Cakes for the Queen of Heaven: 2,500 Years of Religious Ecstasy

by Peter Berger

For several decades sociologist Peter Berger has been one of the most interesting writers on religion and modern society. Perhaps best known for his text on the sociology of religion,The Sacred Canopy, Berger has also shown a keen interest in issues of development and public policy and in the nature of religious belief in the modern world, as evident in A Far Glory: The Question of Faith in an Age of Credulity (1992) and in his most recent book, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience. For the past 12 years he has been on the faculty of Boston University and director of B U’s Institute for the Study of Economic Culture.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, December 25, 1974, pp. 1217-1223. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


A religion of pleasure, no matter what the intentions of its advocates, can only inhibit the efforts required by God’s demand that we engage in the moral struggles of this world.

"As for you, do not pray for this people, . . for I do not hear you. Do you not see what they are doing in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, the fathers kindle fire, and the women knead dough, to make cakes for the queen of heaven; and they pour out drink offerings to other gods, to provoke me to anger. Is it I whom they provoke? says the Lord. Is it not themselves, to their own confusion? . . . Behold, my anger and my wrath will be poured out on this place, upon man and beast, upon the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground; it will burn and not be quenched" [Jer. 7: 1-20].

Whatever the precise date of this passage from Jeremiah’s prophecies -- and, as is usually the case, biblical scholars disagree -- the general historical context is clear: More than a century earlier the northern kingdom of Israel had been almost entirely annihilated by the Assyrians. Since this terrible event the little southern kingdom of Judah had been leading a precarious existence between the great powers in Mesopotamia and Egypt. From the beginning of his public activity, Jeremiah had been warning his compatriots against a great danger, a strong and terrible enemy, that was to come from the north -- the same direction from which the Assyrians had come.

Breaching the Covenant-Contract

It was this enemy that was to be the instrument of divine punishment of the sinful people of Israel. Over a hundred years before, the prophets of the north -- especially Hosea -- had spoken in just these terms about the Assyrians: Yahweh, the God of Israel, worked mysteriously through the forces of history, even through nations that had never heard of him, nations violently hostile to him. Even the Assyrians, a ferocious and merciless nation, could serve as the rod with which Yahweh would strike the people that had become unfaithful to the covenant. Unlike other gods, Yahweh was bound neither to a place nor to a people. His temple could just as well be in one place as in another. His relation to Israel was a contractual one rather than one of kinship. Yahweh had chosen Israel. He had bound himself to Israel in the covenant, but if Israel broke the terms of that contract, he was then free to repudiate the relationship. Now, once more, Jeremiah proclaimed these old truths about Yahweh, and the proclamation was given added weight by the frightful example of what had happened in the north.

Curiously, the sins denounced in the passage from Jeremiah (sins, that is, that constitute a breach of contract on the part of the people of Israel) are a mixture of social and religious offenses. There are easily recognized violations of social justice -- failures to abide by the law, oppression of the weaker elements in society, the shedding of innocent blood. But these sociological sins are closely linked with the religious ones -- the "going after other gods." This linkage is startling to modern ears. We are; to be sure, accustomed to the moral denunciation of social injustice, be it in religious or secular terms. A New York Times editorial writer would readily find himself at home in Jeremiah’s catalogue of social evils. But we are not at all accustomed to seeing such evils linked with the failure to worship properly (in large part, of course, because we have only the haziest notion about worship, proper or improper). The linkage between social ethics and worship was also startling in the context of the ancient Near East -- but not for the reason it startles us today. There was nothing hazy about worship in the ancient Near East: the individual was constantly surrounded by cult and ritual. Nor were the gods a remote or implausible hypothesis; on the contrary, they were tangibly close and real. It was not at all surprising for an Israelite prophet to assume that worship was of great importance. Rather, the unexpected thing was the assertion that the worship of Yahweh was directly and inevitably linked to the treatment of the lower classes of society. Not that this assertion was original to Jeremiah; he was merely reiterating an understanding of the covenant that harked back to very early times in the religious history of Israel.

‘Cheap Grace’ in the Temple of Astarte

What, then, was the improper worship that Jeremiah was talking about? Our passage indicates that a rather ecumenical array of gods was involved. The reference to kindling fires (for sacrifice) and pouring libations could, and probably did, refer to any number of divinities. But I think that the most interesting of the lot was that queen of heaven, for whom the women of Jerusalem made cakes (which, by the way, bore her image and were offered to her in a sacrificial cult). Who was she?

