Ch. 3 The Mother in Judeo-Christian Theology

Chapter 3 of Motherhood Mythology

by Glenys Livingstone

“The evangelical has a strong suspicion that the deepest roots of the Marian cult are not to be found in the Christian tradition at all. The religious history of mankind shows a recurring tendency to worship a mother goddess … may it not be the case … that what we have here is in reality an older religion, a paganism … ?”[i] Ashe powerfully argues that the world’s nostalgia created a place in theology for Mary, the mother of Christ[ii] … it was not an eruption of Gnosticism, nor was it devised by the hierarchy … the bishops and intellectuals merely took it in hand afterwards.[iii] He argues that Mariology was a religion in its own right, citing the Collydrians who offered bread in Mary’s name,[iv] and it was clerical and antifeminist silence that kept this religion hidden.[v] He also points out that although Judaism “tried to keep the Female out”[vi]. She crept back sometimes tormented and disgraced as Lilith, sometimes triumphant, as Wisdom. Where Jews began to hope for immortality, bodily resurrection, Wisdom is the guide, hovering “strangely alongside the more approved comfort of Messianic promise.”[vii]

According to Ashe, the Christian church of the fifth century integrated into itself the flourishing Mariolatry of the time … thus taking the sting out of a rival religion and co-incidentally building itself up in a time of chaos and weakness.[viii] Mary, as Mother, as womb, represented refuge in an age of peril and insecurity. It was well received by the people when the church proclaimed Mary as Mother of God at 431 in Ephesus.[ix] Ashe argues that Christianity would not have survived as an effective religion without the apotheosis of Mary, without the Church’s swallowing of its “shadow-religion”[x] which “filled the gap between earth and heaven, satisfied ancient needs, fulfilled ancient myths, which Jesus could not.”[xi] Warner notes that veneration of Mary was encouraged at “times of stress and entrenchment.”[xii]

untitled77In the hieros gamos of Christianity, Mary becomes Queen of Heaven, the bride figure of Christ, her Son. This is apparently a reversal of the situation as it was with the Great Mother and her Son, certainly at least in the conscious mind of Christianity, where the Christian is aware of Mary’s daughter-like status, where it understood that Christ gave her this equality, not allowing his unsullied mother to suffer the corruption of the grave.[xiii] But perhaps Jung is right, and in the unconscious mind symbols have a life of their own … so in the unconscious mind this union of Mary and Jesus is still in fact the union of the Mother Goddess and her Son/Lover. Ashe called this pairing of Mary and Jesus a “Goddess shaped trap” for Christians, but undeniably the power of this imagery has been leached out, to serve other political ends. Indeed in some ways Mary is very unlike the Mother of old. Warner notes Jung’s acclamation of the Assumption as the most important event since the Reformation, since, as Jung believed, it represented a recognition of the Female in the Godhead; but Warner protests that he overlooked the kind of woman who had been permitted this … one who was extolled for her submission, modesty and humility.[xiv] Where once the Mother was virgin because of her autonomy, in Mary she is virgin because she is asexual, and so that Jesus could be said to be divine. Where once the Mother had a dark, negative aspect, in Mary she is drowned in light, with no shadow side within her … perhaps only where she is depicted holding her dead son, as in Michelangelo’s Pieta, does she come symbolically close to the darkness of the One of old.[xv] An image that most typifies the Christian Goddess that is most unlike the Great Mother, is the image where Mary takes her stand with the snake, she stands triumphant with the snake crushed beneath her foot! The serpent, formerly an essentially ambivalent symbol, pertaining both to light and dark, constructive and destructive, both aspects of the cycle, is now portrayed as simply malicious and emblem of death everlasting … the Divine Mother is now at war with it.

Ultimately, Mary is understood to answer to a Father-God … she is daughter. Power, awesomeness and centrality are only hers by privilege and miracle, not by nature. “For the first time in human history the mother kneels before the son.”[xvi] As servant, de Beauvoir says, “woman is entitled to the most splendid deification.”[xvii] Despite this, if pushed to the point, perhaps the Fathers of the Church would admit that it had been like trying to hold a bubble of air in the bottom of a fish tank … its tendency is always to rise to the open air where it belongs … and so is her tendency. In the aspect of the Immaculate Conception, Mary is reverenced alone … the child does not appear with her … an unmistakable image of the Virgin Mother.

