Goddesses have always been part of various pantheons during the various stages of human history. Their role is inseparable from the role of women in ancient, medieval, and modern societies, as religion was used as a blueprint for morality, proper behavior, and the establishment of societal and gender roles. Ancient religions had a multitude of goddesses, such as Isis, Inana, Saatis, Aphrodite, Athena, Brigantia, and others (Jordan, 2004). They symbolized many things – some played the role of mothers of Earth, others were goddesses of good harvest and fertility (Baring & Cashford, 1993). Many goddesses represented the martial aspects of a culture, as almost every ancient religion ranging from Egypt to Greece and Mesopotamia had a goddess of war. However, as those religions faded away and were replaced by others, such as Christianity and Islam, the varied and multifaceted aspects of the feminine in culture started to fade. Religion and society alike were dominated by masculine concepts, in which the role of a female was reduced to an inferior “support” for the male (Baring & Cashford, 1993). The rise of feminism during the 20th and the 21st centuries altered the common perceptions of women and established their role in the society as equals to men. In this scope, studying the evolution of goddesses throughout various religions is important for self-perception and self-actualization of women. The purpose of this paper is to analyze Virgin Mary within the scope of history, theology, tradition, and impact on contemporary women.
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Who is Virgin Mary?
Virgin Mary is a biblical character and the mother of Jesus Christ. She holds a very special position in the divine hierarchy of the Bible because of it. On the one hand, she is a human female, while on the other – she gave birth to the Son of God, and later down the line is stated to have ascended to God (Warner, 2013). Thus, she is between being a mortal and being a God on her own right. Neither a divine being nor a saint. Yet, at the same time, many Christians worldwide revere her as one.
The main storyline she is connected to involves the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. Through a miracle, Mary is impregnated by God and later gave birth to his child, who is destined to suffer and die on the cross for the sins of humanity. As the Mother of God, she holds many similarities with religions of old. According to the Christian teachings, Virgin Mary conceived Jesus through the Holy Spirit (Warner, 2013). This had occurred while she was already betrothed to a man named Joseph. She gave birth at a town of Bethlehem, followed by the adoration of the shepherds. Although the Bible does not elaborate on Virgin Mary beyond the descriptions of Jesus’ childhood, it is assumed that after death, she was assumed directly into Heaven in the act of Divine Assumption.
Virgin Mary is associated with three dogmas that her character is based around, namely the Immaculate Conception, Perpetual Virginity, and Assumption into Heaven. She plays a very important part in Catholicism. In addition, she is revered in Islam as a mother of Isa, the Prophet. The Eastern Orthodox Church also reveres Virgin Mary to a considerable degree. In Protestantism, however, the role of Virgin Mary is minimized and underplayed. Although interpretations vary, Baring and Cashford (1993) state that in Christianity, Virgin Mary is the closest character that can be viewed as a Goddess due to her symbolic meaning, her role in the New Testament, and subsequent ascension to divinity.
The Domain of Virgin Mary
As it was already mentioned, Virgin Mary is neither a Goddess nor a patron saint in the strictest meaning of the word. Prayers and pleas directed towards her are not granted through her own will but rather are relayed to God through her divine connection with him. Due to her special position within the hierarchy of Heaven, however, Virgin Mary is associated with many activities, dioceses, and places. Her domain is much larger than that of any other saint (Warner, 2013).
She holds many titles befitting her exalted position. In the hymns and prayers, she is often referred to as Mother of the Word, Star of the Sea, Glorious Mother of God, Wide-Open Gate of Heaven, Queen of Angels, Queen of Apostles, and Harrier of Hell (Baring & Cashford, 1993). All of these titles indicate her position above the angels and saints accepted into Heaven’s ranks, and her unique connection with God offers Virgin Mary to exert a God-like influence on the world, essentially turning her into a full-fledged Goddess.
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Virgin Mary is stated to be a patroness for all the humanity. At the same time, she is revered as a patron of childbearing, life, and family. She is popular among seafarers and travelers, who seek her protection during long journeys. In addition, several monastic orders have sworn loyalty to her, such as the order of Benedictines, Cistercians, Brothers Hospitallers, and Teutonic Knights.
