The Tree of Life, Asherah, and Her Snakes

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    The Garden of Eden narrative in Genesis 2-3 (J) is generally thought to have a mythological background, and its Sumerian and Akkadian parallels have been widely noted: the resemblence between the Tale of Adapa and the story of Adam and Eve's deception regarding the death-dealing fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, the story of Adam's creation and life with the animals and the Tale of Enkidu from the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Edenic blessedness described in the Tale of Enmerkar, and so forth. The Canaanite and Phoenician parallels however are not noted as often -- though these would be more pertinent to the native Judean context of the Eden narrative. This post will explore some of these parallels in an attempt to trace the mythological background of the Eden story, which is complex and multi-layered.


    According to Ezekiel 28:13-14, the Garden of Eden was located in "the holy mountain of God" or rather, "the gods" (hr qds 'lhym). Mentioned along with the "garden of God" are "a thousand gems" including "sard, topaz, diamond, chrysolite, onyx, jasper, sapphire, carbuncle, emerald, gold" and so forth (v. 13), as well as a "guardian cherub" walking on the mountain (v. 14). The presence of cherubs at Eden is indicative of its mountainous locale, as cherubs represent a personification of wind and constitute Yahweh's means of locomotion (cf. 1 Samuel 4:4; 2 Samuel 22:11; Psalm 18:10, 65:12, 68:4, 80:1, 99:1; Isaiah 37:16) and are thus ubiquitous of wind-swept mountain tops. A rather similar tradition of an Edenic mountain and mountains of gems is found in 1 Enoch 25:1-5 which locates the Tree of Life on the mountain where God has his throne:

    "I saw seven dignified mountains -- all different one from the other, of precious and beautiful stones, and all dignified and glorious to their visualization and beautiful with respect to their facade....The seven mountains were situated in the midst of these ravines and their heights all resembled the seat of a throne surrounded by fragrant trees. And among them, there was one tree such as I have never at all smelled; there was not a single one among those or other trees which is like it ... its fruit is beautiful and resembles the clustered fruits of a palm tree.... This tall mountain which you saw whose summit resembles the throne of God is indeed his throne , on which the Holy and Great Lord of Glory, the Eternal King, will sit when he descends to visit the earth with goodness. And as for this fragrant tree, not a single human being has the authority to touch it until the great judgment. This is for the righteous and the pious. And the elect will be presented with its fruit for life." (1 Enoch 25:1-5; cf. Jubilees 4:26 which pairs the "Garden of Eden" with "the Mount of the East")

    In Judean tradition, the mountain that Yahweh had his throne was Zion. Thus in Psalm 2:6-8, Yahweh calls Zion "my holy hill," in Psalm 24:1-8 "Yahweh the warrior" enters through the "ancient gates" of his "holy place" in the "mountain of Yahweh", and in Psalm 46:4, the "city of God" is called "the holy place where the Most High dwells." Zion appears to be the mountain described in 1 Enoch 26, from which a deep valley descends -- the "accursed valley" where the souls of the wicked are tormented (i.e. Gehenna) according to 1 Enoch 27. According to Isaiah 14:12-15, Sheol lies at the base of the cosmic mountain, and it is only natural for the deep valley below it to be associated with the underworld. Note also that a valley adjoining the Hinnom valley is called the Valley of the Rephaim in Joshua 15:8, 18:16; 2 Samuel 5:18, 23:13; 1 Chronicles 11:15, 20:4 and the Rephaim were the ghosts of the dead residing in Sheol (cf. Job 26:5-6; Isaiah 14:4-5, 9-11, 26:14). The earthly valleys associated with the underworld also evoke the "valleys of Sheol" where the Rephaim are found according to Proverbs 9:18. It was in fact in the valley of Hinnom below Zion where the ancestor cult of Molech was practiced (2 Kings 23:10; Isaiah 30:33, 57:9; Jeremiah 7:31-33, 19:4-6, 32:35). There is an exact parallel in the Canaanite culture of Syria and northern Israel, which designated Mt. Hermon as the "mountain of El" and the Bashan area below it as the realm of the dead, where Rapiu (aka Molek, or Milku) was enthroned as king in the cities of Ashtaroth/Athtart and Edrei (cf. KTU 1.108 R 1-3, 11-13, V 22-29; compare Genesis 14:5, Deuteronomy 1:4, 3:10, and Joshua 9:10, 12:4, 13:12, 31 which amazingly also locate the Rephaim in the cities of Ashtaroth and Edrei in Bashan). In fact, Psalm 42 is directly dependent on this northern view of El's abode being located in Mt. Hermon (also called Mt. Misar):

    "I am on my way to the wonderful Tent, to the House of God , among cries of joy and praise and an exultant throng. Why so downcast, my soul, why do you sigh within me? Put your hope in God, I shall praise him yet, my savior, my God. When my soul is downcast within me, I think of you; from the land of Jordan and in Hermon, in Mount Misar deep is calling to deep as your cataracts roar." (Psalm 42:4-7)

    The reference to "deep calling to deep" is based in the Canaanite notion that the cosmic mountain where El makes his abode joins the heavenly "Deep" (cf. Genesis 1:6) with the subterranean "deep" contained within the mountain (cf. Job 28:9-11, 38:16-17). In the Ugaritic Baal Epic, we read of the god Kothar heading "toward El at the springs of the Double-Rivers, amidst the channels of the Double-Deeps. He comes to the mountain of El and enters the tent of the King, the Father of Years" (KTU 1.2 III 4-5). Similarly, in another myth El's mountain palace is said to lie "at the springs of the Two Rivers, at the meeting place of the Double-Deeps (mbk nhrm b'dt thmtm, KTU 1.100 R 1-4). In the OT, we also read how Yahweh "builds his palace on the waters above" and "sits enthroned on the Flood" (Psalm 29:10; 104:2-3), and Ezekiel 28:2 has the Phoenician king declare: "I am El ('l), in the dwelling of the gods ('lhym); I dwell in the midst of the seas (ymym)."

    The motif of Yahweh's mountain Zion standing at the source of primeval subterranean waters appears in Psalm 36:8-9, Isaiah 33:20-22, Ezekiel 47:1-22; Joel 4:18, Zechariah 14:8, 1 Enoch 26:1-2, and is alluded to in Matthew 7:24-25, 16:18, and John 7:38. In later Jewish tradition, the foundation for the Temple was believed to have kept the subterranean floods at bay; it was said to be the stone on which the world is based (Yoma 54b), and David was said to have removed the stone in his search for the great Abyss (Yer Sanh. x. 29a; Suk. 53a). Likening the Qumran community to the Temple, the Thanksgiving Hymns utilize the ancient cosmological concept to connote their struggle against the forces of Satan:

    "As the Abysses boil above the foundations of the waters, their towering waves and billows shall rage with the voice of their roaring; and as they rage, Sheol and Abaddon shall open and all the flying arrows of the Pit shall send out their voice to the Abyss. And the gates of Sheol shall open on all the works of vanity and the doors of the Pit shall close on the conceivers of wickedness.....The torrents of Belial shall break into Abaddon, and the deeps of the Abyss shall groan amid the roar of the heaving mud.... The heavenly hosts shall cry out and the world's foundations shall swagger and sway....The deeps resound to my groaning and my soul has journeyed to the gates of death. (1QH 11:16-19, 32-35)

    The waters on El's mountain however are not dammed up but flow and water creation. In the Gilgamesh Epic (11.194-96), the abode of the gods lies "at the mouth of the rivers" (ina pi narati ), and an Akkadian seal from Mari similarly depicts "a god of the type of El enthroned, between the springs of two streams, on a mountain. He is flanked by two vegetarian goddesses who grow out from the waters" (O. Keel, "Ancient Seals and the Bible," JAOS 1986:309). This recalls the description of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden in Genesis 2, which according to Ezekiel 28:13-14 was located in "the holy mountain of God" (hr qds 'lhym). Thus Genesis 2:6 noted that at Eden "streams (or a "flood") came up from the earth and watered the whole surface of the ground", and the four rivers described in v. 10-44 include the Gihon, which was the name of the subterranean spring and river at Jerusalem (cf. 2 Chronicles 32:30). The mention of the Tigris and Euphrates however shows a dependence on Akkadian traditions as well. In parallel to Ezekiel, the Genesis description also mentions onyx and gold (Genesis 2:11-12), though not in the Garden per se, as well as cherubs (3:24).

    Thus far we have seen that Eden was located on the "mountain of God" in OT tradition, identified with Mount Zion in Judean Yahwism, under which flowed the waters of the abyss -- the "waters of life" which watered creation. Sheol was also located below the cosmic mountain, and a cult of the dead typically occurred in the valleys running down from this mountain. The Temple on Mt. Zion would thus be equivalent with the Garden itself, as Lawrence E. Stager's article "Jerusalem as Eden" (BAR, May/June 2000) points out. Royal palaces and temples often had gardens in the ANE (cf. the "Hanging Gardens" of Babylon, and the "Garden of Plenty" of Asshur), depicting the mythopoeic dwelling place of the gods. In the palace at Mari, the throne room was fronted by a courtyard decorated with paradisical wall paintings and a garden with live potted palm trees, and a tall, ornamental but artificial palm tree standing in the middle of the garden, which was plated with bronze and silver leaf. The Temple in Jerusalem was itself carved with images of palm trees, flowers, and cherubs, with rows of artificial pomegranates (1 Kings 6:32, 35; 7:18, 20, 36). The cherubim posted at the eastern entrance to the garden in the Genesis account are paralleled by the colossial cherubim in Solomon's temple (1 Kings 6:23-25; 8:6), as well as the Levites posted as guards at the eastern gate of the tabernacle who were to strike down anyone encroaching on forbidden ground (Numbers 1:51-53).


