Goddess Worship: Goddess Worship in the Ancient near East

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The diversity of female divinities within ancient Near Eastern societies makes it impossible to arrange them into neat categories, and any attempt to do so would inevitably involve a great deal of simplification. There are two main reasons for this: the complexity of the religious systems, and the long period over which they developed.

One could and should ask, with some legitimacy, why female deities are singled out for separate analysis. The answer to this lies, to a large degree, in the history of the discussions on goddesses. The topic has sometimes been covered with academic rigor, sometimes with highly charged ideological arguments. In the cultures investigated in this article, goddesses were inseparably integrated into a complex divine world. No single fundamental pattern universally repeats itself even in the cultures of the ancient Near East. The genders of the deities are culturally determined. For example, the sun was gendered male in Mesopotamia, while it was gendered female in the Levant and Anatolia. The "fickle" moon, universally assumed to be female, was gendered male throughout the ancient Near East. In Egypt the sky goddess belies the "Earth Goddess" stereotype. Thus, the goal of this article will be to identify the range of goddesses in particular societies and to comprehend their symbolic significance, rather than to delineate a rigid code that holds for all contexts. Unfortunately, the limited space allows only an introduction to the subject.

The Nature of the Evidence

Reconstructions of ancient Near Eastern theologies are based on texts and artifacts, unevenly distributed in time and space. Data on goddesses can be compiled from personal and place names, god lists and offering lists, seal inscriptions and votive dedications, mythological literary compositions and liturgical hymns, petitionary prayers and exorcistic incantations.

The literary and visual evidence are neither complementary nor comparable. Unfortunately, the texts have no pictures and the pictures rarely bear texts. In Mesopotamia, images of goddesses were clearly differentiated from mortal women by their divine horned headdresses. In other cultures, non-human features such as wings and animal attributes are indicators of divinity.

The most problematic artifactual material are figurines of nude women known from the Neolithic through all later periods and in all areas of the Near East, from Egypt to Iran. In prehistory, there are no written records to explain these mute figurines, but they are commonly assumed to be images of the goddess and/or images for fertility magic. Their exaggerated hips and breasts could also be understood as stylized conventions for rendering ideal feminine beauty. No evidence exists to identify the typical figurine with any major goddess. On the rare occasions that goddesses were depicted naked, they can be distinguished by context, stance, or at-tribute.

The meaning of figurines is not something enshrined in them but something that people confer on them, changing with time and context. Figurines can be considered both as "images of" human form and as "images for" important human concerns. Written records and anthropological evidence suggest numerous possible functions and meanings for these miniature human representations. Magical ritual texts specify how the figurines of a sick person are to be used during healing rituals. In Tanzania, adolescent boys are shown figurines of pregnant women during rites of initiation into adulthood. Had such images been found out of context, this type of figurine could easily have been identified as a "goddess" rather than as a symbolic device that plays a role in the formation of male identity.

There is an immense range of possible uses for figurines. They may have been cult figures, focal points of veneration in a private household shrine or public chapel. Conversely, figurines found in temples may well have been votive offerings given by worshippers to the deity, expressing their donors' fervent piety, heartfelt thankfulness, or heartfelt entreaty. Figurines discovered in temple depositories may have been images created as part of a temple ritual.

Outside the temple, figurines were used in magic rituals to prevent or produce certain situations or states, such as ensuring fertility or good luck, warding off evil, curing illness, or causing harm to others. In these situations, the figurines might serve as talismans, amulets, fetishes, or therapeutic objects. These varied functions are known from many texts recording charms, incantations, and descriptive rituals.

On a more personal level, figurines might be markers of special times such as birthing or rebirthing, or periods of transition or of other time-based processes such as female menstrual cycles. Figurines were employed as educational aids and teaching figures, used in initiation or puberty rites to illustrate sexual topics for adolescents of both sexes. Diminutive anthropomorphic images were also undoubtedly put to use as toys, in particular as dolls. They could also be adapted to illustrate songs, epics, or myths.

Figurines may have been placed in graves as part of burial rites to counteract the harmful effects of the ghost of the dead, as substitutes for the dead person's body in the next world, as images of a protective deity who guided the deceased to the underworld, or perhaps as favorite possessions to be enjoyed by the dead in the afterlife.

The functions listed above cover only part of the spectrum of possibilities, and a single figurine may have served more than one of these functions. Given the range of types, sizes, and potential uses of figurines, it is clear that no single explanation could ever account for them all.

