This article has turned into a two-parter. Originally it was going to be a slightly longer post because once I got the ball rolling it was kind of hard to stop. I originally intended to only discuss the relationship between the Asherah and Yahweh of Canaanite mythology, yet I found once I began to write this article I needed to explain far more than I anticipated, using my experience researching The Lady of Zion as evidence for how I interpreted the scattering of clues about their contentious relationship. Instead I fell down a research rabbit hole and suddenly had almost eight pages of article for you. So, I’m going to split this article into two parts. Today’s post will focus on Asherah and Yahweh’s relationship, and next week will focus on what we know of Asherah herself.
One of the most useful things university taught me, was to come up with the idea I wanted to work with (i.e. story concept to write about), and then find the evidence to support it. In theory you were supposed to do your research first and then come up with the idea you wanted to work with, but most of us had our idea and then had to justify it, because in the world of academia you have to prove your interpretation of facts/evidence is legitimate. At least that was my experience of arts-based research. I wanted to write an Angel Lit novel (or series) where there was a pantheon of deities that the “God” had somehow suppressed. The idea was that the story would not only be entertaining, but an allegory of the path early Christianity took to become the dominating religion. In Pagans and Christians: in the Mediterranean World from the Second Century AD to the conversion of Constantine the author Fox seems to be indicating Christianity was at first plagued by discrimination by existing pagan faiths, then co-existed with them, then finally over took them. This sentiment is echoed by other scholars. This path of Christianity, along with some of our darker points in history (like the Salem Witch Trials and the Spanish Inquisition) gave me a solid allegorical base.
As I researched the idea further, with the intention of justifying how I could make Yahweh the “bad guy” (although in The Lady of Zion “bad” is more a relative point of view than actual villainy), I discovered there was actually quite a lot of evidence to suggest in the development of Yahwehism, that Yahweh was in fact a part of a pantheon of gods, and he became the dominant deity of worship among his devotees along with his wife. Then, as Yahwehism and monotheism developed further this god became the “only” god. I believe I have elaborated elsewhere that the term Elohim (used in the Old Testament to denote heavenly hierarchy of angels) is believed to have originally indicated a pantheon of deities, with Elohim being the “plural form of the name of the deity El” (Burnett, 1999, p5). If “Elohim” is linguistically plural then it reinforces the statement by Day that “it has become increasingly clear that Yahweh, like the Canaanite god El, was envisaged as presiding over a council of heavenly beings.” (Day, 1986, p 17). My idea, scholarly speaking, had merit. I was excited to continue my research (although I never ended up completing my Masters for health reasons).
Returning to my original story idea and Fox’s summation of history, it seemed clear that at some point in religious history, one of the gods became “the God”, at least theologically speaking. So, in terms of my fiction, how did Yahweh become seen as the “only god”? That was one of the elements I needed to work out in The Lady of Zion. Further research helped me come up with an explanation.
Christian faith strongly believes that at some point in history there has been a war in Heaven, lead by Lucifer. A war would easily explain how one of the gods overtook the others in order to lead. Pagan religions such as Hellenists, Ancient Egyptians and more, all have stories in which the old gods were replaced by the new, usually with the father/king being deposed by the son. I decided to do similar with my characters in The Lady of Zion. I came across this gem written by John Day while I was researching for my thesis: “Yahweh inhabited the second tier as one of the children of the great father god El, or Elyon, whom Yahweh subsequently deposed… usurped the other second-tier gods and declared himself chief god” (Penchansky, 2005, citing John Day Wisdom in Ancient Israel). I felt like I had struck gold: another validating source for my idea, although, on the one hand it was disappointing that I couldn’t claim to have been the origin of this idea of the conquering Yahweh.
The more I research ideas I have, or the more I read what other writer’s have written, the more I am convinced in the collective unconscious. There are so many times I think I’ve come up with something 100% original and then find out later someone else has written almost the exact same story or come up with the same idea!
