Study notes: The worship of poles — Asherah’s Pole | The Cosmic Pole/Pillar

The World Pillar, Asherah’s Pole

“Until the Ugaritic tablets were deciphered beginning in the 1930s, most scholars did not even speculate that “the asherahs” might be obscuring a goddess(Hadley 2000:4). They interpreted “the asherahs” as either wooden poles, cult objects from Baal worship, or groves of trees. Only a brave few claimed that “the asherahs” referred to a goddess citing such passages as I Kings 18, in which “prophets of Asherah”(1) served Queen Jezebel(Binger 1997:111; Yamashita 1963:126). The first detailed study of Asherah in the Hebrew Bible after the Ugaritic discoveries concluded that “the asherah” represented both a wooden cult object and a goddess (Reed 1949:37, 53), a position some scholars still hold today.

Unquestionably, “the asherahs” were usually wooden; they stood upright, often beside altars, along with stone pillars. However, in at least eight instances, they are described as carved(Pettey 1990:45). Thus, far from being merely wooden “cult poles,” they were probably quite large carved images. As was the case with cult statues in other areas of the Eastern Mediterranean, “the asherahs” almost certainly would have been “animated” ritually (Walker and Dick 1999:57). Thus they did not just represent the goddess, but actually were worshipped as Asherah herself. Further, according to the Bible, a statue of Asherah stood in the Solomonic temple in Jerusalem for about two-thirds of its existence (Patai 1990:50). Asherah “must, then, have been a legitimate part of the cult of Yahweh” (Olyan 1988:13).

In addition to the testimony of the Hebrew Bible, there is also considerable archaeological evidence that may throw light on the role of Asherah in the religion of the early Israelites. First, a considerable number of small, clay, female statuettes, which archaeologists usually call “pillar figurines,” have been unearthed all over Israel. Dating to the eighth and early seventh centuries, that is, to the height of the Israelite monarchy, they occur in almost every excavation of the period (Kletter 1996: 4, 40-41).(3) So many pillar figurines have been excavated in the heartland of Judah that they are often regarded as “a characteristic expression of Judahite piety” (Keel and Uehlinger 1998:327; Kletter 1996:45)…

What was Asherah’s role in Israelite religion? Could she have been the consort of the Israelite god?

Relatively recently, startling archaeological discoveries in modern Israel have strengthened the arguments that Asherah was the Israelite god’s consort (Hadley 2000: 86-102). One dig was in the heartland of Judah, the other in the northern Sinai. Several blessing inscriptions from the sites contain a controversial phrase possibly to be translated as “Yahweh and his Asherah.” Even more exciting are drawings that accompany the inscriptions, especially those from the Sinai site (Toorn 1998:88-89).

The Sinai sketches appear on several pieces of pottery from two large jars found in a strange structure in the northern Sinai (Hadley 2000: 111, 119). One of the accompanying inscriptions reads: “I bless you by Yahweh of Samaria and his [/its] Asherah,” while the two others use the formula: “I bless you by Yahweh of Teman (the South) and his [/its] Asherah” (Toorn 1998:89). Interpretation of the phrase “by his [/its] Asherah”

… there is certainly a goddess elsewhere in this picture: the cow suckling a calf (Hadley 2000:115, #3). The cow-and-calf image, which had wide distribution in the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, was “one of the most popular motifs of the first millennium in Western Asia.” It appears on many seals and on an “enormous quantity of ivory plaques,” beautifully carved by Phoenician artists of the eighth and seventh centuries BCE (Beck 1982:120). The cow-and-calf motif is usually connected with the symbol system of goddesses (Keel and Uehlinger 1998:215).
Jar A shoulder drawing. Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, Israel.
Early 8th century BCE
S. Beaulieu, after Bonanno 1985:336, #21.
On the fragment coming from just around the shoulder of the jar, there is another drawing that has very strong goddess implications: a sacred tree with animals eating from it (Hadley 2000:117, #5; Keel and Uehlinger 1998:211, #219; Beck 1982:7, #4). In its details, this tree has obvious “parallels in the iconography of the sacred trees in the ancient Near East” (Beck 1982:13, 14-15). Although some interpreters argue that there is no significance to the relation between tree and lion in this image (Beck 1982:18), others think not only that the relationship is significant, but that it probably signifies a goddess (Hadley 2000:154; Keel and Uehlinger 1998:241). Whoever drew the sacred tree almost certainly intended it to represent a goddess, for the artist emphasized the goddess content by placing the tree on a lion’s back, a stance assumed by numerous goddesses in numerous images. The lion also had a clear and time-honoured association with goddesses (Keel and Uehlinger 1998:86).

