The Pagan Feminine
Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes of bread for the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to provoke me to anger (Jeremiah 7:17-18 NIV).
I don’t know if you have read the novel, The Da Vinci Code, but I am reasonably sure you have heard of it. The book created its own cult following, but it wasn’t really new at all. It is truly fascinating to watch an ancient pagan cult attempt to rise again in the modern world.
Another fascinating element is how a work of fiction can be taken as fact in some quarters. The first and most important thing to know about The Da Vinci Code, is that it is fiction. It is not historical fiction, it is fiction-fiction; it does not have a veneer of fiction, it is fiction all the way through, and it combines another form of fiction, conspiracy theory, to spice things up.
One reader said that she found herself constantly doing internet searches to find out if the things being described in the novel are real or not. I laughed, because I initially found myself doing the same thing. But even when you find something that is really there, on examination, you find that it is once again a veneer.
One of the ideas developed in the book is the assumed suppression of the sacred feminine. It is an old idea, and has found a lot of repetition in literature, especially in the occult. But the suppression of the pagan feminine really happened. It is discussed quite frankly in the Bible. What had to be squelched in all its many forms was Asherah worship. Something like it still persists in the modern world. Here is how the idea is characterized by one website, called Teen Witch:
Asherah—The original bread of life. Hebrew and Canaanite women molded loaves of this figure which were blessed and ritually eaten, the precursor of the communion wafer. Her idols were found under every green tree, were carved from living trees, or erected as poles or pillars beside roadside altars. Crude clay images of her as tree of life later evolved into the more refined Syrian Artemis. Ancient sexual rites (dismissed to this day by male scholars as cult prostitution) associated with worship of Asherah insured that matrilineal descent patterns, with their partnership rather than dominator values, would continue. Hebrew priestly iconoclasts finally uprooted Asherah, supplanting matrifocal culture with patriarchy. Our Judeo-Christian inheritance of this law of the Levites, passed on by the Roman Empire, is one source of present-day sex inequality.
I don’t know how old this posting is, but it sounds like the idea was borrowed whole from The Da Vinci Code—or vice versa. Whatever the case, it is true indeed that Hebrew and Canaanite women did what is said here, and Jeremiah was dead serious about it. Here is what God told him:
So do not pray for this people nor offer any plea or petition for them; do not plead with me, for I will not listen to you. Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes of bread for the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to provoke me to anger. But am I the one they are provoking? declares the LORD. Are they not rather harming themselves, to their own shame? (Jeremiah 7:16-19 NIV).
Of course, we know all too well that the Israelites were to drive out the Canaanites and not to adopt any of their religious customs. What we read in the Teen witch summary is the whining one would expect from a people whose gods have been defeated. The irony is that Asherah worship was not uprooted. It persisted all the way to the fall of Jerusalem. Asherah worship even turned up among the refugees who fled to Egypt after that. Jeremiah was among those people, and it became necessary for God to speak to them about this persistent error.
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; “Ye have seen all the evil that I have brought upon Jerusalem, and upon all the cities of Judah; and, behold, this day they are a desolation, and no man dwelleth therein, Because of their wickedness which they have committed to provoke me to anger, in that they went to burn incense, and to serve other gods, whom they knew not, neither they, ye, nor your fathers. Howbeit I sent unto you all my servants the prophets, rising early and sending them, saying, Oh, do not this abominable thing that I hate” (Jeremiah 44:2-4).
What was so terrible about what Israel was doing? They had burned incense to other gods, but that hardly seems to call for such dire punishment upon a nation. “Why,” God asks, “commit ye this great evil against your souls, to cut off from you man and woman, child and suckling, out of Judah, to leave you none to remain” (v. 7).
Here is a good place to stop and try to understand what was really going on. This had to be more serious than a little incense burning and baking bread. It was, after all, bad enough that God turned them over to the worst of the heathen and cut them all off from the land. What had they done, really?
