THE GODDESS IN JUDAISM - AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
All religions start with a cosmogony, a myth that tells the worshippers how the world was formed. The first verses of the Hebrew Bible conform to this pattern. They seem quite straightforward and have provided the basis of belief among Jews and Christians for several millennia, although the Christians recast the words of Genesis to conform to their own new ideas.
In the words of Genesis, Beraishit, 'in the beginning', God created the heavens and the earth. The latter was a formless void, there was darkness 'on the face of the deep', and God's spirit moved on the waters (Genesis 1:1-2). This seems quite straightforward and, given a religious cast of thought, easy to assimilate. But here we must pause.
There is another, quite scholastically respectable, way of translating the Hebrew words. The verses would read: 'In the beginning, a number of gods ("Elohim") began to give birth to the heavens and the earth. The earth still belonged to Tohu and Bohu (goddesses of formlessness and ultimate space), and darkness was on the face of the mother creator goddess Tiamat, and a huge wind flapped its wings over the face of the water.' This translation (which will be commented on in detail in the later section on 'Goddesses in the Hebrew background') is at least as indicative of what the original might have meant as are all the interpretations and translations that have been set out until now. As will be seen, references are made to goddesses and perceptions of creation by them that appeared to be present in Hebrew culture. How different would our attitude to religion and society be if the above interpretation or a version of it had been accepted by both Jews and Christians as a reasonable understanding of the text.
Even if a standard explanation of the Hebrew word Elohim - the gods - could be accepted - that the one God encompasses the whole - yet the concept of female deities or female aspects of deity, of the birth-giving female being associated with the birth of the heavens and the earth, of ideas of chaos and formlessness being a symbol of the totality in which creation is possible -, all this would have produced enormous changes in consciousness of the relationship of women and men and both to the divine.
But it was not the case. All biblical texts are androcentric. They are written, edited and expounded by men, men concerned about male status. When women's stories and words are given, they are interpreted and judged by men.
The new method of feminist interpretation of the Bible is to redress this uneven situation. The texts are reviewed again in the light of a search for the lost female; to find her story, her own words, to attempt to understand what was happening for her and to her, to reclaim and proclaim her. The female in the divine is to be understood in this search as well as the human woman. Feminist Bible scholars have outlined their methods and rationale. For example the theologian Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza writes:
Androcentric texts and linguistic reality constructions must not be mistaken as trustworthy evidence of human culture, and religion ... the text may be the message, but the message is not co-terminal with human reality and history.1
Bernadette Brootten, who has surveyed Jewish Hellenistic inscriptions, suggests:
Literature composed by men is the product of men's minds and not a simple mirror image of reality. As we begin to evaluate all the sources for Jewish women's history ... a much more differentiated picture will emerge. It will then be impossible to mistake male Jewish attitudes towards women for Jewish women's history.2
Feminist Judith Plaskow affirms that the
deep resistance called forth by naming the Goddess in Judaism indicates the needs she answered are still with us ... for a God who does not include Her is an idol made in man's image ... acknowledging the many aspects of the Goddess among the names of God becomes a measure of our ability to incorporate the feminine into a monotheistic religious framework.3
Where feminist views have been criticized by establishment academics as speculative or subjective, Carol Christ answers their objections:
Though the notion that scholarship is objective has been criticized in ... critical, hermeneutical and other theories, radical feminist scholarship continues to be dismissed as biased, polemical, limited or confessional. This may be especially true of religious studies ... let me state very clearly that I do not propose that we abandon historical research, philosophical reflection, literary analysis or any of the other scholarly methods we have inherited...4
These quotations provide the context of the research I set out in this paper. I try and look beyond the androcentrism of biblical and related texts and for sources where I can find the female, divine and human. If challenged about the question of monotheism, I can, if necessary, envisage a monotheism that sees in the One the totality of the All. In human terms the All includes women; in divine terms, I see the All had for many millennia strong acceptance of the female as deity or as an important aspect of it. That perception changed, and the result was then its banishment from history, with the female divine and human so put down, degraded, patronized and derided, obscured and reviled that only now women are beginning to be able to attempt to redress the balance. This means seeking Her out, and reviewing all material in the light of Her banishment. Where is She? We have to ask this at all points. As we do so, we open up a new perspective in history. The landscape to which we are accustomed shifts; its familiar features are still there, but the whole has taken on a new meaning.
My brief is to set out an historical perspective for the Goddess in Judaism. This is of course immediately beset with many problems. How much of what is apparent is historical? I will deal with three questions here. What do we mean, in this context, by historical? When we refer to 'the Goddess' who or what are we referring to? And lastly, when we speak of Judaism what era or kind of Judaism are we dealing with? I will set out the parameters I have chosen, otherwise I might founder in those vastly chaotic waters which are our beginning.
1 HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE
If by history we mean something provable, I am lost already. Nothing in this context is 'provable'. I have chosen a period whose early date is about 2000 BCE and end date at about 400 CE. The first centuries provide a background in which the Hebrew religion and ultimately Judaism were born. The later date sees the Jews dispersed, the Talmud and rabbinical commentaries well under way, and a homogeneous religion established, while at the same time the mainstream Christian Church has its creed and structure well in place, and is free to spread its doctrines throughout the world.
I have used information from the various disciplines that are concerned with Bible history: exegesis, archaeology, ancient history, etc. I have invented nothing and if I have had personal insights I record them as such.
I do believe, contrary to much modern accepted wisdom, that dates are a signpost to understanding events. The Bible progresses along a line of history, and it is useful to have some dates to guide us. For those who believe the Hebrew Bible was, directly, or indirectly through prophets and scribes, written by God, no mundane eras are necessary. The rest of us are presented with mountains of contradictory material - which is likely to change, as new scholarship is presented. Taking a middle line between the various controversies, I am placing the period of the compilation of the Law and the Prophets, and possibly some of the Writings of the Hebrew Bible at about the time of Ezra, say early 400s BCE, and the actual canonization of the texts, after which nothing could be added or taken away, at about five hundred years later. This was undertaken by the rabbis at Jamnia (Javneh) who set up their religious stronghold there after the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE.
The events in the Bible may be dated to about 1800 BCE for the time of Abraham, 1300 for Moses and from about 900 for David and Solomon. The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BCE and dispersed the Israelites living there. (The riddle of what happened to them has intrigued generations and unlikely answers such as their identification with the Khasis of Russia or the British Israelites of the United Kingdom continue to be asserted.)
The southern kingdom of Judah continued under its kings until the arrival of Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon who destroyed the temple in 587 BCE and took the royal and upper classes into Exile. About thirty years later Cyrus King of Persia conquered the Babylonians and allowed the Hebrews back home.
It will be useful to outline some of the meanings this word holds, since it is used indiscriminately and there is no set definition. I will then give my own understanding of it:
(i) For many, the Goddess is god with an -ess. That is, She is the Supreme Being, the Ultimate, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Most of the attributes of God belong to Her although on the whole, despite some texts to the contrary, she is not considered warlike. She may also be felt as a personal deity, available for support and prayer.
(ii) In much modem pagan and wiccan thought and practice, the Goddess is teamed with the God. She is 'prima inter pares'. Both are worshipped together but she is held to be foremost. Goddesses and gods from the mythology of the world are called upon; often the deities associated with one's own country are particularly to be invoked. Such deities are intimately associated with nature and the round of the seasons.
(iii) In feminist spirituality 'the Goddess' is often used to mean the idea of female deity. Sometimes, it may introduce the idea into monotheism as the female aspect of God. On the other hand it may mean any goddess from religion or mythology or any number of goddesses. The classical description of Her as 'many-named' sits well here. She is all or any of the Goddesses of the past or the current polytheisms as well as a reclaimed goddess of today. She is not only a transcendent creating deity, but also immanent and part of Nature and the world. In fact, for many, she is Nature. Women are her representatives because of her birth-giving ability, but that is not all. The words of Isis inscribed on the temple at Sais in ancient Egypt sum her up for today's followers: 'I am all that is, was or ever will be.' (It is quite possible, date-wise, that Moses was familiar with this inscription, which appears in similar form concerning Jahweh in Exodus 3:14, 'I am that I am,' and becomes the holy unspeakable name of God.) In general understanding the trajectory is perceived firstly of a creator mother who conceives a son autonomously; this son becomes her lover and eventually steals her power and overcomes her. Then as this happens a concept of domination in society and over nature takes the place of a previous concept of participation and egalitarianism. This leads to a position of male supremacy and the downgrading of the female in every aspect.
