Mary As Goddess:



With her title “Holy Virgin,”
Mary joined the ranks of many other Goddesses with the same title: Athena,
Anat, Ishtar
, and others. Clearly, since many of these Goddesses are also
“Love Goddesses,” the ancient meaning of the word “virgin” differs from
our modern conception. “Virgin” indicated an independent autonomous woman,
a woman not required to answer to any man or child. The title had little
to do with abstinence from sexual intercourse (A, B, *).

In Christianity, much emphasis has been placed on Mary’s physical virginity
and on the virgin birth of Christ. This section will explore the origins
and implications of Virginity and Virgin Birth.

The Virgin Birth as Symbolic
The Virgin Birth as Literal
Virginity and Chastity
Virginity as a Phase of Life

The Virgin Birth as Symbolic

Joseph Campbell sees the virgin birth as symbolic, calling it “the birth
of spiritual [hu]man out of animal [hu]man,” and “the birth of compassion.”
He links the birth of Christ to the birth of Buddha, who was said to have
been born out of his mother’s side (C, p. 174-5). Campbell goes on to
state, “Heroes and demigods are born that way, as beings motivated by
compassion and not mastery, sexuality, or self-preservation. This is the
sense of the second birth, when you begin to live out of the heart center”
rather than from selfish motivation (C, p. 176).

The Gnostics (a sect of early Christians, authors of “secret gospels”)
also saw the virgin birth as symbolic, a union of the female Holy Ghost,
with the male Father God. They rejected the notion of a literal virgin
birth (D, p. xv, 53).

The Virgin Birth as Literal

Why is a literal virgin birth so important to Christians? Nearly all Christians
hold it as a main tenet of the faith because it confirms that Christ was
fully human, yet fully divine. Virgin birth has held different and similar
significances throughout history.

Several tribal cultures believe virgin birth
is an everyday experience. Although members of those cultures
freely engage in sexual intercourse, and although they understand
breeding in animals, they maintain that the tribal women are divinely
impregnated regularly. “For these tribes, virgin birth, conception
by the gods, was the essential symbol of their closeness to heaven.
. . . The tribesmen who believed that all children came from the
gods did not therefore experience any alienation. Their compact
with divinity was solid” (B, p. 46). “Different cultures have
used virgin birth to assert [hu]man’s natural distinction and
closeness to the higher orders” (B, p. 49).

In Greece, virgin birth commonly signaled the birth of a divine
(or semi-divine) human. “The virgin birth of heroes and sages
was a widespread formula in the Hellenistic world: Pythagoras,
Plato, Alexander were all believed to be born of women by the
power of a holy spirit” (B, p. 35). “Zoroaster, Sargon, Perseus,
Jason, Miletus, Minos, Asclepius, and dozens of others were God-begotten
and virgin-born. Even Zeus, the Heavenly Father who begot many
other ‘virgin-born’ heroes, was himself called Zeus Marnas, ‘Virgin-born
Zeus’ ” (A, p. 1049).


Joseph Stella The Virgin
1926 Brooklyn Museum

Much speculation among the early Church Fathers was devoted to the specific
method of Mary’s conception. Many of these theories were portrayed in
art, ranging from conception of The Word through her ear, to the infant
Jesus winging his way into her womb, to the seed of God flowing from his
mouth through a tube leading under Mary’s skirt (reminding modern readers
of artificial insemination!). (A, B, *) The accepted version today avoids
too much detail and is portrayed as the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove
alighting upon Mary’s head. Christians are asked to accept that the conception
was miraculous, regardless of the details.

All of the virgin births discussed so far are God-begotten births. Another
type of virgin birth is parthenogenesis, birth from woman alone. Cultures
whose beliefs include parthenogenesis usually are matrilineal and revere
the female over the male (B, p. 47).

Of course, literal virgin births are quite common today with modern scientific
technology. That a woman can become pregnant without undergoing sexual
intercourse is a well-documented fact. But such births are not usually
viewed as miraculous.

Virginity and Chastity

Catholics and some reformed-church Christians
believe that Mary was virginal before and after the birth of Jesus,
free from the taint of sex (or original sin) her entire life.
Many even believe that she was virginal during the birth
of Jesus. Some believe she took a vow of chastity as a girl. Similarly
those who are devoted to Mary are told that She demands sexual
chastity from her followers. (B) How did holiness come to be so
strongly linked to sexual abstinence?

