the Virgin Mary:

iconography, myth and symbolism of a goddess

Angie M. Kenna

In partial fulfillment of GHR 260, Dr. Janice Siegel.

Read my introduction

See my power point presentation

Check out my bibliography


Put the phrase "Blessed Virgin Mary" into any search engine. You will literally get hundreds of web sites devoted to the Virgin Mary from sites strictly devoted to publishing your prayer to the Holy Mother (and sending you a response from the Virgin) to sites with photographs from around the world of Virgin Mary apparitions. Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy alike revere Mary. One such site states, "The Catholic Church, taught by the Holy Spirit, honors this woman Mary, with filial affection and devotion as a most beloved mother". Clearly, any of the sites I visited, or the books I read, or even within my Catholic childhood, make the point that Mary is not a goddess, rather she embodies human compassion and becomes the mother of all Christians. But when outsiders encounter the Litany of Loreto, for example, which outlines over fifty names and titles for Mary, the line between veneration and goddess worship becomes blurred.

In lieu of our knowledge in the twenty-first century about the biological realities of birth and conception, the Immaculate Conception, or virgin birth of both Mary and Jesus, can seem mythological. With only five references in the New Testament outside of the birth narrative in Matthew and Luke, it appears counterintuitive that such a minimal figure would be given such a high status in Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But for these Christians, Mary is the central figure of worship outside of the Trinity (the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit). Venerated as both a virgin and a mourning mother, Mary represents all that is pious, holy and good in women. She serves as a role model and as an anti-Eve, literally conceived and born without original sin.

Marian worship in the Mediterranean can be traced, through archaeology and written information, to the fourth century CE. The second council of Nicea (787 CE) felt the need to address the cult status of Mary by declaring officially that full adoration is for God alone, but Mary was due a larger amount of veneration that other saints. In a number of ways, Mary’s iconography, attributes and place in certain communities of believers adopted prevalent goddess attributes that were circulating in the Mediterranean. Various aspects of Greco-Roman religion and culture in the Hellenistic period all have an influence in the development of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox veneration of Mary as both a virgin and a mourning mother.

I will be exploring the ways in which the New Testament's presentation of the Virgin Mary mirrors the Greek hero myth pattern. My argument is not that the pagan goddesses of the Greco-Roman pantheon became the Mary of Christianity, rather, I will be exploring how Mary of the Gospels arose within a specific religious discourse and historical context and conversely how cults and rituals surrounding certain goddesses resembles rituals around some cults of Mary. By examining the birth narrative of Jesus as mirroring the Greek hero myth and the subsequent stories surrounding Mary, as both a virgin and mother, I want to explore how early Jesus followers mirrored the cult mystery religions of the Mediterranean by using the same topoi of hero birth narratives.

By first tracing how Hellenization influenced Judaism, the Synoptic Gospels reveal the influence of the Greco-Roman world on their symbolic world. In this way, the birth narratives of the Synoptic Gospels and Apocryphal gospels have some striking similarities to a number of Greek myths involving hero birth stories.

By examining symbols of Mary and symbols surrounding the "Immaculate Conception", we can recognize similar symbols of the goddesses of the Greco-Roman world and other hero conception scenes. Also, the Catholic idea of Mary's perpetual virginity will be examined as part of the yearly ritual activity stemming from myth surrounding Hera and Aphrodite. By examining Isis' cult and her iconography, particularly how it manifested itself in the Roman world, the similarities and similar attributes of the "Mourning Mother" will be examined.

Picture Bibliography

Cover:Aguilar, Fernando. Virgin of the Light; 19th c.. From

Page 1:From the website


Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1998.

Ashe, Geoffrey. The Virgin. London: Routledge, 1976.

Benko, Stephen. The Virgin Goddess: Studies in the Pagan and Christian Roots in Mariology. New York: E.J. Brill, 1993.

Brown, Raymond. The Birth of the Messiah. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

Carroll, Michael P. The Cult of the Virgin Mary: Psychological Origins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986.

Crossan, John Dominic. The Birth of Christianity. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1998.

Graves, Robert. The Greek Myths. London: Penguin Books, 1955.

Hall, Nor. The Moon and the Virgin: Reflections on the Archetypal Feminine. New York: Harper & Row, 1994.

Harris, Stephen and Gloria Platzner. Classical Mythology: Images and Insights. Mountain View, CA: Mayfield Publishing, 1995.

Johnson, Luke Timothy. Introduction to the New Testament. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

Kraemer, Ross Shepard. Her Share in the Blessings: Women's Religions among Pagans, Jews and Christians in the Greco-Roman World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

ed. Kraemer, Ross Shepard. Women and Christian Origins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Lefkowitz, Mary R. Women in Greek Myth. London: Duckworth, 1986.

Lerner, Gerda. The Creation of Feminist Consciousness. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Ed. Miller, Robert J. The Complete Gospels: Annotated Scholars Version. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1992.

Riley, Gregory. One Jesus, Many Christs. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997.

Staples, Ariadne. From Good Goddesses to Vestal Virgins: Sex and category in Roman Religion. London: Rutledge, 1998.

Ed. Suggs, M. Jack. Oxford Study Bible: Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Turcan, Robert. Cults of the Roman Empire. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 1996.

Warner, Marina. Alone of All her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976.

Annotated Web Sites Bibliography

This site is a devotional site for Catholics and the worship of Mary. While I did not use any written information from this site, I did use images, which I have internally documented, from this site.

This site written by the mysterious Joseph Catholic is a personal, but professional, web site called the Catholic Webatorium, which is devoted to sites that Jo catholic created for other Catholics. Again, I took no information, but I took some images from his Blessed Virgin Mary Art Page. This page of Renaissance Catholic images dedicated to the Holy Mother Of God, Our Lady contains about twelve art images of the Virgin Mary.

This is an Ancient History Sourcebook, specifically, I used Lucius Apuleius (c. 155 CE) mention of Isis, Queen of Heaven, from the Metamorphoses or the Golden Ass. Book 11, Chapter 47. Adapted by Paul Halsall from the translation by Adlington 1566 in comparison with Robert Graves translation of 1951.

Written by AJ Maas, this article, "Virgin Birth of Christ", addresses the Catholic Churches official position and teachings on the virgin birth as well as examining different theories as to the origin of the virgin birth, such as, Jewish background and pagan sources. The Catholic Encyclopaedia, which is where this article comes from, does a surprisingly good job of trying to present all sides of the story as well as thorough documentation, while naturally, they present the Catholic Church’s official teachings.