In my own opinion researching and reclaiming information and developing insight concerning goddesses assists women (and possibly men if they are willing) to overthrow their conditioning. Women begin to feel stronger and inspired to overcome their feelings of guilt and inferiority. They feel better about themselves and can demand and take a more satisfactory place in the world, at the same time renewing and being refreshed by spiritual wholeness.
Because I come from an Orthodox Jewish background (though never in adult life being 'observant'), I choose to research the goddesses in the background of my own culture. If I refer to 'the goddess' without a particular name attached it will refer to the idea of a female aspect of deity, a facet of the whole.
Religious practices concerning the goddess today include celebration of seasonal and calendar festivals. Classical and area myths and rituals are 're-invented' in the light of today's needs.
Since I am dealing with so vast a period, I have chosen to call 'Hebrew' the period before the rebuilding of the second temple (i.e. pre 400 BCE) and Jewish or to do with Judaism what came after it. I am aware this is open to challenge, but it is as good a working definition as any I know.
Finally in this section, it is important to say I shall not at any time use the phrase 'Judaeo-Christian'. Although it appears to be convenient, in fact there is now growing acceptance of the understanding that it is both inaccurate and imperialistic. Inaccurate because Christianity owes a great debt to Hellenistic cultures as well as to Judaism, and imperialistic because it implies a progression from Judaism to Christianity with the latter taking over from the former. This is not the case. Thus I shall refer to the 'Hebrew Bible' rather than the 'Old Testament'. The New Testament seems to be self-descriptive and as far as I know quite acceptable.
The Hebrew Bible is composed of material from different dates and sources. Some were ancient when they were written down and preserved through an oral tradition, or through more ancient documents; these are usually narratives, hymns, poems and oracles. They may owe a good deal to the background cultures. On the other hand, laws, commandments, strictures and a system of reward and punishment and above all the covenant between God and His people appear to be written by the later authors and editors, whose main concern was to impose male supremacy through their version of monotheism. These editors are often called the Deuteronomists. It is their struggle against the influence of the Goddess in the popular religion that forms much of their Biblical material.
But however hard they tried to banish Her, they were not successful. The concept of a goddess or goddesses in Israel runs through the whole of the Hebrew Bible. We will try and trace it, starting with the background female deities of the ancient Near Eastern people, through the concept of a Goddess as wife or consort to God (Jahweh), then the ambivalence of the wisdom figure (Hochma/Sophia), to the Hellenistic Gnostic world and the birth of Christianity.
There, first subsumed into Jesus Christ, she emerges sometimes as the Holy Spirit within the Trinity and then as the Church, which is totally male-directed.
Finally in much popular understanding she may become identified with the Virgin Mary. It is this long journey of the Goddess that we are beginning to travel now.
GODDESSES IN THE HEBREW BACKGROUND
The Patriarch Abraham is said to have lived in 'Ur of the Chaldees'. It is from there he is called by God to leave his birthplace and travel to the land of Canaan, and it is he with whom God made his covenant. It is clear, therefore, that before this call Abraham and Abraham's parents worshipped the deities of their land, and certainly his father is quoted as so doing (Joshua 24:2). Who were these gods and goddesses? Perhaps they bear some relationship to those that Rachel, his grandson Jacob's wife, hid beneath her when she left her father's home (Genesis 31:19,34-5).
We are able to gain some idea about them and to make informed guesses. In the last century or so archaeologists have discovered substantial material concerning the religions of the ancient Near East, and have provided the basis of research for scholars of many other disciplines. Raphael Patai is among those who have researched and commented widely on the female deities who entered the consciousness of the Hebrew people.5 Here I will only draw attention to the main primary sources of information. These are the Babylonian epics of about 1800-1500 BCE; the Ras Shamra texts from ancient Ugarit, c. 1500 BCE; and a mass of Egyptian papyri which date from the second millennium until the first years of the Christian centuries. In all of them we meet goddesses who bear a very close relationship to female divinities mentioned - usually in a hostile way in the Bible, although one may not always recognize them at first sight.
(i) Babylonian epics
Variously called Babylonia, Chaldea and Mesopotamia, this is the 'country between the rivers' - the Tigris and Euphrates - fertile land on which it was easy to live and on which great civilizations had been built. The Laws of Hammurabi and the work of Chaldean astronomers and astrologers are typical examples, and in particular there are a number of long poems, epics, written on clay in the cuneiform script, which record the cosmogony and the religious mythology of the people there.
Two of these poems are the Epic of Creation and the Epic of Gilgamesh. It is from the former that the figure of Tiamat is drawn. Here are its first lines:
When on high were not raised the heavens
George Smith, the original translator of the cuneiform tablets, believed that Tiamat was the living principle of the sea and chaos.6 She is depicted on reliefs and in drawings as a vast dragon, and is shown rearing herself on two legs, when she confronts Marduk, her grandson who kills her. The epic recounts: 'She raised herself to her full height and planted her feet firmly on the ground.' Another depiction of her shows enormous wings. She is thus the primaeval dragon, living under water, able to walk on land, able to fly and possibly to breathe fire. The formlessness with which we are confronted symbolizes, for me, a wholeness of totality, of land, sea, air and fire, the four elements of creation. It includes all there is waiting to be born, whether the material or the inspirational.
Tiamat is also referred to as a sea serpent who, in the course of the struggle with Marduk who wants to gain from her the Tablets of Destiny which she holds, creates out of herself all sorts of monsters, mixtures of animal and human and extraordinary shapes of creatures.
The epic goes on to relate how Marduk with the help of his friends blows her belly apart with a mighty wind, and then cuts her into pieces. Each part of her body becomes a different part of the cosmos and is ruled over by Marduk and the other gods. This defeat is proclaimed as the triumph of order and beginning of creation.
Tiamat's name is recalled in Genesis 1:2 where the Hebrew 'Tehom' is usually translated as 'the deep'; it will be recalled that Tiamat is the sea goddess living in the deep. It was her home and in it life itself was waiting to be born.
In addition to the Genesis resonance, there are many passages in the Bible where God celebrates his victory over the dragon, the sea monster and the abyss.7 Indeed, there is a school of thought which believes that the Babylonian New Year Festival which celebrated Marduk's triumph over Tiamat was the origin of the Hebrew and then Jewish New Year Festival where God in the liturgy for the occasion still celebrates his victory over chaos.
And what was meant by chaos? It is extraordinary that today the notion of chaos, so long condemned, is coming into the foreground of many branches of science as a positive description of basic natural forces. It seems to have an affinity with the 'chaos' of the ancients, then presented as a birth-giving female with all the necessities of creation within her. There also seems to be an appreciation of the relationship of creation to vast emptiness. For a long time the debate about the Genesis creation story included questions as to whether God created the universe ex nihilo - from nothing - or put into order something that was already there. The mentions of Tohu and Bohu (Genesis 1:2), usually translated as 'void and without form', indicate there might be a reference to these goddesses of formlessness and ultimate space; it has been thought that Bohu at least may be identified with the great Mesopotamian goddess Bau, another creating mother of the universe, and one who is linked to the 'Mother of the Physicians', Gula. In this association we may see an idea not only of creation but of maintenance and sustenance. Gula's temples in Mesopotamia were arranged as hospitals, and it was part of religious practice in her honour to study medicine and heal the sick. She is the source of medical knowledge. I see a connection between Gula and Wisdom, also the source of understanding and a teacher to humanity. Many texts refer to Gula-Bau as well as to each alone.
Tiamat's form as a dragon needs further comment. Dragons and serpents are interchangeable in ancient literature as well as more modern folklore. The Epic of Creation is an early example of a young male person killing an older dragon monster, which conventional wisdom presents as evil. Even today who is a 'dragon' but a powerful older woman whom younger men would like to be rid of? In the dragon and serpent as the symbol of evil we are naturally reinforced by the story of Eve and the serpent in the Garden of Eden. When we meet the serpent she is coiled on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil which has been forbidden to the first couple. The serpent can be seen as knowing all the mysteries; for a long time they have presented an ambivalent problem to commentators. Serpents have remained depositories of knowledge of medicine and have symbolized long life and even immortality as well as indicating temptation and evil. In the Eden story I suggest the serpent is a form of Tiamat who is offering Eve knowledge, good and evil as it might be used; the knowledge that is her inheritance which she can share with her partner if she wishes. It is the power which this gives that is denied, and the outcome is a double defeat. Not only is Eve deprived of the ancient powers that are hers by inheritance, but God puts enmity between her and the serpent: a clear example of the patriarchal policy of dividing women from each other, particularly the young from the old, and causing them to depend on their male partner rather than on female support. We can see in this story a paradigm for the situation where male 'specialists' have deprived human female wisdom of any authority.
