A Hebrew word occurring frequently in the Bible (R. V.) and signifying, except in a few late passages noted below, a wooden post or pole planted near the altars of various gods. In the Authorized Version the word is rendered "grove."
It has often been inferred from Deut. xvi. 21 that the Asherah was originally a tree, but the passage should be translated "an asherah of any kind of wood" (compare Moore, "Ency. Bibl." and Budde, "New World," viii. 734), since the sacred tree had a name of its own, el, elah, elon, and the Asherah was sometimes set up under the living tree (II Kings xvii. 10). This pole was often of considerable size (Judges vi. 25), since it could furnish fuel for the sacrifice of a bullock. It was found near the altars of Baal, and, down to the days of Josiah, near those of Yhwh also, not only at Samaria (II Kings xiii. 6) and Beth-el (II Kings xxiii. 15), but even at Jerusalem (II Kings xxiii. 6). Sometimes it was carved in revolting shapes (I Kings xv. 13), and at times, perhaps, draped (II Kings xxiii. 7). It is most often associated in the Bible with the pillars ("maẓẓebot") that in primitive days served at once as a representation of the god and as an altar (W. R. Smith, "Religion of the Semites," 2d ed., p. 204). It was proscribed in the Deuteronomic law and abolished in Josiah's reform (II Kings xxii. 23).
In a few passages (Judges iii. 7; I Kings xviii. 19; II Kings xxiii. 4) Asherah appears to be the name of a goddess, but the text has in every case been corrupted or glossed (compare Moore and Budde, as cited above). In the first of the three passages the name Ashtaroth should stand, as it does elsewhere, in the case of similar charges of defection from Yhwh (compare Judges ii. 13, x. 6; I Sam. vii. 4, xii. 10). In the other two passages, the term Asherah is superfluous. These passages may indicate, as Moore suggests, that the Asherah became in some localities a fetish or cultus god.Asherah the Name of a Syrian Goddess.
Asherah was also the name of a Syrian goddess. In the El-Amarna tablets of the fifteenth century B.C. her name appears with the determinative for deity as a part of the name Arad-Ashirta (or 'Ebed-Asherah). It also appears in a Sumerian hymn published by Reisner ("Sumerisch-Babylonische Hymnen," p. 92), on a hematite cylinder ("Zeit. f. Assyr." vi. 161), and in an astronomical text of the Arsacide period (ib. vi. 241). She appears to have been the consort of the god Amurru, a Baal of the Lebanon region (compare Jensen, "Zeit. f. Assyr." xi. 302-305). Arad-Ashirta in the El-Amarna tablets represents not only a sheik, but a clan, and is possibly the one which afterward became the tribe of Asher. Possibly a trace of this goddess is to be found in an inscription from Citium in Cyprus, which dedicates an object to "My lady mother Ashera" (compare Schröder, "Z. D. M. G." xxxv. 424). Many scholars, however, interpret the passage otherwise (compare Moore, l.c.). Hommel has recently announced ("Expository Times," xi. 190) that he has discovered in a Minæan inscription a goddess Athirat. phonetically equivalent to Asherah. This would indicate that Asherah was a name for an old Semitic goddess long before the fifteenth century B.C.; but for the present this must be regarded merely in the light of a possibility. The relation of this goddess to the pole called Asherah in the Bible is a difficult problem. The name in the Bible is masculine; the plural "Asherim" occurring sixteen times, and the plural "Asherot" but three times. The latter is clearly an error. Asherah must be a nomen unitatis. G. Hoffmann has shown ("Ueber Einige Phönizische Inschriften," pp. 26 et seq.) that these posts originally marked the limits of the sacred precincts, and that in the Ma'sub inscription it is the equivalent of "sacred enclosure." Moore finds in this fact the explanation of the use of the word in Assyrian (ashirtu, ashrâti; eshirtu, eshrâti), in the sense of sanctuary. Hommel fancies that he sees in the original form of the ideogram for Ishtar (compare Thureau-Dangin, "L'Ecriture Cunéforme," No. 294), a post on which hangs the skin of an animal.
Quite apart, however, from Hommel's somewhat imaginary conjecture, the Assyrian and Phenician use of the word in the sense of "sanctuary," taken in connection with the Arabian and Syrian use of it as the name of a goddess, indicates that the posts were used at the sanctuaries of the primitive Semitic mother-goddess, and that in course of time their name attached itself in certain quarters to the goddess herself, and has survived in South Arabia and Syria. When, therefore, the late editors of the Old Testament books made of the Asherah a fetish or cultus god, history was but repeating itself (see Ashtoreth; Worship, Idol; Maẓẓebah; Phenicia).
Bibliography:J. Jr. G. A. B.
- Movers, Die Phönizier, i. 560 et seq.;
- Wellhausen, Composition des Hexateuchs, 1889, 2d ed., pp. 281 et seq.;
- Stade, Gesch. des Volkes Israel, pp. 458 et seq.;
- idem, Zeitschrift, i. 345, iv. 295 et seq., vi. 318 et seq.;
- G. Hoffmann, Ueber Einige Phönizische Inschriften, pp. 26 et seq.:
- W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites, 2d ed., pp. 187 et seq.;
- Schrader, Zeit. für Assyriologie und Verwandte Gebiete, iii. 364;
- Collins, in Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archeology, xi. 291 et seq.;
- Barton, in Journal of Biblical Literature, x. 82 et seq.;
- idem, in Hebraica, x. 40 et seq.;
- idem, Semitic Origins, 1902, 246 et seq.;
- Nowack, Lehrbuch der Hebräischen Archäologie, 1894, ii. 19 et seq.;
- I. Benzinger, Hebräische Archäologie, 1894, pp. 380 et seq.;
- Driver, Commentary on Deuteronomy, in the International Critical Commentary, 1895, p. 201;
- Moore, Commentary on Judges, pp. 86 et seq., 191 et seq.;
- P. Torge, Aschera und Astarte, Leipsic, 1902.