How they reformed Her.
Some would say that Christianity is a triumph of patriarchy, a religion imposed by male rulers. That is to ignore the fact that at its beginning, Christianity was not a state religion for approximately three centuries and women very willingly embraced it.
For most of its history, Christian theology was well-balanced between the divine feminine (Saint Mary) and the masculine.
It was only with the Protestant reformation that the feminine lost ground as many of those interpreting the New Testament completely ignored or had no knowledge of the Pagan past that gave rise to Christianity, and threw out the tradition of uncounted millennia – the honor of the Great Lady.
I’ll guess it was not the intention of the New Testament authors to eliminate the worship of the divine feminine but rather to reform what needed to be reformed (temple “prostitution,” making of eunuchs, incestuous deities, 1 expensive animal sacrifices, and perhaps a continued threat of human sacrifices).
Thus the Mary of the Gospel, while presented as being rather low-key, is not the full picture, but rather is a revision to, not a replacement for, our vision of Her (known elsewhere as the Great Goddess). She is still the Queen of Heaven, at least in the Roman Catholic Church.
I actually don’t see Mary and Jesus as being patriarchal because both of them lose some of their divine aura relative to what went before in Goddess tradition, and for both, their divinity can only be seen through their humanness. What Jesus communes with is not Yahweh, the raging male sky-god of the Hebrew Bible, but rather Jesus’ Abba (Jesus’ higher-self is one possibility here), who guides him with “spirit,” a spiritual connection.
Is it possible to make Yahweh the supreme god of the New Testament? Yes, if you try hard enough. But I don’t think that was the intention of the authors. I think they were designing a new religion. “New” is the key word. That’s why it’s called the New Testament. But they did not totally eliminate Yahweh. Obviously, Yahweh is still around and the pantheon has been a bit crowded.
The Catholic nuns who taught me had a religion that revolved around Mary and Jesus and the rosary, as best I can recall. Father-god? Who’s that? But nowadays, in some circles, Father-god is central; Mary is out and the historical Jesus is on the way out. People don’t care to remember what Jesus taught. They just want him to be a king, the king who will come riding on the clouds to rescue them. But how can anyone save us from ourselves unless we first learn to act like Christians who love one another!
In the Greek Gospel, Mary’s name is sometimes “Maria” and sometimes “Mariam.” Why do the translators call her Mary instead of giving us her Greek name? It is Maria! Or it is Mariam! Either one will do. Those looking for the name of the Great Goddess (Isis, Diana, Ashtoreth, etc.) in the name Maria-Mariam will be disappointed. Well, maybe Rhea is in there. Mariam is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Miriam.
If Mary is named after Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron (Ex 4:14, 15:20, Num 26:59, 1Chr 6:3 (NRSV)), it is a good choice by the Gospel author(s). Miriam was a prophet (Ex 15:20 (NRSV)), that is, a seer and spokesperson for her community and greatly honored. She saved the Hebrew nation by virtue of the fact that it was she who saved their liberator Moses by steadfastly watching over him when he was an infant set adrift in his small boat and by finding a wet nurse for him (by tradition Miriam is the “sister” in Ex 2:1-10).
But this was a surprise to me: Thayer’s Lexicon tells me that the Hebrew Miriam means “obstinacy,” “rebelliousness.” If so, can I take rebellious to mean liberating or reforming? Can I take obstinate to mean steadfast or maybe even enduring? So does Mary (the English equivalent of the Hebrew Miriam) mean “enduring reform”? That the New Testament was intended as a new idea and as a reform may be reflected in the name of Mary.
Maybe Mary was named after her role (“Reformer”) in the Gospel story, just as Jesus was named after his role (“Savior”), or maybe these were people who really lived and just happened to have names that fit their roles, common names at that time.
I have asked myself if Thayer’s could have been mistaken about the meaning of Miriam/Mariam being rebellious and obstinate. I don’t know Hebrew and so my efforts at getting translations from the Google translator (modern Hebrew) weren’t conclusive in the least, but a bit of effort with searching on Google left me convinced that Miriam does indeed mean rebellious and obstinate with some relation to bitter also. I will guess that the name Miriam has been a favorite for so many centuries because it honors the Miriam of Exodus. I found mention of the meaning “strong-willed woman,” which could be rebellious in a very positive sense, and thus the name reminds us of an admirable trait for a woman. There are a lot of alleged meanings for Miriam to be found on Google, but I am interested only in meanings that have etymological foundations.