To return to Genesis 1:2 Who is it that 'flaps its wings like a bird' over the face of Tiamat? The Hebrew word for this action is merachepet. It is variously translated as 'move', or 'hover', the later being more accurate as it gives the impression of vast wings.
Who has wings? The very first name to come to mind is Lilith. There is a statue of her dated to about 1500 BCE where she is a naked woman with spreading wings, she has the feet of a bird and is attended by owls. This is contemporary with a story about her in Mesopotamian literature,8 in which she is a 'dark maid' who flies off on her wings to the desert.
But in the Genesis account Lilith is not mentioned, although much later the rabbis revealed a story about her in the same time and place, perhaps based on ancient material, that has found much resonance, and which we shall reach in a short while. In Genesis 1:2 it is ruach elohim, translated as the 'spirit of God' or alternatively as 'mighty wind', which hovers or moves over the waters. But what is ruach? Ruach is the Hebrew word for spirit or wind, and like the Latin anima or the Greekpneuma it can be used for either. Now, whose name tells us that she is also spirit or wind? None other than Lilith. The word Lilith is connected with two root words - LayiI, the Hebrew for night, and Lil, Sumerian (c. 3000 BCE) 'wind' or 'breath' or 'spirit'. Traditionally, until the information from Sumer came to light, Lilith was always associated with night and darkness. There is only one mention of her name as such in the Hebrew Bible. It is Isaiah 34:8-14. The prophet declares:
The land shall become burning pitch
Very few translations provide the word Lilith itself. 'Night hag' in the RSV replaces the older 'screech owl` in the King James version. The New English Bible gives 'night-jar', RV of 1881 suggests 'night monster'. The Latin vulgate of the fourth century CE from which most Christian translations stem says Lamia - these are the Greek 'dirty goddesses'. The Moffat translation uses 'vampires' (plural). French Lilith is 'le spectre de la nuit' and German Lutheran translates her as der Kobold (masculine), a spirit or goblin. The Jerusalem Bible is to be commended for actually using her name.
Apart from the last, all these translations have relied on the concept of Lilith as to do with night. But if one accepts the other meaning then Lilith is spirit or air or mighty wind and it is she who hovers over the face of Mother Tiamat, perhaps in her form as a woman and bird. So much has been written about her. She is the ultimate demon of Jewish tradition, most particularly to women in childbirth and a danger to their new-born infants. People have been taught to fear her. She also became Queen of the Witches in Christian tradition.
But I believe her to be the Lady of the air and wind and the spirit, the living breath of life. She has all knowledge. The rabbinic eleventh-century tale of her in the Genesis story is that during sexual intercourse with Adam - for she was, it seems, his first wife - she refused the 'missionary' position saying, 'I am made of the same earth as you' (and here there may even be a reference to female Adamah, Hebrew for earth, and possibly a lost Mother Earth Goddess). She called on the magic and holy name of God, freed herself from Adam and flew off - yes, flew - into the desert. How did Lilith know the powerful name of God when Adam could only ask God to help him? I suggest it is because it is she who is the Wisdom figure, the spirit.
The presence of Lilith, named or otherwise, in the creation story links her with Hochma who will be discussed below. Patriarchy has turned her into queen of the demons, killer of children, particularly to be feared by mothers in childbirth. And that sums it up; instead of the creatrix she has been made the destroyer. The symbol of women's wisdom and power, she has become a source of evil to be feared most particularly by women. She represents to us our innermost herstory. In reclaiming Her, we women throw off and pour away for ever the poison about ourselves, our so-called inferiority, our evil inner selves, our guilt. On reclaiming Lilith. we reclaim the breath of life that emerges as we give birth to our children, to our works of all kind; we reclaim our wisdom, our knowledge, our power, our autonomy.9
Back to the Garden of Eden and the Babylonian epics. In the Epic of Gilgamesh the eponymous hero sets out to seek eternal life. He reaches the Paradise Garden which he is allowed to enter because of the divine blood inherited from his mother Ninsun. He meets in the garden the Goddess Siduri-Sabatu, who is able to provide the 'gift of life'.
The Paradise Garden is of 'dazzling beauty'. The Goddess is sitting by a vine which is the garden's centrepiece, and she is also 'by the throne of the sea'. She is addressed as 'Goddess of Wisdom, Genius of Life'. She is referred to as 'Keeper of the fruit of life'.10
Obviously the connections with the Garden of Eden are very clear. We have a goddess, actually keeper of the fruit of life, sitting by a throne of the sea, in the garden. Even the vine is a strong symbol which is repeated many times in both Hebrew Bible and New Testament (Jesus says, 'I am the true vine'), often also indicating God's strength or God's people. The association with the sea is reminiscent of Tiamat and also bears a close relation to the goddesses to be found in the next group of texts we shall discuss.
(ii) Ras Shamra Texts
In 1929 a body of texts was found at a place called Ras Shamra. in northern Syria, the site of ancient Ugarit, home of the Hittites. Dated to about 1500 BCE, they are composed of descriptions of the life and religion of the Canaanites, including legends, myths and religious invocations, hymns, etc.11
Ras Shamra religious texts are usually interpreted as myths which control creation, and whose enactment ritually helps keep creation in being. The proper round of the seasons, the arrival of rain, the changing of light to dark and back again, the unending miracle of new life and its nurture, all these are enacted in such ritual myths. The battle with the sea is a major theme.
In these myths we meet major figures who previously were known to us almost entirely from their appearances in the Hebrew Bible. The supreme Deity is named El, a word which until the time of the discovery had been thought merely to indicate 'God'. One of the major deities is his wife the Lady Asherah. This is the Asherah who appears continuously in Bible narrative. Until Ras Shamra there was a good deal of controversy as to whether she was a goddess as such or either the symbol of a goddess in the form of a tree or pole or wooden statue or else merely one of these which the 'heathen' worshipped without its actually representing a deity in her own right. Now it is clear that she was an ancient goddess, mother of the Lord Baal and the Lady Anat, and chief of a pantheon of enormously powerful female divinities. It is to them that Baal must turn for help in conducting his everyday business. He cannot obtain a house to live in without his mother's assistance. More importantly, when he is killed by the figure of Death it is his sister Anat who brings him to life again. Another goddess, Shaqat, restores a dead child to life. It is the goddesses who have this power, not the gods.
The controversy concerning the Asherim as trees or poles seems to be resolved easily. That these represented her can be in no doubt. It is even possible that the May Pole has links with the Asherim. The tree is widely known to be a symbol of life and a source of and shelter for life. The Bible records the destruction of a large number of trees and groves sacred to her, in an effort to drive out her worship. Thus Asherah was both the goddess and the tree or bough representing her. There was no need for the prophets to call for the destruction of trees in a desert land where every tree was important, unless they believed that with the trees they were exterminating the goddess.
The Ras Shamra stories and the Biblical texts have many similarities and have been analysed widely. Certainly the hostility in the Bible to the goddesses is reflected in the prominent position they held in the Canaanite pantheon. However, it is also clear that they became as much divinities of the Hebrews as of the earlier people. Baal, Lord of the weather in the Ras Shamra myths, is found in the Bible often as the god in opposition to Jahweh.
Asherah's particular powers can be deduced from another well known Bible story, that of the contest between the prophet Elijah and the 'four hundred priests of Baal and four hundred priests of Asherah'' (1 Kings 18:19). Elijah is successful at producing the magic that Baal's priests cannot, and they are killed by the people around. Nothing is said about the fate of Asherah's priests. Why not? Several suggestions come to mind. Perhaps that while the people did not mind killing Baal's servants, those of Asherah were too holy and could not be touched; or that Asherah was too well loved to be offended. Some scholars suggest that the introduction of Asherah's priests to the story is a later interpolation, and the editors forgot to say what happened to them. The suggested reason for the interpolation is that the editors wanted to make Elijah's victory all the more conclusive of the power of Jahweh. But the latter idea seems to me to be unsatisfactory, and I prefer the earlier ones, since they would explain why Asherah's priests not only were spared but why there was silence about it - since the Bible editors would not want to draw attention to Asherah's power with the people.
Moreover, my feeling is that she may provide an answer to the much-asked query concerning the choice of knowledge of good and evil as the forbidden tree in the Garden of Eden. Can there be a connection with Asherah, was she the mother of all and source of wisdom, that tree whose fruit which above all was not to be eaten? It has to be mentioned here that Biblical authors often used Ashtaroth instead of Asherah, a word which incorporates the word 'shame', and she is also often referred to as 'abomination'. The hostility which was heaped upon her by these religious leaders is balanced by the persistence of her worshippers who refused to allow her to be dismissed from their religion.