She was a very old divinity indeed, even then, and she had borne many names. In Mesopotamia she was known as Ishtar, in Syria-Palestine as Ashtoret. She reached Egypt as Ashtartu and in southern Arabia she appeared as a male god named Athtar. All these names, by the way, have their root in a Semitic verb that denotes irrigation; everywhere she is associated with the waters that give fertility to the land. There are indications of similar goddesses from other parts of the Mediterranean world and from India. The Greeks called her Astarte and identified her with their own Aphrodite.

Astarte (for convenience’ sake, I’ll use the Hellenized version of her name) was a key figure in the cult of sacred sexuality that was central to the religious life of the ancient Semites. Its basic assumptions were quite simple and, it seems, enormously attractive: humanity was part and parcel of a divine cosmos. The rhythms of nature, particularly the sequences of the seasons and the movements of the stars, were suffused with divine forces. Using later religious terminology, we might say that the rhythms of nature were means of grace or sacraments. These same divine forces were also to be found within human beings, notably in their sexual and agricultural activity (the two were closely linked: the same creative powers gave fertility to the human womb and to the land). The cult of sacred sexuality put one in touch with the divine forces in the cosmos and within oneself. That cult, logically enough, tended everywhere toward the orgiastic. The temples of Astarte had attached to them priestesses or sacred prostitutes (the Hebrew Bible calls them kedeshot, "holy women"; the Greeks called them "hierodules," or "servants of the holy"), who offered sexual relations not for pleasure (though that might have been an occasional fringe benefit) but as a sacrament. (To defend the cult against the charge of sexism, I might add that some of its establishments also had male priests with similar functions.) In addition to its institution of sacred prostitution, the cult had a number of special occasions (harvest festivals and the like) on which normal sexual prohibitions were suspended and, according to the accounts we have, a good time was had by all.

It would be a mistake to attribute the great attraction of the cult of sacred sexuality only to the occasions of sexual release it provided, though this probably played a part. One might observe in this connection that, as human cultures go, that of the ancient Semites was not particularly "repressive" of the sexual impulse; there were plenty of nonsacred prostitutes around, and the temples of Astarte did not have a monopoly in the brothel business. I think, rather, that we can grasp the attraction only if we pay attention to what I have called the sacramental character of sacred sexuality. The human being’s fundamental religious quest is to establish contact with divine forces and beings that transcend him. The cult of sacred sexuality provided this contact in a way that was both easy and pleasurable. The gods were as close as one’s own genitalia; to establish contact with them, when all was said mythologically and all was done ritually, one only had to do what, after all, one wanted to do anyway. It is hard to think of a more perfect example of what, many centuries later, Christians would call "cheap grace." At the same time, the cult provided ecstasy. In the throes of the orgiastic sacrament, the individual stepped outside his normal self and the humdrum restraints of ordinary life. He became one with the cosmos, with the gods, and ipso facto with his own true nature. He ate the apple and he became divine; what, in the biblical perspective, was the original seduction was also the most archaic experience of "consciousness-expansion."

All divinities have a terrible aspect. But Astarte commonly appeared in a most comfortable form. According to an old Babylonian hymn used in her worship,

. . . Ishtar is clothed with pleasure and love.

She is laden with vitality, charm, and voluptuousness.

In lips she is sweet; life is in her mouth.

At her appearance rejoicing becomes full. . . .

The same hymn announces that Astarte "is sought after among the gods." No wonder! The Israelites, men and women both, succumbed to her psychedelic charm again and again. Nothing seemed to diminish her fascination. Toward the end of Jeremiah’s ministry, when he lived in Egypt among the refugees from devastated Judah, once more we find him complaining about the women making cakes for the queen of heaven -- despite the fact that, as God says through the mouth of the prophet, they "have seen all the evil that I brought upon Jerusalem and upon all the cities of Judah" (Jer. 44:2). And, more than half a millennium later, when Paul came to Corinth to preach the gospel, the city was famous for its great temple of Aphrodite, with its battalions of "hierodules" who, we might say, stood in a valid "apostolic succession" to the kedeshot of Jeremiah’s time. The temptation of "cheap grace" spans the centuries; we may surmise that the Corinthian Christians were tempted for very much the old reasons.

