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Athirat

ATHIRAT

ATHIRAT , called Ashiratum or Ashratum in Old Babylonian texts, was a West Semitic goddess, worshiped in Syria in the second millennium bce and still widely attested in southern Arabia in the mid-first millennium bce and later. The Old Babylonian spellings of her namewith and without the internal vowel i show that this vowel was short and could be elided. This is confirmed by the spellings Abdi-Ashirtu and Abdi-Ashratu of the name of the famous Amorite chieftain in the Amarna correspondence from the fourteenth century bce. The divine name was thus formed on the active participle of ʾr, "to walk" or "to tread on." Hence it was rightly explained as "walker" or "trampler."

Sun Goddess

Ashiratum was the consort of Amurrum, as Babylonians were calling the chief deity of the western nomads, the Amorites, and her realm was the steppe. The proper name Ashratum-ummi, "Athirat is my mother," shows how she was regarded by her worshipers. Later mythological texts from Ugarit indicate that she was the mother of the gods. The Gracious Gods Dawn and Sunset, as well as the heir of King Keret in the Ugaritic epic are supposed to suck the milk of Athirat. Since Amurrum was in fact a moon god, his consort was most likely a sun goddess or a particular aspect of the solar deity. This is corroborated to a certain extent by her role in southern Arabia where her name is borne by the spouse of the masculine lunar deity, which was called by different names and bynames. Athirat was the consort of ʿAmm, the main god of Qataban, who despite some doubts seems to have been a lunar deity. The situation is somewhat complicated because the sun goddess is also mentioned with the Quarter-of-the-Moon, a particular aspect of the moon god.

A territory of the kingdom of Qataban, called Dhu-Athirat, was dedicated to her and she was worshiped in a temple together with Wadd, certainly the moon god of the kingdoms of Maʿin and Awsan. A month in the calendar of Maʿin bore her name, Dhu-Athirat, obviously because a major festival was celebrated during that period in her honor. The sun goddess received in southern Arabia a number of epithets, and the name of Athirat is likely to have alluded initially to the solar disk "treading on" the vault of heaven from the east to the west. The image of the sun padding in the skies occurs also in the biblical Psalms 19:6, where the sun is said "to run along a road." As the female member of the great South Arabian triad of upper deities, she was regarded as the mother of the young stellar god Athtar. This explains her role in Ugaritic mythological texts, where she nominates Athtar as the successor of Baal immediately after Baal's death.

Her worship spread to northern Arabia, where she is mentioned in the fifth century bce among the three "gods of Taima": alm zi Maram, Sin-egalla, and Ashira, written in Aramaic script with shin and without the final t, dropped in the current pronunciation. The first deity is the sacred standing stone of the sanctuary, the second is the "moon god of the palace," and Ashira is likely to be his consort, the sun goddess. Her name appears also as a theophorous element in a few North Arabian proper names.

Consort of El

In Syria, Athirat appears in the mythological texts from Ugarit and in a myth preserved in a Hittite adaptation. She is the consort of the resting chief god El and the mother of the gods. In the Hittite text, she appears as the wife of Elkunirsha, a transcription of the Semitic title "El, the owner of the earth." At Ugarit, she is not identified with the sun goddess Shapash, but her title of "Lady walking on the sea," rbt art ym, still seems to allude to the sun setting in the west, on the Mediterranean sea. Her servant, "the fisherman of Athirat," is called "Holy passer," qdš (-w -)amrr, and he is supposed to traverse the sea in order to reach Caphtor, which is Crete. He may have been the boatman of the sun goddess, who sails every night on the ocean of the netherworld. This episode of the myth is not preserved, but its existence is implied by the Midrash Tehillim 19:11 and the Yalkut Shimoni II, §676, where reference is made to the Sun's ship.

