Cradle of Civilization

A Blog about the Birth of Our Civilisation and Development

Asherah pole and Irminsul – mighty pillar

Posted by Fredsvenn on September 20, 2014

Asherah pole

Ancient monoliths in Mawphlang sacred grove, India

Asherah in Semitic mythology is a mother goddess who appears in a number of ancient sources. She appears in Akkadian writings by the name of Ashratum/Ashratu, and in Hittite as Asherdu(s) or Ashertu(s) or Aserdu(s) or Asertu(s). Asherah is generally considered identical with the Ugaritic goddess ʼAṯirat.

Asherah is identified as the consort of the Sumerian god Anu and Ugaritic El, the oldest deities of their respective pantheons. This role gave her a similarly high rank in the Ugaritic pantheon.

The name Dione, which like ‘Elat means “Goddess”, is clearly associated with Asherah in the Phoenician History of Sanchuniathon, because the same common epithet (‘Elat, the feminine form of El; compare Allat) and Qodesh, ‘holiness’ (Ugaritic: qdš) of “the Goddess par excellence” was used to describe her at Ugarit.

Ba‘alat Gebal, ‘Lady of Byblos’, was the goddess of the city of Byblos, Phoenicia in ancient times. She was sometimes known to the Greeks as Baaltis or Atargatis.

Ba‘alat Gebal was generally identified with the pan-Semitic goddess ‘Ashtart (Astarte) and, like ‘Ashtart, equated with the Greek goddess Aphrodite. However, Sanchuniathon presents Ba‘alat Gebal as a sister of ‘Ashtart and Asherah, and calls Ba‘alat Gebal by the name Dione, meaning that he identified her either with Asherah or with the mother of Greek Aphrodite, the Titan goddess Dione.

According to Sanchuniathon, Baaltis/Dione, like Asherah and ‘Ashtart, was a sister and wife of ‘El. He states that she bore daughters to El and that it was El who gave the city of Byblos to her. Ba‘alat Gebal was distinguished in iconography from ‘Ashtart or other aspects of ‘Ashtart or similar goddesses by two, tall, upright feathers in her headdress.

The temple of Ba‘alat Gebal in Byblos was built around 2700 BC. Dedications from Egyptians begin appearing from the second to the 6th Egyptian dynasties. Two of these inscriptions equate Ba‘alat Gebal with the Egyptian goddess Hathor. Frank Moore Cross writes that at Sinai Ba‘alat seems to have referred to Hathor and possibly to Qudšu (see Qetesh), who is Asherah.

In the Ugaritic texts (before 1200 BCE) Athirat is almost always given her full title rbt ʼaṯrt ym, rabat ʼAṯirat yammi, ‘Lady Athirat of the Sea’ or as more fully translated ‘she who treads on the sea’. This occurs 12 times in the Baʿal Epic alone.

The name is understood by various translators and commentators to be from the Ugaritic root ʼaṯr ‘stride’, cognate with the Hebrew root ʼšr, of the same meaning. Her other main divine epithet was “qaniyatu ʾilhm” (Ugaritic: qnyt ʾlm) which may be translated as “the creatrix of the Gods (Elohim)”.

In those texts, Athirat is the consort of the god El; there is one reference to the 70 sons of Athirat, presumably the same as the 70 sons of El. She is clearly distinguished from ʿAshtart (better known in English as Astarte or Ashtoreth in the Bible) in the Ugaritic documents although in non-Ugaritic sources from later periods the distinction between the two goddesses can be blurred; either as a result of scribal error or through possible syncretism.

Athirat in Akkadian texts appears as Ashratum (Antu), the wife of Anu, the God of Heaven. In contrast, Ashtart is believed to be linked to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar who is sometimes portrayed as the daughter of Anu while in Ugaritic myth, Ashtart is one of the daughters of El, the West Semitic counterpart of Anu. Among the Hittites this goddess appears as Asherdu(s) or Asertu(s), the consort of Elkunirsa (“El the Creator of Earth”) and mother of either 77 or 88 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. This Qudshu seems not to be either ʿAshtart or ʿAnat 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 the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman periods in Egypt 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.

