The Virgin Mary is having quite a year, and it's only February. Last month, as you may have heard, a Chilean designer, Ricardo Oyarzun, put on a fashion show featuring sexy Virgins Mary. This story made its way through most of your major newspapers and blog type venues, for two obvious reasons:
Those two reasons, obviously, are that the story filled those hard-to-fill column inches in the "Faith and Spirituality" section of the paper and it gave news outlets in general excuse to feature large-breasted models and call it news. And, of course, this all comes hot on the heels of Mary's appearance on the cover of the Mexican edition of Playboy back in December. ...Lest you all accuse me of bringing this up solely as an excuse to feature scantily clad women myself, there is an important medieval angle to all of this. Responding to the outraged Catholics (whose outrage he had, of course, intentionally courted), the designer, Ricardo Oyarzun, had this to say:There is no pornography here, there's no sex, there are no virgins menstruating... This is artistic expression.None of the news outlets that picked up the story record the reporter's next question after this spirited defense, which surely must have been,...What kind of porn, exactly, do you watch, Mr. Artistic Expression?"
But whatever the designer's tastes in kink...menstruating Virgins are entirely acceptable in a medieval context and not the slightest bit salacious. Indeed, the Virgin Mary's menstrual cycle was the subject of much medieval theological disputation. Ultimately, it was decided that the Virgin must have had one, because Jesus was born fully mortal, and according to medieval medical theories, a mortal body was created out of the matter provided by the mother, the same matter that is expelled once a month. Incidentally, this same matter they thought became the mother's milk, so Jesus's suckling was independent confirmation of the existence of Mary's cycle.
Mary, we moderns hardly know ye.
Those interested in feminist thealogy might be interested to hear about a New Version of "Cakes for the Queen of Heaven". For a thoughtful discussion of Mary's Pagan roots, I recommend reading The Rise and Rise of the Queen of Heaven by David F. LLoyd.
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.
The Great Mother Goddess: Motherhood, the Syncroblog
Eating Fish on Friday's? Holy Mackerel!
(on Freya, sexuality, fertility and fish) - my thanks to Driving Adhumla for pointing me to this article.