Rituals and Celebrations of Virgin Mary
The main celebrations dedicated to Virgin Mary take the course from January to December in order to celebrate various events and stages involving her Immaculate Conception and birth of Jesus Christ. The celebrations usually take forms of feasts. The first major feast, titled Mary, the Holy Mother of God, occurs on January 1. This day is meant to celebrate and commemorate the aspect of her motherhood with Jesus Christ, the Son of Lord (“Feast days,” n.d.). The second major feast, the Annunciation of the Lord, occurs on 25 March, to commemorate the visitation of Virgin Mary by Archangel Gabriel, who informed her of her role as the Mother of God. It is also commonly known as the Feast of the Incarnation or the Lady Day (“Feast days,” n.d.). The third feast occurs six days after, on March 31, in order to commemorate the visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to Elizabeth, a fellow mother impregnated with John the Baptist. The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is celebrated on August 15 (“Feast days,” n.d.). This feast serves to commemorate the acceptance of the sinless body of Mary directly into Heaven. The sixth major feast dedicated to Virgin Mary occurs September 8 and commemorates the Nativity of Jesus Christ. Lastly, the Immaculate Conception of Virgin Mary is celebrated on December 8 (“Feast days,” n.d.). There are numerous other commemorations of Virgin Mary, but these six feasts are considered major in Catholic Christianity.
Rituals associated with feasts are many, and typically there is no structure to the contents of these celebrations and devotions. Typical celebrating activities involve singing of anthems dedicated to Virgin Mary, reading the Holy Text, holding sermons, and choirs. Some of the most famous prayers to Virgin Mary include the Rosary and Hail Mary.
Virgin Mary’s Place and Comparison with Other Goddesses
According to Barring and Cashford (1993), Virgin Mary’s exaltation and hyperbolized adoration (hyperdulia) have historical reasoning behind it. When Christianity became the state religion in Italy, Greece, and other countries that previous worshipped a pantheon of Gods, the concept of One God that connected the masculine and the feminine within itself, being above and beyond physical limitations, it caused a cultural dissonance in places familiar with clearly masculine and feminine deities. While the words God and Lord were innately masculine, helping with the transition, the lack of feminine counterparts remained an issue. Thus, the newly-found worshippers of Christ found the embodiment of femininity in the form of Virgin Mary, who quickly assumed many of the basic qualities and even appearances of Artemis, Diana, Athena, Isis, and many others. The concept of virginity is a symbol of purity was likely borrowed from one of the earlier Goddesses. For example, Athena was also stated to be virgin and was born out of Zeus’s head – a metaphor for another Immaculate Conception (Baring & Cashford, 1993).
In terms of dominion and protection, Virgin Mary is similar to two other Greek/Roman goddesses, namely Hestia, who was also the virgin goddess of Hearth, Family, Agriculture, and the State, and Hera, goddess of Marriage and Childbirth. The latter is also similar to Virgin Mary through the virtue of being Zeus’s wife, thus sharing the concept of the “Divine Bride.” However, all goddesses mentioned here have one distinctive difference from Virgin Mary – while each of these goddesses derives their powers from themselves, Virgin Mary’s dominion is brought upon through the virtue of being a perfect servant of the Divine Will (Baring & Cashford, 1993).
The Significance of Virgin Mary for Women
For many centuries, Virgin Mary remained a patron for all women and an example of a perfect female. The concept of virginity of Mary was enforced in all-female monasteries, as nuns viewed themselves as God’s brides, thus forbidding themselves from any kind of sexual contact. The Bible and the image of Mary had a powerful influence on contemporary morals for almost 2000 years and had defined how women see themselves, and how men see them. However, the evaluation of this influence and its purposes are now considered a controversial.
The second-wave feminism of the 1960s has been notoriously anticlerical and viewed Christianity and the Bible as tools of the patriarchy, through which subjugation of the female character occurred. This notion is supported by Mary Daly’s critique of theology from a feminist perspective, titled “Beyond God the Father.” Her main thesis was that Virgin Mary was basically the domesticated goddess – a perfect representation of the end goal of the patriarchy for women (Daly, 1993). She compares Mary to goddesses of old and highlights the independence they had as characters. In some instances, they were the ones that gave birth to the word on their own accord. In others, they represented various aspects of societies ranging from justice to agriculture to war, which was traditionally a “man’s field of expertise.” In addition, they had their own distinctive personalities and ambitions and were not afraid to face and oppose male Gods.
Opposite to Athena, Artemis, Hera, Isis, and other gods of ancient times, Mary has almost no defining characteristics of her own. Her alleged power comes from God’s favor and not on her own accord. She claims to be the God’s Handmaid, a servant and a slave rather than her own person. Lastly, she presents the image of a defeated and tamed goddess, during the scene where she kneels before Jesus Christ, her own son, thus symbolizing the completeness of submission and defeat of a woman before a man (Daly, 1993). Daly’s work defined atheist feminists’ views regarding Virgin Mary as a placeholder instead of a goddess and a submissive role model to further cement the subordinate position of the female in the modern society.
