The "Astarte" who appears to be one goddess in James George Frazer’s "The Golden Bough" was actually three, Ashtarat, Anat, and Asherah ha Elah. The Semitic name Ashtarat became, in time, the Hellenistic Astarte, and it is this name that is a variant of Ishtar. These three goddesses correspond roughly to Venus, Minerva, and Juno in the Roman pantheon. Ashtarat did in fact "become" Aphrodite or Venus as her cultus spread northward. The intermediate stage was the divine mermaid Atar Ateh or Atargatis of Syria, whose image we see on the Starbucks coffee cup.
The name “Asherah” is supposed to mean "pole" and it refers to a pole that was placed by her altars. This pole immediately reminds me of the May pole of Europe. But to do the goddess justice, I would interpret her name to mean not simply "pole" but "Tree of Life". Her complete name Asherah ha Elah must mean, therefore, "The Tree of Life, the Goddess". She has the exalted title Elah because unlike her sisters (or perhaps daughters) her image was worshiped in the Temple in Jerusalem alongside the Ark of the Covenant, where she was the consort of YHVH. That is why I compared her to Juno. Both Asherah and Juno do not have the "shadow" quality of "illicit" sex that clings to Ashtarat and Venus, even though Venus was highly respected in Rome. Asherah and Juno are goddesses of the sexual norm---sexuality within marriage and family, which are the foundations of society.
And this is where we come to an interesting ethical problem. We might expect a Venus to be condemned by the Hebrew prophets and the Christian church, but when they began to condemn the sexuality of the respected matron, the mother of the family, we can sense that a genuine repression of womanhood has occurred. Asherah's image was removed from the temple in the time of the prophet Nehemiah after the Babylonian captivity, when the Tanakh received definite literary form and Judaism was codified. The removal of Asherah's image from the temple of Jerusalem was a catastrophe not just for goddess worship as a religion, but for the human psyche.
Consider, for example, what Islam became because Allat was not allowed to remain alongside Allah as his feminine presence---for her image was removed from the Kaaba and destroyed. The unfortunate result of the worship of a hyper-masculine God is evident in the morning newspaper. To this day I cannot find a divine feminine of any kind in Islam. But Judaism managed to revive a sublimated form of its goddess in the form of the Shekinah, and Christianity has Sophia.
It is in the figure of Maria, the mother of Jesus, that we clearly see an implicit condemnation of sexuality in the home and family. Every Roman Catholic to whom I have spoken reacts with indignation to my suggestion that Maria had children in her marriage with Joseph. The idea is considered blasphemous---for if Maria did not have our fallen nature, she could not have had sex. It is as simple as that. In many cultures the ideal virtue of the wife is that she should be “chaste”. I heartily agree that we should value the faithful wife. But the chaste wife is more than just faithful---she is supposed to lie on her back during intercourse and not feel anything. This is a religious ideal having to with moral purity, which in turn must be a kind of ritual purity. Ritual purity is designed to protect the participant in a religious rite from the contagion of energies that have not been properly contained. So it would seem that sex has become a source of fear rather than delight to the men who condemned it, and the unresponsive or chaste wife is the husband’s best guarantee of safety.
When a natural, essentially good function of our humanity is repressed with guilt and shame, it becomes demonic. Therefore Asherah and Juno were replaced by Maria virginem, the Virgin Mary---and nature could live only in the prostitute. But she is not really natural either.
We will sense that the long-awaited Goddess has come when ordinary Catholics can think without distress that Maria the Mother had more than one child. Maria has returned and tells us an unhappy story---that she has never been allowed to share her real thoughts, her real self with us. Powerful, repressive Masters controlled the Great White Brotherhood for centuries and the Woman was silenced.
Maria tells me that the five children that she bore to Joseph were named Judah, Jacob, Elisabeth, Simon, and Ann. She also tells me that although she was always faithful, she was not “chaste” in the sense that I have described. Why this should be shocking I do not know.
When the Goddess returns Asherah will return to the temple in the sense that ordinary womanhood, which she represents, will be seen as holy. She opened the door to that temple as long ago as 1525, when the nun Katharina von Bora married the monk Martin Luther and the couple had six children. The Lutheran faith of Martin Luther sought out the Hebrew original not only in the texts that Martin used to translate the Bible into the vernacular, but also in its sense that ordinary life rather than monastic life is the best venue for service and praise to God.
Below: Clay and stone figures of Asherah of the kind that were common in Jewish homes.
Images of Ashtarat, on the other hand, typically emphasize her vulva, for she is not so much a moral goddess as a fertility goddess.