Prehistoric Evidence of Female Divinities (10,0004000 bce)

Female figurines with large stomachs and pendulous breasts from the European Upper Paleolithic and Neolithic periods (c. 40,000 to 5,000 years ago) are claimed to provide evidence of a homogeneous European prehistoric religion centered on the "Great Goddess," whose image is reflected in these figurines. Many scholars have interpreted these figurines as depicting pregnant and/or breast-feeding women, and thus signifying fertility. This speculative interpretation was subsequently applied to the ancient Near East, where the first stone figures known were found in the Jordan Valley, on the shores of the Dead Sea, and around Mount Carmel (c. 10,000 bce). In the ensuing period, crude female figurines of clay and stone appear at Mureybet, on the upper Euphrates (80007600 bce). Anthropomorphic and zoomorphic examples occur in central Anatolia (80007000 bce) and in the Valley of the Yarmuk River (late 7000early 6000 bce). Yarmukian anthropomorphic representations include those made of clay and of river pebbles, both detailed and schematic, some with cowry-like eyes and massive thighs but minimal breasts. On the Tigris in Mesopotamia, 6000 bce graves (especially those of infants) have yielded female alabaster statuettes while ordinary settlement debris contained clay figurines, both human and animal. The alabaster statuettes are carved schematically with no accentuation of any female anatomical sexual parts. Disparate clay figurines are found at 6000 bce sites in Mesopotamia and on somewhat earlier Zagros sites such as Jarmo. Farther east, from the Bakhtaran region in Iran, female figurines with tall necks, no facial features, and bulging breasts and thighs were uncovered in the excavations of Ganj Dareh and Tepe Sarab. Halafian sites in northern Syria and northern Mesopotamia (5000 bce) produced a variety of figurines, of which the most famous are the painted terra-cottas of seated women with pinched heads, long necks, arms encircling large breasts, and fat, bent legs lacking feet. The significance of these figurines is difficult to explain because their remarkable diversity and varied places of discovery precludes any single explanation of their purpose. Some seem to be site-specific, reflecting local religious customs, such as the alabaster statuettes from Tell es-Sawwan.

One particular site (and its interpretation) has provided the basis for the belief in the worship of a universal monolithic "Mother Goddess"the site of Early Neolithic Çatal Hüyük in south-central Anatolia, where certain female figurines are portrayed with large stomachs and pendulous breasts similar to the European prehistoric examples. In 1993, excavations began again at the site, now seen not as distinctive but within the context of a range of settlements from Early Neolithic Çayönü in southeastern Anatolia to Late Neolithic Hacilar in western central Anatolia.

Goddesses of Mesopotamia

For over three millennia, the religious life of Mesopotamia was presided over by thousands of deities worshipped by a mixed population of Sumerians, Akkadians, Amorites, Kassites, and Arameans. A continual process of reinterpretation and syncretism, mutation and fossilization, fusion and fission generated a Mesopotamian religion that was a complex, multilayered accumulation.

It has often been remarked that female deities dominated early Mesopotamian religion. Major cities dedicated to goddesses were: Uruk and Zabalam, dedicated to Inanna (goddess of love, war, and sexuality), Eresh, dedicated to Nidaba (goddess of grain and writing), Shuruppak, dedicated to Sud (daughter of Nidaba, perhaps related to water and purification), Kesh and Nutur, dedicated to Ninhursaga (goddess of birthing), and Lagash, dedicated to Gatumdug (Mother of Lagash). However, other cities of equal rank had male tutelary deities.

In the second millennium, previously important cities in the lower stretches of southern Mesopotamia were abandoned for political, demographic, and perhaps ecological reasons. As the earlier cult centers began to lose their priority, the religious center of Nippur gained by their loss. In Nippur, Ninlil assumed the prerogatives of many of the other goddesses. This process was mythologized: Sud of Shuruppak was equated with Ninlil of Nippur through marriage with the god Enlil. When Sud became the bride of Enlil, she was renamed Ninlil. Once she was identified with Ninlil, she disappeared for all practical purposes from the Mesopotamian religious scene. Thus, the decline in the number of goddesses as city patrons between the third and second millennia has been explained as due to the decline of the cities of lower Mesopotamia. Similarly, the rise of northern cities brought their gods into prominence, such as Babylon and its god Marduk.

Other elements of nature, such as the earth, played a minor role in ancient Near East mythology. The primal female elemental at the beginning of time was waterthe mingling of the waters was considered the source of life. The goddess of subterranean waters, Namma, was the engenderess of allthe heaven, the earth, and the gods.

The "mother goddesses" in Mesopotamia were birthing mother figures. The emblem of the "mother goddess" was the omega-shaped uterus rather than a child in her arms. The interchange of Ninhursaga (Lady of the Foothills), Nintur (Lady Birth-hut), Ninmah (Great Lady), and other "mother-goddess" figures becomes increasingly common as time passes.

The expected functions of "mother goddesses" regarding other aspects of human and animal life were in the hands of diverse goddesses and gods. The fish and water-fowl goddess Nanshe was better known for her association with divination, dreams, and oracles. She was also an administrator, responsible for checking weights and measures, protecting the weak, meting out justice, and punishing immoral acts. While Ninurta (the god of agriculture) was responsible for the fertility of the land, grain goddesses (of which Nidaba was the most prominent) were accountable for the growth of the grain. She was also in charge of the scribal arts, including accounting and surveying.

