The mythical legends surrounding the Goddesses of the Middle East date back to around 2500 B. C and form a part of some of the earliest recorded literature about ancient civilizations. These legends centre around the Divine Entities worshipped and revered in various sub regions in what was once known as the Ancient Near East but today is known as the Middle East. Though the religious beliefs in these regions were distinctive and each Civilization followed their own Gods and Goddesses most of these divine entities reacted to human conditions and were a product of the cultures that created them.
As these cultures evolved over time, so did the Gods and Goddesses who protected and created them. Some of the prominent religions and civilizations who’s Divine Entities were revered and worshipped in the region known as the Ancient Near East includes: (Gordon 1965) • Assyro-Babylonian religion followed in most of Mesopotamia include Sumer, Assyria, Akkad • Ancient Egyptian religion followed in Ancient Egypt • Canaanite religion followed in most of the Levant region including Canaan, Ugarit, Ebla, Mitanni
• Hittite, and Hurrian Religions originating in Anatolia and followed by the Hittite Empire including Assuwa, Arzawa • Minoan religion followed by the Minoan civilization including Cyprus and Crete among others.
The goddess in early classical mythology has traditionally played the role of a creator. She is believed to have existed before everything and has been credited with creating both heaven and earth as well as giving birth to both other gods and subsequently to human beings.
In nearly all early civilizations the Goddess symbolized noble and basic concepts such as birth, death, honour, and justice. She was revered for her divine beauty and also for protecting her husband and children. While the male gods were relegated the duties of guarding the underworld, it was the goddesses who were given the responsibilities of providing comfort and standing guard over the dead until they were given a funeral and send to the underworld.
Most of the civilizations depicted above sprung up around great rivers in the Middle east including, the Nile, Tigris, Euphrates, and Ganges. The presence of these rivers nourished a rich agricultural landscape and provided sustenance to agricultural gave civilizations which were predominantly matriarchal societies. (Sasson 1995) These civilizations were heavily influenced by both the blessings and ravages of nature. The rivers that they depended upon for sustenance would both give them abundant crops and wreck immense havoc and destruction in the form of devastating floods.
People in these civilizations believed that there was a link between their lives and the pattern of birth –maturity death and re-birth that they observed in the plants and animals around them. The religious beliefs of most of these civilizations compelled them to worship or hold sacred what they thought provided them life and sustenance and also protected them from ravages and destruction the importance of goddesses in the myths and religious beliefs of these civilizations reflected this.
The myths and legendary tales of powerful beautiful goddesses who had magical powers and controlled the various forces of nature helped t the people of these ancient civilizations understand the mysteries that pervaded their existence, birth, death, seasons, floods, harvests and drought all made so much more sense when they believed that there was a Supreme or Divine Deity who controlled it all and who they could appease through worship and prayer. In most of these matriarchal societies, this supreme deity was the Great Mother Goddess, who personified all the blessings and peculiarities of Mother Earth.
Though there are countless Goddesses who were revered and worshiped in the ancient civilizations of the Middle East the most popular and common ones who were personified in the role of being creators, sustainers and the universal source of nourishment include(Christ 1998) Asherah –This is one of the names of the Sacred Goddess worshiped by the ancient Semitic Civilizations. Other names of this Great Goddess include Goddess of the Tree of Life, Goddess of the Grove. Wet-nurse of the gods.
among many others This Goddess worshiped widely in Canaanite religion followed in most of the Levant region was symbolized by a multi branched tree and considered the very force of life that could be found in flocks of cattle and among groves of trees. This Goddess was often worshipped before childbirth and at planting time to grant sustenance. In popular mythology Asherah sometimes appears as curly-haired Goddess riding a sacred lion often holding lilies. Ishtar: Another very famous and popular Babylonian Goddess often known as Light of the World.
