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Category: Asherah

Asherah, Astarte, Anat, Athirat in Ancient Ugarit

“Some scholars have suggested that El’s two wives in The Birth of the Gracious Gods (Manfred Dietrich, Oswald Loretz, and Joaquín Sanmartín, Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani and Other Places (CAT), KTU 2d enlarged edition. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995, p. 1.23) are mortal women, since they are referred to as ‘attm, “two women.” But it is just as likely that they are goddesses–perhaps Asherah and Rahmay, mentioned prominently earlier in the myth.

British Museum EA 191, upper register of limestone stele of chief craftsman Qeh.  Naked goddess identified as 'Ke(d)eshet, lady of heaven' flanked by the ithyphallic Egyptian god Min and Syro-Palestinian god Reshep.  Deir el-Medina (Dynasty 19).  Photograph © Trustees of the British Museum. Her name Qdš(-t) simply means 'holy'.  As such, it can be attached to almost any goddess, including the whole of the A-team: Anat, Astarte, Asherah and Athirat.  The question is: did there exist an independent goddess named Qedeshet at all?  She is not known from any Canaanite or Ugaritic texts or inscriptions.  Rather, she only appears as a named goddess in Egypt.  There, she is honoured with such typical titles as 'Lady of heaven' and 'Mistress of all the gods' -- which are not specific to her but could equally apply to any goddess in Egypt. What seems to have happened is this.  From the late Middle Bronze Age (ca. 1600 BCE) onwards, Canaan was under Egyptian rule.   Gods and goddesses moved with the armies back and forth in both directions.  Canaanites were envious (I would imagine) of the power of Egyptian deities and freely borrowed their attributes -- in our case, all those Hathor curls and lily-lotus flowers.  In return, Canaanite gods travelled to Egypt on the backs of soldiers, POW's and slaves. Once installed there, some became very popular with native Egyptians as well and were integrated with interesting local deities (as above, the Canaanite naked goddess with Egyptian Min on her left).  So, when we see a picture of the naked goddess in Egypt inscribed with words such as Qedeshet, lady of heaven, great of magic, mistress of the stars, we wonder if the artists were illustrating the Canaanite Q-lady, or a generic Canaanite naked goddess that had been taken over and developed in Egypt itself.  In other words, when the Egyptians borrowed the naked-female, did they mistake 'holy' for her own name?  In which case, the goddess may have been baptized in Egypt and not in her original Canaanite home. http://judithweingarten.blogspot.com/2014_01_01_archive.html

British Museum EA 191, upper register of limestone stele of chief craftsman Qeh. Naked goddess identified as ‘Ke(d)eshet, lady of heaven’ flanked by the ithyphallic Egyptian god Min and Syro-Palestinian god Reshep. Deir el-Medina (Dynasty 19). Photograph © Trustees of the British Museum.
“Her name Qdš(-t) simply means ‘holy’. As such, it can be attached to almost any goddess, including the whole of the A-team: Anat, Astarte, Asherah and Athirat. The question is: did there exist an independent goddess named Qedeshet at all? She is not known from any Canaanite or Ugaritic texts or inscriptions. Rather, she only appears as a named goddess in Egypt. There, she is honoured with such typical titles as ‘Lady of heaven’ and ‘Mistress of all the gods’ — which are not specific to her but could equally apply to any goddess in Egypt.”
http://judithweingarten.blogspot.com/2014_01_01_archive.html

In any case, these women become “El’s wives, El’s wives forever” (CAT 1.23.48-9) and give birth to two gods, Dawn and Dusk. There is much about this myth that is obscure, and nothing substantial that sheds light on Genesis 6:1-4.

In later West Semitic texts, the term “Children of El” (bn ‘ilm) is occasionally used, as at Ugarit, to refer to the main group of gods under the high gods. The Phoenician inscription of King Azitawadda (8th Century BCE) invokes a local sequence of gods: “Baal of heaven, and El the creator of earth, and the eternal Sun, and the whole council of the Children of El (bn ‘lm) (KAI 26. A.iii.19).