The unthinkable: Gospel author(s) named Mary “rebellious” in order to malign Her (the Great Goddess)!! I think it is reasonable to suspect their motives because they reformed Her by splitting Her into several Marys, each, I suppose, representing one or more of Her various roles in mythological themes known historically – virgin mother and child, sacrifice of the son, lamentations, resurrection, 1 and perhaps anointing. If the writer(s) fractured Her into pieces, then maybe they also wanted to malign Her?? I prefer to think their intentions were honorable and they did what they did only because they were interested in reform.
Or there were several women historically, all named Mary, (which was after all a common name), who just happened to have real lives evoking the myths relating to the Great Lady.
The reformed version of Her has, for nearly 2,000 years, continued evolving and only in the 20th century did She rejoin Her heavenly Son in a resurrection of Her own, officially called the “Assumption” by the Catholic Church. So now they are finally back together again.
Per the Assumption: The Catholic St. Joseph Sunday Missal tells me Mary is the “Queen of Heaven . . . arrayed in gold;” “a perfect human being,” who “shares in her Son’s victory,” and “stands at the right hand of her Son” (commentary for the Assumption); and the missal has the communion prayer, “Blessed is the womb of the Virgin Mary” (Q. What is this womb that bears us?); but Mary could not reach heaven under her own power – she’s only human, a “humble virgin” and a “lowly virgin,” and had to be “taken up,” “soul and body.”
Do I mind that She has been demoted to mere human status by the Church? Not at all. This lets us avoid the rather sticky theological problem of having Her as creator of the material world, in which case She would be the one to blame for this vale of tears, especially if “all-powerful, all-knowing, and everywhere present,” a theological morass best to avoid. In contrast, veneration of ancestors, spiritual ancestors, and saints is a very ancient, universal?? and satisfying practice, and we can speculate that the idea of a First Mother might have been the very first idea of divinity ever thought and thus, we have come full circle. (Q. How does a human birth the Divine?)
Just one quibble though: It doesn’t seem very respectful to make Mary “stand” for all eternity (missal commentary), when the Church creed has Jesus seated. The liturgy has excerpts from Psalm 45 where a patriarchal biblical author has a queen stand rather than be enthroned next to her mate. In verse 11 of that psalm (KJV), she is advised to worship her husband, but the missal does not give the full verse and so does not show that, nor a later verse (14 KJV) where a princess’s attendant “virgins . . . shall be brought unto thee [the king]” (hmm). So the king took liberties with the ladies-in-waiting?? Those were wild days. The NRSV translation has the princess led to the king and the virgins follow, quite boring by comparison, and the queen does not have to worship her husband, merely bow to him. If the translators polish the texts so they won’t raise any eyebrows when read in church, the texts become bland and sometimes unrecognizable. Still no throne for the queen.
I suggest a different reading for the liturgy on the Feast of the Assumption, more respectful of Her than the reading that has Her standing like a servant, and that is the following which does honor to the Queen of Heaven and shows Her devotees making little cakes to offer to Her:
“The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes to offer to the Queen of Heaven.” (Jer 7:18 (NIV)) Of the 40 English translations on Biblegateway, a some capitalize Queen of Heaven, correctly, like it is a name or appellation, some don’t, but all say either that or something like Queen Goddess, so they don’t hide it. “We will certainly do everything we said we would: We will burn incense to the Queen of Heaven and will pour out drink offerings to her just as we and our ancestors, our kings and our officials did in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. At that time we had plenty of food and were well off and suffered no harm. But ever since we stopped burning incense to the Queen of Heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have had nothing and have been perishing by sword and famine.” The women added, “When we burned incense to the Queen of Heaven and poured out drink offerings to her, did not our husbands know that we were making cakes impressed with her image and pouring out drink offerings to her?” (Jer 44:17-19 (NIV)). I have used the NIV here because they correctly write Her name with capitals.
Of course these passages I’ve selected are in the midst of rantings by Yahweh’s prophet against the making of these harmless little cakes and related devotions. I guess there was nothing in it for the patriarchal religious establishment, at least not if it was done privately. The Levite priests fed off the Israelite nation: “They [the priests] shall eat the grain offering, the sin offering, and the guilt offering; and every devoted thing in Israel shall be theirs. The first of all the first fruits of all kinds, and every offering of all kinds from all your offerings, shall belong to the priests; you shall also give to the priests the first of your dough, in order that a blessing may rest on your house.” (Ezek 44:29-30 (NRSV)) Evidently, the cakes for Her were not being shared sufficiently.
