Saturday, June 6, 2015

Asherah: The Tree of Life

Ivory box-lid found at Ugarit (1300 BCE) is thought to
depict Asherah as 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, or 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.), along with her fellow goddesses Anat, Astarte, and Qedeshet. (Judith M. Hadley, The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess, Cambridge University Press, 2000.)

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. Ugaritic amulets show a miniature "tree of life" growing out of Asherah's belly (William G. Dever, Did God Have A Wife?: Archaeology And Folk Religion In Ancient Israel, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2005). In Biblical passages, an Asherah meant a sacred tree or pole to honor the goddess. It wasn't until the discovery of the Ugaritic texts in 1928 that she began to be seen as a goddess also.  

"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 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. Maacah, the daughter of the Biblical King David's son Absalom, was removed from her royal position by her grandson King Asa because "she built an obscene memorial to the goddess Asherah." (1 Kings 15:1-14, 2 Chronicles 11:20-22, 2 Chronicles 15:16)

(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.


Unknown said...

Franz Rosenthal The Herb p. 37

Anonymous said...

Where did you get that name Kedeshet? It isn't anywhere online. Seems like it's not the name of any Egyptian goddess as you claim.

Tokin Woman said...

I think Kedeshet is a transliteration of Qadesh,and%20became%20a%20popular%20deity.

Chris Bennett said...

You know the altar and Arad that showed evidence of cannabis resins, has been connected to the combined worship of Yahweh and Asherah? This connection is no longer a hypothesis
this is now an established historical connection.

Tokin Woman said...

Yes Chris, I wrote about that, at: (though I am the first author I am aware of that linked that find to Asherah).

Norman Lindgren said...

The english word history is derived from the Greek language, not derived from hisstory or his story.
In latin languages, and most others, everything is either masculine or feminine as the English was originally, but English discarded most of word gender.
For example in spanish history is "la historia" which is feminine.

Tokin Woman said...

I have not studied Greek, but did study French and do know that in other languages nouns have genders.

I looked up the etymology of "history" in Merriam-Webster etc. and found:

-from the Ancient Greek word ἱστορία, or more directly from its Latin derivate historia, meaning "knowledge obtained by inquiry"— is etymologically unrelated to the possessive pronoun his. (I did not necessarily think it was.)

-late Middle English (also as a verb): via Latin from Greek historia ‘finding out, narrative, history’, from histōr ‘learned, wise man’ (elsewhere ístōr, “one who knows, wise one”) from an Indo-European root shared by wit.

Looking up the Indo-European:

To see.
suffixed form *wid-tor‑. history, story1; polyhistor, from Greek histōr, wise, learned, learned man.

So, yeah, it's about guys.

If you're from the gender where you're not godlike (because it's a "he") and countless other ways you're excluded because of your sex, you might think it's time for a little more "her" and a little less "his" in our language, regardless of words' origins. And especially when talking about women's past.