The Rise and Fall of the Matriarch: Gender-Oscillation in Jewish Paganism

NO serious discussion of Jewish spirituality would be complete without a thorough examination of the incestuous trends that existed among Jews prior to the development of the Judaic religion. It is not my intention to stray too far into the multi-faceted realms of comparative religion by exploring the wider similarities between Jewish paganism and Judaism itself, despite the fact that such parallels are clearly evident, but merely to provide a broad overview of early Jewish spirituality as it was prior to the advent of the monotheistic period and the ultimate dominance of Yahweh that began sometime between 1000 and 586 BCE.

The Ancient Hebrews were a nomadic people who roamed the northern territories of the Arabian Peninsula with their livestock, travelling through the desert in search of fruit and water. Like other pagan folk of the region, they worshipped stone pillars and the numerous spirits that haunted the night. As Joseph Trachtenberg notes, the history of Jewish spirituality does not begin and end with the synagogue:

In this respect the history of Jewish thought runs parallel with that of all peoples. Everywhere the common folk has existed on an intellectual and spiritual plane all its own, and it is only in the most recent centuries that true science and religion have made inroads into folk conceptions of the universe and brought them closer—if only a little—to what we call our modern, rationalist viewpoint. In Jewish scholarship this phase of folk religion and folk science has been sorely neglected. The tendency has been to impute to the Jewish people as a whole the ideas of a few advanced thinkers, to investigate philosophy and mysticism and law, the cultural and religious creations of the intellectual élite—valuable studies which, however, provide no insight into the inner life of the people themselves.[1]

In association with a more general preoccupation with angels, demons and magic, between the tenth century BCE and the beginning of the Jewish exile in 586 BCE the worship of polytheistic gods among Jews was extremely common and much of this was centred around female deities. The names of these goddesses come down to us from the Hebrew Bible, particularly when Solomon consecrates his new temple to pagan idols and Josiah is later seen to destroy these idolatrous statues in 2 Kings 23:14.

Among them was Astarte, a Phoenician-Sidonite figure whose mysterious origins are to be found outside Judah on the Lebanese coast. Simultaneously worshipped by the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians, in later Jewish mythology she was transformed into a demon of lust. Solomon’s temple, on the other hand, was eventually destroyed by the powerful Babylonian monarch, Nebuchadnezzar II (634-562 BCE), after the Siege of Jerusalem in 587 BCE.

Another popular figure was the mother-goddess, Asherah, said to be a consort of both Yahweh and Baal. The fact that Yahweh, as mentioned previously, later became a monotheistic deity in his own right, has led some scholars to ask whether ‘God’ actually had a wife. Indeed, Asherah was also known as the ‘Queen of Heaven’ and the Hebrews even baked cakes in her honour. Other interesting associations have been made between Asherah and Eve on account of them sharing the same etymological root. In addition, whilst Eve is known for being tempted by the fruit of the apple tree in the Garden of Eden, Asherah’s name has been connected with pomegranate, walnut and willow trees.

One important goddess from the Semitic north-west was Anath, who is mentioned in Judges 3:31 and 5:6 in relation to her mortal son, Shamgar. Meanwhile, a text found in modern-day Aswan – known as the Elephantine papyri – also refers to a deity by the name of Anat-Yahu (Anat-Yahweh) who was worshipped at an Egyptian temple constructed by a group of Jewish fugitives who had managed to escape the clutches of their Babylonian oppressors during the conquest of Judah. Once again, this goddess is described as a wife or consort of Yahweh.

Also popular among Ancient Jews was the West Semitic goddess of fate, Ashima, who is related to the Akkadian matriarch, Shimti. Ashima appears in 2 Kings 17:30 of the Hebrew Bible, where her mystical powers were thought to be responsible for protecting various cities in Samaria. The fifth century BCE Elephantine papyri also reveals an interesting correspondence between Ashima’s name and that of Astarte.

Although, by accepting the existence of a generous pantheon of gods and goddesses the Jews of this period had not yet entered the monotheistic phase, many preferred to focus on one deity alone and, in that sense, their outlook was decidedly monolatristic. Certain aspects of Jewish folk-religion, such as the belief that for three days the dead are tortured in their graves by demons, were later incorporated within the Kabbalistic belief-system as hibbut ha-Kever.