The Book of Jeremiah, written circa 628 BC, possibly refers to Asherah when it uses the title “Queen of Heaven”, stating: “pray thou not for this people…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 to other gods, that they may provoke me to anger”, in Jer 7:18 and Jer 44:17–19, 25.

An Asherah pole is a sacred tree or pole that stood near Canaanite religious locations to honor the Ugaritic mother-goddess Asherah, consort of El. The relation of the literary references to an asherah and archaeological finds of Judaean pillar-figurines has engendered a literature of debate.

The asherim were also cult objects related to the worship of the fertility goddess Asherah, the consort of either Ba’al or, as inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom attest, Yahweh, and thus objects of contention among competing cults

The insertion of “pole” begs the question by setting up unwarranted expectations for such a wooden object: “we are never told exactly what it was”, observes John Day. Though there was certainly a movement against goddess-worship at the Jerusalem Temple in the time of King Josiah, it did not long survive his reign, as the following four kings “did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh” (2 Kings 23:32, 37; 24:9, 19).

Further exhortations came from Jeremiah. The traditional interpretation of the Biblical text is that the Israelites imported pagan elements such as the Asherah poles from the surrounding Canaanites. In contrast, some modern scholars instead theorize that the Israelite folk religion was always polytheistic, and it was the prophets and priests who denounced the Asherah poles who were the innovators; such theories inspire ongoing debate.

Some biblical archaeologists have suggested that until the 6th century BC the Israelite peoples had household shrines, or at least figurines, of Asherah, which are strikingly common in the archaeological remains.

Asherim are mentioned in the Hebrew Bible in the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, Judges, the Books of Kings, the second Book of Chronicles, and the books of Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah. The term often appears as merely Asherah referred to as “groves” in the King James Version, which follows the Septuagint, and the Vulgate lucus, and “poles” in the New Revised Standard Version. No word that may be translated as “poles” appears in the text.

Scholars have indicated, however, that the plural use of the term (Asherahs, also Asherim or Asherot) provides ample evidence that reference is being made to objects of worship rather than a transcendent figure.

The Hebrew Bible suggests that the poles were made of wood. In the sixth chapter of the Book of Judges, God is recorded as instructing the Israelite judge Gideon to cut down an Asherah pole that was next to an altar to Baal. The wood was to be used for a burnt offering.

Deuteronomy 16:21 states that YHWH (rendered as “the LORD”) hated Asherim whether rendered as poles: “Do not set up any [wooden] Asherah [pole] beside the altar you build to the LORD your God” or as living trees: “You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God which you shall make”.

That Asherahs were not always living trees is shown in 1 Kings 14:23: “their asherim , beside every luxuriant tree”. However, the record indicates that the Jewish people often departed from this ideal. For example, King Manasseh placed an Asherah pole in the Holy Temple (2 Kings 21:7). King Josiah’s reforms in the late 7th century BC included the destruction of many Asherah poles (2 Kings 23). Exodus 34:13 states: “Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherah poles.”

Irminsul

An Irminsul (Old Saxon, probably “great/mighty pillar” or “arising pillar”) was a kind of pillar which is attested as playing an important role in the Germanic paganism of the Saxon people.

The oldest chronicle describing an Irminsul refers to it as a tree trunk erected in the open air. The purpose of the Irminsuls and the implications thereof have been the subject of considerable scholarly discourse and speculation for hundreds of years.

A Germanic god Irmin, inferred from the name Irminsul and the tribal name Irminones, is sometimes presumed to have been the national god or demi-god of the Saxons. It has been suggested that Irmin was more probably an aspect or epithet of some other deity – most likely Wodan (Odin).

Irmin might also have been an epithet of the god Ziu (Tyr) in early Germanic times, only later transferred to Odin, as certain scholars subscribe to the idea that Odin replaced Tyr as the chief Germanic deity at the onset of the Migration Period. This was the favored view of early 20th century Nordicist writers, but it is not generally considered likely in modern times.

The Old Norse form of Irmin is Jörmunr, which just like Yggr was one of the names of Odin. Yggdrasil (“Yggr’s horse”) was the yew or ash tree from which Odin sacrificed himself, and which connected the nine worlds.

Jakob Grimm connects the name Irmin with Old Norse terms like iörmungrund (“great ground”, i.e. the Earth) or iörmungandr (“great snake”, i.e. the Midgard serpent).

