunt, similar to her Roman counterpart Diana. Although she is known as parthenos, as both maiden and virgin, she was also the goddess of childbirth. In many ways, Artemis also typifies the prehistoric archetype of the goddess of fertility and regeneration popular in Old Europe.
At the outset, Artemis was the prototype of the Great Goddess. Later, her role in Greek mythology was transformed into that of a virgin. This image of the maiden or the virgin could be seen as further evidence of the patriarchal/hierarchical representation of women’s sexuality in mythology.16
The title of God’s bearer, given to Mary at Ephesus, does not confer upon her the divine attribute of goddess, even though the sacred affiliation to her Son gives her somewhat of a divine right. Although Christianity has no goddess per se, the Mother of God shares many similar attributes and functions. And despite the fact that Mary does not play a prominent role in the New Testament, her image has developed into a cult of great following and devotion. Mary’s devotion, especially if seen by non-Catholics, is, in many ways, comparable to a goddess’.
The birth narratives are the most eloquent about Mary’s identity.17 It is through these texts that she has been immortalized as the Mother of God. It is that image that is most present in our minds. Foremost, the virginal conception has been the center of important theological debates, especially with the proclamation of the Immaculate Conception defined by Pius IX in 1854.18
The virginal birth of Jesus is one among many examples of the role that virginity plays in the world of mythologies. There are other parallels to be found among founders of other religions who were also born of virgins: Buddha, Krishna, the son of Zoroaster, and, in some versions, Zoroaster himself. In Greek and Roman mythologies, heroes born to virgins are typified by Dionysos, Romulus and Remus. The concept of virginal birth can also be found in most ancient cultures like Egypt, Greece, Persia, and India. The concept is also prominent in the native North American cultures like the Inuit, the Apache, and the Navajo.
Most of the examples point to the heroes whose mothers were virgin as a sign of their greatness, but not necessarily to the virginity per se. In other words, the fact that these heroes were portrayed as being born to a virgin is a sign of their supernatural origin. In the language of myth, the supernatural quality of the heroes is attested through a virgin mother as a sign that separates them from ordinary people. In a sense, the cause of their greatness might be connected to the unique and exclusive relationship they had with their mother. The virginity may be tied to the unconditional nature of the relationship between the mother and the child. It also infers the woman’s independence and self-sufficiency in her role of mother. It suggests that the fertility is rooted in herself and is self-contained.
In mythology, there seems to be no apparent contradiction in the belief that a mother can also be a virgin. In order to understand the virginal conception, one has to see it in the light of mythological significance. As a specific form of language, myth deals in a metaphysical and metaphorical dimension. The physical world is differentiated from metaphysical as it relates to two distinct semantic realities. Such is the distinction between spiritual conception and the physical -or sexual- conception of Christ. Moreover, the word conception is equivocal. Both the physical and metaphysical sense can be implied. It allows for two types of relationships; between man and woman in procreation, and between mother and child in gestation.
The virginal conception depicts the relationship between Mother and Son as one of devotion, a unique and special spiritual bond, so to speak. It implies a dynamic revelation of the Holy Spirit by Mary in her conception of Christ. Her virginity relates more to her spiritual relationship with her Son than to a biological state or her sexual behavior with a father who remains in the background.19 In other words, between mother and child, we can speak of a pure, spiritual, and unconditional love.
Mother >child>virginity = spiritual conception
woman>man>sexual relation = physical conception
The word conception should be understood here in the context of its two meanings. First, in the spiritual sense, as the faculty of conceiving in the mind. Second, as procreation, the action of conceiving in the womb. On one hand, the Virgin Mary, through the spiritual revelation of the Holy Spirit, conceived of Christ according to tradition. In this sense, the Holy Spirit is not to be understood as the male element in the intervention, but as God’s presence which Mary acknowledges.20 On the other hand, the birth of Jesus the man is biological, historical. Here, the parthenogenesis of Jesus underlines the unique relationship between Mary and Jesus. Both conceptions make up the mystery in which the Son of man and the Son of God meet in the Incarnation of Jesus/Christ, the Son/God.
Holy Spirit > Virgin Mary > Christ = Jesus Christ
Mary’s revelation > Mary’s body > Jesus
Another important event in Mariology took place in 1950 when Pope Pius XII defined the dogma of the Assumption of Mary. This dogma confirms that Mary, the virgin mother of God, was taken into heaven in body and soul.