A Phoenician inscription from Arslan Tash (7th Century BCE) invokes the “Eternal One” and probably “Asherah,” followed by “All the Children of El (bn ‘lm) and the great of the council of all the Holy Ones” (KAI 27.11-2). An Ammonite inscription from the Amman Citadel (8th Century BCE) exhorts: “[Be]hold, you should trust(?) the Children of El (bn ‘lm).” These brief notices indicate that the term “Sons / Children of El” continued in use in the first millennium with the same general sense as in the second millennium texts.

Some Hellenistic era Phoenician traditions preserved in the writings of Philo of Byblos have been adduced as comparable to the themes and characters in Genesis 6: 1-4 (A.I. Baumgarten, The Phoenician History of Philos of Byblos (Leiden, 1981), pp. 156-7), but their relevance is dubious. In a portion of Philo’s Phoenician History (as quoted by the church father Eusebius), an interesting sequence of primeval history is related:

“From Genos, the son of Aion and Protogonos, there again were born mortal children whose names were Phos, Pur, and Phlox. These–he says–by rubbing sticks together discovered fire, and they taught its use.

And they begot sons who in size and eminence were greater [than their fathers] and whose names were given to the mountain ranges over which they ruled, so that they Kassios, the Lebanon, the Anti-Lebanon, and the Brathys were called after them.

From these–he says–were born Samemroumos who is also [called] Hypsouranios and Ousoos. And–he says–they called themselves after their mothers, since the women of that time united freely with anyone upon whom they chanced.” (Eusebius, Praeparatio evangelica 1.10.9)

These are probably authentic Phoenician traditions, but they have been filtered through Philo’s Hellenistic hermeneutics. If these traditions were about primeval humanity, as the text suggests, then the comparison with Genesis 6:1-4 would be warranted, particularly the birth of giants and perhaps the sexual adventures of women in primeval times. But it has long been clear that the characterization of these figures as human is due to Philo’s Euhemeristic technique, in which the stories of the gods have been transposed into stories about humans.

The clues that this is a sequence of divine figures include the following: Aion (“Eternity”) is identifiable as the well-known Canaanite / Phoenician god ‘Olam (“Eternal One”), as in the Arslan Tash inscription above; the children who discover fire are named “Light,” “Fire,” and “Flame,” also identifiable as Canaanite / Phoenician gods; their sons whose names are given to mountains are identifiable as local BaalsBaal of Kassios (= Mount Zaphon), called Zeus Kassios in Hellenistic times, Baal of Lebanon, and Baal of Anti-Lebanon (= Mount Hermon); Samemroumos means in Phoenician “High Heaven” (= Greek Hypsouranios), perhaps related to Baal of Heaven in the Phoenician inscription of Azitawadda above, or to the temple precinct in Sidon called “high heaven.”

Gold pendant, possibly Astarte. Ugarit. 1500-1200/1150 BCE. Drawing © Stéphane Beaulieu, after Toorn 1998:86, #31  http://www.matrifocus.com/IMB04/spotlight.htm

Gold pendant, possibly Astarte. Ugarit. 1500-1200/1150 BCE.
Drawing © Stéphane Beaulieu, after Toorn 1998:86, #31
http://www.matrifocus.com/IMB04/spotlight.htm

The “mothers,” champions of free sex in Philo’s text, are likely to be goddesses, though their identities are unclear. Astarte and Anat (called in a Ugaritic text “Lady of High Heaven”) are good candidates.

Phoenician traditions about gods of mountains and about goddesses who have sex and bear divine offspring are interesting of themselves, but do not bear directly on the story or characters of Genesis 6:1-4. The same lack of connection pertains to stories about open conflict or rebellions among the generations of the gods (related in Philo’s Phoenician History among other sources), since this theme is not perceptible in Genesis 6:1-4.

Nonetheless, the long duration of the “Sons / Children of El” in West Semitic lore indicates that the story in Genesis 6:1-4 is rooted in widespread cultural traditions. But, perhaps because our textual evidence is so sparse, we lack other West Semitic narratives that are clearly related to Genesis 6:1-4.”

Ronald Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context,” in Christoph Auffarth and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004, pp. 24-7.

The Children of El in Ancient Ugarit

“There is, of course, a logical problem with the twofold reference of the Nephilim to the antediluvian warriors and to the giant inhabitants of Canaan on the eve of the Israelite conquest. The flood intervenes, which kills all living creatures on earth: “Everything with life’s breath in its nostril, everything that lived on dry land, died” (Genesis 7:22 J).

