The Ancient Goddesses of Palestine

By Miri -

As a child I was fascinated by Greek mythology; the stories about fighting and raging goddesses appealed to me much more than those about the one and only (male) god commanding a guard of mainly male prophets. At the time, I was not familiar with the predecessors of the monotheistic system, that, according to the Old Testament, was swept away through the arrival of the Israelites. The famous destruction of the ancient city of Jericho, the first obstacle in Israel's path, through the famous blast on the priests' trumpets under the leadership of Joshua, as well as the cruel and complete elimination of its Canaanite population is often justified in view of the latter's “utter abandonment of moral restraint”.

Tell el-Sultan, the site of ancient Jericho
Jericho, according to the bible, was one of the principal seats of idol worship, already evidenced by its name, which points to Yarikh, the god of the moon, from which in turn the Hebrew word “yareakh” derives. Similarly, other place names in historic Palestine, such as En-Shemesh and Beit-Shemesh, point to the practising of a sun cult, celebrating a deity called Shamash, probably the origin of the Hebrew word for sun "shemesh".

The ancient Canaanite religion thus consisted of mythologies describing the deeds and misdeeds of goddesses and gods quite similar to the Greco/Roman pantheon. Goddesses seem to have played a major role within the Caananite religion, so much so, that early scholars, archaeologists and historians, suggested that the ancient Semitic clans were organised on a matriarchal basis, i.e. that they were societies in which women fulfilled the central roles of political leadership, moral authority, and control of property. The matrilineality within Halakhic Judaism, the system of descent being traced through the mother, supposedly constitutes a relic of those matriarchal systems, those same scholars claim.

Bronze image of Ashtart
Probably the most prominent Canaanite goddess was the recurring Ashtart, or Ashtoreth in the Old Testament, and Astarte of the Greeks (later to be replaced by Aphrodite). Excavations all over historic Palestine in the beginning of the 20th century brought to light numerous bronze figures, small statuettes, and terracotta plaques reportedly depicting the same goddess of maternity, fertility, sexual love and war.

At excavations in Tel Gezer, the ancient Canaanite city-state, between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, as well as in Tel Megiddo (the site of the biblical Armageddon), south-east of Haifa, remnants of temples were found, which curiously all featured what archaeologists refer to as cup-marks, consisting of concave depressions pecked into a rock surface. It has been suggested by scholars that in contradistinction to the phallic pillars which were found in the same places, and which were interpreted to represent male deities, the cup marks symbolised the feminine counterparts of the pillars, i.e. female genitalia and were therefore associated with the worship of Ashtart, the mother-goddess.

More recently scholars have however refuted the claim of Ashtart being the principal, although not the exclusive deity of the ancient Canaanites, as well as the proposition of those societies being organised on a matriarchal basis. By taking a closer look at the myths in which the goddesses feature, those scholars found that, similar to the prophetesses in the bible, the major goddesses were not known by themselves, but are known and empowered as wife of, or sister to. As such, the goddesses do not necessarily represent female power in society, but rather hint to the specific spaces of women in society and the roles that women are supposed to perform, i.e. being mothers, nurturers, etc.

Nonetheless it is interesting to note how many Hebrew words, as well as Jewish traditions probably derive from ancient rites of a supposedly primitive and immoral people, and that by celebrating Passover, for instance, which most likely emanates also from a Canaanite spring feast, we also implicitly pay tribute to the same Ashtart, the ancient goddess of fertility.


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