In Tacitus’ Germania, the author mentions rumors of what he describes as “Pillars of Hercules” in land inhabited by the Frisii that had yet to be explored. Connections have been proposed between these “Pillars of Hercules” and later accounts of the Irminsuls. Hercules was probably frequently identified with Thor by the Romans due to the practice of interpretatio romana.

Comparisons have been made between the Irminsul and the Jupiter Columns that were erected along the Rhine in Germania around CE 2 and 3. Scholarly comparisons were once made between the Irminsul and the Jupiter Columns; however, Rudolf Simek states that the columns were of Gallo-Roman religious monuments, and that the reported location of the Irminsul in Eresburg does not fall within the area of the Jupiter Column archaeological finds.

According to the Royal Frankish Annals (772AD), during the Saxon wars, Charlemagne is repeatedly described as ordering the destruction of the chief seat of their religion, an Irminsul. The Irminsul is described as not being far from Heresburg (now Obermarsberg), Germany.

Jacob Grimm states that “strong reasons” point to the actual location of the Irminsul as being approximately 15 miles (24 km) away, in the Teutoburg Forest and states that the original name for the region “Osning” may have meant “Holy Wood.”

The Benedictine monk Rudolf of Fulda (AD 865) provides a description of an Irminsul in chapter 3 of his Latin work De miraculis sancti Alexandri. Rudolf’s description states that the Irminsul was a great wooden pillar erected and worshipped beneath the open sky and that its name, Irminsul, signifies universal all-sustaining pillar.

Under Louis the Pious in the 9th century, a stone column was dug up at Obermarsberg in Westphalia, Germany and relocated to the Hildesheim cathedral in Hildesheim, Lower Saxony, Germany. The column was reportedly then used as a candelabrum until at least the late 19th century. In the 13th century, the destruction of the Irminsul by Charlemagne was recorded as having still been commemorated at Hildesheim on the Saturday after Laetare Sunday.

The commemoration was reportedly done by planting two poles six feet high, each surmounted by a wooden object one foot in height shaped like a pyramid or a cone on the cathedral square. The youth then used sticks and stones in an attempt to knock over the object. This custom is described as existing elsewhere in Germany, particularly in Halberstadt where it was enacted on the day of Laetare Sunday by the Canons themselves.

A maypole is a tall wooden pole erected as a part of various European folk festivals, around which a maypole dance often takes place. The festivals may occur on May Day or Pentecost (Whitsun), although in some countries it is instead erected at Midsummer. In some cases the maypole is a permanent feature that is only utilised during the festival, although in other cases it is erected specifically for the purpose before being taken down again.

Primarily found within the nations of Germanic Europe and the neighbouring areas which they have influenced, its origins remain unknown, although it has been speculated that it originally had some importance in the Germanic paganism of Iron Age and early Medieval cultures, and that the tradition survived Christianisation, albeit losing any original meaning that it had.

It has been a recorded practice in many parts of Europe throughout the Medieval and Early Modern periods, although became less popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Today, the tradition is still observed in some parts of Europe and among European communities in North America.

The symbolism of the maypole has been continuously debated by folklorists for centuries, although no set conclusion has ever been arrived at. Some scholars classify maypoles as symbols of the world axis (axis mundi).

The fact that they were found primarily in areas of Germanic Europe, where, prior to Christianisation, Germanic paganism was followed in various forms, has led to speculation that the maypoles were in some way a continuation of a Germanic pagan tradition. One theory holds that they were a remnant of the Germanic reverence for sacred trees, as there is evidence for various sacred trees and wooden pillars that were venerated by the pagans across much of Germanic Europe, including Thor’s Oak and the Irminsul.

It is also known that, in Norse paganism, cosmological views held that the universe was a world tree, known as Yggdrasil. There is therefore speculation that the maypole was in some way a continuance of this tradition.

Non-Germanic people have viewed them as having phallic symbolism, an idea which was purported by Thomas Hobbes, who erroneously believed that the poles dated back to the Roman worship of the god Priapus. This notion has been supported by various figures since, including the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

Phallic symbolism has been attributed to the maypole in the later Early Modern period, as one sexual reference is in John Cleland’s controversial novel Fanny Hill: …and now, disengag’d from the shirt, I saw, with wonder and surprise, what? not the play-thing of a boy, not the weapon of a man, but a maypole of so enormous a standard, that had proportions been observ’d, it must have belong’d to a young giant.

