Ancient Pagan and Modern Christian Symbolism
by Thomas Inman, M.D. (1874)
Appendix: The Assyrian Grove and other emblems,
by John Newton, M.R.C.S.
Appendix - Page 3
Another symbol, the caduceus, older than Greek and Roman art, in which it is associated with Esculapius and Hermes, the gods of health and fertility, has precisely the same signification as the sistrum and the lingam. This is made clear enough in the following extract from a letter by Dr. C. E. Balfour, published in Fergusson's Tree and Serpent Worship, 1878. "I have only once seen living snakes in the form of the Esculapian rod. It was at Ahmednuggar, in 1841, on a clear moonlight night. They dropped into the garden from the thatched roof of my house, and stood erect."
"They were all cobras, and no one could have seen them without at once recognising that they were in congress. Natives of India consider that it is most fortunate to witness serpents so engaged, and believe that if a person can throw a cloth at the pair so as to touch them with it, the material becomes a representative form of Lakshmi,§ of the highest virtue, and is preserved as such." The serpent, which casts its skin and seems to renew its youth every year, has been used from remotest times as a living symbol of generative energy, and of immortality; indeed, in the most ancient Eastern languages, the name for the serpent also signifies life.§§ It has been usually worshipped as the Agathodoemon, the god of good fortune, life, and health; though in the Hebrew scriptures, and elsewhere, we meet with a good and a bad serpent—Oriental dualism. The Kakodoemon, however, is usually represented as winged—the Dragon, as in the following example.
§ The consort, or life-giving energy of Vishnu.
§§ As in French, the name for the male organ and for life is the same in sound, though not in spelling or gender.
In the remarkable Babylonian seal, Plate iv., Fig. 8, the deity is represented as uniting in himself the male and the female. On each side is a serpent, as the emblem of the life flowing from the Creator; that on the male side, having round his head the solar glory, is compared to the sun-god, as the active principle in creation; that on the female side, over whose head is the lunar crescent, to the moon- and earth-goddess, the passive principle in creation. Both are attacked by a winged dragon, the kakodoemon, or the evil principle. This is according to the ancient Chaldean doctrine of two creations of living beings, the one good and the other malign. The Chinese still think that an eclipse is caused by the efforts of a furious dragon to destroy the sun and moon; and Apollo, the sun-god, destroying the serpent Python, has reappeared on our coin as St. George killing the dragon. Even Apollyon appears in old paintings with huge wings, like those of a bat.
Having thus explained what appears to be the key to a wide range of religious symbolism, and shown its application in many cases, we shall further apply it to unlock the famous object of Assyrian worship. Soon after the discoveries of Botta and Layard were published, it was conjectured that this strange object, so continually represented as being adored, might be the asherah of the Hebrew scriptures, translated "grove" in the English version. How far the view was correct we shall now proceed to examine.
The religion of the East at a very remote period appears to have been the worship of one God, under several names. The most primitive was El, Il, or Al, = the strong, the mighty one; or its plural Elohim, as expressing His many powers and manifestations. Another name was Baal or Bel,—the lord, which also had a plural form, Baalim. The first word is continually used in the Hebrew scriptures, and applied both to the true God and the gods of the nations. Baal is only once thus applied, Hosea ii. 16; yet Balaam, inspired by God, prophesies from the high places of Baal. This name, though so appropriate to the Almighty, became abhorrent to the Jews when it was so frequently associated with idolatry, and a new cognomen, or "the Supreme," was adopted by them, viz., Jehovah, = the Eternal, the Ever-Living One, the Creator; see Exod. iii. 14. "Baal" was the supreme god of all the great Syro-Phoenician nations, with the insignificant exception of the Jews; and when the latter migrated into Canaan they were surrounded on all sides by his worshippers. Towns, temples, men, including even a son of Saul, of David and of Jonathan, viz., Eshbaal, Meribbaal, and Beelida, were called after him. As the sun-god, Baal-Hammon, Song of Sol. viii. 11; 2 Kings xxiii. 5; he was worshipped on high places, Num. xxii. 41; and an image of the sun appeared over his altars, 2 Chron. xxxiv. 4. As the generative and productive power, he was worshipped under the form of the phallus, Baal-Peor; and youths and maidens, even of high birth, prostituted themselves in his honour or service; Num. xxv.; 2 Kings xxiii. 7. As the creator, he was represented to be of either or of both sexes; and Arnobius tells us that his worshippers invoked him thus:
"Hear us, Baal! whether thou be a god or a goddess."