The position of the Lady Anat within the Ras Shamra texts is a very powerful one, and has been analysed widely. Cassuto's book provides a sense of the dimension of strength and longevity, the passion and the inspiration, the death-dealing and the cleansing powers of this goddess, whom we will meet again in a later setting. Among the many deities among the Canaanites who are reflected in some way in the Hebrew Bible, I also draw attention to Paghat, goddess of the sun. It is often thought that if there were goddesses, then they were associated with the moon, and the sun represented the masculine deity. However, the Hittites have left us many artefacts indicating that the sun is seen by them as a goddess. In today's Turkey there are numerous depictions of her while their ancient literature is full of her praise. Here is one such verse in praise of Paghat which has later resonances:
She rises early in the morning
Who else rises early in the morning? We are reminded of the panegyric concerning a good wife in the well known chapter of Proverbs 31. This good woman rises while it is yet dark to prepare food for her household. There, the goddess has become demythologized: she is now an ordinary woman - but is she so ordinary? In the Proverbs passage we find signs of unusual strength and power. In addition to providing food and working with textiles, she is able to go out and buy a field, plant a vineyard. She 'girds her loins with strength and makes her arms strong.' Above all, 'She opens her mouth with Wisdom.'
The good woman still has some aura of goddesses about her, from Paghat to Hochma - whom we meet shortly and where we will also discuss the heritage from Egypt. In the meantime we will follow Asherah from her Canaanite to her Hebrew domain.
(iii) Jahweh and his consort
The publication in 1979 of a paper entitled 'Did Jahweh have a Consort?'13 by Israeli archaeologist Ze'ev Meshel brought to a head long-standing disputes by scholars on this subject and opened up to the informed public a changing vista of Jewish religious history and tradition.
Conventionally, Judaism is identified with an absolute monotheism which was to a large extent inherited also by Christianity. Such monotheism is centred on God, Jahweh (Jehovah) who is always referred to in the masculine gender. How could God have a consort? Such an idea must surely be totally pagan and be dismissed out of hand. But no. Current opinion has it that the ancient goddess Asherah was worshipped not only in the setting of the Canaanite religion as wife of EI and mother of Baal and Anat, but quite disparately, as the consort of Jahweh. This would have been part of what is called the 'popular religion' of the Hebrews and it is the one that the Deuteronomists and their successors were trying so hard and so unsuccessfully to stamp out.
Because this appears to be such a revolutionary idea it will be helpful to outline some of the material associated with it.
Meshel's excavations took place in 1975 and 1976 at Kuntillet Ajrud, which he describes as a 'remote desert station in the wilderness of North Sinai'. At a crossroads he found the remains of a large building which he believes was used for religious purposes, possibly by travellers on country routes, and was inhabited and kept in order by guardians of the shrine who lived a religious life there. The major find was a collection of ancient Hebrew and Phoenician inscriptions on walls and stone vessels, and there were also spectacular drawings on two large storage jars (pithoi). It was assumed that the community was able to survive in this desert region because of the proximity of wells in the vicinity. Meshel remarks that the modern Arabic name means 'solitary hill of the wells'. The site was dated to about the eighth century BCE.
The inscriptions that caused the explosion of interest were found in the bench room and two adjoining side rooms. Including both the name EI and the name Jahweh, some of the inscriptions were written on the jamb of the entrance - recalling possibly the instruction in Deuteronomy 6:9 ('you shall write them on the doorposts of your house', which also has become the basis of the mezuzah in Judaism). They blessed Jahweh and asked to be protected by him and - this the key surprise - by 'Asherato', mostly translated as 'his Asherah'. Some scholars contend that the word can be translated as naming Asherah in her own right. Beneath the words are drawings of a tree and of a cow with a calf. Nearby are other drawings, particularly one very clear 'tree of life' flanked by two ibexes. Again, 'May you be blessed by Jahweh and Asherato' is inscribed on a jar nearby.
Just as scholars were getting down to an analysis of these finds and their possible meanings, a similar inscription was published from another source. This was a site called Khirbet-el-Qom which has been identified as the Biblical Makkedah.
Following earlier communications by various scholars, it was only in 1979 that J. Naveh published the inscriptions and in 1984 that Z. Zevit expressed an opinion on their meaning. The inscription indicates that it was written by Uriyahu (the name includes a reference to God) who calls for a blessing from 'Jahweh my guardian and his Asherah'. The date is similar to that of Kuntillet Ajrud.
A great deal of research from many disciplines is trying to establish the meaning and implications of these finds and others like them. The linguistic and epigraphic problems of the inscriptions, the cultic or other meaning of the drawings, the symbols that they express, all are a matter of growing discussion which now tends to look outwards and backwards to relevant previous material that was not understood. Traditionalists may want to argue that 'his Asherah' may still be a 'cultic symbol'. Previously an 'Asherah' was identified with a tree or pole, but when one sees the blossoming tree of life, and also considers that the cow and calf together are always a symbol of the mother goddess in the ancient Near East, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the presence of the goddess Asherah is conveyed, and that she and Jahweh are worshipped together and seen as complementary to each other. Even the name Uriyahu would show that the writer was a practising Hebrew, and the supposition that the shrine was inhabited by a group of guardians would indicate that it was supported by enough people to keep it viable.
From Jahweh and his Asherah we turn back to a Biblical married couple, Hosea and his unfaithful wife (Hosea 2). This narrative appears to be a tale of a kind husband who forgives his erring wife, but who turns into God speaking to Israel. There is an obvious parallel but in fact the symbols in the story indicate strongly that the wife is Asherah the goddess, whom God will forgive only when she has yielded her divine powers to him.
This narrative, which starts as a moral tale about the prophet and his apparently unfaithful wife, alters to the relationship of God and his people, who conventionally in Deuteronomic terms are husband and wife. When husband Hosea suddenly turns into God, are we not entitled to conclude that God is speaking to his 'erring' wife, Asherah? She is after all addressed as a 'harlot', the term used by the Deuteronomists to describe a goddess. Her fig trees and vines, well known symbols of the mother goddess, are to be laid waste; her way of life in celebrating nature and seasons owes much to her ancient background.
Another account of Jahweh with a female partner or consort is contained in a set of papyri from Egypt, from a town called Elephantine and dated at about 400 BCE. A Jewish colony lived there which paid its dues to the temple in Jerusalem - this indicates it was accepted as part of the mainstream Jewish community. The surprise is the name of the temple which is recorded as having sent the money - Anat/Jaho. Jaho is a form of Jahweh and Anat the goddess is known to us from the Hittite Ras Shamra texts and elsewhere. What is not in doubt is that the temple of Anat/Jaho was a Jewish temple. It links Jahweh with a goddess, they are complementary and worshipped together and it is reasonable to suggest that they are partners. or consorts. This view is strengthened by the records of other temples in that area. They are referred to as those of Anat Bethel and Asham Bethel.
Bethel is familiar to us. The Hebrew words mean House of God, and we first meet a Bethel in the Bible when Jacob the Patriarch has spoken with God and anoints the stone on which he had slept when God visited him (Genesis 28:19, 22; 35:14-15). The stone is holy because God had been present in it or on it. However, a 'Bethel' is not confined to this, the God of the Bible. The Greek baetyl - a similar word - is a meteorite or black stone which falls from heaven, having within it the essence of the goddess, the queen of Heaven. The temples of Elephantine appear to be worshipping her as well as Jaho/Anat; and this is not surprising in view of the Queen of Heaven story in the book of Jeremiah (44:15-19; 7:17-18). Who is the Queen of Heaven? When we meet her the prophet denounces the people for worshipping her. He tells them that their wickedness is responsible for their current disaster. Both women and men reply that when they burned incense and baked cakes for the Queen of Heaven no such trouble fell upon them. They recall that when they lived in Jerusalem the 'children gathered sticks, the men lit fires and the women made the cakes' for the Queen of Heaven.
For me this cameo shows that it was not only the women but the whole family and whole communities who joined in Her worship, and it is important to emphasize that these were Hebrews and not Canaanites or other 'heathen'.
The Queen of Heaven is unnamed and it has often been suggested that she is naturally the consort of the 'king of heaven' as well as being a major deity in her own right. Certainly her longevity is remarkable and is worth noting in our story.
