Theotokos: How the Mother Goddess became Mary

The Theotokos of Vladimir dates from the 12th Century. It is reputed to have been protecting Russia ever since.

Mary becomes Mother of God: The year 431 A.D. was a momentous one in the history of the Queen of Heaven.  That’s the year the church fathers, meeting in Ephesus in modern day Turkey,  officially declared that Mary is Theotokos, literally, in Greek, the one who gave birth to God. More commonly her title is paraphrased as Mother of God.  This was an important political step, as it clarified for the theologians that Jesus was both God and man.  Perhaps just as importantly, however, it pacified the people, who were demanding that Mary be acknowledged as a divinity.

Technically, the church denied Mary as divine, as a Goddess, but in practical terms, it conveyed a sense of holiness which made her a viable rival to that other popular Roman/Greek/Egyptian hybrid Goddess of the time, represented variously as Diana, Cybele, and Isis.  As a result of their decision, Mary’s divinity has been able to shine through in art and writing and devotion of those who love her.

Beautiful artwork throughout the world depicts Mary holding her infant son exactly as Isis had done for thousands of years before her.  Many a home today displays a Christmas creche with Mary tenderly watching over the babe who is God incarnate.  Mary is referred to as Mother of God in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, which together represent the majority of the Christian faithful.

Many people pray to this Queen of Heaven to intercede for them and miraculous cures and protections of entire countries in war are attributed to her and to her icons.  The Vladimir Madonna, pictured above, is, for example, said to have saved Russia from Tamerlane in 1395, the Tatars in the 15th century, and even from Germany in World War II.  A similar icon in Cosenza, Italy, has a spot which is said to represent the icon’s having absorbed the plague in the 16th Century and protected the city’s residents from that dread disease.  And that’s just what her icons can do.

Here is a copy of what is claimed to be a very ancient prayer to Mary, dating to perhaps the 2nd or 3rd century:

We turn to you for protection,
Holy Mother of God
Listen to our prayers
and help us in our needs.
Save us from every danger,
glorious and blessed Virgin

Historical context of the year Mary was named Mother of God: The Roman Empire was in decline in 431 A.D.  In just over 40 years, according to many historians, the Western Roman Empire, based in Rome, would fall.  The West and East had split into separate empires by this time and the Eastern Empire would be ruled for another thousand years from Constantinople (now called Istanbul) in Turkey.  We don’t hear as much about the Eastern half in school these days, but when we do, it’s usually referred to as the Byzantine Empire.  The people who lived there, however, didn’t call themselves Byzantines.  They called themselves Romans.  Culture and learning continued there as the West sank into the Dark Ages and then developed the Medieval culture celebrated so often in legend and fairy tales.  As the West declined, though, Christianity was on the rise.

How did Christianity take over the West? It started about 100 years before the church fathers met in Ephesus, when the emperor of a then united Rome, Emperor Constantine, converted after a successful battle which he attributed to intervention by the Christians’ God.  The whole of Rome was converted officially under the later Emperor Theodosius in 391 AD. Then the empire split into eastern and western halves in 395 AD.  The eastern empire was ruled from Constantinople, a city which had earlier been founded by Constantine (hence the name) as a Christian city. Much later, in the 11th century, the religion of the east, including Greece, Turkey, and southeastern Europe, was to split from Roman Catholicism, becoming the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Orthodox worshipers, like Catholics, venerate Mary.

In the year 431,  though, the church was still more or less united and the church fathers met for the Third Ecumenical Council in Ephesus.  Every time they met like this, theological ideas would be made into official dogma, churches with different theological ideas would be declared heretics and some churches would peel off from “mainstream” Christianity and generally fade into obscurity.  This time, 250 bishops showed up to vote on whether Jesus was God and man both at the same time and, hence, whether Mary was literally the Mother of God.  The pro-Theotokos (Mother of God) faction was backed, not surprisingly, by the Egyptians, who venerated images of Mary reminiscent of those of Isis. Bribes were given and fighting ensued in the streets in the lead-up to the bishops’ vote on this question.  They voted yes, a group called the Nestorians went home really mad (also, heretics), and the crowds went wild, cheering in the streets when the vote was announced.

Model of the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. Photo by Zee Prime

Why the people loved it: To understand why church decisions are made and how they are received, it’s often very important to step outside the official documents and take a look at what else was going on at the time.  It’s no coincidence, surely, that Ephesus was home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis.  Artemis (Roman Diana) was a powerful Greek Goddess, one of the 12 Olympians, a Virgin who protected mothers and children, a huntress often associated with the Moon. Her beautiful temple at Ephesus was reputedly torn down stone for stone by a Christian mob about 30 years before the Third Ecumenical Council  met.

This statue of Artemis/Cybele shows her torso covered with breasts and her skirt covered with animals. It is from her temple at Ephesus and dates to the 1st century.

