Tuesday, November 30, 2010

In the Queen’s Hands: Athirat, Goddess of Creation

A bare-chested woman graces a three-thousand five-hundred year-old ivory jar lid. Her full pleated skirt decorated with a riot of stripes and zigzags swirls about bare feet. Thick ringlets escape her coiffure and tantalizingly caress her shoulders. She holds her arms aloft, full of dignity and authority: in her hands she offers life-giving sustenance. On either side of her stands an ibex, elegant goat-like animals, their horns crescent and curving. The woman embodies confidence and wisdom. She is Athirat, the Queen of Heaven.

The goddess Athirat hails from the ancient Near East, specifically Canaan. Although often associated with the Bible, the Canaanites were the indigenous people living in the area of Syria-Palestine before four thousand four-hundred years ago to three thousand two-hundred years ago. When the area underwent a Dark Age—a collapse that affected Greece, Crete, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Turkey—Canaanite culture split into the polytheistic Phoenicians and the emerging monotheistic Israelites.1




For a long time, scholars shoved Athirat into the shadows of her consort, Ilu (also known as El). However, neither Ilu nor Athirat’s relationship with Ilu define her: Athirat has her own separate dwelling and does not share a house with Ilu, which demonstrates her autonomy.2 Even deities who are not biologically her children still abide by her decisions and respect her judgment—therefore they call her “mother.” The literary texts found at Ras Shamra (Ugarit) in 1928 share with us these stories of the Canaanite deities.3 Scribes wrote the tablets around 1500-1200 BCE4 and perhaps transcribed the tales from earlier oral tradition.5

In the Ba’al Epic, we see Athirat as responsible for securing Ba’al’s kingship. Mot, god of death and drought, and Yamm, god of river and sea, war against Ba’al, god of rainstorms for dominion over the earth. Eventually Ba’al and his life-giving rain wins, but the strength of the other two gods ensures that Ba’al’s position remains tentative.6 For Ba’al to establish himself, he must construct his own home.7 Without this symbol, he has no real authority. Ba’al convinces his loyal friend, ‘Anat, the adolescent warrior goddess, to ask Ilu’s permission for building the palace. ‘Anat threatens to attack Ilu and make his beard run with his own blood, but to no avail. She and Ba’al realize that the only way they get permission is if Athirat speaks to Ilu on their behalf.

They bring the formidable goddess peace offerings. Athirat, who has an ambivalent history with Ba’al, finally sides with him and thus ensures his blessed rains upon the earth instead of flood or drought. Athirat’s servants prepare her donkey for travel: a royal method of transportation.8 Upon arriving, Ilu lavishes his consort with hospitality, but Athirat foregoes his courtesies and convinces him to authorize Ba’al’s palace.9

Our Lady in Canaanite literature concerns herself with fairness and righteousness. In another episode, King Kirtu seeks Ilu’s assistance to preserve his legacy and recreate a family: Ilu grants him a dream, instructing what he must do. Diverting from Ilu’s directions, Kirtu stops at a temple of Athirat, and promises her silver and gold for her blessings. She gives her blessing, but the king forgets his promise for seven years.10 Finally, Athirat strikes him with a grave illness for his broken vow. Not one of the deities will assist Ilu in curing the man; such is the power and influence of Athirat.11

Scholars translate her epithet rabatu Athiratu yami as “Great Lady Athirat of the Sea.” This does not necessarily mean that she is an ocean goddess, but may imply that she spends time by the sea or it may demonstrate that she is Yamm the sea god’s mother. One scholar has translated the epithet to mean “Great Lady Athirat of the Day,”12 tentatively connecting Athirat to sunlight, daytime, or perhaps as a creatress of days. Ilu is the Father of Years; it would be fitting to envision Athirat as the Mother of Days.

We can understand Athirat’s character through examining her actions in Canaanite literature. In the Ba‘al Epic, Athirat works at her chores: laundry, cooking, felting, tending a dye pot, or spinning thread with her spindle. One scholar translates the work as plaiting or looping thread in a method predating knitting,13 rather like Norse nällbinding, or sprang—needlework techniques used across the globe by Germanic, Norse, Celtic, Egyptian, Mediterranean, and South American cultures. Although she is a queen goddess, as an example to goddesses and humans alike, Athirat maintains her mundane as well as cosmic responsibilities.

Ancient tales describe Athirat as the qaniyatu ‘ilima, the creatress14 of the deities, or even the “owner”15 of the cosmos. We can extend this idea to contemplate Athirat as the creatress of earthly and celestial order. Her seventy children, biological and non-biological, include Yamm; Mot; Shachar and Shalim, the twin gods Dawn and Dusk; ‘Anat, war goddess; Yarikh, lunar god; Shapshu, solar goddess; Kathir-wa-Khasis, god of craftsmanship and magic; Gapn and Ugar, Vineyard and Field; Rashap, god of plague and healing; and Choron, god of treaties and curses. Thus without Athirat and her children, earth would not have dusk, dawn, river, death, war, moon, sun, crafting, fields, vineyards, plague and healing, or treaties.

