The Immemorial Practices of Folk Religion

by Esteban

“Reference has been made to the introduction of Tammuz worship into Jerusalem. Ishtar, as Queen of Heaven, was also adored by the backsliding Israelites as a deity of battle and harvest. When Jeremiah censured the people for burning incense and serving gods “whom they knew not,” he said, “neither they, ye, nor your fathers,” they made answer: “Since we left off to burn incense to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things, and have been consumed by the sword and the famine.”

The women took a leading part in these practices, but refused to accept all the blame, saying, “When we burned incense to the queen of heaven, and poured out drink offerings unto her, did we make our cakes and pour out drink offerings unto her without our men?” That the husbands, and the children even, assisted at the ceremony is made evident in another reference to goddess worship: “The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead the dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven.”

Jastrow suggests that the women of Israel wept for Tammuz, offered cakes to the mother goddess, &c., because “in all religious bodies … women represent the conservative element; among them religious customs continue in practice after they have been abandoned by men.”

The evidence of Jeremiah, however, shows that the men certainly co-operated at the archaic ceremonials. In lighting the fires with the “vital spark,” they apparently acted in imitation of the god of fertility. The women, on the other hand, represented the reproductive harvest goddess in providing the food supply. In recognition of her gift, they rewarded the goddess by offering her the cakes prepared from the newly ground wheat and barley–the “first fruits of the harvest.”

As the corn god came as a child, the children began the ceremony by gathering the wood for the sacred fire. When the women mourned for Tammuz, they did so evidently because the death of the god was lamented by the goddess Ishtar. It would appear, therefore, that the suggestion regarding the “conservative element” should really apply to the immemorial practices of folk religion.

These differed from the refined ceremonies of the official cult in Babylonia, where there were suitable temples and organized bands of priests and priestesses. But the official cult received no recognition in Palestine; the cakes intended for a goddess were not offered up in the temple of Abraham’s God, but “in the streets of Jerusalem” and those of other cities.

The obvious deduction seems to be that in ancient times women everywhere played a prominent part in the ceremonial folk worship of the Great Mother goddess, while the men took the lesser part of the god whom she had brought into being and afterwards received as “husband of his mother.”

This may account for the high social status of women among goddess worshippers, like the representatives of the Mediterranean race, whose early religion was not confined to temples, but closely associated with the acts of everyday life.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.