A ritual of baking cakes for the Queen of Heaven, there named as Ishtar (Astarte), is available to us from Babylonian records of about 2000 BCE. A hymn to Ishtar includes the lines:
O Ishtar I have made a preparation of milk, cake, grilled bread and salt, hear me and be kind.14
Another hymn to Ishtar prays:
O Ishlar I look on your face, and I make an offering of pure milk with a baked cake.15
A similar sacred practice is recorded again from a Phoenician settlement in North Africa. A list has been found which sets out the wages to be paid to various work people, on it is inscribed: 'wages to the bakers of cakes for the Queen of Heaven'.16 In Tunisia today there is a site which still contains a temple to the Queen of Heaven and there are stones there with inscriptions to her.
Such inscriptions may be of a very much later date, since well into the Christian era Bishop Augustine of Hippo, in North Africa - the same Augustine who 'invented' the idea of original sin - thundered against women whom he described as going out with filthy dancing to the Queen of Heaven.
This title eventually became attached to the Virgin Mary, who interestingly enough was worshipped in the early centuries by a Christian sect denounced as heretical, who baked cakes in her honour. They were called the Collyridians, a name based on the Greek word collyridos, which means a small cake or bread roll.
This is a long continuum of cakes for the Queen of Heaven from the wayside desert shrine at Kuntillet Ajrud. In Meshel's description of the settlement there he observed that there were two large ovens for whose size he could see no real reason. In the course of an interview he kindly gave this writer, he agreed that they certainly could have been used to bake ritual cakes.
Although the path we have followed has been one of jumps and crevasses, yet there seems to be a very strong connecting path. The Lady Asherah, a Canaanite goddess, became part of the religion of the Hebrews and appears to have been worshipped as the partner or consort of Jahweh. She is not one particular goddess figure but rather a female deity who can be identified by various names, including that of Queen of Heaven. Her worship continued over several millennia, always condemned by the leadership and always retained by the popular will. That God did have a consort or, understood another way, that the one God included the female with the male and could be approached as either or both was a tenacious belief of the Hebrews. It seems also that while the Hebrew leadership denied Asherah and her sisters, they were open to a female concept of deity in a form more satisfying, yet more perplexing and they had to find new ways of solving the problem for them of the female in the divine.
THE WISDOM GODDESS
Throughout the Biblical period and then far beyond it a divine female presence has been continually present in Hebrew and Jewish consciousness. This is Hochma, Wisdom.
Everything to do with her is mysterious and paradoxical. In the Bible she is always female. The rabbinic Kabbalists a thousand years later turned her into a male sephira on the Tree of Life. She is continually being sought and found, lost and found; she ascends and descends; she finds her place in Israel, she can find no place in Israel. She is the divine female companion of God eternal with him before creation, and is herself involved in the cosmos as creator, nurturer, teacher and artificer. She acts as intermediary between God and humans and is willing to share herself with them and with the world. She may be married to God, or to selected men, and she may be the mother of the created world. Human beings must follow her rules if they are to succeed in this life, and also possibly to partake in an afterlife with God. It was she who helped God to create the universe and she knows all its secrets. She moves through it and orders it well.17
All these descriptions of Wisdom are to be found in the Bible or in the Apocrypha. At the same time, she is also portrayed as a woman whom men must seek to marry, she has sex appeal, she can behave like a spurned woman, and she has a sister or counterpart named Folly who boasts that she has knowledge better than Wisdom can offer. She has been described by commentators as a bonus for upper-class men and there is no doubt that she has been subject in the Bible to a great deal of sexist description.
Jewish writers found a solution to the problem of her female divinity and to some of the contradictions by identifying her with the Torah, and this became the normative view in Judaism.
I will take a few only of these Wisdom themes to try and establish a picture of her. Her precedence over creation is found, for example, in Proverbs 3:19, Psalm 104:24. The Lord founded the earth by means of Hochma; he needed to search her out and discover her ways, and he made all his works through Hochma. She is the pre-existent cosmic order that is the source of the world and sustains it. If the casual reader feels that all that is being said is that the Lord used Hochma - or Wisdom - for his creative work, then turn to the famous passage of Proverbs 8:22-30. She is, firstly, created by God, 'the first of his acts of old'. Yet she is there 'from the beginning' before the world is made, and what is more - she was beside him and was daily his delight.
In what capacity was she beside him? The Hebrew is amon and reputations have been built and lost on interpretation of this word. Major English language translations give different versions 'as one brought up with him' (AV), 'master workman' (RSV).
Various interpreters have added 'nurseling or even 'nurse' and finally 'connecting post` . The latter is not as remarkable as it may first appear, since Christianity relies on Paul's description of Jesus as one who has taken on the whole of Wisdom and is a connecting link between all creation and the divine (Collossians 1:17).
This set of meanings gives an indication of how extraordinary the description of Hochma actually is. She is a transcendent - or the transcendent cosmic force of the universe - yet she may be a little child. The meaning 'master craftsman' was used by the Greek translators of the Hebrew Bible in the second century BCE - the septuagint, known as LXX, where they used the Greek word technites to describe one of Wisdom's characteristics. It will be remembered that in Proverbs 9:1 Hochma 'builds her house with seven pillars', although one Israeli modern commentator says that she did not, that it was done by the wise men of Babylon.18
Religious thinkers concerned to expunge all ideas of female divinity from the Jewish religion solved the problem by making Hochma the Torah. Even then her effect could not altogether be dismissed. The Torah itself became identified with Hochma. The written texts of the Law, the first five books of the Bible, took on a sacral character, even a mystic relationship with God. The Talmud tells us that the Torah 'existed before the creation of the world' although prior to the creation of time it is a creation of God. The Torah is the 'eternal now', it existed before time and is not encompassed by time and is the eternal present for those who fear God. It is above history and the action of God in history. The Torah is older than creation and was originally written in black letters of flame on a white ground of fire. God held counsel with it at the creation of the world 'since it was wisdom itself'. This Wisdom is safely, for the pious, banished into the Torah and yet she illumines it with her own divine presence.
Hochma, then, in this religious system which became normative Judaism, is what is left when the divine is taken from her. She is a woman, and one who is viewed with much ambivalence, yet she retains something of the divine which men (that is male human beings) want to use for their own purposes.
This trajectory of thought becomes very clear in the Book of Wisdom of Solomon (BWS), part of the Apocrypha and written in Greek. The author is assumed to be a first-century Jew in Alexandria, centre of the Hellenistic world, where over one million Jews are said to have been living at the time. There they are exposed to all the temptations and attractions of Hellenism, and the author seeks to bring them back to their traditional faith and to demonstrate that their rich cultural heritage has much in common with that of the Greeks. The Wisdom of BWS is now Sophia, Greek translation of Hochma, and it is the Hochma of the Hebrew Bible who is being described in the book.
The Sophia of BWS is either identical with God, is the Spirit of God or is an autonomous divine figure who herself 'protected the first formed father of the world' and led the children of Israel out of Egypt and who at once was responsible for the salvation of the Hebrew and Jewish people. She is the source of all learning and understanding. She taught the author, the Sage (pseudo-Solomon):
to know the structure of the world and the activity of the elements ...
She instructs him in 'what is secret and what is manifest' and she is described as the fashioner (technites) of all things - the last word linking her with the amon, the master craftsman of Proverbs 8:30 (see p. 47). It indicates she was the co-fashioner, with God, of the universe. In the same passage Sophia is described in a series of adjectives which emphasize that all that is good is within her.
She is intelligent, but holy, all powerful, overseeing all, beneficent, humane, she pervades and penetrates all things. She is a reflection of eternal light and 'though she is but one, she can do all things, and while remaining in herself she can renew all things ... she reaches mightily from one end of the world to the other, and she orders all things well' (BWS 7:21-8:1).
In this description we have, perhaps for the only time openly in Judaism, a laudation of the female divinity who is part of the essence of the religion. She is an initiate in the knowledge of God and an associate with his works (8:4), she is praised as identical with God or even as God Herself. She springs out of a Hebrew context; she is described in detail and she is there for the Jews to worship and to follow her ways.
At the same time, the Book of Wisdom of Solomon is shot through with contradictions about her. Sophia suddenly changes. The Sage
'determined to take her to live with me ...
He has introduced the theme of greed leading to self-aggrandizement, domination, hierarchy and war that has been a keynote of Western civilization. At the time of BWS it is only one thread of a many-layered skein. My own feeling is that this thread became so dominant later because the female had been devalued and the male overvalued, in concepts of divinity and thence of humanity. In BWS, by the end of the book, Hochma/Sophia has vanished entirely. It is as if she had never been there. Before following her on her journey into Gnosticism and then into Christianity it is helpful to place her in her Hellenistic context, since this had enormous influence.