Though he is of the masculine gender in the Hebrew, the lord, yet Baal is called [———], = the lady, in the Septuagint; Hos. ii. 8; Zeph. i. 4; and in the New Testament, Romans xi. 4. At the licentious worship of this androgyne, or two-sexed god, the men on certain occasions wore female garments, whilst the women appeared in male attire, brandishing weapons. Each of this god's names had a female counterpart; and the feminine form of Baal was Beltis, Ishtar, and Ashtarte. As he was the sun-god, she was the moon-goddess. Now, whilst the masculine name (as Bël or Bâl, Baal, Baalim,) appears nearly one hundred times in the Hebrew Old Testament, the feminine equivalent is only found three times in the singular Ashtoreth, and six times in the plural Ashtaroth; always in association with Baal-worship. Knowing, as we do, the immense diffusion of her worship amongst the Babylonians, Assyrians, and Phoenicians, this appears strange. There is a word of the feminine gender occurring in the Hebrew twenty-four times, viz., Asherah or Asharah; plural, Asharth translated in the Septuagint and Latin vulgate, a tree, or "grove," in which they have been followed by most modern versions, including the English. This supplies the void, for Asharah may be regarded as another name for the goddess Ashtoreth, as is plainly seen by the following passages: "They forsook Jehovah and served Baal and Ashtoreth;" Judges ii. 18; whilst in the following chapter we read, "They forgot Jehovah their God, and served the Baalim and the Asharoth;" iii. 7. What, then, was the Asharah? It was of wood, and of large size; the Jews were ordered to cut it down; Exod. xxxiv. 18, etc.; and Gideon offered a bullock as a burnt sacrifice with the wood of the Asherah. Occasionally it was of stone. It was carved or graven as an image; 2 Kings xxi. 7. It often stood close to the altar of Baal; Judges vi. 25 and 80; 1 Kings xvi. 82, 88; 2 Chron. xxxiii. 8. Usually on high places and under shady trees; 1 Kings xiv. 28; Jer. xvii. 2; but one was erected in the temple of Jehovah by Manasseh; 2 Kings xxi. 7. It had priests; 1 Kings xviii. 19; and its worship was as popular as that of Baal; for whilst the priests of "the Baal" were four hundred and fifty, those of "the Asherah" were four hundred, who ate at the table of Queen Jezebel, daughter of Ethbaal, king of Sidon. It was sometimes surrounded with hangings, and was worshipped by both sexes with licentious rites; 2 Kings xxiii. 7; Ezek. xvi. 16. As Baal was associated with sun-worship, so was the Asherah with that of the moon; 2 Kings xxi. 8; 2 Chron. xxxiv. 4.
Besides these Asheroth, female emblems of Baal, there were Asherim, male emblems of Baal, "symbolising his generative power" (Furst, Hebrew Lexicon), which are mentioned sixteen times in the Hebrew scriptures. It is only found in the plural, and must have been a multiple representation of the singular, Asher, which means "to be firm, strong, straight, prosperous, happy," § and cognate with the Phoenician (Osir), "husband," "lord," an epithet of Baal.
§ The lupanars at Pompeii were distinguished by a sign over the street door, representing the erect phallus, painted or carved, and having the words underneath, "Hie habitat felicitas."
Doubtless this was also identical with the Egyptian Osiris, = the sun, = the phallus. He was said to have suffered death like the sun; and Plutarch tells us that Isis, unable to discover all the remains of her husband, consecrated the phallus as his representative. Thus "the Asharim" were male symbols used in Baal-worship, and sometimes consisted of multiple phalli, of which the branch carried by an Assyrian priest, in Plate iii. Fig. 4, is a conventional form. They were then counterparts of the "multimammia" of Greek and Roman worship.§ This is confirmed by a curious passage, 1 Kings xv. 13 (repeated 2 Chron. xv. 16). We learn (xiv. 28) that the Jews, under Rehoboam, son of Solomon, having lapsed into idolatry, had "built them high places, images, and Asharim ("groves," A. V.) on every high hill, and under every green tree; and that there were also consecrated ones ("sodomites," A. V.) in the land." But Asa, his brother, on succeeding to the throne, swept away all these things, and (xv. 18) deposed the queen mother, Maachah, because she had made a miphletzeth to an Asherah ("an idol in a grove," A. V.) miphletzeth, is rendered by the Vulgate "simulacrum Priapi." The word is derived from palatz, "to be broken," "terrified," or the cognate, phalash, palash, "to break or go through," "to open up a way;" a word or root found in the Hebrew, Phoenician, Syriac, and Ethiopie. Doubtless the Greek [———] phallus, was hence derived, since it has no independent meaning in Greek; and Herodotus and Diodorus expressly assert that the chief gods of Greece and their mysteries, especially the Dionysiac or Bacchic revels, in which the phallus was carried in procession, were derived from the east. Compare also the Latin pales, English pale, pole, = Maypole. A similar word, with a corresponding meaning, exists in the Sanscrit. Thus, then, according to the Hebrew scriptures, there were two chief symbols used in the worship of Baal, one male, the other female.
See Figs. 15, 16.