The Virgin Mary: An Atheist Perspective

I am gratefully indebted to the volume Alone of all Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary, by Marina Warner.  This lecture would not have been possible without Warner’s scholarly research and perspective on the Catholic Church and European History.

This lecture will discuss the role of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic Church. With each changing concern and focus as the original Church grew to power, consolidated hegemony as the Church Triumphant, and defended itself from the Protestant Reformation, the portrayal of Mary changed, too.  We shall be glancing at the very small role Mary had in the Gospels of the New Testament.  Gospel testimony, as we have seen in past lectures, is problematical and unreliable. The subject of whether Jesus, or his mother, were historical persons is a continuing controversy, nearly impossible to resolve. (For a discussion of the controversy surrounding Jesus and his historicity, please see Biblical Criticism at

Mary’s image and cult was changed and refashioned many times as the Church and its faithful responded to various aspects of its growth and its challenges.  The story is a fascinating example of how a religion often contains factions within it.

Such cults, as the Mary veneration, do not begin with all their beliefs, miracles and crystallized doctrines as one entire whole even though there is a general understanding or rather, pretense, that the belief system was always there.  Tracing the history of the Virgin Mary will also trace some of the history of the Christian Catholic Church, both Eastern and Western.

This lecture will only deal with the historical shifts that took place in the Mary cult.  There is another fascinating story in the relation that Mary, or Theotokos, the Mother of God, has to the mother goddesses and other pagan goddesses from the pre-Christian, pagan world.  We shall be taking up this aspect of the Virgin in our next lecture, along with the relationship of Jesus, her son, to the ancient dying and reviving gods of pagan mythology.  A lecture discussing Mary and Jesus’ links to ancient gods and goddesses seems most appropriate, because Mary’s story, in Christian mythology, parallels that of Jesus.

The Catholic Church, with consummate skill, exercised a syncretic method. It combined its saints, festivals, holidays, and rites with popular pagan deities and holidays, making the combination its own.  The Mary cult, and the story of Jesus, are quite illustrative of the practice.  The pagan roots of the early Christian church are exposed everywhere a historian chooses to explore.  The story of Mary, Jesus, the church and paganism is a fascinating historical journey we shall be undertaking next month.

The private Catholic girl’s school I attended as a young girl was unusually excellent and somewhat unconventional for its scholarship and its encouragement of academic attainments and careers for women. 

But mainstream Catholicism was always present, in the superstitious beliefs and tales of the nuns and in the extreme religiosity propagated by them.  One of the most important events during the school year was the homage paid to the Virgin Mary at the beginning of May.  The huge flower beds surrounding her large and impressive statue in the middle of the garden were in full bloom, perfuming the air and surrounding Mary with every imaginable color.  The Mother of god was dressed in her traditional blue and white, with a serene expression on her lovely face.

On the first day of May there was a large ceremony, when the entire student body marched into the garden, accompanied by priests, nuns and parents.  We sang hymns to the Virgin and then a small group of girls came forward, with the girl leading the rest holding a large crown of flowers.  This was the height of the ceremony.  The girl chosen to crown the Virgin was reaping the rewards of high scholarship and exemplary behavior.  It is an irony that the two girls most deserving of the honor that year were myself, already a closet atheist, and from a secular home, and a Jewish girl.  We were disqualified because we were not Catholics, with many apologies and regrets to our families. 

What I learned subsequently about the Catholic Church, the origins of the Christian religion, Jesus, the Bible and so on, I have been including in this lecture series.  It has been a long journey, undertaken from the time I was twelve years old. 

I learned that while we were being encouraged as school girls to strive and attain careers and independence, we were also sunk in the worship of a woman which would be used, for centuries, to help deny women equality, access to birth control and abortion, and instead, to emphasize women’s inferiority to men.  Here then, is the result of my research into the Queen of Heaven, the Virgin Mary.

It will be no surprise to anyone who has read the New Testament to be told that Mary is very rarely mentioned in the Gospels.  In the earlier work of Paul, specifically his Epistle to the Galatians 4:4, the dual nature of Jesus, human and yet god’s son, was expounded.  To emphasize that Jesus was fully human, although divine, Paul told his followers that “Jesus was made of woman.” The Epistles of Paul are the earliest works in the New Testament, written somewhere between the 30’s and the 60’s CE.  The later Gospels were most likely composed from about 70 CE to 90 or 95 CE.  The four Gospels are not much more generous than Paul concerning Mary.  Mark, the earliest, mentions her twice, once rather unflatteringly (3:31) and once (6:3) as the mother of Jesus. In John, the fourth and last Gospel, Mary is mentioned twice.  The writer says that she was at the Wedding Feast at Cana with Jesus and at the foot of the Cross when Jesus was crucified.  In the Acts of the Apostles, Mary prays with the apostles, after Jesus’ ascension into Heaven. (1:14)

Mary features more prominently in what are sometimes known as the infancy narratives, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Those gospels were written at least forty years, possibly even eighty years, after the events they described had taken place.  The two writers agree about Jesus’ birth and childhood, narrating the miracles and prodigies that took place at the birth. 

They both agree that Heaven was on earth at Jesus’ birth.  Both try to establish Jesus’ genealogy- that he was descended from the House of David, that his father’s name was Joseph and his mother’s Mary.  On such points the two writers concur.  On other points, they diverge.  But most importantly, both accounts were meant to establish that Jesus was the Messiah, with all manner of foreshadowing from the prophesies of the Old Testament.

The Virgin conception and birth of Jesus was a concern to the gospelists.   They made the claim that Mary was the mother of the man/god, Jesus. A sure sign of divinity in the Roman world was being born of a virgin.  The readers of the Gospels were told that Mary conceived by the Holy Spirit.  Later Church Fathers and other important thinkers had a difficult task explaining the virgin notion, because Luke, Mark and Matthew all mentioned Jesus’ brothers and sisters.  Jesus’ brother, James, was the head of an early Jewish/Christian sect and Paul had actually met him.  So some Church Fathers tried to solve the difficulty by claiming that (1) the brothers and sisters were Joseph’s children from an earlier marriage, (2) his siblings were adopted children or cousins and (3) James was called Jesus’ brother because he resembled Jesus so much.

The early Church Fathers were determined to establish Mary’s flawless virginity, not only when she became pregnant, but when she gave birth.  They claimed that she was spared sex and had an intact hymen, even after childbirth. The virgin birth was important to the Marian mythology because of what I mentioned a few seconds ago-  Roman tradition had established that the surest way to establish  a person’s divinity was by claiming a virgin birth for him.

However, in its earliest years, the Church had more pressing preoccupations than Mary’s virginity.  A primary concern was the issue of the kerygma. (Please see Biblical Criticism- the Historicity of Jesus at for a more thorough discussion of the kerygma.)  If you recall from my earlier lecture on the kerygma, the promise of the resurrection and salvation of mankind through Jesus’ Resurrection, was of crucial importance to the church.  Secondly, in its early years, the church suffered some persecution, and a resulting emphasis was placed on its martyrs.  Concurrently, there was difficulty with those members who had forsworn their faith when faced with torture and death.  Many of them wanted readmission to the church, which created controversy.  So, in the earliest years of the faith, the virginity of Mary was not of vital concern, except to establish Jesus’ divinity and genealogy.

