- Category: Blended Traditions
My great-grandmother’s print of Raphael’s Sistine Madonna hangs in the closet where I keep my altar. The Virgin steps barefoot on the earth, her mantle blowing back from her face, her serious little son cradled easily to one side. She looks out, her expression unreadable. She seems younger than me, and yet so much wiser.
I’ve been praying to her.
I’ve been Pagan for many years, but somehow this image has never lost its appeal. In a way, such unorthodox prayer is typically Pagan, reflecting both the flexibility of Pagan spiritual practice and the diversity of Pagan origins. For while ancient Paganism certainly influenced Christianity, the reverse is true as well. As Christians drew from ancient cult when they built up the figure of the Virgin Mary (sparsely depicted in the Gospels), so modern Pagans draw from the emotional resonance of the Virgin’s story to shape their own version of the Goddess. It is that resonance that draws me, a quality that doesn’t feel Christian or Pagan, just deeply, mysteriously human.
Mary the Goddess
Over the centuries, Mary has absorbed a long list of goddess attributes. Like Hestia she is a humble yet honored domestic virgin; as mother of the Trinity she resembles Gaia, great mother of the gods; like Inanna, she is queen of heaven, granting sovereignty to kings and institutions, and forming a bridge between the top of the human hierarchy and the divinities ranked above her. Like Isis, she gives birth to divine son, and like Isis and Inanna, she mourns a dead beloved. Like Artemis and Diana she is a virgin moon goddess, who nonetheless offers help in childbirth, while, like Hera she suckles a hero. Like Demeter, she grants both human and agricultural fertility, and like Maia, nymph of summer, she is honored in the blooming month of May. Like Persephone, she visits the underworld and becomes queen of souls. As Aphrodite bore Eros, so Mary, in St. Bernard’s words, “bore Love itself in her womb”.1
However, the cruelty and lust of Inanna, the sensuality of Aphrodite, the wildness of Artemis, and the power of Cybele were all omitted from Mary’s persona. Under the pressure of constructing a unified vision of perfection from a glittering mosaic of deities, Christians created an entirely new entity, one that could not help but shape the revived
Pagan vision in turn. Today it is common in Pagan culture to emphasize “the” Goddess as much as individual goddesses familiar to classical polytheism, while stressing the powers of motherhood and fertility that were central to the Virgin’s cult.
With “God Almighty” edited out and a joyful sensuality invited in, the Church’s Holy Mother can blossom into the gentle but mighty Mother of the Charge; she who is always with us, whose law is love, and who ushers us safely into the afterlife. In addition, Mary’s roles as both mother and bride of a divine and sacrificed son crystallize diverse aspects of ancient pagan mythology into a coherent narrative that has became the Wiccan myth of Goddess and Dying God.
Mary the Virgin
Virginity has often been a powerful symbol of the sacred; the apocryphal Book of James depicts Mary serving in the Jewish Temple as a girl, where she is honored for her virtue. In reality, no young women served there, but ritual virginity for young girls was common in the pagan world, and its use in the Book of James was meant to mark the Virgin as special from the beginning, “a fountain sealed…a garden enclosed,” containing something secret and precious.2
The concept that Mary could conceive, give birth, and yet remain virgin, tells us not only about the Christian denial of the body, but also about the human desire to be fertile without losing one’s integrity. Like the burning bush that was not consumed, Mary was both wholly herself and something more, giving birth to divinity from within.3 She represented a very human wish: that our own experience might not diminish us, that we could safely contain and express something special, even divine; that we could have a purity or intensity of experience that kept us in the eternal present.
This sense of Mary’s purity and timelessness was elaborated in the middle ages with the theory of her Immaculate Conception, the idea that she’d existed in God’s mind from the beginning. Like the biblical figure of Wisdom, she was the “un-spotted mirror of God”4 who could reflect eternity in her own being.