Voluptuous Ecstasy or Stern Demands

But let me go back once more to ancient Israel:From the earliest layers of the biblical traditions to the most recent ones, the spokesmen of the God of the covenant violently repudiated the cult of sacred sexuality in all its forms. Why? First of all, it was not because these traditions were sexually "repressive," or "uptight," or averse to the satisfaction of "libidinal needs." On the contrary, ancient Israel was fairly relaxed about sexual matters, and until very late in its development it had no ideals of asceticism. The prophets were anything but "Puritans." They were denouncing not sex, but sacred sex. It is as if they said: "Go ahead, have your sexual pleasure -- but don’t make a religion out of it." Also, in denouncing Astarte and the other gods of this kind of cult, they did not do so because they doubted the existence of these deities (though perhaps some of them did so doubt). The prophets were anything but adherents of a "modern scientific world view." Even Paul, writing at a much later time when Judaism had indeed become a fully "monotheistic" religion, could say in a quite open way: "For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth -- as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’ -- yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ" (I Cor. 8:5-6).

The sacred sexuality complex was repudiated by those who spoke for Yahweh because it violated their central understanding of both God and humanity. The basic presupposition of sacred sexuality was the unity of the cosmos with the divine. It was precisely this unity that Yahwism violently rejected. Yahweh was the God who had created the heavens and the earth. As creator, he stood over and against the cosmos. He was not one with it; therefore, there was no. way by which contact with him could be established by fusing the self with the inner processes of the cosmos. Put differently, ancient Israel polarized God and world in a hitherto unheard-of manner. By the same token, ancient Israel enormously radicalized the experience of transcendence. All gods are transcendent, in the sense of having their being beyond the borders of ordinary human life. Indeed, in this sense transcendence may be taken as a constitutive characteristic of all human religions. The God of Israel, however, was utterly transcendent. His power, to be sure, extended to every corner of the cosmos, but it confronted the cosmos rather than being immanent within it. Above all, Israel encountered its God as a God of history, through the mighty acts that were the foundation of the covenant.

This understanding of God was not an abstract, philosophical one. It came Out of the very core of Israel’s religious experience, and it had far-reaching moral implications. The covenant imposed cultic obligations on Israel, and the prophets were by no means anti-cultic (to think so is a very modern, indeed very Protestant misunderstanding). But these cultic obligations were inextricably linked with moral imperatives. Unlike the cult of sacred sexuality, the cult of Yahweh did not lead to otherworldly ecstasy; rather, it directed people back into the world, where their task was to do God’s will in human affairs. Worship here was inevitably linked with the whole gamut of moral concerns in society -- with social justice, with the right relations between nations and classes, with the protection of the weak. Unlike Astarte’s, Yahweh’s lips were anything but sweet; more often than not, his lips pronounced judgment. Unlike Astarte, Yahweh was not clothed with pleasure and voluptuousness; rather, his garb was righteousness. If Astarte’s "grace" was cheap and comfortable, Yahweh’s "grace" had to be dearly bought with moral effort and discipline.

Thus the opposition between the two religious possibilities was sharp and irreconcilable. It was either the voluptuous ecstasy of the one, or the stern demands of the other. Yahweh was a jealous God. Most important, the cultic betrayal of the covenant was inevitably linked with its moral betrayal: those who offer cakes to the queen of heaven are the same ones who oppress the weak and who shed the blood of the innocent. Despite the vast gulfs of experience that lie between ourselves and Jeremiah’s contemporaries, it should not be too difficult to see why: a religion of pleasure is not likely to be conducive to the often far-from-pleasurable efforts required by social concern; there is not much voluptuousness in taking care of widows and orphans.

Transcendence: Contraband Goods?

Inevitably there comes the question, What does all this have to do with us today? What should we care, after all, about who worshiped what in the Near East 2,500 years ago? Surely we have more urgent matters to worry about. Well, maybe. It seems to me, however, that these old stories speak to us in a surprisingly timely way, once we penetrate to their inner content through the enveloping layers of culturally alien materials.

To be sure, our spiritual situation today is very different from Jeremiah’s. It is not only that we have behind us over two millennia of Jewish and Christian history, during which not one but several radical transformations of religious experience and consciousness took place. Our own situation is deeply marked by the phenomenon we know as secularization. Put simply, this means that transcendence of any sort has become progressively less real to many people. The gods, which surrounded archaic man on all sides, have receded. The cosmos, once permeated with divine beings and forces, has become empty, cold, a mathematical design. This, of course, is what is meant by the "modern scientific world view." Transcendence has been, shall we say, declared "inoperative" by the major agencies that "officially" define reality -- the universities, the school system, the medical system, the communications media, and to some extent even the courts. Those who may be described as the "official reality-definers" -- loosely speaking, the intellectuals and would-be intellectuals -- are, throughout the Western world at least, overwhelmingly attached to that "modern scientific world view" which proscribes transcendence. In our society, as in others, these agencies together constitute what I like to call a "reality police." The "reality policemen" -- teachers, psychiatrists, commentators and the like -- watch over the cognitive boundaries of the culture. In their perspective, transcendence in any of its historical forms is viewed as contraband goods. A contemporary who hears the voice of Yahweh, I daresay, would be just as suspect in that perspective as one who experiences the voluptuous ecstasies of Astarte. Such aberrations are promptly excommunicated intellectually (the psychiatrists have at hand a full-blown "syllabus of errors" for this purpose, as do language analysts and other assorted ideologists of the cognitive status quo), and the individual who refuses to recant may have to face "repressive" treatments of various degrees of severity (from losing his job to electroshock).