The Roman world had powerful vestal virgins whose intact virginity was closely guarded.  But from all accounts, the necessity for the vestals’ virginity was a matter of ritual and had very little to do with the issue of morality, as a proof of virtue. As a matter of practicality, the Romans probably did not want men seducing the powerful vestal priestesses and gaining political influence through them.   The Christians refashioned virtue as a virginal requirement, or accompaniment.   

It is important to keep in mind that the pagan world had many types of virgin priestesses who served various gods and goddesses, at Thebes, throughout Syria, at Ephesus, Corinth and elsewhere. But it was the Christians who added the attributes of moral goodness and sanctity to the concept of virginity.  The idea that sin and death was connected to sex was basically a Christian innovation, as we shall see in a few moments.

Explaining away the parallels between Mary’s virgin birth of Jesus and the dozens of similar pagan births reported by tradition was of some difficulty for the Church Fathers.  A few claimed that Jesus’ conception had been the result of parthenogenesis, or spontaneous generation.  Such reasoning, says Marina Warner, put those who embraced it into the odd position of comparing the birth of god to the birth of smoke from corpses, wasps from horses, and worms from practically everything.

A much better argument was that all the previous pagan virgin births had been a preparation, by signs and symbols, for the incarnation of the highest divinity- the birth of god’s son, Jesus, who was both god and man.  The Church itself never made that argument officially.  But it was a favorite with such important Church theologians as Origen in the 3rd century, up to John Henry Newman in the 19th century and beyond.

By the 1300’s, the discussion had predictably taken up the notion that it was the male principle, i.e., the Holy Spirit, which had by itself provided the whole, perfect, and divine all at once, body and soul of Jesus which had entered Mary’s womb.  In other words, Mary was, in the eyes of some Church theologians, reduced to being a carrier for the Holy Spirit.  It was the ancients who had given rise to the concept of the male principle being the important contribution to conception.  From the Stoics, but especially from Aristotle, came what many in the ancient world believed was the father’s semen which was the vital source of life.  The mother was thought of as merely the incubator. The Church took up this notion.  Dante, the author of the Divine Comedy, summed up Thomas Aquinas’s thinking by arguing: Woman is passive; man the active virtue.” Aquinas was the great Church theologian and Aristotle’s works had a strong influence on him.

So there existed a strong belief that it was the Holy Spirit who had done the work, so to speak, of conceiving Jesus.  Here is another Church Father on the issue: “Not from human seed but by the mythical breath of the Holy Spirit was the word of God made flesh and the fruit of the womb brought to maturity.”  Mythical breath indeed!  Comically, some of the common people, told that the virgin conceived at the word of the Angel Gabriel, who announced the holy pregnancy to her, believed she had become pregnant through her ear.  There were tales of cats being impregnated through their ears and other stories, so it made sense to many of the faithful that Mary had become pregnant in this mysterious manner.  There were even a few songs, serious ones, about her conception by ear.

The ancient gods in the shape of various animals had overcome virgins by arousing their passion.  But the Virgin’s first systematic theologian, Francisco Suarez, in the 16th century, declared this: “The Blessed Virgin, in conceiving a son, neither lost her virginity nor experienced any venereal pleasure… it did not benefit the Holy Spirit without any cause or utility to produce such an effect, or to excite any unbecoming movement of passion…On the contrary, the effect of his overshadowing is to quench the fire of original sin.”

We can see from the Gospels to the Church Fathers that early in the Church’s history, Mary was simply a vessel chosen by god to be his mother because of her faithfulness, purity and humility.  John’s Gospel and the Book of Revelation began to set the tone for a Marian theology.  The Church gradually altered the mythological portrait of Mary, accepting and obedient, to the elevated stature of the New Eve, the Queen of Heaven, the Mater Dolorosa and the Intercessor for humans at the hour of their death.

Her veneration, according to Greg Dues:”… is expressed in official dogmas, feast days, and in multiple forms of private devotions on the part of Catholics.  As the Church began to appreciate the depth of mystery surrounding their Lord {during many centuries} it also identified its relationship to Mary.  The Church discovered her as the Mother of God, model of what the Church is called to be and the most powerful intercessor with God.”  This veneration is often called hyperdulia.

Let us now turn to Mary as the second Eve, the woman who did not conceive in original sin, but rather conceived the one who was to save mankind from it.  It is important to remember, before I begin this important section, the concept of virginity for priestesses in the ancient world.  Virginity was ritual, but there was a second idea that carried into the Christian world- that virginity conveyed powerful magic.  Both ideas, ritual power and magic power, tied in with each other. 

Now we can take up the manifestation of Mary, as the second Eve.  If you recall, it was the Old Testament Eve who tempted Adam into eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge against God’s command.  Apparently, neither Adam nor Eve thought their nakedness was wrong until they attained knowledge.  So nakedness was wrong, but it was permissible prior to their apple eating because they did not know it was wrong?  Biblical stories are not well known for the logic involved in their telling.  At any rate, we are all very aware that it was a woman who was to blame for the entire debacle in the Garden of Eden.  Adam was the first man to reproach Eve, and Yahweh was close behind.  Yahweh condemned both of them, but Eve and her descendants were cruelly punished.  Women were now sentenced to menstruation every month, and painful childbirth. 

They were additionally placed under the authority of men.  Adam had to work “in the sweat of his face” and decompose after death.  The serpent was condemned to crawl on his belly and face the enmity of mankind.  Yahweh was furious with humans.  Clearly it was Adam and Eve who brought sex and death into the world.

This was the official position of the Church.  Sexuality was the greatest threat and evil envisioned by the early Church.  Sex, sin and death- they were intertwined in a poisonous theme.  Marina Warner states: “It is almost impossible to overestimate the effect that the characteristic association of sex and sin and death has had on the attitudes of our civilization. “ It was devastating to human freedom. You will hear me repeat this idea many times during the lecture.  Paul, the true founder of Christianity, and the theologians who followed him, made the abstention from sex the highest of virtues.  They were more preoccupied with sex than with revelation.  Did they not realize, or did they proceed with the notion deliberately, that to abjure sex was not to banish desire?  Desire itself was considered evil. 

People became enmeshed in the powerful web woven by the Church.  We know that desire is as natural to people as breathing, eating or sleeping.  If people experienced desire and believed that they were sinful, most of them were impelled to run back to the Church.  The Church, through hearing their confessions and granting them absolution, would grant these so-called sinners a reprieve from God’s eventual punishment.  The reprieve, of course, was temporary.  They would soon experience desire once again and be forced to return to the Church for help.

