Do you not see what they are doing in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes to offer to the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to arouse my anger. (Jeremiah 2:17-18 NIV)
The religious life in the Ancient Middle East is manifested in the archaeological record through depictions of gods in seals, associated ceramics, temples, and religious writing. Probably, anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines are one of the most common religious objects found at excavations. These extraordinary religious objects appear through the Middle East in all periods.
In many cases, the different types of figurines reflect to some extend their ethnic influences. For instance, after the Sea People had settled in Palestine, during the 12th century, at the beginning of Iron Age I, new forms of female deities were introduced. Philistine forms seem to resemble Mediterranean forms. Thanks to discoveries at Ekron, Tel Miqne, Tell es-Safi and Ashdod, it is possible to have a better idea about early Philistine religion. Female deities were a central theme in the philistine cult (Ornan 2011: 266-70). The Aegean Mother goddess is depicted in several ways by ceramic votives.
Michael D. Press (Press 2012) has listed around 200 Iron Age figurines of Ashelon and Philistia, grouping the female figurines in six categories: small standing, handmade figurines; large, seated handmade-figurines of Ashdoda type; composite figurines; plaque figurines; hollow, moldmade figurines; and miscellaneous forms (Ehrlich 2007: 47,8). He argues that there are more types than Dothan had listed earlier. Some standing female figurines, known as mourning figurines, have both arms raised to the head in a mourning gesture. They resemble those of the Mycenean repertoire and were found at places such as Azor, Tell Jemmeh, Tell Jerishe, and Ashdod (Dothan 1982: 237).
Among the several kinds of figurines, the Ashdoda represents an example of artistic abstraction. They are female figurines in the shape of a chair. This is unparalleled in the coroplastic art of the Levant and is probably a variant of a Mycenaean female figurine seated on a throne (Yasur-Landau 2010: 305). Although there is just one complete example, many Ashdoda fragments have been found at Ashdod, Tell Qasile, Aphek, Gezer, Tel Miqne/Ekron, Ashkelon and Tel Batash/Timnah. This figurine in the shape of female chair shows a close connection to the Aegean cult of the Great Mother Goddess (Ehrlich 2007: 39).
Relevance to the Biblical Account
The Philistines and their religion is an important topic in the Old Testament. The book of Judges (Judg 16:23) refers Dagon as one the main deities of the Philistines. His temple is mentioned in connection with the dead of Saul (1 Chr 10:10). In accordance with the book of Samuel (1 Sam 5), after the Philistines defeated the Israelites, they placed the Ark of the Covenant in Dagon’s temple. In the same narrative, the use of figurines seems to play an important place in the philistine religious worldview. The philistine cult persisted from the beginning of the Iron Age until the Babylonian destruction. It is remarkable that during the first century following the migration, the Philistines remained faithful to the Great Mother Goddess of the Aegean world.
It is also interesting the biblical mention (Jer 47:4) of Caphtor as the place of origin of the Philistines. Although the identity of Caphtor is a matter of debate-being Crete the favorite identification-the cultural connection of the Philistines with the people of Aegean has been probed in many ways through ceramics parallels, historical sources, and religious practices. The religious practices of Philistines and Canaanites included worshiping of several gods and their belief in the afterlife.
The Bible mentions in several parts idolatry as the most hideous characteristics of the cannanite’s culture that Israelites should avoid. Archaeologist found traces of Canaanite idolatry in Baal statues and females figurines. Several archaeologists suggested that the Judean Pillar Figurines (JPFs) are representations of Asherah, the Queen of the Heaven (Jer 7:18; 44:17, 18). These figures were used in daily life, as an amulet (Siebeck 2014) or a modest representation of female deities. Several of these figurines were crude and handmade and do not show symbols of power such as horns or stalks.
The replica of “Ashdoda” in our exhibits resembles the only complete sample recovered from Ashdod (Hachlili 1971: 129). The original Ashdoda is a handmade figurine, 17 cm high, with a shape of a chair with an inverted cone attached to the top of the back. There pellets represent the eyes and ears. Two lumps of clay symbolize the breasts. The decoration is red and black with strips and triangles. The replica reproduces the fissures of the flat back of the couch found in the original (http://www.imj.org.il/en/collections/198019)
A close parallel to the “Ashdoda” are painted ceramic figurines from Tyryns (Greek), which have a polos hat, applied nose and ears, a long neck, breasts emphasized by circles, and a triangular pendant on the chest (Yasur-Landau 2010: 306). Other female figurines with Agean style seem to have been introduced by the 11th century B.C., after the Sea People invasion (Press 2012: 192). An example of a different type of philistine female figurine is the “Plaque Type,” some of which have been found in Askhelon from the beginning until the end of the Iron Age (Press 2012: 192). This type represents different motifs. They are either a naked woman, a woman holding her breasts or a woman holding a baby. This last motif became popular during the Persian period at Dor (Stern 2010: 10-3). Based on textual evidence, Stern suggests that they were connected with Astarte-Tanit. Motherhood is strongly emphasized at that time with motifs representing babies, women holding babies, and women holding their breasts. This type differs from the Phoenician and northern Palestinian coast (Stern 2010: 11), where the bodies are round and wheelmade, their hair is pseudo-Egyptian, but their wigs are longer and sometimes curly.
In regards to the Judean Pillar Figurines (JPFs), Assyrian texts seem to identify those objects as apotropaic amulets (Siebeck 2014). Several of those figurines were found broken, and some suggested that it was the result of Josiah’s reforms; however this idea has not been verified.
Earlier female figurines, stressing motherhood, were found from the very beginning of civilization indicating the popularity of these objects in the general culture of the ANE.
1982 The Philistine and their Material Culture. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
Ehrlich, C. S.
2007 Philistine Religion: Text and Archaeology. Scripta Mediterranea 27: 33-52.
1971 Figurines and Kernoi. Pp. 125-35 in Ashdod II-III The Second and Third Seasons of Excavations 1963, 1965, eds. A. Biran; I. Pommerantz; and J. L. Swauger. ʿAtiqot: English Series IX-X. Jerusalem: ʿAtiqot.
2011 'Let Ba'al Be Enthroned': The Date, Identification, and Function of a Bronze Statue from Hazor. Journal of Near Eastern Studies 70: 253-80.
Press, M. D.
2012 The Leon Levy Expedition to Ashkelon 4: The Iron Age Figurines of Ashkelon and Philistia. Final reports of the Leon Levy expedition to Ashkelon. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.
2014 Interpreting Judean Pillar Figurines: Gender and Empire in Judean Apotropaic Ritual (Forschungen Zum Alten Testament 2.Reihe). Nehren, Germany: Laupp & Göbel.
2010 Excavations at Dor: Figurines, Cult Objects and Amulets 1980-2000 Seasons. Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.
2010 The Philistines and Aegean Migration at the End of the Late Bronze Age. NY: Cambridge University Press.