Following her presentation on the Shekinah, Anne Baring offered to participants in Ubiquity University‘s online program, “Madonna Rising” a Reflection on Mary of Nazareth, Mother of Jesus the Christ, and Mary Magdalene, both “women who lived on this earth.” Though both women appear briefly in the New Testament Gospel stories, each has now, two millennia later, taken on Archetypal status.
Part One: Mary of Nazareth
Mary of Nazareth is “the unrecognized Great Goddess of the Wisdom Tradition”. Anne Baring makes this startling statement after a lifetime of research into the art, ritual and mythology honouring the Goddess in cultures and civilizations that existed for several thousand years before the Christian era. By the time of Christ, the tradition of the Sacred Feminine in Judaism had been obliterated, so that Christianity’s Scriptural inheritance lacked a feminine divinity. As Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, the great goddesses: Isis of Egypt, Inanna of Sumeria, and the Greek goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, Demeter, Persephone, Artemis and Hera with their Roman counterparts were effectively banished.
Susan Seddon Boulet: Goddess
Yet Anne Baring reveals an unexpected turn in the tale. Though worship of a particular emanation of the Goddess may be forbidden, though her sacred groves may be cut down, her statues and carvings smashed and slashed, though the speaking of her name may be forbidden, the Archetype that responds to human longing cannot be obliterated. It will persist over millennia in paintings and statues, in poetry and song, in symbol and above all in the cries of the human hearts that turn to her. As Christianity became the dominant religion of the Western World, those longings became centred on Mary, the woman who bore in her body Jesus who is the Christ.
Mary. pregnant with her Son, greets her cousin Elizabeth
In The Myth of the Goddess, co-authored with Jules Cashford, (Viking, 1991) Anne Baring notes that “the entire ancient world, from Asia Minor to the Nile, from Greece to the Indus Valley, abounds in figures of the naked female form in various attitudes of all-supporting, all-including goddesses… Mary…became the sole inheritor of all the names and forms, sorrows, joys and consolations of the Goddess-Mother of the Western World: Seat of Wisdom, Vessel of Honour, Mystical Rose, House of Gold, Gate of Heaven, Morning Star, Refuge of Sinners, Queen of Angels, Queen of Peace.”
Devotion to Mary blossomed in Medieval times, when the concept of courtly love was flourishing. Over a period of 125 years during the 12th and 13th centuries, while Chartres Cathedral was being constructed as the centre of devotion to Mary, another 500 Churches were built and dedicated to Mary. Within the Cathedral of Chartres, magnificent works of art celebrate Mary as womb of creation, fountain of love, tree of life and rose garden.
This statue of Mary, depicting her as the Black Madonna, seated on a throne, holding her child on her lap, associates Mary with Isis of Egypt, whose symbol is the throne, who appears in ancient images seated with her son Horus on her lap. The widowed Isis wears a black robe in mourning for her husband Osiris. In a title Mary inherits from Isis, she is “Star of the Sea”, in Latin. “Stella Maris”. Like Isis, Mary is invoked by sailors for protection, especially at night when they must navigate by starlight. The rich imagery of the Black Madonna extends in Christian symbolism to the heart of the mystic experience in the dark night of the soul.
Church Doctrine over the past 1500 years had to work to “catch up” to what Christians already knew in their hearts. The Church Fathers debated for decades, for centuries, to find their way through the tangle of Augustine’s concept of “Original Sin”, in order to proclaim that a human, Mary, might be worthy to carry God in her womb, to be, as Mary was proclaimed, “Theotokos” or “God Bearer”. It was St. Anthony, an early follower of St. Francis of Assisi, who found the way through. Mary must have, from the moment of her conception through the lovemaking of her parents Anna and Joachim, been without original sin. Thus in the Doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception” Mary was recognized as free from Original Sin in advance of her Son’s coming as Redeemer.
Other Church proclamations lifted Mary to the status of the ancient Goddesses. In 1950 Pope Pius XII proclaimed the doctrine of the Assumption declaring that Mary upon her death was taken into Heaven, body and soul. In the proclamation of the Assumption, Pope Pius alluded to “the heavenly marriage.” Carl Jung saw this doctrine as the most significant Christian religious event since the Reformation, an integration of the feminine principle into the Christian conception of the Godhead.
Four years later, in 1954, Mary was given the title long ago held by Isis and Inanna: “Queen of Heaven”.
Who has Mary become for us? Anne Baring notes that in the past thousand years, there have been 21,000 Visions of Mary, 210 reported between 1928 and 1971. Many Churches have been constructed on the site of Visions, notably the Sanctuary of Lourdes. The prayers addressed to her by mystics and ordinary suffering humanity are themselves witness to her presence of love in our lives. As Isis received the prayers of ancient people who were in danger, suffering, or approaching death, now Mary hears those prayers. As a palpable, reachable, presence of love in our daily lives on this planet, Mary embodies in human form aspects of the Shekinah that somehow have been transferred to her: the heart-centred qualities that we humans have sought for millennia beyond counting: wisdom, love, justice, beauty, harmony, and the instinct to heal, nurture, protect and cherish.
Bernard of Clairvaux, 12th c. abbot and mystic, wrote a prayer to Mary (found in Visions of Mary by Jill K. H. Geoffrion, Paraclete Press, Brewster MA 2017)
think of Mary,
call upon Mary.
If you follow her, you cannot falter;
if you pray to her, you cannot despair;
if you think of her, you cannot err.
If she sustains you, you will not stumble;
if she protects you, you have nothing to fear;
if she guides you, you will never flag;
if she is favourable to you, you will attain your goal.