Exploring the beliefs of English people during the fifth to ninth centuries


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    The Mothers and the Mother of God


    Icon or idol?
    Madonna and Child' by Peter Eugene Ball.
    Photographed while on loan to Southwell Cathedral July 2008.

    Many modern pagan writers assume that the medieval cults associated with the Blessed Virgin Mary are continuations of the veneration of pre-Christian goddesses and the Deae Matronae. It certainly seems like a reasonable assumption. However there is no evidence to confirm this assumption. Furthermore, most such writers think of Mary in later medieval terms, or even in terms of how she is regarded within the more-or-less contemporary Catholic Church. Few seem to be aware of the significant differences between these later ideologies and how she might have been regarded in the early Christian era.

    The few scholarly accounts of the cults of the Virgin Mary are almost always written from a perspective of devotional piety so have no reason to even seek, still less confirm, pre-Christian origins (although the contributors to (Maunder 2008) are more balanced than most. What these accounts do reveal is that there were various cults to her which were instigated in various parts of Christendom from about the fourth to tenth centuries. None of these became universal cults on the scale of the twelfth century cult established in most parts of western Europe by the Cistercian monasteries. It is the successor to that cult which still greatly influences popular piety among Roman Catholic communities.

    The Eastern Orthodox churches also venerate Mary, but their doctrines differ in that there is no belief in the virgin birth, nor in her bodily assumption to Heaven after her death – so the Latin church's Assumption of the Virgin is matched in Orthodox Christianity by the Dormition of the Mother of God – in other words her 'going to sleep'. And the title of 'Mother of God' is another doctrinal divide – Mary is 'merely' the Mother of Christ, not God, to Roman Catholics. (But see comments below.)

    I'm dwelling on the differences between Latin and Orthodox doctrines about Mary for two reasons. One as evidence of how the Cistercian-led cult of the later Middle Ages differs from how Mary was perceived in cults which date back to closer to the time when Eastern and Western Christianity went their separate ways. Secondly, because later in this section I will discuss in more detail how Mary is still venerated in some more traditional rural communities in Greece.

    Intercessionary successor?

    So far I have been unable to find any clear evidence that domestic tutelary goddesses, such as the lares and Deae Matronae of south European and the dísir of northern Europe, evolve into the Marian cults. I agree it seems probable. After all, a Catholic offer a candle and a prayer to 'Our Lady of X' seems to be remarkably like an invocation of the local dísiror genii loci. The prayers and requests are likely to for all-but the same reasons – good health of oneself, one's family, the family's livestock, and so forth. The reuse of the Old Irish word érlam, originally denoting a tutelary deity, to refer to local saints is not a specifically Irish worldview – think of the orisas of West Africa and its diaspore. Orisas are not deities, although they are similar to Christian saints. We would be best to think of saints, orisas and tutelary spirits as having a similar ontological status, but distinct from both deities and mundane beings.

    St Brigid of Kildare: bishop, abbess or érlam?

    St Brigid of Kildare – not to be confused with various other Irish saints of the same name – was born around 450. Her hagiography was first written down about 650, and includes magical stories involving cattle, two holy wells and – most notably – sacred fire and holy wells. In later medieval Irish literature these are all associated with pagan goddess rather than early abbesses!

    Reputedly her father, a local chieftain, was pagan while her mother, slave in his household, was Christian. She became an apprentice nun at a young age and performed miracles and wonders of healing and feeding the poor. She gained a reputation as a peacemaker who reconciled rival clans. And, remarkably, instead of becoming a nun, she became a bishop! She established dual monasteries, where monks and nuns lived in separate but adjacent buildings – typical of this early era. In later centuries these grew into important centres of learning and the arts, renowned over a large region.

    As a woman, Brigid could not administer the sacraments so appointed St Conleth as the priest. And a 'miraculous' mistake by Conleth meant she became consecrated as a bishop, an honour never before or since bestowed upon a woman. At the ceremony for her to take the veil as a nun he mistakenly read the prescribed prayers for ordaining a bishop. When objections were raised he replied, 'No power have I in this matter. That dignity has been given by God only to Brigid, beyond every other woman.'

    Even if Conlan's knowledge of Latin was so poor he read the wrong pages of the missal – an entirely plausible mistake given the poor literacy of priests – what is missing is the need for several other bishops to be present for the 'making' of a new bishop. This is most improbable for a service set up for one or more women to become nuns.

    My suspicion is that the early texts used the word érlam to refer to Brigid. This would have been used by the seventh century author of the hagiography to denote a 'local saint' – an quite plausibly a woman who in life had been an abbess (rather than a bishop). It would also neatly 'fudge' a hagiography of an abbess who, for whatever reasons, 'inherited' the attributes of a pre-Christian tutelary goddess (who would also have been referred to as an érlam). Later readers of the earlier hagiography would not necessarily be familiar with the word érlam and the consequent confusion would allow a 'back formation' legend to 'explain everything'.

    We can never know for sure. But St Brigid of Kildare's hagiography is a good example of how the boundaries between pre-Christian tutelary goddesses, Christian abbots, abbesses and (implausibly in this case) bishops can so easily become blurry.

    screen grab

    See also Voices from the Dawn and Minehan 1999.