There is some speculation that part at least of BWS may have been written by women. The Jewish philosopher Philo, who lived a little earlier than the author of BWS, wrote about a community, mixed men and women and all Jewish, who lived on the shores of the Dead Sea and were called the Therapeutae. They reached into the lives of the communities around them, preached Sabbath services, and were an influential source of religious instruction. Philo described how women interpreted scripture and led ritual. It has been suggested that possibly BWS may have been their work, or at least those parts of it in praise of Sophia, and that the other parts were put in by opponents who wanted a more establishment-style monotheism. The Therapeutae are among the numerous Jewish sects who existed until the time of the Roman destruction in the first century CE and who perished: the Sadducees, Essenes and others of whom little is known. The Jews remaining were the Pharisees, strict followers of Ezra and the Deuteronomists, who were able to set up their school at Jamnia and establish the religion of Judaism now believed to be normative. In this Sophia is not mentioned, and Hochma is the Torah.
In the Hellenistic world which was the matrix of the birth of Christianity, Jewish religion was held to be of great influence and antiquity, but it was one only - and a one relatively small in numbers among a great many widespread religions. Perhaps the most influential was that of the goddess Isis of Egypt which had spread throughout the 'known world', continuing for something like three millennia and ending only when destroyed by about 500 CE. Wisdom, whether Hochma or Sophia, has frequently been compared with Isis and her sister goddess Ma'at. Isis of Egypt is the great goddess. She has described herself in a well known aretalogy (self-praise) which is available to us. Here are some lines from it:
I am Isis, I am she who is called goddess by women
Here we see the goddess who is divine and creative, queen of nature who also points out the best ways of living for human beings in whose world she takes part. There is an ethical side to her. The complete hymn, of over fifty lines, balances descriptions of her transcendence with her very real concern for the everyday world of human beings. She punishes injustice, she 'causes the trickster to be caught by his own tricks', she is concerned with women and birth-giving and with the relationships of parents and children. She is very much to be compared with the Hochma of Proverbs in this respect.
Alongside her is Ma'at, goddess of truth, right and justice. This name actually describes a measure of land, and it is on this concept of exactitude and rightness that order and justice depends. Such earthy mundane order is duplicated by the order of the eternal: Ma'at becomes goddess of the underworld where she judges human souls. In this capacity she also exercises mercy, and again there are strong resonances in her judgments and in what she expects from human beings with those of Wisdom in Proverbs. Here is part of a confession the soul is called upon to make before Ma'at. It is called a 'Negative Confession':
I have not committed iniquity ...
It is noticeable that in addition to setting out what the Egyptians considered proper for human behaviour, in the manner of Proverbs, the ideals of human justice usually associated with the Hebrew prophets or even the Ten Commandments are there. But there is also a very human, and one might even say a very female compassion - 'I have not made any to weep' - and also particular exactness and precision in everyday dealings. Ma'at is the cosmic order of the world, like Hochma, which is itself built on order and precision, and in this respect heaven and earth are linked.
Isis and Ma'at have been identified in much of the description of Hochma and Sophia and have also been described as figuring largely in the New Testament understanding of Jesus as Logos in the opening chapter of the Fourth Gospel.
That the masculine Logos is closely connected with Hochma and Sophia is not in doubt. Wisdom is there, but from now on as Christianity develops it is Jesus Christ and becomes a part of him. He is described often with her words and there are statements that all wisdom is in Him.21 Much of her journey is duplicated in His. Where the Jews encapsulated Wisdom in sacred texts, the Christians subsumed her in the Saviour and then in various ways and times into the Holy Spirit and often into the Virgin Mary. But before that transformation revealed itself, there was a period when Sophia, who had herself changed her character, appeared and was venerated. It is in this Sophia, successor to Hochma in the intertestamental and early Christian world, that we can begin to see another account of fall of the female aspect of divinity.
THE GNOSTIC DIMENSION
Gnosticism is becoming a powerful influence in feminist research into the overthrow of the female in the divine. The discovery in 1945 of a substantial number of documents in the sand of Egypt at Nag Hammadi brought fresh light to our knowledge of a religious system which previously had been only available through the hostile polemics of some of the early Christian Fathers. These Nag Hammadi texts, now available in translation, 22 cover a period of four hundred years, which span the two centuries before the common era and the following two centuries. Composed of between fifty and sixty separate 'books' or tractates, they are firmly placed in Judaic and Christian or pre-Christian modes of thought. The documents fall into various groups, based mainly on their dating and the schools which produced them.
Common to many of them, and taking a major part in several, are divine female figures, named Sophia, Epinoia, Protennoia or Barbelo. The first three are all words to do with Wisdom. Sophia herself, although related to Hochma, in fact stands for the Wisdom of the Gnosis. This is the knowledge of the divine mysteries: where we came from, where we are going, the nature of heaven, the divinity within us.
While it is impossible to give an account here of the different religious systems entailed, it is important that there were vast differences between the various schools of thought, and there is no one interpretation of Gnosticism or Gnosis. The only theme that may be common to all is the insistence that divine Wisdom is available to those who, despising the world, seek their spiritual salvation in her; or, in the more Christianized texts, in the Saviour. The earlier Gnostic writers showed Sophia and her divine sisters to be joined with God, creator figures in themselves, or in unison with God. They are available to humans, and in themselves reflect the comprehensive differences in humanity - in fact, they represent the whole and all its inter-connecting parts. One quotation will illustrate this:
I am Protennoia, the Thought that dwells in the Light.
She is the invisible essence, yet she is also the first-born of All who came to exist; that is she is immanence and transcendence. In this she reminds us of Hochma. She is the female principle in deity. Protennoia goes on to declare:
I am perception and knowledge, uttering a voice by means of thought
For me, these words are extremely moving. Here is the acknowledged and venerated female divine being, who lives in me and who calls out in me.
But for how long has our female voice been silenced, for how long our perception and knowledge dismissed as worthless, for how long have we women been silenced? Protennoia calls on us to break our silence, to cry out, to speak out. She assures us she is there within us - and has been there from the beginning.
Another female divinity who calls to women and assures us of our dignity and our power is the otherwise un-named Thunder Perfect Mind. She appears to be everywhere and encompasses everything:
I am the first and the last
She is everything and everybody and its opposite. She is female and within her there is the whole range of female life from birth to death, from the mundane woman in the world to the divine Wisdom of Heaven. She shows for me that there is no disunity between something and its opposite. A totality includes all aspects. Linear and dualistic divisions do not exist. So many times we, women in the world, are aware that we are something and we are not something; or we are called names that put us down, and we are punished for being who we are. In Thunder Perfect Mind we can rejoice in a revelation of a goddess who is both outside us and within us, and we can be reminded of that same goddess figure who is the first and the last, who is called life and you - the others - have called Death. Asherah and Ashertaroth were called whore, abomination and death, by those who hated them. Hochma, their sister and descendant, was called the tree of life (Proverbs) before she was divested of her female form. I see in the 'Thunder' the vision of a goddess human and divine who speaks again. Her words are taken over by the newer male-oriented religions. 'I am the first and the last` is a description of God and of Christ (Rev 21:6; 22:13); it not only recalls `Thunder' but also Egyptian Isis.
The differences in the Christianized and pre-Christian texts in their attitudes to Sophia have been analysed in detail by Rose Arthur. She points to the contrast between the early female Gnostic divinities and the 'fallen Sophia' of the Christians. She remarks that in the Jewish documents Sophia is not a personage in need of male redemption; this idea comes in the Christian texts.
In particular Sophia's fall from divinity is traced in the story of the birth of her child. I will quote part of it from the Apocryphon of John:
And the Sophia of the Epinnoia, being an aeon, conceived a thought from herself with the reflection of the invisible Spirit and foreknowledge. She wanted to bring forth a likeness out of herself without the consent of the Spirit - he had not approved - and without her consort and without his consideration. And though the personage of her maleness had not approved, and she had not found her agreement, and she had thought without the consent of the Spirit and the knowledge of her agreement, (yet) she brought forth. And because of the invincible power that is in her, her thought did not remain idle and a thing came out of her which was imperfect and different from her appearance, because she had created it without her consort. And it was dissimilar to the likeness of its mother for it has another form. She cast it away from her, outside the place, that no one of the immortal ones might see it, for she had created it in ignorance. And she surrounded it with a luminous cloud, and she placed a throne in the middle of the cloud that no one might see it except the holy Spirit who is called the mother of the living and she called his name Yaltabaoth.26
Here is a summation of the travels of the goddess. She has invincible power within her, she is able to create without the male principle and does so because she wishes to do so. In this she is behaving in the same way as a long line of ancient mother goddesses, but by now, in the second centuries after Christ, this has to be condemned as a fault, a fault so grievous that her child is imperfect; and this imperfect being then becomes the creator of a faulty and imperfect world. Whose fault is this? Sophia's. Why? Because she does not ask for male approval.