I strongly suspect that there is something close to an instinct for transcendence in human beings. We can learn something from Freud here: "repressed" drives have a way of coming back, often in grossly distorted and bizarre forms. This is precisely what has been happening as a result of secularization and its agencies of "censorship." Very likely it has been happening all along, though some of the manifestations have been stronger or at least more visible in recent years. The gods are very old and very powerful; they are not easily "repressed." What is more, the "modern scientific world view" that was supposed to replace them has turned out to be a rather boring business for many people. The cosmos as a mathematical design may be inspiring to some physicists; the vision gives metaphysical cold feet to many others. Secularization has both demystified and trivialized reality.

It was G. K. Chesterton, as I recall, who observed that modernity has given ultimate authority to the world view of a slightly sleepy businessman right after lunch. Such a world view is not only unexciting; it also fails to do justice to some of the root experiences of human life -- notably the experiences of mystery and of pain. If one looks at the matter in this way, it is hardly surprising that transcendence has refused to go away quietly and definitively. It continues a vigorous "underground" existence in many places; the gods, as it were, come in plain brown envelopes. In other places it continues to defend itself in institutions that, from the viewpoint of the "official" world view, are obsolete remnants of an earlier age. Sometimes, to the surprise of the ideological establishment, transcendence erupts in unexpected and cataclysmic ways. This is a useful approach to an understanding of what has been happening on the religious scene in the past few years.

Let me bring up Freud once more: "repressed" material will erupt most violently where the "censorship" has been strongest. For this reason, the more colorful eruptions of transcendence have occurred not in the bosom of "reactionary" religious institutions but rather in those places where secularization has been most "repressively" established. In America, this means very largely the college-educated upper-middle class. The new Pentecostalism is spreading among progressive Roman Catholics and Episcopalians -- not among Southern Baptists or Adventists. Black masses are celebrated in affluent suburbs -- not in the areas of the working class. And it is the children of the most orthodox secularists, the offspring of thoroughly enlightened modern homes, who parade through the streets chanting Sanskrit hymns.

The Resurgence of Sacred Sexuality

One aspect of this recent religious upsurge is of immediate relevance: there has also been a resurgence of sacred sexuality. Perhaps nothing in human history ever vanishes completely -- a disturbing or consoling notion, depending on the degree of one’s faith in progress, but there it is: Astarte is alive and well, and if she lives anywhere, I suppose, it is in California.

The new sacred sexuality takes many forms. It appears in heavily secularized garb in various therapeutic cults, most of them offshoots of movements within the psychoanalytic camp -- from Wilhelm Reich to the more sedate branches of the "new sensitivity." In the counterculture it revealed its religious thrust almost everywhere, linked as it was to psychedelic experimentation and an intense interest in the occult. Norman O. Brown has perhaps been the most influential spokesman of this overtly religious celebration of sexuality. Finally, sacred sexuality is directly embodied in subcultural religious movements and sects, most of them of oriental inspiration. But this is only to look at the original "locations" of the phenomenon. By now it has been diffused widely through upper-middle-class culture in this country, most strongly on the west coast but elsewhere as well. To an extent, it has become the ideology of the "sexual revolution."

In view of this variety of forms, it is useful to pay attention to the common core of these phenomena. Perhaps the most illuminating proposition in all of this is the injunction "to get in touch with one’s body" (incidentally, a moral injunction, often put forth with considerable sternness). What does this imply? First of all, it implies some superficial beliefs about the place of sexuality in human experience (we might regard these as being in the antechamber of the temple of sacred sexuality proper): the belief that sexuality is a key, perhaps even the key, component of the quality of being human (in this, of course, lies the pervasive heritage of Freud); the belief that modern Western culture, and especially American culture, has unduly suppressed sexuality (this is the anti-Puritan aspect of the proposition), and, that, as a result, not only are we sexually frustrated (and that frustration carries all sorts of physical and psychological pathologies in its wake), but our entire relation to our own bodies as well as the bodies of others has become distorted. We are afraid of the body, we are afraid to let go physically, to ouch one another, to enjoy physical pleasure fully (and not just sexual pleasure in the narrower sense). "To get in touch with one’s body" is an imperative of regained health, beyond that of deepened humanity. Sexual liberation is thus linked to liberation in a more basic way; it becomes a method of achieving a freer humanity, individually and perhaps even politically.