The Church went further- its theologians decided that original sin was the result of Adam and Eve’s fall. 

Paul was the 1st century thinker who laid the foundation for this notion. (see The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason) Important Church thinkers expanded the idea, theorizing that the taint was transmitted from human generation. Then Augustine, the most skilled theologian of the 4th century, elaborated on the concept of original sin.  Augustine thought that the hereditary blemish might be transmitted by the man’s genitals. He wrote that of the two, body and soul, the body might be the one most stained and probably hereditarily sinful. Since a child cannot be conceived without a sexual act, which involves passion, which is a sin, each human child is stained from the beginning.

Augustine concluded that Christ had arranged to be born from a virgin because a virgin birth was the only way to be born without original sin.  In this circuitous manner, Augustine concluded that we should love chastity above all qualities for “…it was to show that this was pleasing to him that Christ chose the modesty of a virgin womb.”  Augustine was writing in the 4th Century.  Here is St. Jean Edes in the 17th Century.  “It is a subject of humiliation of all the mothers of the children of Adam to know that they are with child, that they carry within them an infant…who is the enemy of God, the object of his hatred and malediction, and the shrine of the demon.”  One cannot help but be dismayed by such words.  But truly, the earth, in the eyes of many Church theologians, was a fallen world and every human, at birth, carried the taint of original sin.

However, the Church claimed that a new world had been ushered in when Christ was born from a pure virgin. 

This new world was not corrupt, not tainted, but redeemed by the incarnation of Christ and the salvation he brought.  St. Paul made it clear in many of his writings and epistles that a new dispensation had been launched.   Augustine and other Church fathers made the same assertion.  According to Paul, Jesus was the second Adam, once again fashioned by god, but this time inaugurating a world that was new, fresh and incorrupt.  Mary, his mother, was the second Eve, pure this time and not a conduit for temptation and sin.  (This is in I Corinthians 15:22, Romans 5:14, 2 Corinthians 5:17.)

Later Church fathers extended the ideas of Paul about Christ and his mother, the Virgin Mary. Here is Justin Martyr, the foremost theologian of the 2nd century, on the topic of Christ being born of the Virgin: “… in order that by the same way in which disobedience caused by the serpent took its beginning; by this way should it also take its destruction.  For Eve, being a virgin and incorrupt, conceived the word spoken of the serpent, and brought forth disobedience and death.  But Mary the Virgin, receiving faith and grace… {gave birth} to him by whom God destroys both the serpent and those angels and men who had become like it.”

By the 3rd Century, it became apparent how important the story of the Virgin and the birth of Jesus as savior of mankind were to the Church Fathers. They tried to find whatever texts and prophecies from the Old Testament that would foretell, or at least foreshadow, the redemption of mankind.  They were at great pains to establish that god had been preparing the world for this miraculous event from the very beginning.

During the 3rd Century, the great theologian, Origen, and his Alexandrian School of biblical exegetes, searched the Bible for the symbolism and covert redemption message that was hidden beneath the narrative.  These scholars scorned the historical and literal approach their rival School of Antioch employed.  The Alexandrians decided that they would note and preserve what was suitable for god and discard what was not in agreement in the Bible as “incongruous.”  The Virgin came to be described, in phrases from the Old Testament, as “the tower of ivory, the house of gold, the Ark of the Covenant made of incorruptible timber, the lily among thorns, the rose in Jericho, the rose of Sharon, the tower of David, the holy root, and the rod of Jesus.”

In the early centuries of Christianity, as in the present day, the Greek Eastern Church was particularly devoted to the Virgin and added to the growing Mariolatry. Unfortunately, the Greek theologians carried the idea of the miraculous to its most extreme conclusion.  They stated that the divine can only be seen in phenomena that violates the normal course of nature, such as a virgin birth!  They maintained, as well, a literal interpretation of purity, which was a technical, physical virginity.  They, too, like the Western Church thinkers, found Biblical phrases to reinforce their rigid beliefs.  The Greek theologians spoke of the “closed womb, the spring shut up, the fountain sealed, and an unbroken body.”  Note how enclosed and unyielding such phrases are.  They seem the antithesis of fertility and life.  Eastern theology seemed literally physical, with very little reference to a spiritual state, although it is highly unlikely that could have been the theologians’ intention. 

Scholars state that as time passed and the agonized dispute concerning the nature of Christ unfolded within the Church, the Virgin Birth was the key to Orthodox Christianity.  If you recall from the lecture on “The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason,” the heresy of Arian was a large threat to the notion that Christ was both divine and human.  Arian believed that Christ had been born an ordinary human and that god had adopted him.  The Church was faced with a problem; it had to satisfactorily explain, without denying Jesus’ humanity, how he was born of a woman through the operations of the Holy Spirit. 

By the 4th Century, Mary’s virginity, so vital to mainstream theology, became, if possible, even more stressed.  Naysayers were hounded out.  The Christian writer, Jovian, while not commenting on the conception idea of Jesus, wrote that he denied the idea of Mary’s virginity during and after the birth of Jesus. He was summarily excommunicated.

After many bitter quarrels and some excommunications, the difficult matter of the Virgin Birth and Jesus’ nature was settled.  You can review some of the quarrels in the lecture, The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason at At the Council of Ephesus in 431, Mary had been proclaimed Theotokos, Mother of God.  The city had many torchlight processions in celebration of the event and its citizens cheered approvingly at the Virgin’s elevated title. In 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, the Fourth Ecumenical Council of the Church, the two natures of Christ were settled.  It was decided that he was of both natures.  The Virgin Mary formally received the title many had already bestowed on her: Ever Virgin.

Of course, for the theologians, Mary’s exalted stature was more important concerning the issue of Jesus’ dual nature rather than the honor paid to his mother.

Despite the early controversies, after the 4th Century, the Virgin Mary’s cult grew pretty smoothly.  There were many feast days awarded her, celebrating and instituting her virginity and divine motherhood.  Greek Christian monks who were escaping from the Moslem invasion of the Holy Land in the 7th Century brought many feast days of the Virgin westward, such as the Annunciation, the Dormition,  and the Presentation, among others. The Presentation in the Temple changed its character to one that celebrated Mary’s purification. The Catholic Church today claims that Mary became a temple herself with her chastity and purity.  12th Century Christians believed Byzantine tales about the Virgin. For instance, it was said that Mary had lifted a plague from a city because the Purification Feast was instituted in her honor.  Plague was believed to be impure and Mary’s purity triumphed over the impure.  As Marina Warner states: “The Cult of Mary is inextricably interwoven with Christian ideas about the dangers of the flesh and their special connection with women.”  Mary stood above the flesh, intact and pure, unstained by sex or childbirth.

When Constantine issued the Edict of Nantes in 313 CE, most of the persecutions of Christians ceased.  There were some attacks on Christians under the Emperor Julian, who tried to bring back paganism in the 4th Century; but in general the worst of the violence against Christians, which took place before Constantine’s reign, had finished. 

