Biblical Archaeoloy Review 34:02, Mar/Apr 2008
A Temple Built for Two
Did Yahweh Share a Throne with His Consort Asherah?
The small house shrine published here for the first time provides significant support for the contention that the Israelite God, Yahweh, did indeed have a consort. At least this was true in the minds of many ordinary ancient Israelites, in contrast to the priestly elite.1 In what I call folk religion, or "popular religion," Yahweh's consort is best identified as "Asherah," the old Canaanite mother goddess.2
Some of the most powerful evidence for this contention is in the Bible itself. The fact that the Bible condemns the cult of Asherah (and other "pagan" deities) demonstrates that such cults existed and were perceived as a threat to Israelite monotheism. Based on the Biblical texts alone, we can conclude that many ancient Israelites, perhaps even the majority, worshiped Asherah, Astarte, the "Queen of Heaven" and perhaps other female deities. Their sanctuaries (ba¯môt, or "high places"), we are told, were "on every hill and under every green tree." (The phrase recurs numerous times in Kings and the Prophets.)
Some of the clearest physical evidence for the existence of a cult of Asherah is the growing collection of small house shrines. The technical name is naos (plural, naoi), a Greek word that means "temple" or "inner sanctum."
Most of these naoi share several iconographic motifs: (1) two tree-like columns flank the doorway into the inner chamber (the cubiculum); (2) crouching lions serve as column bases near the entrance; (3) a large, flat entablature sits over the doorway, occasionally painted in geometric motifs; (4) doves with extended wings perch on top of the façade or parapet.
The examples recently published in BAR are only the latest to be presented to the public.a Not long after the Six-Day War in 1967, the distinguished classicist Saul S. Weinberg acquired a splendid example on the Jerusalem antiquities market.3 I happened to be with Saul at the time, since he was the outgoing visiting director and I was director-elect of the Nelson Glueck School of Biblical Archaeology at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. Other examples have appeared in catalogs and scholarly analyses in French and German.4 These publications have been largely overlooked by most biblicists and even by archaeologists, perhaps because they are reluctant to address "theological" issues.
Most, if not all, of these examples are said to have come from Transjordan and are identified as Moabite (or perhaps Ammonite). They are generally thought to date from the ninth (or perhaps eighth) century B.C.E. According to an article in late 2007 by Larry Herr, the first well-stratified naos was discovered in the 11th–10th-century B.C.E. levels at Tall al-`Umayri in Jordan.5
But there is also an indisputable Israelite example. It comes from a professional excavation led by Père Roland de Vaux shortly after World War II at Tell el-Far`ah (north), the early northern Israelite capital of Tirzeh. The naos was published in 1984,6 but has been largely overlooked by Biblical scholars until recently.
The new naos being published here in BAR (see First Publication: A Newly Discovered House Shrine) bears striking resemblances to the examples from the Moussaieff collection previously published in BAR, although it comes from another antiquities collector. These resemblances suggest to me, however, that they all come from the same source, probably Biblical Moab in southern Jordan (perhaps even from the same site, looted as long ago as the 1960s).
Before discussing the naoi from the Moussaieff collection and the one being published here, I should say that I have agreed to make these comments despite the predictable objections of some colleagues. I would not want to be the one to present these objects in a scholarly journal because of professional principles. Yet I am convinced that once artifacts of such potential significance are known to the public, scholars have a right, perhaps even an obligation, to draw out their meaning.
The Moussaieff naoi, like the one published in this issue of BAR, are so unexpected, so exotic, if you will, and so fraught with potential importance that some may regard them as the work of skillful forgers. Having examined a few of the naoi in private collections, I am convinced that they are genuine.
Both the Moussaieff naoi and the new one published here exhibit many of the same iconographic motifs: (1) two tree-like columns with drooping fronds flanking the doorway; (2) lion bases for the columns; and (3) a dove with extended wings perched on the roof of the large façade over the entrance.
One motif, however, sets this new example— perhaps we can call it the BAR naos— apart from all the other Transjordanian (or Israelite) examples. It is the clear double throne in the cubiculum. I know of no other double thrones like this. Obviously it is for two figures, sitting side by side in a model temple.
Are the gods, in this case paired, "at home"? Who are they? And why are they not graphically represented, rather than only by the outline of the throne? After all, we have hundreds and hundreds of examples of graphically represented Iron Age terra-cotta figurines of deities.
Oddly enough, there is no description or even allusion to these naoi, or house shrines, in the Hebrew Bible. That they are model temples is beyond reasonable doubt. They are clearly miniature "houses for the gods," as witnessed both by their clear architectural form and by the fact that in all West Semitic languages (Canaanite, Phoenician, Punic, Aramaic, Hebrew, etc.) the word ba¯yit/bêt is translated as both "house" and "temple."
But what deity was worshiped in these house shrines? All of their motifs, fortunately, are reasonably well attested and understood. And nearly all are connected with well-known female deities, particularly Canaanite/Israelite Asherah and Phoenician Tanit (Asherah's later reflex in the wider Mediterranean world).