This idea of Mary was translated into paintings in which Mary shines alone in the heavens, with imagery borrowed from the mystical woman described in Revelations 12:1; Mary is shown crowned with twelve stars, the moon under her feet. This Mary reflected a yearning for the Platonic ideal of “timeless, undifferentiated, immortal beauty and bliss.”5 Once again, she united opposites: Queen of Heaven, yet human, young and vulnerable, a virgin waiting to meet her destiny.
Mary the Bride
Immaculate Conception by Murillo
In Old Testament tradition, a “virgin” is a bride-in-waiting. Mary’s true partner in Christian mythology is her divine son Jesus. Believers needed to see Mary, the Virgin-Mother, on a par with the Jesus, the God-Man; together they presented a symmetry of male and female divinity. The belief in Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven came easily because it paralleled the ascension of Jesus. Christian art showed their reunion in heaven as a bridal one — the assumed Mary, young and beautiful, is greeted with a kiss, crowned by Christ, and seated at his right hand.6 Nuptial imagery from the Song of Solomon was applied to Mary as the Bride of Christ. In this role she was said to represent the soul or the Church in its relationship with God, but it must have been hard to keep this in mind during St. Bernard’s famous sermon, in which Mary ascends, “singing a nuptial hymn and saying ‘Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth.’” She receives from Christ the “kiss of consummation,” an image of ecstatic union — and sublimated eroticism7.
In Sumeria, the sacred marriage was between a powerful goddess and the king who sought her favor.8 In the union of Mary and Jesus, the terms are reversed — the male Christ is the immortal, not Mary. But Mary has a power peculiar to her human state. Like the virgin in legend used to lure a unicorn, Mary was said to have lured Christ to her womb and her breast, all the while knowing that once born into human life, he would have to die for human sins.9 Seduction through virginity, divinity drawn down by a mortal — once again the figure of Mary unites the opposites, and it is this tension that lies at the heart of her appeal.
Mary the Moon
The Virgin and the Bride come together in the celestial attributes of Mary. Mary crowned with stars and standing on the moon resembles the second-century version of Isis, crowned with the moon and wearing a cloak of stars.10 This Isis, like Mary, had gathered the attributes of several other goddesses under her mantle. Plutarch identified her with the moon as it softened the sun’s light, encouraging moisture and fertility11, and by the middle ages Mary had become part of this same web of associations between the moon and women’s cycles, plant growth and ocean tides. The ocean imagery was reinforced in turn by the interpretation of her Hebrew name as stella maris “star of the sea.” Like Ishtar, Isis, and Aphrodite before her, Mary is identified with the morning star shining a guiding light over the waves.12 Moon, sea, star — all link the virgin bride, self-contained as a pearl, to both mystery and fecundity, heaven and earth.
Mary was the moon to Christ’s sun, the “moon where God took hiding”.13 Retaining the sun’s light through the night, the moon was said to give birth to it each morning, and so did Mary gave birth to the sun/Son at the Winter Solstice.14 The eternal dance between the sun and the moon reflected the symmetry of the relation between Jesus and Mary — her acceptance of his divinity within her and her mediating of his grace, the contrast between the active, burning light of his divinity and her gentler reception and mirroring. Once again they are a matched pair-working together to bless the world.
Mary the Human Goddess
For all her celestial power, Mary’s humanity was stressed as well; even in the depictions of the Immaculate Conception, her head is often bowed. In paintings of the nativity, she bows tenderly over her baby son; in the pietas she bows sorrowfully over her son’s corpse. She seems to be bowing to her son’s vulnerability rather than his power, a fact that makes her humility strangely compelling. When she stands alone with head inclined or lifted up in wonder, it seems to me that she honors the glory of the universe itself, and her place in it.
The Virgin’s humility.; when combined with the glory ascribed to her, create another compelling tension of opposites, one unique in goddess mythology. Depictions of her nursing Jesus and holding her dead son over her lap echo ancient images of Isis nursing Horus and holding a mummified Osiris.15 But unlike Isis, Mary cannot bring her sacrificed love to life with magic. She cries over him as Inanna weeps for Dumuzi, but, unlike Inanna, she did not angrily decree his death. The pathos of Mary’s loss is painted in softer and more human colors.