    In the Kuntillet 'Arjud and Khirbet el-Kom inscriptions, Asherah is named with Yahweh -- probably as his consort. In Canaanite myth, Asherah (Ug. Athirat) was the consort of El, the creator god, and she begat the seventy lesser gods, the sons of El. Asherah became Yahweh's consort through an identification of El with Yahweh (seen throughout the OT). In Canaanite texts, Asherah is called the "Mother of All" and one of her titles was qnyt 'ilm "Creator of the Gods". It is interesting that qnh is an unusual word in Hebrew for "create" as it usually means "acquire" (El, in contrast, was called bny bnwt "Creator of Created Things" in the Ugaritic texts). The notion of Eve as a creator goddess also appears in muted form in Genesis 3:20, 4:1 where Eve is called "the mother of all living" and Eve says after the birth of Cain, "I have created (qnh) a man with the help of Yahweh," employing the same verb as applied to Asherah in the Ugaritic texts. The latter quote is also very similar to a statement regarding the Akkadian creator goddess Aruru (= Sumerian Ninhursag): Aruru zi-ir a-mi-lu-ti it-ti-shu ib-ta-nu "Aruru, with the help of [Marduk], created the seed of mankind" (KIB, vi. I, 40). Another clue that Eve's identity originally was not as it is given in the story can be found in the name: Hebrew chwwh, being related to Aramaic chwyh and Phoenician chwt "snake". As we shall soon see, Chawat appears in a Phoenician inscription as one of the names of Elat "Goddess", that is, Asherah.

    It is in Proverbs where we meet Asherah as Wisdom personified. She appears as a creator goddess in Proverbs 8:22-31 and the following chapter describes a banquet that Wisdom hosts in her palace (Proverbs 9:1-6). In the Ugaritic texts, we read similarly of Asherah and her consort El hosting banquets in their mountain palace (cf. KTU 1.1 IV 26-35). We may thus compare the biblical and Ugaritic texts:

    "Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn out its seven pillars. She has prepared her meat and mixed her wine; she has also set her table" (Proverbs 9:1-2)
    "In his house El gave a feast of game, the produce of the hunt in the midst of his palace, he cried: 'To the carving, gods, eat, O gods, and drink! Drink wine until satiety, foaming wine until intoxication!' Yarih arched his back like a dog; he gathered up crumbs beneath the tables. Any god who recognized him threw him meat from the joint" (KTU 1.114 R 1-7)
    "Why has the Great Lady who Tramples Yam come? Why has the Mother of the gods arrived? Are you very hungry? Then eat! Are you very thirsty? Then drink! Eat and drink! Eat food from the table, from goblets drink wine, from cups of gold the juice of grapes" (KTU 1.4 IV 32-37).

    The connection with Wisdom and Asherah is reinforced by Proverbs 3:13-18 which contains some paronomasia between the name Asherah ('ashrh) and the word "happy" ('ashre), which is paired with the "tree of life" in a chiasm:

    "Happy ('ashre) is the one who finds wisdom .... She is a tree of life ('ts chyym) to those who lay hold of her; those who hold her fast are made happy (m'sshr)." (Proverbs 3:13, 18; cf. 11:30; 15:4)

    The expression is nearly identical to "the tree of life" ('ts h-chyym) of Genesis 2:9, which refers to a specific mythological tree while the "tree of life" in Proverbs refers to a more abstract Wisdom, but the verse also plays on the name Asherah. It is interesting that Wisdom is identified with the "tree of life" when a "tree of knowledge of good and evil" (e.g. "wisdom") is distinguished from the Tree of Life in the Eden narrative. Many scholars since the time of Wellhausen have suggested that this second tree originated as a doublet of the first.

    The Jewish wisdom tradition continued to describe a tree that bestows both wisdom and life. Sirach 1:20 draws on the image of Wisdom as a tree of life: "To fear the Lord is the root of wisdom, and her branches are long life". Sirach 24:12-17 likewise describes Wisdom as a divine tree growing in Jerusalem, as tall as a cedar of Lebanon and a cypress on Mount Hermon, as tall as a "palm in Engedi" and as a plane tree, and with branches spread "like a terebinth" and with blossoms bearing "the fruit of glory and wealth". This tree planted in Jerusalem however was the same heavenly Wisdom residing in the tent of the Most High in "the vault of the sky," having her throne "in a pillar of cloud" (v. 3-5), descriptions which also draw on Asherah tradition -- particularly on Asherah as the heavenly consort of Elyon "Most High". After describing her as a tree of life, Sirach goes on to liken her to the rivers of Eden:

    "That is what makes wisdom brim like the Pishon, like the Tigris in the season of fruit, what makes understanding brim over like the Euphrates, like the Jordan at harvest time; and makes discipline flow like the Nile, like the Gihon at the time of vintage....Like a conduit from a river, like a watercourse running into a garden, I said, 'I am going to water my orchard, I intend to irrigate my flower beds'. " (Sirach 24:25-31)

    A third possible allusion of Asherah may be found in Hosea 14:9 which addresses the idolatry of the tribe of Ephraim: "O Ephraim, what have I to do with idols? It is I who answer ('nyty) and look after him ('shwrnw). I am like an evergreen cypress, from me comes your fruit". The paronomasiaic pairing of 'aniti and 'ashurennu is thought by Wellhausen and J. Day to recall the pairing of Anat and Asherah, especially in the connection with both idolatry and Yahweh asserting himself as a tree like an evergreen cypress (another arboreal symbol of life), who will have Israel "living in my shade" (v. 8). Mark Smith suggests here that "Hosea 14:9 draws on the image of the tree, perhaps as a transformation of the asherah into the Yahwistic symbol of life" (EARLY HISTORY OF GOD, p. 136). One may also cite Psalm 1:3 which likens someone walking in the path of wisdom to "a tree that is planted by water streams, yielding its fruit in season, its leaves never fading".

    Although Asherah was obliquely linked with the Tree of Life in Hebrew and possibly Canaanite tradition, the two notions were originally independent. Asherah was a fairly recent West Semitic goddess, unknown at Ebla, Mari, and within the Old Semitic pantheon surveyed by JJM Roberts (1972, Johns Hopkins University Press), but the notion of a Tree of Life goes back to third millenium BC Sumeria, corresponding to the sacred date palm in the sanctuary of Ea (the god of Wisdom) at Eridu and pictured on seals (cf. Barton). The stylized and artificial tree planted in the middle of the garden in the palace at Mari is also thought to depict the mythological Tree of Life. Genesis 2:9 places both the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil "in the middle of the garden". One text that clearly alludes metaphorically to the notion of a palm being planted inside Yahweh's Temple is Psalm 92:12-14:

    "The righteous flourish like a palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of Yahweh and flourish in the courts of God. They still bring forth fruit in old age, and are full of sap and green" (Psalm 92:12-14).

    Throughout the OT, one finds a very strong association of Asherah with trees. In most instances, a representation of Asherah is what is meant, usually made of wood and found "under trees" and in groves (1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10; Jeremiah 2:20, 3:6; Isaiah 57:5). One interesting fact is that the Hebrew word 'elah "oak" is derived from Elat (Ugaritic 'lt), which was used as an epithet of Asherah (cf. KTU 1.4 iv 50; 1.6 i 41; 1.14 iv 35, where "Athirat of Tyre" is called the "Elat of Sidon", etc.). Examples of such sacred 'elim include the oak ('elah) at the temple in Shechem (Genesis 35:4) and the 'elah where an angel appeared to Gideon (Judges 6:11). Achilles Tatius described a tree growing in the Temple precincts in Tyre (Leucippe Clitophon 2:14), while Herodotus mentioned a Phoenician "holy woman" who founded a temple to Zeus beneath an oak (History 2.56). All of this relates to the Mesopotamian notion of a sacred tree as a central feature of temples. That such trees in watered gardens were used in idolatry is indicated in Isaiah 1:29-30:

    "You will be ashamed because of the sacred oaks in which you have delighted; you will be disgraced because of the gardens that you have chosen. You will be like an oak ('lh) with fading leaves, like a garden without water." (Isaiah 1:29-30)

    According to 'Abodah Zarah 3:7, the asherah is "any tree which is an idol. Rabbi Simeon says: Any tree which is worshipped". Other Mishnaic references describe the asherah as a living tree (Orlah 1:7, 8; Sukkah 3:1-3; Me'ilah 3:8). Mark Smith notes that various pieces of Bronze and Iron Age iconography indicate that the tree was the Canaanite symbol of the goddess Asherah and represented her presence. Several Canaanite female figures have trees or branches etched between the navel and the pubic triangle. A plaque from Ugarit depicts a female figure holding bundles of grain in both hands with animals feeding from each hand. The Taanach stand depicts a tree feeding twin animals. An ewer from Lachish most interestingly links the tree and the goddess, since "Elat" is mentioned in the inscription directly above a depiction of the menorah-shaped tree (which is similarly flanked by two animals).