Goddesses occupied the same sex roles in the divine family as in the human family: mothers, wives, brides, sisters, and daughters. Pronounced complementarity existed between the divine genders, especially in a brother-sister relationship. The archetypical sister was Geshtinanna (Grapevine of Heaven), a paragon of sisterly devotion. She sheltered, mourned, and substituted for her brother Dumuzi in the netherworld. She played a prominent role as a singer of dirges and was associated with singing and music in general, and she became the recorder of the gods, particularly of the netherworld in the second and first millennia.

Goddesses were also responsible for clothing manufacture, beer brewing, the education of children, and doctoring the sick. Healing was always in the hands of the goddesses of medicine throughout the millennia, while pestilence and destruction were in the hands of the gods.

Inanna (in Sumerian, Ishtar in Akkadian) was the most revered and popular goddess of ancient Mesopotamia, and she has consequently served as a focus for persons seeking to revive "goddess" worship. Inanna first appears in the late fourth millennium as the patron deity of the city of Uruk, where she represented the numen of the central storehouse.

Even at this period, Inanna appears in various manifestations, each of which has a separate temple and cult. Two of her manifestations, "Morning" and "Evening," describe the goddess as the planet Venus, in the morning and in the evening sky. In later texts, as Morning Star, Venus was female; as Evening Star, male. The two aspects corresponded to the double character of Inanna/Ishtar as goddess of love and war. She was viewed as a beautiful goddess of love who ruled the day and as a bearded goddess of war who ruled the night. Even in her male role, she never becomes fully male, but seems to be a female with male gender characteristics, thus providing a powerful symbol of the ambiguities of pure sexuality.

Despite her masculine gender roles, she was conceived as the epitome of femininity. She was the youthful goddess of love, and literary compositions relate the romance of Inanna and Dumuzi. Paradoxically, some compositions extol her as a timid virgin while others exalt her as a licentious harlot. In love poetry, she manifests her eroticism and celebrates sensuality.

In the late fourth millennium, there existed a pan-Mesopotamian league centered on Uruk and its deity Inanna. The importation of Inanna into every community, and her absorption of local female divinities of various character, resulted in one mega-female divinity. In addition to this process of syncretism, her character became more ambiguous as the result of further fusion and fission. Inanna and her Semitic counterpart Ishtar had partly merged by the mid-third millennium. Simultaneously with this fusion, different goddesses split off from this amalgam. At the end of the third millennium, the goddess Nanaya appeared in Uruk as the goddess of love. Inanna shared her aspect as Venus with Ninsianna, the "red lady of heaven," who executed divine judgements.

The Canonical Temple List assigns the largest number of temples to various manifestations of Ishtar. These goddesses were understood as both one goddess and as many. They were hypostases of a single divine archetype, a situation similar to the proliferation of the various Zeus figures of classical antiquity or the local manifestations of the Virgin in Catholic belief.

The second millennium brought changes in the theological system. Gradual reduction of the roles played by female divinities, as well as domination by divine male spouses, curtailed their power of independent action. They therefore assumed an increasingly mediatory function between the human world and the masculinized divine world. Most of the goddesses popular in the third millennium continued to be worshipped but commonly under the names of their Akkadian counterparts.

With the rise of Babylon and its god Marduk to supreme dominion of the divine and human worlds, Sumerian and Akkadian divinities, both male and female, were relegated to lower positions in the hierarchy.

Goddesses of Iran

Iran's vast terrain is divided into areas of relatively isolated local cultures. The best known is Elam, in southwestern Iran. Yet, it is difficult to say anything certain about Elamite deities since little is known about Elamite mythology and the only sources of information are royal inscriptions.

The major goddesses were: Pinengir, Kiririsha, Narunde, and Manzat. In a treaty from the third millennium invoking the gods of Elam, the goddess Pinengir appears in first place as the highest deity of the Elamite pantheon. Despite assumptions concerning her being a mother goddess, nothing is known about her character until the Middle Elamite period (latter part of the second millennium) when not only a temple but also an "inn" was dedicated to her. The latter suggests that Pinengir was responsible for love and sex life. During the second millennium on the coast of the Persian Gulf, another goddess, Kiririsha (Great Lady), occurs. Apparently, from Middle Elamite times, two separate deities existed, both designated "mistress of the sky," "mother of the gods," and "great consort." Kiririsha seems also to have been responsible for combat and battle, judging by her votive offerings of battle axes.

Narunde, the sister of the seven good demons, is found only in the third millennium. She was a goddess of victory, who fought against the seven evil demons. Manzat (Rainbow) was the wife of Simut, god of Elam, and her function may have been to protect women as votive offerings of female figurines were found in her temple.

In the latter part of the second millennium, Medes and Persians migrated from the Asian steppes onto the Iranian plateau. Among the Iranian deities, one goddess alone is prominent: Ardvi Sura Anahita. She was the goddess of all the waters upon the earth and the source of the cosmic ocean. She was regarded as the source of life, purifying the seed of all males and the wombs of all females. Because of her connection with life, warriors in battle prayed to her for survival and victory.

