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A Canaanite Goddess Shrine at Nahariyya in Israel



Map of the southern Levant (Canaan) showing Nahariyah in the north not far from the modern border of Israel with Lebanon.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Mazar 1990: 177
larger view of image

Despite the antiquity of its site, Nahariyya is certainly a full member of the modern world. In 2001, four teenagers from the town were responsible for disseminating a major computer virus. The town has also seen its share of terrorist violence. In 1979 a terrorist invaded a family apartment and killed the father, the daughter, and a policeman, while the young mother in hiding, trying to keep her baby quiet, suffocated him. In 2001 a suicide bomber attack on the train station killed three and injured ninety.

Not far south of the border with Lebanon and just north of Akko (Acre), in what is now modern Israel, lies Nahariyya (Nahariyah), a resort town with a beautiful beach. It is the northern-most seaside town in Israel, and today it has a population of about 30,000 people. The town was established in 1934 or 1935 by German Jews, and residents even today are apt to say of the town: "Es bleibt doch immer deutsch" ("It still remains always German."). The name Nahariyya means "River of Yahweh (God)."

Near the resort there is an ancient mound, Tel Nahariyah, which has not yet been excavated. It covers a town or village. About 800 meters from the tell and at the mouth of the River Ga'aton are situated the excavated remains of what was almost certainly an open-air Canaanite sanctuary. Like many such sites, it was established near an important fresh-water spring (Keel and Uehlinger 1998: 29; Dever 1992: 995; Mazar 1990: 176). The sanctuary sits on a hillock and is quite visible from the sea (Brody 1998: 55; Dever 1992: 995). It was founded in the Middle Bronze Age (about 2000-about 1550 BCE) and used well into the Late Bronze Age (about1550-1200/1150 BCE) (Tubb 1998: 76; Dothan 1981: 74-81). Excavations of the sanctuary uncovered the remains of three consecutive temples. The first was a small, square temple accompanied by a "typical Canaanite high place," that is, a circular open-air platform/altar built of stone (Pettey 1990: 179). The second featured auxiliary structures, some of which were probably residences for cult personnel, and a larger "high place" with a standing stone. The third and latest temple had a few more auxiliary buildings but a smaller "high place" (Nakhai 2001: 94).

At the Nahariyah cult installation, archaeologists found evidence of offerings placed on the altar and oil poured on it. There was also considerable indication that the sanctuary had been the location of much sacrificial feasting (Pettey 1990: 179).[1] Excavators also discovered a number of naked female figurines in silver and in bronze, some on the "high place" of the shrine, more in a pottery jar under the plaster pavement (Keel and Uehlinger 1998: 31; Negbi 1976: 64 and #1525-1534).[2] One of the most exciting finds was not in metal, but was a soapstone (steatite) mold for casting metal figurines (Patai 1990: Plate 9; Negbi 1976: 64 #78, Plate 39 #1532).



Goddess figure from Nahariyah, the ancient mold on the left, a modern cast from it on the right.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Negbi 1976: Plate 39 #1532.

The slim figure in the mold is naked and stands with her arms at her sides and hands framing her pubic area. Her breasts are small, and she has a protruding navel. Her hair flows about her shoulders. Her tall, conical hat has a horn sticking out on each side. To date, no figurine produced from this mold has come to light (Negbi 1976: 178).

The other female images from Nahariyah, all made of metal, are of two kinds: Some "were poured solid, of the type that one could produce using the steatite mold," but the rest were "cut out using sheet-silver or sheet-bronze" (Keel & Uehlinger 1998: 31; Negbi 1976: 65,#77,#79, 81-82). Although two of the cut-out metal figures from the Nahariyah shrine wear short skirts, the others are naked. One of the skirted figures was clearly intended to be worn as a pendant, for she has a loop on the back of her head (Patai 1990: Plate 22; Negbi 1976: 81 #96). The figurines were probably made in workshops at the shrine (Keel and Uehlinger 1998: 29, 31).

The figurines indicate that the shrine was probably dedicated to a goddess, but to which one? Those who argue for the shrine's having been devoted to the chief Canaanite goddess Asherah base their case primarily on Nahariyah's "seacoast location near Tyre and Sidon, where Asherah was the local deity" (Pettey 1990: 179; Dothan 1981:80). One scholar argues that the shrine served both the locals and seafarers who worshiped "Lady Asherah of the Sea"; in addition, he points out, the shrine could certainly have functioned as a shore marker (Brody 1998). Others think, because of the mold figure's horns (Patai 1990: 65)[3] or because of the Hathor-style () locks of many of the figurines (Gray 1982: 81), that she was another Canaanite goddess Astarte (Mazar 1990: 221). In addition, at least one scholar thought she was the Canaanite warrior goddess Anat (Cross cited in Dothan 1981: 80), though I think there is little evidence to support this contention.



Front view of cut-metal figure from Nahariyah showing the loop for hanging it around the neck.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Negbi 1976: 81 Fig. 96

Whoever she was — and I myself tend to think she was Asherah — her shrine presents us with information on the practices of ancient goddess worship in the Bronze Age in the land of Canaan. From the auxiliary buildings, we can surmise that there were probably one or more priests/priestesses attached to the sanctuary. Offerings were made on the large round altar in the open air. Some of these would have been animal sacrifices, parts of which would later provide food for the feasting that clearly went on. The mold might suggest that images of the shrine's deity were produced at the shrine to give worshipers a memento of their visit. Finally, the fact that the shrine was used from its beginnings until well into the Late Bronze Age testifies to the popularity of its female deity.

Notes

  1. From the animal bones and eating vessels discovered at the site (Nakhai 2001: 92-97).
  2. The jar contained nineteen whole or fragmentary figures of goddesses (Keel and Uehlinger 1998: 31). Excavators also found offering vessels, bowls, lamps, incense stands, precious stone beads, metal jewelry, and animal figurines (Pettey 1990: 179).
  3. The Hebrew Bible mentions a town called Ashteroth Karnaim, "Astarte of the Two Horns" (Genesis 14:5).

Bibliography

  • Brody, A, J. 1998. "Each Man Cried Out to his God": The Specialized Religion of Canaanite and Phoenician Seafarers. Atlanta, GA: Scholars.
  • Dever, William G. 1992. "Nahariyeh,' 995-996, in Anchor Bible Dictionary. Vol. 4. New York: Doubleday.
  • Dothan, Moshe 1981. "Sanctuaries along the Coast of Canaan in the MB Period Nahariyah," 74-81, in Temples and High Places in Biblical Times: Proceedings of the Colloquium in Honor of the Centennial of Hebrew Union College …. Jerusalem: Hebrew Union College.
  • Gray, John 1982. Near Eastern Mythology. London: Hamlyn.
  • Keel, Othmar and Christoph Uehlinger 1998. Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress.
  • Mazar, Amihai 1990. Archaeology of the Land of the Bible 10,000-586 B.C.E. New York: Doubleday.
  • Nakhai, Beth Alpert 2001. Archaeology and the Religions of Canaan and Israel. Boston, MA: American Schools of Oriental Research.
  • Negbi, Ora 1976. Canaanite Gods in Metal: An Archaeological Study of Ancient Syro-Palestinian Figures. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University.
  • Patai, Raphael 1990 (1978). The Hebrew Goddess: Third Enlarged Edition. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University.
  • Pettey, Richard J. 1990. Asherah: Goddess of Israel. New York: Lang.
  • Tubb, Jonathan N. 1998. Canaanites. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma.

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