Paganistan: Notes from the Secret Commonwealth

In Which One Midwest Man-in-Black Confers, Converses & Otherwise Hob-Nobs with his Fellow Hob-Men (& -Women) Concerning the Sundry Ways of the Famed but Ill-Starred Tribe of Witches.

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The Woman at the Window

A recurrent iconographic motif of Phoenician art during the early 1st millenium BCE is the “Woman at the Window.” Sometimes called by researchers “Astarte at the Window,” the motif occurs with such frequency—known examples number in the thousands—and in so many different mediums (ivory, stone, wood, bone), that it is well worth asking what it may have meant to the ancestors.

Although minor variations occur, the type is surprisingly consistent. A woman's face peers out from a window. The window itself is generally back-set in a triple recess; she looks out over a balustrade supported by four (occasionally three) elaborately-carved columns. The woman is characterized by an elaborate ringlet coiffure—perhaps a wig—bekohled eyes, and prominent ears.

Early researchers associated the motif with a cult of sacred prostitution, but contemporary scholars have laid this sacred cow of Biblical research to rest. No evidence exists for such an institution in any ancient Semitic culture; such claims in antiquity have proved to be at second- and third- hand, and are invariably attributed to other people. Whoever the Woman at the Window may be, she is no “hierodule.”

The monumental architecture of the window clearly indicates that this is a very special woman indeed; the window is an elaborate frame for what seems most likely to be a divine epiphany. Although no known examples are inscribed, it is not unreasonable to think that we may here be gazing upon the face of a goddess, and although the cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean coast knew numerous goddesses, we may well suspect that this may be the goddess known variously as Astarte, Ashtárt, Ashtéret, and Ashtarót.




If so, we see here a Window of Appearance. The goddess is gazing at us from the window of her temple or perhaps (insofar as one can draw a distinction) from the window of heaven. Her elaborate hair-do, sometimes shown with frontlet (hair/brow ornament) indicates her status and the ritual nature of the occasion. The kohl around her eyes draws attention to them: she gazes at us as we gaze upon her. This is an image the purpose of which is encounter, contact, relationship. More: her prominent ears (sometimes given even more visual emphasis by the addition of earrings) indicate that she is listening attentively to our prayers.


Although we cannot prove it, it seems likely that the Woman at the Window reflects ancient ritual practice. Whether in the ancient Phoenician world the goddess at the window would have been represented by an image or by a human personifier, we do not know. The embodiment of deities through human personifiers is not unknown in the Mediterranean cultural sphere. This would seem to have been the practice in Minoan Crete, and the architrave of the great temple of Artemis at Ephesos had a Window of Appearance in which, at various festivals, a priestess would appear in the person of the goddess herself.



It is likely that we see an allusion to this Phoenician icon in—of all places—the Hebrew Bible. The queen known in English as Jezebel hears that a Yahwist goon-squad is coming to kill her, so she dresses her hair, puts on her make-up, and goes defiantly to the window to confront her murderers: “When Izevel heard that Yehu was coming to Yizre'el, she put kohl on her eyes, fixed her head [hair], and looked out of a window” (2 Kings 9:30).

Herself a worshiper of Ashtart, and the daughter of King Etba'al of Tyre, a kohen gadol—high priest—of Ashtart, Izevel's very name alludes to her religious upbringing. 'Ei zvul, “where is the Prince?” would seem to have been a ritual cry of lamentation for the annual death of the god Ba'al, known in Canaanite literature as Ba'al Zvul, “Prince Ba'al.” (Hebrew punsters renamed him Ba'al Zvuv, “Lord Fly,” whence Beelzebub.) In the Hebrew Bible her name was re-voweled as 'I Zével, “where is shit?”

Well, you can murder queens and destroy temples, but Earth has faithfully preserved a truth well-known to the mothers and fathers.

And nightly we ourselves may behold the Lady, eyes be-kohled, hair beautifully arrayed, as she looks out from the window of Heaven, watching over us and listening for our prayers.






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Poet, scholar and storyteller Steven Posch was raised in the hardwood forests of western Pennsylvania by white-tailed deer. (That's the story, anyway.) He emigrated to Paganistan in 1979 and by sheer dint of personality has become one of Lake Country's foremost men-in-black. He is current keeper of the Minnesota Ooser.


  • Bruno
    Bruno Saturday, 28 February 2015

    Thank you! Very interesting reading and connections. Perhaps this has to do with Europa ("Wide-Eyed") who was kidnnaped by Zeus from Phoenicia into Crete?

  • Steven Posch
    Steven Posch Saturday, 28 February 2015

    Ah, right, I'd forgotten: the Phoenician princess with the surprising Greek name. (I wonder what her Phoenician name was?) A tantalizing possibility, Bruno. Hmm.

    The Lady and the Bull: that central icon of Neolithic religion.

  • Bruno
    Bruno Saturday, 28 February 2015

    I don´t know her Phoenician name, but was posibly Astarte, since in the myth she and Zeus fathered Asterion (the famed Minotaur), which may hint to a Phoenician origin of the name.

  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Saturday, 28 February 2015

    Love this. In my play, "Stories Seldom Told: A feminist retelling of some familiar and not so familiar Biblical stories" one of the monologues is Queen Jezebel getting ready to meet her murders with grace and power.

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