« Ashima Ashtoreth Ash Wednesday »



The Cult in Palestine and Syria (§ 1).

Significance of the Related Names (§ 2).

Extension of Ishtar Worship (§ 3).

The Early Ishtar Cult (§ 4).

Dominant Types of Ishtar Worship. Its Astral Significance (§ 5).

The Sensual Development (§ 6).

The Worship as Spiritualized (§ 7).

Tendency of the Cult in Israel (§ 8).

1. The Cult in Palestine and Syria.

Ashtoreth is the name of a goddess whose worship, mostly associated with that of Baal or the baals, figured largely in the history of idolatry in ancient Israel. This divinity is especially marked as a goddess of the “Sidonians” or Phenicians (I Kings xi, 5, 33; II Kings xxiii, 13). She had also a temple among the Philistines at Ascalon, 313probably the same as that mentioned by Herodotus (i, 105) East of the Jordan her worship was rife in Moab, combined with that of the national god, Ashtar-Chemosh being named on the Moabite Stone in the ninth century B.C.; and the place names Ashtaroth (Deut. i, 4 and elsewhere), Ashteroth-Karnaim (Gen. xiv, 5), and Be-eshterah (Josh. xxi, 27) indicate its prevalence in the country of Bashan. That it was of ancient date in southern Syria is proved by Egyptian references to the goddess “Ashtart of the Hittite land.” The most widely attested of three branches of the general cult among Canaanitic or Hebraic peoples is the Phenician, which is commemorated by many inscriptions both in the home country and in the western colonies.

2. Significance of the Related Names.

This famous goddess is also widely known as Astarte, which is the Greek form of the Phenician ‘Ashtart. The name Ashtoreth itself in the original Hebrew texts was ‘Ashtareth, the Masoretic form being a change made by using the vowels of bosheth, “the shameful thing,” a nickname of Baal (q.v.). The Phenician ‘ashtart clearly points to the correct reading, as also does the Hebrew plural ‘Ashtaroth. The Babylonian and Assyrian form Ishtar is modified from ‘Ashtar, according to a regular phonetic law, through the influence of the initial guttural. ‘Ashtar is identical with the South Arabian ‘Athtar and Aramaic and North Arabian ‘Atar (from ‘Athtar), the former being a god and the latter apparently a goddess. Of the Arabian cult very little is known. When more has been learned of South Arabian mythology, much of the mystery which surrounds the origin of the universal Semitic worship of Ishtar-Ashtoreth will be cleared up.

3. Extension of Ishtar Worship.

The following are the most important of the facts which may be regarded as established or practically certain: The cult originated in Babylonia and spread northward to Assyria, northwestward to Mesopotamia, thence to Syria and Palestine, and thence through the Phenicians to all of the Mediterranean peoples; south and southwestward it spread to Arabia, and thence across the sea to Abyssinia.

4. The Early Ishtar Cult.

Both the name and the dominant forms of the cult were of Semitic and not of “Turanian” or Sumerian origin. There was a goddess Nana (q.v.) at Erech in South Babylonia, who was held to be identical with Ishtar simply because she had been worshiped there by a non-Semitic people, and, having attributes akin to those of Ishtar, was replaced by the latter when the Semites took over the ancient shrine. A similar syncretism took place under the same conditions in the interest both of Ishtar herself and of other Semitic divinities which she absorbed and superseded. The word Ishtar is a Babylonian verbal noun of the ifteal stem though the etymology is still unsettled.

5. Dominant Types of Ishtar Worship. Its Astral Significance.

The worship of Ishtar was of very complex origin, both in its primary and in its secondary sources. When in greatest vogue as a principal Semitic religion it was, as above indicated, a composite or syncretism of many related cults, non-Semitic as well as Semitic. Of these some left deep traces of their original distinctive features and remained in part practically separate cults. Such, for example, was the worship of Ishtar of Arbela, in which the divinity appears as a war-goddess—an attribute probably suggested by the very natural conception of the planet Venus being the leader of the starry hosts. Ishtar was in fact primarily and chiefly identified with this most beautiful of celestial objects, especially as the evening star. This conception spread from Babylonia through the other Semitic lands to the Phenician settlements, and then mainly by way of Cyprus, to the Greeks and Romans as the cults of Aphrodite and Venus. Among its primary sources, therefore, the worship of Ishtar was in large part astral, and Venus was its favorite celestial object. This combination was not of late origin, but is known to have been made in very early times (cf. Schrader, KAT, pp. 424 sqq.). The moon in the Ishtar cult never took the place of Venus; for the moon among the Semites was a male deity, whose worship was older than even that of Ishtar and was centered in Sin, the moon-god par excellence. Hence Ishtar in the inscriptions is represented not only as the daughter of Anu, the great heaven-god, but also as the daughter of Sin. It was as impossible that “the queen of heaven” of Jer. vii, 18 and other passages could be a name of the moon among the Hebrews in Palestine or Egypt as it could be among the Babylonians. The identification of Ishtar with the fixed star Sirius and with the constellation Virgo (perhaps through its beautiful star Spica), though comparatively early, was of secondary origin.