This much we could call "secularized Astartism." It is not the end of the story. The core proposition is expanded today by many into a fully religious view of the world -- if you will, into Astartism desecularized. Once more, "to get in touch with one’s body" is to establish contact with the fundamental rhythms of the cosmos. The "new sensitivity" toward the body is linked with "expanded consciousness" -- expanding, that is, toward the divine. The status quo is defined as an alienation between ourselves and the life-giving forces of nature; the projected salvation consists in overcoming that alienation and returning to the divine forces that are immanent in nature.

Some of the writings of the ecology movement have expressed this viewpoint eloquently, but it can also be found elsewhere (and, needless to say, it can be found in the writings of "with-it" Christian theologians). It is interesting, by the way, that the blame for this alleged alienation is very commonly put on biblical religion and on the Judeo-Christian tradition as a whole -- an insight with which it is impossible to disagree. In this form of the proposition, we are once again in the realm of authentic sacred sexuality. The liberation of the body is once more linked to the ecstasies in which the divine womb of the cosmos is re-entered. The wheel has come full circle.

If you think that I’m now working up toward a prophetic denunciation of the new sacred sexuality, I must disappoint you. I’m no Jeremiah, the last thing in the world I want to be is a prophet, and there are worse things in our time than Astarte Rediviva. Also, let me say emphatically that I hold no brief for Puritanism or for sexual "repression." I’m quite tolerant of even the excesses of the "sexual revolution" (my main objection to it is that it is antierotic, but that is another topic), and I suspect that on balance it has done more good than harm. There is one thing, however, that I have in common with the Israelite prophetic tradition in this area: it is not sexuality, but sacred sexuality, which bothers me in religious terms. In an age in which we are so much at the mercy of the "repressive triviality" of the secularists, I incline toward an irenic attitude with regard to all, or nearly all, reaffirmations of transcendence: I would much prefer to live in a temple of Astarte than in a global Skinner Box, and I’ll take the poetry of William Blake over the dreary platitudes of positivist philosophers any day.

The Vital Link Between Worship and Morality

Nevertheless, I cannot finally leave it at that -- and no one can who has any stake in that vision of the human condition that comes down to us from ancient Israel. For both religious and ethical reasons, I cannot leave it there, and, in quite traditional fashion, I see once again the linkage between cult and ethics. Religiously, I believe that Jeremiah was right in his faith in the utterly transcendent God who created heaven and earth, who moves history, and who bids us do his work in the world. We may cherish all the wonders of creation -- as our passage has it, "man and beast . . . the trees of the field and the fruit of the ground." All these are good, indeed they are sweet (as the lips of love are sweet), but they are not God, who stands over them in infinite majesty and who at times, as in our passage, stands over them in judgment. To say this is not to indulge in narrow intolerance. But one must be true to one’s own experience: that means saying No as well as Yes. Now as then, it is not possible to worship both the God who created the world and a world itself perceived as divine.

But for ethical reasons also I cannot leave it with an attitude of total tolerance. There is still a vital connection between what we worship and what our morality is. Now as then, the world is full of injustice and misery. The God of the covenant demands of us that we work in this world, that we strive to combat injustice and to alleviate misery. A religion of pleasure, no matter what the intentions of its advocates, can only inhibit the efforts that are required by this moral demand. And, if I’m to be honest, at this point of my reflections my tolerance wears very thin indeed: in a world of mass murder and mass starvation, of unprecedented terror, odious tyrannies, and the threat of nuclear holocausts -- in such a world there is something obscene about an order of priorities that starts off with bigger and better orgasms.

Let me conclude with what I regard as the root insight of Jeremiah’s perspective: the transcendence of God and the worldly mission of humanity are not in contradiction. On the contrary, the worship of the God who is utterly beyond the world is deeply, inextricably linked with the most passionate engagement in the moral struggles of this world. Nor is the refusal to worship the creation instead of the Creator a denial of the good things of life. On the contrary, it is precisely in the celebration of the world as creation, and not in its worship as something divine, that we taste its hauntingly vulnerable sweetness.