Goddesses of Anatolia

In Anatolia, peoples of different languages and cultures coexisted producing a heterogeneous polytheistic systeman amalgam of Hattic, Hittite, Luwian, and Hurrian traditions with Syrian and Mesopotamian influences. It is difficult to determine the original character of the gods of the Hattic people, who preceded the Hittites on the central Anatolian plain, since knowledge of these gods has been transmitted through Hittite traditions. The Hittites were an Indo-European people who have left numerous texts dealing with religious practice and theology. Another Indo-European group, the Luwians, resided in southwestern Anatolia. The Hurrians were speakers of a Caucasoid language whose influence expanded throughout Syria and Anatolia in the mid-second millennium.

As the Hittite kingdom expanded, the cults of the various peoples of Anatolia, all of whom had their own religious traditions and local gods, were incorporated into the Hittite system. Interference between these theological systems resulted at times in gender change: the male Hattic/Hittite ruler of the underworld Lelwani became female under Hurrian influence and was identified with the Hurrian goddess of the underworld, Allani. The Hattic goddess Kait, the deity of vegetation, became the Hittite god Halki (Grain).

Important goddesses of the Hattic pantheon were the two sun-goddesses, the sun-goddess of the sky, Wurunshemu, the consort of storm-god, and the sun-goddess of the earth (or the netherworld). The name of the sun-goddess of the earth in both Hattic and Hittite is unknown while in late Hittite texts she was referred to by the Hurrian designation Allani. Next in importance was Inar (Hittite: Inara), a young warlike goddess, the protective deity of the land. In addition to being a goddess of the wild animals, she was said to have power over fields and floods.

At the head of the Hittite pantheon were the storm-god and the sun-goddess of Arinna, identified with Hattic Wurunshemu. A mother goddess, Hannahanna (Grandmother), was a wise old woman, skilled in healing and childbirth, whose advice was regularly sought by other gods in the old Hittite vanishing god myths. Two important groups of goddesses were the Gulsh(esh) goddesses of fate and the mother goddesses. Kamrushepa, the Luwian goddess of healing, was responsible for the curing of earthly and heavenly diseases and illnesses.

Deities of Hurrian origin were mostly worshipped in Kizzuwatna (southern Anatolia) during the Hittite Empire period. In the sanctuary at Yazilikaya, a procession of the chief divinities of the Hurrianized Hittite pantheon was carved on its walls: one procession of gods on the western wall and another procession of goddesses on the eastern, with the principal deities meeting in the center. This monument provides an affirmation of the symmetry and equal importance of the gods and goddesses. Leading the goddesses was Hepat, the spouse of the storm-god Teshup, with their son, Sharruma, and daughter, Allanzu. From her images together with her son, she is thought to be a mother goddess and generally bears the title "the Lady, Queen of Heaven." Shaushka, the bellicose and beautiful sister of the storm-god Teshup, appears twice, among both the gods and the goddesses. It is assumed that she had a bisexual nature, with both male and female characteristics and attributes.

Goddesses of the Levant

Deities from a variety of backgrounds were venerated in the Levant: Syrian, West Semitic (Amorite, Canaanite), Hurrian, Akkadian, and Sumerian. In the second half of the second millennium, mythological and ritual compositions found at the site of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra) on the Levantine coast provide a window into Canaanite theology. The principal Ugaritic goddesses were: Athirat (Ashratu, Asherah), Anat, and Athtart (Ashtart[e]).

The goddess Athirat appears for the first time as Ashrata in Amorite personal names in Mesopotamia during the first half of the second millennium bce and sporadically in later Mesopotamian sources. In the latter half of the millennium, this goddess occurs in texts from Ugarit, Akhetaten (modern Amarna) in middle Egypt, and Taanach in northern Israel while in the first millennium her worship was limited to sites in southern Judah, Philistia, and northern Sinai, and to written references from the Bible. Nevertheless, she was invoked in one Phoenician magical plaque found in the Aramean city of Hadatu (modern Arslan Tash).

In Ugarit, this goddess appears as ʾart (or Athirat). In the mythological texts, she was the wife to the god El and mother to his seventy sons. She held the title "progenitress of the gods" and was associated with the fecund sea.

In the Bible, Asherah occurs most frequently as a cultic symbol of the divinity (wooden pole or tree), as in Deuteronomy 16:21, and occasionally as the goddess herself. She was often associated with Baal, as in 1 Kings 18:19, when Elijah rails against four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah.

Evidence of the importance of Asherah in the popular religion of the region of southern Judah is found in the controversial inscriptions on the pithoi vessels at Kuntillet Ajrud. One inscription reads: "I bless you by YHWH of Samaria and his asherah."