If you will remember from my  lecture, The Early Christian Church and Its War on Reason, the number of Christians executed for refusing to adjure their faith was exaggerated by the Catholic Church.  There were numerous Christians who abandoned their faith when it seemed they would be executed if they did not renounce.  The recreants created a problem for the Church when Bishops allowed these unfaithful members to return.  Ultimately, most of them were permitted to rejoin their local congregations.

Once the threat of persecution passed, there was a shift in Church emphasis that involved the concept of virgins and martyrdom.  The Church had made much of their early martyrs, but now there was a concentration on virgin martyrs.  These women did not die refusing to make sacrifices to the pagan gods, but were executed for defending their virginity.  In the church liturgy, according to Warner, nearly all the female martyrs were virgins.  The Golden Legend, a Middle Ages best seller, described these saintly women as universally beautiful, graceful, irresistible and virtuous.  Upper class young men offered their love to these chaste beauties, were refused, and proceeded to have the women tortured and killed.  No, not killed, according to legend, but butchered.

The consistent focus of women’s flesh being torn and broken reveals the Church’s obsession with sexual sin; the descriptions are pornographic violence.  There was a message in the gory tales, that the perils of sexual contact were greater than the perils of refusing it. In the Golden Legend, and I quote: “Agatha’s breasts were cut off; Appollonia’s teeth were torn out and she was then burned to death.  Juliana was shattered on a wheel until the marrow spurted out, then plunged into a bath of lead.  Catherine of Alexandria was also broken on a wheel.” 

As late as 1890, Maria Goretti, a poor Italian child of eleven years old, was murdered by a man in her village that she knew.  He tried to rape her and when she resisted, he stabbed her with a stiletto many times.  She was made a Child of Mary in the hospital by the local priest, forgave her murderer, and died the following day.  In 1950, she was canonized, made a saint by the Pope.  The Pope said the poor child had sanctified the beginning of the century.

The only way a woman could attain a fate considered higher than the original Eve’s, bearing children in suffering and pain, was to emulate the second Eve, the Virgin Mary.  Young women who aspired to such purity, had little choice but to become nuns and renounce worldly pleasures.  The virgin body, in both men and women, conveyed the idea of wholeness and virtuousness, and had gradually become equated with holiness.  The Church Fathers went even further: they maintained that the virginal life reduced the penalties of the Fall for women, and that therefore it was sanctified.  Tertullian, Julian and Cyprian, important theologians during the 2nd and 3rd Centuries, harped on the idea that virginity raised a woman above the lot common to the feminine gender, which was marriage and motherhood.  A virgin, the Fathers claimed, was spared servitude to a husband by remaining chaste. 

Jerome (347-420 CE,) stated: “As long as a woman is for birth and children, she is as different from man as a body is from soul.  But when she wishes to serve Christ more than the world, then she will cease to be a woman and will be called a man.” Ambrose (340-397 CE) told girls that to lose their virginity was to deface the work of the Creator.  Mary’s virginal purity even after she gave birth had become as important as her virginity when she conceived by the Holy Spirit. 

The Church fathers, without irony, used the following argument to prove that virginity was the proper state for people, especially women.  When a former virgin was impregnated and gave birth, the child she gave birth to was a virgin. 

As early as Augustine in the 4th century, the marriage of the Virgin Mary and Joseph, described as continent, no sexual intercourse, was considered ideal.  A marriage without sex, holy and abstemious, was touted as the highest type of union.  During the Middle Ages, some local priests were quick to suggest different days of the week married couples should abstain from sex.  Thursday, to honor Christ’s arrest, Friday to remember his death, Saturday to honor the Virgin Mary, Sunday to commemorate the Resurrection, and Monday to honor the departed.

One can see that the association of sex with sin and death was extraordinary.  The Church Triumphant had turned to fighting the enemy within, and that enemy was concupiscence.  Nuns gained a small amount of independence, although they were still bound in strict obedience to their superiors.  The elevated status of young women who entered the convent was paradoxical.  A young girl, by taking the veil, could get an education, and if she were clever, could exercise influence.  But the status of nuns was achieved at the expense of other women’s lot.  Belief in the inferiority of wifehood and motherhood was the lynchpin in the Church’s position on women.

I cannot emphasize too much the belief that sin and death had come to mankind with Eve’s wickedness.  Sin and death were intertwined in people’s minds.  Mary, by remaining a virgin, had evaded both fates.  The Virgin Mary was the avatar- she who had evaded the fall of sex, also evaded the fall of death. 

The story of Mary’s non-death, or The Dormition, the Falling Asleep of Mary, was another interesting development in the Marian cult, or Marian myth. The Dormition tales came from the Eastern Church. The West developed the slightly later and different notion of the Assumption of Mary into Heaven. There was initial theological difficulty about what had happened to Mary because the Gospels do not mention her death.  There was no known site of her grave.  Her cult was slightly delayed, as there was no known grave site or shrine to visit, no sanctified corpse or relics.  But such a lacuna was easily filled with tales that achieved large circulation. 

There were many Syriac versions of the bodily assumption of the Virgin into paradise.  Some of the most popular featured Mary praying to be reunited with her son, the Jews plotting her death by stoning and her assumption into Heaven at some point in the narrative, which satisfyingly (to the Christian audience) frustrated her Jewish enemies.  The Virgin, received into Heaven after her Dormition, was worshipped by the Heavenly Host.  What is most interesting about such stories is that her state seemed to be passive, rather inert and possibly inanimate. 

What is clear is that without a historical place or evidence of a body, there was no check to people’s imaginations concerning the Virgin.  The stories grew and proliferated.  Then in both East and West, the most popular version was written down and repeated frequently.  These repetitions crystallized the narrative to some extent, and Mary’s Assumption into Heaven became semi-official. The historian, G.C. Coulton, wrote: “If the world knew more about the Virgin Mary, the Middle Ages would have known far less.” 

What Coulton is referring to is the symbolic fabric of the Mary fiction.  Such purity as the Virgin’s could obviously not be allowed to rot in an earthly grave.  In the absence of facts, the imaginations of the faithful were allowed to freely fabricate.

Interestingly enough, when the narrative shifted to the West, Mary became more active following her Assumption. The Assumption was the name her ascent into heaven was formally given in the Western Church.  Not only did Mary become more spirited as the story of her passing travelled west, but she was also reported as undergoing an actual death. 

The following tale is an important version of what the Western Church came to believe.  There was a Latin translation of a Greek document attributed to Melito, the 2nd century Bishop of Sardis.  It is now known as the Pseudo-Melito and was the most popular and cohesive account of the Virgin’s passing for a long while. Here is a short summary of the story.  Jesus told Mary that she must die.  She, after dying, was placed in a sepulcher with a large stone in front of it. (Notice the parallel to Jesus’ burial.  Mary and Jesus’ myths often paralleled as the years passed.)

