A menorah-like drawing from Kuntillet Ajrud. Source: “The Asherah, the Menorah and the Sacred Tree” by J. E. Taylor, Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (1995).
Though the religious symbolism of the menorah is consistent with Jewish mythology and ideology, the archeological record suggests that the significance of this symbol was influenced by surrounding religions of the region, which would have been preceded the conception of the menorah. For instance, lamps from the Middle Bronze Age composed of a bowl with seven sprouts for wicks on the rim have been found in Israel at Ta’anach and Nahariya. Such findings suggest that the precedent for a seven-branched oil lamp would have existed in the region.
Tree worship is common in religions throughout the world, and may have held particular significance in the Middle East due to their limited distribution. It’s not difficult to imagine, in a region constrained by water resources, the presence of a tree would indicate the presence of water and food, and would thus come to symbolize life. Furthermore, the generation-spanning longevity of trees, and their seasonal “rebirth” would perhaps lead some to associate trees with immortality. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that the Tree of Life, which Jews are familiar with from the story of the Garden of Eden, is based on a Mesopotamian religious myth.
Mesopotamian depictions of the Tree of Life resemble the menorah, leading many scholars to speculate that the design of the menorah was influenced by Mesopotamian iconography. The Mesopotamians believed that the Tree of Life grew on a cosmic mountain; similarly, the branching menorah arises from a clearly defined base. The image of a tree on a mountain is also featured in the Hebrew flood myth (which may borrow heavily from Sumerian mythology), in which Noah’s dove retrieved an olive branch from a tree on a sacred mountain. We grant special significance to the central lamp on the menorah, which we call the shamash. Interestingly, Shamash is also the name of the Mesopotamian sun god. These are more than mere coincidences; these are evidence of cultural influence.
Ancient Semitic peoples, who lived in what is now modern-day Israel, Syria and Iraq, had a pantheon that included a goddess called Asherah, or sometimes called Athirat or Elat. Asherah was a fertility goddess, and believed to be the mother of the gods. Asherah is described in cuneiform documents from the first Babylonian dynasty as the bride of the king of heaven, and a mistress of sexual vigor and rejoicing. An Ugaritic text found at Ras Shamra, Syria, describes Asherah as the bride of El, creator of the world. Asherah was often depicted as a tree, usually with an ibex on either side. For example, a pitcher dated to the 13th century BC found at the archeological site of Tel Lachish in Israel bears a stylized depiction of a tree reminiscent of the menorah, with an inscription dedicated to the goddess Asherah. At an archeological site in the Sinai called Kuntillet Ajrud, a drawing was found of a lion with a menorah-like tree with ibexes on either side of it, bearing the inscription “Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah.”
An asherah is something described in both the mishnah and Babylonian Talmud as a sacred tree. Some scholars speculate that an asherah was a living, pruned sacred tree used during Canaanite cultic practices. Recall that the original description of the menorah used the term almond. The biblical name for almond was luz, which is also the name of the site in the Tanach in last week’s parashah, where Jacob had a dream in which a ladder reached toward heaven (like the branches of a tree/menorah), and afterward he erected an altar and renamed the site “the House of God,” Beit El, now thought to be the site Bethel. Archeological excavations at Bethel reveal it was a Canaanite centre for worship of the goddess Asherah. Scholars speculate that there may have been a pruned almond tree used in cultic practices dedicated to the goddess, and the menorah is a symbol of that specific tree. The Latin name for almond trees, Amygdalus, is likely derived from a Semitic root word for “great mother”; Asherah was considered by the Canaanites to be the great mother of the gods. The blooming of almond trees precedes spring, and Asherah was a fertility goddess. Tu b’Shevat, which once involved the lighting of the menorah, celebrates the blooming of the almond trees.
Sacred trees are important in Egyptian mythology, too. The Egyptians also believed in a Tree of Life, the acacia tree, which was also associated with the goddess Iusaset, the grandmother of the gods. Iusaset wore a solar disk on her crown, which harkens the shamash as the crown of the menorah. There was also an Egyptian goddess called Hathor, who was often interchangeably represented as a sycamore tree. Hathor was a mother goddess, the “living soul of trees,” and could take the form of a lion. In Egyptian art, the Hathor tree would often be depicted giving life and food to humans. When Egypt occupied Canaan, the cult of Hathor became entrenched in the region, and Hathor began to be correlated with the goddess Asherah. Another name used to describe a Canaanite/Egyptian tree mother goddess was Qetesh. Plaques recovered at archeological sites in Israel and Egypt depict Qetesh with ibexes by her side, above a lion, wearing a Hathor wig. Perhaps it is no coincidence, either, that the Hebrew word for holy is kadosh.
At some point in history, the ancient Jews took the deeply religious symbolism that was already present in the region and amalgamated it into the abstracted form of the menorah. Do these pre-Judaic influences somehow invalidate our culture? To the contrary, the archeological record only confirms that the symbolism and mythology of our culture are truly ancient. More importantly, the ancient Israelites did not live in a vacuum. They lived in a complex and cosmopolitan world, much like today. We were not alone, we coexisted with other diverse peoples and ideologies. And, after Sumer and Babylon fell into ruin, when the Sphinx and Ozymandias lay buried in the sand, and the library of Alexandria burned to the ground, we continued to tell our stories. When we light the candles of our chanukiyot this holiday, we continue a legacy that is thousands of years old. And that is cause to celebrate.
Ben Leyland is an Israeli-Canadian writer, and resident of Vancouver. This article is the second of a short series examining the menorah.