Mother of God or Mother Goddess?
by Fr Dwight Longenecker
I can remember my shock, as an Evangelical student, when I heard a German Catholic
friend refer to Mary as “GottesMutter”. The phrase means, “Mother of God, but in my
ignorance of the German language I thought he was calling Mary, “Goddess Mother”. It
confirmed my suspicion that Catholics worshipped Mary as the Mother Goddess. It
turned out I was wrong not only about the German language, but about Catholic beliefs
regarding Mary the Mother of Jesus.
The charge that Catholics worship Mary as some sort of Mother Goddess comes not
only from Evangelical Protestants, but an increasing number of “new atheists” also go to
great lengths to reveal the supposed links between the Christian faith and ancient
pagan religions. They link baptism to Mithraism and show how the doctrine of the
incarnation has its roots in pagan god-man myths. They like to reveal how the
resurrection and the virgin birth and the ascension are all just re-hashed ideas from
pagan religions the world over. One of the favorite lines of attack is over the Catholic
devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
At first glance the argument seems convincing. Check out the images of Isis on the
internet and youʼll find a Madonna and Child that seems identical to typical Catholic
images of the Virgin and child. In ancient Egypt Isis was known as the ʻDivine Motherʼ or
the ʻQueen of Heavenʼ. As a virgin she gave birth to Horus, the sun god. It was Horus
who killed Typhon the Egyptian version of the devil, and it was claimed that Isis
remained a virgin forever.
Critics of Catholicism go on to notice that virtually every primitive society had some sort
of Mother Goddess, and they charge Catholics for being pagan because we call Mary
our Mother, the Queen of Heaven, the Mother of God, and load her with a cult like
“worship”. “I can never,” said the Rev. M. Hobart Seymour, in his Evenings with the
Romanists, (p. 254), “forget the shock I received when I first saw in their churches in
Italy, the Virgin Mary crowned as Queen of heaven, seated on the same throne with
Jesus crowned King of heaven. These were the God-man and God-woman enthroned
alike. There was nothing to distinguish the one above the other.”
Itʼs an understandable misconception, and the whole topic is very intriguing so itʼs worth
taking a more detailed look.
Mary and the Bible Christian
First we need to stop and examine the criticisms of Evangelical Protestants. They
accuse Catholics of being pagan because veneration of the Blessed Virgin must have
been adopted from paganism unthinkingly. There are several problems with this theory
however. First of all, when you examine the pagan mother goddesses the differences
between them and the Virgin Mary are actually more outstanding than their similarities.
So, for example, very few of the ancient mother goddesses purport to be virgins. There
are mother goddesses and virgin goddesses, but very few virgin mothers. The critic of
Catholicism might see “Statue of goddess” and “statue of Mary” and equate them, but
on closer examination, while there are echoes and similarities, the pagan goddesses
are not essentially like the Catholic understanding of Mary at all.
The pagan mother goddesses are not like Mary because they originate in a completely
different way. The pagan goddesses are the result of centuries of religious myth
developing within a pagan culture. The gods and goddesses were always mythical
figures. They were characters in fanciful fables that carried great meaning. Mary of
Nazareth, on the other hand, is a simple peasant girl who was touched by God and
gave her consent to be the mother of the Lord. Mary may have been assumed into
heaven, but she didnʼt start there. She started in a little house in a humble village in a
backwater of the Roman Empire.
Secondly, the Evangelical critic of the Catholic Church will claim that Catholic beliefs
about Mary were imported from paganism because there seems to be a symbolic link
between a goddess like Isis and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Catholic devotion to Mary is
therefore compromised. “Paganism” they argue, “has crept in and infected the pure
Christian faith of the Bible”. This is guilt by association. This form of argument is
specious. A belief or practice must be evaluated on its own terms. The question is, “Is it
true or false?” not “Is it associated with paganism?”
Guilt by association must also condemn the Evangelical because the very beliefs he
holds dear can also be shown to have “associations” with paganism. The Evangelical
Protestant may not wish to call the Blessed Virgin the ʻQueen of Heavenʼ, but he does
want to uphold the Virgin Birth, and the the fact that Mary was the Son of God who
destroyed Satan. If guilt by association is a sound argument, then the Evangelical must
give account for his beliefs because Isis also gave birth as a virgin and her son Horus
was the Son of God who defeated the devil. If the Catholicʼs ʻQueen of Heavenʼ was
inspired by pagan Egyptian religion, then so is the Evangelicalʼs belief in the Virgin Birth
and Jesus the Son of Godʼs victory of Satan.
