This Christmas issue of Sofia has the title ‘Mother-Matter: Mater-Materia’ , words which have the same Indo-European root.
ancient religions had both male and female deities. For example, Ken Smith writes
about the many-sided Indian mother goddess Kali. Michael Morton points out that
as the Christian religion initially lacked a female deity, gradually Mary came
to fill that role. She was proclaimed theotokos, ‘mother of God’ at the
Council of Ephesus in 432 and was thereby ‘>theologically transformed to
became formally the Queen of Heaven (Regina Coeli) in the West and the
All-Holy One (Panhagia) in the East. In other words she became divine, a
goddess in all but name.’ In some cultures she was identified with earlier
Earth Mother goddesses (in Mexico she was identified with the indigenous
But curiously, at the Reformation, Mary was violently rejected. Her shrines, such as Our Lady of Grace at Walsingham, were smashed. Why was this? Was it connected with the Protestant sola scriptura. In the Old Testament Yahweh abhors Canaanite fertility cults of gods and goddesses. In the New Testament Jesus addresses his God as ‘Father’? Could it be connected with the rise of capitalism (closely linked with Protestant ‘free enterprise’) , which involved a very ‘masculine’ attitude of exploiting and ‘subduing’ the Earth to profit from it? A reverence for the Earth as ‘our mother’ was lost. At its outset capitalism could in some ways be regarded as a progressive force, promoting individual liberty against feudal bondage. But now in the twenty-first century, unrestricted capitalism, whose engine is continual growth, is endangering the Earth, the planet, as well as indigenous peoples and animals. And we can’t put away ‘our mother’ in a geriatric home and hope to inherit from her in due course. If she dies, we do.
Is the symbol of an earth-goddess ready for a revival? asks Morton at the end of his article. And at the end of his, Smith calls for ‘a public debate with Pagans and Hindus both of whom have a much stronger and clearer understanding of the feminine, a far more honest appreciation of the earthiness of Earth.’
If Mary is a sort of Mother goddess, why is she a virgin? In a patriarchal society a virgin wife guaranteed to a man that the child she bore was his. Even nowadays, the Prince of Wales who, we are told, at one time had two married mistresses on the go at once, was encouraged, probably even by them, to take a virgin bride. So perhaps a virgin mother of a divine child guaranteed that God was the father. Matthew puts Joseph’s viewpoint. When he discovered she was pregnant he resolved to ‘divorce her quietly’ until an angel told him not to. Luke puts Mary’s perspective. She asks the angel how she can become pregnant since she is a virgin. The angel replies in metaphorically sexual language: ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ so that your child will be called the Son of God. The Church’s obsession with virginity seems misplaced. By her ‘Fiat– so be it’ Mary consents to this ‘overshadowing’. The Advent liturgy has some beautiful sexual imagery, such as the Rorate caeli: ‘Skies drop down dew and clouds rain down the Just One; Earth, open and sprout and Saviour.’ In other religions gods often beget children from mortal women and not all the indigenous mother goddesses, with whom Mary is identified, are virgins. Far from it.
As well as smashing up Mary’s shrines and images, some types of Protestants abolished Christmas Day. They did not want to celebrate the story of a mother giving birth to a marvellous child who would bring hope to the world. And I did wonder whether the practice of some sects of sitting in silence is another ‘rebuke’ to women, who were often condemned and punished for talking too much, as ‘gossips’ and ‘scolds’, ducked in ponds, hunted as witches who cast spells…
We are intelligent material beings, each of us made by a mother, not out of nothing but out of herself, her own flesh and blood. So let women be praised and respected, not as pale virgins shrouded in snow, but as mothers and, like the Earth, as active producers of all kinds of goods, including as mathematicians, mechanics, musicians, priests, presidents, and poets, as rational creatures. Let them not have wilful obstacles put in their way or be excluded from fields in which they could do good work,. And let the Earth be praised and respected, poetically represented as a goddess maybe, studied by science and looked after by good husbandry; we cannot do without this mother not just for a few months in the womb and a few at the breast, but ever. It remains for Sofia to wish all our readers a merry Christmas.