Righteous judge, Forgiver of Sins and the Framer of all decrees are also few of her other roles and names that she was worshipped by. This Great Goddess is often depicted in breast-offering pose and is also known as the Mother of the fruitful breast. Inanna – was a very powerful Sumerian Goddess who was believed to provide earth with its source of life-water. Often called the Source of the Earth’s life blood it was believed by the ancient civilizations that this Goddess filled the wells, rivers and springs of the land with her own blood
Isis- a very popular and powerful Goddess worshipped by the Ancient Egyptians Isis is perhaps the most famous of all Ancient Middle Eastern Goddesses. Some sources claim that her name means: “She of throne,” while other sources imply that her name means: “She of flesh. ” Isis’s was revered for using her powers of magic and healing to help humanity Ashnan – She was the ancient Sumerian Goddess of Grain who controlled agricultural sustenance for the civilizations that worshipped her. Belit-Ilani – Worshipped by the ancient Babylonian this Goddess was often held in esteem as the Mistress of the gods.
In popular depictions she is portrayed as a woman bearing baby on her left arm and blessing a child with her left. Anath – Worshipped by Canaanites, Amorites, Syrians, Egyptians, Hebrews and the Phoenicians. This Goddess symbolized the strength of Life and was the Queen of Heaven and also the Mistress of all the Gods. Anatu – She was the Great Mesopotamian Goddess, often considered the Ruler of the Earth and Queen of the Sky. Chaabou – was held in high reverence by the Semitic religion and relegated as Earth Mother responsible for sustenance and nourishment. Achamoth – Worshipped by the Early Gnostic Christians.
She was the Mother Goddess, who was responsible for giving birth and was the effective creator of the material universe, Deborah – was the Sacred Goddess worshiped frequently in the Mycenae and Anatolia regions often identified with the Tree of Life. Erua – was the Babylonian Goddess often revered as the Queen of Heaven. She was responsible for controlling the birth of all creatures big and small in her land. Gula – was another popular Babylonian Great Goddess who was also known as the Fate Goddess and the Great Doctor who was believed to cure any kind of sickness or ailment .
Lahmu- a famous Goddess in Akkadian mythology, who is considered to be the mother of “Anshar and Kishar,” who are credited to have fathered the first Gods of that great ancient civilization. Persian mythology which also plays a part of ancient Middle Eastern Mythology also held the Goddess. “Rudaba” in great esteem. This Goddess gave birth to “Rostam,” the greatest hero in Persian mythology. ” Derceto –was the Babylonian Sea Goddess also known as the Goddess of Justice. Kadi –was a Babylonian Goddess believed to have the body of a Serpent and the head and breasts of a Woman.
Mari –was revered as the Mother Sea, who gave birth to the gods, Shebat was worshipped as the Mesopotamian Moon Goddess responsible for bringing night after day. Tirgata – was revered as Fish Goddess of Syria who controlled the sea and all life within it As these Civilization evolved so did the role of their gods and goddesses. By 2400 B. C religious and devotional practices began to change as aggressive tribes with strong beliefs in worshipping a supreme male god began to invade the matriarchal communities whose supreme diets were Goddesses .
New myths developed in which these goddesses were made evil, slain or made inferior to the patriarchal god of the conquerors. The goal in creating these myths was to defame and to dethrone the goddess from her traditional role of Creator and sustainers and to give this role to a new generation of patriarchal warrior Gods who ruled the world through valour and heroic endeavour. As a direct consequence the role of the Goddess in the Patriarchal societies underwent a change from being a loving supreme deity to a vengeful, spiteful Entity who had to be either slain or made subordinate to the male gods in order to control her powers.
Many Ancient Babylonian and Mesopotamian Goddesses who were once revered as the Source of Life and Sustenance was discredited slain or made subordinate to a new patriarchal male warrior God. (Christ 1998) One example of how ancient myths of Goddesses changed in patriarchal societies is the legend of the Mesopotamian divinity Tiamat. Revered by the ancient Sumero-Babylonian civilization as a Serpent Goddess of the Watery Abyss a Mother, from whose formless body the Universe was born. She was believed to nourish all life and rule the ocean.