Artemis was, in Ephesus, merged, rather strangely, with the Earth Mother Goddess Cybele, who is the source of both the many breasted image of the Goddess (shown, left) and her association with animals. Perhaps most significantly, Cybele was the mother of a god-hero son Attis, who died and was resurrected by her.  Cybele’s worship in Turkey may have been very ancient indeed.  The Greeks considered her the Mother of the Gods, Magna Mater, and her symbolic images are consistent with those of a prehistoric Goddess worshiped in Turkey as early as 6,000 B.C. (That’s 2,000 years before some Biblical literalists believe the world began, and 4,000 years before Abraham became father of the Jewish people.  Also, obviously, 6,000 years  before the beginnings of Christianity.)

The simple fact of the matter, I believe, is that the people needed a divine mother.  They had worshiped one for thousands of years here and with the church becoming increasingly male, patriarchal, monotheistic and intolerant of other religions, the people needed an outlet for their deeply felt desire to venerate the feminine divine.  So it is perhaps no surprise that the people demanded that Mary be called Mother of God. And so she was.  From 431 on, devotion to Mother Mary would grow in art and architecture, song and hymn.  Prayers would go up to the Queen of Heaven, as they had for millennia, but increasingly it was by her new name, Mary, that the Great Mother would be called upon by the faithful.

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30 Responses to Theotokos: How the Mother Goddess became Mary

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  6. Vilhelm says:

    In absolutely no document or declaration of the Catholic Church has there ever been any mention of Mary as being divine! Some of the article’s statements are therefore intellectually dishonest, for it mentions “Mary’s divinity” several times, a notion which has been deemed heterodox and heretical for 2000 years. Simply put, no Catholic has ever professed that Mary was a divinity. Please correct! Thank you. Kindest regards, Vilhelm.

    • Paul says:

      Well, if she’s not divine then she is a copy or an imposter. Remove your head from your patriarchal arsehole and realise that Mary is God’s wife, mother of the gods and therefore mother of Yahweh. The epithetic similarities between Her and Asherah are too great. They are one and the same. And they reinforce both the Bible and Christianity in terms of truth and accuracy.

  7. Richard_VII says:

    Many Roman Catholic “fathers”, officials, formal “saints” and their estranged Eastern kin hold the Mary to be Divine, and many militate perpetually to make formal her de facto status as “Co-Redemptrix”. Starters: and . If God had a Mother, then God had a beginning, and the One who brings forth God is superior to God. If a being is Sovereign Ruler in a “Heaven”, that Being is Divine. “QUEEN OF HEAVEN – God has exalted Mary in heavenly glory as Queen of Heaven and earth. (Catechism 966) She is to be praised with special devotion.” (Catechism 971, 2675)”

    • Stephen C. Royal says:

      Vilhelm is correct. Richard VII quotes the Catechism; however, he misunderstands the meaning of “exalted” and “special devotion”. The Catholic and Eastern Churches (and all people, actually) have different kinds of “worship”. “Latria” is the worship to God alone. “Dulia” is a kind of worship, exaltation, and devotion that only gives respect, honor, and love (such as calling a judge “Your worship” or being “devoted” to a lover), The Catholic Church gives Mary “hyper-dulia”, but she is fully recognized as a creation of God, not a co-creator or co-goddess. Also, the idea of Co-Redemptrix is probably best described by Pope John Paul II. He said that Mary participated in redemption in a unique way, due to her intimacy with the Holy Spirit (who conceived Jesus Christ through her virginity). However, total redemption was achieved by Christ alone. Coredmptrix simply is a person who God, through his creativity and generosity, allows all of us to participate in (such as when we pray for others), and allows Mary to participate in a special way. But, she is not a goddess or God or Divine. (See his encyclical, Redemptoris Mater.) These categories and Catholic definitions of “worship” and “coredemption” are confused in a predominantly Protestant modern culture, which usually understands these terms differently. Richard’s misunderstanding of these definitions is a case in point.

      • Simone Streeter says:

        You are, naturally, missing the point entirely. But thank you for providing specific, if not arcane, examples of the contortions that people will put themselves through to maintain an advantageous (or perceived to be so) world view. Read: patriarchy.

        It sounds quite silly, from an objective view.

      • Rex says:

        Do u believe Mary Ascended into heaven too?

      • Gloria says:

        If Latria and Dulia are two forms of worship only one of which is offered and is acceptable to God, then the other is not acceptable to God. What exactly is it that Catholics give to Mary that is not acceptable to God? They invoke her and they invoke God. They meditate upon her and they meditate upon God. They petition her and they petition God. They offer her sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, and they offer to God sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving. They intrust her with their salvation, and they intrust God with their salvation. They consecrate themselves to her and they consecrate themselves to God. They prey to her and intreat her of her mercy, and they prey to God and intreat Him of his mercy. This double list goes on and on. Where then is the line drawn that separates these mirror images from each other so that one by it becomes Latria and the other Dulia? And what is the consequence of inadvertently crossing this line and offering to Mary those things which belong to God alone? Is there nothing that is reserved to God alone except His name?

  8. Reblogged this on Feminine Alchemy and commented:
    For eons, the feminine, Great Mother, has drawn us to her heart. Long before Mary, the Face of the Divine Feminine was known by many names. It is no wonder that in the mythos of Christianity that Mary became deified. People were never going to let her go, in spite of life-threatening charges of heresy.