The likeness between God’s Mother and her divine Son, in the way of the nobility and dignity of body and soul -a likeness that forbids us to think of the heavenly Queen as being separated from the heavenly King- makes it entirely imperative that Mary “should be only where Christ is”.21
The epithet Queen of Heaven is a title also shared by Astarte and Asherah.22 Even though theological doctrine forbids any connection between the Virgin Mary and the pagan goddesses, it remains interesting that a similar name came up to describe the Mother of God. It just shows that the archetype of the Goddess principle is always present deep in the human psyche. If we compare some other attributes and names associated with the goddess we come up with this:
heavenly Queen Queen of heaven
Mother of God Creator of gods
mother of Jesus fertility goddess
conceived in her womb Astarte, the womb
We have seen how the goddess principle has been opposed in the Old Testament and overshadowed in the New, until only a glimpse of her image could be perceived in the background. Throughout history, her epithets and names may have changed yet her essence remained the same.
The Church, in its own spiritual way, acknowledged her being since the mid-nineteenth century. In 1858, Mary appeared in Lourdes, France, where her Spirit performed numerous miracles. She appeared again in Fatima, Portugal, in 1917. And lately, visions of her being have been reported in Medugorje, Yugoslavia. Her apparitions are expressions of a deep longing for her spiritual being and are signs of spiritual as well as political change.23
1 See Marija Gimbutas, The Language of the Goddess, San Francisco, Harper and Row, 1989.
2 James Mellaart, Earliest Civilizations of the Near East, New York, McGraw-Hill, 1965.
3 Marija Gimbutas, Ibid., 316-317.
4 Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History, New York, Harper Torchbooks, 1959.
5 The abundant discoveries of that period’s arms may help corroborate and justify such a theory.
6 A common trait of the divinities of the time is that the male gods tended to represent a reality statically, whereas their female consorts were thought of as bringing that reality into action. See William J. Fulco, SJ., The Canaanite God Resep, New Haven, American Oriental Society, 1976.
7 1 Kings 11:5; 15:13; 2 Kings 17:16f.
8 The name Asherah with the more commonly masculine plural Asherim was used in the Bible. See also Kings 18:17-19; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 13:6, 21:7, 23:6f.; Jeremiah 7:17-18; 44:17-25, etc.
9 See Raphael Patai’s chapter on Asherah in, The Hebrew Goddess, New York, Avon Books, 1978.
10 1 Kings 16:32-33; 18:19-40.
11 See David Noel Freedman’s, Yahweh of Samaria and His Asherah, in, Biblical Archeologist, December 1987, 249. In another event, the narrative describes how Asherah also escaped the Baalist massacre and the destruction of Baal’s temple in Samaria during yet another Yahwist uprising.
12 William Foxwell Albright, Archeology and the Religion of Israel, Baltimore, The Johns Hopkins Press, 1968, 71 ff.
13 Also: Judg.10:6; 1 Sam. 7:3-4; 31:10.
14 Judg. 2:13, 3:7; 1 Sam. 7:3-4.
15 The Talmud also associates the divine essence with the Spirit of God. Both expressions relate to God’s presence and closeness with his people.
16 Carol P. Christ, Symbols of Goddess and God in Feminist Theology, in, The Book of Goddess Past and Present, ed. by Carl Olson, New York, Crossroad, 1983, 231-251.
17 The Koran also makes some eloquent and reverential references to Mary (Surahs 3 and 19).
18 Pius IX, Immaculate Conception, Ineffabilis Deus, DS 2803, issued December 8, 1854, Boston, St-Paul Books and Media.
19 The narratives describe man’s participation, as portrayed by Joseph, as secondary. Mary is described as “betrothed” to Joseph, but he did not “know” her -a word used to imply sexual union. Nevertheless, Joseph, by recognizing Jesus as his child though he was not his own, became his legal father according to Jewish law.
20 In Hebrew, the word for spirit has a rather feminine connotation which corroborates, in this instance, Mary’s “spiritual” act of conceiving God.
21 Pius XII, Assumption, Munificentissimus Deus, DS 3903, issued November 1, 1950, Boston, St-Paul Books & Media, 15.
22 Merlin Stone, When God Was a Woman, San Diego, Harvest/HBJ Book, 1976, 163 ff.
23 As Karl Rahner points out, visions and apparitions must be interpreted as spiritual expressions of deep mystical feelings rather than inexplicable physical marvels. When the Church investigates the validity of such visions, for instance, it does not examine the physical evidence of the apparition but the spiritual trustworthiness of the people who experience such happenings. See, Karl Rahner’s, Visions and Prophecies, London, Burns and Oates, 1963.