in the Spotlight
Imbolc 2004, Vol 3-2
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Goddess of Fertility, Beauty, War, and Love
Known in the ancient Levant as Ashtart and in the Hebrew Bible as Ashtereth, the beautiful Astarte may owe many of her characteristics to Mesopotamian Ishtar, as the similarity in their names proclaims. Like Ishtar, Astarte seems to have had strong connections with both war and love/sexuality. In historical times, she received offerings in ancient Ugarit in Syria; her name appears forty-six times in texts from that city. One of her main centers was Byblos, where she was identified with Egyptian goddesses Hathor and Isis. In the second millennium BCE, Astarte was, like Anat, a war goddess of the Egyptians (Patai 1990:56). Large numbers of ancient Israelites revered her, and versions of her name occur at least nine times in the Hebrew Bible. She was also an important deity of the Phoenician towns of Tyre and Sidon, whence she and her veneration spread with Phoenician merchants throughout the Mediterranean (Patai 1990:55-66).
The Ugaritic poems present Astarte as a model of beauty and usually associate her closely with Baal, the storm god, for she consistently supports his cause (Coogan 1978:61, 65, 74, 89, 116). On at least five occasions the mythic material pairs her with Anat, perhaps an indication that the two goddesses were already beginning to meld into one another. Yet, since Astarte's name occurs quite often in offering and deity lists, it is clear that she had an important, if not central place in ritual and sacrifice (Olmo Lete 1999:71). An enormous number of female images originated from the excavations at Ugarit, and scholars have labeled many of them as Astarte. However, to date, no one has been able to demonstrate that they actually represent Astarte.
The Hebrew form of Astarte's name ashtereth, which occurs only three times in the Hebrew Bible, resulted from the deliberate replacement of the vowels in the last two syllables of the goddess's name with the vowels from the Hebrew noun bosheth, "shame" (Day 2000:128; Buttrick 1990:I,255). According to Patai, the "original meaning of the name Astarte was 'womb' or 'that which issues from the womb,'" an appropriate title for a fertility goddess (Patai 1990:57). In statements about Syro-Canaanite religion, the Biblical texts often couple the ashteroth, "the Astartes," with the baalim, "the Baals," an indication that the writers knew that many local versions of these deities existed. However, this repeated connection of Astarte and Baal has led some scholars to conclude that the Hebrew Bible understood Astarte to be Baal's consort (Day 2000:131; Patai 1990:57). If she were his consort, she too should have associations with fertility.
Astarte's name also occurs in the Hebrew Bible as part of a place name, Ashteroth Karnaim, karnaim meaning "of the two horns" (Genesis 14:5). Ashteroth Karnaim, perhaps the "full old name of the city," (Patai 1990:57), was probably a temple center where Astarte was worshipped as a two-horned deity. In support of this suggestion, Patai points to a mold from a shrine in Israel depicting a goddess with two horns. Dated between the eighteenth and the sixteenth centuries BCE, the mold shows a naked goddess in a high, conical hat. She has two horns, one on each side of her head (Patai 1990:57, Plate 9).
Two passages in the Book of Jeremiah (7.17-18 and 44.15-19) refer to ancient Israelite worship of a "Queen of Heaven." These passages provide a very rare glimpse into ritual practices of Judahite popular religion. Around the turn of the seventh century BCE, Jeremiah preaches to Israelite exiles in Egypt. To his horror whole families, with women in the lead, were making offerings to a goddess. They poured libations, built fires, and baked "cakes [kawwanim] for the Queen of Heaven" (Jer.7:18). The scholarly literature presents a number of theories about who the "Queen of Heaven" was (Toorn 1998:83-88; Patai 1990:64). However, since "Queen of Heaven" was one of the many titles of the Mesopotamian goddess Inanna-Ishtar, for whom worshippers also made cakes [kamanu], it is possible that the goddess in the Jeremiah passages was Astarte (Toorn and Horst 1999:678-679; Patai 1990:64).
