Review of Steve A. Wiggins, A Reassessment of Asherah
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Steve A. Wiggins, A Reassessment of Asherah, with further Considerations of the Goddess (Gorgias Ugaritic Studies 2, Piscataway NJ: Gorgias Press, 2007). Pp. xxiv + 365.  Hardcover, US$90.00.  ISBN: 978-1-59333-717-9.

This welcome volume is a newly typeset edition of Dr Wiggins’ 1993 book, together with three additional chapters. The bibliography has been updated, albeit not comprehensively, and there is a useful index of subjects. An index of references to ancient and modern texts would have been appreciated, but the full table of contents does enable one to find the chief treatments of any text. This is number 2 in the new Gorgias Ugaritic Studies series, edited by Nick Wyatt.  

The preface to the second edition concisely advises the reader of the nature and scope of the book. Chapter 1 deals with preliminary questions, and reviews previous scholarship. Chapter 2, the longest in the book, studies Athirat in the Elimelek (Ilimilku) tablets from Ugarit, and is complemented by chapter 3, which surveys the other pertinent Ugaritic texts. The contentious issue of Asherah in the Old Testament and, briefly, in rabbinic materials is found in chapter 4, followed by the Mesopotamian, Hittite and South Arabian evidence in chapter 5. Chapter 6 provides the epigraphic evidence from Hebrew, Phoenician and Aramaic sources, and chapter 7 furnishes the author’s conclusions. Here ends the original volume.

Chapters 8 and 9 comprise two essays which were originally published elsewhere: “The Myth of Asherah: Lion Lady and Serpent Goddess”, and “Of Asherahs and Trees: Some Methodological Questions.” There is some overlap between the contents of these essays and the balance of the book. However, they are worthwhile additions because in each case they clearly show the weakness of the evidence that Asherah was in some special way a goddess of lions and serpents, and trees, respectively. In chapter 8, Wiggins also deals pithily but well, with the misconception that Asherah may have been a “Great Mother” (p. 237). Chapter 10 republishes reviews of the well-known books by Binger, Hadley and Dever. Dr Wiggins’ critiques are fair and tactful, and provide particularly good coverage of Binger and Hadley’s contentions.

There is no question that the data is covered carefully and soberly. To my mind, the difficult question is the methodological one: to what extent and in which circumstances are cross-cultural comparisons and conclusions legitimate? From another perspective, there is an issue as to what is being studied: a goddess who appears in various cultures but somehow transcends these as a quasi-archetype, or simply a series of goddesses in diverse cultures? While the subtitle of this volume refers to “the goddess” in the singular, the title of the thesis was Athirat, Asherah, Ashratu: A Reassessment according to the Textual Sources (p. xv). Wiggins accepts that “Asherah” may be identified with “Athirat” (p. 2), and surmises that through an inter-cultural study “we may be able to determine her essential nature” (p. 3 and also p. 33).

If this is suggestive of a goddess with a trans-cultural identity, that approach is elsewhere eschewed. On the one page, Dr Wiggins accepts Gordon’s use of material from Israel and Judah to explain the Ugaritic royal family, but rejects Maier’s use of the Hittite Elkunirsa (el-ku-né-er-ša, perhaps “El creator of earth and heaven”, bearing the first syllable of each operative word) myth to explain Athirat’s rejoicing over Baal’s death (p. 78). He warns against taking all the evidence, from however many cultures it originates, and concluding that the agglomerate “fully represents the goddess” (p. 151). Wiggins doubts Perlman’s theory of Athirat, based on Amorite material, because it crosses “cultural gaps” (p. 49, see also pp. 107-9 on Baal and Asherah in the HB). However, he concludes that Mesopotamian Ashratu is “likely the same figure as Ugaritic Athirat” (p. 186).

Wiggins never makes a poor point (for example, I agree with his contention that the Elkunirsa myth is too remote from Ugarit to be used as Maier suggests), and he never falls into Jungian superstition, but I do not discern a consistent approach. Yet, the question calls to be addressed. The god lists KTU 1.47, 1.148 and RS 20.24 would appear to indicate that the Ugaritians were aware that Athirat and Ashratum were equivalent (if those lists may be read together). Wiggins’ treatment of the lists is silent on this. If van der Toorn is correct, and Amurru was anciently referred to as “the Amorite El,” the drawing of cross-cultural equivalences may not be a modern innovation. Likewise, the Keret (Kirta) epic recognizes Athirat as the goddess of the two Tyres and the Sidonians. Whatever view the Ugaritians had of Athirat, it was not parochial.