Whatever it was, they would not listen to Jeremiah. They said in reply:
We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our fathers, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine (Jeremiah 44:17-18 NIV).
The insolence is breathtaking, but so is the denial of what happened to them. It is true that they were engaged in Asherah worship at the absolute peak of prosperity. Because they were prosperous at the same time they were worshiping the Queen of Heaven, they confused coincidence with cause. The truth is that they were blessed by God in the land because he had promised to do so. They completely ignored the fact that they were warned, right at the peak of prosperity, that they were sinning. And they ignored the fact that they never repented of the sin right through the fall of Jerusalem. But what is this all about, and why is Asherah worship such a very big deal? And why haven’t we heard elsewhere about this queen of heaven, seeing she is so important in Jeremiah? Well, we have, but for some reason the old Bibles paper over it. Take, for example, the King James Version:
Take heed to thyself, lest thou make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest, lest it be for a snare in the midst of thee: But ye shall destroy their altars, break their images, and cut down their groves (Exodus 34:12-13 KJV).
The word here rendered, “groves,” is the Hebrew, Asherah. The NIV calls these Asherah poles. But what does that mean?
Asherah worship involved what is probably the oldest and surely the most persistent of all the ancient pagan customs—cult prostitution. It is a mixture of two of the most powerful influences on the human psyche—sex and religion. Cult prostitution differs from street prostitution only in its ostensible religious purpose. Truth to tell, it is doubtful how much religion really had to do with it.
Historically, religious prostitution involved a lot of the same dreadful practices that are still in play today. Women do not generally decide to be sex workers as an occupational choice when an alternative is open to them. Often as not, they were sold into it as children and they are sex slaves. The Greeks, who saw more than a thousand cult prostitutes in the temple at Corinth, called them hierodules—from the word hieron, temple, and doule, female slave. (Some say there were about the same number of male and female sex slaves in Greek worship.)
The practice is much older than Greece, though, being traced back to the earliest civilizations. One of the surprising aspects of Asherah worship is its persistence. Every tribe of ancient cultures had a different male deity. Baal, Molech, Dagon, etc. What is surprising is that the one constant in all those cultures was the goddess. She was always and everywhere the same. She was the sacred feminine, consort of the gods, and presumably she slept with all of them.
So this is rather more than incense and hot cross buns. It turns out that it is also more than a little temple sex with a consenting adult. Historically, not many women voluntarily took on the role of a cult prostitute. They were sold into it as children and had never known any other life.
Among the laws concerning relations with alien nations, there is this:
Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land where you are going, or they will be a snare among you. Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles. Do not worship any other god, for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. Be careful not to make a treaty with those who live in the land; for when they prostitute themselves to their gods and sacrifice to them, they will invite you and you will eat their sacrifices. And when you choose some of their daughters as wives for your sons and those daughters prostitute themselves to their gods, they will lead your sons to do the same (Exodus 34:12-16 NIV).
I think many take this reference to prostitution in a figurative sense. But apparently, it was quite literal. Cult prostitution was indeed the world’s oldest profession:
It was revered highly among Sumerians and Babylonians. In ancient sources (Herodotus, Thucydides) there are many traces of hieros gamos (holy wedding), starting perhaps with Babylon, where each woman had to reach, once a year, the sanctuary of Militta (Aphrodite or Nana/Anahita), and there have sex with a foreigner, as a sign of hospitality, for a symbolic price.
Every woman in that culture had to commit an act of prostitution. So if your sons took a wife from among the heathen, their wives would prostitute themselves to their gods. Literally.
