(Essay) The Divine Mother and the Holy Child: The Inner Meaning of Christmas by Harita Meenee

Artemis Courotrophos holding a little girl. Second half of 5th c. BCE. Brauron Museum. Photo by the author.
Artemis Courotrophos holding a little girl. Second half of 5th c. BCE. Brauron Museum. Photo by the author.

A female figure tenderly holding a baby in her arms, offering her breast: an image so familiar and yet so magical at the same time! It recalls our own infancy as it carries a subconscious nostalgia of the sweet moments that we lived in Mother’s embrace. This is a truly universal experience recurring through countless millennia of our species’ existence on the planet.

Mother and Child, two intertwined figures depicted countless times in stone and clay or on the colored surfaces of temples and tombs. Over the centuries they have been vested with a number of meanings and symbolisms; they even acquired a divine quality as they never ceased to speak to the human soul. For those of us raised within Christianity, the sweet face of the Virgin Mary holding little Jesus spontaneously comes to mind. Yet, if we look deeper in time, we’ll see a variety of pre-Christian “Madonna and Child” images.

The Courotrophos and the Nursing Isis

One of these images comes from the Neolithic settlement of Sesklo, in Thessaly, in central Greece. It is a clay figurine of a woman seated on a stool, holding a baby in her arms. Archaeologists date this fascinating find to 4800-4500 BCE. Equally ancient, perhaps even older, are certain figurines from Mesopotamia. One of these portrays a woman with a reptilian face, an unmistakable sign that it was intended to convey multiple meanings [1].  A similar artifact unearthed in the Mediterranean island of Cyprus has a bird’s face. The combination of human andanimal features in art indicates the mythic dimension of these beings – these are not human women, but most probably goddesses with their divine offspring.

The Neolithic courotrophos from Sesklo, Thessaly, central Greece. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo by the author.
The Neolithic courotrophos from Sesklo, Thessaly, central Greece. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo by the author.

The goddess holding or nursing an infant was given the epithet courotrophos in ancient Greek. The word derives from the verb trepho, “nourish” or “raise”, and the noun, couros, “boy,” or coure (alternately spelled core or kore), “girl” or “maiden.” This title was attributed to a variety of goddesses; one of them was Artemis, in her capacity as protectress of children; another one was Eileithyia, the patron of childbirth. One can hardly consider it a coincidence that the same title was also given to the Virgin Mary. A famous Byzantine hymn in her honor, known as the Akathist, which is still in use by the Greek Orthodox Church, addresses her as follows: “Hail, fair courotrophos of virgins” [2].

However, the most widespread courotrophos image before Mary came along was that of Isis, who was often shown holding or breastfeeding the young Horus.

Isis with the young Horus. Copper figurine. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo by the author.
Isis with the young Horus. Copper figurine. National Archaeological Museum, Athens, Greece. Photo by the author.

She is the archetypal Mother, radiating affection, compassion, and kindness. Her origin is lost in the depths of time—she dates from predynastic Egypt (known as Kemet in ancient times), i.e., prior to 3100 BCE. In Hellenistic and Roman times, the worship of Isis spread around the Mediterranean as she was identified with a host of other goddesses. Her Mysteries magnetized emperors, intellectuals, such as Plutarch, Apuleius, and Herodes Atticus, as well as ordinary people.

It has become a common secret that the iconography of the Madonna and Child is based on the depiction of Isis and Son. Yet their similarities don’t end there. For example, the Egyptian Mother was called “Queen of Heaven,” a title which was later attributed to the Virgin by the Roman Catholic Church. Interestingly, Mary also found herself in Egypt, along with little Jesus, in order to avoid the “massacre of the innocents,” according to the Gospel of Matthew (2.13-23). So, what if the historicity of these events is disputed by experts? Every religion is a blend of history and myth; thus, biblical narratives must be examined not only from a literal but also from a symbolic perspective.

Let us not forget that the Virgin has sometimes been honored as a goddess, a phenomenon that some have called “Mariolatry.” One of the early groups that venerated her as Divine Mother was called “the Collyridians” by Epiphanius (315-403 CE), a Christian bishop who wrote against various “heresies” of his time in his work Panarion or Medicine Box (78-79). The collyris, from which the sect got its name, was the sacred bread they offered to the Mother of God. It is worth noting that this cult appeared in Arabia during the 4th century CE and was particularly popular with women—as a matter of fact, it even included female priests. Maybe Arabia sounds like a faraway place to the Western reader, yet according to Epiphanius, the Collyridians’ teachings originated from Thrace, an area to the north of Greece, where powerful goddesses were once worshipped.