The two deities Anat (ʿnt) and Ashtart (ʿštrt, Greek form: Astarte) share similar characteristics. Both were beautiful maidens and doughty warriors, and both were depicted as smiting goddesses, brandishing weapons above their heads and holding a shield and spear. After their first appearance in Syria, the worship of these two goddesses spread throughout Egypt and the Levant. Both goddesses were venerated in Egypt: at Deir el-Medineh, the craftsmen's village in Upper Egypt, the workers set up reliefs in their honor, while an Ashtart sanctuary was discovered at Pi-Ramesses, the northern capital in Lower Egypt. Both Anat and Ashtart survive in formal lists of Egyptian gods well into Roman times. In the first millennium bce, Ashtart was the chief deity of the Phoenician city of Tyre (in modern Lebanon) and took precedence over Anat, although the latter continued to appear sporadically in dedications from as far afield as Lower Egypt. Both goddesses were invoked in the treaty made by the Assyrian king Esarhaddon with the king of Tyre.

Although these two goddesses were similar in character, they had different origins. The name Anat goes back to Hanat, the theos eponymous of the Amorite Hanean tribesmen in Syria, in the early second millennium. The cult of Anat was first attested in Egypt in the late Middle Kingdom (eighteenth century bce). As the daughter of the sun-god Re and the wife of the war-god Seth, Anat acted as a mediator between the two. In late second-millennium Ugaritic myths, she was the sister of the storm god Baal, and again a mediator between him and the great god El. She was the mistress of animals, both protectress and huntress, as well as midwife at both animal and human births. She was pictured as a young maiden without children, swift as a bird and fierce as a lioness. Her proficiency in battle was legendary. The Baal myth tells of her bellicose attacks on men and divinities, as well as her help in placatory mediation for the building of Baal's palace. Anat searches for Baal in the realm of Mot (Death), and with the help of the sun-goddess Shapsu she finds and buries him and finally revives him by vanquishing Mot.

Ashtart epitomized the fury of battle and probably had astral associations with the planet Venus. In Emar (on the bend of the Euphrates River), one of her manifestations was Ashtart-of-Battle. In Egypt, she was addressed as "Lady of the Battle, goddess of the Asians." In the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon during the first millennium, she was the leading goddess. In the Bible, Ashtart appears both in singular and plural forms: ʿashtoret and ʿashtorot. The Bible cites her worship as widespread among the original inhabitants of Canaan and associates her with fertility and love rather than warfare.

From this review, it can be seen clearly that none of these major goddesses were "fertility" goddesses and that there were no "fertility" cults in ancient Canaan. The deities responsible for fertility were male. Baal was responsible for the fertility of the land and El for the fertility of human beings.

Goddesses of Egypt

As in the other regions of the ancient Near East, the goddesses of Egypt can be described as local deities, although several local deities were worshipped throughout Egypt, from the beginning of the historical period onward.

According to the Heliopolitan cosmogony, the creator god Atum (He who makes/is complete), appears spontaneously in the waters of the god Nun. He engendered from himself the next generation of deities: the male Shu, the preserving force of dry air, and the female Tefnut, the corrosive force of moisture. Atum was said to have produced the pair by masturbation, by his personified feminine hand, or by a female complement, Iusaas ("She comes and grows great"). Shu and Tefnut bore the earth god Geb and the sky goddess Nut. Geb and Nut produced two more pairs of gods and goddesses: the gods Osiris and Seth and their respective wives and sisters Isis and Nephthys. One myth tells of the conflict between the two brothers Osiris and Seth. It describes how Seth, envious of his brother Osiris, drowned him and cut his body into pieces. However, Isis and Nephthys managed to collect the parts of Osiris' dismembered body. With her extraordinary magical powers, Isis then revived her husband-brother, was impregnated by him, and later gave birth to Horus.

The three goddesses Nut, Isis, and Nephthys were worshipped as the most important goddesses of Egypt. The sky-goddess Nut was the regenerative mother, the mother of the deceased king (and thus a mortuary goddess). She was also the mother of the solar deity Re who traveled by boat through the night sky within the body of the goddess. At dawn the god was reborn from between the thighs of the goddess in the East.

Isis was the primary symbol of the devoted mother and wife; she was referred to as "the Savior" and "Great of Magic," and she was entreated for protection, particularly on behalf of women and children. Representations of Isis suckling the infant Horus in her arms illustrate her role as the protective goddess-mother.

Although Nephthys (Mistress of the House) was the wife-sister of the god Seth, her loyalty to Osiris, her husband's opponent, earned her a similar position in the funerary cult to that of her sister Isis. Like Isis, she was regarded as the savior and protector of Osiris, and consequently of every dead person. Nephthys also played the role of wet nurse, despite not being able to give birth to children of her own.

Two other notable goddesses were Neith and Hathor. The history of Neith begins with the earliest history of Egypt, when she had a close, protective relationship with the king and queens. Her emblems, the double bow and crossed arrows, indicate her role as huntress. Once the most prominent goddess, her cult faded until the Late Period of ancient Egypt. In the Greco-Roman period she came to be portrayed as a primordial creator deity.