I’m assuming the cakes were little because there are multiple cakes (Jer 7:18), although there could have been multiple big cakes cooked as well. I’m wondering if these cakes were like buns made with yeast (kneaded). But it would be difficult to make a “cake” that was “impressed with her image” if the dough had yeast – the image might get distorted even if baked immediately. If “kneading” just means mixing the dough (even non-yeast cookie dough can be kneaded), then the cakes could have been made without yeast. Were they like today’s communion wafers?? made without yeast, round and flat and white as the Moon appears in the sky?? Maybe the translation should not be “impressed with her image” but rather, “pressed into her image” (shaped, patted) or “pressed out in her image” (cut out), if it is the image of the full moon. If She was represented by the moon or was associated with it then you might have little “cakes” that were round and flat and white.
Oh, the KJV has “cakes to worship her” in place of “impressed with her image,” so the cakes are used somehow in worship. Maybe the cakes represent a gift from Her, symbolizing “bread that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” A moon shape would make sense for a gift from above. A gift that comes to us that we can offer back up. I did want a definitive translation so I consulted the Orthodox Jewish Bible which has, “did we make for her in her image cakes.” b So it would seem that both the idea of an offering (“for her”) and the idea of something “in her image” are both present. The NRSV has “for her, marked with her image” implying there is a “mark” or an “impression” on the bread (as does the NIV). Of course I’m just speculating and I don’t know what the cakes for Her were like. Isn’t the bread in both the Roman and Eastern Church traditions marked with a design? Is any Jewish bread marked with a design? Consider also the “moon” in Revelation 12:1, and the goddess Artemis, Acts 19 (NRSV), whose symbol is the moon.
Well that was quite a detour into baking but now back to “rebellious.” I’ve come across a passage in Ezekiel, in the Hebrew Bible, where it says six times the Hebrews were “rebellious” against Yahweh (chapter 2 (KJV)), also, transgressors, impudent, and stiffhearted; and certainly there is enough of this sort of thing throughout the Hebrew Bible, where Yahweh is just so, so uncontrollably furious at His wayward creations. Or prophets berate the people, “For rebellion is no less a sin than divination, and stubbornness is like iniquity and idolatry” (1Samuel 15:23 (NRSV).
Which takes me back to the meaning of Mary as “rebellious” and “obstinate” – are we supposed to understand that Mary was rebellious like the people of Israel? This would make the meaning of rebellious very negative (like “sinful”), in which case, I don’t think that “rebellious” would be a nice name for the Queen of Heaven. It would not honor her. It would not be an appropriate descriptor for a nation or for anyone because the Divine cannot possibly be disappointed in any of us no matter how “rebellious” or “obstinate” we think we are or others perceive us to be.
However, I have to say that after these many centuries, the name Mary has been recast in Her image so that if there had been any deleterious meaning, it has been swept away. We need our heroines and our saints to be “strong-willed women,” especially when there are patriarchal elements in our society that want women to be anything but.
While Luke reduces Her to “handmaid of the Lord” (KJV), Mary is still essential to our salvation within the context of the Gospel. (Q. Is this “Lord” the raging Yahweh in all his maleness or is it the Ineffable?) Without her consent at the Annunciation and her conception of Jesus, he would not have been born (Lk 1:38). And we can assume that Jesus did not grow “strong in spirit, filled with wisdom” without her nurturing and tutelage (Lk 2:40 (KJV)). She conceived of him, grew him in her womb for nine months, birthed him, nursed him, and also cared for him all though his childhood, and maybe through his teens and twenties as he worked as a carpenter, and she launched him into his adult mission when he was 30 and then she continued cooking for him? as she followed him around, and if she was an ideal mother, she made herself available to give advice. A lifetime commitment.
Let’s not forget that the “handmaid of the Lord,” produced the Christ, the one we are all becoming. In the Gospel, Mary’s cousin tells her, “Blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (Luke 1:42 (KJV)). Perhaps some males find it grating that (as Elizabeth Johnson reportedly said in a seminar), Mary did not ask permission of any man before she said “yes” to the angel Gabriel.
