The Cult of Mary
Author: Fire Lyte
There is a hidden mystery that exists in the Christian faith that bubbles just under the surface of common knowledge, yet remains in essence an ageless conundrum. This mystery actually started off with the same question that this paper will attempt to answer: “Why me?” Or, more specifically, why Mary? The Catholic Church has hailed her as “the Blessed Virgin, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven; as Our Lady of Lourdes, Walsingham, Guadalupe, Czestochowa; as Flower of Carmel, House of Gold, Ark of the Covenant, ” (Ashe 14) . Men hold Mary close to them as a personal mother, revere her as one of mankind deified, and yet hold her above, still.
The question is why.
There is no data concerning the mother of Christ except in Christian writings, and there is really nothing of Christian merit to compare her to. In order to even fervently research her, one must first accept that Christ existed, which any skeptic could dispel with a call for burden of proof beyond the Bible. Despite this, it is the position of this research to answer the question of “Why Mary?” The answer is that she is the Christian expression of a tradition in place since time immemorial of deifying a Mother Goddess.
In a collection of essays entitled The Blessed Virgin Mary, the author John de Satgé, an evangelical canon, states this about the origin of the veneration of Mary:
The evangelical has a strong suspicion that the deepest roots of the Marian cults are not to be found in the Christian tradition at all. The religious history of mankind shows a recurring tendency to worship a mother-goddess. Three factors in particular suggest that the cult of Mary may be an intrusion into Christianity from the dark realms of natural religion. First, it seems that historically the earliest traces of Marian devotion seem to come from Christian circles to some extent at least tainted with syncretizing Gnosticism.
The second is the ease with which the devotion becomes associated with local holy places so that the faithful make their prayers to our Lady of a particular shrine. May it not be the case, the evangelical wonders, that what we have here is in reality an older religion, a paganism which has been too lightly baptized into Christ and whose ancient features persist under a thin Christian veil? The third factor is an apparent correlation between Marian devotion and an elevation of chastity to a point of esteem where marriage and sexual intercourse are depreciated if not reprehended. (Mascall 77)
Here is a summation of the problem in reasoning Mary’s divinity with Christianity, as Christianity is supposedly patriarchal in nature and supposes that there is only one, true god. This same author goes on to say that the worship of Mary did not begin as the veneration of Christ’s holy mother, but as a deity unto herself. However, Christianity dodges the issue of Mary as a Goddess by referring to a sacred book that one must accept as an article of faith. In point of fact, the veneration, or more adequately, the cult of Mary cannot be fully examined through the lens of Christianity alone. Rather, it must be looked at in a historical context.
There are many variations of this adage, but it is said that to know where you are going you must know where you came from. The same is true in the case of the Goddess Mary and her cult. In order to know why the cult of Mary exists in Christendom, one must know about the veneration of female deity and its importance in ancient cultures. Before the rise of gods or any recorded patriarchal forms of worship, there is evidence to suggest the reverence and worship of goddess worship. More specifically, there is evidence to support worship of The Goddess – or, as Goethe puts it, the Ewig-Weibliche, or Eternal-Womanly (Ashe 24) . It is believed that the stone carvings, dating back to over 10, 000 BC, of women with “gross breasts and bellies” were “exaggerated tokens of motherhood” that were used as cult-objects of early Siberian and European hunting tribes (Ashe 24) .
This early reverence does not stop with the Eternal-Womanly, but continues into every pantheon across the world. Upon moving from the prehistoric era to the oldest recorded myths and legends, The Goddess is “One at her apogee – not always through conscious intercommunication of cults, but psychologically One, under many names and aspects, ” (James 41) . She becomes known by many names, and is credited, depending on your mythos of choice, as a world-matriarch, a wife or mistress, a maiden, an animal, or some combination of the above. She has been called Nintu in Sumeria, Inanna in Babylon as well as Ishtar, Astarte in Canaan, Neith or Isis in Egypt, Cybele in Asia Minor, Artemis or Diana by the Romans, and Aphrodite by the Greeks. (James 77)
By the second millennium BC, however, the waning of The Goddess’ hold had begun. During the reign of The Goddess, however, it has been supposed that a matriarchy was in place with kings married to priestesses as sacred functionaries. (Campbell 315) On the other side, it is more than likely a bit too extreme to suppose that the whole of Europe was under the rule of women. There is much evidence to state the contrary, or at least that women were not in powerful enough positions to rival the reign of a king. Although, more than likely, women were possibly powerful through a knowledge of magic, and, thus, the Eternal-Womanly powerful along with them. (Campbell 316) .
