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
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
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
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). 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).
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).
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:
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)
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.
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.
- From the animal bones
and eating vessels discovered at the site (Nakhai 2001: 92-97).
- 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).
- The Hebrew Bible mentions
a town called Ashteroth Karnaim, "Astarte of the Two Horns" (Genesis
- 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.
- Keel, Othmar and Christoph Uehlinger 1998.
Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis,
- 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.