Catholic officialdom should at least offer St. Mary a chair to sit on so we can envision her as did everyday people for centuries, who honored, respected, and revered her, and did not think of her as one standing to one side while another sits. I cannot recall any painting where Mary stands to one side of the throne like a servant. But I suppose there are likely plenty of churches where her statue is not in the front of the church or outside in front, but in a side alcove. There are plenty of paintings and statues where she has eyes averted, eyes on her baby, or is staring demurely at her feet like she is a schoolgirl.
But maybe she is looking at the serpent that sometimes lurks there, the Goddess’ symbol of Wisdom. Oddly, even though Mary’s child is supposed to strike the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15), all the serpents I’ve seen at her feet look very lively, even cute. Maybe Mary’s devotees are not ready to have the symbol dispatched.
Or maybe Mary is glancing downward so she can focus on those kneeling before her.
Will Maria-Mariam endure? Yes, as long as the Gospel story is told, She will be remembered.
See Numbers 12 in the Hebrew Bible where Miriam is turned into a leper for seven days by Yahweh because she spoke against her brother Moses, and Yahweh affirms the primacy of Moses. The brother Aaron also spoke against Moses, but was not punished. So Miriam was put in her place because she was a woman? Had she been “rebellious”?
I suppose Miriam might not have been her real name; rather she was named “rebellious/obstinate” to remind the readers of Numbers that she had dared to presume that she had some right to withhold consent to her brother Moses’ marriage – the point of contention in the text. Perhaps the text is giving us the merest glimpse of ancient matrilineal customs where a woman would be the head of the household and would have the responsibility of approving, or arranging??, the marriages of kin such as a younger brother?? Was he supposed to ask for her permission (or that of his mother) or ask the permission of his wife Zipporah (Ex 2:21)? What happened to that wife?
Often this passage is interpreted to mean that Miriam’s objection to the marriage was racist and therefore harshly punished by Yahweh. But this does not explain how Aaron gets off free even though he also spoke against the marriage. Only if Aaron is the subordinate of Miriam and the decision to deny the marriage for whatever reason, is hers, does Aaron become unaccountable. Or his maleness gives him the right to criticize his brother?? I don’t think so – the story has Yahweh clearly say that no one is on a par with Moses who can see Yahweh face-to-face. So Aaron gets off because Miriam is the decision maker, not him. The Yahwist author/editor is trying hard to tell the story with a patriarchal flourish but is so immersed in the culture he’s trying to modify that he forgets to make Miriam subordinate to both her brothers.
We get the idea that there was some woman of towering dimensions there at the beginning of the Israelite nation, a woman who was a leader because she is actually named in the patriarchal biblical texts, even if it is maybe not her real given name (maybe the name just describes her role or her personality). Miriam is honored alongside her two brothers, “For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” (Micah 6:4 (NRSV))
I don’t recall a husband for Miriam?? Perhaps her role in leading the women with tambourines and dancing, and singing to them (Ex 15:20 (NRSV)) meant that Miriam had some role paralleling a high priestess (who might be unmarried) leading a liturgy. Whatever Yahwist rewrote the old tale could not bear to have a woman in such a role but did not dare to erase her entirely from the record and so named her “rebellious” instead?? He could not have envisioned that the name he wrote as a slur?? would become iconic and a given name liked by millions and spawning uncountable related nick names, diminutive names, and equivalent names, etc.??
Or was the name Miriam not a slur? In saving the baby Moses, Miriam was in rebellion against the command of the Pharaoh (Ex 1:22). In that case, the rebellion would have been considered a very positive thing by the biblical author.
Certainly the author did not do Yahweh any favor by making Him appear to be like a demon turning one of his own people into a leper. The author seems to imply that this treatment of Miriam is acceptable because it is just as if her father had “spit in her face” (Num 12:14 (NRSV)). Gosh – that is hardly convincing. But it clearly shows that the issue before the author is whether women should be subordinate to a brother and a father. It also may indicate that Miriam was not married, else the argument might have been that her husband had a right to spit. In a matrilineal society, a woman might not even know the identity of her father, let alone be subject to him. Perhaps there is some happy medium between extremes?
If I were going to design a belief system, it would not have a deity with a gender, a deity that did evil, or a deity that was part personalization of the material world and part prop for the machinations of a group of domineering elitists.