Later, Peter the Apostle told Jesus he needed to honor his Mother.  Jesus agreed, and told the Archangel Michael to bring Mary’s soul down from Heaven.  The stone rolled away from the Sepulcher and Jesus raised Mary from the dead.  She fell at his feet to thank him.  Then he kissed her and left, and according to most versions of this story, the angels took her soul back to Heaven. Apparently her body and soul would not be reunited again until the Last Day.  There is some confusion on this point.  Catholics today do not have to believe Mary died or not. 

In 1950, the Pope pronounced the Assumption, body and soul, of Mary into Heaven on August 15 as an article of faith in the Catholic Church.

The true resting place of Mary has never been found.  If she was a historical person, she might have lived in Ephesus with John, as the dying Jesus gave her into John’s care.  If the story has any validity, which many scholars doubt, she could have died there quietly after some years.  Requests from Constantinople by the powerful 5th Century Empress, Pulcheria, that the Virgin’s body be brought to the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE could not be fulfilled. But the Empress was sent Mary’s veil, and in a later version of this story, she also received Mary’s abandoned grave clothes and shroud.  The two last articles were considered yet another proof of Mary’s Assumption.

It was around the 7th Century that people began to talk about Jerusalem being Mary’s final resting place.  This notion, according to Warner, seems to have coincided with the fall of Jerusalem to the Moslems in 638 CE.  God’s empire on earth had lost God’s own city. The loss was felt deeply by both the Eastern and Western Churches, although the Eastern Church was initially the most devastated by it. Notice the parallels of the Virgin’s death and assumption with Christ’s death and resurrection, this time with their graves in Jerusalem.   

Why do people believe and embroider such tales?  Why do many still believe them in the present day?  Is it because we all have such a fear of obliteration that some of us seize on Christ’s Resurrection and Mary’s Assumption as reassurances, promises to mankind? 

The faithful hope that they, at the Last Day of Judgment, will be received into Heaven, body and soul, and reunited with their loved ones.  Mary, by her purity, conquered human death, which is a part of time, just as she conquered human birth, also part of time.  Even though birth and death are inexorably the human fate, religious people have the hope of being whole again, outside of time, in a blessed state in Paradise. Such a notion is reinforced by the stories of the Resurrection of Christ and the Assumption of Mary.

Warner makes a very important point in Alone of all Her Sex. She argues that in Buddhism, “all things at their highest point of fulfillment merge and flow back into nothingness.” I would say oneness rather than nothingness.  But the Catholic view is entirely different.  Here are Warner’s words: “The Catholic view longs for the formal, immutable, invincible constant, unchanging perfection of each resurrected individual.”  The Virgin Mary and her son, Jesus, were examples par excellence of that perfection.

In the 6th Century, the image of Mary changed yet again.  It made sense to many, church men and laymen both, that following her Assumption, Mary became the Queen of Heaven.  According to Warner and other scholars, there is a direct connection of Mary in her regal manifestation with the Church and its ambitions.  These ambitions centered on this life, where the church aspired to be the most important power, in both the temporal and spiritual realms.  But the Church also aspired to be reunited with Christ, a New Jerusalem, so to speak, in the afterlife.  It has been noted that in eras when the Church was static, powerful and entrenched, worship of the Virgin as Queen of Heaven was brought forward and encouraged.

 In times of flux, when the Church was less assured, devotion to the Virgin, especially in her queenly aspect, declined.

Notice how the insertion of the earthly world into the vision of paradise, with the concept of a Queen of Heaven, re-entered the real world once again, and served to reinforce the status quo.  Mary was not the only Christian symbol to be misused by the Church, but she was, and remains, a particularly potent one.  The veneration accorded to a hierarchy of heavenly nobles caused the monarchial courts of Europe and of the East to be considered ratified by divine approval.  And yet, the meek inheriting the earth was a concept introduced by Jesus, Mary’s son, when he delivered his Beatitudes, according to the Gospel of Matthew.  No doubt this, too, was a fabrication, but people believed that Jesus said that the poor in spirit owned, or would own, the kingdom of Heaven, and that the meek would inherit the earth.  Apparently his Church did not.

Ordinary women were further denigrated by Mary’s newest role of Queen.  Such an elevation of the Virgin seemed to honor earthly queens and disregard the common women.  For centuries, the pomp and ceremony of the Church particularly centered on the Queenly Mary, which helped reinforce the status quo of the highest echelons of power on earth.

Early Christian art also reinforced the idea that the Church was the mightiest force in the world.  In the first few centuries of the Church, its art treats Mary as a fairly inconsequential figure.  But by the middle of the 5th Century, she is portrayed on the arch of S. Maria Maggiore at Ephesus, as the Roman Augusta, in all the paraphernalia of all her power.

Up the wall of the arch, similar to the earlier columns of the victorious Roman emperors, are scenes from the Bible, culminating with the throne of god.

The Western Church also used the image of the Queen of Heaven to help reinforce its authority as it sought to assert itself against the sovereignty of the Eastern Byzantine Emperor of Constantinople and his representative in Italy.  From the 6th Century onwards, the Catholic Church used the contrivance of Mary to demonstrate that it had the particular endorsement of heaven as its representative on earth.   The Lombard Kings in Northern Italy were a similar threat to Church power.  The Triumphant Virgin, the Triumphant Christ, the Triumphant Saints- all were symbols of the Triumphant Church.

Who was Mary really?  Both she and Jesus were likely never historical persons, but myths to be propagated and used by the Catholic Church in its climb to power.  There is some thought that Jesus was an unimportant magician and healer, and that perhaps Mary was his mother.  But what is true is that Mary was used as propaganda to advance the Church’s gradual assumption of political power. Politics and piety were intermingled in the story of the Church’s ascent to supremacy.

Art, poetry and literature continued to reflect and illuminate the history of the Church and its use of Mary as time unfolded. As the Church took over more and more of Christian Rome, the more the Mother of Jesus was venerated.  The Church Triumphant asserted its right to ascendancy granted it by the Emperor of Heaven, Christ.

There was a large impetus given to the cult of the Virgin in the West during the 8th Century in response to the terrible Iconoclast Heresy.  Several Byzantine Emperors attempted to do away with icons and relics.  The Commandment which forbade worship of graven images was usually invoked to rationalize iconoclasm.  There were riots and resistance in the East and for nearly one hundred years, all iconodules or iconophiles, were outlawed and savagely persecuted.  An Eastern council in 753 denounced all icons in the Christian Church and declared formally that all who used them were outlaws.  Many church and lay people who embraced the worship of Mary and the saints through icons fled to the West during this period.

Mary continued to be depicted as Queen of Heaven in the iconography of the West.  This practice served two purposes.  First, icons and images of the Virgin asserted the orthodoxy, the correctness of religious images themselves.  Secondly, the images reinforced the spiritual and secular power of the Western Popes. In 756 CE, the Pope, with the help of the Frankish king, Pepin, who twice defeated the Lombard Kings, was given the Papal State.  This period also saw the beginning of the schism between the Western and Eastern churches.  The Great Schism between them, not resolved to the present day, was in 1054 CE.

