I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston yesterday (in part so I could take advantage of their air conditioning on a steamy, stormy day). Major art museums in the West tend to be strange places, because they are typically full of deities from many different cultures. We in the West may have eradicated deities from our homes, and it looks like we’re in the process of slowly eradicating our public places of worship — but we like to salvage a handful of deities from all the cultures we’ve colonized, purify them of their religiosity by calling them “art,” and putting them in glass cases. Such is the trajectory the colonization of religion.

A small household shrine made of terracotta caught my eye. From Phoenicia in the seventh or sixth century before the Common Era, the shrine contains the goddess Astarte. Astarte was a goddess from Canaan. Some sources say that she was merged with, or took over from, the earlier Canaanite goddess Anat, a fierce goddess of fertility and war. Other sources say Astarte traces her origins back to the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar. Still other sources relate her to Esther, or to Aphrodite. There was plenty of cultural borrowing in the Ancient Near East.

King Solomon is taken to task in the Hebrew Bible because he worshiped Astarte, among other deities: “Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians… So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and did not completely follow the Lord, as his father David had done” [1 Kings 11:5-6]. One of Jeremiah’s jeremiads was against Astarte. The Shalvi/ Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women has a brief article on Astarte that’s worth reading, and that concludes by saying: “Although our sources do not provide enough information to identify definitively which Israelites were particularly attracted to the worship of Astarte or the reasons for their attraction, it is possible that some devotees were compelled by the presence of a female divine figure in an otherwise male-dominated religious environment.” You can learn a great deal more about Astarte in the Bible in the essay “Astarte in the Bible” by Stephanie Anthonioz, in David T. Sugimoto, ed., Transformation of a Goddess: Ishtar — Astarte — Aphrodite (Academic Press Fribourg, 2014).

But the Phoenicians apparently had no compunctions about worshiping Astarte. This small sculpture shows her nude, as if she were Ishtar. She is given an Egyptian headdress, and the columns on either side of her are topped with depictions of the Egyptian god Bes. She is, if you will, a multicultural goddess. This is not entirely surprising, given who the Phoenicians were. They were merchants and sailors, and they traded throughout the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, perhaps sailing even as far as Britain. No wonder, then, that they worshiped multicultural deities.

A small terra cotta relief sculpture of a woman standing between two columns.
Household shrine from Phoenicia, with the goddess Astarte
(Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1990.605)

A minor deity

Here’s a small figure, probably a deity, from the Ifugao people of the Philippines. This figure sits on top of a small container used for holding agriculatural lime (a misture consisting primarily of calcium carbonate), one of the constituents used in preparing a mild stimulant from betel leaf (Piper betle) and the nut of the areca palm (Areca catechu).

This figure, made sometime in the first half of the twentieth century, is probably an ancestor deity, or a guardian deity — akin, perhaps, to the household gods of Rome, minor deities which have retained a place in the collective memory of the Western tradition.

In the West, we tend to assume that a deity by definition is unitary (or unitary-but-triune), and transcendent. We forget that for much of human history, there were a multiplicity of deities that lived quite close at hand; and we forget that a significant percentage of humans today still live in a world where many deities live close at hand. And perhaps these close-at-hand deities have never really left our collective consciousness; today we keep our glowing smartphones always with us, just as the ancient Romans kept the statues of their Lares or household gods close at hand so that they might consult them constantly, to ensure good fortune.


Taweret is one of the deities who was a fairly common presence in ancient Egyptian households. Sculptures of Taweret have the head of a hippopotamus and the body of a female human being, and the arms and legs of a lion (note 1); though of course the physical manifestations of ancient Egyptian deities were not thought to adequately represent the actual deity. Sculptures of her “held the attribute of the sa [an ancient Egyptian symbol of magical protection] in her hands and sometimes also the ankh or a torch, the flame of which was supposed to expel typhonic forces” (note 2).

A statue of Taweret would typically stand in a niche in a house, with perhaps an offering table. A Taweret sculpture might also be placed in bedrooms, to prevent sleeping humans from being assaulted by demons or ghosts. According to some accounts, she was married to the god Seth (note 3).

Below is a fine tiny sculpture of Taweret, made of faience sometime in Dynasties 26-30, now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (accession number 64.2252). She is holding the sa, and you can see her hippo head, human body, and lion limbs. She is fearsome enough to give you a measure of assurance that she will indeed protect you, as a household god should; but she also appears friendly enough that I would not mind having her in my household.



1. Garry J. Shaw, The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends (Thames and Hudson, 2014), p. 155.

2. Manfred Lurker, An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Egypt [Thames and Hudson, 1980/2006], English language edition of Gotter und Symbole der Alten Agypter, rev. and enlarged by Peter A. Clayton, p. 119.

3. Shaw, pp. 152, 158, 55.

Ceremonial deity, Phillippines

Ceremonial Deity, Philippines

Above: Sketch of a “ceremonial deity,” Philippines, c. 1930. Wood and shell. Asian Museum of Art.