Qadish, another epithet, embodies multiple ideas, but pre-biblically qadish meant sacred and resplendent.16 Her title ilatu, or elat, means “goddess.”17 She is the Goddess of all goddesses, the supreme authority: the standard to which all measure.

Athirat was a guiding force for the early Israelites as a consort of Yahweh.18 The Bible and Israelite inscriptions, call her Asherah. Her symbols include an upright pole and small votive goddess figures, many of which were made of oak19 or clay. One Israelite inscription links her to the symbol of the palm of the hand20 as a sign of divine protection and abundance. Much to the chagrin of the dedicated monotheists, her image often shared the same temple as Yahweh.21 Wispy memories of Athirat have lasted even until today. Mary, mother of Jesus, demonstrates not just vestiges of the feminine divine in Christianity, but hearkens back to an earlier day. Perhaps in a way, Asherah still shares the altar with Yahweh.

Below is a list of animals, herbs, stones, colors, symbols, and sacred places associated with Athirat, as well as a prayer and a couple of recipes. Perhaps in cultivating a relationship with her, we learn, know, and honor more about ourselves and the magnificent cosmos that surround us.

Associations

Animals
• Fish: One of her servants is known as “The Fisherman.”22
• Lioness: Egyptian Hathor, and Hathor’s dark counterpart Sekhmet, or the Arabian goddess Al-Lat,23 as well as the Levantine goddess Qudshu. If Athirat is connected to these goddesses, she may share a link to the lioness. Lionesses are known as the primary hunters of the pride, fierce, loyal, and nurturing to their young.
• Snake: Since Athirat may be part of the Goddess identified as Qudshu (possibly a conglomerate of Athirat, Athtart, and Anat), she is associated with snakes. A biblical association of snake to the tree of knowledge—often linked to Athirat—could indicate a connection.
• Ibex: This association is seen in the ancient ivory lid from Ugarit, modern-day Ras Shamra in Syria. The ibex is an elegant goat-like animal with magnificent curving horns; they represent trusting in divine providence.
• Donkey: Athirat uses a donkey for transportation. Mother Mary of Christian tradition likewise travels by donkey to Bethlehem before she bears her son Jesus. Instead of symbolizing humility, the donkey symbolizes royalty and power.

Herbs and Plants
• Date Palm: This symbol reflects Athirat’s role as tree of life and knowledge, and demonstrates her nurturing qualities. From date-palms, the Canaanites received wine, fruit, shelter, sweetener, and fibers; date palms must always grow near some reliable source of rainfall or water, and thus they indicate oases in the desert.
• Oak: This tree is associated with Athirat in Israelite times. Ancient hands carved her small votive statues from oak24 or almond wood.25
• Myrrh: Although not strictly related to Athirat, the Canaanites highly prized an anointing oil made of olive oil infused with myrrh26 Both healers and clergy used myrrh to care for the physical and spiritual needs of those they served.
• Lily: Images from Canaan and Egypt depict the goddess Qudshu standing atop a lion, and holding lotuses or lilies. Lily is associated with Mother Mary in Christian tradition. Mary and Qudshu have tentative links to Athirat.
• Rose: This is a modern association. As Athirat often reflects the feminine divine, I often associate her with roses, preferably light colored roses.
• Henna: The ancient Canaanites painted themselves with henna before sacred rituals, and thus henna is associated with sacredness and the deities.

Stones
• Petrified Wood: This is a modern association stemming from Athirat’s connection to trees.
• Turquoise: If Athirat is associated with the Egyptian Goddess Hathor, or the Arabian Al-Lat, then she is also connected with turquoise.27
• Malachite: In ancient times, malachite may have been ground and used as a cosmetic. The ancient Egyptians used malachite in making green eye-shadow,28 although I advise against this use today—modern green eye shadow is safer to use. This modern association reminds me of Athirat’s qualities as qadish holy and beautiful.
• Gold: This modern association reminds me of Athirat’s power, wealth, abundance, and queenship.

Colors
• Purple: This color is associated with ancient Canaan and its daughter culture the Phoenicians. They made a purple dye from murex,29 a shellfish. This color was so beautiful and desirable that it became prohibitively expensive: only royalty and the very wealthy could afford it. The color suits a queen. This same dye was available not just in purple, but in deep blue violet and vivid red violet.
• Gold: Although this is a modern association of Athirat, the color represents her wealth, and royalty. Many statues of Canaanite deities were plated with gold.
• Blue: This is a modern association; as it is seen so often on Mary, the feminine divine of the Christian tradition, but it may extend from the connection to turquoise.