    The symbolism of Asherah as a tree portrayed her as a fertile and nurturing goddess. Most commonly, the asherah was a pole that was planted into the ground; Deuteronomy 16:21, for instance, forbids the "planting of any tree -- an asherah -- besides the altar of Yahweh your God". Asherah poles are widely mentioned in the OT (cf. Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5, 12:3; Judges 3:7, 6:25-30; 1 Kings 14:15, 23, 15:13; 2 Kings 13:6, 17:10, 16, 23:14-15; 2 Chronicles 17:6, 31:1; Isaiah 17:8, 27:9; Jeremiah 17:2; Micah 5:14), and according to late rabbinical sources, they were used for medicinal purposes. One passage mentions that any remedy, except the wood of the asherah, would be acceptable:

    "Rabbi Jacob said in Rabbi Johanan's name: We may cure ourselves with all things, save with the wood of the asherah. How is it meant? If we say that there is danger, even the wood of the asherah too; while if there is no danger, even all other forbidden things of the Torah too are not permitted. After all it means that there is danger, yet even so the wood of the asherah must not be used" (Pesahim 25a)

    There is, of course, the intrinsic medicinal value of different kinds of wood -- as certain Ugaritic texts suggest (cf. KTU 1.100, COS 1.100). An Aramaic incantation text found at Arslan Tash in Syria, dating to the early 7th century BC, also invokes the help of Asherah for a woman in delivery. The maternal role of Asherah in fertility and nursing/healing also explains her association with snakes, even though the same ophidian deities were associated with death. The syncretism between the Egyptian goddess Hathor and Asherah also contributed to Asherah's relationship with the dead.


    In the ANE, snakes were symbols of fertility as well as healing. The reproductive habits of snakes contribute to the symbolism -- a python can lay 100 eggs at a time and a garter snake can produce at least 80 in a litter. The average number of young produced by a female snake per season is between 8 and 15 and in many snakes the production of eggs or young is biennial rather than annual. Their association with healing is thought to lie in the regenerative ability, particularly in shedding skin and seeming immortality. Philo of Byblos in his Phonecian History describes the West Semitic view of snakes:

    It is also most long-lived, and its nature is to put off its old skin, and so not only to grow young again, but also to assume a larger growth; and after it has fulfilled its appointed measure of age, it is self-consumed, in like manner as Tauthus himself has set down in his sacred books: for which reason this animal has also been adopted in temples and in mystic rites. We have spoken more fully about it in the memoirs entitled Ethothiae, in which we prove that it is immortal, and is self-consumed, as is stated before: for this animal does not die by a natural death, but only if struck by a violent blow. (Philo of Byblos, PE 1.12)

    This sheds some light on role of the snake in Genesis 2-3, particularly in its promise of immortality: "No! You will not die!" it tells the woman (Genesis 3:4). Death by a "violent blow" is also alluded to in Genesis 3:15. The snake's immortality also makes for a natural connection with the Tree of Life, as well as its "shrewdness" when compared to the "wisdom" represented by the Tree of Life (cf. Genesis 3:1; Proverbs 3:18). One may also recall how a serpent eats the plant of eternal life in the Gilgamesh Epic, sloughing its skin and bestowing on itself immortality but denying it to the hero (XI). The myth of Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree is also relevant, for it refers to the tree of the fertility goddess Inanna that was planted by the banks of the Euphrates (cf. Genesis 2:14) which Gilgamesh planted in his "holy garden" and "a serpent who could not be charmed made its nest in the roots of the tree" (cf. SN Kramer translation). A famous Sumerian artifact linking a serpent with the sacred date-palm is the following banquet seal from 2200-2100 BC:

    At the same time, snakes were widely associated with fertility and healing goddesses. The most famous example is the Minoan snake goddess, who holds two metal snakes with upraised arms. The Egyptian snake goddess Wadjyt bore a uraeus (rearing cobra emblem) and represented fertility and later was identified by the Greeks with their goddess Aphrodite. Known also by the epithet Weret-hakau "Great Magic", Wadjyt was invoked in magic spells for the nursing of children and the health of women. Metal snake wands were used throughout Egypt as magical charms, which recalls the episode in Exodus 7:8-13 regarding the magicians of Pharaoh turning their staffs into snakes.

    Asherah was also widely associated with snakes and bore at least three epithets alluding to her as a snake goddess. In the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions of Serabit el-Hadem, which are closely linked with Egyptian mines (involving Semitic slaves) and a temple to Hathor, we read of a b'lt "Lady" who is also called dt btn or Dat Bathni "Lady of the Serpent" in at least four inscriptions. Two of these pair Dat Bathni with a d tb "Merciful One", which was the usual title for El in Serabit el-Hasdem: "O Merciful One with the Serpent Lady" and "O Merciful One, O Serpent Lady". We may also note the similarity between the "Merciful One" epithet for El and the Ugaritic appelation d p'd "Compassionate One" which was also applied to El. All this indicates that Dat Bathni was the consort of El, i.e. Asherah. And in Timna in Midian, archaeologists found a shrine to Hathor (dating to 1100-1000 BC) that contained a gilded bronze serpent. As we shall soon see, Egyptian Hathor was identified with Asherah by the Semites. The second title was Tannit (Gk. thenneith), derived from Canaanite *tannintu, which also means "Lady of the Serpent/Dragon" -- a close parallel to the dt btn of the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions. Tannit was clearly the same goddess as Asherah, for she is designated as the wife of b'l hmn (an epithet of El) in Punic inscriptions and as Rhea, the wife of Kronos (i.e. El) in Classical sources, she was clearly distinguished from Astarte, and was also called Nutrix "Nurse" in Classical sources and 'm "mother" in Punic inscriptions. Maier presents further arguments demonstrating the identity between Canaanite Asherah and Phoenician Tannit. The third, and most intriguing serpentine title of Asherah is Chawat, the exact Phoenician equivalent of "Eve"! It appears on a Phoenician inscription on a tabella devotionis of the Tannit-type, which reads: rbt chwt 'lt "Lady Chawat Elat". As mentioned above, Elat was one of the basic titles of Asherah. Phoenician chwt is usually related to Aramaic chwyh/chwh "snake".

    Asherah, when iconographically represented as a pole or tree, was often depicted with snakes. The most famous biblical example is that of the Nehushtan, which referred to the bronze serpent that cured the Israelites of snake bite. Numbers 21:9 states that Moses "made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole" so that if anyone "was bitten by a serpent, he looked at the bronze serpent and lived". Here we have an explicit mention of the healing function of snakes when associated with the Asherah pole. That the pole was associated with Asherah can be seen in 2 Kings 18:4 which states that King Hezekiah "cut down the Asherah poles and broke in pieces the bronze snake Moses had made". The same iconographic form can be found in the Punic emblem of the goddess Tannit (i.e. Asherah) which was also associated with health and healing. This consists of a pole or stylized date-palm (whose branches with descending bulbs are visible in some Carthaginian versions) which includes two twisting snakes on the upper half on the staff. Maier in his book ASHERAH: EXTRABIBLICAL EVIDENCE (1986: Scholars Press, Atlanta) provides some examples of the Tannit symbol:

    The example in 9b shows the two snakes facing each other, producing one or two circles by their forms -- circles which are more clearly stylized in 6, 8, and 10a. The heads of the snakes in 6 and 8 take on the apperance somewhat of horns, and of wings in 10a. The Greeks identified the Phoenician caduceus with the snake/pole emblem of Asklepios, the god of healing who was often depicted holding such an object:

    The stylized caduceus symbol that is today used in medicine is traced to the Punic caduceus that was adopted by the Romans, the staff of Asklepios, as well as the staff of Hermes -- representing a convergence between related but originally distinct symbols. The Latin caduceus was not widely adopted by Western medicine until the 16th century:

    Asherah was also depicted in female anthropomorphic form with snakes [see for instance this Syrian image]. The best known example is that of the Qudshu (qds "holiness") images depicting a nude female figure with Hathor wig standing upon a lion or lioness who has two snakes either in her hands or beside her body. An example from Minet el-Beida in Syria appears below:

    Here the figure has a Hathor wig and face with cow-like ears typical of Hathor, holding gazelles in her hands, and behind her hips two serpents apparently cross each other so that beside each of her hips the upper body of one serpent and the lower body of another appear. Many images of this type are labelled qds or Qudshu, and some mention her with Resheph, the god of pestilence (and conversely, health), and Min, the Egyptian god of fertility and the harvest. This association links the Qudshu goddess with both health and fertility. Other Qudshu images depict her with the Hathor horned crown. The name Qudshu occurs in Ugaritic texts as an epithet of Asherah: the gods are called "the sons of the Holy One (qds)" in KTU 1.2 III 20, and King Keret is called "a son of El, an offspring of the Wise One (ltpn) and the Holy One (qds)" (KTU 1.16 I 10-11). The Egyptian material also indicates that Qudshu was linked to both fertility and health and is to be identified with Asherah. A stone bowl from the 16th year of the reign of Horemheb (1333-1303 BC) mentions a campaign through Syria where the pharaoh gave an offering to "Astarte, lady of heaven, Anat the daughter of Ptah, the lady of truth, to Resheph the lord of heaven, to Qodsha lady of the stars of heaven, that they may give life, prosperity, and health to the ka of the stablemaster of the Lord of the Two Lands" (Meier, p. 92). The placement of the name Resheph in the list makes even clearer the veneration of Qudshu as an important goddess separate from Astarte and Anat. Asherah again is the likeliest deity with whom Qudshu is to be identified. A small votive stele of a Memphis official named Ptah-ankh also distinguishes between Astarte and Qudshu, by invoking each separately. With regard to Qudshu, it stated: "May she grant a good life combined with health". The Louvre Stele C. 86 from Thebes also contains five prayers to Qudshu in formulae derived from Hathor liturgies; the first reads: "Praise qds, Lady of Heaven, Mistress of all the gods. May she grant life, welfare, and health for the ka of the lady of the house, the one praised by her mistress, the Syrian [t3-ch3rw], justified" (Meier, p. 87). A number of magical papyri refer to qds as "remover of poison" (Papyrus 343, 345) and as a goddess of childbirth. Hathor was especially regarded as a goddess of nursing and motherhood -- both aspects of Asherah, the "mother of the gods" (cf. "sucking on the nipples of the breasts of Asherah" in KTU 1.23 R 23-24).