Finally, the Evangelical argument blaming Catholic devotion to Mary for being pagan is
undermined by the very facts of the incarnation and the gospel story. The concept of
Mary as Universal Mother is not borrowed from paganism. It comes instead from a
totally different, unique and obvious source. The early Christians saw Mary as their
Mother because Jesus said she was. When Christ on the cross says to the Apostle
John, “Behold your Mother” he gives Mary to the whole church. This is the origin of the
Catholic belief that Mary is our Mother, and this is amplified by the theology of the early
church. The apostolic fathers, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr first explained that Mary was
the second Eve. Maryʼs universal motherhood therefore springs not from some half
baked pagan smash and grab exercise, but from the gospel account of the crucifixion
and from the Jewish context of the early Church.
Mary and the New Atheist
The Evangelical Protestant objects to Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary
because he believes it to be pagan. Paganism is bad so therefore the Catholic devotion
to the Blessed Virgin must be bad. The new atheist also objects to Catholic devotions to
the Blessed Virgin Mary because he thinks them pagan, and paganism is bad so
Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin must be bad. However, while the atheist and the
Protestant object to Catholic devotion to the Blessed Virgin for the same reason, their
opinion of paganism is different.
The Evangelical Protestant objects to paganism because he believes it is a religion that
worships the devil. The atheist objects to paganism in the way that he objects to all
religion: because it is nonsense. In equating Marian devotion to paganism the new
atheist tries to portray it as a load of primitivistic bunkum–on the same level as belief in
the tooth fairy, Santa Claus and magic spells. At best he sees Marian devotion as a form
of subconscious wish fulfillment.
This is the ʻpsychological explanationʼ for Marian devotion. It runs like this: “All of us
participate in the collective unconscious. This is a vast realm of our human experience
which is uncharted, mysterious and profound. Out of the deep surging emotion of
human experience we all share a deep longing for unity with the Mother and Father.
Through religion we produce a ʻSuper Motherʼ and a ʻSuper Fatherʼ for ourselves who
we believe will fulfill all our needs and lead us at last to a heavenly home where we can
live as a family happily ever after. Pagan religions produced mother goddesses in every
culture, and Catholics”, the psychology-driven atheist would argue,”have perhaps
unconsciously made the mother of a wandering rabbi in the first century into the same
sort of Super Mother figure to fulfill their deepest needs.”
The explanation seems plausible and (like most psychological explanations) has a
certain sweet reasonableness to it. The only problem is, this is not the way devotion to
the Blessed Virgin Mary developed. We donʼt have full blown pagan style myths of Mary
the Mother Goddess springing up in the early church. Instead there is comparatively
little mention of her in the New Testament, and where she is mentioned she is very
humble, accepting and ordinary. The Protoevangelium of James is an early second
century writing from the church in Jerusalem. In this story we are told of the Blessed
Virginʼs ordinary Jewish upbringing. No god and goddesses and magical mythical tales–
just an ordinary girl caught up in extraordinary events.
Indeed, the New Testament records and the writings of the early church fathers show
that the first Christians, rather than absorbing and adopting the pagan religions, were
firm in their resistance to paganism. The early Christians endured deprivation, prison,
torture and martyrdom rather than compromise the faith and give even one little pinch of
incense to the pagan gods. Are we to believe that what they were really doing was
adding in every bit of paganism possible? That while their friends were being tortured
and killed for their resistance to paganism the early Christians were saying, “I know!
Everybody really likes this Artemis goddess. Letʼs make Mary like her so more people
will convert!” Hardly.
The atheist will reply, “It all happened much later, after the fourth century, once
Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire.” However, the documents simply
donʼt show this to be true. Rather than adopting pagan customs and beliefs they were
keen to show how the Christian faith was different from the paganism around them. So
Origen writing in the third century was careful to distinguish the virgin birth from the
fable of Platoʼs virgin birth. (Against Celsus Book 1, Ch. 37)
Furthermore, the Christians of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries continued to weed out
heresy and would not tolerate even the slightest hint of pagan practice and belief. The
writers of the fourth, fifth and sixth centuries were passionate about the correct
understanding of the incarnation of Christ, and the Marian doctrine at this time
developed not from a wish (conscious or not) to import paganism, but from the churchʼs
understanding of who Christ really was.