    The pre- and post-conversion veneration of érlams is somewhat akin to the manner in which Hindus, as well as Moslems and Sufis, undertake pilgrimages to the tombs and shrines of Sufi saints who typically died in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries.

    Intercessionary saints

    After the twelfth century Mary became the most important of the intercessionary saints – the ones to pray to if you needed them to 'intercede' with Christ on your behalf. This is the time when cults to local saints were either being suppressed or just simply being forgotten. After all, these local saints were typically the founders of the church back in the eighth or ninth centuries. Three hundred or more years later their hagiographies – almost always transmitted orally except for a handful of more important one – had probably become decidedly threadbare.

    And, if you couldn't ask the local saint to intercede on your behalf any longer, then who could you turn to? The answer proved to Mary, a role she has continued to dominate ever since.

    Breedon church

    Long Clawson church

    The Leicestershire churches of Breedon on the Hill (top) and Long Clawson (bottom) retain their dedications to the otherwise unknown Anglo-Saxon saints Hardulf and Regmigius (respectively).

    The Three Marys

    The most common depiction of the pre-Christian Deae Matronae is as three adult women (see The Mothers). In Catholic churches there is similarly a long-standing tradition of representing the 'Three Marys'. These are usually the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Mary Solome. However this masks a certain amount of confusion as there are five women called Mary mentioned in the New Testament and apocryphal works. Most of these are only referred to briefly so there has been considerable confusion and conflation, especially regarding Mary Salome. She is sometimes identified as the wife of Zebedee, the mother of James and John (two of the Apostles) and sometimes as the sister of Mary, mother of Jesus.

    Mostly the Three Marys are depicted in paintings, although in Spanish-speaking countries, the Orion's Belt asterism is called Las Tres Marías.

    'Invisible' women

    Assume for a moment that the earlier, pre-twelfth century, Marian cults were indeed a transition from pre-Christian to post-conversion practices, making Mary a successor to the Deae Matronae. Who would have most likely been her devotees? Simply put – mostly the women. And who wrote down what little we know of early Christianity? Male clerics.

    As any modern ethnographer is all too aware, that female cults in pre-literate societies are veiled from the view of predominately male researchers. So early medieval clerics – who were certainly not there to get PhDs in comparative ethnology and seemingly using 'schematic' breviaria rather than doing 'field research' – would have been excluded from even knowing about such matters, still less providing a reliable record. And even the few women who were literate would have had no reason to write about these practices, still less for such writings to enter into monastic libraries or other comparatively 'safe havens' to be passed down to posterity.

    Mary and Baubo

    In a fascinating and detailed article (Håland 2013) Evy Håland has shown how the Feast of the Dormition is tied in to the main agrarian cycle of rural Greece and, as such, retains close affinities to annual celebrations of Demeter and her daughter Persephone (also known as Kore) in which the death – and eventual resurrection – of these vegetation goddesses formed a key part of the Eleusinian mysteries. The Feast of the Dormition, as with the Feast of the Assumption, is usually celebrated on 15th August, which corresponds to the start of the grain harvest in Europe.


    Roman statue of Baubo lifting her skirt.

    Evy Håland provides numerous examples of how the modern feasting and food offerings associated with the celebration of the Dormition follow long-established customs. She also notes how in the village of Monokklesia in Greek Macadenia the women get together in the dead of winter, 8th January, to reawaken the 'dead' earth with celebrations to the sacred midwife Babo, otherwise known as Saint Domenika. As Hĺland objectively notes 'In this festival we encounter obscenities and alcohol consumption.' (Håland 2013: 259). She should know – she was there and took at least one photograph…

    Despite taking part in this 'obscene' festival, the women of Monokklesia undoubtedly think of themselves as good Orthodox Christians, despite there being no biblical or liturgical precedents for what they do. This adds further weight, as if it is really needed, to Håland's suggestion that what rural Greeks do at the Feast of the Dormition goes back over two thousand years to the Eleusinian mysteries. While the significance and 'context' has shifted, there is a direct continuity of what is done, and when.

    If Greece and Orthodox Christianity seems a little too far removed from Anglo-Saxon England to have much relevance then let's stop off on our way back in Catholic Ireland. Here, as Muiris O'Suillivan observes:

    Traditional devotional practices in Ireland often focus on stations associated with the titular founding saint of the local early medieval ecclesiastical site. These stations are marked by a variety of natural features such as wells, trees, pitted stones, hills or caves. While Christian prayers are recited, they are associated with less obviously Christian practices such as:

    • the occasional preference for night-time pilgrimage
    • the absolute imperative to keep the pilgrimage station on one's right while circling it in prayer; and
    • the occasional use of cursing stones which, when turned during a pilgrimage, are reputed to bring back luck to an enemy.

    Standard Christian signs such as the cross appear to be optional and the place or natural anomaly seem to be the dominant physical feature around which the traditional narrative is framed.'
    (O'Suillivan 2011: 65)

    There has been enough study of Irish narrative traditions, which as O'Suillivan puts it, 'frame' such practices, to recognise that while such traditions may well reflect archaic social customs, the tradition maintained in the legends and other narratives is essentially a mythical reality sustained – and largely created by – the transmission of the narrative tradition itself.