In the latter part of the Egyptian Old Kingdom, the goddess Hathor of Dendera came to the fore. Her complex nature is reflected in her numerous and diverse roles, her different forms, and her many cult centers. Hathor appeared as a woman, a cow, a falcon, "Lady of the Sycamore Tree," a fiery uraeus (the cobra), and a savage lioness. Her name, which means "House of Horus," identifies her as the mother of the king (who was identified with Horus), and is associated with her ancient role as the celestial cow and mother of the sun. Hathor was also the beautiful and sensual goddess of love, sexuality, joy, dance, and music.

Taweret (the Great One) was one of the most popular deities, associated with pregnancy and childbirth. She was usually represented as a composite being, with the body and head of a hippopotamus, the paws of a lion, and the tail of a crocodile, or a complete crocodile on her back. She was shown standing on her hind legs; her swollen abdomen and pendulous breasts indicate her association with pregnancy and nursing. The goddess Maat represents the perfect, stable order of existence which governs every aspect of the world from the laws of nature to the rules of human social life.

Clearly, there is no one gender role incorporated by these goddesses, each of whom exhibit an amazing amount of individuality.


General Sources

Beckman, Gary. "Goddess WorshipAncient and Modern." In A Wise and Discerning Mind: Essays in Honor of Burke O. Long, edited by Saul M. Olyan and Robert C. Culley, pp. 1123. Providence, R.I., 2000. An excellent review of the evidence for the flourishing of a pre-modern Goddess cult, emphasizing material from the scholar's own area of expertise, the religion of the Hittites.

"Can We Interpret Figurines?" Cambridge Archaeological Journal 6 (1996): 281307. A collection of essays on the subject of figurine interpretation, stressing context and definition.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. In the Wake of the Goddesses. New York, 1992. This feminist scholar reviews the representations of the varied goddesses in Mesopotamian polytheism and seeks to answer what happened to their functions under biblical monotheism.

Goodison, Lucy, and Christine Morris, eds. Ancient Goddesses: Myths and Evidence. London, 1998. The goal of this anthology is to compare archaeologists' reconstructions of ancient religion with the reconstruction proposed by proponents of the modern "Goddess Movement."

Hackett, Jo Ann. "Can a Sexist Model Liberate Us?: Ancient Near Eastern 'Fertility'; Goddesses." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 5 (1989): 6576. As essay analyzing the influence of nineteenth and twentieth traditional scholarship on the view of Canaanite goddesses as "fertility goddesses" and the construct "fertility religion" as a euphemism for ritual sexual practice.

Sources on Prehistory

Cauvin, Jacques. Naissance des divinités, naissance de l'agriculture: La Révolution des symboles au Néolithique, Paris, 1994. Translated as The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture (Cambridge, U.K., and New York, 2001). The essence of Cauvin's controversial theory is that a "symbolic revolution" occurred in the Near East at the time of the origin of plant domestication. In particular the female figurines show a goddess, the universal mother, while the bull signifies a brute force that is tamed and converted into the virile essence of the male.

Meskell, Lynn. "Twin Peaks: The Archaeologies of Çatalhöyük." In Ancient Goddesses: Myths and Evidence, edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris, pp. 4662. London, 1998. Review of James Mellaart's initial publications of this site from the 1960s and the subsequent use of his work by proponents of the goddess movement to construct a gynocentric culture with a religion centered on worship of the "Great Goddess" followed by a summary of the preliminary reports from new excavations under the direction of Ian Hodder.

Oates, Joan. "Religion and Ritual in Sixth-Millennium bc Mesopotamia." World Archaeology 10 (1978): 117124. An attempt to look at the archaeological evidence for religious rituals, with particular attention to the place of the sites Tell es-Sawwan and Choga Mami, within their cultural context.

Ucko, Peter J. Anthropomorphic Figurines of Predynastic Egypt and Neolithic Crete. London, 1968. The seminal book on the interpretation of prehistoric anthropomorphic figurines. Ucko points out the flimsiness of the identification of prehistoric figurines as representations of the mother goddess and discusses other possible uses for them.

Yakar, Jak. Prehistoric Anatolia: The Neolithic Transformation and the Early Chalcolithic Period. Tel Aviv, 1991. Valuable up-to-date summary of sites in all areas of Turkey, against which the excavations at Çatal Höyük must now be viewed. See also Supplement No. 1 (1994) by the same author.


Abusch, Tzvi. "Ishtar." NIN, Journal of Near Eastern Gender Studies 1 (2000): 2327.

Bahrani, Zainab. "The Iconography of the Nude in Mesopotamia." Source XII (1993): 1119. Essay on the function and significance of nudity in Mesopotamian Iconography.

Bahrani, Zainab. "The Whore of Babylon." NIN, Journal of Near Eastern Gender Studies 1 (2000): 95106.

Black, Jeremy and Anthony Green. Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia: An Illustrated Dictionary. London, 1992. A very useful encyclopedic review of Mesopotamian religion, with succinct descriptions of gods, demons, rituals, mythological themes, and iconographical elements.