    In short, Asherah was known in Egypt (and distinguished from the two other Egyptian goddesses Anat and Astarte/Athtart) by her epithet qds "Holy One," was associated with snakes and healing, and linked with the native Egyptian goddess Hathor. Hathor was commonly depicted in Egyptian art in the form of a cow, and Asherah and Anat were also the heifers of Bull El (cf. KTU 1.10, 1.23), and a cow suckling her calf is depicted in the famous Asherah inscription from Kuntillet 'Arjud. Similarly, Hathor was syncretized with the Byblos patron goddess of Baalat "Lady", however in this case it is not clear whether she was a mother deity like Asherah or the consort of Baal and thus identified with Astarte. One of the hypostases of Hathor was the goddess Sekhmet, depicted as a lioness and warlike in nature. The famous myth of Hathor/Sekhmet and the 7,000 jugs of wine, as inscribed in the tomb of Tutankhamun, is typical of this tradition. The association of Qudshu and the lioness in the Qudshu images recalls the appearance of Sekhmet, and Qudshu is also called "beloved of Ptah" in inscriptions (Sekhmet was the wife of Ptah). Qudshu apparently had a temple in the city of Memphis, a center of Ptah worship. As a destroyer, Hathor/Sekhmet bore the title "Eye of Ra" and was closely linked with the serpent goddess Wadjyt in this role. Sekhmet however was also a healer and her priests were specialists in the field of medicine, especially surgery, and her son Nefertem was also a healing god.

    The linkage with Hathor was particularly strong in the mines of Timna and Serabit el-Hadem in the Sinai region, where a Hathor temple was located. Hathor was viewed by the Egyptians as the goddess of the surrounding territories where precious ore was located, including the mining area of the Sinai peninsula, and thus Hathor was known as the "Lady of Turquoise", the "Lady of Lapis Lazuli", the "Lady of Amethyst", and the "Lady of Gold". It was in the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions of the Semitic miners where the name Dat Batni "Serpent Lady" appeared, and the following artifacts were recovered from the Hathor temple in Timna, including the visage of Hathor and a bronze serpent:

    Hathor, as a nurturing goddess, was also depicted like Asherah as a tree of life nursing the young kings. In one depiction, she is suckling Thutmose III (1479-1425 BC):

    But Hathor also had a chthonic aspect, as the cow suckling the souls of the dead, giving them sustenance during their mumification, and dispensing the water of eternal life to the dead from the branches of a sycamore tree. She was thus called "Lady of the Sycamore". Asherah also had a connection to the underworld due to her association with snakes, which universally were regarded as chthonic in nature. This is partly due to the impression that snakes arise from the ground, as well as the roots of trees resembling snakes slithering their way into the ground (cf. the myth of "Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree" mentioned above). Venomous snakes also produce death from their bite. The chthonic deities of the underworld, such as Mot, Horon, and others, are often depicted as ophidian and insatiably hungry in Canaanite and biblical writings. They feast on the dead. In the Ugaritic cycle of myths, Mot is enthroned in the city Muddy in the underworld but "take care, attendants of the god, do not draw near divine Mot, lest he swallow you up like a lamb in his mouth, like a kid in the opening of his fangs (tbrn.qnh)" (KTU 1.4 viii 10-20). Mot describes his impending devouring of Baal:

    "The heavens will be hot, they will shine, when I tear you in pieces, I shall devour you, thighs, blood, and forearms; you will indeed go down into the throat of divine Mot, into the fangs of the Beloved of El, the hero....He extends a lip to the earth, a lip to the heavens, he extends a forked tongue to the stars. Baal must enter his belly, down into his mouth he must go" (KTU 1.5 i 32-35; ii 1-5).

    Another text mentions a dragon god "coming out from the underworld" and "with its fangs it turned the sea to foam, with its forked tongue it licked the sky, with its tail it turned the sea to foam" (KTU 1.83 R 1-9). In the "Vision of the Netherworld", the god of death (d-Mutu, the Akkadian equivalent of Mot) is described as having "the head of a serpent dragon (qaqqad mushussi)" (ANET 109f). In the Tale of Aqhat, we also read: "From his grave-pit, Aqhat beheld, he perceived the heart of darkness. Verily a giant viper stood by the wall-barrier, a dog at his sceptre, and behind there loomed a tower" (KTU 1.19 i 11-17). There is similar language in the OT. Habakkuk 2:5 compares the haughty in greediness to "Sheol, who is like Mot, insatiable, who assembles all the nations for his own ends, collects all the peoples to his own advantage". Psalm 49:14 says: "Like sheep to be penned in Sheol, Mot will herd them to pasture and the upright will have the better of them". Job 18:13-14 notes that "disease devours his flesh, Mot's first-born gnaws his limbs. He is torn from the shelter of his tent and dragged before the King of Terrors". Amos 9:2-3 refers to those "burrowing their way down to Sheol" and Yahweh commanding the dragon on the sea-bed to "bite them there". Drawing on ophidian imagery, Isaiah 5:14 says that "Sheol opens wide his throat and gapes with measureless jaw to swallow up her thronging nobility as they are shouting for joy".

    The chthonic deities bring death but they also have the power to save people and livestock from death. Appeasing Resheph would prevent the spread of disease, and sacrificing the young to Molech would safeguard the lives of everyone else. Molech is also known in Ugaritic texts as Rapiu, or the "Healer", and he rules over the non-ophidian Rephaim ("Healers"). In the Tale of King Keret, the King is beset by a disease that none of the gods can remove, so El creates "a remover of sickness, an expeller of disease", fashioning a dragon named Shatiqat out of moistened clay to defeat Mot and restore the king's health (KTU 1.16 V 1- VI 3). Horon, one of the serpentine gods of the underworld, was widely invoked in medical spells (cf. KTU 1.100; KTU 1.107; KTU 1.124.6; KTU 1.169). Margalit, in his commentary on the Tale of Aqhat, made the very interesting point that the serpent in Genesis 3 acted perfectly in accord with the Canaanite conception of serpents as associated with both fertility and death. By ensuring both fertility and mortality, the serpent deity would provide himself and his fellow chthonics a nearly endless food supply.

    The Ugaritic texts include two medical spells that involve the chthonic god Horon and in one instance, Asherah working together with Horon. Both texts also curiously have strong links with the Garden of Eden narrative in Genesis 2-3. The first text deals with a divine mare (the daughter of Shapsh, the sun god) who has suffered snake-bite. Although she appeals to all the gods for help, in the end the only one who has the power to cure her is Horon, the god from the underworld:

    "The mother of the stallion, Mare, daughter of spring, daughter of heaven and the deep, called to Shapsh her mother, 'Shapsh, my mother, carry my voice to El at the source of the rivers, at the meeting place of the Double-Deeps. A spell against the bite of a snake, against the venom of a snake that has sloughed. From it, let the conjurer destroy, from it let him cast out the poison'.....Towards Horon she turned her face, for she was about to be deprived of her offspring. He went to the eastern city. Then he set his face towards the Tigris abounding in rain, and the well-watered city of Tigris ('rsch < Hurrian Arassich "Tigris"). He uprooted from among the trees the tamarisk, and from among the shrubs the Tree of Death. With the tamarisk he shook it out; with the fruit-cluster he drove it away; with the foilage he dismissed it; with the roots he carried it off. Horon went to his house and came to his court. The poison became weak like a stream-bed, it flowed away like a stream. Behind her the house of incantation, behind her the house she shut, behind her the bronze she shot. Horon: 'Open the house, spell, open the house that I may enter, the palace that I may come in.' Mare: 'Give me the snake as my gift, give me the reptile as my dowry, and the young serpent as my present.' Horon: 'I shall give the snake as your present, the young serpent as your present' (KTU 1.100 R 1-6, V 60-75)