An elaborate terra-cotta cult stand from ancient Taanach in northern Israel may have been used in the worship of Astarte (Gadon 1989:174, Figure 97). Just over twenty-one inches in height, it dates to the tenth century BCE, during the period when the Israelites were establishing themselves in the land (Hadley 2000:169). In the center of the bottom level, as if underpinning everything, stands a naked goddess controlling two flanking lions. The second register contains an empty, door-like space flanked by winged sphinxes wearing goddess locks. On the next level, two ibexes nibble at a sacred tree, a scene which is flanked by lions. The top register is occupied by a quadruped, either a bull calf or a young horse, which strides between two door posts. Above it is a rayed or winged sun disc.
Explanations of the stand vary from understanding it as totally Canaanite to its being an Israelite cult object dedicated to the Israelite deity and a consort (Hadley 2000:169-176). There is, however, general agreement that the piece models a temple to the deities or deity depicted on the façade, with the tiers displaying temple scenes (Hadley 2000:171-172).
Interpreted strictly as a Canaanite cult object, the Taanach stand depicts either important Canaanite deities, female and male; or goddesses alone; or even a single goddess. In these views, the bottom level shows the naked goddess and the third level from the bottom her symbol, the sacred tree. The empty space on level two is a doorway into the shrine, and the door posts on level four frame either a temple entrance or the "holy of holies" (Hadley 2000:172). Between these posts, either the Canaanite god El or the storm god Baal Hadad manifests himself in the form of a bull calf (Hadley 2000:172-173).
Since a goddess is central to the symbolism of the Taanach stand, I would argue that a goddess is there also in the door on level two and the animal on level four. The symbolism of the cult stand suggests that this Levantine goddess is very similar to the Mesopotamian great goddess Inanna-Ishtar (Stuckey 2001:92-94). The female figure on the bottom register underpins everything; she is the foundation of all and so queen of heaven, earth, and underworld. She is both life and death, the latter present in the menacing lions which she controls. Above her, there looms both the door to her shrine and the mystic entrance to her realm both on earth and in the underworld. More important, it is the symbol of her essential nature: like Sumerian Inanna, she embodies change (Stuckey 2001:95). To enter into her realm is to undergo transformation, whether by dying on the battlefield, being born, falling in love, engaging in sexual activity, or leaving the ordinary and, through ritual, entering sacred time and space.
The tree on level three is yet another statement of the goddess's presence, and, like her, it has its branches in the heavens, its trunk on the earth, and its roots reaching toward the world beneath the earth (Stuckey 2001:101). The animal on the fourth level, which I think may be a bull calf, probably represents her consort, the storm god, whose function it is to bring rain to fertilize the earth so that the life cycle can go on. Given what we know about Canaanite religion in the first millennium BCE, I would assign the Taanach stand tentatively to Astarte, who seems, at that time, to have been consort of the storm god Baal (Patai 1990:56-57).
Devotion to Astarte was prolonged by the Phoenicians, descendants of the Canaanites, who occupied a small territory on the coast of Syria and Lebanon in the first millennium BCE. From cities such as Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon, they set forth by sea on long trading expeditions, and, venturing far into the western Mediterranean, they even reached Cornwall in England (Tubbs 1998:140-141). Wherever they went, they established trading posts and founded colonies, the best known of which was in North Africa: Carthage, the rival of Rome in the third and second centuries BCE (Tubbs 1998:142-145). Of course they took their deities with them. Hence, Astarte became much more important in the first millennium BCE than she had been in the second millennium BCE (Patai 1990:56-57). In Cyprus, where the Phoenicians arrived in the ninth century BCE, they built temples to Astarte, and it was on Cyprus that she was first identified with Greek Aphrodite (Friedrich 1978).
The Greco-Roman period
saw another great Levantine goddess called Atargatis being worshipped
in the Levant and elsewhere. Her name seems to have come from a combining
of the names Astarte and Anat. On the other hand, it may have resulted
from a fusion of the names of all three Levantine great goddesses (Toorn
and Horst 1999: 111). To the second century of our era is dated
a Greek account of the "Syrian" Goddess"; the work is traditionally
attributed to the satirical writer Lucian. Though the writer gives Greek
names for the deities he describes, the goddess of the title is clearly
Atargatis (Lucian 1976:4). The worship of Atargatis
spread from Syria across the Mediterranean and lasted well into the third
century of our era (Godwin 1981:150-152, 158 #124).
Thus, long after she lost her independent identity, Astarte lived on in
a composite "Syrian Goddess."