Missing: Fierce, Powerful Goddess

Seated Woman with Lions, at least 10,000 years old

Catalhoyuk, Anatolia, present-day Turkey

Middle East Ankara_Muzeum_

Very little is known about the spiritual beliefs of the people from Catalhoyuk, but the figurine, one of many like it found at the site leads to some interesting possibilities.  She is enormously fat, like the Venus figurines (See earlier post on the Venus Figurines) but she does not look like a victim.  She sits on a throne flanked by lions, two symbols of power.  James Melhart, who excavated the site in the 1950s and 60s, claimed this figure and many others like it found at the site, carved from marble, limestone, basalt, alabaster, and clay, represented an Earth Mother deity.  However, Ian Hodder, who worked on the site in 2004 and 2005, claimed “in fact there is very little evidence of a mother goddess.”

The map below shows the major settlements in the ancient Near East, including those mentioned in this post.  (Map courtesy of Resources for History Teachers)

Ancient Near East

Al-Uzza, Al-Jauza, Al-Jabar

“What’s in a name?” Lots, as it turns out.


The constellation we know as Orion the Hunter was known to ancient Arabic astronomers as al-Jauza, a feminine form meaning the Central One.  In ancient illustrations of the constellation, al-Jauza is clearly a woman.   However, the name later changed to al-Jabar, a masculine form meaning “The Giant.”  When the Greeks named the constellation, it became Orion the Hunter.  However, echoes of the past remain in the star names, including Betelgeuse (“Bet-al-Jauza,” translated as the armpit of the Central One, the hand of the Central One, or the house of the Central One, depending on which scholar’s work you’re reading).Orion illustration from Heritage Arabe des Noms Arabes Pour Les Etoiles

The ancient Arabic goddess called al-Uzza, meaning “The Mightiest One” or “The Strong,” was associated with both fertility and war.  She was worshipped, along with Hubal (the chief of the gods) as well as Manat (goddess of fate) and Al-lat (goddess of the Underworld) at many important sites between Medina and Mecca, including the Kaaba, though all shrines, statues, and other evidence of their worship have been destroyed.

Inanna, Queen of Heaven, Goddess of Love, War, Fertility, and Lust

Sumeria – present day Iraq; main temple in Uruk, 6,000 years agoInanna, Louvre vase

The most powerful Sumerian goddess was Inanna, who may have been borrowed from an even earlier mother goddess figure.  But Inanna was no loving mother figure.  Often pictured standing on the backs of two lionesses, she was associated with both sex and war. It was said she could stir up confusion and discord.  According to one story, a bully who drank blood and ate the flesh of his victims terrified the residents of Uruk until one of Inanna’s men defeated him, hitting him with an axe.  The villain then begged forgiveness of Inanna, promising to praise her and make offerings at her temple in Uruk.

Her planet was Venus, the Morning and Evening Star, famous for its brilliant appearance in the western twilight sky, followed by its disappearance into the Underworld and reappearance in the eastern pre-dawn sky.

Ishtar, Queen of the Night, Goddess of Love, Fertility, and War

Akkad – center in city of Uruk, 4,300 years ago,

Sumeria – Uruk, in present-day Iraq

Assyria – Nineveh and Ashur, in present-day Iraq


The Akkadian Empire absorbed almost all of the land drained by the Tigres and Euphrates Rivers about 4,300 years ago, putting both the Semites and Sumerians under Akkadian rule and enforcing the Akkadian language. After the fall of the empire 140 years later, two main groups emerged: Assyria in the north and Babylonia in the south.

Ishtar was simply a later version of Inanna.  She was an unpredictable goddess of love, fertility, sex, and war.  She was incredibly powerful, capable of creating and destroying.  While she was praised as the creator of the human race, provider of continuing sustenance, and giver of arts and culture, she also had quite a reputation as a cruel lover, often killing her partners.  Like Inanna, she was associated with lions, often pictured standing on the backs of two lionesses.  Venus, particularly as the Evening Star, was her planet. In the terra cotta plaque of her that is now located in the Louvre (pictured), she is also flanked by owls, an indication of her position as Queen of the Night.  Her temple at Tell Bank in present-day Syria contained thousands of figurines of staring owls that were able to “see” justice.