The Iconoclast Heresy created a current of counter energy in the West and there ensued a huge building of churches, bedecked with gold, frescoes and icons.  The pagan buildings left in the city were now taken over with a vengeance and converted to Christian worship.  The Pope built and commissioned works of art that extravagantly displayed love of the Queen of Heaven.

After the end of the Iconoclast Heresy, the Queen of Heaven, bedecked and the very image of a powerful fashion plate, was rejected by the Byzantine Church.  The Eastern Church preferred a more subdued iconography.  As I have said, the stronger the Church became, the more the worship of Mary as Queen grew.  In France alone, within a century, eighty cathedrals were built to Mary in her queenly manifestation.

Warner cites three factors present in Marian worship.  First, through Mary’s virginity and assumption, she triumphed over sin and evil.  Secondly, Maria Regina was superbly efficient when she sought intercession from Christ concerning human affairs. Third, in Warner’s words: “The association of Mary with the allegorical figure of the Church made her regal authority an assertion of the Church’s power.”

No matter what negative thoughts we secular people have concerning religion, there is no doubt that the cult of Mary was a perversion of anything positive that was taught and believed by the members of the early Christian church.  Mariolatry was used by the flourishing Church as a symbol of its temporal as well as its spiritual power.  Mary the Queen helped the Church identify the rich and powerful with the good.

Running parallel at times with the Queen of Heaven concept of the Virgin Mary was her worship as the grieving mother- the Mater Dolorosa. The Dolorosa myth, the depiction of the mother mourning for her dead son, had an important symbolic function.  Most people have felt grief, intense and searing grief, at some loss in their life. The Mater Dolorosa personified this sorrow, and the faithful identified with her. 

The Mother of God, who by her purity had avoided sin and death, could not avoid sorrow and the loss of her son.  Once again, though, there was an implied and stated promise to humans, as the sorrowing Virgin’s son rose from the dead.  The faithful hoped to be reunited with their loved ones in Heaven when they died.  Christ’s death and resurrection were their guarantee.

There is a long history of mother goddesses, grieving for their dead sons, and sometimes their mates, especially in the Eastern lands.  I shall be going into the relationship of both Mary and Jesus’ connection to those ancient pagan gods and goddesses in the lecture next month.  But for now, it is important to keep in mind that the enhancement of the Mater Dolorosa myth had Eastern roots, first in pre-Christian myths and then in the poetry, music and art of the Eastern Byzantine Church.  It is probable that the Eastern saga of desolation, drought, death and winter would not have been enough to make the impact that it did finally, in Western Europe, although the West experienced similar desolation due to climatic conditions.  But Western Europe did not experience the constant of the blazing noonday sun and the whims of the Nile River’s will.

A catastrophe in the West, imported from the East, made the drama of Calvary and its aftermath tragically relevant.  The Black Death, the Bubonic Plague, struck Europe.  It hit Asia Minor around 1346, reached European ports like Sicily in Italy, and ultimately attacked the entire continent of Europe, killing a fifth of the population. The onset of the plague coincided with schism in the Church, simony, lust for power and political plots.

Reaching its height in 1348-50 CE, the plague was viewed by most citizens and the clergy of the time as a just retribution from god for human wickedness. 

Zealous religious groups sprang up, such as the Flagellants.  Apparently, particularly in Germany, the Church was unable to control them.  The Flagellants went from city to city, scourging themselves and crying out for people to repent, spreading the plague with them wherever they went.  As they scourged themselves, they sang of Christ’s passion and marched to the Stabat Mater.  The group in Italy claimed they had a letter from the Madonna who absolved them from sin.  The Flagellants embraced the images of torture, pain and suffering in the Passion Story, focusing on the Virgin Mary.

Somehow, despite the Queen of Heaven mythology, the Virgin, unlike Christ, retained her common touch with the people. Many citizens of the stricken countries prayed to her to intercede with god for them.  The period of the Black Death illustrates once again how art reflects culture.  There are numerous statues from Italy showing blood from Christ’s wounds spurting unto Mary’s breast from that period.  The writers of the time meditated on the theme of the torture of the divine mother and son and so did the poets.  In the 15th Century, as the plague crisis waned, the poetry and painting depicting Christ and Mary’s suffering became less sincere, more empty and histrionic.

Interestingly enough, the Mater Dolorosa concept, invoked to ward off the terror of the Black Death, was initiated by the common people.  By the time of the plague years, Church ideology had become entrenched and replete with dogma and doctrine. 

The sorrowing mother myth was slow to penetrate the unyielding wall of dogma the Church had constructed. Pope Julius III turned down a petition in 1506 CE to institute a new feast of the Virgin Mary.

But lay church fraternities actually hired storytellers to narrate the Passion and some of these groups dedicated themselves to Mary.  There was a groundswell desire for the Church to reify the Mater Dolorosa.  The Servite Order, founded in the middle of the 13th Century, claimed that the Virgin had revealed her seven sorrows to its seven founders.  These sorrows were: the prophesy of Simeon, the flight into Egypt, the loss of Jesus in the Temple, the meeting with Jesus on the road to Calvary, the Crucifixion, the Deposition and the Entombment. Pope Paul V, a leading Counter-Reformation reformer, gave the Servites permission to spread the cult of the Mater Dolorosa by establishing more lay fraternities dedicated to the sorrowing virgin.

Interestingly, by about 1617, the Spanish theologian, Franciso Suarez, maintained that Mary did not just submit to Christ’s passion, but rejoiced in it, as her son was begotten to be offered for the salvation of the human race.  However, the Church, having finally accepted Mary’s important role in the Passion, was careful not to elevate Mary too much.  Such caution concerning Mary’s role was important, say secular scholars, because the Church did not want to make it seem that women could officiate at rituals.  If it appeared women had historically officiated, the door might be opened to ordaining women as priests.  That concept was anathema to the mainstream Church. 

However, Joan Morris, a fine scholar and a Catholic, wrote two important books in the early seventies that traced the historical facts concerning women officiating at Church rituals.  Her volumes are well-researched.  They claim that abbesses of convents heard confessions, read the Gospels to the faithful, led services and gave sermons.  They were not ordained to carry out the Transubstantiation, changing ordinary wine and water into the body and blood of Jesus Christ, presumably because women menstruated.  Menstruation marked women as unclean. With each new generation, the male hierarchy of the Church began to shear away women’s functions as leaders in many church rituals. So while the role of women in the Church was being reduced each century by the male hierarchy, the image of the Virgin continued to rise and become more powerful. Virtually all power in the Church was stripped from women by the Council of Trent, which took place from 1545 CE to 1563 CE. 

