An excerpt from the book, The Gods of Man by Gary R. Varner
There have been many gods and goddesses worshipped by humankind over the last several thousands of years and all of them have been changed from their original personalities and positions of importance to reflect only a dim image of what they once were.
In this chapter, we will examine two of these gods and delve into their origins and how they have been made into evil and base creatures. The first of these will be Lilith.
Lilith was a bird goddess, shown in the Burney Plaque of Sumer from 2300 BCE, represented by the Great Owl. The plaque (see illustration on page 131) shows a seductive, winged woman with bird-taloned feet and wearing only the tiara that was worn by all of the ancient gods. She is also shown holding the ring and rod of power. Like other goddesses, she is shown accompanied by a pair of lions, upon which she stands.
The owls signify her wisdom as well as her nocturnal nature. Lilith, which means “screech owl” in Hebrew, was goddess of the Underworld, the Great Goddess of Death.
Lilith appears in the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh. In Gilgamesh, the actual dethroning of Lilith is referred to. The Sumerian goddess Inanna plants a huluppu tree, a willow that is sacred to the Ancient Mother goddess. Inanna plans to cut the tree and use the wood to create a throne (magical, of course) and a bed. What Inanna doesn’t know is that Lilith has, in her owl form, created a home in the tree. At the base of the tree, a large serpent, also associated with Lilith, was protecting it. Nothing that Inanna could do would make the serpent move or Lilith to leave her house.
The myth tells the story:
“Inanna cared for the tree with her hand.
She settled the earth around the tree with her foot.
‘How long will it be until I have a shining throne to sit upon?’
‘How long will it be until I have a shining bed to lie upon?’
“The years passed; five years, then ten years.
The tree grew thick,
But its bark did not split.
Then a serpent who could not be charmed
Made its nest in the roots of the huluppu-tree.
The Anzu-bird set his young in the branches of the tree.
And the dark maid Lilith built her home in the trunk.
The young woman who loved to laugh wept.
How Inanna wept!
(Yet they would not leave her tree.)”
In her distress Inanna turns to her hero-brother, Gilgamesh.
Gilgamesh “struck the serpent who could not be charmed.
“The Anzu-bird flew with his young to the mountains;
And Lilith smashed her home and flew to the wild, uninhabited places.”
This myth is interesting as it is told from the standpoint of a new goddess, Inanna, who has forced out a goddess far older, Lilith. Lilith’s nude form, according to Johnson, “creates an identification with the Naked Goddess, suggesting a state of nature. However powerful she may have been in early Sumerian times, she is greatly diminished in the Old Testament, where she appears as temptress and she-demon rather than the great Goddess of Death.”
The fact that Lilith held the ring and rod of power on a Sumerian tablet indicates that at one time she was considered a very powerful deity.
While what is known about Lilith is at best sketchy, many scholars believe that she brought the knowledge of agriculture to humankind. Her fiercely independent nature resulted in her demonization. In Hebrew lore Lilith was Adam’s first wife (or mother). Because she refused to lie beneath Adam, demanding equality, she left him and found a life in the desert away from him. God sent three angels after her where they found her near the Red Sea, living with evil spirits. She refused to return to Adam, instead living in the wild and giving birth to more than a hundred demons each day. God’s punishment was to kill 100 of her offspring each day she remained apart from Adam. According to Talmudic texts from the 4th and 13th centuries CE, Lilith was made by god from filth and sediment rather then the pure dust that he created Adam from. This is the basis for much of the denigration of the female.
Lilith became the original succubus, seducing men in their sleep and was believed responsible for strangling infants soon after birth. In fact Lilith may have been the first Mother Goddess. In an effective attempt to reduce the Mother Goddess’s important role she became demonized, the cause of original sin. Jean Markale believes that the shift from goddess to god began when people realized that men had a role in procreation. Until that time women created children in a mysterious and obviously divine way—without the need of the male.
“Beginning from when the individual male is established as indispensable procreator,” write Markale, “revealing the existence of a paternal lineage, it became important to hide the feminine genitals, too closely linked to the liturgies in honor of the Great Goddess, the idealized image of all women. Under these conditions, it was natural that Mosaism—and other theologies of the ancient world as well—should oppose what they called idolatry, that is, all the earlier forms of worship, notably the sexual forms, almost exclusively the prerogative of women.”
Lilith was a casualty of the early struggles between the father god and the mother goddess. Markale summarizes her defeat: “As soon as the cult of Yahweh triumphed, the Goddess of the Beginnings was reduced to her simplest form, and Lilith of the rabbinical tradition, consigned to darkness.” Lilith was, according to folklorist Howard Schwartz, the original witch and her legends “gave birth to an elaborate Jewish demonology.”
It was Lilith’s legend that gave birth to the vampire.
