By April 7, 2008 Read More →

Judean Pillar Figurines, 8th century BCE

Approximately 1000 examples of Judean Pillar Figurines (JPF) are known. These female figurines, standing roughly six inches tall, have a pillar-shaped body (no legs indicated), either hollow or solid, with prominent breasts encircled or supported by the arms. Heads are either mold-made with distinctive features and short curly hair or simply pinched to form indented eyes and a protruding nose. Vestiges of paint on some figures indicate colored facial features and adornment with bracelets or necklaces.

Surprisingly, these figurines are a predominantly Judean phenomenon, with the greatest numbers from Jerusalem (405), and sites along Judah’s borders to the north (Tell en-Nasbeh, 143 examples), to the south (Tel Beer Sheva, 43 examples), and along the western border with Philistia (Tell Beit Mirsim with 37, Bet Shemesh with 30, and Lachish with 29). While most figurines derive from household contexts, examples also come from tombs, the Arad temple, and public buildings. Early examples date to the late tenth or ninth century BCE but the figurines greatest popularity and distribution dates to the eighth century BCE. Few seventh century BCE examples survive.

Judean Pillar Figurines and the Bible

With no distinctive markings these figurines defy certain identification. Few toys or objects of amusement were manufactured in this period so the figurines presumably represent a deity or a magical object rather than a simple plaything such as a doll. Who or what does the figurine represent?

The prominent breasts suggest a connection to lactation and by extension to infants’ welfare. The distinctive pillar-shaped body resembles a wooden pole or tree trunk, the symbol of the fertility goddess Asherah or her attributes. Accordingly, the figurines are interpreted as either fertility goddesses, most frequently Asherah or Astarte, or as sympathetic magical items to promote fertility in general and lactation and infant survival more specifically.

While female figurines are known from all periods, the sudden appearance of these figurines in the late tenth or ninth century and their widespread distribution in the eighth century are surprising. Why would Israelites in the ninth and especially the eighth century BCE manufacture a figurine depicting a female goddess or a talisman? And why might the practice taper off and cease in the seventh or early sixth century?

Ryan Byrne suggests the figurines embody an ideological emphasis on reproduction in response to the devastating Assyrian campaigns and deportations of the late eighth and seventh centuries BCE. They diminish in number in the late seventh century not in response to King Josiah’s religious reforms targeting idolatry (II Kings 23) but because his predecessor King Manasseh succeeded in restoring and repopulating Judah during his long peaceful reign.

Ref- S. Ackerman, “At Home with the Goddess” pp. 455-68 in W. Dever and S. Gitin eds., Symbiosis, Symbolism, and the Power of the Past- Canaan, Ancient Israel and Their Neighbors from the Late Bronze Age through Roman Palestina. Eisenbrauns, 2003.
R. Kletter, “Between Archaeology and Theology- The Pillar Figurines from Judah and the Asherah” pp. 179-216 in A. Mazar ed. Studies in the Archaeology of the Iron Age in Israel and Jordan. JSOTSupp 331. Sheffield Academic, 2001; R. Byrne, “Lie Back and Think of Judah- The Reproductive Politics of Pillar Figurines” NEA 67.3 (2004) 137-51.

Elizabeth Bloch-Smith

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