Star of the Sea

Another classic title for the Virgin Mary is Stella Maris, or Star of the Sea. This title is most often attributed to a manuscript written by Saint Jerome, from the fifth century. Saint Jerome, however, actually used the term Stilla Maris instead of Stella Maris, which would have been translated as “a drop of the sea” instead of “star of the sea.” Many historians believe that this linguistic confusion could have been caused by a copyist's error. The term Stella Maris was nonetheless used by many other later Christians, including Isidore of Seville.

There are also some ancient Christian hymns from the eighth to the eleventh centuries that used this title to describe Mary, such as “Ave Maria Stella” and “Alma Redemptoris Mater.”

One of the Scriptural verses that is sometimes used to explain this term comes from a story in 1 Kings 18:41–45. In this passage, a small cloud appears above the sea. The cloud is interpreted as a hopeful sign to people suffering through a drought. Seeing the cloud, they know the rains will come and the drought will end. This Biblical image is almost a perfect reversal of other events connected to the title Stella Maris, specifically the image of Mary helping those who are trapped at sea during a storm — here, she gives hope of rain instead of stopping the storm. Mary is often viewed as a person who gives hope to the hopeless and help to those who are in despair.

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The connection between Mary and stars may also relate to the appearance of the star of Bethlehem, which guided the Magi to the baby Jesus.

The star imagery that is associated with the Virgin Mary has multiple dimensions. A six-pointed star is a reminder that Mary is from the line of David (as the Star of David has six points). Mary is also associated with the qualities assigned to stars — most specifically the use of stars for navigation. Stars lead you to your destination, and allow you to always know in what direction you are heading, guiding followers to the truth.

The association between Mary and stars gave birth to much imagery of the Virgin Mary as a protector of sailors. Many sailors have prayed to the Virgin Mary and felt that she miraculously protected them. In one legendary tale (which reflects some anti-Muslim bias, unfortunately), three men were on a boat, and a storm rose up. Two of the sailors cried out to Mary to protect them — these men were Christians. The other man, who was a Muslim, cried out to Allah for safety and then began to chastise the other sailors of crying out to Mary instead of Allah. As he scolded them, a great wave rose up and tossed him into the sea while the other two survived.

The image of Mary as “Star of the Sea” is also closely connected to some pagan-goddess imagery, particularly that of Isis, who came from the sea and was able to preserve seafarers. The parallels between the Virgin Mary and Isis have been especially significant because Isis had a sacrificial child (see Chapter 19 for more information about Mary and the goddess Isis).

The image of storm-tossed sailors calling out to the Virgin Mary for assistance can be understood metaphorically as well — the world itself is a stormy sea that is difficult to navigate and dangerous. As Saint Bernard said:

“Take not your eyes from the light of this star if you would not be overwhelmed by the waves; if the storms of temptations arise, if you are thrown upon the rocks of affliction, look to the star, invoke Mary … In dangers, in distress, in doubt, call on Mary. She will not be far from your mouth, or your heart; and that you may obtain her intercession, omit not to imitate her conduct. When you follow her, you will not go astray; when you invoke her, you will no longer be in doubt; when she supports you, you will not fall; when she leads you, you will surely come to eternal life, and will find by your own experience that she is justly called Maria — that is, Star of the Sea.”

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