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ASHERAH (Heb. אֲשֵׁרָה), in the Bible both a Canaanite goddess and a wooden cult object.

The Goddess

A Canaanite fertility and mother goddess. Asherah is now well known from the Ugaritic texts, where she is called rabbatu atiratu yammi ("Lady Athirat of the Sea"). The name is most probably to be understood as a feminine participle of the verb ʾṯr (Heb. ʾshr "to go, to tread"), thus meaning "The Lady who Treads upon the Sea." It is possible that the name goes back to some early myth in which Athirat defeated the rebellious Yamm, although in the Ugaritic text this deed was accomplished by Baal and in the Egyptian story by Astarte. Alternatively, it is possible that the name indicates some connection of Asherah with the sea. She has been identified by some with the Cyprian Aphrodite, the goddess intimately connected with harbors (as well as with love). Asherah is apparently (although not explicitly) the consort of El, the father and creator of the gods (she is called qaniyatu el-îma, "The Progenitress of the Gods"), who are accordingly called "the [70] children of Asherah." Similarly, the gods are also called "sons of Qudšu" ("holiness"), which, like ʾelat ("goddess"), is to be taken as an epithet of Asherah. The title "Qudšu" connects Asherah to the Egyptian figurines of nude goddesses commonly identified as fertility figurines. They show a nude goddess en face, frequently with a lion, and are inscribed qdŠ (qudšu).

Asherah was popular throughout the ancient Near East. In the Old Babylonian sources, Ašratum is listed as the consort of Amurru and occasionally of Anu (the Babylonian counterpart of El). In the el-Amarna letters, one of the kings of Amurru is known as ʿAbdi-Aširti ("the servant of Asherah"), and a letter from Tell Taanach from the 15th century b.c.e. refers to an uban (for umman) Aširat ("a sage of Aširat"). A Late Hittite tablet contains a myth in which Asherah tries unsuccessfully to seduce Baal and complains to Elkunirša (El-qnhʾrs; "El the world-Creator," cf. Gen. 14:19) that Baal has insulted her. In the Ugaritic Epic of Keret, Asherah is called "Asherah of the Sidonians, goddess of the Tyrians," and was thus intimately connected with the cities of the Phoenician coast. She was brought into the court worship of Israel by *Jezebel, the daughter of the king of Tyre, who also brought with her the cult of the Tyrian Baal. Thus it is related that Elijah vanquished the 450 prophets of Baal and the 400 prophets of Asherah who "dined off Jezebel's table" (i Kings 18:19). Earlier, Maacah, the mother of King *Asa, built an abominable image for Asherah (la-Asherah) and was therefore removed from the post of queen mother (i Kings 15:13; ii Chron. 15:16). The last case of royal worship of Asherah was in the time of Manasseh, who placed an idol of Asherah in the Temple (ii Kings 21:7), from which it was removed by Josiah (ii Kings 23:6). During the Israelite period, the worship of Asherah was generally connected with the worship of Baal; the phrase "Baalim and Asheroth" is used to designate foreign gods in general (e.g., Judg. 3:7), and the term Asheroth is used as a synonym for "goddesses."

The Cult Object

There are also references in the Bible to some object called an Asherah which can be built, planted, erected, or constructed; is placed near the altar; and is destroyed by chopping it down and burning it. It therefore seems that Asherah, which is never described in the Bible, is some cult object made out of wood. The traditional explanation of the Asherah as a sacred grove can probably be rejected on the grounds that it seems to have been a man-made object. It is not known whether this object was an image of the goddess Asherah placed near the altar (no evidence at all exists for this), a sacred pole representing her, or an object of some other sort. These objects reportedly found during excavations at Qatna, Megiddo, and Ai are charred pieces of wood, and there is no proof of their identity. The use of the Asherah is found in both Israel and Judah, and is intimately connected with the use of bamot and maẓẓevot (i Kings 14:23) as one of the elements borrowed from the surrounding religions. It is probable that the use of the Asherah was originally connected with the worship of the goddess Airat. In the 1970s inscriptions from the ninth-century site of Kuntillet Ajrud in the Sinai and from the eighth-century site of Khirbet al-Qom on the West Bank were discovered. These mention yhwh šmrm w'šrth and yhwh tmn w'šrth. These phrases have been interpreted as "Yahweh of Samaria and his Ashera," and "Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah." On this interpretation Asherah would have been Yahweh's consort. Others have rendered 'šrth as "his (Yahweh's) consort," arguing that the original divine name Asherah had become a common noun. Still others maintain that 'šr represents an alternative form of the name of the goddess, either Ashirta, attested as a theophorous element in proper names, or Asheretah. Others have taken 'šrth as a reference to the cultic object, translating "Yahweh of Samaria/Teman and its asherah" (ii Kgs. 13:6).


W.F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan (1968), index; Pope, in: H.W. Haussig (ed.), Woerterbuch der Mythologie, 1 (1965), 246–9 (incl. bibl.); Y. Yamashita, "The Goddess Asherah" (dissertation, Yale, 1963); W.L. Reed, The Asherah in the Old Testament (1949); idb; Pritchard, Texts, 129–55. add. bibliography: J. Day, in: abd, 1:483–87 (with bibliography); N. Wyatt, in: ddd, 99–105 (with bibliography).

[Tikva S. Frymer]


views updated Jun 11 2018

Asherah. A Canaanite goddess and a wooden cult figure. Asherah was the mother Goddess and apparently the consort to El, the father and creator of the gods.


views updated May 29 2018

Asherah a Canaanitish goddess; a tree-trunk or wooden post symbolizing this goddess, found in high places devoted to the worship of Baal.

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