Saturday, June 6, 2015

Asherah: The Tree of Life




Ivory box-lid found at Ugarit (1300 BCE) depicts Asherah
representing the Tree of Life feeding a pair of goats. 
UPDATE: One of two altars from 8 CBE in Israel was used to burn cannabis. Dual altars may have been used to worship divine couples; in this case Yahweh and Asherah are the most probable candidates, with the smaller altar where cannabis was burned most likely dedicated to Asherah. 

The Canaanite Earth and Mother Goddess, called "Creator of the Gods," is Asherah (also known as Athirat). Consort, sister or mother to the gods El and Baal, the first mention of Athirat is found in Babylonian texts dating to the first dynasty (1830–1531 B.C.). (Source: Judith M. Hadley, The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah).

She is often confused with Ashtart (Astarte), and is sometimes the mother of Astarte, or Ishtar. The Ashtoreth of the Hebrew Scriptures, worshipped along with Baal and reviled for their incense-burning practices in the Bible, may refer to Athirat the Mother Goddess, or to Ashtart. Polish anthropologist Sula Benet, whose 1936 doctoral thesis ''Hashish in Folk Customs and Beliefs'' won her a Warsaw Society of Sciences scholarship for graduate study at Columbia University, theorized that the biblical incense kaneh bosm was cannabis.

Athirat is associated with the Tree of Life, also known as the Tree of Knowledge, which appears in the Biblical myth of the Garden of Eden, bearing the forbidden fruit that allows men to think like gods.

"In light of Ashera's recognition as a symbol of the sacred tree and her cult's use of cannabis (Emboden 1972), it is of interest to note that in medieval times, certain Moslem groups referred to cannabis by the name ashirah," wrote Chris Bennett and Neil McQueen in Sex, Drugs, Violence and the Bible.  "They saw it as an endearing term for their hempen girlfriend" (Rosenthal 1971, p. 37, citing a 15th century list of nicknames for hashish from al-Badri.) Emboden says (1979, p. 53-4) "Greece had a word for smoking this plant, cannabeizein. This often took the form of volatilizing it by placing the resinous top in an incense burner in which myrrh, balsam, and frankincense had been mixed, this in the manner of the shamanic Ashera priestesses of pre-Reformation temples in Jerusalem, who anointed their skins with the mixture as well. This was possibly the material of the priestesses at Delphi."

Ke(d)eshet, the Egyptian goddess related to Asherah.
British Museum.
Some say Asherah is also sometimes shown riding a lion, holding lilies and serpents in upraised hands, as Qadashu or Qetesh, as she was known in Egypt. Scholars think Ashoreh or Astarte and Baal were introduced in Egypt somewhere around 1450 BC, during the height of Ugarit.* Ugarit had close connections to the Hittite Empire, sent tribute to Egypt at times, and maintained trade and diplomatic connections with Cyprus. 1350 BC Canaan was of significant geopolitical importance as the area where the spheres of interest of the Egyptian, Hittite, and Assyrian Empires converged.

In Biblical times, an Asherah meant a sacred tree or pole to honor the goddess. In the Bible, the Hebrews are repeatedly instructed to destroy all the Asherah poles, even though the goddess was considered a consort of Yahweh. But her sacred tree or pole in the temple at Jerusalem stood for about 240 years until the temple's final destruction in 70 CE.

(Left) Asherah Tree from palace of Ashurnasirpal II; (right) Modern Image of Cannabis Harvest. 

A relief from the palace of Ashurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) showing an Asherah Tree is surrounded by male figures holding anointing oils. The tree's leaves have seven or nine points, and a large cola-like flower in the middle, like cannabis. The winged figure or dove over the tree might be a precursor to the Holy Spirit, the third member of the Christian trinity. The dove was a "ubiquitous symbol of goddess religions," probably because of doves' ability to make milk. 

A modern image of a cannabis harvest, from the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library, is strikingly similar to the Asherah Tree.

*Athirat is a key player in the Baal Cycle found at Ugarit (at its height from 1450 BCE to 1200 BCE). We first see her sitting by the sea using a spindle and doing laundry. The rites contained a sacred drink as an offering:

He [Ba’al] does get up, he makes ready a feast and gives him drink;
he places a cup into his hand(s), a flagon into both his two hands,
a large beaker, great to see, a holy cup such as/which should never woman behold,
a goblet such as/which should never Athirat set her eye on;
a thousand pitchers he takes of wine, ten thousand he mixes in....

Wine in ancient times is thought to have contained herbs or drugs as well as fermented fruits.

In two places the Baal Cycle alludes to anointing with sacred oil, once when the priestess undergoes a ritual shaving, and secondly when she is returned to her father's house. "Anointing is widely understood as a rite of purification," says Daniel E. Fleming in The Installation of Baal's High Priestesses at Emar. He adds: "The meaning and origin of the practice of anointing have been thoroughly discussed by biblical scholars because the rite is so prominent in account of selecting both kings and priests." In Ugarit times, women were also anointed during wedding rituals and during a ceremony that brought a woman out of slavery as a prostitute. Anointing oils may have contained cannabis, say some scholars.


1 comment:

Unknown said...

Franz Rosenthal The Herb p. 37