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Thursday, July 26, 2012

Ashera is alive and well and living in Philadelphia

Philadelphia Skyline
I was in Philadelphia yesterday to tour the exhibit of The Dead Sea Scrolls at the Franklin Institute.  A group from the Lewes-Rehoboth Area Progressive Interfaith Alliance filled two buses with 97 people to make this little pilgrimage to our common ancestry.

It was fabulous. I highly recommend it.

I was especially interested to learn more of Ashera, ancient Hebrew "God-the-Mother" who shows up regularly on pottery bowls and urns in the image of a woman cupping her breasts in her hands. We saw many examples of that in the exhibit - shards of pottery with that unmistakable feminine image near the handle or lip of the bowl or urn. Apparently, she was forcibly removed from Hebrew Scriptures around 400 or 500 BCE, even though Moses and Aaron both carried an Asherah "pole" as a sacred staff of power.

I wrote this down as it appeared on one of the plaques near the pottery: "As the 'official' state worship became increasingly male oriented, and the establishment became hostile toward all forms of Asherah worship, a time of conflict and bloodshed lasting over a hundred years began."

After the exhibit (did I mention that it was fabulous?), I had about an hour and a half before we had to board the bus and head home.  I decided, rather than tour the rest of the museum, I would head out into the City of Brotherly Love in search of "modern artifacts" and evidence of Ashera.

A confession: I am, as I once heard Byron Rushing say, a "sidewalk junkie". Hard core. I get twitchy and jumpy if I'm not around sidewalks with disheveled people muttering and walking with a Thorazine gate or park benches with junkies nodding off.

Don't get me wrong: I love my wee cottage on Rehoboth Bay. I love having Blue Herons and White Herons and Egrets and Sea Gulls as my neighbors. I love being on the water and the relentless quiet and the unpredictable effects of weather.


I also love the City. I love the asphalt and concrete. I love the sights and the smells. I don't even mind the pungent odor of human urine in the subway. Honestly. I don't have to live in the underbelly of the city and I sure am glad for public subway transportation. The smell of humans being basely human is a pungent reminder that people populate the planet - people who are not as fortunate as I am to travel between the City and the Sea.

Besides, I do have to live with Sea Gull poop on my deck and car and occasionally have to wash splashes of it off my sliding glass door. No place is perfect.

So, off I went to see what evidence our modern culture provides of an appreciation of the Divine Feminine.

The short story: Not too much.

Some parts of Philly still look like Berlin after the war.  Other parts look like little European brick row houses and town houses, with sparkly clean stoops and steps and neighborhood stores and shops. Other parts are surprisingly suburban, with neat little single houses and finely manicured lawns.

The architecture of the city itself is very phallic. Everything is large and cylindrical and points up. Tall buildings competing with each other in size and ability to penetrate the sky. And, in case you didn't get the point, there's an actual 'point' on some of the buildings. Some of the points even have points.

I also saw lots of monuments of men - either portly, scholarly-looking men of obvious distinction, usually holding a book, Or, military men. On a horse. With sword or gun. Raised. Ready for battle.

The statues of women were usually around a pool of water with benches all around the perimeter. Reclining. Half dressed. Voluptuous. Beautiful. Serene. Docile. Not a book in sight. Nothing to inspire greatness or intelligence or, God knows, violence. Just rest and introspection.

Now, I'll grant you that I really only walked around for an hour or so and I didn't see the whole city in its entirety, but I saw enough to understand that Philadelphia is not unlike most cities - here or abroad. There is more than ample evidence that "this is a man's world" and men have made and left their mark everywhere. At least, in the 'outward and visible signs' of city life.

I suddenly remembered hearing in the Institute that "Ashera" is often translated from the Hebrew as "She who walks behind", but it is more accurately translated to mean, "She who walks in the Sea". I wondered if my need to have both city and sea was an unconscious or subconscious way to balance my anima and animus, my yin and my yang, my female and maleness. 

I was ruminating about all of this while sitting on a park bench outside the Institute when a small gaggle of elderly Caucasian women came walking through and sat down on a park bench not far from where I was sitting. Some walked steadily and gracefully. One was using a grand wooden cane. Another was using one of those "seat walkers" which carried a portable tank of oxygen.

With them was a tall, willowy, beautiful young African American woman who tended to them, making certain everyone was sitting in the shade. When everyone was settled, she snuggled herself in between two women on the park bench and I could hear them making light, cheerful small talk.

"Oh, my salad was delicious," I heard one of them say. "We're going to have to go back there again," determined another. "I'm glad you ladies liked it," I heard the young woman say. "It's my mother's favorite. Whenever my grandmother is in town, we always take her there."

"Well, are you going to read to us or not?" asked the older woman with the wooden cane.

"I surely will," said the young woman, as she reached into her bag, pulled out a book and started flipping through the pages. "Which story would you ladies want to hear today?"

Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofernes
"I want to hear more about Judith," said the woman with the portable oxygen tank, as she slipped the nasal canula from underneath her nose and turned off her oxygen. "Me, too," said another.