In a phonetically atypical text from Ugarit, apparently written in another dialect, Athirat is referred to in parallel with the moon god Yara. This seems to imply that she is the consort of the lunar deity, most likely the sun goddess. Another text from Ugarit, known conventionally as the Poem of the Gracious Gods, mentions Athirat and the sun goddess Shapash in parallel. In view of this poetic device Athirat might be identical there with Shapash, but the badly damaged passage does not allow a firm conclusion. It seems at any rate that at some point Athirat became a deity distinct from the sun goddess, although she kept some of the goddess's characteristics.

The goddess is not attested in Canaan, either in the Amorite proper names of the Egyptian Execration Texts or in letters from Tell Taanak, where her name has been read by mistake. As far as we know, the worship of Athirat did not reach Egypt. Neither are there any traces of her cult in the Syro-Phoenician realm after the collapse of the Bronze Age civilization in the early twelfth century bce.

Holy Sites

In some quarters, the Akkadian noun aširtu, Phoenician ʾšrt, used also in the Philistine city of Ekron, Aramaic ʾtrt, and Hebrew ʾašērāh, all meaning "holy place," were confused with the name of the goddess Athirat. This confusion provoked a considerable secondary literature, inspired by the Hebrew epigraphic mention of "Yahweh and his asherah," the latter being regarded as the consort of Yahweh. Engaging often in speculations of a recondite kind, this approach displays a remarkable neglect of ancient written sources and of rules of Hebrew grammar, while no evidence is offered that, for instance, female pillar figurines in clay are statuettes of a goddess Asherah.

The occasional Hebrew spelling ʾšyrh, followed in the Targums Onqelos and Jonathan, shows that the noun in question does not follow the same nominal pattern as the name of the goddess Athirat: it is a passive derivative of the root ʾr, designating a site "trodden on," thus a place. The context of the noun in the available sources always indicates that a holy site is meant. The masculine passive derivative Ashur of the same root had a similar meaning, as it indicated the sacred hill on which the capital city of Assyria was built, but it became the name of a particular deity. No similar evolution can be observed in the case of asherah, since the occasional use of the definite article, the often occurring pluralgenerally with the masculine ending -īm and the use of asherah with the pronominal suffix show that the word remained a common noun in Hebrew.

At least in the northwest Semitic realm, a holy site called asherah was connected with the presence of trees. Deuteronomy 16:21 prohibits one to "plant an asherah of any kind of tree," while Judges 6:25 orders Gideon to "cut down the asherah," which consisted of several trees. The text speaks explicitly of "the trees of the asherah," which had to provide fuel for the sacrifice of a bullock, and Gideon needed ten servants to cut them down (Jgs. 6:2627). The asherah could thus be a grove of quite a considerable size, and not a simple pole.

The injunction of Exodus 34:13 uses the plural asherim to designate the sacred groves that must be cut down. The expression "Yahweh and his asherah," occurring in Hebrew inscriptions from Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud, indicates that those were sites where Yahweh was worshiped. The unique biblical text referring to a Baal's asherah is 1 Kings 18:19, where "the four hundred prophets of the asherah " are ministrants of Baal's shrine. However, the expression may be a later intrusion, since it is asterized in Origen's Hexapla. The formula of Exodus 34:13 is repeated with variants in several texts. The asherim must be cut down, as indicated in 2 Kings 18:4 and 23:14, hacked down, as stated in Deuteronomy 7:5 and 2 Chronicles 14:12, 31:1, or simply burnt, as required in Deuteronomy 12:3 and 2 Kings 23:15. They can also be uprooted, as indicated in Micah 5:13.

All these texts use a traditional terminology, coined in a period when the asherah was a grove of trees popularly regarded as a sacred site. The Temple Scroll 51:20, written about 160 bce, repeats the biblical prohibition of "planting asherot " and "erecting standing-stones." It alludes obviously to sacred groves with symbols of the deity, while using the more recent plural asherot instead of asherim. It is not surprising that the Greek version of the Bible, made in Alexandria in the third and second centuries bce, usually translates asherah by alsos, "sacred grove," or by dendera, "trees." Similarly, the Latin Vulgate version uses the terms lucus or nemus, both with the same meaning. Philon of Alexandria (c. 30 bce45 ce) notes in his work On the Special Laws I 74 that there was no alsos in the Temple of Jerusalem, at least in his time. And Flavius Josephus, in his work Against Apion I 199, quotes Hecataeus of Abdera, a Hellenistic writer from the early third century bce, who expressly states that the Temple had no sacred plants, obviously referring to the asherah or alsos, well attested in heathen sanctuaries.

