Asherah (from Hebrew אשרה) generally taken as identitical with the Ugaritic goddess Athirat (more pedantically but accurately ’Atirat) who was a major northwest Semitic mother goddess, appearing occasionally also in Akkadian sources as Ashratum/Ashratu and in Hittite as Asherdu(s) or Ashertu(s) or Aserdu(s) or Asertu(s).
In the Ugaritic texts (before 1200 BCE) Athirat is three times called ’atrt ym, ’Atirat yammi, 'Athirat of the Sea' or as more fully translated 'She who treads on the sea', the name understood by various translators and commentators to be from the Ugaritic root ’atr 'stride' cognate with the Hebrew root ’šr of the same meaning.
In those texts Athirat is the consort of the god El and there is one reference to the 70 sons of Athirat, presumably the same as the 70 sons of El. She is clearly distinguished from ‘Ashtart (better known in English as Astarte). She is also called Elat (the feminine form of El) and Qodesh 'Holiness'.
Among the Hittites this goddess appears as Asherdu(s) or Asertu(s), the consort of Elkunirsa and mother of either seventy-seven or eighty-eight sons.
In Egypt, beginning in the 18th dynasty, a Semitic goddess named Qudshu 'Holiness' begins to appear prominently, equated with the native Egyptian goddess Hathor. Some think this is Athirat/Ashratu under her Ugaritic name Qodesh. This Qudshu seems not to be either ‘Ashtart or ‘Anat as both those goddesses appear under their own names and with quite different iconography and appear in at least one pictorial representation along with Qudshu.
But in Persian, Hellenistic and Roman periods there was a strong tendency towards syncretism of goddesses and Athirat/Ashrtum then seems to have disappeared, at least as a prominent goddess under a recognizable name.
Biblical references have been taken to indicate that a goddess Asherah was worshipped in Israel and Judah, as the Queen of Heaven whose worship Jeremiah so vehemently opposed:
- "Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger."
- —Jeremiah 7:17–18
- "...to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem"
- —Jeremiah 44:16
The Hebrews baked small cakes for her festival.
But the word asherah also refers to a standing pole of some kind, pluralized as a masculine noun when it has that meaning. Among the Hebrews' Phoenician neighbors, tall standing stone pillars signified the numinous presence of a deity, and the asherahs may have been a rustic reflection of these. Or asherah may mean a living tree or grove of trees and therefore in some contexts mean a shrine. These uses have confused Biblical translators. Many older translations render Asherah as 'grove'. There is still disagreement among scholars as to the extent to which Asherah (or various goddesses classed as Asherahs) was/were worshipped in Israel and Judah and whether such a goddess or class of goddesses is necessarily identical to the goddess Athirat/Ashratu.
Most of the 40 references to Asherah in the Hebrew Bible derive from sources edited by the Deuteronomist. In her study Asherah: Goddesses in Ugarit, Israel and the Old Testament (1997, p. 141), Tilde Binger noted that there is warrant for seeing an Asherah as, variously, "a wooden-aniconic-stela or column of some kind; a living tree; or a more regular statue." For Asherah often a wooden-made rudely carved statue planted on the ground of the house was her symbol, and sometimes a clay statue without legs and stood in the same way. Her idols were found also in forests, carved on living trees, or in the form of poles beside altars that were placed at the side of some roads. When the young reformer Hezekiah came to the throne of Judah: "He removed the high places, and broke the pillars (massebahs), and cut down the Asherah." (2 Kings 18.4).
Two painted inscriptions "Yahweh of Samaria/the guardian and his Asherah" on fragments of the type of large terracotta pot that archaeologists call a pithos were found in the site of a caravanserai of the 8th century BCE at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud (in Hebrew Horvat Teman) in the Negev. They have raised great speculation. Other gods appear in the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud graffiti— along with the title Ba‘al. There are accompanying drawings (not a Hebrew custom) and an oasis is a center of the religious cross-fertilization called syncretism. However, from a site west of Hebron, identified as Biblical Makkedah , a furtively excavated inscription reads Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh and by his asherah; from his enemies he saved him! (Berlinerblau)
Although forbidden by Hebrews, the cult of goddesses lasted during the Roman occupation in Israel in the hidden form of temple prostitution, until emperor Constantine closed those houses after converting to Christianity.
Ashira in Arabia
A stele, now at the Louvre, discovered in the ancient oasis of Tema (the modern transcription is Tayma) in southwestern Arabia by Charles Huber in 1883, and believed to date to the time of Nabonidus's retirement there in 549 BCE, bears an inscription in Aramaic which mentions Ṣalm of Maḥram and Shingala and Ashira as the gods of Tema. This Ashira might be Athirat/Asherah. Since Aramaic has no way to indicate Arabic th, corresponding to the Ugaritic th (more pedantically written as t), if this is the same deity, it is not clear whether the name would be an Arabian reflex of the Ugaritic Athirat or a later borrowing of the supposed Hebrew/Canaanite Asherah.
Asherah and ‘Ashurah
In the ancient lunar calendar that has become the Islamic calendar, the Day of ‘Ashurah, transliterated also as Aashurah, Ashura or Aashoorah, falls on the 10th day of Muharram. On that day, in the year of the Hejira 61 (AD 680), Husayn bin Ali, the grandson of Muhammad was killed by Umayyad forces at the Battle of Karbala (now in Iraq). Still called the "Day of Aashurah", it has been observed ever since as a day of mourning by Shi’ites .
The name ‘Ashurah is interpreted as meaning 'Ten' in Arabic. (The normal Arabic word for 'ten' is ‘asharah cognate to the Hebrew root ‘śr 'ten', the differing forms of s being the normal correspondence found in cognate roots between Arabic and Hebrew.) Some try to connect the Arabic ‘Ashurah instead to the goddess Athirath/Asherah through the Ashira of Tema. But ‘Ashurah with initial letter ‘ain is difficult to equate with ’Asherah; with beginning ’alef (here indicated by an apostrophe but normally omitted initially in popular transliterations from Semitic languages). It is as though in English one were to say that the word juice refers to the god Zeus. The sound difference is very distinctive to Arabic ears.
- Kuntillet inscriptions