Finkel, Irving L., and Markham J. Geller, eds. Sumerian Gods and Their Representations. Groningen, Netherlands, 1997. A collection of recent papers given at a symposium in the memory of Thorkild Jacobsen.

Frymer-Kensky, Tikva. "Lolita-Inanna." NIN, Journal of Near Eastern Gender Studies, 1 (2000): 9194.

Lambert, Wilfred G. "The Historical Development of the Mesopotamian Pantheon: A Study in Sophisticated Polytheism." In Unity and Diversity, edited by Hans Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts, pp. 191199. Baltimore, 1975. Discussion of the Mesopotamian principle of one patron deity to one city, the processes of syncretism, assimilation, and the theological development of the god lists.

Lambert, Wilfred G. "Goddesses in the Pantheon: A Reflection of Women in Society?" In La femme dans le Proche-Orient antique, edited by Jean-Marie Durand, pp. 125130. Paris, 1987. Offers hypothesis of the decline in the number of goddesses as city patrons due to the accident of city decline, but replete with gender assumptions about goddesses.

Michalowski, Piotr, "'Round about Nidaba: On the Early Goddesses of Sumer," In Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East, edited by Simo Parpola and Robert M. Whiting, pp. 413422. Helsinki, 2002. Critical review of the idea that female deities dominated early Mesopotamian religion and a reinterpretation of their decline due to various factors, one of which was the absorption of one goddess by another.

Selz, Gebhard. "Five Divine Ladies: Thoughts on Inana(k), Istar, In(n)in(a), Annunitum, and ʿAnat, and the Origin of the Title Queen of Heaven." in NIN, Journal of Near Eastern Gender Studies 1 (2000): 2962.

Szarzyńska, Krystyna. "Cult of the Goddess Inanna in Archaic Uruk." in NIN, Journal of Near Eastern Gender Studies 1 (2000): 6374.

Westenholz, Joan Goodnick. "Goddesses of the Ancient Near East." In Ancient Goddesses: Myths and Evidence, edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris, pp. 6382. London, 1998. Examination of problems in understanding ancient Near Eastern polytheism and overview of the most important goddesses and their roles in the third and second millennia.

Westenholz, Joan Goodnick. "King by Love of InannaAn Image of Female Empowerment?" NIN, Journal of Near Eastern Gender Studies 1 (2000): 7589.

Westenholz, Joan Goodnick. "Great Goddesses in Mesopotamia: The Female Aspect of Divinity." Bulletin of the Canadian Society for Mesopotamian Studies 37 (2002): 1326. The article investigates the theology of "goddess" in Mesopotamia, as well as the concept of a female divine elemental at the beginning of time. A definition of the female aspect of divinity is followed by an analysis of the figure of the goddess Inanna/Ishtar, in regards to the possibility that she was the personification of the female aspect of divinity.

Wiggermann, Franz A. M. "Theologies, Priests, and Worship in Ancient Mesopotamia." In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack M. Sasson, vol. 3, pp. 18671869. New York, 1995. Excellent article in which the author elaborates on a possible development of the Mesopotamian pantheon from non-anthropomorphic genderless deities to the later one of anthropomorphic deities of fixed gender.

Wiggermann, Franz A. M. "Nackte Göttin (Naked Goddess). A Philologisch." Reallexikon der Assyriologie 9 (1998): 4653. An attempt to match the textual and iconographic evidence for an interpretation of nude female images as the personification of Pride, Dignity, and Sexuality.


Koch, Heidemarie. "Theology and Worship in Elam and Achaemenid Iran." In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack M. Sasson, vol. 3, pp. 19591969. New York, 1995. Up-to-date summary of the known material from Iran with bibliographic references.


Archi, Alfonso. "How a Pantheon Forms: The Cases of Hattic-Hittite Anatolia and Ebla of the Third Millennium bc." In Religionsgeschichtliche Beziehungen zwischen Kleinasien, Nordsyrien, und dem Alten Testament, edited by Bernd Janowski, Klaus Koch, and Gernot Wilhelm, pp. 118. Freiburg, Switzerland, 1993. The first half of the article reviews the earliest evidence for the gods of Anatolia and their integration into the pantheon of the Hittite state.

Beckman, Gary. "Ishtar of Nineveh Reconsidered." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 50 (1998): 110. A discussion of the Hurrian origin of Ishtar of Nineveh, Shaushka, and her worship in the Hittite state.

Haas, Volkert. Geschichte der hethitischen Religion. Leiden, 1994. The definitive volume on Hittite religion.

Laroche, Emmanuel. Recherches sur les noms des dieux hittites. Paris, 1947. First comprehensive listing and categorization of the pantheon of ancient Hattusha.

Laroche, Emmanuel. "Hattic Deities and their Epithets." Journal of Cuneiform Studies 1 (1947): 187216. Early attempt to differentiate the Hattic deities.