Naturally, many Christians and Christian-feminists opposed such a scathing view on one of the most important characters of the Bible. Christa Mulack proposes an alternative view in her book titled “Mary: The Secret Goddess of Christianity” (as cited in Hauke, 1995). Her counter-argument to atheist-feminists and their views on Virgin Mary is that their interpretation of the scriptures as materialistic, as Daly’s work indeed interprets virginity as a biological, rather than a metaphysical construct. Mulack (as cited in Hauke, 1995) states that virginity should be taken, in the context of Virgin Mary, as an attitude, not abstinence.
Both Mulack and Daly agree that virginity symbolizes autonomy. Thus, Virgin Mary can be taken as a symbol of a woman no longer defined solely by her relationship to a man (Joshua, in this case). However, the issue lays in Virgin Mary’s apparent subordinate position to God and his Son, Jesus Christ. Mulack argues that scenes regarding Jesus Christ are always depicted with the Son and the Apostles being smaller than Virgin Mary, for love can only flourish there where female powers are preponderant (as cited in Hauke, 1995).
Lastly, regarding the concept of Immaculate Conception and the title of the Mother of God, Mulack reasserts that the former should be interpreted as a process of self-creation of a female character without the need for dependence on a male, whereas the title symbolizes the incarnation of a Divine Will in the body of every woman (as cited in Hauke, 1995). This opposes Daly’s direct interpretation of the Immaculate Conception as “supernatural rape.”
Still, the controversy in the interpretation of the symbolism of Virgin Mary exists even now, as feminists are divided based on what their views of the Bible are. Daly (1993) stated that the interpretation of the figure of Virgin Mary could go one of two ways. Mary either is interpreted as a human being and thus is subject to criticism regarding her role as a domesticated goddess and a tool for oppressing women, or as a narrative and symbolic character, which would detach her reality, thus eliminating her as a role model from the Bible and turning the Scriptures into a blatantly male-dominated book.
Personal Reflections about Virgin Mary
To me, Virgin Mary has always been one of the more obscure characters of the Bible. Although she plays one of the most pivotal roles in the Scriptures (giving birth and raising Jesus), the amount of attention that period is given is surprisingly limited. The divide between the interpretations of Virgin Mary lies not in the factual biblical character but in one’s perceptions of faith and Christianity. In the mind of Atheists, the Bible (just like any other religion) is a tool of control of the masses. If we take that position, then Virgin Mary is obviously a tool of the patriarchy and the warped image of Goddesses of old, robbed of any shred of personality and independence, fully becoming the God’s handmaiden and a servant to the Lord.
To a feminist Christian, however, such an interpretation is heresy, which is why they find themselves comfortable with viewing Virgin Mary as a symbol for feminine independence as solicited by God. The Bible can be interpreted in a multitude of ways based on the reader’s views and agendas. The truth is in the eye of the beholder. But as it stands, Virgin Mary serves as a point of division between feminists and makes them argue with one another instead of pushing forward a singular, united agenda.
I think there is no easy way out of this situation, unfortunately. The controversial status of Virgin Mary can be settled only with one side conceding to the other. A goddess cannot be both a symbol for the independence of women and a tool of the patriarchy at the same time. In order to solve this conundrum, either atheist-feminists would have to accept the Divine Scripture as truthful or Christian feminists would have to denounce their faith. Either of these events is unlikely to happen and is likely to drive the wedge between the two even deeper. Personally, I believe that Bible (as well as other religious texts) have many examples of women being exploited and subjugated by men, and it is presented as a good thing. Virgin Mary is very similar yet very different from the goddesses of old. Some of the defining traits are there, but she is a tool of God and patriarchy and not her own person. I do not believe that she would make a good example for modern women because of that.
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Baring, A., & Cashford, J. (1993). The myth of the goddess: Evolution of an image. London, UK: Penguin Group.
Daly, M. (1993). Beyond God the father: Towards a philosophy of women’s liberation. Boston, UK: Beacon Press.
Feast days of Mary. (n.d.). Web.
Hauke, M. (1995). God or Goddess? Feminist Theology: What Is It? Where Does It Lead? San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press.
Jordan, M. (2004). Dictionary of gods and goddesses. Web.
Warner, M. (2017). Alone of all her sex: The myth & the cult of the Virgin Mary. (2nd ed.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.