Monday, April 21, 2014

Review: Book on Asherah by Darlene Kosnik

History’s Vanquished Goddess Asherah by Darlene Kosnik (Emergent Press 2014) 316 pages, 6 x 9, trade paperback (also available in hardback).

When you think of Asherah, if you think only of a Goddess with a curly cap of hair, offering her breasts in a nurturing gesture, with her body below the waist resembling a tree trunk, then think again. Though this image is correct and is shown in History’s Vanquished Goddess Asherah, it is only one of many representations of this Goddess that Darlene Kosnik has gathered into an unusual and useful book. Kosnik brings together evidence about the worship of this Ancient Near Eastern (aka Levant and, more recently, Western Asian) female deity, whose existence has been denied and suppressed since biblical times. The
author accomplishes this in both prose and pictures, beginning before 1550 BCE (pre-late Bronze Age) and continuing through the 6th century BCE (Babylonian period and beyond).

Perhaps words from the back cover are the best introductory description:

“Long buried in the sands of time, the feminine component of history is emerging as archaeology peels back the layers of time. This book chronicles Asherah’s history with: 555 original drawings, 1,183 references, 183 mini-maps and 274 Similar Iconographic/Historic Associations.”

Yes, that’s a lot of material! Many of the original drawings are based on ancient artifacts or previous drawings by others. Kosnik gives the source of each of these next to her version of the art. The book’s front matter contains an explanation of the content formats and “artifact imagery attributes,” which are two of the unusual aspects of the book. It also explains the formatting of the descriptions with double and single lines and boxes. This an aspect of the book I found hard to get used to visually because of the multiplicity of dividing lines on the page, but others may not be bothered by it and only perceive it as being imaginative and thorough. The primary content, which is about the Hebrew Goddess Asherah and Canaanite Goddesses such as Astarte and Athirat (who were either the same Goddess called by different names, or closely related Goddesses), is placed in unboxed areas on pages with single lines at the top and bottom of the page and double lines at the beginning and end of each description. The “macroscopic content,” which relates Asherah to representations of other Goddesses, is placed in double-lined boxes. The front matter also contains two pages that show icons with labels for “Artifact Imagery Attributes” that are used throughout the book to indicate what category of Goddess or figure is represented by the drawing. Some of these icons/categories include: Snake/Serpent Goddess, Tree Goddess, Water of Life Goddess, Breast Emphasis, Pillar Figurine, Trinity, etc. There are more than 50 of these and they are displayed on left side of the pages, outside the content boxes or unboxed copy block, with a summary line of icons sometimes placed at the bottom of the page. Some of the images in the primary content can be seen here. Some of the references, including links to web pages, can been seen here.

This ambitious book that presents material from many sources is a fine addition to the growing scholarly information on Asherah. When there are conflicts in opinions, Kosnik does not always draw conclusions about which is correct. For example, on a page in the section on the Iron Age, after discussing “Temple of Ashtoroth/Asherah,” she adds a note containing two sources asserting that Ashtoroth (also spelled as Ashtoreth) is a “deliberately corrupted” Goddess name and repeats this assertion in the material on “Babylonian Period & Beyond,” referring again to one of the sources (archeologist William G.Dever ). Nevertheless, she uses Ashtoroth/Ashtoreth as an alternative Goddess name throughout the book when the sources she is quoting have used them as legitimate. (Many Goddess scholars agree with Dever et al that Ashtoroth/Ashtoreth was not a name used in antiquity for a Goddess, but rather was devised in biblical times or later to contain linguistic meanings intended to degrade the Goddess.) In any event, the approach of the author to present conflicting material without taking sides allows readers to follow the leads the book presents and make their own conclusions. This may be a valuable approach in a field in which all the information is not yet available, and will probably be especially useful to students and scholars using this book.

Some of the most interesting parts of this book for me were:
—in the section, “Late Bronze Age I & II, the extensive discussion of the work of Ruth Hestrin, who, while she was a curator at the Israel Museum, was first to interpret the iconography on archeological finds showing that both the sacred tree and the pubic triangle on the objects were representations of Asherah. (Kosnik adds significantly to the material on this given in Dever’s book.)
—the material immediately following, in a section called “Late Bronze Age Considerations” about the epithet Kosnik initially transliterates as “Qds” and for which she gives a number of other transliterations, perhaps the best know being Qadesh and Kadesh, Kosnik emphatically does take sides. She points out that the epithet has been (mis)interpreted to mean “sacred prostitute,” but is more accurately translated as “sacred” or “holy” or “holiness.” Kosnik writes that  “The ‘sacred prostitute’ label has been rendered a discredited notion by scholarship….A concept whose time has gone…the ‘sacred prostitute’ label is more reflective of myopic tunnel vision than intellectual advancement.” She then goes on to give more than 40 pages of examples showing this term had nothing to do with prostitution.
—the page in the section, “Iron Age I, IIA & IIB,” that shows the similarity between the Kabbalah Tree and the Tree representing Asherah and possibly other Goddesses. (This page has a stylized version of the Tree, shown on the back of the “cosmetic palette,” which is similar to the Kabbalah tree, and adds to other examples I refer to in “Preface to Second Enlarged Edition” of my book, Goddess Spirituality for the 21st Century: From Kabbalah to Quantum Physics.)

The front cover of the book has art that is explained in the book’s Conclusion as a depiction on a coin whose date the author gives as 225-44 CE. It shows guardian snakes/serpents attempting to protect Asherah as “figures with upraised axes prepare to destroy her” and the tree in which she is shown. In discussing the front cover, I feel I must comment on its subtitle: “God’s Wife: the Goddess Asherah, Wife of Yahweh.” My objections are similar to those I’ve expressed previously in my review of Dever’s book, Did God Have a Wife? whose title, it seems, has started a meme of calling Asherah “God’s wife.” As can be inferred from material in History’s Vanquished Goddess Asherah, veneration of Asherah apparently preceded that of Yahweh by at least several hundred years, and in the Late Bronze Age two of Asherah’s epithets were “Mother of Gods” and “Creatrix of Gods.” We can conclude that Yahweh came after Asherah, both mythologically and historically. Indeed, most sources date veneration of Yahweh to the Iron Age. To me, to call her his “wife” in a generality on the book’s cover implies that this was her main role—a role secondary to Yahweh. More accurately, at most she can be called his consort in a certain time period, and Yahweh can be called her consort. The front cover’s sub-subtitle, “I. Primary Evidence. Archeological & Historical Aspects of Syro-Palestinian Pre-Biblical Religious Traditions, Macrocosmically Examined” to me indicates with its roman numeral “I” that it may be the first book in an intended series, and I would be very interested in seeing what additional books in this series add to this already extensive presentation.

The back matter of this book contains two appendixes: “Pre-Late Bronze Age, Additional Syro-Palestinian Considerations,” which has additional pictures and information related to this time period, and “Textual Asherah Evidence, Biblical Emendations and Allusions,” a list referring to biblical and other references in the book, and including dates of those references. There is also 14-page bibliography and a comprehensive index that, even in smaller type than the rest of the book, runs 10 pages.

In History’s Vanquished Goddess Asherah, Darlene Kosnik gives us an excellent summary of and thorough look at today’s knowledge about this Goddess. The book will be useful to the increasing number of people interested in this subject, and especially valuable to those doing research on Asherah and other Goddesses, particularly in the Levant/Ancient Near East/Western Asia.


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Judith Laura

More blogs about /goddess/feminist theology/spiritual feminism/pagan/feminist spirituality/.