Before moving on further into the contents of the Orphic Gold Plates, I would like to look with more detail into a motif touched upon in my last post in this series.  I described how the Orphic inscriptions instruct the soul that they are to pass by the guardians in order to be able to meet Persephone, the “Mother Goddess” who will help them through the rest of their journey through the Netherworld.  Although she was the mother of gods and mortals, her births were parthenogenic (virgin births). It seems that this Virgin Mother Goddess was an essential part of many ancient forms of initiation into the Mysteries, where she was seen as nursing the “newborn” initiate with milk. The Mother Goddess was often symbolically identified as the Tree of Life.

In an earlier post, I discussed the idea that the fountain of living waters (in the Orphic tablets identified as the waters of the goddess Mnemosyne), from which the soul must drink in order to secure its salvation, was also to be considered equivalent to the white tree, the Tree of Life. This connection is made explicit in the vision of Nephi (1 Ne. 11:25), where he explains:

And it came to pass that I beheld that the rod of iron, which my father had seen, was the word of God, which led to the fountain of living waters, or to the tree of life; which waters are a representation of the love of God; and I also beheld that the tree of life was a representation of the love of God.


In Egypt, the Tree of Life was often depicted as a goddess, or having a goddess within it, that nursed or poured forth living waters (or perhaps milk) to individuals.

Egyptian Milk Treetreegoddess3

In Nephi’s vision, remarkably, we also see this connection between the Tree of Life and the virgin mother.  In 1 Ne. 11, Nephi is shown the exceedingly beautiful and white tree that his father had seen in his dream. When Nephi asks the Spirit for the interpretation of the tree, he is immediately shown a rather unusual (to us) image — he is shown a virgin as beautiful and white as the Tree of Life.  This virgin, who we know as Mary, is presented to Nephi as “the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh” (1 Ne. 11:18).  Mary had the baby Jesus in her arms, and although we aren’t given this detail, was conceivably nursing the Child.  In response to his inquiry about the tree, this is what Nephi is shown — and he understands these images to represent the love of God.  It is amazing how this Book of Mormon vision fits so perfectly the ancient conception of what the Tree of Life represented.

Old Testament scholar Margaret Barker, who is an expert in the religious culture of Jerusalem at the time Lehi and Nephi would have been there, noticed the amazing similarity of the Book of Mormon account to her understanding of how the ancient Israelites would have pictured the Tree of Life. In her speech at the Worlds of Joseph Smith conference held at the Library of Congress in 2005, Barker expounded:

The Tree of Life made one happy according to the Book of Proverbs, but for other detailed descriptions of the tree we have to rely on the non-canonical texts. Enoch described it as perfumed, with fruits like grapes. But a text discovered in Egypt in 1945 described the tree as beautiful, fiery, and with fruits like white grapes. I don’t know of any other source which describes the fruit as white grapes, so you can imagine my surprise when I read the account of Lehi’s vision of the tree whose white fruits made one happy; and the interpretation of the vision, that the virgin in Nazareth was the mother of the Son of God after the manner of the flesh.

This is the Heavenly Mother (represented by the Tree of Life), and then Mary and her son on the earth. This revelation to Joseph Smith was the exact ancient Wisdom symbolism, intact, and almost certainly as it was known in 600 BCE.

(To read Margaret Barker’s full speech, see here. Also see here her speech given at BYU that touches on similar topics.)

Another great resource on this topic is Daniel Peterson’s article entitled “Nephi and His Asherah.” After discussing the image of “the Mother of the Son of God” and the Tree of Life in 1 Nephi, Peterson goes into a very informative discussion of how modern scholars have found much evidence for the worship of a Mother Goddess in Ancient Israel.  We know of the existence of this goddess from the Bible itself, which mentions the occasional purging of the “Asherah” (usually translated as “grove”, see 2 Kgs. 23:4-15; Judg. 6:25-30; 2 Chr. 34:3-7; 2 Kgs. 17:10) from the worship practices of the Israelites.  The grove, or asherah in Hebrew, was apparently a wooden pole, or more likely, a stylized tree that was set up or “planted” in holy places, often next to an altar. Peterson notes that the rabbinic authors of the Jewish Mishna (second-third century AD) explain the asherah as a tree that was worshipped.

This religious symbol represented the Tree of Life and also the goddess named Asherah.  We learn from the Canaanite/Ugaritic texts that the goddess Asherah was the consort (wife) of the high god ‘El.  She was the Mother Goddess, the Queen of Heaven–but like her counterparts in other cultures, she was also called the Virgin.  She was often depicted as nursing her divine offspring.  The sacred tree was her symbol.