The surviving bits of myth we have from Ancient Canaan (you can read more about that here) indicate that Asherah, once the wife of El, at some point becomes the consort-wife of Yahweh after he dislodges El as King of the Gods. The bits of myth I’ve been able to find indicate her relationship with Yahweh was not a matter of the heart, but rather a strategy to ensure the safety of her family. In his doctoral thesis Yamashita writes, “Asherah sleeps with ‘the storm-god’ by agreement of Elkunirshar (husband) because he killed 77 or 88 of her children, further battles would be worse” (Yamashita p37) in this case the storm god is Baal and the story evocative of the myths of Lilith. In some Jewish faiths Lilith, once cast from the Garden of Eden, becomes the mother of monsters and God vows to kill all of her children (although there are many versions, you can read about it here). Lilith on the one hand is not cowed and continues to create monstrous offspring, while Asherah attempts to appease the war lord. But the goddess, as the Canaanites saw her, seems to know when to pick her battles. In the Baal Cycle, Asherah speaks on behalf of Baal to the gods when Baal attempts to claim the Kingship of Heaven. As Asherah herself had sons by El, to do so would be to cheat her sons out of their inheritance; “Asherah, whose son’s had royal ambitions themselves, also had to give her consent… and she joined Anat in promoting the construction of a house for Baal” (Coogan & Smith).
At some point during history Yahweh and Baal have become confused, with Yahweh taking Baal’s role as King of Heaven, and his consort Asherah. Baal became the main antagonist of the divine king. This view is discussed in Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh with the writer suggesting “since Asherah was El’s main consort in Canaanite religion her pairing with Yahweh, who is identified with El by biblical writers would make sense” (Olyan, 1988, p xiv) as Baal was the deity whom sought after El’s Kingship in Canaanite myth we can see how Baal becomes the villain. Further in the text Olyan writes, “it is… commonplace in biblical scholarship to assume that Asherah was the consort of Baal in the Iron Age, although she was El’s consort in the Bronze Age.’ (Olyan, 1988, p 38) this would indicate a theological dethroning of El as King in favour of Baal.
The New World Encyclopedia claims “Israelites shared many of the religious beliefs of their Canaanite neighbors, as the monotheistic idea developed, Baal became the chief villain of Israelite religion”, and as Yahweh was the Hebrew god of the Israelites, it is understandable how the conquering Yahwehists would assimilate some of local myths of the King of Heaven and his Queen by rewriting them to feature Yahweh. In this context we can see Asherah as a “spoil of war”. It was not uncommon for conquering nations to take wives from the conquered culture, and there is documented evidence that cultures like the Greeks and Romans often married their male gods to the local female deity in an effort to conquer the religion of the area. In this context we can see how the same narrative theological fate could have applied to Asherah. New World Encyclopedia’s versions of the myths of Baal differ slightly from others I’ve read, so while it supports an argument for the popularity of Yahweh to unseat Baal as King of the Gods, it should be noted that what we understand of the myths as the ancient Canaanites understood them is murky at best.
There is little doubt that as Queen of Heaven worship of Asherah was prominent prior to monotheism. It is clear from surviving archaeological discovers and texts that at one point in time Asherah was seen as the wife of Yahweh and worshipped alongside him. Next week I’ll go into further detail about the worship of Asherah, and what we can decipher from surviving texts about how the people of Cana might have related to her.
- Burnett, J. S. (1999). A Reassessment of biblical Elohim. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertation & Theses Global. (Order No: 9927030)
- Campbell, J. & Moyers, B. (1988). The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday
- Coogan, M. D., & Smith, M. S. Stories from Ancient Canaan.
- Day, P. L. (1986). “Satan” in the Hebrew Bible (Divine Council, Job (Book of))(Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (Order No: 8704474)
- R. L. (1988). Pagans and Christians: In the Mediterranean World from the second century AD to the conversion of Constantine. London, England: Penguin Group
- Howard, M. (2004). The Book of Fallen Angels. Copal Bann Publishing: Somerset
- Olyan, S. M. (1988). Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Atlanta, Georgia: Scholars Press
- Penchansky, D. (2005). Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press
- Yamashita, T. (1964). The Goddess Asherah. (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (Order No. 8103904)