Why would God hate this so much? Well, consider how persistent and destructive it is. It is hard to grasp that even now, in the “modern” world, child sex slaves are quite common. The Anti-Slavery Society works to put an end to the practice, and you can read what is happening on their web site. Sex slavery is all too common, still, in India and Nepal. In years gone by it usually involved parents dedicating their little girls to a Hindu god. Sometimes the parents offered the girls as a sacrifice to appease the gods, or the girls were purchased and offered to the gods. The girls served as slaves or dancers employed by the priests to provide sexual services to men who came to worship. According to the Anti-Slavery Society, times and methods have changed:
However, nowadays, this original purpose has gone and, after dedication—usually at the age of 5 to 7 years of age—the child is often deflowered by the priest and then sold to the highest bidder, who keeps her as his child concubine. When she grows older and loses the bloom of youth, her buyer usually gets rid of her. The girl then has to work in a brothel which often has a shrine at the door to symbolize her original dedication to Hindu cult prostitution.
The British made efforts to suppress hierodulic child prostitution in India—the Indian Penal Code 1860 made it a criminal offence to procure women or girls for that purpose—and it was on the decline throughout the earlier part of the last century. However, there has been a recent revival of these institutions in Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
I think, when people imagine temple prostitutes, they think of the kind of woman you might see on a street corner in the red light district. But I get the impression that in all ages, it has been a kind of slavery involving little girls and little boys. It hasn’t been only the religion of the Hindus, but everywhere that Asherah has been worshiped. So maybe when God says he hates, loathes, and despises this, and calls it “going a whoring after other Gods,” we can take his point?
I gather that “eating the sacrifice” says rather more than having a steak, and some aspects of these customs are too vile to discuss here. I will simply tell you that The Da Vinci Code alleges that the holy grail is actually Mary Magdalene, and I suspect this is of a piece with some ancient custom.
It seems Israel had not been long in the land until they began to absorb the culture and religion of the people they were supposed to drive out:
And the children of Israel dwelt among the Canaanites, Hittites, and Amorites, and Perizzites, and Hivites, and Jebusites: And they took their daughters to be their wives, and gave their daughters to their sons, and served their gods. And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and forgat the LORD their God, and served Baalim and the Asherah (Judges 3:5-7).
Judah did evil in the eyes of the LORD. By the sins they committed they stirred up his jealous anger more than their fathers had done. They also set up for themselves high places, sacred stones and Asherah poles on every high hill and under every spreading tree. There were even male shrine prostitutes in the land; the people engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites (1 Kings 14:22-24 NIV).
Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, but he also married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal king of the Sidonians, and began to serve Baal and worship him. He set up an altar for Baal in the temple of Baal that he built in Samaria. Ahab also made an Asherah pole and did more to provoke the LORD, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him (1 Kings 16:30-33 NIV).
Asherah or Ashtoreth, was the female consort of every male deity in the world, and a temple to Baal would have included the sacred feminine, i.e., the temple prostitute. King Josiah put a stop to these practices, which also included child sacrifice. In their orgies in Carthage, children were sometimes burned alive to Baal:
[Josiah] did away with the pagan priests appointed by the kings of Judah to burn incense on the high places of the towns of Judah and on those around Jerusalem—those who burned incense to Baal, to the sun and moon, to the constellations and to all the starry hosts. He took the Asherah pole from the temple of the LORD to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem and burned it there. He ground it to powder and scattered the dust over the graves of the common people. He also tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes, which were in the temple of the LORD and where women did weaving for Asherah (2 Kings 23:5-7 NIV).
Asherah crops up again and again in the Bible, and she is the “Sacred Feminine” in its original form. It amounts to nothing more than an ancient sex goddess who arranged the selling of little boys and girls as sex slaves. It preys on the weakest and most helpless among us. It is a powerful force for the destruction of marriage and family, and eventually of society. The novel, The Da Vinci Code resurrected the old goddess worship, and the movie bid fair to push it even further. But it really boils down to an excuse to justify satisfying one of the oldest cravings of man. Sex without responsibility.
As a footnote to all this, it was not the priests who put an end to Asherah worship among the Hebrews. It was the Babylonian captivity. When the Persians finally allowed the Israelites to return, Asherah worship ceased. Archaeological digs all over Palestine find, in the pre-exile sites, numerous little figurines of the fertility goddess. In the post-exile layers of a dig, they find none. It is one lonely example of a people learning a lesson from history.
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