The continuance of the Nephilim contradicts the testimony of the flood story (thus providing a lively subject for post biblical exegetes). The likely solution to this problem is that the writer was heir to traditions about the Nephilim that were not internally consistent, but was constrained by the audience’s horizons of expectations to relate these traditions accurately.

Such internal inconsistency is characteristic of oral traditions in many cultures, and we may point to this particularly inconsistency as a sign of the oral multiformity of the narrative lore of ancient Israel. As with the Sons of God, the Nephilim no doubt populated more stories in ancient Israelite culture than the brief texts that have been preserved.

To gain a richer understanding of Genesis 6:1-4–both of its content and its gaps–it is useful to consider the longer history (the discursive longue durée) of these narrative elements in ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures. The most immediate cultural context, for this and much else in ancient Israel, is the culture of Canaan from which early Israel emerged.

We have seen above that the term “Sons of God” has a direct antecedent in the Canaanite bn’il, “Sons / Children of El.” This group is referred to several times in Ugaritic literature of the Late Bronze Age and is carried on in several later West Semitic cultures of the Iron Age.

"22 alphabet" by Chaos - self-scan of old picture more than 10 years in syria (PD in syria). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Ugaritic text“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

In the Ugaritic texts the “Sons / Children of El” are the members of El’s divine assembly (Mark S. Smith, trans., Simon B. Parker, ed., Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 1997). They are described as the offspring of El and his chief wife, the goddess Asherah. One of El’s epithets is ‘ab bn ‘il, “Father of the Children of El,” indicating his paternity of the gods, and Asherah is called qnyt ‘ilm, “Creatress of the gods.”

The Children of El are often shown feasting in heaven, as is the wont of the gods. At one point Baal recounts an shameful–but obscure–event during a feast in the divine assembly:

“… He stood and abased me.

He arose and spat on me.

Amid the ass[em]bly of the Children of El bn’ilm” 

(Manfred Dietrich, Oswald Loretz, and Joaquín Sanmartín. Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Íbn Hani and Other Places. (CAT). KTU 2d enlarged edition. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995, 1.4.iii.12-4)

Usually the gods feast in heaven, but occasionally they attend feasts on earth in the company of humans, such as the wedding feast for King Kirta (CAT 1.15.iii).

The Children of El are immortal, as the goddess Anat affirms in her (probably spurious) promise of immortality to the mortal hunter Aqhat:

“Ask for life, Aqhat the Hero.

Ask for life, and I’ll give it.

Deathlessness–I’ll endow you.

I’ll let you count years with Baal.

Count months with the Children of El bn’il.”

(CAT 1.17.vi.26-9, after Mark S. Smith, trans., in Parker, ed., Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 61, and Ronald Hendel, The Epic of the Patriarch: The Jacob Cycle and the Narrative Traditions of Canaan and Israel, 1987, pp. 74-81.)

Though immortal, the Children of El are less powerful than El. In the Kirta epic, El asks the divine assembly seven times if any among them can remove disease, but they are silent. Apparently El alone has the power to heal:

“Stay seated, my children (bny), on your seats.

On your elevated thrones.

As for me, I’ll use skills and create.

I’ll create a remover of illness.

A dispeller of disease.”

(CAT 1.16n.24-8).

Interestingly, this passage appears to equate the Children of El with the stars, comparable to the biblical concept in Job 38:7 and the biblical term “Host of Heaven” (see above).

The Children of El in the Ugaritic texts, cognate to the biblical Sons of God, are subordinate to the high god El, just as the biblical Sons of God are subordinate to Yahweh. They are less powerful than El and they occasionally visit humans on earth. Nowhere in the extant texts, however, do the Children of El engage in sex with humans.

In one curious text, Baal may have sex with a cow, which bears “a bull for Baal” (CAT 1.10.35, see Smith, trans., Parker, ed., Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, 181-7), but there is no other inter-species sex that we can discern.”

Ronald Hendel, “The Nephilim Were on the Earth: Genesis 6:1-4 and its Ancient Near Eastern Context,” in Christoph Auffarth and Loren T. Stuckenbruck, eds., The Fall of the Angels, Brill, 2004, pp. 22-4.

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