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The Sacred Tree on Palestine Painted Pottery

Herbert Gordon May
Journal of the American Oriental Society,
Vol 59, No 2 Jun 1939, 251-259

The sacred tree is one of the more common symbols on Palestine painted pottery of the Late Hyksos and subsequent periods. It is normally the palm tree, and the branches of dates may be recognized even in the more conventional designs. The usual forms have two bunches, one on each side. Several late Hyksos examples appear with simply the two bunches at the top of a bare trunk. Associated with the tree on this painted pottery are birds, fishes, and animals, often in heraldic arrangement and depicted in the act of eating from the tree. It is not always easy to identify the horned animals on either side of the trees, but in the majority of instances they may be goats. Gazelles or stags sometimes appear. On the Late Bronze Age pottery offering stand from Megiddo there are lions beside the sacred trees, and a decorated jug from Tell-el-Fara presents a total impression of goats and doves on opposite sides of a square in which there is a lion, and perhaps the lion is here a substitute for the usual tree. On the inscribed ewer from Tell-el-Duweir occur a lion, stag, doe, and bird, while the animals on either side of its seven-branched tree are goats.

It has been reasonably argued by Vincent, Engberg, and others that the tree in these painted pottery designs is a religious symbol, representing the sacred tree. The present writer would demonstrate that it is to be regarded, at least occasionally, as a symbol for the mother goddess.

We may begin by noting a Mycenaean ivory from Minet el-Beida depicting the mother goddess with grain in her upraised hands, while on each side of her is a bewiskered goat, standing with its hind feet on the ground and its front feet against the goddess. Although this is an imported Mycenaean ivory, representing typical Mycenaean art, yet it does suggest the key to the interpretation of the painted pottery tree design with a goat or goats on either side, wherein the sacred tree is the substitute for the mother goddess here depicted. The goddess as the center of an heraldic arrangement is common in Minoan-Mycenaean art, and very frequently she is not actually depicted, but in her place between the two animals appears her symbol, such as the star, mountain, altar, or baetylic column.

The lion on the Tell-el-Fara vessel is possible a symbol of the goddess and a substitute for the sacred tree. The lion is, of course, a common symbol of the mother goddess, and the lions on the Megiddo offering stand beside the trees may give a hint of the significance of the trees. The association of the birds, very often doves, with the tree, especially in the late Hyksos pottery, points to the same conclusion. Three designs from Tell-el-Ajjul, depicting the dove perched upon the top of a tree, recall the Middle Minoan III bronze votive tablet, picturing a dove perched on a sacred tree, with a fish nearby. The association of the fish with the tree recalls the deity Asherah of the Sea, and the fact that the Old Testament Asherah is a tree.

In one painted pottery design, besides the goats, there is a fish on either side of the tree. The fishes are connected with the tree by a stream flowing from the tree to their mouths. One may compare the frequent Mesopotamian representations of the mother goddess with two fish-filled streams flowing from a vessel in her hands, or the Egyptian tree goddess with streams issuing from her vase.

There are certain Old Testament references which suggest that the sacred tree was associated with the mother goddess, and it may be that we are to interpret similarly the tree of the painted pottery, since these references reflect pre-Hebrew conceptions of Canaanite Palestine. We need not stress the point that the Asherah was a sacred tree, symbol of the goddess, probably represented with the branches lopped off. In Genesis 35:8 we are told that when Deborah, Rebekah’s nurse, died, she was buried below Bethel at the foot of the oak, which came to be called the Oak of Weeping. This tree seems originally to have been associated with the mother goddess, one of whose chief roles was lamentation for the dead god. The name Deborah signifies a bee, and the Canaanite mythology may have been influenced by Hittite myths, for it was the humble bee, who in the Hittite mythology, was sent by the Lady of the Gods to search for Telepinu, and succeeded in finding him. The Oak of Weeping connotes that wailing rites were customarily performed at this local sanctuary. The tradition of the burial of Deborah at the foot of the tree implies close association of the tree with the goddess. The description of Deborah suggests something of the dea nutrix. This sacred tree was associated with the goddess, even as the sacred pillar at Bethel symbolized the god.

Jacob buried at the foot of the sacred terebinth at Shechem the foreign gods of his household. The tale is an attempt to purify the Jacob saga from the rather obvious polytheistic elements apparent in the references to the teraphim. It is difficult to credit Jacob with such monotheistic zeal, and it does not sound unreasonable that he would have buried pagan gods beneath the ground of a sanctuary which he considered holy and legitimate. The original narrative may have stated that Jacob buried elohim (=teraphim) at the foot of the sacred terebinth, and the elohim may have been the clay images of the mother goddess. If so, the story may evidence the association with the tree at Shechem.

Two passages in Canticles may throw light upon our problem. In Canticles we have preserved for us a liturgy whose origins are to be ascribed to early Canaanite days. The maiden speaks to the youth; in 8:5.

“Beneath the apple tree I awaken you,
where your mother was in travail with you,
where she who bore you was in travail.”
The symbolism here is based upon the conception that the tree goddess gave birth to the vegetation god. The Tammuz liturgy refers to “the sacred cedar where the mother bore him.” There is a myth of Adonis, according to which the god was born from a myrtle tree, the bark of which burst after ten months of gestation, allowing the infant to come forth. The mother’s name was Myrrh, and she had been changed into a tree soon after she conceived the child.

A palm tree symbol of the mother goddess is implied also in Judges 4:5:

“And she (Deborah) was sitting beneath the Palm Tree of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel, in the highlands of Ephraim.”
The presence of a sacred palm tree of Deborah in the same vicinity where there was also the Oak of Weeping of Deborah suggests the existence of at least two sanctuaries at which a goddess Deborah was worshipped in the Canaanite cults of an earlier period. It is more than probably that the prophetess-judge Deborah received her name as a result of some special connection between her family and this local sanctuary.

(In a footnote)

Danthine concludes that the sacred tree is essentially a symbol of fertility and fecundity, acquiring little by little a prophylactic value. She explains certain scenes where it might be argued that the tree is a symbol of the deity by the assumption that the tree was also more than a symbol, containing within itself a “numen de fertilite,” and by virtue of this could be associated with all the fertility deities, particularly with the great goddess Ishtar. While the variety and number of divine personalities associated with a variety of trees may render difficult any precise definition of the relation between the tree and the anthropomorphic deities, this does not mitigate the fact that the sacred tree is closely related to the goddess, and may at times appear even as a substitute for her, and we may describe it as her symbol. The snake, which also appears as a symbol of the goddess, has at the same time other associations and a variety of meanings.