    The situation is very much like that of Numbers 21:4-9, which involves Israelites dying after being bitten by "fiery snakes". Wyatt also compares the Mare's request to have the snake as a gift with the talisman use of the bronze snake in Numbers 21 and the use of the bronze serpent discovered at Timna. The motif of a viper biting a horse also appears in Genesis 49:17. But the most impressive parallels lie in the connection with Genesis 2:5-14. Here we have the paradise motif of "the source of the rivers" (cf. Genesis 2:10), the location in the "eastern" parts (cf. Genesis 2:8), by the Tigris River (Genesis 2:14), where trees and "shrubs" (sych) are located (cf. Genesis 2:5), including a "Tree of Death" ('ts mt), which compares with its antithesis the "Tree of Life" as well as with the "Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil" which brings death (cf. Genesis 2:9). Wyatt, De Moor, and Pardee suggest that this text references a Ugaritic cognate of the Eden myth, for the "Tree of Death" and the paradisical scene is mentioned in connection with a serpent that brings death. It is the poison of the "Tree of Death" that negates the death-dealing venom of the serpents. There is a similar Ugaritic text that says: "I will shake bits of sacred wood ('ts qds), so that the serpent not come up" (COS 1.100). The noun 'ts "wood" is the same as "tree", and qds "holiness" is the same word as the epithet of Asherah, Qudshu, so the phrase could similarly be translated "bits of the Tree of Holiness" or "bits of the Tree of Qudshu". The wood is applied in much the same way as Horon applies the tamarisk wood and fruit. Another text presents an exorcism spell involving both Asherah and Horon:

    "[May the demon be expelled] like smoke thorugh a chimney, like a snake into a green tree ('mdm, cf. Akkadian emdu "evergreen cypress"), like goats to a summit, like lions to a lair...O sorcerers, O demons, may Horon expel your friends and the Divine Assistant your acquaintances. Depart! Let no words of scorn bring you down....May the god clothe you [the patient], may the god put a garment on you, turning into a man and one who has breath on earth, the madman into a son of man. From delirium restored, lo, by the breath (npsh) of Asherah the Great Lady into the heart, [from clay] may you be molded" (KTU 1.169 1-20).

    Here Horon expells the demons but Asherah returns the person to health in almost a creative act: by "molding" the person from clay and blowing her breath into the healed person. This is virtually how the creation of Adam is described in Genesis 2:7. Asherah's divine breath becomes the restored soul of the patient. The demon flees "like a snake into a green tree" (cf. Genesis 3:1-2), and the healed person is even described as being dressed with "clothes" from a state of nakedness (cf. Genesis 3:7). The word used to denote the "garment" ('rm) is in fact practically the same as the word 'rwm "naked" in Genesis 3:21.

    So what are we to make of these parallels? It is difficult to determine is any direct relationship exists and most likely these spells are only indirectly related to the Adam and Eve narrative though they incorporate many of the same motifs. Some guesses however can be made. Asherah was certainly portrayed as a tree, and specifically as the Tree of Life which endows curative powers and fertility to those who partake of her. Asherah was also closely associated with serpents, who were similarly viewed as highly fertile and rejuvenating/immortal. Possibly, snakes (especially mythological snake deities) were believed to derive their immortality and fertility from consumption of the Tree of Life. It is not clear whether the "Tree of Death" is part of the same paradigm or represent a separate tradition. It is possible that the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil that the serpent induces Eve to eat from is a Tree of Death -- or a Tree of Mot ('ts mt, for both in Ugaritic), might the serpent be Mot? The death-dealing fruit is analoguous to snake venom, and the result brings the victims into the underworld to serve as food for the chthonic deities. It is through consumption of the Tree of Life that the morbid effects of the poison are reversed and Asherah restores the breath of life. It is possible that the story has at its root a Canaanite myth that explains how El and Asherah created the world and people, but how Mot was able to claim the lives of everyone through death. However, it is also possible that there is an anti-Asherah rhetoric in the Genesis story, which becomes apparent when we consider its "temple" setting.


    As mentioned above, two elements in the Eden story are linked to Asherah: the "tree of life" and Eve, whose name resembles an Asherah epithet and who is a mother-creator like Asherah. The former is made off-limits and forbidden in the narrative (Genesis 3:22-24), and the latter is denigrated and banished from the garden (Genesis 3:16, 24), and even made enemies with the serpent in contrast to the usual relationship between Asherah and serpents (Genesis 3:15). The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is also forbidden (Genesis 2:17, 3:17), inasmuch as it relates to Asherah and the "wisdom" gained from the Tree of Life (cf. Proverbs). For this reason, an anti-Asherah polemic has been detected in the Genesis story, analoguous to the polemic in Hosea which responds to idolatry associated with Canaanite tree symbolism.

    I brought out in the beginning of this post the association between the Garden of Eden and the Temple, particularly how the garden was located on the "mountain of God" (Ezekiel 28:13-14; cf. Psalm 2:6-8, 24:1-8, 46:4), how ANE temples were decorated as divine gardens (cf. 1 Kings 6:32, 35; 7:18, 20, 36), how the metaphorical planting of an everlasting tree (bearing fruit in old age) in the Temple is mentioned in Psalm 92:12-14, how Yahweh was enthroned over the primeval waters (Psalm 29:10; 104:2-3), which flow as the waters of life from Jerusalem (Psalm 36:8-9, Isaiah 33:20-22, Ezekiel 47:1-22; Joel 4:18, Zechariah 14:8, 1 Enoch 26:1-2), including the river Gihon (Genesis 2:6; 2 Chronicles 32:20), and how cherubim are posted at the eastern entrance as guards (1 Kings 6:23-25, 8:6; cf. Numbers 1:51-53). The Eden narrative could thus be read as an allegory of the Temple. And in 2 Kings, we encounter two probable instances of Asherah worship inside the Temple. The most important incident relates to the Nehushtan, the snake-asherah pole, to which "the Israelites had offered sacrifice" (2 Kings 18:4). When King Hezekiah (716-687 BC) took office, he "cut down the Asherah poles and broke in pieces the bronze snake Moses had made" as part of his religious reform, and according to tradition the Nehushtan was located in the Temple (cf. Midrash Esfah, Yalk. Num. 764; Ber. 10b). He was followed by Manasseh (687-644 BC) who "placed the carved image of the Asherah which he had made in the Temple" (2 Kings 21:7), thus reversing Hezekiah's reforms. Then during the reforms of Josiah (640-609 BC), Hilkiah and the priests "removed all the cult objects that had been made for Baal, Asherah, and the whole array of heaven; he burnt them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron....From the Temple of Yahweh he removed the sacred pole right out of Jerusalem to the wadi Kidron, and in the wadi Kidron he burnt it, reducing it to ashes and threw its ashes on the common burying-ground" (2 Kings 23:4, 6).

    There is one small detail in these accounts that specifically recalls the Garden of Eden narrative. In 2 Kings 23:7, Josiah was also said to have "pulled down the house of the sacred prostitutes (qdsym) which was in the Temple of Yahweh and where the women wove clothes for Asherah". Was Asherah naked like Eve and clothed by her followers (cf. Genesis 3:7, 21)? This is also reminiscent of the man healed by Horon and Asherah who is clothed by the god who "puts a garment ('rm) on you" (KTU 1.169 1-20) -- just as Yahweh made clothes for Adam and Eve in v. 21. There is a parallel in Ezekiel 16:16: "You have taken your embroidered clothes and put them on the images". The pseudepigraphal Letter of Jeremiah 6:33 also says that "the priests take some of the clothing of their gods to clothe their wives and children". Although qdsym is traditionally understood to mean "cult prostitutes", it literally means "Holy Ones" and recalls Asherah's epithet qds "Holiness". Might the devotees of Qudshu/Asherah (explicitly including h-nsym "the women") have been called the qdsym, especially since her sons, the "sons of El" are also called qdsym "holy ones" in Ugaritic texts and the OT (cf. Psalm 89:6-8)? Mark Smith compares 2 Kings 23:7 with the modern Palestinian practice of hanging clothes on holy trees, including the Spina christi lotus, the Christ's thorn tree. Amots Dafni published an article on the subject "Why Are Rags Tied to the Sacred Trees of the Holy Land" in Economic Botany (Vol. 56, No. 4, pp. 315-327), which I reproduce in excerpts below:

    The custom of rag tying is practiced throughout in the Moslem world (Goldziher 1971 ). Rix (1907) noted that clothes that are left on sacred trees are not gifts in the ordinary sense; rather, they are channels connecting the worshipper with the object or person worshipped. In the Moslem world, rags, used clothes, yarn, and threads are tied on the shrines or tombs of holy figures (vilis ) and on objects around them such as sacred trees, wire netting that covers the windows of saint?s tombs, fences, etc., to get the saint?s divine blessing (Canaan 1927 ; Curtiss 1902 ; Leyard 1854 ; Westermarck 1986). Rix (1907:32) noted, ?Holiness is, indeed, to the Palestine peasant a sort of liquid which may be absorbed by physical contact. The man who hangs a rag upon a tree will take from it and wear about his person another rag which has become soaked with the virtue of the place by hanging there ?? Rag tying on sacred trees is quite common in the Middle East and surrounding areas (Drower 1941 ; Merril 1883 ) as well as in Cyprus (Diamandopoulos and Marketos 1993 ; Grinsell 1990 ), Turkey (Yassin et al. 1998 ) and Morocco (Westermark 1968 ). The present field study surveys the reasons for tying rags to sacred trees as a ceremonial part of tree worship, as actively practiced today in rural areas of Israel, especially by the Druze and Moslem Arabs.