As I have said, the image of the polyvalent Virgin kept rising while women’s role in the Church continued to diminish.  It was an interesting paradox.  One must remember, too, that while Mary’s image was important and powerful, Christ was still emphasized doctrinally as the sole savior, redeemer and mediator.  The atonement for mankind could arguably have taken place without Mary.  All women, even the Virgin, were allocated a subordinate role, according to Church dogma.

The Stabat Mater, the powerful poem that meditates on Mary’s sorrows, was included in the official Church liturgy in 1727.  In 1814, as an act against Napoleon’s persecution of the Church, Pius II instituted a second Feast of our Lady of Sorrows.

The official date today for The Feast of our Lady of the Sorrows is September 15.  Pope Pius X decreed that date in 1913. During the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965, under Pope Pius VI, Mary was officially titled Mother of the Church.  Women, as of this writing, are still barred from officiating as priests.

A couple of final notes on the role of Mary in the Passion of Christ narrative.  The Gospels do not give her a significant role.  Only the fourth Gospel of John, 19:2, mentions her ordeal and watch over Jesus on the cross.  The later stories, such as the Pieta, Mary with the dead Christ in her arms, sculpted and painted so often, were added as the myth of Mary grew.

The Virgin’s tears were very important to the narrative of Christ’s Passion.  Tears are one of the few bodily effluvia considered pure. Blood, feces, urine, snot and spit are all considered repulsive.  But water is purifying.  It is the medium of rebirth.  Mary’s tears are symbolic of the redemption of mankind. By Jesus’ death and resurrection, mankind is made pure and given new life.  Marina Warner states: “The Mater Dolorosa satisfied a hunger of the believer, for the tears that gush from her eyes belong to a universal language of cleansing and rebirth.”

I am forgoing the history of the Rosary, which was very likely an import from the East.  But I would like to mention its special relation to Mary, with the prayer most associated with her, the Hail Mary, repeated over and over.  I shall be discussing it in my lecture next month.

Arguably, the most important role allotted to Mary was to save humans from the tortures and punishments of hellfire after death.  

The last category of Mariolatry this lecture will cover will be the role of the Virgin Mary as Intercessor for humanity. The Catholic Church still officially believes that unrepentant sinners will go to hell.  But there is an intermediate area called Purgatory that is a place of cleansing for the repentant and forgiven soul. Although forgiven, the former sinner must still be regarded as unclean, and must spend many years, hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, depending on the nature of his/her sins, enduring the purifying fires of Purgatory.

Scholars of the Catholic Church have disagreed about the nature of Purgatory for years.  Many believe the sinners will burn until they are cleansed; others think the absence of god and the anomie the formers sinners experience as a result, is the punishment, not literal burning. Some go so far as to claim that the sinning souls find their punishment sweet, because it cleanses them and opens an eventual passage for them to Heaven.  Souls in Purgatory are not eternally doomed; they will eventually be allowed to enter Heaven.

Christian justice has the authority of the Bible, with numerous passages affirming a fiery punishment for sinners.  Here is just one quotation from Matthew (25: 31-6): “But the damned he will thrust into everlasting fire.”  It is in the Gospel of John, who describes the Last Days, that the vision of punishment comes to a climax, a smoking, charred, terrifying vision of chaos and catastrophe.  A person who believed he/she had sinned faced the terrifying prospect of hellfire. People’s fear of punishment, rather than reward, persisted for many centuries.  Some people, believers in the Christian myth, continue to be fearful in the present day.

It is very difficult for most humans to understand the disparity between the image of a loving, merciful god they have been taught to believe in and the threat of an unforgiving, punishing god.  The Virgin Mary was the perfect mediator for the troubling divergence.  She was depicted as the Mother to whom her loving son, Jesus, could not refuse anything.

In the lore of the Eastern Church, Mary actually descended into hell and appalled at the suffering there, made a covenant of mercy with Jesus, that he would always grant her prayers for sinners. The Western Church did not cherish such covenants, but granted that perhaps Mary had met death and overcome it, just as she had overcome sin. The Virgin was given the role of the one who holds out the promise of eternal life for all mankind.  The Church made it clear, as I mentioned earlier, that Mary was merely a mediator.  All such forgiveness and mercy were dependent on Jesus.  But many of the stories told of Mary by the people depicted her as all-powerful, having dominion over angels and devils.  Some of the narratives seem to have lost sight of Jesus as the redeemer.  Mary frequently usurped the unique power of Christ in Medieval folk tales.

The cycle of Miracle plays and stories so popular during Medieval times actually depicted Mary circumventing god’s justice. She often resurrected her votaries in these plays and tales, so that they could make a proper confession, be forgiven and escape hell.  Then they died once again, assured of their eventual arrival in heaven.  There were stories that depicted Mary not allowing unrepentant sinners to die.  An unrepentant thief in one tale hung for three days.  Mary would not even let the executioner kill him with a sword. She was said to have grabbed it. 

The miracle stories claimed that sinners were kept alive by Mary until they repented.  She had many ruses to keep souls from the devil.  The outfoxed devil complained bitterly, insisting that god’s punishment for sinners was just.  The devil detested Mary’s mercy and the audiences must have loved his undoing by the Virgin.  The more raffish the sinner, says Warner, sometimes the more Mary loved him, according to the tales.

The Middle Ages of Europe was often an era of terror, violence and sudden death.  It was a sadly contorted world, one that held out little more for people other than suffering in this life and damnation in the next.  The 20th Century poet, Carl Sandburg, jestingly quoted a folk saying that is very apropos to the misery caused by the concept of hellfire: “To work hard all your life, then die and have to go to hell is too damned hard.”  People were taught they deserved their fate, due to original sin and due to their own sinning natures.  Then came the aforementioned Black Death of the late 1340’s.  The clergy and lay people who had to gather, lay out and bury the putrefying corpses of the dead, most often directed their prayers to the Madonna.

The Protestant Reformation, begun by Martin Luther in 1517, fiercely assailed the corruption of the Catholic Church and clergy. Some of the Reformation’s most harsh and telling criticism was the practice of selling indulgences.  Many members of the clergy, in exchange for monetary donations, would award people documents promising them a certain number of days or years that they did not have to spend in Purgatory.  During the Counter-Reformation of 1560-1648 CE, the Virgin Mary was the lynchpin that the Church used.  She was above corruption, even the corruption and veniality of the Church. 

Fearful humans could turn to her at the hour of death and be comforted.  Artists of the period frequently painted Mary as a figure of mercy.

This last manifestation of the concept of the Virgin reveals how the Church manipulated people even at the end of their lives.  The Church had inculcated people with the idea of their sinfulness, and had aggravated their fear of death with the notion of hell. Mary could be loving and merciful without being right, as in the tales told of her saving undeserving sinners.  This reputation of hers for saving the unrepentant was one reason that some of the Protestant reformers assailed her cult.  Most of them detested the fact that the important use the Church made of Mary and of the saints as intercessors diminished the role of Christ, whom they believed should be the sole mediator between god and mankind.

