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Astarte and Yahweh

James Still

Long before the Yahweh cult emerged among the Hebrews in the Ancient Near East the Goddess Astarte was worshipped by them. Her oldest temple at Byblos dates back to the Neolithic and she flourished in the Bronze Age where she was also known as Demeter in Greece and Ishtar in Babylonia. King Solomon worshipped Astarte when the Israelites had not yet fully committed to a monotheism with Yahweh cult (1 Kings 11:5). During the Bronze Age some Israelites perceived her as the female consort to Yahweh. Her symbol was the dove and coinage portrayed Astarte as the heavenly dove of Wisdom (Walker, 1983, p. 253-54). At the height of her powers there were many gods and goddesses one of which was Yahweh; the Psalmist refers to a "Divine Council" of these gods which Yahweh addresses:

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: "How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah. Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked." They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. I say, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince" (Psalms 82:1-7).

Yahweh is upset with his fellow gods and accuses them of not looking after the needs of the weak and destitute. If they do not help, Yahweh predicts that they will be overthrown--a prediction which unfolds within the Hebrew Scriptures as the gods (to include Astarte) are eventually cast off for a monotheism under Yahweh.

Astarte will return during Hellenistic Judaism in the apocalyptic and wisdom literature. Wisdom (Sophia) becomes personified in 3d-century BCE Judaism as a strong female principle of Yahweh. We learn from Proverbs that she calls to "the sons of men" crying aloud at the portals of towns ( Prov. 8:1-4). She signals her approval of the Christ by appearing to Jesus as an epiphany in dove form at Jesus's baptism ( Mk. 1:9-11; Mt. 3:13-17; Lk. 3:21-22). But with the destruction of Jerusalem (and so the normative Judaism of the Second Temple Period) this feminine principle of Yahweh will disappear forever from Judaism. Martin argues that Astarte's decline resulted from a radical shift toward masculinity in religion:

The movement from an early Hellenistic sovereignty of the feminine to a late Hellenistic masculine structure was not limited to the challenge of rabbinic Judaism to the influence of the cosmic goddess of the Mysteries but was representative of a structural shift throughout the Hellenistic world. Masculine patterns of redemption came to be the common reality underlying and allowing for the religious patterns of late antiquity (1987, p. 111).

Despite her disappearance from Judaism, Astarte will still live through the mystery religions of the Hellenistic period. The Egyptians and Syrians reenacted the ancient sacred drama of the rebirth of the sun through the virgin Astarte on December 25--at the winter solstice when the sun is at the lowest point in the sky and so requires a "rebirth" to begin its northward journey again. This drama will find its way into the early Christian mystery as the Virgin Mary. The newborn savior-god Jesus who is born on the winter solstice will behave similarly to Astarte's newborn and become a sacrifice for the benefit and immortality of the Goddess's followers. Christian iconography will preserve her in her dove form with "seven rays emanating from the dove of the Holy Ghost: an image that went back to some of the most primitive manifestations of the Goddess (Walker, 1983, p. 253).

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