The anthropologist Mircea Eliade theorizes that the maypoles were simply a part of the general rejoicing at the return of summer, and the growth of new vegetation. In this way, they bore similarities with the May Day garlands which were also a common festival practice in Britain and Ireland.

A sacred grove or sacred woods are any grove of trees of special religious importance to a particular culture. Sacred groves were most prominent in the Ancient Near East and prehistoric Europe, but feature in various cultures throughout the world.

They were important features of the mythological landscape and cult practice of Celtic, Baltic, Germanic, ancient Greek, Near Eastern, Roman, and Slavic polytheism, and were also used in India, Japan, and West Africa. Examples of sacred groves include the Greco-Roman temenos, the Norse hörgr, and the Celtic nemeton, which was largely but not exclusively associated with Druidic practice.

During the Northern Crusades, there was a common practice of building churches on the sites of sacred groves. Ancient holy trees still exist in the English countryside and are mentioned often in folklore and fairytales.

Veneration of sacred groves and sacred trees is found throughout the history of the Germanic peoples and were targeted for destruction by Christian missionaries during the Christianization of the Germanic peoples.

Ken Dowden notes that behind this great oak dedicated to Donar, the Irminsul (also felled by Christian missionaries in the 8th century), and the Sacred tree at Uppsala (described by Adam of Bremen in the 11th century), stands a mythic prototype of an immense world tree, described in Norse mythology as Yggdrasil.

The sacred tree at Uppsala was a sacred tree located at the Temple at Uppsala, Sweden, in the second half of the 11th century. It is not known what species it was, but a scholar has suggested that it was a yew tree.

Jove’s Oak (interpretatio romana for Donar’s Oak and therefore sometimes referred to as Thor’s Oak) was a sacred tree of the Germanic pagans located in an unclear location around what is now the region of Hesse, Germany. According to the 8th century Vita Bonifatii auctore Willibaldi, the Anglo-Saxon missionary Saint Boniface and his retinue cut down the tree earlier the same century.

Wood from the oak was then reportedly used to build a church at the site dedicated to Saint Peter. Sacred trees and sacred groves were widely venerated by the Germanic peoples and scholars have linked this oak and others to the world tree in Norse mythology, Yggdrasil.

In Norse mythology, Yggdrasil is an immense tree that is central in Norse cosmology, in connection to which the nine worlds exist. Yggdrasil is attested in the Poetic Edda, compiled in the 13th century from earlier traditional sources, and the Prose Edda, written in the 13th century by Snorri Sturluson. In both sources, Yggdrasil is an immense ash tree that is central and considered very holy. The gods go to Yggdrasil daily to assemble at their things.

The branches of Yggdrasil extend far into the heavens, and the tree is supported by three roots that extend far away into other locations; one to the well Urðarbrunnr in the heavens, one to the spring Hvergelmir, and another to the well Mímisbrunnr. Creatures live within Yggdrasil, including the wyrm (dragon) Níðhöggr, an unnamed eagle, and the stags Dáinn, Dvalinn, Duneyrr and Duraþrór.

Conflicting scholarly theories have been proposed about the etymology of the name Yggdrasill, the possibility that the tree is of another species than ash, the relation to tree lore and to Eurasian shamanic lore, the possible relation to the trees Mímameiðr and Læraðr, Hoddmímis holt, the sacred tree at Uppsala, and the fate of Yggdrasil during the events of Ragnarök.

The generally accepted meaning of Old Norse Yggdrasill is “Odin’s horse”, meaning “gallows”. This interpretation comes about because drasill means “horse” and Ygg(r) is one of Odin’s many names. The Poetic Edda poem Hávamál describes how Odin sacrificed himself by hanging from a tree, making this tree Odin’s gallows. This tree may have been Yggdrasil. Gallows can be called “the horse of the hanged” and therefore Odin’s gallows may have developed into the expression “Odin’s horse”, which then became the name of the tree.