Both Inanna and Ishtar were often portrayed with horns on their heads representing the crescent moon.

Astarte, Queen of Heaven, Goddess of Fertility, Sexuality, and War

Phoenicia – centers in Tyre and Byblos, 3000 – 5000 years ago


Astarte, Statuette_Goddess_Louvre_AO20127Cyprus

Dama_de_Galera AstarteAstarte is the Phoenician version of Ishtar.  Since the Phoenicians were great sailors and traders, they spread the cult of Astarte throughout the eastern Mediterranean from the early Bronze Age to classical times, when the Greeks made her into Aphrodite and the Romans made her into Venus.  While these goddesses kept her sexuality and capriciousness, they downplayed the warlike aspects of Astarte.

Astarte’s symbols are the lion, horse, sphinx, and dove.  The statue of the Lady of Galera in Spain (left) shows Astarte flanked by sphinxes.  Her statue now housed in the Louvre (pictured) shows her naked except for her necklace and long earrings, with blazing eyes and a blazing navel.  The crescent moon on her head looks like horns.  In Phoenicia, she was sometimes portrayed leaning forward at the bow of a ship, becoming the original for the figureheads on many later boats.

Astarte appears in Egypt as a warrior goddess, often conflated with the lion-headed goddess Sekmet and with Isis.

She appears in the Bible as Ashtoreth, combining Astarte with bosheth (abomination), who is condemned as a female demon of lust.

Sekhmet – Powerful One, The Destroyer, Lady of Terror, Eye of Ra, One Before Whom Evil Trembles, Lady of Life, Protector of Pharaohs

Centers – Memphis and later Thebes, Ancient Egypt

Sekmet seated

Depicted as a lioness or a woman with a lion’s head, Sekhmet (also Sekmet), daughter of the sun god Ra, was one of the oldest deities in the Egyptian pantheon.  Nothing soft about this lady; her hot breath was said to create the desert.  When Ra felt that humans had failed to live correctly, he sent Sekmet as his avenger.  She killed so many people that Ra tried to stop her, but her blood-lust drove her to more killings.  Finally, Ra poured thousands of gallons of pomegranate-stained beer in her path.  Thinking it was blood, she drank it until she passed out and the killing stopped.  In her honor, public drinking festivals were held each year, which might be one reason her cult lasted 3000 years.

Since she was associated with lions, tame lions were often kept in her temples.

Later on, Sekhmet’s image changed when she was merged with Hathor, particularly at the Temple to Sekhmet-Hathor at Kom-el-Hin.  Hathor was the mother goddess, pictured as a sacred cow or a woman with cow’s horns on her head.  Unlike the warlike Sekmet, Hathor was associated with joy, sex, music, dance, pregnancy, and birth.  The combined figure was known as “Destroyer of Rebellion,” “Mighty One of Enchantment.”

Tanit – Virginal Mother, Fertility Goddess, Goddess of War

Tanit, Bardo_National_Museum_

Center – Carthage, present-day Tunisia, on the Mediterranean coast across from Sicily

Tanit was the Carthaginian version of Astarte, worshipped from Malta to Gades (Cadis) on the coast of Spain.  She is usually pictured with a lion’s head.

Many of these goddesses obviously share some characteristics.  It’s easy to see the shared qualities of Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Sekmet, Ariadne (Crete), Neith (Lybia), Asherah (Hittite), and Anat (Assyria).

In all of these, she shares heavenly titles such as Goddess of the Heavenly Upperworld, Lady of Heaven, Queen of Heaven, Ruler of Heavens, Shining One, and the Torch of Heaven.  To recognize her fierce qualities, she was referred to as Goddess of War, Lady of Victory, Lady of Sorrows and Battles.  She was also Goddess of Love and Goddess of the Evening.

However, as the goddess morphed over time, her warlike qualities began to disappear.

