The Mary of popular piety—of countless prayers, statues, paintings and churches—appears far removed from the favored yet very human woman rooted in the Jewish milieu of the biblical narrative. How, when and why did the transformation take place?
There are, quite literally, countless studies on the subject of Mariology (or Mariolatry, depending on point of view): “without end” in the words of one scholar, “nearly unmanageable” in the words of another. This article can do little more than touch on a few of the key themes that outline the movement’s development.
In order to understand the phenomenon of Mary as the Virgin, it is important that we establish what the Catholic Church used as a base and then examine the imagery that developed.
Stephen Benko specializes in early Christianity in its pagan environment. In The Virgin Goddess: Studies in the Pagan and Christian Roots of Mariology, he traces the development of the cult of Mary from Greek and Roman mythology through to recent times. Benko avoids anti-Catholic polemics and is sympathetic to the place of the “queen of heaven” in Christianity. That said, he unerringly traces Mary’s roots to the pagan, pre-Christian heavenly queens of Greece, Rome and the wider Mediterranean—those mutable goddesses whose ranks include Artemis, Astarte, Celeste, Ceres, Cybele, Demeter, Diana, Ishtar, Isis and Selene.
“Christianity,” he notes, “did not add a new element to religion when it introduced into its theology such concepts as ‘virgin’ and ‘mother’; rather, it sharpened and refined images that already existed in numerous forms in pagan mythology.”
The combining of beliefs from different traditions, called syncretism, was not new but a recurring theme in religions of the Mediterranean area. As with the transmission of pagan-to-pagan images and ideas, so pagan-to-Christian shifts began to occur in what Benko calls “functional equivalency.” The first centuries of the current era, during which the early Christian religion was embraced and modified by the cultures of the Hellenistic world, constituted a period of particularly rapid syncretism. The images of various distinct goddesses merged to become indistinguishable from each other.
But the cult with the greatest influence on early Christianity, according to Benko, was that of the Great Mother (Magna Mater). Known in western Asia Minor as Cybele, she was to become the model for Mariology. Throughout the region, many priests of the new Christian religion were recruited from among the pagan educated classes, and they naturally took their Greek philosophical ideas with them. Thus Stoic and neo-Platonic concepts of mythological earth-mother goddesses were projected onto Mary with little adaptation: Cybele’s devotees saw her primarily as a chaste, beautiful and kind goddess; her worship centered on salvation, and her cult advocated baptism, not in water but in the blood of a freshly sacrificed bull. The cult also enlisted celibate (sometimes self-castrated) priests, as well as virgin priestesses. Similar views relating to celibacy and the evils of sex soon entered the orthodox church and subsequently congealed as official teaching.
Benko describes the process whereby Mary became “the female face of God,” or the spiritualized image of the church. He writes: “Mary was eventually declared to be ‘Mother of God,’ which is a wholly pagan term filled with new Christian meaning. Did Mary become a goddess when this declaration was made? The answer of Christians was, and still is, an indignant No!—but in fact Mary assumed the functions of pagan female divinities and for many pious Christian folk she did, and does, everything the ancient goddesses used to do.”
By the mid-third century, Hellenized forms of Christianity had been granted a level of recognition in the Roman Empire. Sixty years later the emperor Constantine reaffirmed that freedom, and soon the forced conversion of pagans began. Their temples were demolished or “Christianized,” along with the congregations. By the end of the fourth century, pagan cults seemed to have been all but eradicated. But this should not be confused with the end of their influence. As we have seen, syncretism leaves its mark.
Sex, Celibacy and Death
It is important to note that from an early date, the Christian apologists had to differentiate their belief in the virgin birth from similar ideas found in Hellenistic mythology. Justin Martyr argued correctly that Mary’s conception of Jesus was different, in that God did not woo nor overcome her. Then there was the Gnostic denial of Christ’s birth as a full flesh-and-blood human because of the unusual circumstances of his conception. Once that had been dealt with, the idea that Mary remained a virgin throughout life gained momentum. Some superstitious believers even claimed that Mary’s hymen remained intact after childbirth (which third-century Catholic theologians Origen and Tertullian wisely denied).