The word often translated as “virgin” in biblical texts of Hebrew
origin was “almah,” which actually meant “unmarried woman.” Yet
early church fathers translated this as “a sexually chaste woman”
in the days of the early church, entrenching that meaning in Christianity
(A, B *). “The interpretation of the virgin birth as the moral
sanction of the goodness of sexual chastity was the overwhelming
and distinctive contribution of the Christian religion to the
ancient mythological formula” (B, p. 48).


As noted earlier, Love Goddesses were often entitled Virgin. In addition,
Virgin was a common title for sacred temple prostitutes, also called
“The Brides of God,”
another title Mary came to share (A).

This may seem shocking at first, but perhaps not quite so shocking when
we realize that we are back to the ancient definition: Virgin indicated
an independent autonomous woman, a woman not required to answer to any
man or child, a woman free to take lovers as she so chose (A, B, *). So
many of us have been taught to view sex as such a sinful, negative, violent
or lustful act that it is difficult to get our minds around the concept
of sacred sex.

Yet sex was sacred in ancient times. “The function of such ‘holy virgins’
was to dispense the Mother’s grace through sexual worship; to heal; to
prophesy; to perform sacred dances; to wail for the dead; and to become
the Brides of God” (A. p. 1049).


In the Apocryphal Book of James, Anna, Mary’s
mother, promises her to the temple, and Mary is taken there when
she is three. “And she danced with her feet, and all the house
of Israel loved her” (Book of James 7:2). The Jewish temples did
not accept girls, but the Goddess temples did. Accounts such as
this give rise to speculation that Mary was dedicated to a Goddess
temple, and give credence to Walker’s theory that much of Christian
myth is based upon the
Temple teachings and practices that were
prevalent in Jerusalem at the time (A).

Kinstler has written a seamless fictional account
of the story of Mary and Christ along these lines, based on scholarly
evidence (E).

Virginity as a Phase of Life

In lore and art that has survived through the centuries, The Goddess is
usually portrayed as a trinity (the original trinity!) of Virgin, Mother,
Crone. Often “Maiden” will be substituted for “Virgin” to de-sexualize
the word. Each phase of the Goddess represents the a phase in ordinary
women’s lives.

The Virgin or Maiden phase is marked at the onset of menstruation, the
transformation of a child into a young woman. In this phase we celebrate
the freedom of youth, expressed so eloquently in this dramatic poem by

Spring’s daughter,
Full of Herself and Her blooming
Her Becoming
Her skin, flowering fresh petals
dew-pink, golden or brown
Her blushing parts vibrant
burgeoning with Possibility
Oh the Possibilities in Herself
the blossoming of Herself
the belonging to Herself

Not belonging to mother,
not to father,
not to lover,
The Virgin belongs to Herself alone!

Youth exultant
Exulting in Her first bleeding
Exulting in Her connection to the earth
Exulting that She cycles with the moon
Exulting in Her magically transforming body

She–waxing, incipient
She–the sliver of New Moon
barely becoming
Hebe–the Virgin Moon!

This is the temple of Hebe, Virgin
In this temple, we celebrate spring
and all new beginnings,
starting over, renewing ourselves.
In this temple, we celebrate gifts that come unbidden,
being full of possibility,
pregnant with potential.
This temple of becoming! (F, p. 149 – 52)


candles Perhaps in honoring Mary as Virgin and in
contemplating Virgin Birth, we are honoring our own purity and
wholeness, youthful innocence, and new beginnings. Perhaps we
have a sense of being washed clean, of starting over, of a spiritual
rebirth, of a new-found freedom, no matter what our age, gender
or experience. Can we reclaim this seeking, this fulfillment outside
the bounds of sexual chastity? This is a question for personal


The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets

By Barbara Walker

Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary

By Marina Warner

The Power of Myth

By Joesph Campbell with Bill Moyers

The Gnostic Gospels

By Elaine Pagels

The Moon Under Her Feet: The Story of Mari Magdalene in the Service
of the Great Mother

By Clysta Kinstler

Virgin, Mother, Crone: Myths and Mysteries of the Triple Goddess

By Donna Wilshire

( * ) And numerous other sources

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in 1998 and gifted to ETS in 2005.
© 1998 – 2005 Luna Blanca
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