In the monarchic period, the asherah could be a chapel or shrine like in Assyro-Babylonian texts, in which ashirtu appears as a sacral building or a particular place in a sanctuary. It was "built" (2 Kgs. 14:23), "set up" (2 Kgs. 17:10), or "restored" (2 Chr. 33:19). As a holy place, it is associated with chapels, altars, and hill shrines, or is mentioned in antithetical parallel with "the house of Yahweh," as in 2 Chronicles 24:18. These texts do not make any reference to a grove or tree.

According to Jeremiah 17:2, 1 Kings 14:23, and 2 Kings 17:10, asherim were erected on heights, by old spreading trees. One can note that such shrines find analogies even in modern Palestine, were they are known as the tombs of saints or welis, erected on hilltops, near a venerated tree. Asherim existed also in cities. Towards the end of the tenth century bce, according to 1 Kings 15:13 and 2 Chronicles 15:16, queen mother Maaka had made a mipleet for the asherah of Jerusalem. This was probably a phallic stele, a symbol of human and agricultural fertility. It may have signified the presence of Yahweh, like the idol or emblem (pesel ) that King Manasseh placed in the Temple according to 2 Kings 21:7: "and he put in the temple the idol of the asherah that he had made." That asherah with its idol remained in the Temple complex until the reform of King Josiah. The narrative of 2 Kings 23:67 specifies that Josiah took it away and pulled down the annexes of the Temple, "where women were weaving for the asherah," probably adorned with carpets and draperies. A famous asherah, which stood in Samaria under Jehoahaz, is alluded to in 2 Kings 13:6probably the one made by Ahab, as reported in 1 Kings 16:33.

Sanctuaries are also meant in Aramaic and Phoenician inscriptions. The Phoenician ostracon from Akko, dating to the fifth century bce, mentions "the overseer of the ashirat," and an inscription from Umm el-Amed is a dedication "to Astarte in the ashirat of the gods of Hammon," the ancient name of the town, south of Tyre. The allusions to offerings brought "to the ashirat " of Ekron parallel the offering made "to the maqom," a general term designating a holy place. The earliest Aramaic attestation of ashirat appears on one of the inscriptions from Sefire, in northern Syria, dating to the mid-eighth century bce. The latest one, supposed to date from the period between the fourth and the sixth or seventh centuries ce, occurs in a Judeo-Aramaic incantation inscribed on a magic bowl, found in Mesopotamia. It curses "the ashirat of the king of the demons," ʾšrt mlk' d-šydy. In all these texts, ashirat can be translated simply by "sanctuary," "shrine," or "sacred precinct." Nothing indicates that the presence of a sacred tree is implied.

However, a single tree may indeed characterize a holy site. The Aramaic inscription from Sardis, dating from the mid-fourth century bce, mentions "the tree of the holy place," in Aramaic atīrtā, a variant spelling of ashirta. According to Genesis 21:3, Abraham planted a sacred tree at Beersheba and invoked "the everlasting God." The sacred oak or terebinth of Mamre was famous in the time of Flavius Josephus, who mentions it twice, in The Jewish War IV 533 and in Jewish Antiquities I 186. It was later a haunt of "angels," as the fifth-century church historian Sozomen writes, and Constantine the Great was obliged to put down the heathenish cult. Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar, active in the second century ce, mentions three other asherot in Palestine: the evergreen carob of Kfar Qasem, the carob of Kfar Pigsha, and the evergreen sycamore, growing among the pine trees on Mount Carmel.

