The suppression of goddess worship is believed to date from the triumph of the Christian faith,which imposed on its adherents the worship of a God in three persons whose identity was either wholly masculine - in the case of the Father and the Son - or sexless in the case of the Holy Ghost, who is portrayed, if at all, in the forms of a dove. Christianity derived from Judaism - a religion which had already been powerful for centuries in the ancient world, and especially in what became the eastern half of the Roman Empire. In fact, long before Christianity began to spread through the imperial realms. often in the face of savage persecution by the authorities, Judaism had attracted camp followers, who were not jewish by birth but who adhered to many of the jewish dietary and other laws. These non-Jewish adherents had lost faith in the gods and goddesses of the Graeco-Roman pantheon. They were looking for a less complicated faith with an authoritarian ethical structure, which offered worshippers a clearer part in securing their own salvation.
The Jewish Diaspora, which began long before the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Emperor Titus in AD 70, also altered Judaism itself, as it took Jews and their religion to every corner of the Near East. Jews, for example,became interested in Graeco-Roman philosophy. Philo Judaeus (c.20 BC-AD 40) saw Platonism as a version, albeit an inferior one, of the Jewish faith. Some authorities are persuaded that, with this Diaspora, there came a dilution of the strictest Jewish tenets. More especially, they see a tendency to dilute Jewish monotheism by the worship of a goddess who was the consort of Yahweh. The literary and archaeological evidence seem to indicate a different explanation.
For example, Jewish women who settled in Hellenistic times at the extreme limits of Upper Egypt, at Elephantine, are known from archaeological evidence to have had a cult of a female goddess, consort to Yahweh, who was called Asherah- clearly a version of the goddess of the same name who had been worshipped in Syria, at Ugarit and other cities. She had, however, also been worshipped in Israel itself, though the biblical record is at pains to assert that the cult was alien-the works, for example, of the hated Tyrian princess Jezebel, wife of King Ahab (ninth century BC). The accumulated evidence, including a number of Hebrew inscriptions, now suggests that Asherah was not a foreign importation into Israel itself, but something indigenous, and that the Jewish women of Elephantine brought her with them, rather than borrowing her from their surroundings. Her cult was an independent form of worship confined to females, resented and often persecuted by the parallel, official cult run by males.
Conversion to Christianity could not subdue the impulse to worship female incarnations of the divine, and the newly triumphant faith accommodated this in various ways. A local goddess would often be transformed into a saint, and a church would be built on top of, or inot the ruins of, an established pagan shrine. An example of this is the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome which, as its name suggests, occupies the site of a temple dedicated to Athena. The cult of the Virgin had reached such heights by around the year 1200 that protests were heard that the Mother of God was displacing Christ himself as the chief object of Christian worship.
Even in near-modern times, Asherah, also known as Astarte, retained her grip on the Christian imagination, not least because of the fervent denunciations of the Old Testament prophets, known to every student of the Bible. Her image renewed its potency as a symbol of rebellion as late as the time of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti ( 1828-82). Rossetti's painting Astarte Syriaca romantically evokes the divine power of women, within the context of the nascent pan-European symbolist Movement, and can at the same time be read as a covert denunciation of patriarchal Victorian Christianity. The painting carries other messages as well. It is a near-portrait of Janey Morris, wife of Rossetti's fellow Pre- Raphaelite William Morris (1834-96),with whom Rossetti was conducting an adulterous affair. The two male figures placed symmetrically in the background speak of the goddess's- and by implication Janey's- power to ensorcell men. She is therefore both an incarnation of the goddess of love and the personification of the Fatal Woman.
One fascinating aspect of Rossetti's image, and of the other, closely similar, paintings that he made at this time, is that he simultaneously exalts the power of women and condemns it. The same theme can be found spelt out explicitly in some of the poetry that Rossetti wrote.