There are religious advocates in the present day who try to claim there was no harm in the cult of Mary.  They argue that the Virgin was presented as a figure of love, mercy and comfort to mankind.  Let us look at some of the facts connected with religious belief.  First, it was religion that propagated much of the fear and even increased it in an already dark and uncertain time.  The Catholic Church controlled people’s bodies, through their sex lives and by other means. A sexless marriage was held out as the ideal.  Fasting, scourging of the body, praying at all hours of the day and night were considered proper and holy, not only for the clergy, but for lay people, particularly women.   As we have seen, some of the clergy suggested days of the week when people should abstain from sex and honor the various holy days of the Church.

 Birth control, using the rudimentary practices known then, was strictly forbidden.  People’s miserable lot was attributed to their sinfulness and the original sin of Adam and Eve. 

It is obvious that the Church added to the misery that people endured.  Confession, forgiveness and faith in the mercy of the Virgin Mary comforted people who had been told that they alone were responsible for their miserable lot.  Religion not only controlled bodies, but minds.  People were burdened with guilt and only temporarily relieved by the machinations of the Church.

What did, and still does in some circles, the image of the Virgin hold out for women?  Mary was the quintessential feminine ideal, according to Church doctrine:  submissive, gentle, modest and subordinate to men.  She was the model for the ideal life for women: motherhood and marriage.  But the Church had decreed that virginity and celibacy were more holy, more worthy than marriage and childbirth.  Women conceived and bore their children in pain due to the sin of the first woman, Eve.  Mary, the second, the new Eve, conceived a child by the Holy Spirit without sexual intercourse; many Church Fathers maintained that she had remained a virgin, most likely even after giving birth.  No human woman could aspire to that state of pristine untouchability.  The denigration of women’s accustomed role was intensified by Mariolatry.

Women were, and are, pulled this way and that, even in the present day.  The Church hit upon a clever way to control.  Here is the anthropologist, Mary Douglas, on the way religions keep hold on their believers. 

She argues that: “At one moment a religion of this type declares that by obeying one moral code and then performing certain rites correctly, the believer will prosper ; at another {moment} it spirits away the book of rules and substitutes another, contradictory one.” Mary has been held up as a model for young women who can never achieve either pristine childbirth and/or do not choose celibacy.  The Church created the untenable situation and held that position without irony.

What did that do to the minds of young women, at least in the recent past?  Many of them rebelled.  But those faithful who believed and accepted the ambiguity of the message were placed in an unattainable and hopeless position, which guaranteed their inferiority.  It was that misogynist myth, based on the qualities of the Virgin Mary, which helped to sustain the egregious state of affairs.  The fear of sex, danger of corruption and sense of sin, as Warner points out, would not have been perpetuated without the veneration of the Virgin.  But Warner goes on, very shrewdly, to posit that if it were not the Virgin notion, it would have been some other myth, because that is how religions enforce their injunctions.

It is important not to lose sight of the Virgin Mary as a symbol of a putative absolute: it was made to seem if her disparate attributes had always been there.  Such a claim ignores, indeed blinds people to the historical processes which brought different aspects of the Virgin’s story forward for the convenience of the Church during different eras. 

Roland Barthes, the French semiologist, in his 1957 Mythologies, has this to say: “… in myth, things lose the memory that they once were made.”

Faith has served to wipe the traces of history from the myth of the Virgin.  How many people know how little she is mentioned in the Gospels?  It is interesting that even today many Catholics do not read the Bible as much as hear and read commentaries on it.  Catholics are encouraged to read the Bible, but to interpret it within the authoritative dogmas of the Church rather than on their own understanding.

Here is A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, the anthropologist, on the circular nature of religious fear: “…and if it were not for the existence of the rite, and the beliefs associated with it, the individual would feel no anxiety… the psychological effect of the rite is to create in him a sense of insecurity or danger.  Thus while one anthropological theory is that magic and religion give men confidence, comfort and a sense of security, it could equally well be argued that they give men fears and anxieties from which they would otherwise be free.”

The Virgin Mary is one highly important aspect of the Catholic Church’s vision of the proper structuring of society.  This prospective structure and the Virgin myth are presented as god-given.  But it is natural law that determines women menstruate and have pain during childbirth.  Physiological processes make it indispensable, because of the evolutionary development of most mammals, including humans. Church law, not natural law, has determined that the process of generation and childbirth originated from sin.  The notion of original sin, crystallized and dogmatized, has hardened into the Church’s ban on contraception, the idealizing of virginity, and the certainty that women are inferior to men, barring women from the priesthood.

The Church has also decreed that the fertilized embryo attains a soul at the moment of fertilization. Banning contraception and forbidding abortion, wherever it can in the world, today, just as in past times, the Church increases the fear of pregnancy and childbirth many times over.  Faithful members still obey; some countries make laws that reinforce Church doctrine.  Then the faithful, with no earthy solace, are forced to turn to the Virgin, Jesus, and the Saints for comfort. 

The moral code that the myth and cult of Mary helped underpin is nearly over, at least in many Western nations.  The Catholic Church resists the passing of its authority and dogma, but it is fast becoming a serpent in its death throes, dangerous still, sometimes deadly, but doomed to die.  Here is Barthes once again, on the passing of myths.  “Some objects become the prey of mythical speech for a while, then they disappear.  Others take their place and attain the status of myth.  One can conceive of very ancient myths, but there are no eternal ones; for it is human history which converts reality into speech, and it alone rules the life and death of mythical language.”

The myth of the Virgin is not yet dead, but as Marina Warner points out, it has been, or soon will be, emptied of its moral significance.  Let us hope religion will soon, too, lose its power to harm while claiming to give solace to people for evils and fears that religion itself has created.

Video of Lecture: The Virgin Mary: An Atheist Perspective

Lecture: The Virgin Mary: An Atheist Perspective

Video of Discussion: The Virgin Mary: An Atheist Perspective

Discussion: The Virgin Mary: An Atheist Perspective


Barthes, Roland.  Mythologies.  Annette Lavers, Trans. New York: Noonday Press, 1922.

Callahan, Tim. Secret Origins of the Bible.  California:  Millennium Press, 2002.

Coulton, C.G. Five Centuries of Religion. 4 Vol.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1923-50.

Douglas, Mary.  Natural Symbols: Explorations in Cosmology. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

__________.   Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Four Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger, 1966.

Dues, Greg.  Catholic Customs and Traditions. Rev. Ed.  New London, CT. Twenty-Third Publications, 2009.

Graef, Hilda. Mary: A History of Doctrine and Devotion.  2 Vol. New York: Sheed and Ward, 1963.

Morris, Joan.  Against Nature and God.  Oxford; London: Mowbrays, 1973

__________.  The Lady Was a Bishop.  New York: Macmillan Company, 1973.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. R. Taboo (1939) Quoted in Claude Levi-Strauss, Totemism. Tras. Rodney Needham.  Boston: Beacon Press, 1963.

Warner, Marina.  Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary.  New York: First Vintage Books, 1983.