One of delights of going to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco is seeing the diversity of depictions of deities. Today I particularly noticed the unnamed deities — like this sculpture of an unnamed ceremonial deity, made in the Philippines around 1930. Why do we not know the name of this deity? Is it because it is a minor deity, and thus not widely identifiable (though perhaps readily identifiable by a devotee)? Did it never have a name that could be spoken by humans? Or was this a deity like the Roman Lares familiares, the household gods, who don’t seem to have had names, or whose power was so geographically restricted that their names perhaps were known only to the household they protected?

I think that the end of Christendom is allowing us to see such minor deities more clearly. In the worldview of Christendom, only the major deities — the wildly transcendent deities, Jehovah’s direct competition — were worthy of serious attention. Now maybe we can pay a little more attention to the many minor deities who inhabit the metaphorical space between those distant transcendent deities and mortal creatures.

Grants to Amarillo

Before we got back on the interstate, we drove to El Malpais National Monument, parked at the visitor center, and hiked for about an hour on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. We didn’t see much of the badlands for which El Malpais is best known, but we did see a meadow and a dike that was all that was left of a failed 1930s Civilian Conservation Corps project to attempt to dam up a seasonal stream to create a reliable water source, and we did see some beautiful pinyon pine woodlands.

The badlands are actually old lava flows that crept out across the red dirt and sandstone so characteristic of this part of New Mexico. The trail was marked by cairns made up of a mixture of volcanic rock and red sandstone.


Above: Continental Divide Trail, El Malpais National Monument

In ancient Greece, cairns were inhabited by Hermes, god of travelers, and of thieves and tricksters. Hermes, it was said, got into trouble with Hera for killing her servant Argus. A trial was held, with the other gods and goddesses acting as jurors. Each god or goddess had a stone which represented their vote, and Hermes argued so skilfully in his own defense that all the gods and goddesses cast their stones at his feet, until there was a pile of stones with Hermes inside. Ever since then, Hermes resides, as it were, inside the piles of stones that are cairns, helping travelers find their way.

In New England, I always thought that there was a remote whiff of Hermes inside the cairns that I saw on mountain trails; New England is close enough to Europe that perhaps the old gods and goddesses immigrated with the white Europeans who came to North America; so every New England house I ever lived in had its household gods, our version of the Roman Laertes. But these Western cairns had nothing of the Old World gods and goddesses about them. They did, however, have a presence; I felt there was something partly alive about them; but it was more of a sense of animism than of Olympian divinities.

When we left El Malpais National Monument, I went into the small visitor center to use the bathroom. I tried to avoid the books, but a children’s book titled Eco Trackers caught my eye. Ah, that would be perfect for the ecojustice camp were going to do! That was the third book I bought on this trip; I had gotten an Agatha Christie mystery and another book yesterday in Starrlights Books in Flagstaff.

As we drove towards Albuquerque, I called my dad. “What was that restaurant that you liked so much in downtown Albuquerque?” I asked him. He couldn’t remember the name, but reminded me that is was on the main drag right across from one of the main entrances to the University of New Mexico. We drove down old Route 66, and there it was: Frontier Restaurant, Tony Hillerman’s favorite restaurant. Carol had pozole, flour tortillas, and a peach smoothie; I had breakfast.


Above: Albuquerque, N.M. (Photo courtesy Carol Steinfeld)

The food was excellent, and the restaurant was a good place for Carol to hang out and watch people while I ran across the street to the University of New Mexico bookstore — where I bought three more books.

We drove on. The red rock country of New Mexico began to flatten out, and turn into the southern end of the Great Plains. We could see dark thunderclouds all around us, and rain coming down in the distance. I was reading the Agatha Christie novel aloud to Carol, when I stopped and said, “Look! there’s standing water on that field!” Coming from drought-stricken California, where it doesn’t rain all summer anyway, that was an amazing sight.

We stopped in Adrian, Texas, at nine o’clock to see if we could get me some dinner. The cafe was closed.


Above: Adrian, Tex.

But right across the interstate, there was a gas station with a mini-mart. The kind woman at the counter — I’d guess she owned the place — sold me her last two hot dogs. “And I’m glad to sell them both to you,” she said. “So you don’t have any left over to go to waste,” I said. She chuckled and said that was it. They were pretty good hot dogs. I ate them standing by the car looking out at the darkening sky over the wide open, and very green fields, of Adrian.


Above: Adrian, Tex.

The ceiling gods

Waking up in the middle of the night and talking to the ceiling gods:— This refers to those moments when you come out of sleep filled with thoughts of all the problems you have to face, at least some of which are probably unsolvable. You lie there in bed, your mind turning those problems around, and you can’t get back to sleep for a long time. This is talking to the ceiling gods. (I think I first heard Wynne using this phrase.)

I suspect the ceiling gods are descendants of the old Roman household gods, the Lares. We have tried to replace the old household gods with the altars of personal computers, and portable shrines of tablets and smartphones. But for every problem my laptop solves, it dumps three more problems in my lap via email; I’m not sure our replacements for the Lares are really doing us any favors. The ceiling gods seem more effective. Perhaps I will start pouring them libations, and leaving them small offerings.