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Sacred Repositories and Goddess Figurines

The site of the Philistine[1] city of Yavneh or Jabneh (2 Chronicles 26:6) lies in Israel near the coast, south of Tel Aviv. Today the town of Yavneh circles the ancient mound and covers the slopes of a smaller mound that modern residents call “the Temple Hill” (Kletter et al. 2006: 148, pictures 149). That name reflects the 1960 discovery of pieces of figurines and vessels almost certainly used in worship, that is, cult objects. In 2000-2001, a bulldozer used illegally to clear space for a public park damaged part of the small mound and revealed further fragments of pottery and cult paraphernalia.


Small, rectangular cult stand. Cross bars with four openings form the top (roof). The interior is occupied by two crouching lions with incised manes; their upheld tails appear on the back of the stand. On the side walls are somewhat damaged human figures, possibly female, and several large decorative knobs. The upper corners of the front bear animal heads, likely of bovines. In many areas of the ancient Eastern Mediterranean, lions were the sacred animals of certain goddesses, one probably being Canaanite/Israelite Asherah. Clay. 11cm high. Dated about ninth century BCE. From the Philistine site of Yavneh, Israel. Eretz-Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Kletter, Ziffer, and Zwickel 2006: 153.

Eventually, with looting increasing, the Israel Antiquities Authority decided to launch a salvage dig, but only of the damaged area, the rest of the hill being judged not in any danger. Archaeologists uncovered an ancient pit “two meters in diameter and one and a half meters deep.” It was packed with cult objects which they dated to around the ninth century BCE (Kletter, Ziffer, and Zwickel 2006: 149). The ancient artifacts they unearthed with extreme care numbered in the thousands and included bowls, juglets, chalices, and cult stands.[2] In the collection were over a hundred “complete or restorable cult stands” (Kletter, Ziffer, and Zwickel 2006: 155).


Cult stand with small orchestra or procession. The concave top has three openings. Two lion heads and partial torsos are affixed to the lower edges of the front. A female figure stands above the lion on the right side; likely the left side had a similar figure. The lions and female figures suggest at once that the stand was part of the cult paraphernalia of a  temple in which a goddess was worshiped. Above the lions a long opening displays a group what appears to be female musicians, a temple orchestra? The opening has two sections, separated by what looks like a tree (or pillar) with six leaves hanging down. Originally two figures stood on either side of the tree-pillar, but now the one on the far right is missing. The remaining figures are female musicians. The one on the far left seems to be playing a small drum or tambourine. Next to her is a double-flute player. Although somewhat damaged, the third is probably a lyre player. The narrow ends are also decorated: On one side, a female figure holds her breasts, but the figure (?) beside her is now missing.  The opposite side has an opening, containing possibly a pillar, but no figures. Originally the stand was decorated with painted "motifs," which have now practically disappeared. Clay. 16.6 cm high. Dated about the ninth century BCE. From the Philistine site of Yavneh, Israel. Eretz-Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Kletter, Ziffer, and Zwickel 2006:152.

The discovery of so many cult stands is remarkable: Archaeologists are very excited to discover “a few fragments, not to mention one entire cult stand” (Kletter, Ziffer, and Zwickel 2006: 155). The stands from Yavneh are perhaps not as visually challenging as the famous one from Taanach, which I discussed in detail in a previous article (Astarte, Goddess of Fertility, Beauty, War, and Love). Like the Taanach stand, most of the Temple Hill stands are decorated with animals and human figures. This imagery gives us our first really close look at Philistine religion in the period when, according to the Hebrew Bible (Christian Old Testament), the Israelites and the Philistines were regularly engaged in warfare with each other.

It is significant that the animals depicted on the stands are mainly lions and bovines, and the human figures are “almost always female” (Kletter, Ziffer, and Zwickel 2006: 156). We know from examples found all over the ancient Eastern Mediterranean that lions and bovines form part of the imagery associated with goddesses, as does the sacred tree with animals eating from it.[3] Thus, I can speculate that the cult objects from Yavneh were once used in a goddess temple that stood nearby, perhaps occupying the smaller of the two mounds. From the imagery I would guess that she was a goddess very like Canaanite Asherah.


One of two very similar stands. The central motif is a sacred tree with two goat-like creatures feeding at it. This motif is  very common in the ancient Mediterranean and is closely associated with goddesses. See Stuckey article in Matrifocus Archives, Beltane 2004, 3-3. Two bovine heads on long necks occupy either end of the front, just below naked female figures cupping their breasts. I have no doubt that this cult stand honours a Philistine goddess, probably one identified with Canaanite/Israelite Asherah. Clay. 15.5 cm high. Dated about ninth century BCE. From Philistine Yavneh, Israel. Eretz-Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Kletter, Ziffer, and Zwickel 2006:153.

The archaeologists who excavated the Yavneh pit called it a genizah, from the Hebrew word denoting a storeroom in a synagogue into which worn-out or damaged sacred texts and objects were deposited, since they were too holy to be thrown into the garbage (Kletter, Ziffer, and Zwickel 2006: 148).[4] Such temple repositories, usually storage pits of some sort, have been found all over the ancient Eastern Mediterranean. For instance, the famous “snake goddesses” from Crete were discovered in a space under the floor in the Knossos temple, and the figurines buried in a pot near the altar at Nahariyah are probably another example (A Canaanite Goddess Shrine at Nahariyya in Israel). We know that in Mesopotamia and Egypt there were rituals to draw a deity into a newly made statue (Dick 1999), and another ritual would later be performed to renew it. In all likelihood, then, objects being retired had to be ritually deactivated to make them less sacred, but they would still retain an element of holiness; thus they could not be discarded as garbage. They required ritual burial.