The palmette capitals of the tree-like columns are not lotus-blossom capitals, as Weinberg and other classicists once supposed, much less "proto-Aeolic" capitals as William F. Albright thought. The late Israeli archaeologist Yigal Shiloh clearly demonstrated that they are stylized palm trees, especially typical of Iron Age royal and temple architecture.7 More recent research has shown that the symbolism responsible for the adaptation of the tree motif for columns in ancient Israel (and in Aramean and Phoenician monumental architecture) is probably deeply rooted in the old Canaanite identification of Asherah as a tree-goddess.
In an important article in BAR, for example, the late Ruth Hestrin brilliantly established the connection between the symbols of a stylized tree, a pubic triangle and a nurturing goddess. She even found representations in Egyptian art of the goddess with a tree trunk as a torso, a branch offering a breast to a nursing infant (in this case, the Pharaoh's son).b
In short, these tree-like columns were thought to be particularly appropriate in model temples dedicated to the tree-goddess Asherah.
To clinch the argument that tree-columns are associated with the goddess Asherah, in one of the Moussaieff naoi two nude female figures face directly to the front of the functioning tree-columns, complete with palm-volutes. Who are these nude females? Priestesses? Temple prostitutes? Unlikely. Ordinary human worshipers? Hardly. Most likely, these females are symbolic of Asherah, "at home in her house," and beckoning to her devotees.
The most explicit link between these naoi and Asherah can be seen in roughly contemporary Phoenician examples from Cyprus. In one complete naos from Idalion, now in the Louvre, a nude goddess stands in the doorway and also looks out the windows.8
The identification of these house shrines with the tree-goddess Asherah is further buttressed by a second iconographic motif, the lion, which is also widely associated with Asherah. In one of the now-famous Kuntillet `Ajrud inscriptions found in the Sinai, there is a reference to "Asherah," and a drawing portrays a lion. In the equally famous tenth-century B.C.E. Israelite cult stand from Taanach, Asherah is pictured between two lions with a hand on the head of each of them.
Thus, the lions as column bases and as guardians at the entrance to the naos temples are particularly appropriate as symbols of Asherah "at home in her house."
Finally, the dove perched on the parapet of the naoi— presiding, as it were, over the whole cultic scene— is transparent. Everywhere in the Mediterranean world, the dove is the symbol par excellence of Tanit, the Phoenician and later Punic embodiment of Asherah (and also of her old counterpart Astarte). Hundreds and hundreds of such doves as symbols of Tanit and her shrines are known.9
The links between these naoi and the goddess Asherah lead us back to the original query about the identification of the unique double throne in the BAR naos being published here. That there are two chairs is clear from the two panels, emphasized by the clearly visible upright on the back. If this is a throne in a model temple, it was obviously intended for the observer to imagine two deities sitting there: Asherah— and who else but her consort Yahweh, at least in the Israelite example?
That Asherah was coupled with a male deity, especially Yahweh, in ancient Israel should be no surprise in view of the overall picture we now have of folk religion. Thousands of terra-cotta figurines are known from Israel and Judah. Virtually all of them are female, identified by most scholars as Asherah, either directly or seen as votives functioning in her cult. Yet not a single indisputably male figurine from a clear Israelite context has ever been found. What does this phenomenon mean? It suggests that while representational or anthropomorphic depictions of Asherah, the female deity, were widely tolerated, similar representations of the male deity Yahweh were proscribed.
In short, "true" Israelite religion was not "aniconic," despite traditional scholarship and synagogue and church traditions that have maintained otherwise. I have recently argued that there are plenty of anthropomorphic symbols of Yahweh in the artifacts that have survived from ancient Israel.10 Yet if Israelite religion was not completely aniconic, there does seem to have been a certain reluctance to portray Yahweh himself, "in person," as it were. That reticence may explain our invisible deities in the BAR naos: Only the outline of the double throne is depicted.
Recently, a terra-cotta pair of figurines seated on a sort of throne has come to light. It was acquired on the antiquities market and published by Christoph Uehlinger.11 It nicely illustrates what the throne on the BAR naos might have looked like if it had been portrayed rather than outlined.
I have already mentioned the one clear Israelite naos— from Tell el-Far`ah. Like the other naoi that may have come from Transjordan, the Israelite example features tree columns topped by curving palmette volutes. On the entablature is a crescent moon and stylized stars. Like a dove on other naoi, these symbols are often connected with embodiments of the great Mother Goddess, specifically Astarte, as well as later Tanit.12 The Tell el-Far`ah naos was probably dedicated either to Astarte or Asherah.
Although the Tell el-Far`ah naos is the only complete Israelite example, another Israelite naos has recently been recognized from fragments recovered in 1935 at Megiddo. It is still to be properly appreciated. Only partially restorable, this naos features two tree-columns topped by female-capitals.13
Asherah was, of course, finally driven underground by the reformist parties that edited the Hebrew Bible. In its final form she is written out of the text. Hence, she disappeared and all her cult imagery with her when Jewish monotheism at last triumphed in the period after the Israelites returned from the Babylonian exile.c But Asherah was once alive and well; modern archaeology has in fact resurrected her. Her "houses," now vacant, were once occupied. Here she was "at home" for many of the masses in ancient Israel.
The Untouchables: Scholars Fear to Publish Ancient House Shrine
BAR 31:06, Nov/Dec 2005
Understanding Asherah—Exploring Semitic Iconography, by Ruth Hestrin
BAR 17:05, Sep/Oct 1991
The Universal God, by André Lemaire
BAR 31:06, Nov/Dec 2005