    Materials and Methods

    Sixty interviewees were questioned in the northern part of Israel during 2000?2001. The group included 24 Druze, 18 Moslem Arabs, 12 Moslem Bedouins, and 6 Christian Arab individuals. The sample is biased towards the Druze and the Moslem Arabs because tree veneration is common in these ethnic groups whereas it is uncommon among the Bedouins in the northern part of Israel in which the survey was carried out and rare among the Christian Arabs. The people were chosen according to their knowledge of common traditions and/or religious status. The average age of the informants was 55 years (± 12 years). The sample included 55 males and 5 females (the women were interviewed in the presence of family members). The question asked was ?Why are rags hung on trees?? Complementary questions on specific items were introduced only after the informant had expressed his or her view. The numbers in parenthesis indicate how many of our interviewees mentioned a specific item. Original phrases are cited with additional data on the interviewee.

    Jaussen (1908:332) visited the Moab area (Transjordan) and reported, ?It is not, in fact, uncommon to meet with Arabs who knot a scrap of red or green cloth (never black, rarely white) to the boughs of a sacred tree.? In Syria white rags are the most common (Rouse 1895 , reminding us that in those days Syria also included Palestine). In Cyprus the cloths hung by the Greek Orthodox are white as a symbol of purity (Edna Heichal, The Israeli Archive of Folklore, Haifa University, pers. comm.). Today in Israel one finds cloths and rags of various colors and it is not obvious if green is still the most common (Khnéfis 2000 ; our observations).

    Religious Ban of Rag Tying

    The religious establishments of the Druze (8) and Moslems (7) are against the popular custom of hanging rags on sacred trees. Sheik Qásim Badr, the official current keeper of the Druze holy tomb of Nabi Sabalán (Upper Galilee, one of the most sacred places of the Druze) stated, ?We don?t do it [tie rags] today, it is not acceptable from a religious viewpoint. You don?t have to help God to remember you. Your request is sufficient and you don?t have to leave him a reminder, the Nabi [the Prophet Sabalán] will not forget you [after you pray]. The object that is left on the tree is valueless, the tree itself is blessed? (pers. comm.). The reason why a tree is considered sacred is that the Nabi Sabalán prayed underneath it (12). A similar view was expressed by a religious Moslem in whose yard there is a huge sacred Zizyphus spina-christi (Christ thorn tree, which is highly revered and worshipped by the villagers) who said, ?By rag tying on trees humans try to participate in God?s deeds and that is wrong, it is forbidden to help God in these decisions? (Abdilhádi Saleymán, Mazraa, western Galilee, pers. comm.).

    Despite the clear view of the religious leaders, rag tying on sacred trees is common among the Druze. Two hundred meters from the tomb of Nabi Sabalán there is a sacred grove that is covered with colorful rags and intact cloths that the locals call Omm i sh-sharayet (Mother of rags). An Arabic proverb ?Mithil i sh-sharayet? (like the mother of the rags, means these trees), describes a person who is dressed with old used rags ( Vilnay 1963 ). Tristram (1898:401) also mentioned, ?Eastern travelers will recall ?Mother of rags? on the outskirts of the desert, a terebinth covered with the votive offerings of superstitions or affection.? This custom is widespread in all the Druze villages in Galilee (Schiller 2000 ; our observations) and also in southern Lebanon (Khnéfis 2000 ).

    In the 10th century a Karaite, Sahel b. Matsliakh, who lived in Palestine, complained that Jews tied rags to sacred trees as votive offerings (Vilnay 1963 ), a custom, that violates Jewish laws, which forbids any worship of objects (Exodus 24:4; Deuteronomy 5:8).

    Why Rags Are Hung on Sacred Trees

    As Votive Offerings

    Throughout the Middle East and Morocco as well as in southwest Asia the most common reason for tying rags on trees is to make a votive offering ( Smith 1969 ). A person asks for the tree?s help (as the dwelling place of the Vili, God?s messenger). He requests a personal favor and tells what he will do when the request materializes (Donaldson 1973 ; Westermarck 1968 ). When the vow or request is granted, the person unties the rag while saying ?úall innidr? (the vow is ?untied?) or ?fakk innidr? (the vow is open) (7).

    Transfer of an Illness to the Tree

    The transference of an illness from a sick person to a sacred tree, the dwelling place of a saint, was done by tying a cloth or a piece of it to the tree (? Arráf 1993 ). This was a common practice in the Middle East (Canaan 1927 ; Curtis 1902 ; De Bunsen 1910 ; Granquist 1965 ; Jaussen 1908 ; Merrill 1883 ; Schultz 1852 ; Session 1898; Vilnay 1963 ) as well as in Morocco (Westermarck 1968 , 1973 ), Iran (Drower 1941 ; Farhadi 1994 ), and Cyprus (Diamandopoulos and Marketos 1993 ). Canaan (1927:104) wrote ?Very often a sick person tears a small piece from his clothes and ties it with the words ?I have thrown my burden (i.e., ?my sickness?) on thee, O man of God?. It is firmly believed that the saint will banish the disease.? De Bunsen (1910:245) described in detail the pilgrimage of a mother with her sick baby to a sacred tree in southern Syria (northern Israel today): ?The baby still wears a ragged little cotton shirt under the swaddling band, and from this the mother carefully tears a rag ? She holds the polluted discolored thing?the holy thing?the little rag in her hand. All the fever and the pain and the weakness of her child is concentrated and bound up in the rag. It was her duty to bring the concentrated evil, that heavy-laden rag, into contact with the holy, life-giving tree. The rag must be bound to it, cast off upon it branches ??

    According to Westermarck (1973) , by tying hair or pieces of cloths to saintly objects, the petitioner expects to profit by the barake of the object with which he or she comes into contact, and in certain instances the idea of disease transference is conspicuously present in his or her mind. When Granquist (1965:27) asked people why they tied rags or a cloth to a tree, the answer was ?And when thou leavest, then thou tiest a knot to a branch of the tree, and sayest ?Stay there thou evil!? This is said three times. The sickness must pass out of the patient?s body, because it is ?fastened? to the tree.?

    The manner in which clothes are tied to the trees to transfer personal troubles is a typical example of contact Magic. Frazer (1944:18) explained: ?Things which have once been in contact with each other continue to act on each other at a distance after the physical contact has been severed.? Canaan (1927:104) remarked ?Thus these pieces of cloth always keep their connection with the person from whom they came. They represent him, and anything done to them will happen to the owner. They represent the visitor, reminding the holy man of the visit performed, imploring help and begging for cure.? Hence, an object (e.g., the cloth) that was hanging on the sacred tree and absorbed its spirit will continue to act on the person to whom it will come into contact.

    A similar custom prevails in Malta. According to Cessar (1964) , a mother used to offer her child?s clothing as a token for recovery in sanctuaries and tombs. Cessar cited Vell Haber (1946:14, Is-Santwarju Nazzonali tal Qala, Malta), who stated, ?The grateful mother of sick children used to deposit the clothing of their offspring on the hermit?s grave as a sign that the disease had been transferred from the children?s bodies onto their clothing.?

    This custom is common today in Israel (36) among Moslems, Druze, and Christian Arabs. During the past three decades, Jewish people who immigrated from Morocco have retained this practice. Vilnay (1963:27) noted ?nowadays the Jews are not tying rags on trees (to get rid of sickness), this is more common among the Arabs? and this custom is changing as part of the revival process the reverence of saints among Jewish people in Israel today.

    Removal of Rags from the Tree for Curing Purposes

    A cloth that is left on the sacred tree acquires curative properties (? Arráf 1993 ). Sheikh Nur Rifâ?i (pers. comm.) testified that ?We hang a green cloth on the sacred tree and later we take it and use it for practical medicine. The faith returns, via the cloth to the healer, as well as to the client as a part of the healing process.? The idea is that the cloth absorbs the magical power of the saint as another manifestation of magic contact. Cloths that were left on trees (not necessarily by the same people) are taken back and are used for the following purposes: Curing various diseases and illnesses; for a general divine blessing (Barake); as amulets, talismans, charms, and omens; to ensure ?good health;? against the evil eye; to expel Jinn (evil spirit); ?to protect the family,? etc. This tradition is known from Israel (Baldensperger 1893; Canaan 1927 ; Curtiss 1902 ; Vilnay 1963 ), Jordan (Granquist 1965 ), Lebanon (Session 1989), Iran (Drower 1941 ), and Cyprus (Diamandopoulus and Marketos 1993 ). This custom is quite widespread today in Israel (27).

    To Ask Permission to Pick Fruit

    The consumption of fruit taken from sacred trees is strictly forbidden and people who dare to pick it will be severely punished ( Canaan 1927 ). In general there is a ban even on picking a leaf from a sacred tree (Vilnay 1963 ; Westermarck 1968 ), and the punishment could be serious (49). Some Bedouin in Lower Galilee (4) commonly hang green rags of special quality (stâra) on the trees of the Mt. Tabor oak (Quercus ithaburensis ) to ask permission of the saint to use the fruit without being harmed. This oak species has large edible acorns that are highly appreciated as a staple food, especially in hard times (Dafni 1984 ).