At the root of the Judeo-Christian tradition there is a curse on the woman as mother, Eve’s part of the punishment. The inherited taint of female sexuality is overcome and transmuted in motherhood.[xviii] Unlike in Sumeria, where when a woman gave birth “she reproduced an act of cosmic significance. Her midwife recited the myth of mother goddess’ creation of humans.”[xix] In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has been conception that was valued as the essential creative act, and that was seen for a long time largely as a male accomplishment.[xx] In the Judaic tradition there is Lilith, said to be the first wife of Adam, who leaves, blasphemes, and rejects the child nurturing role prescribed for women … indeed she becomes a child murderer. Lilith is said to have usurped the “masculine” power of creativity, and thus to be extravagantly fecund. But as an autonomous female, it is demons she bears, and by the hundreds daily.[xxi] In the Jewish tradition the nurturant aspect of the mother is powerful. It even involves leadership, daring, and protectiveness on a societal level, even though only in times of crisis.[xxii] Kitzinger notes that the mother is becoming ever more ritually significant in Jewish life, since she is “more and more the individual upon whom the transmission of the culture exclusively depends”[xxiii] rather than the father. But generally it is still true that the “virtuous and God-fearing woman is one who gracefully accedes her creative role to the Deity, applauding his fertility when she is miraculously endowed with a child.”[xxiv] Barren women are a favourite theme in the Psalms, since God gets to prove his fertility. [xxv]

According to Fisher, the only thing that held the Judaic account back from total misogyny was that women were too highly valued as wives and producers of children, preferably sons … as expressed in the Niddah: “It is impossible for the world to be without males or females, but blessed is he whose children are boys and hapless is he whose children are girls.”[xxvi] Jewish historian Josephus ordered avoiding intercourse with pregnant wives, since their purpose in marriage was reproduction, not “self-indulgence”.[xxvii] But at least the mother’s life was valued over that of the foetus, unlike in later Christianity.

In the Christian tradition, St. Augustine called attention with horror to the obscenity of birth: “We are born between faeces and urine.”[xxviii] While Origen, Tertullian and Jerome thought that Mary had birthed in “blood and filth like all other women”,[xxix] the opinion of St. Ambrose and St. Agustine was that Christ’s was a virgin birth, and this opinion was prevalent for a time … “the body of the virgin remained closed.”[xxx] It was something of a problem that Jesus was born of a woman at all … “by the time of Aquinas, the undertow of misogyny in patristic thought was so strong that he had difficulty reconciling the creation … ‘male and female’ … in God’s image with woman’s inferiority.”[xxxi] The need to proclaim Mary as virgin came not from a real understanding of the term but out of fear of the tainting of the Son of God with sexuality, which was understood to be pronounced in the female. To medieval contemplatives Mary truly revealed her model humility in her willingness to accept the female destiny of bearing and suckling a child, to be subject, as other women, to her biology.[xxxii] But at the same time, she never really was regarded as other women, she was the exceptional woman … the one to attain the ideal of the female eunuch … with god’s help. Mary is honoured at the expense of all other women. Her virgin female body is celebrated as “sealed”, “pure”, a “closed gate”.[xxxiii] Catholic theologians join Neumann in his horror fantasy of the “yawning avid character of the gullet and the cleft … which as avid womb attracts the male and kills the phallus within itself in order to achieve satisfaction and fecundation, and which, as the earth-womb of the Great Goddess, as womb of death, attracts and draws in all living things.”[xxxiv] Mary was set apart from any possibility of this. Either woman is flesh and sexual … the hostile Other of Christian thought; or she is spiritual and asexual, and only then trusty enough to be venerated.[xxxv] As mother, she tends to be regarded as the latter, but Mary, as virgin mother, is supremely that. For the everyday woman still needing “churching” following childbirth,[xxxvi] she was proclaimed to need isolation for 40 days until clean following birthing;[xxxvii] the baptism of infants was never a celebration of birth, on the contrary it was a cleansing and a re-birthing of the infant – by a male priest in water sanctified by the Father-God.[xxxviii]

An aspect of Mary’s mothering that caused a minor tussle amongst the Fathers of the Church was whether or not Mary had suckled Jesus. At one point Mary’s milk was seen as an emanation of heaven, similar to that of more ancient Mothers, except that she was the nursing mother of penitents, visionaries and saints. Sophia (as Wisdom) suckled Peter and Paul … her milk was regarded as “the nectar of the spiritual life, through which death meets its defeat.”[xxxix] But by the 15th century, it had become immodest for Mary to bare her breast … lactation was seen as too human, indeed, part of the penalties of the Fall. Perhaps, word of the sensual pleasures of breast stimulation had gotten out.[xl] What this meant for Catholic women, was that they were prevailed upon to breastfeed, to submit to the biological destiny of the Fall. [xli] What this meant for Mary, who had been spared original sin, so she could be an uncontaminated vessel, was that she wouldn’t have indulged. Warner laments this as “the end of the road of one of Christian mysticism’s more potent images.”[xlii]