6. The Sensual Development.

From the terrestrial side the primary motive of the worship of Ishtar was the impulse to deify sensuousness and sensuality. Of the resulting worship Ishtar-Venus became the celestial patron. She not only legitimated the sexual indulgences which marked her cult in Babylonia, Phenicia, Palestine, and the Semitic world generally, but she was naturally taken as the authoress of the sexual passion and therewith of all derivative and associated sentiments. This accounts for the part played by Ashtoreth or Astarte as the female counterpart of the Phenician Baal and of the local Canaanitic baals, and also for the wide-spread and influential myth of her relations with her lover Tammuz or Adonis (Ezek. viii, 14); see Tammuz.

7. The Worship as Spiritualized.

Linked with these primary attributes in the most remarkable and instructive ways was the worship of Ishtar as the fountain of the tenderest and most sacred human sentiments, also of imaginative conceptions of external nature, and even experiences of the inner moral and spiritual life (on the process of transition cf. J. F. McCurdy, 314History, Prophecy, and the Monuments, iii, New York, 1901, §§ 1184 sqq.). The best illustrations are afforded by the Babylonian hymns to Ishtar as the great mother-goddess, as the creator of the animate universe generally (cf. the exordium of Lucretius, De rerum natura), and as the helper of men, freeing them from sickness and the curse of sin and guilt.

8. Tendency of the Cult in Israel.

Though we learn nothing directly from the Old Testament as to the character of the service of Ashtoreth in Palestine, the connections in which the word occurs make it clear that, whatever else may have been here and there included, the lowest forms of Ishtar worship were ordinarily exhibited. The regular association in the singular with “the baal” and in the plural (‘Ashtaroth) with “the baals” indicates the predominance of the sexual aspects of the many-sided cult. Its popularity and seductiveness are also manifested in the use of the plural (exactly as in Babylonian) as an equivalent of goddesses in general (Judges ii, 13, x, 8; I Sam. vii, 3, 4, xii, 10) in passages which, it is true, proceed from later deuteronomic editing, but are therefore all the more indicative of the prevailing tendency.

A comprehensive historical view of the whole subject helps to understand the fascination of Astarte worship as a seductive and formidable obstacle to the service of Yahweh. See Assyria, VII; Atargatis; Asherah; Baal; Babylonia, VII, 2, § 7; 3, § 5.

J. F. McCurdy.

Bibliography: J. Selden, De dis Syris, ii, 2, London, 1617; F. Münter, Die Religion der Carthager, pp. (62–86, Copenhagen, 1821; F. C. Movers, Die Phönizier, i, 559–650, Bonn, 1841; E. Schrader, Die Höllenfahrt der Istar, Giessen, 1874; idem, KAT, pp. 436 sqq.; P. Berger, L’Ange d’Astarté, Paris, 1879; F. Hitzig, Biblische Theologie des Alten Testaments, pp. 17 sqq., Carlsruhe,1880: P. de Lagarde, Astarte, in Nachrichten von der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, 1881, pp 396–400; C. P. Tiele, La Deesse Istar surtout dans 1e mythe Babylonien, Leyden. 1884; F. Baethgen, Beiträge zur semitischen Religionsgeschichte, pp. 31–37, 218–220, Berlin, 1889; Collins, ‘Ashtoreth and the ‘Ashera, in PSBA xi (1888–89), 291 303; A. Jeremias, Die babylonisch-assyrischen Vorsteliungen vom Leben nach dem Tode, pp. 4–45, Leipsic, 1887; idem, Izdubar-Nimrod, pp. 57–66, 68–70, ib. 1891; P. Jenson, Die Kosmologie der Babylonier, pp. 117–118, 135, 227 sqq., Strasburg, 1890; Ashtoreth and Her Influence in the O. T, in JBL, x (1891), 73 sqq.; G. A. Barton, The Semitic Ishtar Cult, in Hebraica, ix (1892–93). 131–165, x (1893–94), 1–74. For the “Queen of Heaven” consult: B. Stade, in ZATW, vi (1886), 123–132, 289–339; E. Schrader, in Sitzungsberichte der Berliner Akademie, 1886, pp. 477–491; idem, in ZA, iii (1888), 353–364; iv (1889), 74–76; J. Wellhausen, Heidenthum, pp 38 sqq.: A. Kuenen, De Melecheth des Hemels, Amsterdam, 1888 (Germ. transl. in Gesammelte Abhandlungen, pp. 186–211, Freiburg, 1894).

On the connection between Aphrodite and Astarte consult: J. B. F. Lajard, Recherches sur le culte de Vénus, Paris, 1837; W. H. Engel, Kypros, ii, 5–649, Berlin, 1841; L. F. A. Maury, Historie des religions de la Grèce antique, iii, 191–259, Paris, 1859; F. Hommel, Aphrodite-Astarte, in Neue Jahrbücher für Philosophie und Pädogogie, cxxv (1882), 176; Ohnefalsch-Richter, ut sup., pp. 269–327; DB, i, 165, 167–171; M. Jastrow, The Religion of Babylonia and Assyria, Boston, 1898 (cf. index under Ishtar); EB, i. 330–333, 335–339; G. A. Barton, A Sketch of Semitic Origins, pp. 106, 246–268, New York, 1902; Schrader. KAT, pp. 436–438.

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