Naturally, the kind bishop makes sure to inform us that the Collyridians’ ideas are nothing but “womanish madness.” In his words, “the female sex is easily mistaken, fallible and poor in intelligence. It is apparent that through women the devil has vomited this forth” [3]. However, although the Church has used all fair and unfair means to eliminate such forms of Mariolatry, it hasn’t quite achieved its purpose.

The figure of the Virgin, although marginalized in Protestantism, has left an indelible mark on both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic faiths. The endless miracles attributed to her, the countless churches named in her honor, and the innumerable images of her all bear witness to that. The crowds of pilgrims that flock to her famous church on the Greek island of Tinos, as well as those that journey to Notre Dame in Paris or to any other place of her worship don’t allow room for much doubt. Incidentally, it is worth asking how many of these sacred Christian sites were once dedicated to goddesses in ancient times.

 The Goddess Demeter and the “All Holy” Priestesses

By tracing the figure of the Mother and the Divine Child through the centuries, we can see Christmas taking on a different, archetypal dimension. This holiday can turn into an initiation into the mysteries of the human mind, which outwardly projects its timeless symbols. If we accept the theories of C. G. Jung, the father of archetypal psychology, religion and myth are a reflection of our internal reality: “Myths … have a vital meaning. Not merely do they represent, they are the psychic life of the primitive tribe… A tribe’s mythology is its living religion… But religion is a vital link with psychic processes independent of and beyond consciousness, in the dark hinterland of the psyche” [4].

It is no coincidence that the celebration of Christmas was placed immediately after the Winter Solstice. As Carl Kerényi puts it, “the rising sun and the new-born child are just as much an allegory of the Primordial Child as the Primordial Child is an allegory of the rising sun and of all the new born children in the world” [5]. At the same time, the archetypal Child embodies the hope of something new coming, whether it is new life or the unseen potential gestating inside of us. In ancient Greek tradition, the Child took the forms of Dionysus, Hermes, Heracles, and even Eros.

If the Child symbolizes the quality of the new, the Mother may embody the power to bring this to light, whether it is a new being or an innovative creation. Thus, she can be simultaneously Mother Nature, who gives birth to everything, as well as the creative ability that dwells within us. Such symbolic figures possess multiple meanings as their roots reach deeply into the human soul.

As a result, it can hardly be accidental that the most important mystery cult of ancient Greece was focused on the primal Mother-Offspring dyad. Yet, in this case, the offspring was not a son but a daughter, known as Core or Persephone. According to Kerényi, “the figure of the child plays a part in mythology equal to that of the marriageable girl, or Kore, and mother” [6]. The most widely worshipped Mother of Greek religion is none other than Demeter, the protectress of agriculture, another aspect of age-old Gaia.

A women’s festival in honor of Demeter, called the Haloa (from the word halos: threshing floor), was celebrated close to the date of Christmas in Eleusis and other places. It took place on the 26 of the lunar month Poseideon, which approximately corresponds to December. A rich feast was organized to honor the goddess that nourishes people with her crops. Dionysus was worshipped too along with Demeter; in some myths he is portrayed as the son of the Core.

In the ancient mind, women’s fertility was inextricably tied to that of the Earth. During the Haloa, instead of celebrating the birth of a holy child by the Divine Mother, people honored her power to bear fruit. To stimulate this power they used sympathetic magic. The banquet also included certain sweets, much as in modern Greece where we make special Christmas candies called kourabiedes and melomakarona. However, there is an important difference: it is said that the Haloa sweets had the shape of female and male genitals. It is believed that similar objects were planted into the soil, symbolically representing a Sacred Marriage [7].

Occasionally, the Virgin Mary and Demeter come close to each other. Greeks and the Eastern Orthodox Church commonly call Mary Panaghia (pronounced pah-nah-YEE-ah), from the word pan, “all,” and aghia, which means “holy” or “female saint.” Interestingly, some scholars believe that the priestesses of Demeter in her most sacred sanctuary at Eleusis had the same or a very similar title (plural panagheis or panaghiai). According to the famous Byzantine dictionary of Hesychius of Alexandria, panaghia is “a priestess who does not have intercourse with a man” [8].

