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Theotokos: the Christian demi-goddess you didn’t know about

Happy feast day of the Presentation of the Most Holy Theotokos to the Temple!

This feast day, recognized only peripherally by the Catholic and orthodox churches, is one of the most obscure and problematic, as well as the most revolutionary and empowering. It celebrates the presentation of the chosen one to the temple, and the subsequent confirmation and exaltation of the child’s holiness, wisdom, and power. At only 3 years old, the toddler awed the temple priests and was unhesitantly taken in to that most sacred place. But the sublime catch is that on this day we don’t celebrate Jesus’s presentation in the great temple, we celebrate Mary’s.

For those of us who attended Sunday school or had a picture-book bible at our bedside, all we were taught about Mary is that she got betrothed to Joseph, was visited by the angel Gabriel, and then birthed a god—all while preserving her pristine virginhood. We were taught she herself was not a goddess, had no seat in the divine trinity, and the only reason she was picked to rear the Earth’s savior was because she was a really good girl with high morals and an aptitude for sinlessness. Except, there is so much more written about Mary than what’s in the bible. In the first and second centuries, dozens of biblical books were written, and needless to say they were not all on the same page on what went down. After over three hundred years of debate, the Catholic Church held a series of councils to decide which books were most accurate, or at least most corroborative, and much of the best material was left out.

Thus Mary’s story was abandoned to the Apocrypha—the collection of biblical books not canonized—and when you read it it’s understandable why they left it out. The fair, demure, and rather simple woman we picture for Jesus’s mother is not the Mary described in the Apocrypha. The apocryphal Mary is strong and brilliant, brave and breathtaking. In the Protoevangelium of James, Mary is constantly followed by angels, literally eating out of their hands, and the priests are so impressed by her that they keep her in the temple and educate her until she is sent off to Joseph. Other apocryphal texts explicitly unite Mary with Christ, claiming that she matched his holiness and performed miraculous acts of healing just as he had in childhood, and even that her death paralleled her son’s. Some of these texts extol Mary like a goddess, echoing the aretalogy (self-proclaimed statements of identity) of Isis, the mythology of Demeter and Persephone, the symbolism of Athena, and even note a kinship to a pagan moon goddess popular at that time.

So why not include this empowered vision of Mary in the bible? Well, because back in the 4th century, when the Ecumenical councils were being held to make all sorts of doctrinal and dogmatic decisions, one of the biggest questions on the docket was, “So, um, is Mary a goddess…?” African and Hellenistic Christians were particularly struggling with this quandary, hailing from traditions devoted to goddess-worship. They wanted to officially grant Mary the title of Theotokos, Greek for “the one who gives birth to God,” a title previously used for the supreme Egyptian goddess Isis. The Church leaders could not deny the title was apt, and they bestowed it on her, but with a caveat: although she bore God (as Isis had with Horus), she differed from her in that she could not contain any divinity herself. No slights of hand, no frills. Mary was a mortal woman, plain and simple.

And thus instituted the Mary problem. The mother of God had no participation in the divinity of her offspring, which created constant confusion in ex-pagan Christians, and still does to this day. Despite the scope of her significance as an archetype of femininity and divine motherhood, Mary’s power was utterly neutralized by Christian dogma; she can be venerated but not worshipped, receive prayers but not field them, access heavenly majesty but not wield it. In essence, Mary became the impotent, feminized replica of her son—human and holy but somehow not divine, the gutted placeholder for autonomous and empowered Femininity.

But Mary wouldn’t despair at her fate, and neither should you! The patriarchal foundations of Christianity may have formally forbid Mary’s inclusion into the divine triune, insisting godhood could only be male, but it never really stuck. Mary has been semi-divine all along, a sort of . . . demi-goddess. There are countless accounts of Mary answering prayers, and hundreds of stories in which Mary has decided people’s worthiness for redemption. In the high Middle Ages, Mary even received the title “Co-Redemptrix,” and was believed to share the divine power of salvation with her son (only she was more merciful, so people generally leaned more into her judgement). Some groups of Christians went one step further and placed her at the center of their religion, and the Church has been futilely trying to squash these goddess-worshipping Marian “cults” for centuries—but they will live ever on.

So if you’ve thought about the Mary we’ve been sold and cringed as I have, reimagine her as she truly was. Picture her as a 3 year old, marching into the temple and showing off to the rabbis. See her as a preteen, pregnant and healing her friends’ swollen ankles with a touch of her little finger. Imagine her at her death, blooming into her full power in her final moments. In our hearts and psyches, Mary has always been a goddess, and deserves the title Theotokos without restraint.

And for those of us healing our relationship with the Feminine, recognizing the Goddess for her true authority, don’t hate on Mary. She had a bad deal.

All hail the Most Holy Theotokos! 😉

 

Sources:

Engelsman, Joan Chamberlain. The Feminine Dimension of the Divine. Chiron Publications, 1987.

Apocrypha Online, https://apocrypha.org.

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