Of course these rituals would have been part of what scholars call “priestly, temple, or official religion,” but how would an ordinary person treat a small figurine she had bought from a vendor outside a temple or actually made herself? Let me speculate here. First, if she could, she would have it blessed by a priest(ess) or herself perform a rite to induce her revered deity to take possession of the figurine. When she was forced to dispose of the still holy but no longer used or damaged goddess figure, wouldn’t she also handle it with care and respect and perhaps create her own repository to hold its remains? Why wouldn’t ordinary people, those who practiced what scholars call “popular or folk religion,” also have needed to activate and deactivate the image of a beloved deity? We might take as an example numerous little female clay images, which, from their shape, scholars have dubbed “pillar figurines.”


Figurine with pillar-like skirt and molded head. She has an elaborate hair-do and holds her arms around her breasts. Clay. Dated about ninth century BCE. Israel.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Patai 1990: Plate 1.


Female figure with pillar-like skirt, pinched head, and arms under breasts. The whole figure was hand made, perhaps by a worshiper for her own use. Clay. Dated about ninth century BCE. Found in Israel.
Drawing © S. Beaulieu, after Patai 1990: Plate 6.

Female pillar figurines have been found all over modern Israel, but predominantly in the area known in the Hebrew Bible as Judah, the southern Israelite kingdom. Indeed, they have been discovered “in almost every Iron Age II excavation in Judah” (Kletter 1996: 10). Iron Age II covers the eighth and seventh centuries BCE; that is, the height of the Israelite monarchy as described in the Hebrew Bible.[5] 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). Today the generally accepted scholarly view is that they represent the goddess Asherah, who was in all likelihood the spouse of the Israelite god Yahweh (Asherah and the God of the Early Israelites).

Occasionally I have been involved in scholarly arguments about not only the identity of these pillar figurines, but also whether or not they were goddesses at all. Many scholars have dismissed them as “fertility fetishes,” “amulets,” and such. The figurines cannot, they insist, be images of a goddess, because, among other things, they were found broken up in garbage dumps. However, not all of them were broken, and very few, if any, were found in what had been an ancient dump.

The actual find sites include cisterns and pools, silos and pits, caves, tombs, house rooms and courtyards, and other such areas (Kletter 1996: 58-61). Indeed, as Kletter notes, it is “important” to discover whether any of the figurines were “found in waste pits,” since, if they were, it might mean that they carried “no special sacred status during disposal.” He comments that “there is no clear evidence” that the disposal sites were rubbish dumps. Indeed, silos and pits, for instance, were usually “domestic installations,” and garbage was normally thrown outside of houses (Kletter 1996: 59).

What seems quite certain is that female pillar figurines “are missing, or extremely rare,” in the few public buildings from the period which can be clearly identified as sacred, that is, belonging to the official religion (Kletter 1996: 62). The conclusion must be that the little statues were worshiped in domestic contexts, that is, in folk or popular religion. Perhaps, then, the sites where we find the pillar figurines functioned for ordinary folk as their sacred repositories.

Notes

  1. Around the start of the twelfth century BCE the Philistines, who were not Semitic speakers, migrated to the Levant by sea from somewhere in the Aegean area. They settled on the south-east coast between Tel Aviv and “the Brook of Egypt,” south of Gaza. This region became known as Philistia, which gave us the name Palestine. The Hebrew Bible designated their section of the Levant as peleset, and their main cities were Ashkelon, Gaza, Ashdod, Gath, and Ekron (Bienkowski and Millard 2000: 228).
  2. A cult stand is made of clay, often resembling a building with doors and windows. Theories about their function in worship abound. One explanation is that they represent temple facades, with divine figures displayed in or on them. Some have argued that they were incense burners, but many show no sign of burning. Another theory understands them as miniature pedestals or thrones for deities. Yet another sees them as votive offerings to a temple in fulfillment of a vow.
  3. I have discussed this goddess imagery in detail in earlier Matrifocus articles ("Asherah Supreme Goddess of the Ancient Levant" and "Asherah and the God of the Early Israelites").
  4. In an article on Jewish cemeteries in The Toronto Star (Sunday, 19 April 2008) Section L 1, there was a photograph of a grave stone that read: SEFER TORAH AND MEGILAT ESTER/EACH BEYOND REPAIR/BURIED APRIL 6, 2003/4 NISSAN 5763.” It marks the sacred repository of two books, one a worn-out Torah.
  5. The dates of the monarchy are 900-539 BCE. It was in the latter part of the seventh century BCE that Josiah, King of Judah, began his drastic religious reforms to try to complete the establishment of the monotheistic worship of the Israelite god Yahweh.

Bibliography

  • Bienkowski, Piotr and Alan Millard, eds. 2000. Dictionary of the Ancient Near East. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Dick, Michael B., ed. 1999. Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns
  • Keel, Othmar and Christoph Uehlinger 1998. Gods, Goddesses, and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress
  • Kletter. Raz 1996. The Judean Pillar-Figurines and the Archaeology of Asherah. Oxford: Tempus Reparatum. British Archaeological Reports International Series 636
  • Kletter. Raz, Irit Ziffer, and Wolfgang Zwickel, “Cult Stands of the Philistines: A Genizah from Yavneh.” Near Eastern Archaeology 69/3-4: 146-159
  • Laidlaw, Stuart, "Jewish Cemeteries: History in Stone," The Toronto Star, Section L, "Weekend Living" (19 April 2008) L1 and L10
  • Patai, Raphael 1990 (1978). The Hebrew Goddess: Third Enlarged Edition. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University.

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