There are other intriguing similarities between the Mother of God and Demeter. The bread was considered the goddess’ gift to humankind, as she was the giver of the wheat and other grains. Interestingly, the bread is also associated with the Virgin. No, I am not referring here to the heretical Collyridian women of the 4th century, but to Orthodox Christians of the Byzantine Empire, both monks and emperors. The bread they offered to Jesus’ mother was called panaghia while the special tray on which it was placed was called panaghiarion. Similar rituals are still part of contemporary Orthodox liturgies.

Here is another intriguing piece of information: the modern inhabitants of Eleusis, who were Arvanites (Albanian-speaking Greeks), venerated the goddess of agriculture even during the early part of the 20th century, sometimes identifying her with Mary. In his book, Eleusis in Modern Times (1993), Vangelis Liapis says the following about these people: “They believed in Jesus Christ and in Saint George the rider, liberator of the powerless, but they also believed in the indestructible force of the Earth, who gave life to all living beings. Women blended Panaghia with the goddess Demeter. It had become a custom to call her ‘Aghia (Saint) Dimitra’” [9]. Today, at the site of the Eleusinian Sanctuary there is a small church dedicated to the Virgin Mary.

 The “Holy Night” of Initiation

Myths and religions inevitably include a variety of meanings and can be seen from diverse perspectives. So, there will always be those who will insist on seeing Christmas literally, as if it is about the birth of a real baby from a human mother. Yet there is another, more symbolic interpretation: the birth of the Divine Child in the dark and cold of the winter recalls initiatory experiences. Initiation is often described as the death of the old self and the birth of the new.

The “holy night” of Christmas brings to mind the “great night” of the Eleusinian Mysteries. Moreover, both Demeter and Isis were also goddesses of mystery cults. So, the archetypal Mother becomes an Initiatrix, guiding us down the path of rebirth with her wisdom. Perhaps it is no coincidence that, in some of the icons with young Jesus seated on Mary’s lap, she is called in Greek Odigitria, which can be translated as “Guide.”

Consequently, in psychological terms, Christmas reflects the birth of all those elements that have been gestating within us—the qualities that want to come to light through the darkness of the unconscious. The Mother represents the inner power that gives us rebirth; she is the life-giving source of creation. Perhaps the glowing infant smiling sweetly from the warmth of the manger is none other than ourselves. When theologians and priests say that “Christ is in us,” is it possible that what they really mean is just that?

NOTES

[1] This terracotta figurine comes from Ur and dates from 5500-4000 BCE. For an image see “Dea serpente,” “Raffigurazioni femminili nell’Antichità: NEOLITICO in Siria ed Iraq,” digilander.libero.it/Righel40/VEP/NEO/SYR/SYR.htm

[2] For the full text of the hymn, see “The Akathistos Hymn,” www.legionofmarytidewater.com/prayers/stand.htm. The Greek word khaire is often translated as “rejoice,” but I consider “hail” a more accurate translation since the verb khairo (rejoice) in the second person (khaire) was used as a common greeting.

[3] Epiphanius, Panarion (Medicine Box) 79, translated by Carolyn Osiek in Women’s Religions in the Greco-Roman World: A Sourcebook, ed. Ross Shepard Kraemer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004).

[4] C.G. Jung, “The Psychology of the Child Archetype,” in C.G. Jung and C. Kerényi, The Myth of the Divine Child and the Mysteries of Eleusis (New York: Bollingen Foundation, 1949; repr., New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993),  73. Citations are to the Princeton edition.

[5] Carl Kerényi, “The Primordial Child in Primordial Times,” The Myth of the Divine Child, 45.

[6] Ibid., 25.

[7] Τhe primary sources on the Haloa are Demosthenes 1385.2, Filochoros 161, and Lucian, Dialogues of the Courtesans 7.3. For the Haloa and the role of women in Eleusinian cults see also Joan Breton Connelly, Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2007), 64-69.

[8] For the virgin priestesses of Eleusis see Marguerite Rigoglioso, Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity (repr. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 171. Jennifer Reif believes that Demeter probably also had the title panaghia. See Reif, Mysteries of Demeter (York Beach, ME: Samuel Weiser, 1999), 42.

[9] Cited in Anastasios D. Stamos, “The Goddess Demeter in Modern Times,” Ninth Symposium of Attic History and Folklore, 23 June 2003, School Library, http://3gym-kerats.att.sch.gr/library/spip.php?article10.

Read Mago contributor Harita Meenee.