Baptizing the Goddess?
Historically, there has been some tension between ancient pagan religions and Christianity, and this surfaces in certain legends about the Virgin Mary. These legends, whether they are historically accurate or not, offer an interesting glimpse into the mindset of the early Christians, who responded to the interplay between Mary and the goddesses with a good deal of caution. In most of these tales, Christianity proclaims itself to be the fulfillment of everything that was good about the earlier pagan beliefs.
Although Christianity was built on the foundation of Judaism, it was not isolated from ancient pagan beliefs or the ideas of the ancient philosophers. There are many parallels between Christianity and other, more ancient religions. One way these parallels come out is through iconography. Christian iconography has many stylistic parallels, both in Roman (pre-Christian) Egypt, in the neighboring religions of the Ancient Near East, and in Hinduism and Buddhism. The way Christianity adapted these and other forms of religious art, teaching, and practice is significant and speaks also to what is unique within Christianity.
Where does the term
Many historians have pointed to a resemblance between the Virgin Mary shown in Eastern Orthodox iconography and the ancient goddess Isis. Likewise, even today, some Greek churches have icons of the ancient philosophers just inside the front entrance of their churches. According to Greek belief, the teachings of these philosophers helped prepare the minds of the people to receive Christianity.
One of the ancient legends about the Virgin Mary vividly expresses the tension between pagan religion and Christian belief. This legend is related to the Greek peninsula called Mount Athos, or the Holy Mountain. Mount Athos is a secluded, forested place where over 3,000 monks reside in twenty large monasteries.
Although Mount Athos is now seen as a great Christian center of monasticism, it was not always specifically Christian, but it was historically viewed as a deeply spiritual place. One of the great authors of Greek mythology, Homer, mentioned this mountain in his writings as one of the dwelling places of the Greek gods Zeus and Apollo before they moved to Mount Olympus.
According to this legend, because of the sacred history associated with Mount Athos, pagan hermits once inhabited the local caves. In A.D. 49 the Virgin Mary was sailing to visit her friend Lazarus, when her boat lost course. She was divinely led to a safe bay of Mount Athos. As she approached the mountain she looked up and according to legend, said, “This mountain is holy ground. Let this be my portion. Let me here remain.”
As she stepped onto shore, a thunderous crash shook the mountain and the statues from the old pagan shrines toppled over. One of the statues declared that he was a false idol. According to this legend, the Virgin Mary then baptized the pagan hermits living on the mountain. Thus began the Christian history of Mount Athos, although Mount Athos did not become a well-known monastic site until many centuries later.
The Holy Mountain has since become the greatest monastic center in the Eastern Christian world. According to legend, the Virgin Mary was the last woman to ever set foot on the mountain. To this day, women are not allowed to visit the monasteries on Mount Athos, although they are welcome to visit sister monasteries located nearby.
Just as the story of Mount Athos describes a loud thundering sound that caused the statues to topple, there is a well-documented earthquake that took place in Northern Greece in A.D. 49, the same year that, according to legend, the Virgin Mary visited Athos.
Architecture and Integration
Monasteries, churches, and shrines to Mary are often built on sites that were once central within ancient religions. This desire to build on the literal foundations of other religions expresses the ways in which Christianity sought to integrate those elements of the more ancient religions that were compatible with Christianity.
By building churches, shrines, or monasteries on these ancient holy sites, the Church was able to “baptize” certain elements of these ancient religions, as well as provide a bridge and a sense of continuity between the two religions.
One of the most interesting examples of a Christian church being built on a site that was already viewed as sacred within the minds of the local people occurred in Mexico during the visitations of Our Lady of Guadalupe. According to reports of this apparition, when the Virgin Mary appeared to Juan Diego, she requested that a church be built on a hill that was viewed as one of the dwelling places of an ancient Aztec goddess.
Another place where a similar phenomenon occurred was in the ancient city of Ephesus, Turkey. Ephesus was one of the ancient centers of worship of the goddess Diana, but it ultimately became a significant city for Christianity as well.
The New Testament book of Ephesians was written as a letter to the Christians dwelling there. Christianity had had a rocky start in Ephesus, however, because of the prominence of the goddess Diana in that location. When Paul preached in Ephesus, the metal workers who created statues of Diana heckled him, because they feared that if he brought Christianity to Ephesus, they would lose their livelihoods. Ultimately, their worst fears were realized, as Ephesus eventually became home to many Christians.
The temple dedicated to Diana was destroyed in about A.D. 400. Soon afterward, a new church was built in Ephesus, which was the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. When the Council at Ephesus declared in A.D. 431 that it would be right and proper to call the Virgin Mary Theotokos, those in the streets responded with enthusiasm. Just as they had once marched through the streets singing the praises of Diana, they now shouted, “Praised be the Theotokos.”
The title Theotokos, which can be translated as “God-bearer” or “The One Who Gave Birth to God” connected Mary to the divine in a unique way. Yet, it was also at this council that official statements were made about how Mary was supposed to be viewed — with great respect, love, and reverence, but not as an object of worship.