There is also the hint of the idea of matrilinear family lines, that is the tracing of parentage back through the mother’s line rather than the father’s. (Ashe 26) This comes from the now-practical idea that while the mother of a child can be known for certain, his or her father is another matter. Paternal parentage could be hard to prove, or hushed up altogether. Furthermore, the very nature of procreation was a mystery to early peoples. Many cultures, when dealing with the issue of pregnancy, doubted the father’s identity, and some doubted his very existence. (Ashe 27) This deals directly with the nature of this perpetual Goddess ideal. If sex-relations could occur without resulting in a pregnancy, could not pregnancy result without sex-relations?
Early people attempted to answer this question by saying that Earth, the great Cosmic Mother, was a life-giver, and needed no man to do so. In fact, sometimes there was no cause at all other than the Great Mother’s will. Now, we finally get to the point in history where the idea of virgin birth becomes profound and permeates culture. The Egyptian Goddess Neith gives birth to the Sun-God Ra without any aide and by her own power. Cybele splits off a male consort named Attis for herself by her own creation power. In these earliest tales of The Goddess, she is both a virgin and a mother, not unlike a certain Biblical virgin-mother. (Boslooper 162) These days, as was stated earlier, were doomed to end. The days of the reign of The Goddess, in whatever capacity She was in power, began to die out at the beginning of the second millennium BC. (Neumann 163)
The reign of power passed rather swiftly – considering the expanse of time – over to male deities. This happened “partly through the ever-strengthening institution of kingship, partly through changes in kingship, partly through changes in relations between the sexes, [and] partly through war and conquest.” (Ashe 29) The lunar calendar – a female allusion – was replaced by a solar calendar – male-centric. Gods like Zeus became central and chief of many pantheons of Europe, western Asia, and Northeastern Africa. Even worse, however, was what this new male-dominated society did to the veneration of the Goddess. She was torn apart and turned into various, easier to digest deities that seemed much more human and inferior to the now-chief deities. The Goddess in Greece became Athena, Artemis, Hera, Aphrodite, and the rest.
Femininity as a whole was attacked through the myth of Pandora, who was bestowed many gifts by the gods, but was too weak-willed to hold to her pact to never open her ubiquitous box. Thus, the divine feminine was turned into an insipid girl who would never measure up to the standards set before her, and, oh yeah, she was the source of all evil on the planet. (Guthrie 37)
One of the most powerful of female symbols, the serpent, was turned into something that male gods should triumph over.
During New Year’s festivals “Babylonian priests chanted a Creation Epic telling how the god Marduk had created the world by destroying a she-monster of chaos, Tiamat, and re-arranging her fragments. The Goddess’s serpents, formerly wise and benign, were now portrayed as malicious.” (Ashe 30-31) The greatest of these injustices to The Goddess, the Eternal-Womanly, was the Fall. As it went with the change of status among the ancient Israelites, so did it go with the idea of Eve, whose name means Life, and who was the mother of all living. (Gen. 3:20)
At first, she was the naked mother of paradise, walking in the Garden of Eden at the place where a stream turned into four mighty rivers – sources of the earth’s fertility – beside the Tree of Life. (Gen. 2:9) The story quickly turns, however, into the telling of a second-rate creation that causes far too much trouble for the dominant man, and, like Pandora, brings about the evils of the world. How does she do this? Well, the mother eats a fruit tempted her by a serpent; all of these are ancient Goddess symbols that were turned into a warning to paternalistic religious society to condemn the old religion.
Not all feminine entries into Christianity are considered evil. Wisdom, which may very well be a tribute to Athena, is a feminine entity in the Bible, though, admittedly, a widely overlooked entity. When Job asks Yahweh where “Wisdom” is to be found, it is to the feminine counterpart to Yahweh that sits enthroned in Zion to which he is referring. (Ashe 43-44) Wisdom is seen as the mediator between Yahweh and mankind. She was the inspiration for the Torah, supposedly befriended Biblical characters, and guides her devotees to the next world. (Knox 60) In fact, Canon Wilfred Knox says further:
The personified Wisdom is a female figure definitely on the divine side of the gulf, which separates God from man….
There can be little doubt as to the original of this highly coloured portrait. The lady who dwells in the city of Jerusalem and in its Temple, who is also to be compared to all the forest trees of Hermon and the luxuriant verdure of the Jordan valley, is the great Syrian goddess Asarte, at once the goddess of great cities and the mother manifested in the fertility of nature (Knox 70) .
So now the stage is set for the emergence of the cult of Mary. The Goddess, in all of her many aspects, was subdued by a patriarchal society and vilified by its main religion. However, the positive ideal of Her as Wisdom seeped its way into the Bible despite the book’s otherwise masculine leanings. Instead of Wisdom being the mediator and chief female sitting enthroned in Zion, it will soon be Mary, the mother of the savior, who would take that spot.
