|FERTILITY CULT |
A general term for religions marked by rites which reenact a myth accounting for the orderly change of the seasons and the earth's fruitfulness. Such myths often involve a great mother-goddess as a symbol of fertility and a male deity, usually her consort but sometimes a son, who like vegetation dies and returns to life again. In Mesopotamia the divine couple was Ishtar and Tammuz (who is mourned in
Ezekiel 8:14), in Egypt Isis and her son Osiris, in Asia Minor Cybele and Attis. In Syria the Ugaritic myths of the second millenium B.C. pictured Baal-Hadad, the storm god, as the dying and rising god. (A local manifestation of this god is mourned in
Zechariah 12:11; Syrian kings derived their names from this deity,
1 Kings 15:18;
2 Kings 6:24;
2 Kings 13:24). His wife was the goddess Anath. In the earliest Ugaritic myth Asherah, the great mother-goddess, was the consort of El, the chief god in the pantheon. As Baal replaced El as the major deity, he became associated with Asherah (Judges 6:25-30;
1 Kings 18:19). Ashtoroth, the daughter of Asherah, is used as the Hebrew word for womb or the fruit of the womb (Deuteronomy 7:13;
Deuteronomy 28:4,Deuteronomy 28:18,Deuteronomy 28:51).
Fertility cults attribute the fertility of the cropland and herds to the sexual relations of the divine couple. Sacral sexual intercourse by priests and priestesses or by cult prostitutes was an act of worship intended to emulate the gods and share in their powers of procreation or else an act of imitative magic by which the gods were compelled to preserve the earth's fertility (1 Kings 14:23;
1 Kings 15:12;
Hosea 4:14). Transvestism (prohibited in
Deuteronomy 22:5) may have been part of a fertility rite like that practiced by the Hittites. Sacrifices of produce, livestock, and even children (2 Kings 17:31;
2 Kings 23:10) represented giving the god what was most precious in life in an attempt to restore order to the cosmos and ensure fertility.
Elijah's struggle with the priests of Baal and Asherah at Mount Carmel is the best known conflict between worship of Yahweh and a fertility cult (1 Kings 18:17-40). Under Ahab, Baalism had become the state religion (1 Kings 16:31). The account of the priests of Baal lacerating themselves (1 Kings 18:28) is illuminated by the Ugaritic myths where El gashes his arms, chest, and back at the news of Baal's death. The priests of Baal customarily reenacted this scene from the myth at plowing time. Both skin and earth were cut as a sign of mourning (prohibited by
Deuteronomy 14:1). Baal's resurrection came with the return of the rains. The biblical narrative is clear that —Yahweh, not Baal, is the Lord who withholds and gives rain (1 Kings 17:1;
1 Kings 18:20-45).
The Israelites' sacred calendar celebrated the same seasons as their neighbors (barley harvests feast of unleavened bread; wheat harvests Pentecost; fruit harvests booths). The Israelites interpreted these seasons in light of God's redemptive acts in their history. Israel recognized the one God as the one responsible for rain (1 Kings 18:1), grain, wine, oil, wool, and flax (Hosea 2:8-9). Israel conceived of the earth's fruitfulness in a way quite unlike that of her neighbors. Yahweh had no consort; thus fertility was not tied to Yahweh's return to life and sexual functioning. Rather, the ability of plants and animals to reproduce their own kind was rooted in creation (Genesis 1:11-12,Genesis 1:22,Genesis 1:28). The orderly progression of the seasons was not traced to a primordial battle but was rooted in God's promise to Noah (Genesis 8:22). The fertility of the land was ensured not by ritual reenactment of the sacred marriage but by obedience to the demands of the covenant (Deuteronomy 28:1,Deuteronomy 28:3-4,Deuteronomy 28:11-12).
In the New Testament, Diana or Artemis of the Ephesians (Acts 19:35) was a many-breasted fertility goddess. Aphrodite was also associated with fertility. Her temple at Corinth was the home of cult prostitutes responsible for the city's reputation for immorality. (Compare
1 Corinthians 6:15-20.) Many of the mystery religions which competed with Christianity in the early centuries of the church developed the myths of the older fertility cults. See Asherah; Ashtoroth; Baal; Canaan, History and Religion of; Dagon; Diana; Gods, Pagan; High Place; Prostitution; Tammuz; Ugarit.