Nevertheless, scholarly opinions regarding the precise meaning of the name Yggdrasill vary, particularly on the issue of whether Yggdrasill is the name of the tree itself or if only the full term askr Yggdrasil (where Old Norse askr means “ash tree”) refers specifically to the tree. According to this interpretation, askr Yggdrasils would mean the world tree upon which “the horse [Odin’s horse] of the highest god [Odin] is bound”. Both of these etymologies rely on a presumed but unattested *Yggsdrasill.

A third interpretation, presented by F. Detter, is that the name Yggdrasill refers to the word yggr (“terror”), yet not in reference to the Odinic name, and so Yggdrasill would then mean “tree of terror, gallows”. F. R. Schröder has proposed a fourth etymology according to which yggdrasill means “yew pillar”, deriving yggia from *igwja (meaning “yew-tree”), and drasill from *dher- (meaning “support”).

Irminenschaft (or, Irminism, Irminenreligion) is a current of Ariosophy based on a Germanic deity Irmin which is supposedly reconstructed from literaric, linguistic and onomastic sources.

Among other sources the Prefix “Irmin” is well documented in the from Irminsul “great pillar that supports all”/”Columna Universalis Sustenans Omni”, as described in Einhards ‘Vita Karoli Magni’, and informed by Tacitus (~1st century) via a mentioned Germanic tribe name of Hermiones; The Old Saxon adjective irmin being synonymous to “great, strong”.

As such it may also have been an epithet of later deities like Ziu (Týr) or Wodan (Odin). Purported evidence also stems from the occurrence of the word “Irmingot”, found in the Old High German “Hildebrandslied”.

Irmin

The Irminones, also referred to as Herminones or Hermiones, were a group of early Germanic tribes settling in the Elbe watershed and by the 1st century AD expanding into Bavaria, Swabia and Bohemia. Irminonic or Elbe Germanic is a conventional term grouping early West Germanic dialects ancestral to High German.

The name Irminones or Hermiones comes from Tacitus’s Germania (98 AD), where he categorized them as one of the tribes of descended from Mannus, and noted that they lived in the interior of Germany.

Other Germanic groups of tribes were the Ingvaeones, living on the coast, and Istvaeones, who accounted for the rest. Tacitus also mentioned the Suebi as a large grouping who included the Semnones, the Quadi and the Marcomanni, but he did not say precisely which (if any) of the three nations they belong to. Pliny’s Natural History (4.100) claimed that the Irminones included the Suebi, Hermunduri, Chatti, and Cherusci.

Pomponius Mela wrote in his Description of the World (III.3.31) in reference to the Kattegat and the waters surrounding the Danish isles: “On the bay are the Cimbri and the Teutoni; farther on, the farthest people of Germania, the Hermiones.” Mela then begins to speak of the Scythians.

In Nennius, the name Mannus and his three sons appear in corrupted form, the ancestor of the Irminones appearing as Armenon. His sons here are Gothus, Valagothus/Balagothus, Cibidus, Burgundus, and Longobardus, whence come the Goths (and Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Crimean Goths), Valagoths/Balagoths, Cibidi, Burgundians, and Langobards.

They may have differentiated into the tribes Alamanni, Hermunduri, Marcomanni, Quadi, Suebi by the 1st century AD. By that time the Suebi, Marcomanni and Quadi had moved southwest into the area of modern-day Bavaria and Swabia. In 8 BC, the Marcomanni and Quadi drove the Boii out of Bohemia.

The term Suebi is usually applied to all the groups that moved into this area, though later in history (c. 200 AD) the term Alamanni (meaning “all-men”) became more commonly applied to the group.

Jǫrmun, the Viking Age Norse form of the name Irmin, can be found in a number of places in the Poetic Edda as a by-name for Odin. Some aspects of the Irminones’ culture and beliefs may be inferred from their relationships with the Roman Empire, from Widukind’s confusion over whether Irmin was comparable to Mars or Hermes, and from Snorri Sturluson’s allusions, at the beginning of the Prose Edda, to Odin’s cult having appeared first in Germany, and then having spread up into the Ingvaeonic North.

Asherah Poles to Church Steeples

Tree of life

Garden of the gods (Sumerian paradise)

The Tree in the Garden of Eden and its Possible Origins

Sumerian Tree of Life

Tree of Life

Tree of Jesse

Tree of life

Sacred grove

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