The deification of Mary was not an overnight creation. When her story was written into the Gospels of the New Testament, she was not immediately charged with the titles aforementioned – Queen of Heaven, etc. To understand how this came about, and how her prominence became so in the first place, one must look to the early church. That is, one must understand the nature of those that wrote the Gospels. According to the Jews, Jesus was not the Messiah, and to consider him such was a blasphemy. (Ashe 50) However, he was a teacher, and he changed the lives of his disciples in the grandest way by seemingly coming back from the dead after his crucifixion.
Christianity was about the teachings of one person, and various subsets or denominations attempted – and still attempt today – to figure out the meaning of Christ’s words. At the heart of the religion was still a man, and the religion is as much about his life as it is about his teachings. His life, however, most definitely includes his mother:
In his [Jesus’] role as dying-and-rising Saviour he could not be readily conceived as standing alone. Such gods had never normally done so. They were rooted in the world of the Goddess, and in some form she accompanied them. You could not have Osiris without Isis, or Attis without Cybele. The death-conquering Christ of the Pauline missions cast a shadow behind him, whether or not Paul was ever aware of it. He evoked a role for another to fill – a woman. The world’s nostalgic desire would prepare a place for her. Doubtless, like Christ, she would transcend myth as well as fulfilling it. And the original relationship of the Young God to the Goddess made Christ’s mother the best candidate (Ashe 53) .
Mary is the cause of Jesus’ first miracle. At her prompting, Jesus turned water into wine at Cana. (John 2:1-12) Other than this, her appearance at his crucifixion, and a handful of other appearances in the Gospels and finally in Acts, she has no place in the rest of the Bible. The author we know as Matthew is chief author that first introduces the symbol of Mary to the Bible. It was said, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) This name is said to mean God with us, which symbolically identifies him as the incarnation of Yahweh. However, the word ‘virgin’ may or may not be translated correctly as one who has never been sexually intimate with a man, as it is rather ambiguous in the original Hebrew. (Ashe 66) Whether or not the child was biologically Joseph’s, or any other man’s, is irrelevant, as it is believe that he was the wondrous child conceived without intercourse through a miracle. Sound like a familiar theme? It should.
In fact, several times throughout the Gospels, and a few times in Paul’s Epistles, Joseph is culturally completely taken out of the equation. It was customary to call a man the son of his father even after his father’s death and for several years afterwards. However, Jesus was always called the “son of Mary.” (Mascall 32) Even during the writing of the Gospels, the authors had already begun to slightly venerate Mary more than other characters of the New Testament by turning Joseph into more of a later consort, mentioned far fewer times in the Gospels than Mary.
The problem in studying the idea of the virgin birth quickly turns into a problem of irrefutability, as the only texts on the matter are the Christian texts. There are some whispers of contradiction in the way certain verses are worded throughout the New Testament, however many such discrepancies occurred due to the need to copy these texts by hand over and over again through the years. Mistakes could have happened. Since these discrepancies are negligible and do not provide any concrete evidence of the contrary, they must be thrown out. (Boslooper 230-234) Thus, the problem of irrefutability.
Now we have a Biblical veneration of Mary, as she was assuredly held above Joseph and many others. We have a miraculous virgin birth, echoed from a long-ago history of deifying the sacred feminine, the Eternal-Womanly. The pregnancy itself is a nearly direct mimic of local Greek or Roman culture – a la Zeus and his many supposed impregnations of various female deities. However, the religion and practice of Christianity was still a purely patriarchal one. Yahweh was a solely jealous male god that did not want his followers to put anybody else on a throne. In the late 370s, however, much of that changed with the public singing of hymns popularized by Syrian Gnostics and Ephraem. (Ashe 195-196) These poems, granted, might be a bit beyond the realm of theology, however:
His many hymns and poems include several addressed to the Virgin. Their flowery praise strikes a new note in Christianity. Its language should not be pressed too far…. Still it is arresting to find Ephraem calling Mary Christ’s ‘bride’ or ‘spouse (thus being the first Christian to clear the hurdle of the Goddess-and-Son relationship, though with a wrench to doctrine) , and writing what seem to be prayers to her, implying her power as a living intercessor with God (Palmer 20) .