Another extremely powerful maternal image in Christian tradition is that of Mary as Mater Dolorosa, whose tears are the symbol of rebirth, life and purification with power to heal and make whole, just as Inanna’s tears brought flowers to the parched Sumerian soil.[xliii] As Mater Dolorosa, “Mary is wounded with the sweet pain of love. The mother of Love itself (Caritas) is herself transfixed with love in order that its sweetness may flow over the faithful.”[xliv] A powerful play about her that is extremely successful in engaging maternal passion is “Donna del Paradiso” by Jacopone da Todi (1230-1306). It focuses on the mother-son interaction around the son’s sacrifice … catching up the heart of the primitive religious mystery of which Harding spoke.[xlv] It is easy enough for women to identify with Mary’s pain of letting go. Woman’s actual experience as mother is here transported into the divine and ultimately validated, but it does have an indelibly patriarchal twist to it. It is not her-Self that waits to greet her at the end of her pain. In the Christian mystery, the son rises again and takes the mother to be with him forever … in a Heaven where he is now the authority. Such a dream of the patriarchal mother: for whom the loss of the son is ultimately powerlessness, ultimate deprivation.[xlvi] Such a dream of the patriarchal son: to conquer the mother.

Mary has come to personify all the qualities patriarchal cultures dream a mother should have … mercy, gentleness, kindness, indulgence, forgiveness. And these are qualities we all want to be on the receiving end of. But at the same time, almost every woman in this culture [xlvii] is expected to be a mother. [xlviii] Even women in religious life are expected to be maternal … maybe more so since in the aspect of virginity, as it is understood, they are closer to the Mary model. So it is women (mothers) who get to supply all these wonderful qualities, with little or no reprieve.[xlix] Erich Fromm describes mother-love as “unconditional” … “mothering means perfect love and nurturance”; he describes father-love as “contingent”.[l]

In Catholic theology Mary embodies this mother-love, she has been the eternal “soft touch” … through Mary penitents could get whatever they wanted. In her maternal aspect, Mary’s power is sovereign … she can subvert the course of justice, she has mercy beyond the Son’s justice. According to Maria de Agreda de Jesus, God set forth that “the demons shall fear her and be subject to her … whatever she ordains and disposes in my church … shall be confirmed by the three persona and whatever she asks … we shall concede.”[li] Ashe notes parts of Catholic tradition where Mary changed from the gentle Lady to whom Christians may turn for help into the unique being to whom they must turn to be sure of saving their souls.[lii] Such as the inaccessibility of God the Father and the Son. Such was the state of fatherhood. But the catch for Mary (and for aspiring “Marys”) is that her taps are never turned off … she never gets to say no. Mary’s answer is the eternal “Fiat”. And what happens is, the children continue to mess up (the cosmos) all they like, Mother will always tidy up.[liii] And then the children forget how to tidy up themselves … the Mother is secure in their dependency. And it all has to do with a Father who does not understand the children, who is never quite there and who tends to find his Law a higher priority. What power this mother has! What a price she pays! In the patriarchal context, a woman’s position as mother and giver is often her only chance for power/superiority … so she gives and gives. Women are going crazy, often literally, from trying to identify with this culture’s image of the “good mother” … “that omnipotent woman who can do no wrong, whose knowledge, understanding, patience and love magically overcome all problems large and small”[liv], that “Great Tit in the Sky” who is an endless, eternally available and unreserved source of selfless “perfect” love.

In Protestantism, where the image of a divine mother was rejected, where an “exclusively transcendent masculinity alone appears as the symbol of salvation”[lv], there is a harshness in the Divinity. The Protestant has to deal with an unforgiving Father, whose contracts are largely practically unbendable. The Deity at his worst presents as a terrible and fickle master who will have his pound of flesh, and even at his best he is powerless before his own rules. Fisher accounts a strengthening of the father’s authority in the home at the beginning of the 16th century, after the Reformation, and a change in parent-child relationships wherein children “ were seen as little animals whose will must be broken and who must be kept in total subjection to the authority of elders and superiors … father first, then mother.”[lvi]

If this is the state of the heavens when the Father/Son rules, then surely it is preferable to plant a Mother there. The one mythology informs the other and vice versa. But for whom is this Mother preferable? I propose she is not preferable for anyone.

(c) Glenys Livingstone 1984


[i] Geoffrey Ashe, The Virgin, p. 7, quoting from The Blessed Virgin Mary eds E.L. Mascall and H.S. Box, (Sarton, 1963), p. 70.

[ii] Ibid., p 39.

[iii] Ibid., p. 148.

[iv] Ibid., p. 150.

[v] Ibid., p. 157.

[vi] Ibid., p. 23.

[vii] Ibid., p. 29.

[viii] Ibid., p. 192.

[ix] Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, p. 65.

[x] Ashe, Virgin, p. 196.

[xi] Ibid., p. 169.

[xii] Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, p. 104.

[xiii] She is unsullied, because she is asexual. I will speak more of this later.

[xiv] Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, p. 132.

[xv] Neumann, Great Mother, Plates 46 and 47.

[xvi] Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex, p. 160.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Kitzinger, Women as Mothers, p. 202.

[xix] Rachel Adler, ‘A Mother in Israel,’ in Beyond Androcentrism: New Essays on Women and Religion. Ed. Rita Gross, p. 241.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Ibid., pp 242-243.

[xxii] Ibid., p. 249.

[xxiii] Kitzinger, Women as Mothers, p. 202.

[xxiv]Adler, ‘Mother in Israel,’ in Beyond Androcentrism: New Essays on Women and Religion. Ed. Rita Gross, pp. 242-243 (emphasis mine). This, although in the Jewish tradition, Yahweh has most of his work done when it comes to conception. A woman is regarded as unclean for seven days after menstruation stops, then she immerses herself in running water and that night it is obligatory for husband and wife to have intercourse. That night also corresponds to the usual time of ovulation.

[xxv] Ibid., p. 243.

[xxvi] Quoted by Fisher, Woman’s Creation, p. 362.

[xxvii] Ibid., p. 359.

[xxviii] De Beauvoir, Second Sex, p. 156.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid

[xxxi] Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, p. 58.

[xxxii] Ibid., p. 202.

[xxxiii] Ibid., p. 73.

[xxxiv] Neumann, Great Mother, p. 171.

[xxxv] Helene Cixous expresses the split well in “The Laugh of the Medusa”, p. 884. “She riveted us between two horrifying myths: between the Medusa and the Abyss … Let the priests tremble, we’re going to show them our sexts! … wouldn’t the worst be, isn’t the worst, in truth, that women aren’t castrated, that they have only to stop listening to the Sirens (for the Sirens were men) for history to change its meaning? You have only to look at the Medusa straight on to see her. And she’s not deadly. She’s beautiful and she’s laughing.”

[xxxvi] McLaughlin, Equality of Souls, in Religion and Sexism. Edited by Rosemary Radford Reuther, p. 230.

[xxxvii] Kitzinger, Women as Mothers, p. 95.

[xxxviii] “Thus they (the priests) brought the lowly maternal function of birth incompetently and even grudgingly performed by males to a higher and more spiritual level.” Mary Daly, Beyond God the Father (Boston: Beacon, 1973), p. 195.

[xxxix] Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, p. 95.

[xl] Fisher notes on p. 386, the aristocratic custom, during the Middle Ages, of sending children away to nurse at the breast of a country woman. Poor women had both the benefit of the birth control effect of lactation plus the sensuality –besides the religious life, this was one way to avoid incessant pregnancies.

[xli] Warner, Alone of All Her Sex, p. 204.

[xlii] Ibid.

[xliii] Ibid., pp. 222-223.

[xliv] Ibid., p. 210.

[xlv] See chapter 1, p. 13.

[xlvi] Adrienne Rich deals in depth with the mother-son relationship in Of Woman Born, pp. 184-217, and also notes on p. 112 Philip Slater’s awareness in The Story of Hera (Boston: Beacon, 1968) of the mother’s over-involvement with the son occurring within a social context in which motherhood is woman’s only role.

[xlvii] And in other Cultures, according to Sheila Kitzinger’s Women as Mothers.

[xlviii] See Jessie Bernard, The Future of Motherhood, p. 19. She notes this social expectation and the exceptions. She documents the process, pp. 24-29.

[xlix] Some words of advice to women becoming mothers quoted by Penelope Washbourn in Becoming Woman, p. 118, from Joyce Brothers in Woman (New York: McFadden-Bartlett, 1961), pp. 113-114, 117: “it all adds up to offering your husband only your best self. Forego the luxury of indulging in moods of irritability, discontent and enjoy … your problem is to be sure you remain a woman, just as alluring, feminine and interesting to your husband as before the advent of the child.”

[l] Erich Fromm, Art of Loving (New York: Bantam, 1963), p. 55.

[li] In the City of God, p. 569. Cited by Warner, Alone of all Her Sex, p. 329.

[lii] Ashe, Virgin, p. 203.

[liii] Mother Mary, Mother Earth –the same is expected. There is an assumption of the Christian-informed West that ‘Mother Earth’s is an endless resource, and we don’t have to be concerned about pollution (sin). She will fix it. She can cope. Rosemary Radford Reuther deals in depth with this issue in New Woman New Earth (New York: Seabury, 1975), pp 186-196.

[liv] Jane Lazarre, The Mother Knot, p. 1.

[lv] Rosemary Radford Reuther, New Woman New Earth, p. 56.

[lvi] Fisher, Woman’s Creation, p. 391.

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