    Icons and idols

    icon of Mary

    The innumerable icons of Mary, whether painted or carved, owe at least some of their imagery to goddesses such as Isis and Demeter. The makers of these icons, and those who venerate them, are the successors to a tradition which has its roots in idols, stapols and weohs (see Weohs and stapols)of the lares or dísir. That same tradition saw such idols as the 'immanent presence' (see The potency of leeks and the spirit of alcohol) of the spirit-deity, rather than merely a focus of devotion of a now-transcendent being. And it was this immanent ontology which was deemed 'idolatry' by John Wycliff and other late-medieval Lollards. This was to result in the first phase of iconoclasm – the destruction of statues of saints such as Mary – and ultimately to the almost total destruction of such carvings by a later generation of zealots in the seventeenth century.

    This seventeenth century zealotry casts a long shadow which is present not only in modern day Christianity but also in seemingly-secular ethnography. Those brought up with the Protestant perspective that an 'image is not the thing' struggle to relate to non-Christian worldviews where the image is indeed 'the thing', or at least indistinguishable from, say, the genii loci, orisha, or whatever. Graham Harvey has written a concise but lucid discussion (Harvey 2013: 13), noting that there can be no reproductions or replicas of a Zuni koko mask, as each mask is a koko, made according to sacred kowledge and, as such, embodying an other-than-human-person.

    My own efforts at carving staffs, while reflecting no tradition of sacred knowledge, similarly produces unique 'other-than-human-entities'. Even if I chose to carve more than one to a similar design, one is not a 'replica' or copy of the other – both have a unique existence (as would two humans, even if they look similar, as might two brothers).

    Four carvings by the author. See carved sticks, staffs and stapols for more examples.


    copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2013–14


    A reader who wishes to remain anonymous contacted me in August 2018 with the following corrections:

    I have just been reading your article on Anglo-Saxon Twilight, "The Mothers and the Mother of God", and feel compelled to point out what I feel in my humble view are a couple of mistakes with regard to Christian teaching.
    1. You state at one point that the Eastern Orthodox Mariology differs from that of the Catholics in that "there is no belief in the virgin birth, nor in her bodily assumption to Heaven after her death."
    If by the virgin birth you refer to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ, this is quite wrong, and cursory reading will demonstrate this.
    It is true that Eastern Christians do not share the Western doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, and perhaps this is what you meant. However, this doctrine is not the belief in the virginity of the mother of Mary – Mary was conceived in the normal way -– but rather her being unstained by the guilt of original sin (Church tradition is that Mary, like her son, remained sinless for her whole life, and was saved from sin by the grace of God at her very conception, unlike others who are later cleansed by baptism).
    The Eastern Orthodox also share the ancient belief of the Catholic Church that Mary was assumed bodily into Heaven. The Roman Catholic Church has not defined dogmatically whether the Virgin underwent death and was subsequently resurrected or if she escaped death altogether: both of these are legitimately held beliefs of many Catholics. However, all share the dogmatic belief in her bodily assumption, which is likewise held by the Eastern Orthodox. To quote Metropolitan Kallistos Ware:
    "… Orthodox tradition is clear and unwavering in regard to the central point [of the Dormition]: the Holy Virgin underwent, as did her Son, a physical death, but her body – like His – was afterwards raised from the dead and she was taken up into heaven, in her body as well as in her soul."
    The Orthodox do place a greater emphasis on the Dormition of the Theotokos than the Catholics, but the belief in her subsequent bodily assumption is integral to this.
    2. You then claim that "the title of 'Mother of God' is another doctrinal divide – Mary is 'merely' the Mother of Christ, not God, to Roman Catholics." This is also not true. In one of the most famous prayers of the Western Christian tradition, Catholics affirm their belief in Mary as Mater Dei, or "Mother of God":
    Ave Maria
    Gratia Plena
    Dominus tecum
    Benedicta tu in mulieribus
    et benedictus fructus ventris tui Iesus
    ?Sancta Maria, Mater Dei
    Ora pro nobis peccatoribus
    Nunc et in hora mortis nostrae
    Paragraph 971 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church reads:
    "All generations will call me blessed": "The Church's devotion to the Blessed Virgin is intrinsic to Christian worship." The Church rightly honors "the Blessed Virgin with special devotion. From the most ancient times the Blessed Virgin has been honored with the title of 'Mother of God,' to whose protection the faithful fly in all their dangers and needs… This very special devotion … differs essentially from the adoration which is given to the incarnate Word and equally to the Father and the Holy Spirit, and greatly fosters this adoration." The liturgical feasts dedicated to the Mother of God and Marian prayer, such as the rosary, an "epitome of the whole Gospel," express this devotion to the Virgin Mary.
    If anything, it is Catholics who push Mary's motherhood further than the Orthodox, whose equivalent term Theotokos, of which Mater Dei is a figurative rendering, more precisely means "God-bearer".


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