Markale believes that Lilith survived the persecution—becoming the Black Virgin found throughout the Old World.
Baal was not so despised or hunted as the goddess in Biblical society. The reasons for this are fairly simple, the goddess was the most powerful of deities controlling food, fertility and sexuality among other things.
Baal, on the other hand, was not dissimilar to Yahweh. “The image of Yahweh, in the eyes of the common people,” wrote Raphael Patai, “did not differ greatly from that of Baal or the other Canaanite male gods….The worship of Yahweh thus easily merged into, complimented, or supplanted that of the Canaanite male gods.”
Baal was a usurper as well, replacing the supreme Ugaritic-Canaanite god El and taking his consort, Ashera. We have already discussed Ashera and will discuss her again. Baal’s position in the pantheon of gods was as “exalted lord of the earth” whose main task was to control fertility and renew vegetation.
Baal was also called “Rider of the Cloud” and was a storm god. He was also represented by the bull as a symbol of fertility. It should not be assumed that Baal was a patriarchal god, taking the goddesses tradition role in fertility and renewal. Baal was an androgenous god. His worshipped were said to invoke him as: “Hear us, Baal! Whether thou be god or a goddess.”
For each of the masculine forms of his name, a corresponding female form was also used.
Baal and Yahweh are very similar in their personalities. Archaeologist John Romer notes “Both Ugarit’s great God Baal and Jehovah ‘mount to the clouds’ in their respective chariots, both ‘utter voice’ in thunder and storm, and both stand ‘at the head of the assembly of gods.’”
In fact, Romer states that the ancient Jewish sacred liturgy, “both of its architecture and of its written word,” originated in Bronze Age Canaan.
Skinner notes that the “Hebrews, although formally opposed to the religion of Canaan, actually adopted many of its features, particularly such cultic aspects as the fertility cult of the mother goddess, the life-death myth in agriculture, and the practice of temple prostitution.”
They also embraced Baal. Professor John Gray, Lecturer in Hebrew and Biblical Criticism at Aberdeen University, wrote “The Ras Shamra Texts now prove conclusively that the Canaanite Baal was Hadad, the god manifest in the rains and thunder of autumn and winter and secondarily in the vegetation which they promoted.” In other words, Baal was a nature god.
The Hebrew leadership, however, could not abide with two gods of equal stature. Obviously, Baal had to go.
According to the Biblical account, the prophet Elijah confronted King Ahab, telling Ahab that he had “forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim.”
To prove that Yahweh was greater than Baal, Elijah had Ahab gather the 450 priests of Baal together at Mt Carmel. When they had gathered, Elijah told the priests of Baal to choose one of two bullocks and to kill it and to cut it into pieces. Then they were to place the meat on wood but not to light it. Likewise, Elijah did the same. They were then to call upon Baal to set the wood on fire. As they did this they were met with silence. They continued to call upon Baal for two days suffering the mocking of Elijah: “…either he is talking, or he is pursuing, or he is on a journey, or peradventure he sleepeth…”
Then it was Elijah’s turn. He gathered twelve stones, made an altar with a trench around it and told his followers to pour three barrels of water over the wood and meat. The water ran down and filled the trench. He then called on god to send fire from heaven to consume the wood. This was done. Elijah then bound the 450 priests of Baal and took them to a brook called Kishon were they were slaughtered.
We have to wonder, was that truly water that was poured over the altar or, perhaps, a flammable liquid perhaps unknown to the priests? Did Elijah perform a bit of magical slight of hand to destroy the followers of a rival god?
Christian theology maintains the myth of the evil of Baal and the other gods even though Yahweh was more than likely an identical god fashioned into a useable force by the Hebrew priests.
The 1965 edition of Halley’s Bible Handbook speaks eloquently, but falsely, of the Canaanite religion:
“The worship of Baal, Ashtoreth, and the other Canaanite gods consisted in the most extravagant orgies, their temples were centers of vice.”
Official evangelical Christian theology claims that “Prophets of Baal and Ashtoreth were official murderers of little children,” even though the Bible itself records the slaughter of men, women and “little ones” by the Hebrews as they took the region by force—not once but time and again. Like all victors, the Hebrew monotheists rewrote many portions of the Bible to fit their views and the “history” they desired.
After the initial victory of the Hebrews in Canaan Yahweh was not forced upon the populace but was only proposed to be the chief god of Israel. “In the beginning,” wrote professor Rodney Stark, “this sect movement seems not to have advocated strict monotheism, but merely to have proposed that although there were other Gods, Israelites should worship Yahweh only. That is, Yahweh was deemed the national God to whom Israel owed exclusive allegiance…”
The conflict raged however until King Hezekiah was finally able to significantly reduce the number of supporters of Baal between 715 – 687 BCE.