Saturday, November 8, 2014

The Pithoi from Kuntillet Ajrud

The question of the potential connection between the inscribed texts and the drawings on the pithoi from Kuntillet Ajrud is a topic that has been much debated among historic scholars.  It is a question that cannot simply be answered with a cursory glance at just the pithoi themselves.  There must needs be also a further study and examination of the identity of the asherah mentioned in connection to the Hebrew god of Yahweh; to try to ascertain its significance and meaning, and in doing so, identify if it is a goddess consort or some other thing, such as an icon or place, entirely.  Through this examination and proper identification of the nature of the asherah, it will then be possible to determine if the texts and the drawings on the pithoi found at Kuntillet Ajrud are connected in any way other than by just being on the same piece of pottery.  The specific pithoi in question has an inscription on it which is a blessing to a person containing the phrase from ‘Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah’.  Along with this inscription is the depiction of three personages, two of which are standing, arms interlinked, one smaller than the other, and the third sitting in the background playing the lyre.  It is this connection that has spawned the debate on the interpretation and possible meaning of the text.

On one of the large storage jars called pithoi from Kuntillet Ajrud, some scholars believe they see asherah as a goddess depicted in a drawing standing beside a figure that they have identified as Yahweh.  Lemaire[1] disagrees with this, saying that asherah is not depicted as a goddess-consort to Yahweh in the inscriptions, or that the Biblical texts containing reference to asherah are ever referring to a goddess.  Lemaire purports that the drawing of the two standing figures on the pithoi is of the Egyptian god Bes, and the seated female with the lyre is simply just that, a seated female lyre player[2].  The storage jar does contain text referring to Yahweh’s asherah, but the text does not say or infer that asherah is a goddess or consort. 

While examining the text itself, time should be given over to studying the structure of the wording.  Using Hebrew grammar shows that asherah is not the proper noun or name of a goddess, but actually just a common noun.  All place names or proper nouns in Hebrew stand of their own accord.  A common noun, however, needs to have the prefix ha in front of the noun to make it determinative; similar to how the is used in English.  Using the examples of Judges 6:25-26, 30 and 1 Kings 16:33, asherah is preceded by the Hebrew ha in these instances, which if asherah was a name, would not happen.  Further to this, names in Hebrew never have a pronominal suffix on them, which is used to denote ownership.  The Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Kom texts both have asherah, which ends in h and thus in Hebrew denotes ownership, namely, his[3].    

Margalit argues[4] that while the Kuntillet Ajrud text uses asherah as a common noun, the fact that there are drawings of personages in close proximity indicate that it should be translated as being the proper name of a person, Asherah.  This, of course, is assuming that the text and the drawings were done at the same time and/or by the same person.  Conversely, if they were not done at the same time or by the same person, they could still be interconnected, the drawing explaining the picture, or visa versa.  At this point and with the level of research and knowledge on the subject currently available, it is almost impossible to know which of those three circumstances it could be, but for the sake of this analysis, it will be assumed that the drawing and the text were created by the same person. 

Another possibility is that asherah is translated as meaning a holy place or sanctuary.  Asherah is similar to the Akkadian word asirtu, which means sanctuary.  There are other cognates from the eighth-century BC Aramaic that have the same meaning as asirtu, as well as from the Middle and Late Punic Phoenician[5].  There is Biblical support for this translation being correct.  In 2 Kings 18:4 it says “He [Hezekiah] removed the high places (bamot), and brake the images (massebot), and cut down the groves (asherah), and brake in pieces the brazen serpent…”   In Deut 16:21 it reads “Thou shalt not plant thee a grove of any trees (asherah) near unto the alter of the LORD thy God, which thou shalt make thee.”   Asherah here is clearly not defined as a goddess, but rather as a tree or grove of trees. 

Whilst there is some logical reasoning behind this argument of translating asherah as a sacred tree or grove of trees, Margalit continues to be adamant that asherah should be translated as a proper noun and thus is the actual name of a personage, specifically a goddess.  Looking at the Ugaritic word atrt and the Hebrew cognate asera, both of these originally mean ‘wife’ or ‘consort’; or more literally ‘she-who-follows-in-the-footsteps (of her husband)’[6].  This can be further expounded upon when looking at some of the older artefacts found relating to the Canaanite religion.  Ugarit on the Syrian coast yielded a cache of 14th – 13th century BC cuneiform tablets concerning Canaanite religion.  There are several ritual texts and three religious epic myths contained on them.  Among the goddess featured is one named Athirat, the consort of El.  Athirat is the Ugaritic linguistic equivalent of the Hebrew Asherah.  One of Athirat’s epithets is “Athirat-of-the-Sea”, and describes her as being a wife to the great god El.  As El’s consort, she is also called “creator (or begetter) of the gods”[7].     

Since the story of Athirat and who she was would have been widely know among the people of the area at that time, it would explain the lack of reference to Athirat’s courtship of El.  Explaining it again would have been deemed a repetitive redundancy to the Ugaritic poets recording the tale, and similarly for the Hebrew epigraphist concerning the equivalent Asherah[8].  Interestingly, Asherah is mentioned in conjunction with Baal both repeatedly and more commonly.  A few examples can be found in the Bible as shown here: “And the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD (Yahweh), and forgat the LORD (Yahweh) their God, and served Baalim and the groves (Asherah)”[9], “…and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty, and the prophets of the groves (Asherah) four hundred…”[10], and “…bring forth out of the temple of the LORD (Yahweh) all the vessels that were made for Baal, and for the grove (Asherah), and for all the host of heaven…”[11].  Whilst this shows that Asherah is used in connotation with the divine, it also goes back to the previously shown examples of how it can be translated as a place; specifically that of a sacred grove of trees.  This however, could be explained by looking at yet another name that the goddess Athirat is sometimes known as.