Many scholars now believe that Asherah was worshipped legitimately in Israel for centuries, despite the Bible’s description of her worship as foreign custom to be abhorred.  The Bible does tell us that Abraham “planted a grove” and called upon the name of the Lord (Gen. 21:33).  Some have calculated that an asherah stood in the Temple of Solomon (perhaps even in the Holy of Holies) for a full two-thirds of its existence.  We know that the asherah wasn’t permanently removed until the time of the Deuteronomistic/King Josiah’s reforms (see here and here), which we read about in 2 Kings 23.  Furthermore, archaeologists have found thousands of small clay figurines in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas that are believed to have represented Asherah, the Mother Goddess. These figurines often depict a woman nursing a child and generally have what appears to be a tree trunk for the lower half of the body.


(For more on the archaeological evidences for Asherah worship, see William G. Dever’s book Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel)

Daniel Peterson concludes that “Belief in Asherah seems, in fact, to have been a conservative position in ancient Israel; criticism of it was innovative.”1

Margaret Barker goes into this topic in many of her books. For her, the asherah tree in the Temple of Solomon was likely the true menorah (see, for example, her book Temple Theology: An Introduction, p. 78, 90-91). According to Barker, it had originally been located in the Holy of Holies next to the Cherubim Throne. In one ancient version of Psalm 96:10, it apparently read: “The LORD reigns from the tree” (Justin Martyr, Dial.Trypho 71). A number of ancient texts describe the Throne of God in the Garden of Eden as being next to the Tree of Life. The asherah/menorah in the Holy of Holies also represented Wisdom and had cups of olive oil with flames continually lit. The Zohar (Lev 34b) describes the relationship between Wisdom, the oil, and the Tree of Life:

Take Aaron and his sons with him, and the garments. Rabbi Hiya quoted here the verse: ‘For with thee is the fountain of life, and in thy light we see light’ (Ps. 36:9). The fountain of life, he said, is the supernal oil which flows continually and is stored in the midst of the most high Wisdom, from which it never separates.  It is the source which dispenses life to the supernal tree and kindles the lights. And that tree is called the Tree of Life because it is planted on account of that source of life.

The asherah in the Holy of Holies would have represented the Tree of Life, Wisdom, and the Mother Goddess. She was (at least originally) the Wife of El-Elyon, God Most High, and the Mother of the LORD, Yahweh.  From her flowed living waters, the fountain of life, the holy oil that gives eternal life. This is all very much in line with the beliefs of the Egyptians and Greek/Orphic traditions discussed earlier.

As Barker alludes to in her Library of Congress speech, the wickedness that Nephi refers to in the beginning of 1 Nephi, and which Lehi preached against, very well could have been King Josiah’s purge of the Temple, and the removal of its sacred objects, including the asherah. The Tree of Life was removed from its position alongside the Throne of God, and was smashed and burned. The Queen of Heaven had been rejected. The holy anointing oil, which was used to anoint both kings and high priests, was lost. Lehi and Nephi would likely have been against these reforms, desiring to preserve the more ancient traditions.

These traditions were preserved in many texts of the intertestamental period, including the Enochic literature and many apocalypses. The imagery was still alive in early Christianity. The book of Revelation, a vision which takes place in the heavenly Holy of Holies, sees the Tree of Life again placed beside the Throne of God (Rev. 1:12; 2:7; 22:1-2,14). Peterson mentions a Coptic version of the record called the Apocalypse of Paul, which relates a vision that, in this detail at least, strikingly resembles the vision of Nephi: “And he [the angel] showed me the Tree of Life,” Paul is reported to have said, “and by it was a revolving red-hot sword. And a Virgin appeared by the tree, and three angels who hymned her, and the angel told me that she was Mary, the Mother of Christ.”

The Catholic Church, of course, continued to emphasize the importance of this view of Mary as the Mother of the Son of God. In that tradition, Mary virtually becomes the Mother Goddess of ancient times. Not surprisingly, she is often depicted as nursing the divine child.


Peterson further explains:

But Nephi’s vision goes even further, identifying Mary with the tree. This additional element seems to derive from precisely the preexilic Palestinian culture into which, the Book of Mormon tells us, Nephi had been born.

Of course, Mary, the virgin girl of Nazareth seen by Nephi, was not literally Asherah. She was, as Nephi’s guide carefully stressed, simply “the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.” But she was the perfect mortal typification of the mother of the Son of God.2

The recognition of a Mother Goddess was an integral part of most ancient religions. She was almost always connected to the Tree of Life and/or Waters of Life and was responsible for giving eternal life, immortality, and godhood.  In the Bible, although her symbol was repeatedly condemned and desecrated, largely due to late reform movements with rather dubious intentions, she was also remembered as Wisdom, God’s helper in the Creation.  She was seen as the Mother and Nurturer of the gods. While many tried to extinguish her status and importance, righteous people longed for the return of the Tree of Life to its rightful place beside God’s own throne.  While there is much, much more that could be said on this topic, I just wanted to share some thoughts which I hope are helpful.

  1. Daniel C. Peterson, “Nephi and His Asherah,” in Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, 9:2 (Provo, UT: Maxwell Institute, 2000) 16-25
  2. Ibid.

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