  9. Aga says:

    “…with the church becoming increasingly male, patriarchal, monotheistic …”

    There is a lie people believe till these days – that the abrahamic religions are the FIRST mono-theistic religons on the planet. We must get rid of this lie! The FIRST ever monotheism has always been the worship of the Mother Goddess. This was the first mono-theism. The mother is always ONE -mono-dea- and the male comes out of her. Mother is always first and always ONE.

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  11. My historical interests range far and wide, but there’s a special place in them for western mythology. For some time, I wondered about the strange emphasis given by early christians on the mother of Jesus, but also suspected that the answer should lay on the culture being christianized at that very time.
    The mother goddess had been a central element for the greeks even before they became greeks (greek speaking people). If we take the very reasonable theory that a great part of greek culture and ethos comes from the pelasgians, themselves worthy representatives of the “Old Europe” (non hindo-european speakers), it’s somewhat natural to link the goddess worshiping tradition to the early christian tradition of Mary, the demigoddess.
    In this sense, the Mary worshipping tradition might have began even before the Danubian civilization, in the european caves of the Aurignacian culture, some 40,000 y ago.

  12. Richard_VII says:

    Gloria is right, and conservative. Mary of Roman Catholicism as of this stage in her evolution is divinely conceived, birthed her “only” child without breaking her virginal seal, was sinless, and ascended to heaven bodily where she presides as something like co-regent. I don’t know how the real Mary would feel about the latter church removing her other children from her…Jesus’s brothers and sisters. She bears little resemblance to the Mary of Matthew Mark Luke John and Acts.

    It would be a big help if someone could link to images of original images or idols of The goddesses who preceded Mary who bear striking similarities. There are a lot of words on the topic but not so much art and archaeology, though I could easily have missed

    Carisa, are you familiar with Margaret Barker’s works?

  13. Mollie Clark says:

    The Orthodox never split from the West. Orthodoxy is the first, oldest form of Christianity. The Catholics went rogue. Please refine the wording. Read about the Great Schism of 1054 AD (although it unofficially began much sooner). Appreciate the effort to have written on this subject.

  14. Greg Boyle says:

    Mary is in a sense God-bearer because Jesus Christ’s body and blood are divine. She however had a sin nature (she did not understand the will of God on several occasions). She is everything that the Word of God says she is, it is unwise to add to it.

    • Richard says:

      Agreed. One is forced to disregard what IS in the gospels & the rest of the New Testament about Mary in order to embrace Mary as immaculate, redemptive, mediatrix or medium between God/Father and men, perpetually virginal, and ascended. Her name was hijacked to Christianize the Queen of Heaven whose cult persisted in Egypt when the Jews were decimated and exiled to Assyria & Babylon. The cult of a feminine Deity, as the writer of this site well documented, is universal, morphing as required to persist. Change names, ethnic markers, and adornments, the underlying Spirit persists. Babylon the Great?

  15. Abe Mundt says:

    So in other words, former pagans didn’t want to give up their rituals and traditions. Rather than firmly call them to leave those rituals, the church indulged their(former pagans) pagan desires. An entire false doctrine regarding Mary had been believed for centuries simply because the church was monetarily manipulateable.

    • Richard says:

      Yes, but I would prefer to stay that popular “revelations” were received uncritically, gradually over several centuries from the 100’s to 4th century and really right up to today.
      Though some of these private novelties originated in the East, generally I think the eastern church tread more cautiously. It took a while for Artemis aka Queen of Heaven to take back her spot aside the “altar” in the East. Her rise, West and East, parallels the development of the mass as the core of ecclesial meetings but the connection between these is elusive. Despite much noise to the contrary, the apostolic early Christians did not “carryover from Judaism” the prototype liturgy of mass.

    • Richard says:

      Good post. I recommend to others that if daunted by the length, start at the chapter on Theotokos and work out from there, interests depending

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  17. Medusa says:

    The males protest too much… Brilliant article! Thank you!

  18. iwpchi says:

    Very interesting essay and for me it would appear that by deliberately using the council held at Ephesus the early Church fathers were engaging in some very shrewd ecumenical diplomacy in repairing what must have been a serious rift between the Church and the local & regional worshippers of Artemis/Diana that would have occurred when the Temple of Artemis/Diana was desecrated by early Christians. They took a page out of the old Roman playbook and “adopted” Artemis/Diana into the Christian pantheon (wink, wink!) in the guise of Mary. It would have been, as the author of this article suggests, a VERY popular move and would have facilitated the conversion of regional pagans to the Christian faith. It is patently absurd to assert that this wasn’t what happened and WHY it happened WHERE it happened – at Ephesus. N.B.: I found this article as I was looking up info on the recently destroyed Bartolome Esteban Perez Murillo painting “The Immaculate Conception of El Escorial” – which depicts Mary standing on a crescent moon. I wondered what the connection was and if it was a sly reference to Mary as Moon goddess… and a quick Google search landed me here! Thanks for the essay!

  19. Richard says:

    Good detail in this article which comments extensively on Stephen Benko’s book “The Virgin Goddess: Studies in the Pagan and Christian Roots of Mariology”

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