Mythic Wisdom: A Greek Author’s Perspective

Connecting the past with the present has always been a powerful experience for me, maybe because I live in a land rich in history. In this blog I am going to explore a variety of topics, which I find deeply meaningful: women’s roles, gender and sexuality issues, activism, goddesses and gods, etc. By examining myths, symbols, and archetypal figures, I feel that we gain a fresh perspective on our lives and society. Ancient history, art, and literature can become amazing sources of inspiration. By learning from the wisdom of the past, we can transform ourselves and the world we live in.

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The Divine Mother and the Holy Child

Posted by on in Culture Blogs

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A female figure tenderly holding a baby in her arms, offering her breast: an image so familiar and yet so magical at the same time! It recalls our own infancy as it carries a subconscious nostalgia of the sweet moments that we lived in Mother’s embrace. This is a truly universal experience recurring through countless millennia of our species’ existence on the planet. 

Mother and Child, two intertwined figures depicted countless times in stone and clay or on the colored surfaces of temples and tombs. Over the centuries they have been vested with a number of meanings and symbolisms; they even acquired a divine quality as they never ceased to speak to the human soul. For those of us raised within Christianity, the sweet face of the Virgin Mary holding little Jesus spontaneously comes to mind. Yet, if we look deeper in time, we’ll see a variety of pre-Christian “Madonna and Child” images.

The Courotrophos and the Nursing Isis

One of these images comes from the Neolithic settlement of Sesklo, in Thessaly, central Greece. It is a clay figurine of a woman seated on a stool, holding a baby in her arms. Archaeologists date this fascinating find to 4800-4500 BCE. Equally ancient, perhaps even older, are certain figurines from Mesopotamia. One of these portrays a woman with a reptilian face, an unmistakable sign that it was intended to convey multiple meanings.[1]  A similar artifact unearthed in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus has a bird’s face. The combination of human and animal features in art indicates the mythic dimension of these beings – these are not human women but most probably goddesses with their divine offspring.

The goddess holding or nursing an infant was given the epithet Courotrophos in ancient Greek. The word derives from the verb trepho, “nourish” or “raise” and the noun couros, “boy,” or coure (alternately spelled core or kore), “girl” or “maiden.” This title was attributed to a variety of goddesses; one of them was Artemis, in her capacity as protectress of children; another one was Eileithyia, the patron of childbirth. One can hardly consider it a coincidence that the same title was also given to the Virgin Mary. A famous Byzantine hymn in her honor, known as the Akathist, still in use by the Greek Orthodox Church, addresses her as follows: “Hail, fair courotrophos of virgins.”[2]

However, the most widespread courotrophos image before Mary came along was that of Isis, who was often shown holding or breastfeed the young Horus. She is the archetypal Mother, radiating affection, compassion and kindness. Her origin is lost in the depths of time – she dates from predynastic Egypt (called Kemet in ancient times), i.e. prior to 3100 BCE. In Hellenistic and Roman times the worship of Isis spread around the Mediterranean as she was identified with a host of other goddesses. Her Mysteries magnetized emperors, intellectuals, such as Plutarch, Apuleius and Herodes Atticus, as well as ordinary people.

It has become a common secret that the iconography of the Madonna and Child is based on the depiction of Isis and Son. Yet their similarities don't end there. For example, the Egyptian Mother was called “Queen of Heaven,” a title which was later attributed to the Virgin by the Roman Catholic Church. Interestingly, Mary also found herself in Egypt, along with little Jesus, in order to avoid the "massacre of the innocents," according to the Gospel of Matthew (2.13-23). So what if the historicity of these events is disputed by experts? Every religion is a blend of history and myth, thus biblical narratives must be examined not only from a literal but also from a symbolic perspective.

Let us not forget that the Virgin has sometimes been honored much as a goddess, a phenomenon that some have called “Mariolatry.” One of the early groups that venerated her as Divine Mother was called “the Collyridians” by Epiphanius (315-403 CE), a Christian bishop who wrote against various “heresies” of his time in his work Panarion or Medicine Box (78-79). The collyris, from which the sect got its name, was the sacred bread they offered to the Mother of God. It is worth noting that this cult appeared in Arabia during the 4th century CE and was particularly popular with women – as a matter of fact, it even included female priests. Maybe Arabia sounds like a faraway place to the Western reader, yet according to Epiphanius, the Collyridians’ teachings originated from Thrace, an area to the north of Greece, where powerful goddesses were once worshipped.

Naturally, the kind bishop makes sure to inform us that the Collyridians’ ideas are nothing but “womanish madness.” In his words, "the female sex is easily mistaken, fallible and poor in intelligence. It is apparent that through women the devil has vomited this forth.”[3] However, although the Church has used all fair and unfair means to eliminate such forms of Mariolatry, it hasn’t quite achieved its purpose.  

The figure of the Virgin, although marginalized in Protestantism, has left an indelible mark on both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic faiths. The endless miracles attributed to her, her countless churches and innumerable images bear witness to that. The crowds of pilgrims that flock to her famous church on the Greek island of Tinos, to the NotreDame of Paris or to any other place of her worship don’t allow room for much doubt. It is well worth asking how many of these sacred Christian sites were once dedicated to goddesses in ancient times!

Notes

[1] This terracotta figurine comes from Ur and dates from 5500-4000 BCE. For an image see “Dea serpente,” “Raffigurazioni femminili nell'Antichità: NEOLITICO in Siria ed Iraq,” digilander.libero.it/Righel40/VEP/NEO/SYR/SYR.htm. 

[2] For the full text of the hymn see “The Akathistos Hymn,” www.legionofmarytidewater.com/prayers/stand.htm. The Greek word khaire is often translated as “rejoice,” but I consider “hail” a more accurate translation since the verb khairo (rejoice) in the second person (khaire) was used as a common greeting.

[3] Epiphanius, Panarion (Medicine Box) 79, translated by Carolyn Osiek in Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook, ed. Ross Shepard Kraemer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

 

This is part of a larger article originally published in Return to Mago, http://magoism.net/2013/12/16/essay-the-divine-mother-and-the-holy-child-the-inner-meaning-of-christmas-by-harita-menee/

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Harita Meenee is a Greek independent scholar of classical studies and women’s history. Her graduate studies were in the field of archetypal and women’s psychology. She works as a writer, translator and editor while also being a human rights activist. Harita has presented cultural TV programs and has lectured at universities in Greece and the US. She is the author of five books, as well as of numerous articles and essays published in Hellenic and international anthologies and magazines.

Comments

  • Lizann Bassham
    Lizann Bassham Thursday, 25 December 2014

    Love this post. At the Christian seminary where I am campus pastor, one of our Pagan students was very helpful in their Christian Scriptures class helping the other (mostly Christian) students understand that many many images from the myths of Jesus life were echoes of older images and spiritual lines.

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