Whoever did the drawings on the first jar understood the symbolic tradition of goddesses very well and, probably intentionally, brought goddesses into the pictures by using three of the most prominent and potent goddess allusions: cow and calf, lion, and sacred tree. However, the drawings may or may not depict Asherah, either in person as the lyre player or in the symbols. Beck, among others, thinks that it is “doubtful if [the] scenes [on the first jar discussed] were connected to any particular deity” (Beck 1982:16). On the other hand, those who argue that the drawings show or allude to Asherah also use that possibility as support for interpreting the inscriptions as referring to her (Hadley 2000:152,153; Keel and Uehlinger 1998:236). For them, then, the drawings clarify the inscriptions and point to Asherah, both in Israel and in Judah, as the consort of the early Israelite god.

As for me, I tend to agree that Asherah was probably consort of the Israelite god. It seems likely that, in Canaan, the early Israelites, originally pastoral semi-nomads, were slowly becoming settled agrarians. As such they would have needed to worship deities who promoted their farming activities: a heterosexual couple one of whose concerns was the land’s fertility. In that worship they would be like the cultures surrounding them. What would be more natural, then, than their adopting and adapting deities from the agrarian peoples among whom they were settling? So they identified their main god with Canaanite El(5) and, as consort for their own god, took over El’s female counterpart Asherah.” — Asherah and the God of the Early Israelites by Johanna H. Stuckey 

See also Asherah Pole and …


“Asherah, along with Astarte and Anath, was one of the three great goddesses of the Canaanite pantheon. In Canaanite religion her primary role was that of mother goddess. In mythological texts from the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 b.c.e.) city-state of Ugarit, she is called “the creatress of the gods”; her consort at Ugarit, the god El, is called “creator.” El is also referred to as father and patriarch at Ugarit, as Asherah, likewise, is called mother. Their children form the pantheon of the gods, who are said to number seventy; a Hittite myth similarly mentions the seventy-seven and eighty-eight children of Asherah. On occasion in Ugaritic myth, Asherah performs the maternal role of wet nurse. Ugaritic and other Canaanite materials further associate Asherah with lions (indicating power), serpents (representing immortality or healing), and sacred trees (signifying fertility). Thus Asherah’s children at Ugarit can be called her “pride of lions”; the goddess is called “lady of the serpent” in second-millennium b.c.e. inscriptions from the Sinai; the late-thirteenth-century b.c.e. Lachish ewer dedicated to Asherah is decorated with images of sacred trees.

The Canaanite association of Asherah with sacred trees is also found in Israelite tradition. For example, one of the Canaanite epithets of Asherah, elat, “goddess,” is etymologically identical to the Hebrew word for the terebinth tree (ela). Another word for “terebinth” (alla) and two words for “oak” (elon and allon) are also closely related. Gen 2:4b–3:24 may further suggest the association of Asherah with sacred trees, since the way that Eve, “the mother of all living” (3:20), is described in the Eden story mimics in certain respects the role of the Canaanite mother goddess Asherah. If a correspondence holds, then the trees of life and of knowledge in the Eden narrative may also reflect Asherah imagery.