A simple reading of the Fathers of the Church shows that veneration of Mary developed
simply from the seeds of her universal Motherhood given by Christ at the cross, and the
earlier concept of Mary as second Eve. The book Mary and the Fathers of the Church
by Luigi Gambero clarifies just how and when the Catholic devotion to Mary developed,
and thereʼs not a jot of paganism within it.
The climax of this early development of Marian thought comes with the definition of
Mary as Mother of God or Theotokos. This title was granted to Mary at the Council of
Ephesus in 431. The title was not granted as some glorious honor to Mary as some sort
of pagan Queen of Heaven, but as a theological term clarifying her relationship to her
son and therefore affirming his full divinity. This was done, not to promote some strange
and lavish pagan ritual, and not through some careless infection of the faith by
paganism, but as a result of careful thought, debate and resolution of belief.
Nevertheless, the Protestant and the atheist critics of Marian devotion do raise an
intriguing question, and it is not sufficient to merely dismiss their criticism as ʻcrude anti
Catholicismʼ. In fact there is a relationship between Christianity and paganism. There
has to be, because Christianity developed within a context of an ancient pagan culture.
Therefore to answer the Protestant and atheist critics satisfactorily we must be able to
explain the true relationship between ancient pagan religions and the Christian faith.
Firstly, while it is true that the early Christians went to their deaths to repudiate
paganism, it is also true that the early Christian apologists–including St John and St
Paul writing in the New Testament–were willing to use pagan ideas and philosophical
concepts to communicate the gospel. As all good missionaries do, they found
connecting points with the culture, philosophy and religion of their audience. So, for
example, St John uses the Greek philosophical term logos to explain the incarnation. In
Athens St Paul takes the idea of the ʻunknown Godʼ and preaches the gospel of Jesus
Christ to his hearers. St Paul adopts the concept of ʻmysteryʼ prevalent in the mystery
religions, while the writer to the Hebrews employs Platonist ideas in his discussion of an
earthly and heavenly temple.
Likewise, the early Christians used existing religious and philosophical concepts to
communicate the reality of Jesus Christ. They had to because that was the language of
their culture. They used the concepts of their culture, but as they did so, they
transformed those ideas from the inside out. For St John, the mysterious logos is no
longer mysterious for it has taken human flesh. For St Paul the ʻmystery hidden from the
dawn of timeʼ is now fully revealed in Christ Jesus. Time and again the writers of the
New Testament, and the first theologians of the church take an existing concept or idea
and use it to explain the full reality of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
It is true, therefore, that there are creative links between the pagan culture of the day
and the religion of the early church. It only remains, therefore to ask why this might be
and whether it is good or bad. To answer that question we turn to Galatians 4:4; “In the
fullness of time God sent forth his Son, born of a woman. Born under the law.” By this St
Paul means that the incarnation of Christ happened at the time and the place, in the
culture and in the context that God intended. It was no mistake that Christ Jesus came
into a world replete with numerous pagan religions, philosophies and beliefs. It is also
no mistake that he did so through the Hebrew race and religion.
From the beginning the Jews lived as a unique people within a surrounding pagan
culture. From within their culture and context God used them to correct the pagan
culture and context. From the start their witness was of one loving God the Father who
revealed himself to his people through the nitty gritty of human history and through the
tender complexity of the human race.
Christ being born in the heart of the Middle East, in the heart of the Roman Empire, in
the heart of a whole array of pagan religions, Eastern philosophies and a virtual
smorgasbord of religious choices was not a mistake. From within this swirl of religions
Christianity, by Godʼs inspiration was formed, grew and was formulated. The Christians
were influenced by the surrounding religions and philosophies, but where they were
influenced they showed that the new Christian faith corrected and fulfilled the existing
religions and philosophies.
C.S.Lewis summed it up when he was talking with J.R.R.Tolkien about the power of
myth. He had observed that the Christian myth was like all the other myths, and Tolkien
said, “Yes, it works on us in the same as the other myths except that it really happened.”
Within this view we see all the pagan religions, all the pagan philosophies, all the pagan
myths and stories as pointers to to the coming truth.
The pagan Mother goddesses were, therefore, hints and guesses of the true Mother of
God and Queen of Heaven. They were imperfect pointers and foreshadowings of the
young Jewish girl from Nazareth from whom God would be born, and who, therefore is
rightly called the Mother of God, the Mother of the Church, and the Mother of all the
Fr Dwight Longenecker is parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary parish in Greenville,
South Carolina. He also serves as Chaplain to St Josephʼs Catholic School. Visit his
website at www.dwightlongenecker.com