The fact that Jewish paganism is so deeply imbued with countless examples of magic tells us that the Jews themselves were already well-versed in thaumaturgical practices long before the advent of Kabbalah. More importantly, although Judaism is often criticised by modern feminists for allegedly representing a male-dominated, patriarchal religion, the early pagan infatuation with female deities has survived in the mystical belief that the Shekhinah – or holy manifestation – is the embodiment of the divine feminine at the highest level of creation. This concept, in its Kabbalistic guise, later became a crucial and powerful part of the Jewish religion.

A more obvious example of Judaism’s pagan affiliations survives in the fact that matrilineal factors are still used to determine whether one is actually ‘Jewish’. This is said to have originated in the story of Ezra and the returning exiles who arrived in Jerusalem only to discover that many of their fellow Jews had taken non-Jewish wives. As a consequence, the women were sent away and new ethnic guidelines were introduced which eventually merged with the Jewish religion itself. If your mother is not Jewish, then you, too, are not considered to be a Jew. Matrilineality, however, clearly extends back into ancient times and the proliferation of the goddess-cults.

From the ninth century BCE onwards Yahweh became the god of the tribal kingdoms of Israel to the north and Judah to the south, with their Moabite, Ammonite and Edomite neighbours worshipping their own ethnic deities. Each year, Yahweh was symbolically ‘enthroned’ at the main temple in Jerusalem and revered as the all-powerful god of the annual harvest. Over time, however, Yahweh also became connected with the lambing season at Passover, the crop-gathering at Shavuot and the fruit-harvesting at Sukkot. These rural festivals were then fused with critical moments in Jewish history, meaning that Passover became synonymous with the exodus from Egypt, Shavuot with law-making and Sukkot with time spent in the wilderness.

Prior to the ultimate consolidation of Yahweh’s popularity among the Ancient Jews, the god of Israel had been the Canaanite god, El, husband of Asherah. However, once Yahweh became the divine protector of Israel and Judah he absorbed the attributes and characteristics of most other deities and at Shechem, Shiloh and Jerusalem both he and El were irreversibly melded into a single divinity. By the arrival of the Prophet Elijah in the ninth century BCE, any lingering strands of tolerant monolatristicism had been transformed into fully-fledged monotheism. Yahweh had evolved into the world’s most jealous and intolerant god.

This process was further heightened when Babylon was conquered by the Persians in 539 BCE and, the following year, Jewish exiles were finally permitted to return to Judah. Between 520 and 515 BCE, with the construction of the Second Temple, it was no longer permitted to utter the name ‘Yahweh’ in public and this inconvenient epithet was thus replaced by the word ‘Adonai’ (Lord). Haggai and Zechariah, two important prophets during this formative period, soon began to develop the idea that a messiah would appear to complement Yahweh and it was this radical theological notion that went on to influence Rabbinical Judaism, Christianity and Islam in such a profound fashion.

By the time the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli) was being compiled between the third and fifth centuries CE, the female aspects of Jewish spirituality were being portrayed in a decidedly negative light and Lilith – the first wife of Adam – became the matriarchal villain-of-the-piece who was indelibly associated with child-killing, nocturnal emissions and anything remotely ‘unclean’.

Whilst it may have appeared as though the patriarchal domination of Hebrew religion was complete, Raphael Patai reminds us that the Jewish God

is not merely the One and Only God, but also eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, aphysical (and therefore invisible), inscrutable, and incomprehensible, as well as just, good, compassionate, merciful, and benevolent. Since, being pure spirit, he is without body, he possesses no physical attributes and hence no sexual traits. To say that God is either male or female is therefore completely impossible from the viewpoint of traditional Judaism. As Maimonides, the greatest medieval Jewish philosopher, puts it, “God is not a body, nor can bodily attributes be ascribed to him, and He has no likeness at all.[2]

If the female aspects had been absorbed, their male counterparts had become transmogrified to such an extent that the God of Israel had effectively been neutered. From goddess to hermaphrodite, and from there to a form of progressive inter-sexuality.


1. Trachtenberg, Joshua; Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), p.xxviii.

2. Patai, Raphael; The Hebrew Goddess (Wayne State University Press, 1990), p.28.

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