If the power of divinity was to be measured in the number of adherents, in the number of times they are invoked, in the number of images, statues, and icons depicting them, then Mary would be the most powerful of goddesses. The Christian Theotokos (“the one who gives birth to God”) has become ubiquitous, ecumenical, and multi-religious; an object of veneration for staunchly conservative Catholics, jaded post-modernists, indigenous peoples in Mexico, and Vodouisants alike. In her new book “Full of Grace: Encountering Mary in Faith, Art, and Life” author Judith Dupre takes us on a journey through the art, history, and traditions that surround Mary, dedicating an early chapter to the connections between Mary and pre-Christian pagan goddesses.
“While Mary’s role in salvation can be detected in writings before the Council of Ephesus, the title Theotokos is from Isis, who had been called both the “Mother of the God” and the “Great Virgin.” Isis’s popularity, in fact, peaked in the eastern Mediterranean just as Christianity began to spread. When Mary replaced Isis in popular devotion, she also assimilated her symbols, an appropriation that can be observed frequently in the formation of Christian iconography. The familiar description of Mary from the first-century Book of Revelation as a woman who is “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” correlates closely to a second-century description of Isis, who emerges from the sea, her ringlets crowned with a diadem, on her forehead a moonlike disc, and wearing a mantle scattered with stars and a full moon that radiated flames of fire. (This is also how Our Lady of Guadalupe would appear, centuries later and half a world away, on Juan Diego’s cloak.)”
Far from being a dry academic tome, the book is filled with quotations, poetry, art, and a travelogue of visits to Mary shrines and places of sightings. Dupre counts herself as a devotee to Mary, and credits Our Lady of Guadalupe (and image of Mary long thought to be a Christianized version of the Aztec moon goddess Tonantzin) with saving the life of her son.
“I’d like to think of it as a book of hours, providing different glimpses of Mary that can be contemplated, savored, in light of a number of life circumstances that we often have little choice but to accept. Most of all, I wanted to make Mary real because that’s how I’ve experienced her in my own life, not as a distant figure from the past but as a loving mother and a living example of empowered womanhood. In these times, which are difficult for so many, Mary models an ideal way to live—faithfully, with grace and radical acceptance of what is and what cannot be changed. She has responded with such wit to my many prayers that I can’t help but think she also has a good sense of humor. So I think she’d appreciate Full of Grace—after all, what other book on Mary quotes Woody Allen, provides a recipe for Italian pepper biscuits, and tells you where to get your hair done in Palestine? Mary is real in every way!”
With the feast day of Our Lady of Guadalupe fast approaching, not to mention Christmas, this is a perfect time for Pagans to consider the place of Mary in our world today, and how the veneration of her many aspects and images represents the divine feminine for billions.