Upon entering the tomb of King Thutmosis III, its excavator was greeted by a scene he hadn't expected. In addition to the typical stiff, repetitive funerary imagery of the time, the innermost sanctum of the burial chamber had a simple image of the Pharaoh suckling on a breast protruding from a tree.
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The association of a tree of life with a major goddess had been all but unknown in Thutmosis’ 18th Dynasty Egypt (1479 BCE to 1425 BCE). But they were very well known in Canaan and the broader Levant.
Nude goddesses and tree symbolism began appearing as early as the Neolithic period, some 12,000 years ago in the north of Israel. Artifacts including scarab seals, jewelry, and clay figurines were found at important sites such as Lachish, Megiddo, Beit Shean, Gezer, and Nahariya, to name just a few.
By the time of the Middle Bronze Age, 4,000 years ago, they were commonplace in funerary, household and temple contexts – in the Levant. Not in Egypt.
Naked and nurturing
The goddess was usually shown naked with a tree either represented somewhere on her body by a branch, or as a tree from which goats feed. Tear-shaped, gold pendants have been found featuring the goddess' head with a bouffant hairdo - the ends turned outward. Often the goddess’ ears are round and large, and her face is cow- or lioness-like. Sometimes the goddess is shown standing on a lion, holding lotuses in her hands, or snakes. A fascinating scarab found in Tel Ajjul in Gaza has the deity crouching on a lion, a vulture perched on her hand and tree branches filling in the rest of the available space.
Clearly the goddess was a prominent member of the Canaanite pantheon going back countless thousands of years. Yet in Egypt, artifacts clearly associated with her were only found from the 18th Dynasty, from which time she abounds in Egyptian digs.
How did this Canaanite goddess become so powerful in the Egyptian pantheon that she wound up depicted in Thutmosis III’s tomb? Through conquest of Egypt by her believers, it seems.
Crawling conquest by the Hyksos
Sometime in the 1800s BCE, a people called the Hyksos (which merely means ‘foreign rulers’ in ancient Egyptian) first appeared in the Nile Delta.
Who exactly the Hyksos were, not to mention where they came from, remain uncertain. But evidence associating them with Canaan abounds. Ancient texts show that they had Semitic names. DNA analysis of the males associates them with the Semitic peoples. And, their temples had no evidence of pig bones.
The Hyksos lived among the Egyptians for some time, at least from the 12th Dynasty, before rising to power. Eventually they reigned over Lower Egypt from the 15th to the 17th Dynasty (1630–1523 BCE).
Fusing with Hathor
Again attesting to foreign antecedents, the tree goddess is very un-Egyptian in character and form. Their gods were stiff, dark-skinned and remote: she is fair nurturing.
Most commonly associated with funerary art and associated with the afterlife and rebirth, the goddess is shown leaning down to attend to her worshippers out of a fruit tree, giving them food and drink. She seems accessible to the supplicants in a personal way, atypically of the old Egyptian pantheon.
And, she is always represented as having light or yellow skin. This was a common way for Egyptian artists to differentiate between the lighter-skinned Hyksos and the darker local Egyptians.
In form, she morphed over the centuries, as described by Orly Goldwasser, head of Egyptology at Hebrew University Jerusalem. Images of the goddess began as a tree with a breast, such as found in the tomb of Thutmosis III, to a goddess with a sycamore on her head, and finally, to fully-fused with a fruit tree.
In one instance she was found fused with two fruit trees: sycamore and palm and in some images, she is a cow. In ancient Egyptian art, fruit-bearing trees are associated with fertility, while the cow is the symbol of Hathor, one of the main deities of the original Egyptian pantheon.
And indeed, over time this Canaanite goddess was fused with a minor sycamore goddess and finally with the goddess Hathor herself, who became "the goddess of the sycamore tree."
With their expulsion from Egypt, the Hyksos brought Egyptian aspects of the goddess back to the Levant in turn. Later finds from the Middle Bronze Age in Israel show the ancient goddess with a Hathor-type cow face, and sometimes with her horns and moon crown.
It is rare in antiquity to find evidence that immigrants clearly affected not only the art of their host nation, but the established religion as well. But one thing remains unknown – the goddess' name. Some believe the Levantine goddess is the Bible’s reviled Ashera, often associated with the worship of wooden poles. But we may never know for sure.