McMahon, Gregory. "Theology, Priests, and Worship in Hittite Anatolia." In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack M. Sasson, vol. 3, pp. 19811995. New York, 1995. A short succinct review of the present state of scholarship in regards to Hattic, Hittite, and Hurrian deities and their worship in Hittite Anatolia.

Singer, Itamar, "'The Thousand Gods of Hatti': Limits of an Expanding Pantheon." In Concepts of the Other in Near Eastern Religions, edited by Ilai Alon, Ithamar Gruenwald, and Itamar Singer, pp. 81102. Leiden, 1994. Discussion of Hittites' respectful attitude towards foreign gods and the absorption of various divinities from ethnically different regions into Hittite pantheon and worship.

Van Gessel, Ben H. L. Onomasticon of the Hittite Pantheon. Leiden, Vols. I-II, 1998; Vol. III, 2001. The most recent comprehensive list of Hittite deities in cuneiform Hittite texts, but lacks information about the gender of the deities, their origin, and functions.


On the subject of the goddess Asherah there is a plethora of volumes regarding her role and character, especially in view of the biblical connotations. In the following, only the recent books in English published since 1990 are listed.

Binger, Tilde. Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament. Sheffield, U.K., 1997. A thesis from the Copenhagen school of Biblical criticism with a review of textual suggestions for the Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions.

Cornelius, Izak. "Anat and Qudshu as the 'Mistress of Animals,' Aspects of the Iconography of the Canaanite Goddesses." Studi Epigrafici e Linguistici 10 (1993): 2145. Excellent discussion of the iconography of the West Semitic goddesses.

Day, Peggy L. "Anat: Ugarit's 'Mistress of Animals'." Journal of Near Eastern Studies 51 (1992): 181190. In this article, Peggy Day argues against the common tendency to describe the Canaanite goddess Anat as a goddess of fertility. She re-examines the Ugaritic texts and demonstrates that Anat was rather a "mistress of animals," both as huntress and a protectress.

Hadley, Judith M. The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah. New York, 2000. An important contribution to the debate about the exact nature of Asherah and her significance in pre-exilic Israel and Judah.

Kletter, Raz. "Asherah and the Judean Pillar Figurines Engendered?" In Sex and Gender in the Ancient Near East, edited by Simo Parpola and Robert M. Whiting, pp. 289230. Helsinki, 2002. Discussion of the Judean Pillar figurines and their interpretation, see references in article for more information on this controversial material.

Walls, Neal Hugh Jr. The Goddess Anat in Ugaritic Myth. Atlanta, 1992. Similarly to Peggy Day, Walls denies that Anat is the consort of Baal or that the two deities had a sexual relationship.

Watson, Wilfred G. E. "The Goddesses of Ugarit: A Survey." Studi Epigrafici e Linguistici 10 (1993): 4759. An excellent survey of the principal goddesses of Ugarit, their names, epithets, and characters, with the exception of Attartu, for which he refers to a French publication.

Wiggins, Steve A. A Reassessment of "Asherah": A Study According to the Textual Sources of the First Two Millennia bce. Kevelaer/Neukirchen-Vluyn, Germany, 1993. An attempt to place Asherah in the wider ancient Near Eastern perspective, but does not treat the Mesopotamian sources in chronological order.

Wiggins, Steve A. "Of Asherahs and Trees: Some Methodological Questions." Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 1 (2001): 158187. Explores the evidence for the dendrical associations of Asherah and their relation to Israel and other religions of the ancient Near East.


Hassan, Fekri A. "The Earliest Goddesses of Egypt." In Ancient Goddesses: Myths and Evidence, edited by Lucy Goodison and Christine Morris, pp. 98112. London, 1998. Essay focuses on bovine and maternal imagery relating to the royal ideology based on the author's idiosyncratic hypothesis that Egyptian religion had its roots in cattle herding in the Sahara.

Hornung, Erik. Conceptions of God in Ancient Egypt: The One and the Many. Translated by John Baines. Ithaca, N.Y., 1982. Basic work on the Egyptian theological system.

Lesko, Barbara. The Great Goddesses of Egypt. Norman, Okla., 1999. Overview of the major goddesses of Egypt. Lesko cites the evidence for their earliest appearances, traces their cults through Egyptian history, and often uses the texts of prayers from ancient sources to illustrate the powers and attributes of each deity.

Troy, Lana. "Engendering Creation in Ancient Egypt: Still and Flowing Waters." In A Feminist Companion to Reading the Bible: Approaches, Methods, and Strategies, edited by Athalya Brenner and Carole Fontaine, pp. 238268. Sheffield, U.K., 1997. The author demonstrates how, for ancient Egyptians, creation on all levels was firmly linked to reproductive sexuality.

Van Dijk, Jacobus. "Myth and Mythmaking in Ancient Egypt." In Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, edited by Jack M. Sasson, vol. 3, pp. 16971709. New York, 1995. Description of creation myths and the Osiris myth. Discussion of the relative scarcity of written mythical stories and various theological schools.

Joan Goodnick Westenholz (2005)

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