"Sure," said the young woman, "I'll have to figure out where we left off last week."

"It was the part after Manasses, Judith's husband, died, before she goes off to kill Holofernes," said the woman with the wooden cane.

"Shhhh. Don't go giving it away," said one of the women, adding, "Why do you always have to be such a smarty-pants, anyway?"

"Because I am?" sniffed the woman with the wooden cane.

They all giggled as the young woman said, "Alright, ladies, let me continue."

She wasn't reading from the bible but apparently from a book that had summaries of the scriptural stories about women.  I was fascinated as I listened to the story being told - obviously from a woman's point of view and not at all with the sort of ethical dilemma we read between the lines in the Book of Judith.

The young woman was an excellent reader - articulate, dramatic when necessary, the cadence of her voice quicken or slowing to accentuate a point. Everyone was thoroughly engaged.

When she finished the story, the women had an animated conversation about the character Judith and the complexity of role of women in antiquity as well as modern times. They told stories about themselves and each other and other women in their lives. I caught most of it but lost some of it to the noise of buses and cars and the usual noise of the city streets.

I was fascinated and enthralled by their intelligence and insights, their wit and humor. Their honesty was sometimes painful and some of the bitterness and sharp judgements made me wince.

After they finished their discussion and they were gathering up their things to leave, I walked over and introduced myself, apologizing for eavesdropping on their conversation.

"I wish you had joined us," said the young woman. Everyone nodded in agreement. "Yes," said the woman with the wooden cane, "you look perfectly lovely."

"Is this a weekly group?" I asked, surprised that I was blushing at her compliment.

"Well," said the young woman, "we meet every other week. We go out to lunch and then we discuss a book. Last month, we talked a lot about the work and poetry of May Sarton. This month, the ladies wanted to know more about the women in the bible."

"I'm fascinated and intrigued," I said.

"Well, come join us," said the woman with the walker, as she put on her nasal canula and turned on her portable oxygen tank.

"I'd love to, but I'm just here visiting. I've been at the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibit over at the Franklin."

"Oh," they all squealed, "we were there last month. Loved it. LOVED. It."

"Well, next time you're in town, come join us," said the young woman. "We think it's really important to lift up and talk about women and our accomplishments."

"Yes," said the woman with the wooden cane, "Because if we don't, God knows, no one else will."

"So I've noticed," I said, motioning my head toward the statue of a man on a horse with a sword.

"Lilith lives!" said the woman with the wooden cane, raising it up over her head.

"And, apparently, so does Ashera," I added.

Silence fell over the group like a warm blanket on the hot day it already was. One of the woman gave me a piercing gaze, then smiled broadly and said, "What do you do? I mean, for a living?"

"Actually,'" I said, "I'm an Episcopal priest."

"Well, that's okay," said the woman with the nasal canula. "We're all Jewish. Except for this wonderful young lady. She's Baptist. Serious Christians, you know, those Baptist. But, she's smart as a whip and just as lovely as can be. We're all friends here. You are who you are. Besides, I've always felt that Episcopalians are really Jews who follow the Rabbi Jesus."

The woman with the wooden cane looked at me and said, "Episcopal priest, eh? Well, I don't care where you live, you have GOT to join us in two weeks. We need you."

"I can't do that," I said, "but I'm with you in spirit."

"Long live Lilith!" she said in a loud voice as she raised her wooden cane again and then we said our goodbyes as they walked back to their "senior residence" and I walked back over to the Franklin to wait for my bus.

Turns out, that young African American woman is the "personal attendant" of the woman with the walker, who tends to her needs a few hours a day as part of the way she works herself through Temple University.

She clearly does this because she loves it. "I'm so blessed to have this job," she said to me, "which is really not a job at all. It's a ministry. My other job is a 'job', you know. I work for (a major company). Customer service. It's a job that does 'the job' if you know what I mean. It's not my career but one that will help put me on my career path."

"I get it. Absolutely. May God continue to bless you," I said as she took my hand and thanked me.

I've decided that, while the "modern artifacts" of the Divine Feminine in general and Ashera or Lilith in particular may be found seriously wanting in the cities of the world, they are to be found if one opens one's heart and mind and ears.

Women have always gathered in small groups - at the well, around the fire, in the tent - sharing the stories of their lives or the lives of other women. We are complex, complicated beings whose intelligence and wisdom and contributions to society and culture are not always valued. Many of us work in 'jobs' that 'do the job', but our real 'job' is life - birthing it, sustaining it, nourishing it.

Our real strength is in the relationships we build with each other, held together as they are by the messy, sticky, sometimes smelly 'human glue' of shared stories.

If you are seeking Ashera or Lilith or evidence of the Divine Feminine, I have a suggestion.

Don't look up.

Don't look down.

Look all around you.

You can find evidence just about anywhere - even in some of the celebrated men of antiquity - but if you see a group of women sitting together on a park bench, pay close attention.