Symbols
• Tree of Life and Knowledge: In her posture on the lid found at Ugarit, she appears to represent a life-giving tree; however, Athirat is also known for her great wisdom. Thus I see her as the tree of life and knowledge.30
• Palm of Hand: The hand as a symbol of protection has been around a long time in the Near and Middle East and parts of Northern Africa as the hamsa and the Hand of Fatima. Athirat’s protective hand is associated with the symbol of the palm of the hand.31 In modern Canaanite practice, some adherents call this symbol a kappu.
• Pole: Because of Athirat’s association with Asherah, a wooden pole may be one of her symbols. Asherah’s name means “straight” and “upright” and she was often associated with a wooden pole.32

Sacred Places
• Grove of Trees: Athirat might be associated with worship in groves of trees,33 especially in Israelite times in the Iron Age.
• Sea Shores: This is a modern association. I associate shores as a sacred place to Athirat because mythology portrays her as working near the shore.
• Temples: In Bronze Age Ugarit, she was probably most often venerated in a temple or a temple courtyard setting. Temples would have a small foyer which would lead to a larger inner sanctuary—a “holy of holies—where statues of the deities would be house in a niche in the far wall with benches in front to receive offerings.

Prayer to Athirat for Wellbeing34
Give well-being, O Mother and the Deities,
Yea give well-being, give well-being,
O Athirat and the Gracious Gods.

Recipes
Note: Before using any herb or essential oil, do your research first to make sure that it is safe for the use you intend, and whenever in doubt consult a qualified medical professional.

Athirat’s Splendor: Bath Salts
• 2 cups of Epsom salt, mineral salts, or Dead Sea salts; or a mixture of all three
• Cedar essential oil, 12 drops
• Cistus/rock rose/labdanum essential oil, 12 drops*
• Myrrh or opopanax oil, 7 drops
• Lavender essential oil, 7 drops (optional)
Start adding the drops of essential oils to the salts one or two drops of each scent at a time, adding more or less of each as the scent and the strength of the scent suits you. Add a half cup or a full cup of salt mixture to warm bath. If you would like to, you can also add a fourth to a half cup of rose water to your bath. As you bathe, contemplate Athirat’s mysteries and chant a prayer to her.
*If cistus essential oil is too costly or difficult to obtain, consider using a high-quality lotus, lily, or rose fragrance oil.

Woman of Valor, a Near Eastern-Style Anointing Oil
• Oil of myrrh or opopanax, 7 drops
• Cedar essential oil, 5 drops
• Labdanum essential oil, 4 drops
• 2 T olive oil
Add drops of essential oil to olive oil, one drop at a time, adding more or less of each as the scent suits you. Store in a dark glass container in a cool, dark place. Anoint yourself, your sacred space, or the doorposts of your home with this oil.

Spirit Unfurled, “Imported” Kemet-styled Cologne (Egypt)35
• Ground Frankincense Resin, 1 teaspoon
• Ground Myrrh Resin, ½ teaspoon
• Ground Cinnamon, ½ teaspoon
• Sweet red wine, 1 teaspoon (optional)
• Lotus Absolute or a high quality fragrance oil, 7 drops (optional)
Blend myrrh, frankincense, cinnamon, and wine: let steep for seven days, starting with Sunday. When next Saturday comes, blend the wine, resin, and cinnamon mixture to a carrier oil such as olive oil or sesame oil, or a modern carrier such as almond oil and apply very low heat until the herbs and wine infuse the oil: the oil will cease bubbling when the wine has finished infusing. Filter the oil if desired and decant into a dark glass bottle. Add lotus if desired, one drop at a time until you reach the strength you like.
Alternatively, you can blend 14 drops of frankincense essential oil, 7 drops of myrrh essential oil, 1 drops of cinnamon essential oil (this can burn your skin, so be cautious) into ¼ c of carrier oil, then add lotus scent and wine or cognac essential oil if desired. Store in a dark glass container in a cool, dark place.


BIO
A Canaanite Pagan (Natib Qadish) for twelve years, Tess Dawson leads the largest online Canaanite group, gives workshops and rituals, and networks with Near Eastern and Mediterranean Pagans. Her book, Whisper of Stone: Natib Qadish, Modern Canaanite Religion was published in 2009. In 2010, she became an ordained minister through ULC. She has practiced dream interpretation for two decades, paganism for sixteen years, and Reiki for twelve years. She has her B.A. in Anthropology. Tess writes for Witches & Pagans, SageWoman, Pentacle, and more. Currently, she's editing a Near and Middle Eastern devotional anthology entitled Anointed. She resides in the U.S. with a wonderful hubby and a sexy-ugly sock creature named Jans.
Visit her at: http://canaanitepath.com/
or at http://www.facebook.com/pages/Whisper-of-Stone-Natib-Qadish-Modern-Canaanite-Religion/108339231027
or join the online group at http://groups.yahoo.com/group/canaanitepaganism/