Most significant, though, in demonstrating Israel’s association of Asherah with sacred trees are biblical materials that describe the asherah (singular) or asherim (plural), the cult object(s) that are associated with the goddess Asherah more than thirty times in the Hebrew Bible. These cult objects are generally described as being in the shape of a pole or stylized tree. Like a pole or tree, they can be said to be planted, stood up, or erected. Conversely, when destroyed, these cult symbols can be described as being cut down, hewn down, or uprooted; they can also be said to be burned, overturned, or broken. Both the Greek and Latin translations of the Bible, moreover, render the words asherah and asherim as “grove” or “wood.”

According to the biblical record, these sacred poles or stylized trees associated with Asherah were erected by the Israelites throughout most of their history, especially during the premonarchic (tribal) period (Judg 6:25–26, 28, 30)) and during the period of the divided monarchy, both in the northern kingdom of Israel (1Kgs 14:15; 16:33; 2 Kgs 13:6; 17:10, 16; 23:15; and parallel references in 2 Chronicles) and in Judah, in the south (1 Kgs 14:23, 15:13; 2 Kgs 18:4; 21:3, 7; 23:6, 14; and parallel references in 2 Chronicles). These sacred poles were situated in various locations. In Judges 6, a sacred pole of Asherah is said to have stood beside the altar of the Canaanite storm god, Baal. The Bible also connects sacred poles with the “high places” (open-air cult sites?) and frequently mentions that they stood “on every high hill and under every green tree” (1 Kgs 14:23; 2 Kgs 17:10; 18:4; 21:3; 23:13–14; 2 Chr 14:3; 17:6; 31:1; 33:3, 19; 34:3; Jer 17:2). Both of these phrases are stereotypically used by the biblical writers to describe sites of idolatrous worship, implying, as does Judges 6, that the worship of Asherah was an apostate behavior in Israel and improper for followers of YHWH.

Yet despite these and other references associating Asherah with apostasy (for example, Exod 34:13; Deut 7:5; 12:3; Judg 3:7; 1 Kgs 18:19), and despite the fact that the Israelites are explicitly forbidden in Deut 16:21 to erect one of Asherah’s sacred poles beside an altar of YHWH, there are multiple indications in biblical tradition that many in ancient Israel did regard Asherah’s cult icon as an appropriate sacred symbol within the religion of YHWH. For example, one of Asherah’s sacred poles stood next to YHWH’s altar at Bethel, one of the two great cult sites of the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kgs 23:15). Another of Asherah’s sacred poles stood in that kingdom’s capital city, Samaria. The sacred pole of Samaria, moreover, which was erected during the reign of King Ahab (reigned 873–852 b.c.e.), was allowed to remain standing by the reformer King Jehu (1 Kgs 16:33; 2 Kgs 13:6), even though Jehu was generally at pains to remove all non-Yahwistic cults and cult imagery from the land. This fact suggests that Jehu perceived the sacred pole as appropriate in the worship of YHWH.

Archaeological discoveries from the late 1970s and early 1980s have further indicated that, at least in the opinion of some ancient Israelites, YHWH and Asherah were appropriately worshipped as a pair. From the site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, in the eastern Sinai, come three ninth- or eighth-century b.c.e. inscriptions that mention YHWH and “his Asherah” (meaning YHWH’s companion [consort?], the goddess Asherah) or “his asherah” (meaning YHWH’s sacred pole that represents the goddess Asherah and that sits in his temple or beside his altar). An eighth-century b.c.e. inscription from Khirbet el-Qom, about twenty-five miles southwest of Jerusalem, contains similar language in 1 Kgs 15:13 and 2 Kgs 18:4, 21:7, and 23:6 (with parallels in 2 Chronicles) indicate that at least during certain points in the ninth, eighth, and seventh centuries b.c.e., Asherah’s sacred pole was perceived as an appropriate icon to erect in Jerusalem, even in YHWH’s temple. Also, vessels in the temple were used to make sacrifices to Asherah (2 Kgs 23:4), and in a compound within the temple’s walls, women cult functionaries wove garments used to clothe Asherah’s cult statue (2 Kgs 23:7). Thus it appears that, although generally the biblical writers—especially certain prophets (Isa 17:8; 27:9; Jer 17:2; Mic 5:14) and the authors responsible for Deuteronomy, Judges, 1 and 2 Kings, and 2 Chronicles—regarded Asherah worship as inappropriate, at least some and possibly many in ancient Israel incorporated the goddess’s cult imagery and ritual into the cult of YHWH”. — Asherah/Asherim: Bible Jewish Women’s Archive