The first asherah, probably located on the southwestern rim of the Samarian Hills, was apparently famous for oracles, as the name qasem, "divination," suggests. Already Genesis 12:6 mentions the "terebinth of the teacher" at Shechem, evidently an ancient sacred tree from which oracles were obtained, and Judges 9:37 refers to the "terebinth of the diviners," most likely the same sacred tree. It may also be identical with the "tree of the standing-stone" in Judges 9:6. This symbol of the divinity was placed under the tree, thus manifesting the sacred character of the site, which was certainly an asherah, defined in the Mishnah as "any tree under which is an idol." At the same time, the mention of the standing-stone expressed the difference between the sacred tree or grove and the divine occupant. This distinction was not always clearly drawn and it is quite intelligible that prayers could be addressed to the occupant and to his abode, for instance "to Yahweh and to his asherah," or even to the sole abode of the divinity, becoming a deity in its own right, like the Aramean gods Bethel, "God's house," and Turmasgad, "Mountain of worship." The only remote possibility of understanding asherah in a similar way occurs in Judges 3:7, where the Israelites are accused by the Deuteronomistic historian of having served "the Baals and the asherot." However, the parallel passages of Judges 2:13 and 10:6, and 1 Samuel 7:4 and 12:10 mention "the Baals and the Ashtarot." Two Hebrew manuscripts and the Latin Vulgate version, made directly on the Hebrew text, read Ashtarot as well in Judges 3:7, instead of asherot. The latter reading should therefore be regarded as a scribal error.

Summing up, the Hebrew word asherah designates a holy site, a sanctuary, especially one marked by the presence of a sacred grove or green tree. It has no relation whatsoever to the goddess Athirat. There is a quite consistent and uninterrupted tradition, from biblical to Mishnaic times and the Middle Ages, in the understanding of this Hebrew word. Maimonides writes in Mishneh Torah (I 75b: 23): "A tree that was planted, from the outset, for the purpose of being worshipped, is forbidden to be used. This is the asherah, mentioned in the Torah."

Bibliography

The present entry updates Edward Lipiński's contribution "The Goddess Airat in Ancient Arabia, in Babylon, and in Ugarit," in Orientalia Lovaniensia. Periodica 3 (Louvain, Belgium, 1972), pp. 101119. A study of the topic in early rabbinic literature is provided by Mireille Hadas-Lebel, "Le paganisme à travers les sources rabbiniques des IIe et IIIe siècles: Contribution à l'étude du syncrétisme dans l'empire romain," in Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt II: Principat, edited by Hildegard Temporini and Wolfgang Haase, vol. 19/2 (Berlin and New York, 1979), pp. 397485, in particular pp. 409412. For South Arabia, one can refer to François Bron, "Notes sur le culte d'Athirat en Arabie du sud préislamique," in Études sémitiques et samaritaines offertes à Jean Margain, edited by Christian Bernard Amphoux, Albert Frey, and Ursula Schattner-Rieser (Lausanne, Switzerland, 1998), pp. 7579. Further studies dealing with speculations about asherah as Yahweh's consort include Saul M. Olyan, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel (Atlanta, 1988); Steve Wiggins, A Reassessment of 'Asherah': A Study according to the Textual Sources of the First Two Millennia b.c.e. (Kevelaer and Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, 1993); Christian Frevel, Aschera und der Ausschliesslichkeitsanspruch YHWH's: Beiträge zu literarischen, religionsgeschichtlichen, und ikonographischen Aspekte der Aschera: Diskussion (Weinheim, Germany, 1995); Tilde Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament (Sheffield, U.K., 1997); Paolo Merlo, La dea Ašratum-Airatu-Ašera (Rome, 1998); Judith M. Hadley, The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess (New York and Cambridge, U.K., 2000); and W. Wyatt, "Asherah," in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible, edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst, 2d ed. (Leiden and Grand Rapids, Mich., 1999), pp. 99105.

Edward LipiŃski (2005)

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