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A Goddess in the Garden?

Ta’anach Cult Stand
This 10th-century B.C.E. Israelite cult object depicts the goddess Asherah on the bottom tier

Once upon a time, there was a talking snake who revealed the secret of a magic tree to a woman named Life.

There are a lot of other ways a creation story could go, but there you have it. A wily, chatty serpent; two magical trees; a man; and a woman, formed out of the first person’s side because no suitable companion was found among the other animals.

There is no goddess in this story. This might be stating the obvious, but elsewhere in the ancient Near East, earth (“mother earth”), snakes, and trees are associated with goddesses as symbols of fertility and life-giving power. Here in Eden, we have all of these goddess associations but no goddess.

But there is a goddess whose name appears throughout the Bible, often as part of the official worship of Israel’s god—although the biblical authors don’t approve. She is Asherah, an important figure in Canaanite mythology and Yahweh’s consort in iconography and inscriptions from biblical Israel. Drawings found with one such inscription also feature a tree of life—a common symbol for goddesses in general and for Asherah in particular.

But in Eden, the only female we have is Eve.

The author connects the name Eve (Hebrew, hawah) to a root meaning “life,” stating she was “the mother of all living.” The Greek text agrees, translating with Zoe (“life”). But a widely accepted derivation for Eve’s name, first suggested in the Talmud, is the Hebrew root hwy—a word for “snake” in other Semitic languages. An ancient Punic tablet bears an inscription in Phoenician addressed “[to] the lady Hawat, goddess queen.” Hawat is an epithet of Tannit, the mother-goddess of Punic religion whose name means “dragon” or “serpent.” Thus the name conferred on the first woman might have been associated with the figure of a mother-goddess affiliated with serpents.

The elements of Eden suggest a connection between the figure of Eve and a mother-goddess; but here Eve has been demoted, the “mother” created last as her procreative abilities are usurped by God. Earth is used to create the first human, but it requires God’s breath for animation and life.

As punishment for her connection with serpent and tree, fertility will be a hardship for the woman and the man will dominate her sexually. The positive association of goddess and women with motherhood is reversed, and tree of life, woman, and serpent are firmly separated for eternity. The serpent is cursed and demoted to the status of lowest animal. The earth is cursed, its fertility diminished, and the man will now till the soil with difficulty. The future relationship between men and “mother-earth,” in all of her manifestations, will be a strained one.

The moral of the story: there is no goddess in Eden. God is the one who grants fertility; neither the earth nor women have this power in their own right. In its ancient context, Eden was about the fall of the goddess, not the “fall of man.”

  • Shawna Dolansky

    Shawna Dolansky is Associate Professor of Religion and Humanities in the College of the Humanities at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She is the author of two books and numerous articles on the Bible and ancient Near Eastern religions. Her current research focuses on gender and sexuality in the Hebrew Bible and the ancient Near East.