Ba’alat Gebal – Goddess of love, Goddess of Byblos

Center – Byblos, Phoenicia, Temple built 4700 years agoStatue of Ba'alat Gebal at British Museum

As the Greeks made Astarte into Aphrodite, she became the love goddess, a physical beauty.  The first century AD statue of Ba’alat Gebal now housed in the Louvre, shows the transition.  The Phoenician goddess stands in a classical Greek pose.  Her symbol is no longer the lion but the dove, included in her headdress, which also includes a sun disk, a symbol of the Egyptian goddess Isis.  She retains two feathers in her headdress, reminiscent of Astarte.

Hathor with cow horns

Hathor – Celestial Cow, Personification of the Milky Way, Lady of Stars, Mother of MothersEgypt -Isis suckling Horus

Isis – Nurturing mother, Patroness of Nature and Magic

Hathor, the Celestial Cow, was an ancient Egyptian goddess probably morphed from Bat.  She is shown early on as a full cow with a sun disk between her horns. Later, she appeared as a woman with a sun disk between cow horns (pictured, right).  She was the patron of music, dance, and sexual delight, also associated with cosmetics and incense.

In many ways, Isis absorbed the qualities of Hathor but added the dimension of loving wife and mother.  As mother of the falcon-headed god Horus, she is often pictured holding or suckling the infant (pictured, left).

The fierce goddess, the lady of terror, has gradually disappeared.

With the rise of the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the goddesses disappeared almost completely.  The name Queen of Heaven was applied to Mary, the virginal mother of Jesus wearing a mantle of stars, often pictured holding or suckling the infant Jesus.  In Mexico, Our Lady of Guadalupe continued the heritage of the Aztec Mother Earth goddess Tonantzin.  However, the Reformation downplayed the role of Mary and outlawed statues of her or the saints as idolatry in Protestant churches.

The sea is still referred to as female though the figurehead on boats has disappeared.  The terms Mother Earth and Mother Nature survive though in most uses they engender none of their original respect.

Many of the areas where the goddess cults once flourished now practice extensive discrimination against women that has become accepted as part of the culture.

I miss the fierce goddesses.  I wander through the local toy store, looking at endless rows of pink Barbies looking like so many perky prostitutes, and wonder what happened.

Sources and interesting reading:

“Ancient Near East,” courses.cit.cornell.edu

“Arabic in the Sky,” Saudi Aranco World, September/October 2010

“Arabian Mythology,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arabian_legend

“Asherah,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/Asherah

“Astarte,” Encyclopedia Britannica, www.britannica.com

“Astarte,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Astarte

“Ba’alat Gebal,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/ba’alatGebal

“Betelgeuse,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betelgeuse

Cass, Stephanie. “Hathor,” Encyclopedia Mythica. http://www.pantheon.org/articles/h/hathor.html

“Catalhoyuk,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Catalhoyuk

Cross, Fran Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the Religion of Israel. Harvard University Press, 2009.

“Inanna,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inanna

“Ishtar,” PaganPages.org, http://paganpages.org/content/tag/ishtar

“Isis,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/isis

Map of the Ancient Near East During the Amarna Period, www.ancient.eu.com/image/171

Map of the Ancient Near Eastern Empires.  http://resourcesforhistoryteachers.wikispaces.com

Map of the Oriental Empires about 600 BC, www.hopeofIsrael.org

“Neith,” Wikipedia

Palestine History: From pre-Bible to the Old Testament, http:/www.israel-a-history-of.com/palestine-history.html

“Phoenicia Trade Routes” map from “Phoenicians,” Wikipedia

“Seated Goddess, CatalHuyuk, “AP Art History: Art of the Ancient Near East.” http://www.westcler.org/gh/curlessmatt/arthistory

“Sekhmet,” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sekhmet

“Statue of Ba’alat Gebal,” British Museum http://depts.Washington.edu/silkroad/exhibit/rome

“Statue of Tanit,” Bardo National Museum, http://upload.wikimedia.org

Stuckley, Johanna H. “Goddess Astarte: Goddess of Fertility, Beauty, War, and Love” http://www.matrifocus.com IMB04/spotlight.htm

al-Sufi, Kitab suwar al-kawakib (The Constellations), 903 – 986 AD, World Digital Library

“Tanit,” Wikipedia