But the challenges increased. Having used philosophical and metaphysical ideas to define the nature of God at the fourth-century councils of Nicea and Laodicea, the church fathers used the same methods to define the nature of Christ at the councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon in the fifth century. They concluded that the Son of God could not have been carried by a woman stained with original sin. The two were simply incompatible, which is why Mary had to be elevated to the role of Theotokos, the Mother of God, or more accurately according to early-church historian Jaroslav Pelikan, “the one who gave birth to the one who is God.”
The foundation for this elevation had already been laid. Writing in the second century, both Justin Martyr and Irenaeus developed the apostle Paul’s references to Christ as the new Adam (Romans 5:12–21; 1 Corinthians 15:20–23) to create a parallel juxtaposition: Mary as the new, spiritual and virtuous Eve.
In the early fourth century, Augustine introduced his theology of Original Sin, wherein he deemed sex to be integral to the fall of Adam and Eve. Like the other early church fathers, Augustine’s background was in Greek philosophy, which debased sexuality as a human weakness and therefore evil. Sex was tainted and best avoided, he said; virginity and abstention were the opposing virtues, to be viewed as a higher ideal.
“That the Mother of God should be a virgin was a matter of such importance to the men of the early Church that it overrode all other considerations, including the evidence of revelation itself.”
British historian Marina Warner comments: “It was this shift, from virgin birth to virginity, from religious sign to moral doctrine, that transformed a mother goddess like the Virgin Mary into an effective instrument of asceticism and female subjection. As Henry Adams wrote: ‘The study of Our Lady . . . leads directly back to Eve, and lays bare the whole subject of sex’” (Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary).
The Catholic connection between Eve and Mary gained strength as pious affection and developing dogma interacted, promoting the image of an idealized, perfect Mary. Eve, by contrast, was the mother of all humans, each of whom was tainted by original sin and subject to mortality and death. And so, rather than accept a simple reading of the New Testament in its context, the early fathers preferred to believe the notion that Mary was a virgin not only prior to Christ’s birth but remained virgo intacta post partum; i.e., a perpetual virgin after childbirth. This was one of the earliest Marian beliefs to become official Catholic teaching (451); Pope Martin I went on to declare it dogma in 649.
Warner notes that these church fathers “sadly fail[ed] to appreciate that renunciation does not banish or overcome desire.” She continues, “It is almost impossible to overestimate the effect that the characteristic Christian association of sex and sin and death has had on the attitudes of our civilization.”
But Mary’s virginity was not the only issue that the church fathers raised. If Mary was without sin, then she should not have seen death (death being the penalty for sin according to the Scriptures). As the sixth century drew to a close, Emperor Maurice proclaimed August 15 as the Feast of an annual feast in the Eastern church to commemorate the day on which Mary, rather than dying, simply went into an eternal sleep. Within the next century, the Western church accepted this same feast day and gave it the Latin title Dormition. This set the stage for later developments in Marianism.
The Immaculate Conception
Long venerated as part of popular piety in the Eastern church, Mary began to gain an even wider audience in the Western church by the 12th century, thanks in part to Crusaders returning from the East. Increasing attention and debate surrounded her, culminating in 1854 when Pope Pius IX declared the mother of Christ to have been “immaculately conceived.” Although Mary, according to this Catholic teaching, was conceived through the sexual union of her parents, she was miraculously exempt from the stain of original sin and the corrupt nature it imparts to every new human life. The Catholic Encyclopedia, describing this exemption as “immunity from original sin,” explains that “sanctifying grace was given to her before sin could have taken effect in her soul.” Many people, even some practicing Catholics, do not realize that the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception, not to Christ’s (which is known simply as the Virgin Birth).
“No direct or categorical and stringent proof of the dogma [of the Immaculate Conception] can be brought forward from Scripture.”
As already mentioned, the idea of Mary’s sinlessness had been around for centuries. Catholic church fathers discussed and debated the idea and its implications as early as the second century. Historian Warner points out an example of the questions that must follow from this teaching: If Mary avoided the consequences of humanity’s “fall” via the Immaculate Conception, doesn’t this mean that the full humanity of Christ can be called into question?