Ainu home and Japanese traditional homes to this day still have a symbolic “spiritual pillar” or “supporting pole”, as well as an origin myth that echoes the Churning of the Milk and central pole myth

The origin myth of Amaterasu-o-mi-kami has her parents, Izanagi and Izanami, who are the progenitors of all the gods, standing on the “bridge of heaven” (a rainbow) and stirring the ocean with a long pole. The places where they stirred the bottom up became the 8 main islands of Japan. If you remember the opening ceremonies for the Nagano Olympics, you will remember that the world was shown the ancient art of raising a large pole using ropes. Such a pole could be used in building a large structure. When Izanagi and Isanami were married, they walked around the main pole. As the story goes, Izanami, the female, was too anxious for the union and she walked around and met Izanagi first. This was considered inappropriate, and they had to do it over again. The gaikokubashira or main pole of a house, is a term used to describe someone who quietly supports the people around them. In a traditional Japanese house, there is a raised platform half-way across the back of the parlor, the zashiki or receiving room. This platform is about 8 inches high and usually there are sliding doors and a storage area over it under the ceiling. This is the place of honor in a home where you hang a scroll to match the season and put a flower arrangement and maybe a special ornament. This tokonoma has a decorative pole to the right of it that is made of special wood, highly polished and given respect. There are many grades of wood used for this supporting pole and the trees used are specially grown for this purpose.

The Ainu are at the center of Cavalli-Sforza’s genetic distance chart. 


This goddess was the goddess of fertility and sexual lust, known as Ashtaroth or Ashtoreth (example: “And they put his weapons in the temple of Ashtaroth …” 1 Samuel 31:10). Each spring, the pagans would set up phallic poles called Asherahs under trees on high hills and celebrate their fertility festival with unbridled sexual perversion. This is how the May Pole originated. When the Israelites incorporated this into their worship, God did not commend them for making it easier for the pagans to convert to Judaism; instead, He was provoked to anger: “And Jehovah shall strike Israel as the reed waves in the water, and shall pluck up Israel from off this good land that He gave to their fathers. And [He] shall scatter them beyond the River, because they have made their Asherahs, provoking Jehovah to anger … And Judah did evil in the sight of Jehovah, and they provoked Him to jealousy above all their fathers did by their sins that they had sinned. And they built, they also, high places for themselves, and standing pillars, and Asherahs on every high hill, and under every green tree” (1 Kings 14:15,22-23). In Exodus 34:13 and Deuteronomy 12:3, the Israelites were commanded to destroy the Asherah poles, and in 2 Kings 23:13, King Josiah carried out demolition of the poles.

The Babylonians carried on the tradition with Ishtar (Astarte to the Phoenicians), their goddess of love and reproduction. Incorporated into this was the egg — both as a sign of fertility and a reminder of the myth that Ishtar was hatched out of a huge egg that fell into the Euphrates River. In Egypt, Isis was the goddess of motherhood and fertility, and rabbits were symbols of birth and life. It is plain as to the origin of eggs and rabbits as symbols of Easter.

The Saxon equivalent of Ashteroth/Ishtar/Astarte was the goddess Eostre, from which we get the word “oestrus,” which refers to an animal in heat. According to the myth, Eostre opened the gates of Valhalla to Baldur, the sun god, who had been killed — thus the sun god was resurrected. This has origins in the Persian vernal equinox celebration of the rebirth/resurrection of Mithra, the sun-god…” The Origins of Easter and Christmas

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