Endnotes
1 Jonathan N. Tubb, The Canaanites, The Trustees of the British Museum, 1998, p.16.
2 Handy, Among the Host of Heaven: The Syro-Palestinian Pantheon as Bureaucracy, p. 92.
3 Simon Parker, Ed., Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, Society of Biblical Literature, U.S.A., 1997, p. 1.
4 Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, p. 1
5 J.C.L. Gibson, Canaanite Myths and Legends, T. & T. Clark, Ltd., Edinburgh, Scotland, 1977, p. 1.
6 Smith, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Volume I, p. 104.
7 Smith, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Volume I, p. 361.
8 Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, p. 125.
Whiting, Robert M. “Amorite Tribes and Nations of Second-Millennium Western Asia” in Jack Sasson et al., eds., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1995, p. 1240.
Tilde Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, Sheffield Academic Press, England, 1997, p. 74.
9 Handy, Among the Host of Heaven, p. 83.
10 Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, p. 26.
11 Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry, p. 38.
12 Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, p. 43.
13 Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, p. 68.
14 Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, p. 50
15 Handy, Among the Host of Heaven, p. 76.
16 Jacob Rabinowitz, The Faces of God: Canaanite Mythology as Hebrew Theology, Spring Publications, Woodstock, CT, 1998, p. 34.
17 Smith, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle, Volume I, p. 295.
18 Handy, Among the Host of Heaven, p. 74.
19 Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, p. 135.
20 Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, p. 100.
21 Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, p. 116.
22 Tubb, The Canaanites, p. 68.
23 Lilinah Biti-Anat, Qadash Kinahnu: A Canaanite/Phoenician Temple
http://hub.webring.org/hub/natibqadishwebr1
24 Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, p. 135.
25 Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, p. 141.
26 Dennis Pardee, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit, Society of Biblical Literature, U.S.A., 2002, p. 63.
27 Kent R.Weeks, “Medicine, Surgery, and Public Health in Ancient Egypt” in Jack Sasson et al., eds., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1995, p. 1796.
28 Weeks, “Medicine, Surgery, and Public Health in Ancient Egypt,” p. 1796.
29 Tubb, The Canaanites, p. 59.
30 Rabinowitz, The Faces of God, p. 83, 86.
31 Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, p. 100.
32 Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, p. 141.
33 Binger, Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel, and the Old Testament, p. 130.
34 Pardee, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit, based upon a prayer on p. 151, and translated into the language of Ugaritic.
35 Geraldine Pinch. “Private Life in Ancient Egypt” in Jack Sasson et al., eds., Civilizations of the Ancient Near East, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1995, p. 368.

7 comments:

  1. Dear Tess,

    This is an informative article. I like the addition of attributes, totems, and body care recipes. There are many similarities she shares with other goddesses of other lands. Her decision to choose Ba'al over Yamm and Mot reminds me of Egypt's Neith choosing Horus over Set to inherit the throne from Re - an elder creation goddess whose decision is honored even by the king of the gods. Neith is a weaver, too, whose land is by the sea (the Delta, lake Tritonis, and Libya on the sea). One of her animals is not the lioness, but a panther or leopard.

    There are many lion goddesses, as you noted. My research indicates that they all have to do with sovereignty, rule, command, leadership, untamed powers of the wild that the goddess commands, since she is the open wilds of the earth. Rhea of Crete shares many attributes with Athirat, including lion, snake, fruit trees, the oak, and lilies.

    Athirat's 70 children plus Athirat and Ilu equals 72 - when one divides the circle of the year or the calendar by 72, you get 5 - if you mark points in a circle separated by 72 degrees each, you get a five pointed star or pentagram. This is a 'magical' or inspirational aspect in astrological charts.

    These are only a few of the items your article prompted in my memory. I look forward to the next one.
    Happy December,
    Demetria

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  2. That information about numerological significance is fascinating and I enjoyed your informative comments, Demetria. Yishlam le-ki, peace and wellbeing to you, TD

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  3. I always enjoy reading your thoughts and observations about Athirat. She is a goddess with whom I have a somewhat complicated relationship.

    Looking forward to your next post!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I always enjoy reading your thoughts and observations about Athirat. She is a goddess with whom I have a somewhat complicated relationship.

    Looking forward to your next post!

    ReplyDelete
  5. I don't know the term(s) used in Ugaritic and its( their) translation, but it's said that Anat is not just the friend of Baal Hadad, but also his sister, consort and maybe lover

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    Replies
    1. Hello, George. Neal H. Walls in the book _The Goddess Anat in Ugaritic Myth_ makes a very *thorough* investigation of this matter. I would highly suggest it here.

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