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How Judaism And Christianity Erased The Goddess


Image by H. Newberry from Pixabay


The Hebrew Goddess Asherah

Long ago, in the ancient Near East, people once worshiped a goddess called Asherah. In Israel, the religion was very similar to that of nearby Canaan, and also to that of Egypt. The Israelites worshiped Elohim, his consort Asherah, as well as a pantheon, long before the name of Yahweh was revealed to Moses.


The Bible documents how Judaism railed against her and called her evil for centuries, attempting to eradicate the goddess religion and the portion of society that followed her. They went as far as to write into the Bible how the Hebrew God, Yahweh, killed his wife. After that, with the beginning of Christianity, they finally erased her.


If you look at the Christian Bible today, you will see places where the name Asherah has been re-translated as a “sacred grove of trees” instead of even using the name of the goddess. However, in the Jewish Bible, her name still appears.


The most gruesome and telling story, though, is in the book of Zechariah, and tells about how Yahweh killed his wife.

5 Then the angel who was talking with me came forward and said, “Look up and see what’s coming.” 6 “What is it?” I asked. He replied, “It is a basket for measuring grain, and it’s filled with the sins of everyone throughout the land.” 7 Then the heavy lead cover was lifted off the basket, and there was a woman sitting inside it. 8 The angel said, “The woman’s name is Wickedness,” and he pushed her back into the basket and closed the heavy lid again. 9 Then I looked up and saw two women flying toward us, gliding on the wind. They had wings like a stork, and they picked up the basket and flew into the sky. 10 “Where are they taking the basket?” I asked the angel. 11 He replied, “To the land of Babylonia, where they will build a temple for the basket. And when the temple is ready, they will set the basket there on its pedestal.”

(Zechariah 5:5–11)

The word for coffin is also the same as the word for shrine in the Hebrew, so this could be an attempt at word-play. And the lead weight would have prevented her mouth from being ritually opened, once she arrived in her new destination, so her worship in that location might not have been possible. It could also have been symbolic of the Greek practice of placing a coin on the tongue to pay for entrance to the netherworld. (Edelman) Finally, by the time of the second temple, worship of Asherah had stopped. (Edelman)


Evolution of the Female Devine

Even so, there remains in the Judeo-Christian tradition a sense of longing for her. With the Kabballah tradition in the medieval period comes the concept of the female Shekinah, who is supposed to represent the presence of god with the people. There is also other Kabalistic literature that refers to the Mother God, or Bride, and speaks about her in sexual ways that harken back to Asherah’s function as a fertility goddess. It involves specific Sabbath rituals that involve invoking the divine bride. In the Greek tradition, they refer to “Lady Wisdom” as one of Yahweh’s attributes. She will speak for him and is seen as his partner. She later becomes Sophia.


Veneration of Mary

The goddess still peeks through in the cracks of Christianity, with veneration of the Virgin Mary as a saint in the Catholic church. Women are still seeking to worship someone in whose image they were made. For many, Mary provides this template for them.


Some of women’s practice in worshiping Mary is similar to that of Asherah, in that it is more symbolic, personal, and they will light candles or leave tokens to commemorate their prayers. (Dever, 303) This shows that people still yearn for a connection with the goddess principle, and that the church has tried to accommodate them.


Within the Christian tradition, women are supposed to be in the home with their children and are blessed to do so, men are supposed to be in the public, and religious, sphere of life. “Devotional experience, including the intimate handling of sacred objects, may be discounted, especially when it is associated with women.” (Orsi, 51) This shows that even though women have developed their own devotional traditions around Mary, these traditions are not always taken serious by the dominant male religious culture, which can see these practices as out-dated and superstitious.


As Orsi continues, “Mary’s presence had been most real and pervasive before the period of devotional reform [of Vatican II] associated with the new theology and ecclesiology.” (Orsi, 51) This shows that even though women make themselves spiritually “at home” within Christianity through veneration of Mary, this practice is not always accepted within the wider Christian culture.


In other words, Mary is healing hearts and souls, but she is not changing the ways in which women are related to in the wider world. Perhaps this is why Ruth Martin puts forth the idea that “One of the vital functions of the Goddess as a metaphoric image was to shatter the mindset that accepted hierarchical patterns of dominance as ‘the way things are”’ (Martin, 214) This is the idea that by allowing themselves to relate to a feminine image of the divine, like Mary, women are protesting the idea that they are not as spiritually valuable as men.


By continuing to venerate Mary even though it is considered to be old-fashioned and superstitious, women are claiming that their own practices are just as valid and useful as those of men, because of the comfort that they provide. Women’s practices have persisted through time, even when these practices were persecuted, and that in itself shows the strength of women’s religion.


Since many within the Christian tradition practice devotion to Mary, we can see how Mary gives women a personal aspect of the divine with whom they can relate in their daily lives. Even though these practices are thought to be syncretic with older practices of goddess devotion, especially in the case of Guadalupe in Mexico, the image of the female divine is powerful, whatever her name, and helps women to find a place within the Christian tradition. Mary is a role model for women, and helps them to feel at home in times of trouble and persecution; Mary gives women devotees a home within the patriarchal religious culture of Christianity.


As you can see, although the Monotheistic traditions of Judaism and Christianity have tried to eradicate goddess religion, there is still something alive of these ancient traditions today.


References

1. Edelman, Diana. (2003) “Proving Yahweh Killed His Wife (Zechariah 5:5–11)” www.brill.nl. pp. 336–344.

2. Dever, William G. (2005) Did God Have a Wife? Archeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Willian B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

3. Between Heaven and Earth. By Robert A. Orsi. 2005, Princeton University Press. Page 48- 72.

4. “Thealogical Reflections on Embodiment”. By Ruth Martin. 2004, The Continuum Publishing Group. Page 212–227.

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