The Queen of Heaven in the Hebrew Bible
In the years leading up to the Babylonian Exile, the prophet Jeremiah argued that Yahweh was angry at the people of Judah for worshipping foreign gods. These foreign gods included the mysterious “Queen of Heaven” (7:18; 44:15–18). While scholars have attempted to pinpoint a single deity behind this title, the Queen of Heaven is likely a mixture of different deities found throughout the Bronze and Iron Ages in the Levant, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and the lands beyond.
What is the biblical context of the Queen of Heaven?
We hear about the Queen of Heaven in the book of Jeremiah, a prophet active in the late seventh and early sixth centuries from Anathoth in the land of Benjamin. Jeremiah 7:18 describes specific rites dedicated to the Queen of Heaven: “The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven, and they pour out drink offerings to other gods.” These rites were clearly vital to the Judahites: at Jer 44, the people flat-out refuse to stop burning incense and pouring out drink offerings to the Queen of Heaven. Instead, they state that violence and famine arise when they stop these rituals.
Jeremiah condemns this worship, and his anger against the Queen of Heaven is not unique. The Hebrew Bible frequently condemns the worship of foreign deities. For example, Judg 10:6 condemns the worship of “Baalim and Ashtaroth” (the plural of “Baal and Ashtoreth”). These terms sometimes reference specific gods (e.g., “Ashtoreth of the Sidonians”), but they can also be a general name for foreign deities. Was the Queen of Heaven also a generic name or a specific deity? The answer is likely both.
Who is the goddess behind the Queen of Heaven?
The Queen of Heaven might refer to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. The Hebrew name for the cake baked for the Queen of Heaven, kawwan, may be related to the Akkadian kamānu, which is described in several Mesopotamian texts as a cake made for Ishtar. Ishtar is also widely recognized as the “Queen of Heaven and Earth” in Mesopotamian royal hymns and cult songs. Further evidence can be found in Jer 44:19, where women explain that they made cakes for the Queen of Heaven “marked with her image.” Some scholars have suggested this image may relate to clay and stone moulds of a nude standing female discovered throughout the Levant over the Late Bronze and Early Iron Ages. These molds were primarily used to cast clay figurines and plaques, but some scholars, like Raphael Patai, have argued that they were also used as cake-molds. Scholars frequently—although not without controversy—associate this imagery with Ishtar (see, for instance, the work of Julia Assante).
The Queen of Heaven might also refer to Ashtoreth, or Astarte, a goddess who is strongly hated in the Hebrew Bible. Astarte and another Levantine goddess, Anat, were imported into Egypt and worshipped as Queens of Heaven in association with New Kingdom pharaohs and as consorts to major gods like Ptah and Re. Astarte is also generally recognized by scholars as the Levantine counterpart of Mesopotamian Ishtar. However, King Josiah, under whose reign Jeremiah was active, destroyed the high places built for “Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians” (2 Kgs 23:13). While biblical claims of such sort can by hyperbolic or idealistic, it is notable that Ashtoreth’s name is frequently used in the Hebrew Bible as shorthand for all (hated) foreign gods.
The Queen of Heaven may also refer to Isis, a popular Egyptian goddess, or Asherah, the consort of Yahweh in biblical and extrabiblical texts. Asherah may be related to the Bronze Age goddess Athirat, queen of the Ugaritic pantheon. She too was equated in the Hebrew Bible with hated foreign deities.
One Name, Many Goddesses?
Many more goddesses across the ancient Mediterranean and western Asia assumed the title “Queen of Heaven,” and the Queen of Heaven in the Hebrew Bible could refer to any of them. Or all of them.
In the Bronze Age and first millennium BCE, the worship of several female deities, particularly Ishtar and Isis, spread far and wide. Often, the more popular goddesses blended with other local goddesses. For instance, numerous patron goddesses of city-states throughout Mesopotamia and beyond took on the identity of Ishtar, Queen of Heaven, while retaining their local significance. We might see a similar phenomenon at play in Jeremiah: a powerful local goddess, who brought peace and prosperity to her worshippers, and became equated with an Ishtar, an Astarte, or any other Queen of Heaven when historical circumstances allowed.
Image Credit: Clay Figurine Representing Astarte. 7th century BCE, Palestine, Fired Clay. BM 93091. Courtesy The British Museum.