Such controversies have always marked the development of Catholic theology. But with skepticism on the rise, on what basis could the church establish a teaching as official and true? The answer came in the form of another edict from Pius IX, this one in 1870. With important implications for the acceptance of the new Marian dogma as well as all other teachings based more on philosophy and tradition than on Scripture, this edict declared the infallibility of the pope when speaking ex cathedra (from his chair) on such matters as faith and morals. The notion that Mary had miraculously escaped human nature and the temptation even to think wrong thoughts, much less to do wrong, had like other dogmas stretched the credulity of many across the centuries, especially as the Enlightenment dawned and the Age of Reason set in. Now the pope, in a single act, removed any possibility of further debate within the church by declaring it a matter of faith instead of reason—faith, that is, in the church’s infallibility.
By the end of the 19th century, then, the church officially embraced three articles of faith concerning Mary. The first two, her divine motherhood and her perpetual virginity, had come from the times of the early church councils, and the third, her immaculate conception, in 1854. But since that time a fourth Marian dogma has been added. In 1950 Pope Pius XII proclaimed Mary’s “assumption”—her reception, body and soul, into heaven. On the question of whether Mary actually died prior to her assumption or was received into heaven alive, the considered (if somewhat evasive) answer is simply that she did not suffer corruption in the grave.
Four years later, in 1954, the same pope officially confirmed the title Mary had been accorded over many centuries: “Queen of Heaven.”
And now there is a strong movement toward a fifth Marian dogma. Vox Populi Mariae Mediatrici is “a lay organization seeking the papal definition of the Blessed Virgin Mary as Coredemptrix, Mediatrix of all graces and Advocate of the people of God.” Their petition, posted on a Web site for downloading and signing, requests that the pope “solemnly define as Christian dogma the Church’s constant teaching on Mary’s co redemptive role with Christ the Redeemer of humanity.” They believe that “such a definition will bring to light the whole truth about Mary, Daughter of the Father, Mother of the Son, Spouse of the Spirit and Mother of the Church.”
The preamble to the petition seeks to qualify “coredemptrix” as meaning a redeemer “with” rather than “equal to” Christ. But based on history, many would likely overlook such a fine distinction once the title is given.
The Final Accolade?
Mary’s other titles should not go unnoticed. With respect to her presumed role as “Spouse of the Spirit,” Catholic scholar Leonardo Boff, whose theology would make Mary a part of the Trinity, is quite forthright: “We maintain the hypothesis that the Virgin Mary, Mother of God and of all men and women, realizes the feminine absolutely and eschatologically, inasmuch as the Holy Spirit has made her his temple, sanctuary, and tabernacle in so real and genuine a way that she is to be regarded as hypostatically [absolutely and really] united to the Third Person of the Blessed Trinity” (The Maternal Face of God: The Feminine and Its Religious Expressions, Boff’s emphasis). By this argument, because Mary is said to be united with and identical to the Holy Spirit, Boff avoids the theological minefield of a Trinity of four persons.
Benko very astutely picks up on a vital distinction regarding Mary that, if understood by the developing Catholic church, might have moderated the whole cycle of veneration to near-deification. He notes that Mary’s significance lay in her involvement at a particular time in God’s redemptive plan, not in her being. Christ had to be born of a devout woman. Mary was simply that woman. The early Catholic church fathers lost sight of that fact when they named her the Mother of God (Theotokos) in an attempt to ward off polytheism and explain the humanity of Christ. Involving Mary’s being rather than her role in the incarnation led down a slippery path.
“I propose that there is a direct line, unbroken and clearly discernible, from the goddess-cults of the ancients to the reverence paid and eventually the cult accorded to the Virgin Mary.”
For the cult of the Virgin Mother, the sky was clearly not the limit, and perhaps neither is the Trinity. In the meantime, however, so much effort has been spent on defining by dogma the nature of Mary and seeking to elevate her status, that she has effectively eclipsed the individual whose life was intended to be the means of salvation for all humanity.