Tiamat, in her role as Mother Goddess and Mother Earth, reflected the matriarchal civilization that created her. (Christ 1998) In a patriarchal society the role of Tiamat and the legend surrounding her changes drastically. According to these new myths The Goddess once credited with the creation of the Universe is upset when her husband Appu is slain and decides to destroy what she has created. She gives birth to a race of evil monsters to help in her quest. Together the Goddess and her army of monsters wreck chaos and havoc on all around them.
There is no one who can stop Tiamat until Marduk accepts the challenge. In violent battle, Marduk manages to wedge open the mouth of the serpent goddess and fill it with winds of a horrible storm. While the serpent goddess is distracted he slains her by cutting her womb. After killing the Goddess the patriarch warrior feels glorified. He then desecrates the womb that previous mythologies and civilizations revered as the Source of All Life. The myth ends by establishing that the supreme deity is now male and that he and his cohorts of warrior Gods will now be responsible for protecting the civilization.
In a patriarchal society the role of the God is relegated from giving birth and nurturing traditionally seen as motherly tasks to being the protector traditionally seen as fatherly tasks The roles of the goddesses in these societies were reduced to subservient status In the new patriarchal civilization, the myths regarding the Goddesses were recreated and often retold till they achieved credibility and became part of a new folklore designed to promote the religion of the new civilization.
In this fashion countless legendary myths depicting the creative, nurturing and forgiving nature of the female goddesses were desecrated and in their place grew new myths propounding their evil deeds. In many of these myths the goddess is first discredited and then engaged in battle with the patriarch God. At the end the Patriarch God achieves victory over the Goddess and she is either slain or looses her powers. Another myth which was refashioned along these lines was that of Hathor an Ancient Egyptian Goddess.
Hathor, in Ancient Egyptian mythology was revered as the goddess responsible for evoking emotions such as joy, love, dance and song. (Christ 1998) She is fabled to have provided her own nurturing milk to the living and also carried the dead to the underworld. But somewhere in mythology the Hathor who is revered for her very instincts of Love and joy is also painted as a demon that wrecks death and destruction on Humanity.
Acting on the directives of the sun god, Ra, who was under the impression that some of his subjects were planning to Kill him Hathor was sent on a mission to destroy the plotters Hathor who also manifested herself in the guise of a lioness known as Sekhmet, attacked all the plotters killing them instantly. Ra was forced to intervene to stop the bloodshed by tricking Sekhmet into believing that she had killed a lot of people so by pouring a massive amount of pomegranate coloured liquid over the battlefield .
Sekhmet mistook the liquid for blood stopped the slaughter and transformed back into her goddess form of Hathor. It is ironic in the least to observe that in cultures where the feminine spirit has always been seen as nurturing, loving and creative the role of goddesses of mythology is associated with evil deeds. Perhaps these mythologies have been restructured to assimilate in Patriarchal Societies where the god is associated with social order and discipline.
But regardless of their role in mythology many famous Goddesses of the Middle East continue to live in popular imaginations even though the religions and cults associated with them have now been banished. Though the Middle East is now home to new religions such as Christianity Judaism and Islam and the age of idol worship and plural Gods is over, these deities have become part of the common folklore. The Worship of these Goddesses may now be defunct but their legend lives on and continues to pervade subsequent cultural practices in these regions.
Works Cited Gordon, Cyrus. The Ancient Near East, 3rd Edition, Revised. W. W. Norton and Company, Inc. , New York, 1965. Christ Carol: Rebirth of the Goddess: Finding Meaning in Feminist Spirituality Routledge; 1st edition 1998 James. E. O. The Ancient Gods: The History and Diffusion of Religion in the Ancient Near East and the Eastern Mediterranean, 1960. Sasson Jack: Civilizations of the Ancient Near East. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1995. Morton Smith, The Common Theology of the Ancient near East, Journal of Biblical Literature 1952.