Israeli archeologist Dr. Aaron Greener asks “what are clay female figurines doing in Judah during the biblical period?” My non-archeologist answer is;
Israeli archeologist Dr. Aaron Greener asks “what are clay female figurines doing in Judah during the biblical period?” My non-archeologist answer is; they represent kosher (suitable for religious Jews) El Shaddai (god of breasts, a pre-Sinai name for God) and Shekinah (a feminine concept) of the Divine Asexual One of Israel.
According to Dr. Aaron Greener (Ph.D. in archaeology from Bar-Ilan University) there are thousands of terra-cotta figurines dating to the First Temple Period that have been found at archaeological sites located in the biblical Kingdom of Judah, including Jerusalem.
The Western Wall at the Temple Mount in modern day Jerusalem, Israel. ( VanderWolf Images / Adobe stock)
Figurines of a Goddess?
The figurines fall into two main categories: Human figurines – female Judean pillar figurines (JPFs) form the vast majority among anthropomorphic figurines. These stand about 6 inches tall and are often clutching their breasts. Male figurines, other than the horse riders were rare in Judah. The majority of clay figurines were zoomorphic animal figures.
Their production and use Dr. Greener states, seem to have stopped after the Babylonian conquest and destruction of the Kingdom of Judah in 586 BC. In all excavations in biblical Judah, the quantity of the zoomorphic figurines is greater than that of the anthropomorphic ones, but the female JPFs have traditionally received more attention. Their identity and function are the focus of ongoing debates in archaeology and biblical studies.
The figurines are almost always found broken and discovered in secondary contexts—in refuse or fill contexts (i.e., not in their original place of use). They contain no distinguishing marks – of individual, mortal, divine identity, age, or status – which might assist in identification and interpretation.
In the 1930s, prominent scholar Dr. William Albright identified the female figurines with the Canaanite goddess Astarte (Hebrew ʻAštōreṯ); a foreign, non-Judahite goddess of fertility, sexuality, and war that was adopted from the Phoenicians. This identification remained popular for several decades.
Showing two major types of Judah pillar figurines that have been found. One type has a face that’s pinched to make two eyes (Left, Source: Israel Museum ). The second type has a mold-made head with defined facial features and rows of curly hair (Right, Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art ).
Prayers for Healthy Births
Recently, some scholars now believe that the figurines do not represent a specific goddess, but rather human women (in a generic form), which were used as votive figurines. Many different theories have been suggested over the years regarding the function and symbolism of JPFs.
I believe the female human JPFs represent pregnant women who pray to El Shaddai and the Shekinah for a healthy birth; and a successful breast nursing experience. Given the worldwide very high rates, of maternal and infant deaths, that were normal until the 19th century; one can feel the relief felt when the JPFs were finally smashed at the end of the suckling period.
This practice must go back to the beginning of religious consciousness, because the intelligent minds of Homo sapiens knew the dangers of childbirth. Infant mortality rates in most tribes were more than one in four, and the maternal death rate for every four births was more than one in ten.
Pregnancy was highly desired, and birth anxiously awaited. Pregnant women naturally sought the physical help of their mothers and grandmothers, who in turn sought the spiritual help of their now departed mothers and grandmothers.
Among the earliest gods were birth goddesses. Small stone figures of very pregnant birth goddesses, often referred to as “Venus” figures, go back 30-35,000 years. They are the first examples of iconic religion. The worship of spirits within natural phenomena does not need iconic representation. But birth and nursing rarely took place in the open or in public.
High Infant Mortality Rates
The birth goddess needed to be present in some tangible way in order to ease the anxiety of women in labor. Even today in some African countries, the maternal mortality rate is 3% per birth. A woman who gave birth to 8 children had a one in four chance of dying from giving birth.
Any band would benefit even if the presence of goddesses reduced that mortality rate by only 5%. Carvings in wood of birth goddesses probably preceded stone statues by many millennia and may have originated 50-100,000 years ago.
Infant mortality during the first 2-3 years was 30-40%. After that it dropped to almost current rates. With the development of clay ceramics in the last 10-15,000 years, one could make an image that would be used from the time when the belly swelled until nursing ended and then shattered so that each child had its own JPF.
Kosher and Not Idols
The Torah tells us that not until the generation of the Exodus was the one God YHVH known as the lawgiver of sacred scripture. “I am YHVH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob as El Shaddai; but I did not let myself be known to them by my name YHVH.” (Exodus 6:3)
God appearing to Abraham at Sichem. (Paulus Potter / Public domain )
El Shaddai is the god of the breast or the chest. This signifies the divine spirit within each individual, and/or the maternal nurturing mystical soul that is invoked in most Indian and some East Asian religions; the mystical religions of inner enlightenment and personal rebirth or escape from the corruption of the material world.
This was an advance beyond invoking spirits and the hierarchy of sky gods or some remote high god. However, YHVH is a god of history and society; a god of human society’s spiritual and moral growth. YHVH isn’t fully realized until Israel’s covenant with the Divine Lawgiver, who is the source of Western society’s ethics and morality.
But the god of breasts/El Shaddai was still very important for pregnant and nursing mothers until near the end of the First Temple. These images were considered to be kosher and not to be idols; just as the name of El Shaddai was not considered a foreign god; but both the name El Shaddai and the JPFs died out after the end of the First Temple.
Top image: Clay Judean pillar figurines in Jerusalem, Israel. Source: Chamberi / CC BY-SA
Rabbi Maller’s web site is: www.rabbimaller.com. His new book ‘Judaism and Islam as Synergistic Monotheisms: A Reform Rabbi’s Reflections on the Profound Connectedness of Islam and Judaism’ (a collection of 31 articles by Rabbi Maller previously published by Islamic web sites) is now for sale ($15) on Amazon .