These same hymns echo a second Eve theme, but begin to title Mary with the names we are so familiar with. He calls Mary “O Virgin Mother of God” – the Blessed Virgin – as well as the “Gate of Heaven, and Ark, in thee I have a secure salvation. Save me, O Lady, out of thy pure mercy.” (Palmer 24) Through these poems, and the later Gnostic Christian beliefs, Mary becomes the Garden of Eden itself, the Earth. Mary is the mediator between mankind and God, one who is addressed as the Mother of God whose “prayers obtainest for thy faithful ones a covenant, peace, and a scepter wherewith to rule all.” (Palmer 24) Granted, these verses are hidden in messages praising the Father God, but they are there, and they quickly permeated society creating a subculture of Mary worship.
Upon the time of Ephraem’s death a few years later, the practice of praying to The Virgin directly for absolution or intercessory prayer had become commonplace. The ideas perpetuated by the Gnostics entered mainstream consciousness, albeit in a less than matriarchal method. However, many sects, including Rome in some instances, began to retroactively credit Mary with being a far greater presence in the Bible than was originally believed. She had become a patroness of celibacy and virgins that had yet to consummate a marriage. (Boslooper 85) Furthering the idea of her expanded presence, St. Augustine, revering Mary in a nearly Goddess-like deification of maidenhood, stated that “[quoting Isaiah 19:1] ‘Behold, the Lord comes seated on a light cloud, ’” and claims that the light cloud is a symbol of Mary, free from any burden of vice. St. Augustine continues to proselytize, “Receive, receive, O consecrated virgins, the spiritual rain that falls from this cloud, which will temper the burning desires of the body.” (Palmer 27)
Mary became a Goddess of Virginity, though very few actually referred to her as the patron Goddess of Virginity. Rather, it is seen more often this sort of allusion, the idea that she is The Virgin, Queen of Heaven, who calms temptations, desires, and worldly ills. She could be compared to several goddesses of peace, but that might be an oversimplification of her reverence.
The rise of Mary’s importance in Christianity happened swiftly over several centuries, and continues until today. Mary is now the patron saint of many locations, known by many names, just as the idea of The Goddess was disseminated into many names and purposes. She is an intercessor of prayer, a healer of humanity, the Mother of God, the Queen of Heaven, and a source of miracles herself. (Ashe 244) In the latter part of the first millennium BC, and well into the second millennium, Mary was and still is attributed with healing many sick and dying individuals. This usually occurs through some medium claiming to be blessed by Mary, or by making a pilgrimage to a site that is purportedly blessed with the presence of The Virgin. (Ashe 245)
The power of Mary as a healer and Holy Virgin Mother holds great sway over many in the Catholic faith still. Gnostic revivalists are mixed about whether or not Mary is the revival of The Goddess, or merely a highly praised saint and important Bible character. The cult of Mary, however, has strikingly similar corollaries to past ideals of The Goddess, and so does her worship. Venerated as Eden itself, she becomes the Goddess of the Earth, the Eternal-Womanly’s oldest and most recognizably universal form.
As The Virgin, her cult harkens back to the days of Artemis, Diana, and the ancient virgin goddesses that created the world without any help from a man, to the time of Cybele who created her own consort without the aide of anything but her own will and sheer power. As a healer and source of miracles, she is likened to the ancient goddesses of magic and spellcraft that abound in Egyptian, Sumerian, Syrian, Greek, Roman, Celtic, and Norse pantheons. As a guider of souls and intercessor of prayer, she is like the psychopomps of ancient times.
But, whether or not Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Intercessor, Guider of Maidens, Healer of the World, Eden, the cloud the Lord sits upon, should add “aspect of The Goddess or Eternal-Womanly” to her litany of titles is, perhaps, a mystery for the ages. However, it cannot be denied that the reverence bestowed upon Mary is deserving of the title “Goddess.”
Ashe, Geoffrey. The Virgin: Mary’s Cult and the Re-Emergence of the Goddess. Great Britain: The History Press, 1976. Print.
‘Common Bible’, Revised Standard Version. translation by Ronald Knox, 1973.
Boslooper, Thomas, The Virgin Birth, Preachers Library, 1962. Print.
Campbell, Joseph. The Masks of God. vol. 1. Secker and Warburg, 1960-5. Print.
Guthrie, W.K.C.. The Greeks and their Gods. Methuen, 1950. Print.
James, E. O.. The Cult of the Mother-Goddess. Thames and Hudson, 1965. Print.
James, E. O.. Prehistoric Religion, Thames and Hudson, 1957. Print.
Knox , W. L., St. Paul and the Church of the Gentiles, Cambridge University Press, 1939.
Mascall, E.L. and Box, H.S (eds) , The Blessed Virgin Mary, Darton, 1963. Print.
Neumann, Erich. The Great Mother. Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1955. Print.
Palmer, Paul S. J., Mary in the Documents of the Church, Burns Oates and Washborne, 1953.