If you listen to their chatter and banter you will hear a story.  Perhaps even several stories.

Some will dismiss it as "gossip". Gossip is a word from Old English godsibb, from god and sibb, the term for the godparents of one's child or the parents of one's godchild, generally very close friends. 

The "gossip" they share may be their story. It may be someone else's story. But, in the midst of story, you will hear some of the stuff of what it means to be human - off high horses, away from the battle field, without guns or swords; away from the halls of higher learning and scholarship; encased not in stone or marble or behind climate and temperature controlled glass, but enfleshed, rather, in the very heart of the complexity of human relationships.

Some of it may assault you the way the pungent odor of urine in a city subway station hits your nose. Think of it as evidence of the enterprise of being human, an important reminder in the midst of the sterile technology of smart phones and computers and "distance learning".

She may have been 'forcibly removed' from 'official versions of the sacred text of Hebrew scripture, but Ashera lives! And, so does Lilith! Not in museums or institutes but in the hearts and minds of those who seek the feminine face of God.

I should know. I found Ashera alive and well and living in Philadelphia.


Ann Smith said...

Thank you Elizabeth for introducing me to Ashera. I will add her to my long list of names including yours,the woman with the cane,her attendant and the growing number of women who are proud to claim and womanfest the Divine Feminine. Namaste!!! Ann

whiteycat said...

Had I known you were in Philadelphia I would have hopped on a Septa train and met you in the city. Sounds as if you had a delightful day!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Ann. I first learned of Ashera in seminary. In fact, what I remember was that the strong impulse of the Hebrew text for monotheism was really about suppressing Ashera. I just took it at face value, back then, being fairly overwhelmed by all the information I was taking in, but the more I read of Ashera, the intrigued I am. Enjoy the journey.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Whitecat - What I didn't know was that my schedule would have some flexibility. Next time.

Burl said...

Thanks for this. I'll have to take the train to Philadelphia to see it. Margaret Barker, the English Biblical scholar is most enlightening on the faith the Deuteronomists supplanted including the feminine Divinity of ancient Israel, and its continuing life in the Church. If you haven't read her, you may enjoy her work.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Burl - especially for the headsup on Margaret Barker's work.

JCF said...

Lizbeth, for about the 100th time on this blog, I'm going to say it: YOU MUST WRITE A BOOK. Do it, or I shall become quite cross ;-X (and use this blog to let us know how it goes. Agent, publisher, that sort of thing).

I know publishing is going the way of the Dodo Bird, but before it goes away completely, there are book shelves that should say "The Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton". :-)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, JCF but I'm afraid publishing looks more and more like a Dodo bird. I knew that the moment I had to find a place for all my beloved books in the move from NJ to DE. I only buy books on Kindle now.

Sigh. But, thanks so much for the compliment and high praise. I just writes what I sees and God seems to put the most interesting people in my path.

Unknown said...

Thank you, Elizbeth, for introducing me to Ashera. I have much to learn!

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

We all do, Susan. It's a life-long process made more complicated by the fact that so much of our "herstory" has been covered up by "history".

IT said...

Books on kindle are still books! Publishing may not be on paper in quite the same way, but we will still publish.

What JCF said. I love reading your reflections of life and the ministry you discover in the every day.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks IT. I'm really not sure what's stopping me. I was really all set to self publish with Lulu but a journalist friend talked me out of it. Got any suggestions?

Jim said...

I am definitely no expert on the evolution of Hebrew perceptions of "gods" but one I respect challenged a couple points:

How or from what source do we think Moses and/or Aaron were carrying a staff /pole dedicated to Ashera? His comment was that he cannot find a source.

How and or from what source the interpretation of the basis for the conflicts in the later post-Babylon period? He reads it as a period of "purification" seeking to eliminate Egyptian and other influences.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Jim - Everything I printed here, I took from lectures at the Franklin during the Exhibit. If you google "Moses Aron Ashera pole" you get lots of credible sources to confirm this.

I also read that all references to Ashera were "forcible removed" from Hebrew Scripture sometime between 400 to 500 BCE so the "purification" was a real purge of the accuracy of history.

Fr. Chip, SF said...


I wonder just how much of our 'tradition is the result of the various 'purifications' you referenced. As I age, I realize that there are absolutely no absolutes, particularly in religion. Forgive me for any 'uninsightful remarks we (I) may have shared over the past ten or so years.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Chip - As we age, we understand more. I used to think I had all the answers. Now, I have more questions than answers. Happens to the best of us.

Jim said...

Elizabeth, thanks! I wish I could get to the Franklin but I am sort of tied to Chicago at the moment. I shall pass that along.

Your response to Chip reminded me of something I heard Rod McKuen say at a concert long ago, "Everyone tells me the answers, I wish someone would come up with a new question!" Yup, pretty much. I think we have many, many questions to find.


Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thanks, Jim. I'm not sure where the DSS Exhibit is going next, but if it's ever near you, GO!