The images of goddesses with striking breasts and swollen bellies, found in Europe and up to 40,000 years old, resemble later images from Mesopotamia and Syria’s Halaf culture.

Ceramic fertility figurine, Mesopotamia/ North Syria, c. 6000-5100 bc. Musée du Louvre, Paris.

Here too believers begged the divine mother to share with them the powers of her mysterious fertility. And here too, since time immemorial, stories were told in which all life sprang from her fertile motherly body.

Most myths surviving in the Middle East originate from a time in which the exclusive rights of the mother goddess had already been transferred to a male partner or a pugnacious rival. That transfer was sometimes far from peaceful. Sometimes the primal foremother was literally butchered by vindictive posterity, as in the famous Babylonian Enuma Elish (probably composed in the late second millennium bc). In this story, the matriarch Tiamat succumbs in a decisive battle with her ambitious offspring Marduk who then claims power for himself:

[Marduk] placed his feet on the lower parts of Tiamat
And with his merciless club smashed her skull.
He severed her arteries
And let the north wind bear up her blood...

Showing no mercy, he splits her colossal body in two “like a dried fish”, and stands triumphant over her dead remains, which he uses to create the clouds, winds, earth, and mountains. His violent settling of accounts renders her powerless.

This cosmic conflict from the Babylonian tradition has been usurped by the biblical myth of one creating God, but in poetic biblical texts the actors from previous stories return in references to sea monsters, dragons and storm gods that were fought against by the Hebrew God. The primal deep, controlled by God’s wind sweeping over the “face of the waters” in the Hebrew Bible is referred to as tehom, a term related to Tiamat. The dramatic defeat of the mother goddess in Babylonian myth and in the Hebrew Bible is far from unique. Comparable stories emerged in many societies where changing social relations gave rise to new stories in which the starring role is assumed by a supreme deity or God of Heaven.

Differing views exist on the development of the Hebrew religion – depending on the starting point. In contrast to Marduk, the Father God has no ancestors. He was there right from the beginning, what he said was true, and all he created was good. In the Jewish tradition, God had no proper noun, His name was too holy to be uttered aloud, but reverently referred to as Elohim or El (“God”) or as Jahweh (usually translated as “the Lord”), and in expressions such as “He is One and Only” or as eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient, aphysical (and therefore invisible), inscrutable and incomprehensible.

Being a pure spirit, from the strictly monotheistic perspective of traditional Judaism, He has no body and possesses no sexual traits. Nonetheless, since in the Hebrew language, every noun is either masculine or feminine, “every verbal statement about God conveyed the idea that He was masculine”, as Raphael Patai observes in his fascinating book The Hebrew Goddess. In spite of the strict message in the Bible and the Talmud, daily life offered a different view, in which an intense veneration of Ashera, Astarte, Anath and other goddesses continued. Polytheism was current among Israelites until the second-century bc, as the author demonstrates on the basis of old Jewish traditions in the context of other cultures in the region. He finds this unsurprising “in view of the general human, psychologically determined predisposition to believe in and worship goddesses.” Like earlier representations of mother goddesses, Ashera figures from the eighth and seventh-century bc support or offer up their divine breasts with both hands. Referred to in the Canaanite pantheon as “mother of the gods” and “wet nurse of the gods,” she was also depicted suckling certain humans of high birth.

According to archaeologists, Ashera – whose name appears more than 40 times in the Bible in a negative context – was the wife of the God of ancient Israel, and was worshipped alongside him. Unearthed inscriptions from the eighth-century bc invoke blessings “by Yahweh and his Asherah”. On an old shard of pottery excavated near Kuntillet Ajrud in the Northern Sinaï, the Egyptian god Bes is the central figure (he looks after sexuality and birth giving), and beside him is another god (perhaps the militant god Aha). On the same shard, a nameless Jewish merchant has carved: “[…] May you be blessed by the Lord who protects us and his Ashera.”

Goddess Ashera. Earthenware, eighth to sixth century bc. Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.

The monotheistic editors who put the Bible into writing twisted the existing stories in a new direction and gave them new meaning. So the Hebrew Bible was bold enough to do what earlier patriarchies hadn’t yet dared – to radically obliterate each and every trace of female veneration. The Bible is the first holy book without any female godly presence, divine spouse, or lover. In contrast with ancient Middle Eastern deities, Yahweh is the first God unhindered by female competition. He is usually characterised by labels such as “Man of War”, “Hero”, “King”, “Lord of Hosts”, “Master of the Universe”, “Our Father in Heaven”, and yet theologians maintain that God is absolutely not to be seen in terms of sex or gender.

Obviously, this was not self-evident to all believers. The Hebrew Bible emphatically warns against idolatry and the worship of images, which was firmly adopted in Islamic tradition. Christians, on the other hand, frequently represented God visually, mostly in the form of an impressive man with a beard. All three religions refer to God as an anthropomorphic male character, in Judaism and Christianity also called Father – a Father who can get mad at his children:

The Biblical God-concept […] reflects the strictly patriarchal order of the society which produced it;  this patriarchal society gave rise to a religion centred around a single, universal deity whose will was embodied in the Law, but who was abstract, devoid of all physical attributes and yet pronouncedly male, a true projection of the patriarchal family-head.

As the Jewish tradition developed into a religion with one spiritual and incorporeal supreme God, believers struggled with this inexorable requirement. Many still longed for a female element, and found what they needed in local goddesses – which can be inferred from the many biblical texts in which Hebrew prophets demonise the worship of goddesses, and demand that believers only worship Him. There are obvious similarities between the blessings of the breasts and the womb found in Genesis and the fertility cults of Israelites’ Canaanite neighbours, who cherished goddesses such as Ashera and Anat represented with prominent breasts. In the biblical story in which God makes a covenant with Abraham, He is referred to as El Shaddai, translated as “God the Almighty”, but the Hebrew word shad means “breast”:

The sacred breast found in early Judaism is directly connected to God Himself. El Shaddai, the name of God that is always associated with the fertility blessings, meant something like the “God (El) with breasts” or the “God who suckles”. Even if this language was to be understood only metaphorically, it is obviously a masculine appropriation of a fundamentally female attribute. God could be seen as both male and female, transcending the narrow confines of human gender.  

By assimilating Ashera’s nurturing breasts, the monotheistic God could not only be a Father for his people, but also a comforting Mother, and a source of life. The Hebrew Bible refers to God speaking of Himself as a mother “bearing the Israelites in His bosom”. No less than in the surrounding religions, Judaism celebrated fertility, and considered a woman “complete” once she had given birth to male offspring.

Excerpted with permission from Hills of Paradise: Power, Powerlessness, and the Female Body, Mineke Schipper, Speaking Tiger Books.