Archaeological and textual evidence make clear that Israelite religion developed out of, alongside, and in response to the cults of the many gods and goddesses of the ancient Near East. Major male deities with origins in the southern Levant include the Caananite god El and the Israelite god Yhwh, while Mesopotamian deities such as Assur and Marduk also make occasional appearances in the region. These deities are usually associated with themes of kingship, creation and justice, and sit at the head of their respective pantheons. Other well-known gods include the Canaanite deities Ba’al (a storm-god) and Resheph (a god of plague) and the Mesopotamian deities Shamash (a sun-god) and Sin (a moon-god).
Alongside these male deities were a number of female deities. Some of them were considered consorts or wives of one of the male gods. Thus, Athirat was the consort of El and a major female goddess in the Canaanite pantheon; other notable Canaanite goddesses include Anat (the consort of Ba’al), Asherah, Astarte, and Qudshu. Biblical and extra-biblical texts very strongly suggest that the goddess Asherah was closely associated with Yhwh, perhaps as his consort, though the exact nature of their relationship is unclear and highly contested. Ishtar was the most prominent Mesopotamian goddess during the Neo-Assyrian period. Many of these female gods had similar characteristics; some were associated with fertility, but they also covered other areas—such as war. The symbols associated with these female gods are often similar, and it can be difficult to distinguish among them.
In this collection you will find examples of this religious diversity in Israel and Judah as it was manifested in inscriptions, figurines of gods and goddesses, amulets and other jewellery, and cultic ritual objects.
The exact pronunciation of the name of Israel’s God is unknown, as the divine name was considered too holy to speak at a relatively early stage. It may have been pronounced ‘Yahweh’, but—in part because of the uncertainty of this pronunciation and in part out of respect for Jewish tradition, which continues to hold that the divine name should not be pronounced—it is a common scholarly convention to write the name using only the consonants of the Hebrew text, that is, as Yhwh or YHWH, and this is also the convention of this exhibition.