From then on Sophia's only way open is repentance, and this means she is constantly weeping. Eventually, fully penitent, she is allowed to return to the lowest place in the spiritual world, well away from her former glory. Where the author of the Book of Wisdom of Solomon moved to wanting to possess Sophia for his own aggrandizement, the later Gnostic books have gone far further. Now she is to bear the guilt for all the world's shortcomings. Much was made of her relationship to the 'fallen' Eve of Genesis 3.27
There is little doubt that the female divine Hochma and Sophia of earlier Gnostics was never forgotten. Vestiges of that philosophy were carried steadily in an underground stream throughout European history. Sometimes they bubbled up strongly, as for example in the Hermetic Philosophy of the Renaissance, as Frances Yates has shown. They continually nourished 'unofficial' movements and sects within the mainstream religions, sometimes openly, sometimes disguised. Where the later Gnostic view of Sophia's disobedience and fault was planted firmly on to all women by the Church, yet many Christians found in Mary the Virgin, and often the Black Virgin, a vision of the earlier goddess. In the Jewish world the establishment religion was satisfied with Hochma as Torah, the law, thus effectively denying the presence of the female in the divine.
This view was challenged by the influence of the mystical sect of Kabbalists who saw in the Shekhinah the female presence of God and venerated her accordingly. But since women themselves were denied access to or knowledge of the Kabbalah for most of its history the idea of a Jewish acknowledgment of the female deity was a closely guarded secret among men who treated it as a hidden doctrine and did not allow any of its consequences to pass into the community.
It is only today that Christian women may understand that Mary might be God the Mother as well as Mother of God; and that Sophia may be the unacknowledged female aspect of Jesus and possibly of the Holy Spirit. Jewish women in the present time may at last enter into their heritage of the divine female, for them in the guise of the Shekhinah, the female indwelling presence of God. The living waters which have bubbled underground for so long are now rising up and pouring out their revivifying streams.
The idea of the Shekhinah is full of contradictions and yet of inspiration.28 It is used to denote the presence of God and is derived from the Hebrew word to dwell. In Biblical texts it denoted the presence of God at some particular place - e.g. at Bethel, where Jacob met God, in the Meeting Tent with Moses in the desert, in the temple of Solomon at Jerusalem, and even as the deity as a resting place or refuge for humans. The Hebrew word is feminine in gender but for mainstream Talmudic and rabbinical thought it was not used to denote any female essence or element within God. It was, for them, synonymous with His presence, His glory, sometimes with His Holy Spirit (ruach-ha kodesh). Sometimes called the Face of God, the glory associated with the Shekhinah shone, for example, on Moses' face when he came down from the mountain. In a comprehensive work of reference on the indwelling of God in the world according to rabbinical literature, a writer early this century was able to provide copious detailed information about the Shekhinah without ever mentioning a feminine aspect.29
However, in the alternative and mystical tradition of Judaism known as Kabbalah, the Shekhinah, while keeping her characteristic of 'dwelling', became more and more personified as both divine and female. The Kabbalah literature may be taken to begin in the first four centuries of our era and itself related to an earlier mystical trend associated with the Merkabah (chariot) visions in the Book of Ezekiel, and it had certain affinities with some Gnostic material. From the early rabbinic years, the Kabbalah developed widely, rising to a peak during the Middle Ages, and again was renewed in later Judaism by the Hassidic sects of Eastern Europe.
We meet the Shekhinah on the Tree of Life, yet we also meet her as the 'community of Israel'. In the latter case, she is re-mythologized to become the marital partner of God, reflecting the Biblical tradition of God the husband, Israel the wife. She is addressed as 'Queen, Daughter, Bride' of God. A good deal of sexual imagery is used, in the tradition of that used in the Book of Proverbs about Hochma. Yet at the same time, some sects within the Kabbalists took the Shekhinah right out of this relationship to make her into what Patai has called 'an independent divine female entity, a direct heir to ancient Hebrew goddesses'. This point is also made strongly by Scholem, who compares the Shekhinah within the Kabbalah to the goddesses of the past, yet stresses that it is only for the Kabbalists that she has this character. For everyday and mainstream Jews, the Shekhinah must always be comprehended as God's presence or, at the utmost, the community of Israel.
It is clear that while the Jewish mystics pursued a comprehensive study of female divinity, yet no human female was allowed to take part in this activity or indeed to know anything at all about it. It was totally androcentric in concept and performance. The male students and teachers glorified the female but placed her in relation to themselves, and did not allow her divinity to enter into the lives of the general Jewish community, or into their worship. It has been emphasized that the study of the Kabbalah was 'not for the rabble'. It was for an elite, which in any case must necessarily be male.
Within this restriction, veneration of the Shekhinah was unbounded. It was emphasized that her glory is God's glory. She is described as a garden full of fruit and nuts, the latter being to do with riddles, puzzles and problems and, at a deeper level, the mysteries of alchemy and magic. Modern students of magic often look to the Kabbalistic writings as a primary source of material.
The Shekhinah has been compared to Lilith and to Hochma. As for Lilith, by the time the Kabbalists were writing she had long been turned into a ferocious demon, although there are a few positive references to her in the literature. Hochma they transformed into a male, equating the creative activity and direct knowledge of the world with the masculine, leaving the more passive aspects of perception and understanding to the female. There is also another fundamental difference between Hochma and the Shekhinah. The latter belongs to Judaism and is identified with the trials and hopes of the Jewish people, whom she comforted in their exile, and mourned within their trials. She was the essence of tikkun - the return to harmony of the world. She stands as a female aspect of divinity within Judaism to which Jewish people and especially women can now relate. By contrast, Hochma, Wisdom, was always universal. She called on all to enter her home and eat her food; all could learn from her the secrets of the universe; all could benefit from her instruction and learn to order their lives well. She reached from one end of the world to the other. She was not attached to any one group or people or religion. (Although some writers spoke of her making her home in Israel, this was never pursued widely.) She was co-existent with the universe, the mediator between all within it and deity which she shares.
Just as it is true that Hochma. like Shekhinah, became submerged in male culture, so both can be reclaimed in their free, powerful feminine forms. Now is the time they are both emerging from their long imprisonment.
THE GODDESS TODAY
A transformation concerning woman's place in both heavenly and earthly society has taken place in the last decade. The underground streams have become torrents. They have led to concern, even crisis, within traditional religions. While during the last hundred years or more women have spoken out strongly against Biblical-based subordination, it is only now that their numbers are large enough and the ideas are propagated widely enough to secure actual changes - many of which are still strongly resisted. Ursula King 30 in her survey of women's spirituality today has listed seven categories of voices: of protest and anger; of challenge; of experience; of spiritual power; of a new spirituality; of a new theology; of prophecy and integration. These come from disparate places, traditions, languages, cultures. They all join into one voice, that of a new women's spirituality. From that list I move on.
All, if we look at any of the categories, must start with anger - at the androcentrism of society and, within religion and theology, of the biblical and religious texts which have formed our culture. What next? It is to seek methods by which the subsumed, the forgotten half of humanity, the underclass of women, the no-no of humanity and of divinity, may be raised up and proclaimed. There is no consensus as to method - far from it - nor as to belief. There are many distinctions and some conflicts. But serving as a framework for all is the knowledge of past injustice and the will to put matters right.
Within the new theology, a network of methods of reinterpretation has been under construction for some years. Christian women research both the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, concentrating strongly on demythologizing the stories of sin and on remaking woman in the image of God - both themes in Genesis. Many include such subjects as the immanence of goddess or god in our lives, a new view of salvation that depends on wholeness and connectedness rather than reward and punishment. Areas of research deal, for example, with Mary the Virgin, or with Jesus-Sophia; with sexuality and religion, and with Jesus' position in the background of his times. Some scholars are researching the divinity of Wisdom.
Women within the Jewish tradition are, among much else, reclaiming the Kabbalah, and finding that the Shekhinah, God's female presence, is as much for them as for the men who previously appropriated it. They are able to copy early rituals, such as the blessing of the new moon, that was biblically the province of women, and in their academic studies are able to see and discuss rabbinical rituals outside the mainstream that in fact do not deny women's equality with men. They are taking a hard look at Bible texts and extra-biblical material and finding the forgotten and the overlooked female within them. There is an international growing network of feminist theological dissent.