Is there anything I liked about the story of Miriam? I liked the tambourines. I liked thinking about how more than 3,000 years ago some people set aside their worries and woes to perform their traditional dancing, to hold their tambourines on high, to create new songs, and experience joy. This is a place in time where it may be possible to catch a glimpse of divinity amidst our humanness?? What about the love of the nation that stood by Miriam in her sorrow and did not move on until she was well again!
So we have Miriam, savior of her people, and arguably the greatest heroine in the Hebrew Bible, punished by the supreme male god for objecting to her brother’s marriage?? as was her right and duty according to matrilineal custom??, and Miriam is named “rebellious/obstinate.” And then we have Mary, who said yes to a salvific process and who is somewhat reminiscent of the more ancient Holy Virgin. The Gospel was not written without Mary but could have been. That Mary is included makes me suspect that the Gospel’s main purpose was to revise Her (the Great Goddess), and that Jesus’ role, while far more extensive, might be only a backdrop for Mary’s role from the point of view of the author(s)??
Mary is the “rebellious/obstinate” one and is fractured into at least four different Marys, all diminishing Her in some way: (1) In Luke 7:39 the woman anointer, named in John 11:2 and 12:3 as Mary of Bethany, is specifically a “sinner.” (2) Mary Magdalene had been demon-possessed in Luke 8:2. (3) Mother Mary is rendered invisible under various puzzle-titles such as mother of this one or that one. (4) The fourth Mary may be just a construct (Jesus’ mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas (Jn 19:25)) so we can infer that Mother Mary is not the Creator; Mary can’t be the Great Goddess if Mary has a sister because Mary cannot be the mother of her sister – a demotion for Her.
Those are the four Marys in the Gospel if one accepts that the brothers of Jesus (listed in Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3) are indeed brothers or half-brothers of Jesus and sons of Mary, and not cousins or Mary’s step-sons. If Mary has to be Ever-Virgin and you don’t combine any Marys, then there are even more Marys in the Gospel; for example: (5) Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses (Mk 15:40), (6) Mary the mother of James and Joseph (Mt 27:56), and (7) the other Mary (Mt 27:61). (NRSV) Thayer’s seems to combine (4), (5), (6), and (7). So the mother’s sister becomes the mother of Jesus’ supposed cousins?? Personally, I believe there are only four Marys in the Gospel, (1) – (4) above, with Mother Mary (3) being the “other Mary” and the mother of Joseph/Joses and James/James younger, two of the brothers of Jesus.
Well, maybe framing Her as rebellious and obstinate and fracturing Her into bits, was the only way the author(s) knew how to reform what needed to be reformed in the first-century. But I am mostly satisfied with the way things turned out: She doesn’t have to be the creator of all that has been, an unenviable position. It’s better if She is the one who births the Christ, the Christ we are all in the process of becoming, through whom all things are being transformed and created anew. Certainly, She will need to be a strong-willed woman to accomplish all that needs to be accomplished.
Someday, we may even progress to the point where there is a liturgy where She gets to sit on a chair or a throne.
Those who call themselves Christian and who believe that Jesus is a King-god, Mary is a nothing, and that neighbors are slime to be cast into a fiery hell, might have a different view if they listened carefully to the words of Mary as she sings: “My soul magnifies the Lord” (Lk 1:46) – in other words, “In my essential being I have this ineffable divinity and I express it; I magnify it.” She says who she is, but there’s a paradox: How can someone recognize the Ineffable in order to express it, magnify it, and possibly incarnate it and be fruitful? Of course I’m not sure.
The NRSV lets me know there is some question who is the speaker – could be the cousin Elizabeth instead of Mary. The TNIV won’t say “magnifies” and has “glorifies” instead. Is “magnifies” too much like the speaker might be a member of the Christ?? (Q. How could someone be a member of the Christ while birthing the Christ?) When I plunk the Greek into the Google translator, it gives me back “magnify,” so no doubt it is in there. Why do so many translators hide this word “magnifies” that is so important to our understanding of Mary? A couple of translators hide it even while calling her song the “Magnificat.” c Maybe the translators eliminate certain words to make the Bible easy to read. You really have to be careful what Bible you buy.
What would the world be like if we recognized that each moment can be sacred, touched by an Annunciation; that our goal and our privilege in life is to catch a glimpse of the unique perfection that is the essential being of each individual we meet, a perfection loved perfectly and known fully by the One that is creating it!
1 Impressions on ancient Pagan religion drawn from Merlin Stone, When God Was A Woman, Barnes & Noble Books, NY, 1976, 1993.