Similarly, I think that Wiggins might have connected more of the intra-cultural references. For example, he will not allow that KTU 1.65 “alone” demonstrates that El and Athirat are consorts (pp. 101-2). This is understandable, but KTU 1.65 does not stand alone. I do not see why the Ugaritic context should be excluded. El (or rather, Ilu) is mentioned, together with Athirat, and then El is addressed once more. No other deity intervenes. The context is quite different from that in KTU 1.46. Wiggins enjoins “extreme caution” in making “mythological assumptions on the basis of ritual lists” (p. 102), I would have thought that “caution” sufficed, and that it was a different matter to use the lists to fill out the incomplete the picture we have from the mythological texts. 

We all understand the need for caution. It is sometimes surprising how much scholars claim to know about this topic. For example, G. E. Markoe, in The Phoenicians, writes that the asherah was “a small votive column or post of wood meant to evoke the sacred groves or wooded temple precincts of the same name that adjoined Phoenician fertility cults, such as that of Astarte at Afqa ..” (p. 122) It may well be so, however, he does not tell us how he knows all of this.

But is Wiggins’ comparative method too cautious? Wiggins apologizes for using a text not written by Elimelek to illuminate one which was, when he refers to a “motif” concerning El’s sceptre which may have been “known by different Ugaritic mythological writers” (p. 54). I do not see any cause for concern. The guild of “Ugaritic mythological writers” is unlikely to have been unmanageably large, or to have held widely divergent opinions as to El’s sceptre. As an aside, I am sceptical of the view that in KTU 1.4.III.10-22, Athirat’s emblems suggests “sexual impurity” (pp. 61-63). Elsewhere, Wiggins describes Athirat as “more maternal” (p. 44). She was a goddess of royal childbearing, of spindle and whorl (cf. Proverbs 31). As Wiggins later notes, she is associated with the suckling of children, and with the goddess Rahmay (pp. 88-89), whose name is redolent of the womb. A spindle has to prima facie be suggestive of domestic stability, rather than licence. If Wiggins rejects the theory that Athirat was goddess of weaving because there is no direct evidence (p. 56), the same should apply to his suggestion that the spindle is a phallic symbol (p. 57). It seems to me to be at least possible that in so far as Athirat is “sexually active” (p. 64), her activity is the conjugal variety. As Wiggins insightfully concludes, “any hints of sexual activity connected with Athirat point to her status as the consort of El” (p. 84).

To follow this line of thought, I wonder if there could be a connection between the weaving in 2 Kings 23:7 and the spindle of Athirat in Ugarit. The standard interpretation of 2 Kings 23:7 is not secure. I rather suspect from the context that, disappointing as some may find it, neither women nor the qedeshim were engaged in sexual activity. Wiggins is surely correct to say that “the mention of the asherah in this verse does not suggest any sexual activities on the part of the qedeshim” (p. 136). The RBL newsletter of 3 January 2008 provides a link to a review of Christine Stark’s recent «Kultprostitution» im Alten Testament? Die Qedeschen der Hebräischen Bibel und das Motiv der Hurerei where apparently she comes to a similar conclusion for the qedeshim

Wiggins’ treatment of the “Old Testament Asherah” is reasoned and meticulous. Today, of course, there are works like Zevit’s Religions of Ancient Israel to take into account, but Wiggins’ conclusions are still plausible: that an “asherah” may have been more than just one type of object, and that the few clear references to the goddess are unenlightening. I am quite persuaded by his arguments that the HB “does not lend support to the conception of Asherah as a ‘mother-goddess’ … (or) ‘fertility goddess’ …” (p. 149). The true common association between Ugaritic Athirat and Hebrew and Canaanite Asherah is as “queen mother,” so to speak (p. 150).

The balance of the book is equally sound. Dr Wiggins was the student of two of the giants of NW Semitic studies, Professors Wyatt and Gibson. This has produced an interesting hybrid of styles. Both are known for their erudition and skill. However, while Gibson is a model of scholarly restraint and circumspection, Wyatt is bold and creative. Wiggins is clearly a sober scholar who has painstakingly studied the languages and skills, and can engage with and appreciate speculation. But my sense is that he likes watching poker from a little distance. As one example, take his dismissal of de Moor’s reconstruction of KTU 1.16.V.6-9 (pp. 32-33). I do not disagree with Wiggins’ critique at all: on the contrary, it is concise and telling. But given that the restoration of the name “Athirat” does seem likely in line 6 (only one letter is missing), a gamer player may have at least discussed some tentative possibilities. However, Wiggins austerely denies himself this innocent delight: one of the few pleasures scholars may indulge without fear of antagonizing students.  Overall, the volume is more than useful.  I think it is indispensable for scholars who need to consider Athirat, Asherah, or even “the Asherah.” 

The bibliography has been updated, but one item which should have been mentioned is Pardee’s vindication of the authenticity of the Arslan Tash amulet (D. Pardee, “Les documents d’Arslan Tash: Authentique ou Faux?,” Syria 75 [1998] 15-54), although I agree with Wiggins that the name which appears there is probably Aššur and should not be amended to read Asherah or Asherat (p. 211).

Joseph Azize
University of Technology, Sydney