    Mark Smith also cites the case of the ruins to a temple to Astarte in Syria standing at the grotto of the Aqfa River about 23 miles from Beirut, which the local Christians regard as a church dedicated to the Virgin, nearby which is a fig tree on which pieces of clothing of sick people are hung in order to bring about their recovery. All this seems to evoke the role of asherahs in curing sickness, the concept of the Tree of Life, and the mythological role of Asherah in healing. But note the last item which also has an uncanny resemblance with the Eden narrative: "the consumption of fruit taken from sacred trees is strictly forbidden and people who dare to pick it will be severely punished". This certainly recalls the ban on eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the later ban against eating from the Tree of Life.

    Although the Bible text explicitly mentions the asherahs of Manasseh and the earlier kings, there are other probable representations of the asherah that were accepted in the Temple. The menorah is commonly thought to depict the Tree of Life and/or Asherah. We may first note the close resemblance between the Asherah depicted in the above Lachish ewer and the Jewish menorah. There is also the symmetrical six-branched tree pictured between two lions in the Taanach cult stand, which is paralleled with a nude female figure between the same two lions in the bottom of the stand (suggesting an identity between the tree and the female form). The menorah is explicitly described in Exodus as having the form of an almond tree:

    "You shall make a lampstand of pure gold, its cups, its capitals, and its flowers shall be of one piece with it. And there shall be six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches out of the other side of it; three cups made like almonds, each with its capitals and flower, on the one branch, and three cups each with its capitals and flower on the other branch, so that for the six branches going out from the lampstand" (Exodus 25:31-40).

    This is significant because the almond tree flowers early in spring even before its leaves have appeared. The menorah is also depicted as a tree planted between two olive trees in the vision in Zechariah 4:1-14 (cf. Revelation 11:4). Another almond object was Aaron's staff which "had budded, blossomed, and produced almonds" and which was kept inside the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle and Temple (Numbers 17:8-10; cf. Hebrews 9:4). The relationship between the almond tree and Asherah is also suggested by the Greek loanword amugdale "almond" which derives from West Semitic 'm gdlh "great mother". However it is also clear from the biblical evidence that many other kinds of trees represented Asherah or could be used as asherahs. 1 Kings 7:49 indicates that ten menorahs were kept inside the Temple.

    The Eden narrative could thus be read, at least in part, as an anti-Asherah parody of the Asherah cult, especially by understanding Eve (< Chawat, "Serpent [Lady]" who is identified with Asherah/Elat in Phoenicia) and the Tree of Life as reflexes of Asherah. Thus it has the removal of "Eve"/Asherah from the divine presence, the forbidding of the Tree of Life/Asherah, the dressing up of "Eve"/Asherah with clothes, and the relationship between "Eve"/Asherah and the serpent (Nehushtan). It is not clear how many of these parallels constitute actual links rather than coincidences, but there seems to be some complex relationship between the Asherah traditions and the Eden narrative.

  • avishai

    Thank you for your exhaustive research.

  • JCanon

    Hi Leolaia, no comment per our agreement. Thanks for the research!! [previous comment retracted]


  • JCanon

    Comments retracted. Thanks for your info L!


  • Leolaia

    Thanks avishai.

    JCanon, I asked you twice not to post in my threads -- along the lines of your agreement with PP. I have not been posting in your threads since I made the request. Okay?

  • peacefulpete

    She's back....

    I had just an interesting side thought. The JWs argue that if a ritual or practice had Pagan religious origin, it woulkd be improper for a Christian to participate, that is unless the practice has lost it's religious context (e.g. pinatas, wedding rings). Little thought has been given to the waving of Palm branchs in the Jesus story. The Roman context had yet retained the religious symbolism of this gesture. It had connections to the mother goddesss of Fertility (as shown above) as well as associations with warrior hero worship, yet the Jews/Christians who wrote these stories felt comfortable with honoring Jesus in this way. (historically or simply literarily). The bottom line is that the Jews/Christians natuarlly incorporated the cult and culture they were immersed in. To pretend otherwise is putting your head in the sand.

  • JCanon
    JCanon, I asked you twice not to post in my threads -- along the lines of your agreement with PP. I have not been posting in your threads since I made the request. Okay?

    Oh, I'm sorry. I do remember now. It's been a while and I just remembered something about being brief. I do apologize and will retract my info and maintain our agreement. No more posting on your threads.

    Have a nice day and thanks for your research. I'll just read it (smile). Please forgive, I truly did forget.


  • Leolaia

    I will weigh in though on the matter of Lilith because I do think it is important.

    The modern Jewish conception of Lilith as the first mate of Adam, created from the earth like himself but later replaced by Eve and banished, derives from a very late tradition, appearing no earlier than the Alphabet of Ben Sira (9th-10th century AD), which is the earliest known text that articulates this concept, and which is actually thought to be a comedic satire of midrash. The tradition is utterly unknown in the rabbinics, the intertestamental pseudepigrapha, and any other early sources. Scholars are generally skeptical that such a late tradition can inform the background of the Eden narrative in Genesis (see, for instance, this article). At the very least it should not be taken at face value as an unaltered tradition from ancient Israel, any more than the Genesis story should be taken at face value to transparently reveal the older Canaanite Eden myth. The Asherah tradition, on the other hand, is contemporary with the time of the writing of the J's Eden narrative (i.e. c. 800-600 BC).

    The belief in female Lilith (llyt) demons however is very old. It finds expression in Job 18:15, Isaiah 34:14; 11QpsAp, 4Q510 11:4-6a, Nidda 24b, Shab. 151b, etc. but it is nowhere connected with an Adam and Eve story. Job 18:15 (amended) suggests that Lilith was a chthonic deity associated with Mot, Isaiah 34:14 designates her as one of the demons of the wilderness, and 4Q510 11:4-6 mentions "all the spirits of the destroying angels, spirits of the bastards, demons, Lilith, howlers, and desert dwellers". The Jewish Nippur Bowls (c. AD 500) attest the fear of the "wicked Lilith" as a vampire who afflicts pregnant women. Nidda 24b relates that "Lilith is a demoness who has a human face and has wings". These notions preserve the Akkadian designation of the male lilu and the female lilitu as demons classed with the ardat lili "restless ghost" and the rabisu "lurking demon" (cf. Genesis 4:7). There were other female demons as well, such as the lamashtu. One Assyrian text designates the male lilu as "the phantom of the night that in the desert roams abroad, unto the side of the wanderer has drawn night, casting a woeful fever upon his body" (Thompson, 97). Gilgamesh's father, according to the Sumerian King List, was a lilu. It must be recognized that the Hebrew llyt derives from the Akkadian lilitu, just as similarly chrwbym "cherubim" derives from the Akkadian karibu, and the Hebrew rbts "lurking demon" derives from the Akkadian rabisu. The direction of dependence in the case of llyt is clear, for both Hebrew and Akkadian versions are derived from the Sumerian LIL "wind, spirit" (e.g. the god Enlil is "lord of spirits"). Jewish tradition has therefore adapted an older Akkadian mythology; note, for instance, that the lilitu was borrowed, but not the masculine lilu and the Lilith traditions do not pair her with a being called Lilu.

    However, none of these sources portray her as a wife of Adam. Neither do the Mesopotamian sources place the lilitu in an Edenic setting. It is true that the myth of Gilgamesh and the Huluppu Tree has been translated by SN Kramer to say that "inside the tree Lilith had built for herself a home" and that when Gilgamesh slew the serpent the "Lilith destroyed her house and escaped to the desert places". However it must be acknowledged that what is translated Lilith is not lilitu but lil-a-ke, which was only speculatively identified as a Lilith. The legend of Ninurta challenging Anzu also parallels the Gilgamesh story, as it mentions "an oil snake at its base, the Anzu cloud at its top, and ki-sikil-lil-la-ake at its center". But again, is lil-a-ke or ki-sikil-lil-la-ake the same as Lilith? Kramer's translation was immediately questioned and is generally rejected today (see Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. 4, p. 234).

    What is important to recognize is that there isn't a single tradition about Lilith and Adam but several different traditions that do not mesh well. R. Moses de Leon combined these together in the Zohar without making much attempt to reconcile them. I thus see little reason to privilege the Alphabet tradition as the "real Lilith tradition" over the other traditions wherein the backstory of Adam and/or Lilith is quite different. We may thus note how R. Isaac b. Jacob Ha-Qohen designated Lilith as the mate of the arch-demon Samael who were both created in the same hour "in the image of Adam and Eve" (Trestise, 19, 22). The Genesis Rabbah 18.4, 22.7, on the other hand, claimed that Adam had a first wife called "the first Eve" who was later replaced, but nowhere is she called "Lilith" and there is no reason to think that she should be identified with Lilith. The tradition diverges from the Alphabet tradition in many ways: The "first Eve" was removed from Adam not because a dispute over sexual dominance but because Adam was disgusted by watching the process of her creation and seeing her "discharge and blood". Furthermore, by the time the second Eve gave birth to Cain, the first Eve did not live on as a demoness but rather "had returned to dust" (22.7). An even older tradition from the Talmud, I believe, is truer to the mythological background of the Lilith and Eve myths:

    "Rabbi Jeremiah ben Eleazar said, "During those years after their expulsion from the Garden, during which Adam, the first man, was separated from Eve, he became father to ghouls and demons and Lilin." Rabbi Meir said, "Adam, the first man, being very pious and finding that he had caused death to come into the world, sat fasting for 130 years, and separated himself from his wife for 130 years, and wore fig vines for 130 years. His fathering of evil spirits, referred to here, came as a result of spontaneous emission of semen." (Erubin 18b).