The goddess Athirat is also referred to on many occasions as Qudsu, which means ‘holiness’ or ‘sanctuary’[12].  This could be a reference to the sanctuary that the goddess herself provides, similar to a mother providing refuge to a troubled, sick, or scared child.  This would be fitting with the entire concept of a mother goddess that is being ascribed to Asherah.  Further, the concept of a place or a sanctuary within the name of a deity is not a strange concept for the Semites, as can be shown in example of the god Bethel, which is literally translated, ‘The House of El’[13].  The grove of trees that is used as a translation for Asherah could possibly be from when the goddess was worshipped in a more paganistic time, and the tradition held over and evolved into being synonymous with the goddess herself. 

The Ugaritic texts from Northern Semitic culture provides more information on Asherah as a goddess, and in these instances, is usually vocalised as Athirat.  In these texts, she is also shown to be the consort of El, and sometimes is referred to as `ilt, which is translated as goddess.  Also, she is referred to as qnyt `ilm, which is the procreatress of the gods, or as `um. `il, translated to the mother of the gods[14].  It is able to be surmised by this that Athirat then shared in the work of the creation of the world with El.  Further in the Ugaritic texts, there is reference to the ‘seventy sons of Athirat’.  This would indicate that there was a direct correlation between this concept and the Jewish concept that there are seventy guardian angels of the nations, which arises from the concept of the sons of God in Deut 32:8, and therefore gives credence to Asherah being the goddess consort to the god Yahweh[15]. 

Returning to the pithoi from Kuntillet Ajrud with this information in mind, the drawings can be analysed in conjunction to the texts in a more detailed and educated light.  Using the Egyptologist Gilula’s position on the subject of the pithoi from Kuntillet Ajrud, Margalit argues that the standing figures in the image cannot be interpreted as the Egyptian god Bes as was previously thought, because they are clearly bovine in nature and Bes was leonine[16].  Due to this reasoning, he has drawn the conclusion that the line “…yhwh.. smrn. w`srth (Yahweh and his Asherah)” is describing the two standing figures beneath the text.  Margalit continues to argue that `srh can only be interpreted in this instance as meaning a divine persona capable of conferring blessings.  Further, Margalit states that the way around the problems of the context of the text implying that asherah is a proper name of a deity, and the grammar rules of Hebrew stating that due to the possessive suffix on the word it must be a thing, is to translate asherah as the common noun meaning ‘wife or consort’.  To back up this claim, Margalit again continues to draw on the research, findings, and opinions of Gilula. 

When looking closer at the drawing of the two standing personages, the smaller of the two is found to be clearly female.  The circles on the upper chest are the same as the seated female lyre-player.  The absence of horns and the head-dress that the small figure is wearing which is thought to be the Hebrew `atara that a suitor places on his wife to be, also lends themselves to this conclusion.  The interlocking hands also purportedly were done to try and show perspective, making the smaller figure appear to be behind the larger one.  This all serves to reinforce the view that the line should be translated as ‘Yahweh of Samaria and his consort/wife’, as well as providing a unique graphical representation of the word `srh, which as previously stated means “she who follows (her husband)’[17].  This, then, is a fine example of the social conventions of the female following the male, or the wife following the husband carrying over to writing; i.e. ‘Yahweh and his Asherah’ similar in the way that ‘Mr. and Mrs.’ is used currently[18].

Margalit, however, goes on to say that he is not going to discuss the different connotations of asherah as used in the Bible though, as he believes that his point can be made without doing so.  This could be viewed as an easy way out of confronting the problem of a literary record that is obviously translated completely differently to his opinion, and supported by some scholars as being a correct translation as well. 

In conclusion, it would appear that the text and the drawings on the pithoi from Kuntillet Ajrud are indeed connected to each other.  The word ‘asherah’, whether translated as the proper name of a goddess consort to Yahweh, or as a place name of a sacred grove of trees that provided sanctuary, clearly is connected to the Hebrew god.  The information examined suggests that both translations, deity name and sacred grove, are correct, and that it is just context that allows the reader to know which is meant.  From this explanation, and given the context of the drawing that accompanies the inscription, it seems apparent that the image is that of ‘Yahweh and His Asherah’, the wife goddess, faithfully following in his footsteps.


Day, J. (1986). ‘Asherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature’, Journal of Biblical Literature, No. 105, pp. 385-408.

Holy Bible, The.  King James Version.  1989.  The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.  Salt Lake City, UT. 

Lemaire, A. (1984).  ‘Who or What was Yahweh’s Asherah’, Biblical Archaeology Review, pp. 42-51.

Margalit, B. (1990). ‘The Meaning and Significance of Asherah’, Vetus Testamentum No. 40,  pp. 264-297.

[1] Lemaire, Who or what was Yahweh’s Asherah? p. 46
[2] Ibid
[3] Lemaire, Who or what was Yahweh’s Asherah? p. 47
[4] Margalit, The Meaning and Significance of Asherah p. 266
[5] Lemaire Who or what was Yahweh’s Asherah? p. 50
[6] Margalit The Meaning and Significance of Asherah p. 269
[7] Lemaire, Who or What was Yahweh’s Asherah? p. 46
[8] Margalit The Meaning and Significance of Asherah p. 269
[9] Judges 3:7
[10] 1 Kings 18:19
[11] 2 Kings 23:4
[12] Day, Asherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature p. 388
[13] Ibid
[14] Day, Aherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature p. 387
[15] Ibid
[16] Margalit, The Meaning and Significance of Asherah p. 276
[17] Ibid p. 276-279
[18] Ibid p. 271

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