The Bible has for over a hundred years been subject to various methods of interpretation and exegesis; today the feminist method is followed by more and more scholars. Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and Rosemary Ruether, both American Catholic feminist theologians, have been pioneering academic methods of demonstrating the received androcentric views and reconstructing a Christianity based on a wholism, indeed a love, that is traditionally purported to be its root. Theories of egalitarianism are suggested in different ways by these authors, who both fully realize women's previous subordination in their religion and who endeavour to see a way out within it. Women in theological research in Europe have formed an organization which centres on exchange of ideas and research in feminist theology. The subjects are of vast dimension: whether of a maligned woman in the Bible - such as Jezebel - or a new understanding of the meaning of the female ruach (spirit) in the Hebrew Bible; a discussion of the violence against women in the Bible, and the possibility of a women's liberation theology; a discussion of Mariology and its effect on women - positive or otherwise; a vision of Jesus as liberator of women (although this has serious drawbacks); and, above all, many views of the image of God - referring to Genesis 1:26 - and of reversing the Christian concept of women as vehicles of sin. All these were matters for discussion at a recent conference, as was a new one: within the 'Image of God' concept came the image of justice. The participants at a conference in Germany in 1989 took up the Christian roots of anti-Judaism. Judith Plaskow, in a paper entitled 'Feminist anti-Judaism and the Christian God', warned against the easy way that Christian feminists might follow by taking Jesus out of context to deliver women from their apparent oppressors, thus taking an anti-Jewish theme for granted.31 She pointed out that the theme of connectedness within Christianity is also present within Judaism and both religions can be called upon by women for a vision of totality and community.
Those who remain in the traditional religions try and work them through to establish a base for egalitarianism and wholism. Others have left them, finding that effort or dream impossible. Daphne Hampson, a British feminist theologian, has put Christianity behind her. She does not, she says, need Christianity for connectedness. She sees a vision of the whole, within a transformation of the meaning of God.32
An identification of one's woman-self with God is taken further by many women who move right away from their background religion. Those who turn back to older roots, pick up the myths and stories of the ancient goddesses, take them into sacred activities for themselves today. Again, there is no doctrine or homogeneity: some belong to a wiccan tradition, or faerie; some believe they have inherited secrets through grandmother to grandmother; some take up the cause and the practice of the ancient women healers; some seek goddesses from various cultures and defend and renew them. There are many others. Common to most is the assertion that the divine is not only 'out there' but is in ourselves, most particularly that the goddess is in us women and we in her. Others, myself among them, will state quite definitely that the goddesses who were despised, rejected, tortured, overthrown and continuously kept out of sight by ongoing ferocious brutality are a paradigm of what has happened to women and women's spirituality. In reclaiming them we reclaim ourselves; in reclaiming ourselves, we reclaim them.
Common to all - those in traditional religions who are reworking them; those who have left them behind but still stay clear of goddesses; those who attach themselves to goddesses whether inside or outside their 'home' religion; those who re-evaluate and reconstruct texts without a religious drive - is a sisterhood of understanding and endeavour. Whatever the method used, whatever the actual religious faith or lack of it, whatever charge of intensity is to be found in the work, there is no doubt that all involved with feminist theology - or thealogy as many of us would have it - are struggling to bring justice and truth to religion, especially as it affects women, and thence to the community in which they live. Such justice and truth are not words nor mirages, but affect the everyday lives of women - and men - everywhere.
Throughout the long journey at which we have taken passing glances, there has never been a point that did not contain a female aspect of God. From the goddesses of the ancient Near East who became transformed into the consort of God, and then demonized; from the acknowledgment of Hochma as both cosmic Wisdom and immediacy in the world, to the Torah; from Sophia, identical with the supreme divine power and instructor and guide to human beings, her sisterhood with other female divinities in other surrounding cultures, to her fallen state and her disappearance within the Trinity, and then her reappearance in another form as the Virgin Mary - the goddess has been there. The unfortunate part of the whole matter is that she has been disguised and dismissed. When we look at her history we understand how immense was her defeat.
What do we mean by this? Who was defeated? There is only one answer. We were defeated. And who are we? Well, first we are women, who have undergone defeat after defeat but somehow, like the goddess, on the whole we manage to survive through continuous catastrophes, crippled. Also defeated are men, who have paraded and gloried in their 'godliness' to bring the world to the brink of extinction and themselves to a place of nowhere in particular. The Bible, Hebrew and New Testament, both in their different ways chronicle the godhead of the female and its overthrow. The results of such male supremacy in religion have been and are horrific.
To heal and revive our world and all the people in it, we need to look again at the older religious traditions that sought and followed a concept of a female God, or within God, or aspect of God. The Divine She, the Mother Earth and Queen of Heaven, the She of the underworld, all express a concept that has been swept from the patriarchal thought and tradition. The kernel of the She within the divine was her association with earth as well as heaven, participation with humankind, a bridge between the transcendent and the mundane, making all of it sacred. Can we re-learn her lessons? Of Wisdom it was written: 'She shall be a Tree of Life to you.' Do we not have to face the flaming sword that the androcentric writers placed in front of her and deny it, so that we may again recognize Her and revenerate Her? Only in this way can our women's 'thirteenth hour' help humanity survive the crisis which male imbalance has brought upon the created world.
Pirani, Alix, Ed. The Absent Mother 1991
1 Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler, In Memory of Her, Crossroad, New York, 1983, p.29, and others by this author.
2 Brootten, Bernadette J., Women Leaders in the Ancient Synagogue, Scholars Press, CA, 1982, p.150.
3 Plaskow, Judith, 'The Right Question is Theological', in Heschel, S. (ed.), On Being a Jewish Feminist, Schocken, NY, 1983, p.230
4 Christ, Carol P., The Laughter of Aphrodite, Harper & Row, CA, 1987.
5 Patai, Raphael, The Hebrew Goddess, (new enlarged edition, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1990).
6 Quoted in Durdin-Robertson, L., The Goddesses of Chaldea, Syria and Egypt, Cesara Publications, Eire, 1975, p.2.
7 E.g. Isaiah 27:1, Psalm 74:13, Psalm 89:10.
8 Wolkstein, Diane and Kramer, Samuel Noah, Inanna, Harper, New York, 1983, p.7.
9 Long, Asphodel P., in Arachne, No. 2, MRRN, London, 1985, pp. 26-30.
10 Albright, W.F., Hebraica 36, 1919-20, pp.258-9.
11 Driver, G.R., Canaanite Myths and Legends, 1956.
12 Gray, John, The Canaanites, Thames & Hudson, London, 1964.
13 Meshel, Z. 'Did Jahweh have a Consort?' in Biblical Archaeological Review, March 1979.
14 Delcor, M., in Von Kanaan bis Kerala, ed. Delsman, Verlag Butzon & Berckerkevelaer, 1982, pp. 101-22.
17 E.g. Proverbs 3:18-19, 8:22-30; Book of Wisdom of Solomon 7:8, 8:1; Ecclesiasticus (The Book of Sirach) 24; The Book of Enoch 42:1-2
18 Greenfield, J.C. 'The Seven Pillars of Wisdom. A Mistranslation', in Jewish Quarterly Review, LXXVI, No. 1, 1985, pp.13-20.
19 Engelsman, Joan C., The Feminine Dimension of the Divine, Westminster Press, PA, 1979.
20 Durdin-Robertson, L., The Goddesses of Chaldea, Syria and Egypt, Cesara Publications, Eire, 1975, pp.324-5.
21 E.g. 1 Corinthians 1:24.
22 Robinson, James R., The Nag Hammadi Library, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1977.
23 Robinson, J.R., 1977, op. cit., pp. 461-70.
25 Ibid., pp. 271-7.
26 Arthur, Rose H., The Wisdom Goddess, University Press of America, 1984.
27 Robinson, J.R., 1977 op.cit., pp.103-4.
28 For historical information on Shekhinah see Scholem, Gershon, The Kabbalah and its Symbolism, Schocken, New York, 1969 and Scholem, Gershon, Kabbalah, Keter, Jerusalem, 1974; also Patai, Raphael, 1967 (1990), op.cit.
29 Abelson, Joshua, The Immanence of God, London, 1912.
30 King, Ursula, Women and Spirituality, Macmillan, London, 1989.
31 European Society of Women in Theological Research, Amoldshain, Germany, 1989.
32 Hampson, Daphne, Theology and Feminism, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1990.