“Goddesses in Context” by Julia M. Asher-Greve and Joan Goodnick Westenholz

GoddessesJulia M. Asher-Greve and Joan Goodnick Westenholz. Goddesses in Context: On Divine Powers, Roles, Relationships and Gender in Mesopotamian Textual and Visual Sources. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis (OBO) 259. Fribourg/Göttingen: Academic Press/Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht 2013, pp. 430, 130,00 €.

*I’d like to express my gratitude to Academic Press and Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Julia M. Asher-Greve first incorporated gender theory into ancient Near Eastern studies during her dissertation on Sumerian women (1985). Since then, her work regarding gender has been integral to the developing incorporation of gender theory into ancient Near Eastern studies. Likewise, Joan Goodnick Westenholz (1943-2013) is well-known for her ground-breaking studies of gender, goddesses, and women and her integral role in the founding of Journal of Gender Studies in Antiquity. Coming together, Asher-Greve and Westenholz provide a valuable contribution to the ongoing discussion regarding the power dynamics in Mesopotamian records. Unlike previous studies on the topic, Asher-Greve and Westenholz include more text records and also draw upon visual records as an additional medium of communication and interpretation of history.

Chapter One briefly points out the insufficient value of sex and gender solely as an interpretive paradigm for historical studies, arguing for the flexibility and fluidity in gender, dominion, and deity rank. Following their review of scholarly discourse of the marginalization of goddesses, they aptly note the lack of architectural and visual sources in analysis. Chapter II, written by Westenholz, categorizes religious develops under syncretism (fusion, fission, and mutation) and provides a thorough overview of the evolution in Mesopotamian thought through textual sources. Shifting to visual sources, Chapter III, written by Asher-Greve, focuses on how Ninursaga/Ninmah and Ninlil develop in order to provide direct case studies of major goddesses. Finally, Chapter II, written by Asher-Greve, analyzes Mesopotamian visual representations of deities, namely goddesses, as independent religious media, whilst noting where text and visual intersect, and illustrates how goddesses could be perceived in a variety of manners and depending on context and period. In summary, through their examination of literary and visual Mesopotamian sources, alongside the assumption that goddesses are no ‘gender models’ for women, goddesses maintain a presence over three millennia, albeit in with fluid domains and a progression towards emphasis on their roles as spouses and intermediary figures.

This work is an important contribution to the ongoing discussion of women and the ancient Near East. Methodologically speaking, their focus on the fluidity of goddess character domains and emphasis that goddesses are first and foremost divinities, only secondarily feminine, is important, as it engages more directly with the cognitive environment with which ancient Mesopotamian civilizations resided. Additionally, unlike any previous works on goddesses in ancient Mesopotamia, they work with the visual imagery and present valuable analysis of the development of goddesses through a visual medium and how, at moments, it converges or diverges with the textual traditions. Ultimately this work is indispensable as a contribution to the study of women in the ancient world.

While their work is fantastic, I was quite confused at one moment. Chapter III, titled “Facets of Change” focuses on the changes in conception of two major birthing/mother goddesses, Ninhursaga/Ninmah and Ninlil. With the wide range of deities, it is unclear why Asher-Greve singled out these two deities for analysis. Were more deities explored to illustrate changes in specific goddesses, it would have filled out the chapter substantially.

Overall, Westenholz and Asher-Greve present extremely important and relevant analysis to discourse of goddesses in the ancient Near East. Most importantly, they set an important precedence to take more seriously visual media as a unique communication medium when applying gender theory to ancient Near Eastern history. Without a doubt, this work will be fundamental to any future analysis which applies gender theory to ancient Near Eastern studies. Although most people will not sit and read through this work, it is, nonetheless, an excellent read and source for gender studies in antiquity. I highly recommend it.


“In the Wake of the Goddesses” by Tikva Frymer-Kensky

In In the Wake of the Goddesses, Tikva Frymer-Kensky (1943-2006) explores the role of the goddess and its development through the ancient near east. She holistically approaches the whole of the ancient near east with a focus on the societal views of women based on the mythological expressions relating to women and the role they play in the mythologies. Following this discussion, she approaches the Hebrew Bible’s portrayal of the divine when the goddess is absent, covering the issues of female portrayal in regard to humans and God. Finally, she concludes with discussion of how sexuality and gender is portrayed within the Bible.

Frymer-Kensky, in approaching the subject, is holistic in the sense that she doesn’t purely focus on the mythological accounts. She recognizes that the polytheistic tendencies of ancient Israel’s predecessors paint a backdrop of ancient Israel’s monotheism which, in many aspects, draw out its unique character among the nations. Her critical approach, while challenging many popular stances on the Hebrew Bible, are effective in allowing her to write a book which speaks to any audience, Jewish, Christian, or Muslim. While there is a theological skew towards Judaism, her approach does not demand those results. In a sense, she takes a secular approach to biblical studies with a theological aim, not a theological approach with a theological aims (See Ron Simkins’ Biblical Studies as a Secular Discipline: The Role of Faith and Theology).

In conclusion, Frymer-Kensky’s exploration of goddesses in regard to ancient Mesopotamia and ancient Israel is an excellent choice for any person seeking to understand the influence of Mesopotamian culture and literature on the development of ancient Israel. Except, rather than merely presenting dry information, it is a living text that tells a story, thus making it easy to read. While easy to read, that does not take away from the critical approach and factual arguments of Tivka Frymer-Kensky. Her scholarship sheds light on why the University of Chicago dedicated a volume of Gorgias Precis Portfolios to Tikva Frymer-Kensky, titled “In the Wake of Tikva Frymer-Kensky”.

Click here to purchase In the Wake of Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth