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Exploring Gender and Paganism within Christianity's DNA

During the Reformation Protestants accused Catholics of harbouring ideas that were less Christian than Greco-Roman i.e. pagan. It was a deft political move which – in one fell swoop – threatened to dissolve a union (long taken for granted) between Christianity and its Hellenic substructure; a merger that had almost been immediate given most scholars agree the Gospels were written in koine Greek (a minority subscribe to Peshitta primacy).

Whereas Christians had traditionally believed their Semitic faith had displaced or fulfilled paganism (and restructured imperial identity accordingly), Protestants argued this development had been nothing more than a shoddy graft, a sham, a poor compromise in which the Church had performed lots of cultural acrobatics in bad faith.

This meant the Church – specifically the “Roman Catholic” one in the pejorative sense – had absorbed several dangerous notions. One of which was the cult of the goddess, which manifested in mariolatry, an extreme veneration of the Virgin which, first, distracted from the worship of God; second, bordered on idolatry; third, bestowed Mary with supernatural agency in her own right; and fourth, appeared to have an effeminising effect. According to this view, Christians had less imposed biblical precepts on Roman society than anointed pagan tenets. Traditionally, however, it would have been difficult to argue that Mary could be confused with any divinity in her own right given a fundamental principle of Mariology was that it was precisely Mary’s humanity that bestowed the mantle of full humanity on Christ’s full divinity. Neither was Mary’s gender praised for its own sake (it didn’t emphasise, like the worship of Cybele, Isis or Caelestis, the feminine aspect of divinity) but for the fact she is Man’s liberator from it; she is seen as the origin of the various henoseis (unions) famously outlined – at a very base level – by St Paul (Gal. 3:28, Col. 3:11). Maximos the Confessor, for instance, wrote in Questiones ad Thalassium (48) that Christ

“Unified Man, mystically abolishing by the Spirit the difference between male and female and constituting one free with respect to nature.”

Nobody slinks off the Protestant hook yet though. Even this “ungendered” vein of thought had pagan roots in that primordial unity discussed by Hesiod (c. 700 BC), who explained the existence of the world as a result of a series of separations. Plato’s Symposium also posited a primeval androgynous man split into male and female, both desiring to become one again because “Human nature was originally one and we were whole.”

The idea had Semitic roots, too, given Jewish mysticism framed the world’s first person as androgynous. The Eucharist may even conceal echoes of the hieros gamos (“sacred marriage”), the rites played out by the human participants in divine nuptials, given the (whole) bread is broken, then reabsorbed by the (whole) flock. This sentiment of an un-or-post-gendered whole finds articulation when the New Testament describes heaven as a place where “There will be no sexual differentiation because all will be like angels” (Mk. 12:18-25; Mt. 22:23-30; Lk. 20:27-36). In brief, redemption cannot occur without reuniting male and female. Mary contributes the femininity, mirroring the fatherhood of God, but Christ – the Son – is meant to transcend genders, a fact that’s perhaps accidentally reflected in artistic depictions of the Messiah as an epicene figure, or on a lower level the masculinisation of female ascetics in iconography.

Mary’s femininity is vouchsafed by the fact she “Did not know man” (Lk. 1:34). She symbolises the unspoiled site of creation when the “Spirit had moved over the fact of the waters” (Gen. 1:2). Just as the first virgin, Eve, was banished from Eden, then “knew” Adam and gave birth to Cain and his vices, so the second virgin Mary is primordially unspoiled, chooses to “know” God instead of the Tree’s knowledge, and gives birth to a second Adam, Christ, He who “Has made us one, and has broken the dividing wall of hostility… that He might create in Himself one new Man in place of the two, so making peace.”

It’s hard for academics to treat revelation as revelation, however. Revelation has an awful habit of forming an incomprehensible vox clamantis in deserto; something despairingly sui generis. Better to treat Mary as an idea, mostly because these possess genealogies that can be traced, poked and prodded.

The sheer diversity of the pagan pantheon is both a boon and a con to this endeavour. While Mary can hardly be said to reflect the Egyptian Sekhnet (goddess of plague and punishment) or the Roman Bellona (goddess of war), she shares elements of her personality with Magna Mater/Cybele (the goddess of earth, union, motherhood, and honoured in Asia Minor since at least 6000 BC) and Caelestis (queen of heaven). Scholars often get excited, for instance, about the fact Isis lactans prefigures Maria lanctans but the gap between the two is rather staggering considering the first western portrait is dated to the twelfth century while depictions of Isis stretch from 700 BC to AD 400, a chasm of seven centuries. Perhaps the closest pagan parallel to Mary and the Eucharist is Cybele and the taurobolium. The latter involved devotees standing beneath a grated pit as a bull’s throat was slit over them. In the criobolium it was a ram. Devotees emerged “Reborn in eternity.” Cybele’s hilaria (cheerful ones) rites also had a Eucharistic ring given they involved ritualised feasts. The formulae might sound Gnostic to us but the aphoristic tone is not dissimilar to statements made during the Eucharist. Clement of Alexandria noted that upon completion initiates announced “I have eaten from the drum, drunk from the cymbal. I have carried the cernos (vase). I have slipped into the bedroom/sanctum” (Protrepticus 2.15). Finally, there may be echoes of pagan goddesses in Revelation (12), which refers to a heavenly vision involving “A woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars [of the twelve apostles? Twelve Olympians? Later the EU stars?]; she was with child [Mary?] and cried out in the midst of her birth pangs.” The first incisive commentary on Revelation to come from the East was penned by Oecumenius in the sixth century who proposed a Mariological exegesis on this passage. Others, however, prefer the explanation that the woman is the Church, the moon symbolises the water of baptism, and the Church must suffer until Christ is born in the faithful.

Rev. 17 also has pagan undertones. It refers to seeing a woman “Upon a scarlet beast” which suggests figures like Cybele who rode a lion, or Artemis in her role as mistress of animals. The figure is also “Arrayed in purple” as most statues of Hera-Juno were. Overall, however, these probably form hat-tips to paganism as the Christian version of the Islamic jahiliyyah i.e. a time of ignorance, chaos and faustian pacts: “When kings receive power as but one hour with the beast” (17:12). They’re images acting as foils to the holy love and order that saturates the New Jerusalem (3:12; 21:2).

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