In art and legend, Mary’s vulnerability as a mother is stressed. The cult of her sorrows has led to another way of seeing Jesus and Mary as complementary equals. For Mary was regarded as having been martyred not in body, like Christ, but in spirit, “wounded with the sweet pain of love,” as she foresaw and then witnessed his tragic death.16 There is a pathos to the story of miraculous birth and sacrificial death and Mary’s experience is a way into that story. Believers could use the Virgin as someone through whom to experience and sanctify the human truths of love and loss.
Mary is identified the believer, able to understand their sufferings through her own, and to accept their human foibles, offering mercy more readily than God. In folklore, the Virgin gets sinners out of scrapes and into heaven — unlike God the Father, she “can be good and merciful without being right.”17 The mother and lover of Christ was also a “human, approachable woman who stood by humanity like a mother but loved it like a mistress.”18 In hymns and prayers Mary is called upon to inter-cede with God. In one image she does this by showing her breasts, while beside her Christ shows his wounds.19
Mary’s apparent lack of power is thus her greatest strength, giving her the ability to lure God into her womb and open believers’ hearts. Mary’s subordinate role, however, troubles many of her Pagan devotees. Yet when modern Pagans discarded the figure of an all-powerful male God and replaced it with a self-sufficient Goddess, Mary could loan her special combination of power and gentleness to that image. Compare Mary’s visit to hell to Persephone’s sojourn in the underworld. Persephone goes unwillingly, becomes Queen of the Dead, and manages to escape for half of every year, while Mary goes freely to visit damned souls and wins them relief from their torments for half of every year.20 When it came time to rewrite the Pagan myth, the Persephone conjured by Charlene Spretnak behaved more like Mary than like her ancient predecessor, willingly visiting the Underworld to console the souls of the dead.21 Carol Christ’s “She Who Changes,” an all-encompassing Goddess who suffers with each individual, may owe something to the Virgin Mary, the Mother who has no power to judge, but only to console.22
I look up again at my “Sistine Madonna.” I can read the expression on her face now. It holds an acknowledgment of how tragedy and triumph are bound together, and a hesitant awe at the depth of the human mystery. She represents for me an abiding purity of experience, a sense of presence, openness, and wonder, wisdom untainted by cynicism, the ability to suffer and love and survive intact. That is why I can pray to her.
- St. Bernard, quoted in Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, London, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976, pp. 129-30.
- Song of Solomon, 4:12 in The Jerusalem Bible, London, Darton, Longman and Todd, 1974.
- Marina Warner, p. 62 and p. 44.
- Wisdom of Solomon, 7:26 in The Jerusalem Bible.
- Marina Warner, p. 331.
- Marina Warner, p. 122.
- St. Bernard, quoted in Marina Warner, pp. 129-130.
- Tikva Frymer-Kensky, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Bibical Transformations of Pagan Myth, New York, Fawcett Columbine, 1992, pp. 58-59.
- Marina Warner, p. 201.
- Apuleius, The Golden Ass, trans. E.J. Kenney, London, Penguin Classics, 1999, Book 11.
- Plutarch, Isis and Osiris (Moralia V), trans. F. C. Babbitt, Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1936, p. 101.
- Marina Warner, p. 262.
- Ibid. p. 258.
- Ibid. pp. 257-8.
- Ibid. p. 193, p. 209.
- St. Bernard, quoted in Warner, p. 210.
- Marina Warner, p. 325.
- Ibid. p. 155.
- Ibid. p. 199.
- Ibid. p. 322.
- Charlene Spretnak, Lost Goddesses of Ancient Greece, Beacon Press, 1992, pp. 103-120.
- Carol Christ, She Who Changes, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, passim.
— ARCHER lives inToronto. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
» Originally appeared in PanGaia #49 - Money Magic
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