    Here the scene is not prior to the creation of Eve but after Adam's expulsion from the Garden, during which time he lived in isolation from Eve. The claim is that Adam spontaneously procreated the lilin, which were Lilith-type spirits with human shape but with wings (Rashi, Sanhedrin 109a). Likewise Eve bore demons to the male spirits during the 130 year period. Thus all the demons were half-human (Hag. 16a), and one very late kabbalistic text refers to Lilith as the mother who collected Adam's semen and bore the lilin after her husband Samael had been castrated (Bacharach, 'Emeq ha-Melekh 19c, 84b-d). The description of demonic monsters being created through "spontaneous emission" is strikingly reminiscent of Hesiod's account of the Titans and Ouranos fathering all sorts of monstrous beings after his castration by bleeding onto Gaia. It is unclear whether Bacharach was influenced by classical mythology or draws on native Canaanite traditions about the "olden gods" of Shamem and Arets (cf. Philo of Byblos, on the war between Shamem/Ouranos and El/Kronos).

    We should also be careful to note that the entire Lilith tradition developed within midrash which expands on imaginative interpretations of wordings of scripture. The whole notion of "two Eves" or two wives of Adam could thus be traced to the compilation of the P and J creation accounts in Genesis, and represents an attempt to reconcile the two accounts. Similarly, the concept that the manner of Eve's creation was somehow different from someone else's can be found in the eccentric interpretation of z't h-p'm "This is now" in Genesis 2:23 as "This time". Thus the Alphabet and rabbinic traditions may not represent concepts from the same early strata that produced the Eden narrative but instead derive from interpretations of the much later J+P compilation in Genesis. If that is the case, such traditions should be used very cautiously as evidence of pre-Genesis traditions.

    In another thread in this forum, it is claimed that in Jewish folklore Lilith was a half-serpent demon otherwise known as Satan who was the tempress of Eve. It should be noted that this "tradition" does not appear until 1648, when something vaguely like it was first articulated in Bacharach's 'Emeq ha-Melekh. The relevant passage is thus:

    And the Serpent, the Woman of Harlotry, incited and seduced Eve through the husks of Light which in itself is holiness. And the Serpent seduced Holy Eve, and enough said for him who understands. An all this ruination came about because Adam the first man coupled with Eve while she was in her menstrual impurity -- this is the filth and the impure seed of the Serpent who mounted Eve before Adam mounted her. Behold, here it is before you: because of the sins of Adam the first man all the things mentioned came into being. For Evil Lilith, when she saw the greatness of his corruption, became strong in her husks, and came to Adam against his will, and became hot from him and bore him many demons and spirits and lilin.

    It was only through later Christian iconography and art that Lilith was firmly identified as being half-snake and the tempress of Eve (cf. Abel Pann's 1926 painting and Jappie King Black's 1980 painting, both which identify the figure as "Lilith"). The artistic representation of the Eden serpent in female form is a Christian art motif that originated outside of the kabbalistic tradition (cf. this painting from 1415), with no attempt being made in such works to identify the serpent explicitly with Lilith, and at any rate there is no Jewish story which corresponds to the pictorial representations. The one exception is the aforementioned Bacharach folktale, but it is confusing and quite problematic. The story is not of Eve's temptation at the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but a sexual seduction by the Lilith-Serpent so that the Lilith-Serpent lay with Eve who was a virgin at the time and the semen that Lilith produced inside Eve was the origin of menstruation! This notion is totally alien to the rest of the Lilith tradition, both in representing Lilith as the serpent in Eden as well as portraying her as a semen-producing female serpent who had sex with Eve before Adam had the chance. And this is the one exception in the Lilith tradition that gave rise to the modern concept of Lilith as the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Bacharach, in turn, was influenced by Moses Cordovero (1522-1570) and R. Isaac b. Jacob Ha-Kohen (thirteenth century AD) who did not identify Lilith with the serpent in Eden, but did describe her as "the Torturous Serpent" who mated with Samael (i.e. Satan) who was the "Slant Serpent". This, in turn, is derived from the much older concept of Lilith as the consort of the wicked demon Samael. So obviously, within this version of the Lilith tradition, Lilith was not Satan/Samael but rather his mate! And the notion of Lilith being serpentine derives not from a midrash of the Eden story (which nowhere enters Cordovero's and Ha-Kohen's depiction of Lilith) but from a midrash of Isaiah 27:1 which mentions "Leviathan the Slant Serpent, Leviathan the Tortorous Serpent, and the Dragon that is in the sea". Both Cordovero and Bacharach interpreted this as referring to THREE seperate individuals, Samael, Lilith, and a bizarre Blind Dragon who served as Samael's penis when he would mate with Lilith. Again, this concept is foreign to the earlier Lilith tradition and it is also incompatible with the "modern" folktale claimed in the other thread to represent "Jewish tradition". It is also transparently derived from midrash. The kind of "Jewish story" mentioned in the other Lilith thread is nowhere attested in such sources, even the few exceptions that treat Lilith as serpentine.

    Rather, when we look at the Talmudic, pseudepigraphal, and early kabbalistic material on Lilith, there is no concept of Lilith as being half-serpent, as being Satan, as being the serpent who tempted Eve. Indeed, we find very different concepts. Thus b. Nidda 24b (before the sixth century AD) describes Lilith as "a demoness with a human appearance except that she has wings". This is just the description we get in the Arslan Tash amulet (7th century BC), and the mention of her "flying away" in the Alphabet of ben Sira (9th-10th century AD), so the concept of her being winged is certanly more ancient. In the later Ha-Kohen, Cordovero, and Bacharach material, where she does appear as the "Torturous Serpent", she is not Satan but the mate of Samael. In all the older material, she is either the mate of Adam (cf. Alphabet) or the mate of Samael (cf. Zohar Sitrei Torah). Zohar 1:19b explicitly says that Lilith was banished from Eden after the creation of Eve (and thus could not have been the snake in the Garden), and the Alphabet even more pointedly claims that she had to be pursued by angels and steadfastly refused to return to the Garden. Moses b. Solomon of Burgos and R. Ya'aqov and R. Yitzhaq both describe as Samael and Lilith as born together androgynously, and R. Isaac b. Jacob Ha-Kohen similarly claimed that Samael and Lilith "were born at the same hour in the image of Adam and Eve, intertwined in each other" (Trestise 19-22). Yet, in the stream of tradition that knows nothing about Lilith as the consort of Samael, we find that Adam and Lilith were created together, "from the same earth" according to the Alphabet, or with "the female attached to his side" who God "sawed her off" from him (Zohar 1:34b, 3:19). In all this we see a complex, multivaried tradition with many different concepts of Lilith and how she related to Adam and Samael/Satan. Yet there simply isn't a notion that Lilith was synonymous with Satan (in the stead of Samael).

  • Leolaia

    The lilin in Erubin 18b, however, are evidently cognate to the llyn of the disputed Arslan Tash amulet (7th century BC, if genuine). The text begins: "Incantations against the Flyers ('pt'), the goddesses, against Sasm son of Padrishisha', the god, and against the Strangler of the Lamb. The house I enter, you shall not enter!" (COS 2.86, lines 1-6). Then later on, on an image of a winged sphinx, the following spell appears: "Against the Flyers, from the dark chamber pass away! At once! At once, O night demons (llyn)!" (lines 19-20). I think (but am not sure) that the -n is the plural in Aramaic (cf. 'lyn "gods", shddyn "Shaddai-gods"), which suggests that the tradition in the Talmud derives from such an Aramaic tradition. The reference is not to a particular Lilith individual but to a class of similar demons. The amulet is also interesting for also mentioning Asherah as having made "an eternal covenant with us, along with all the sons of El, and the leaders of the council of the Holy Ones, with a covenant of Heavens and Eternal Earth (i.e. Shamem and Arets)," while Horon is also mentioned with his seven consorts and eight wives (lines 7-17). Also curiously, the epithet for Horon is given as Baal-Qudsh.

    In the OT, Horon is only mentioned in toponyms, such as Beth-Horon ("House of Horon"; cf. Joshua 10:11, 16:3, 18:13-14, 21:22; 1 Samuel 13:18; 1 Kings 9:17), which compares with Beth-Anath ("House of Anat"; cf. Joshua 19:38; Judges 1:33), Beth-Dagon ("House of Dagan"; Joshua 15:41, 19:27), Beth-Shemesh ("House of Shamash/Shapsh"; cf. Joshua 15:10, 19:22; Judges 1:33; 1 Samuel 6:9), and Beth-El ("House of El"; cf. Genesis 28:19, 31:13; Joshua 8:9, 12:16; Judges 1:22; 1 Samuel 30:27). Polytheism lived on in the place names.

  • Leolaia

    PP...I'm sure there are many other examples, if one thinks about it.

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