Mary’s Feast Rooted in Lesbian Goddesses Diana and Artemis By Kittredge Cherry

Kittredge Cherry

The following is a guest post written by Rev. Kittredge Cherry, lesbian Christian author and art historian who blogs about LGBT spirituality and the arts at the Jesus in Love Blog.  Her books include “Equal Rites” and “Art That Dares: Gay Jesus, Woman Christ, and More“.

August 15 was once the festival of the lesbian goddess Diana (Artemis), but it has been adapted into a feast day for the Virgin Mary.

Midsummer feasts have celebrated the divine feminine on this date since before the time of Christ.  Now devoted to Mary, August 15 carries the torch of lesbian spiritual power to a new generation.

Saint Mary, mother of Jesus, is honored by churches today in a major feast day marking her death and entrance into heaven.  Catholic and Orthodox churches call it the Feast of the Assumption or Dormition, when Mary was assumed into heaven, body and soul.

The Virgin Mary’s holiday was adapted — some would say appropriated — from an ancient Roman festival for Diana, the virgin goddess of the moon and the hunt.  Diana, or Artemis in Greek, is sometimes called a lesbian goddess because of her love for woman and her vow never to marry a man.  The ancient Roman Festival of Torches (Nemoralia) was held from Aug. 13-15 as Diana’s chief festival.

According to mythology, Diana preferred the company of women and surrounded herself with female companions.  They took an oath of virginity and lived as a group in the woods, where they hunted and danced together.  Homoerotic art and speculations often focus on Diana’s relationship with the princess Callisto.  The god Jupiter (Zeus) lusted after Callisto, so he disguised himself as Diana and seduced Callisto in a woman-to-woman embrace.  (For the full story, see  The lesbian love scene is painted by artists such as Francois Boucher in “Jupiter and Callisto.”

There are many more stories about Diana and the women, nymphs and goddesses whom she loved.  The goddess Britomaris was another favorite of Diana.  When the lustful king Minos pursued Britomaris, she escaped by leaping into the sea.  Diana rescued her and, some say, fell in love with her.  Diana also showed love for various princesses. She gave the princess Cyrenea pair of magical dogs and granted the princess Daphne the gift of shooting straight. The princess Atalanta almost died of exposure as a baby girl after her father abandoned her because he wanted a son. Diana saved her and, with the help of a she-bear, Atalanta grew up to become one of Diana’s beloved companions.  And this is just the beginning.

Diana’s main holiday was the Festival of Torches or Nemoralia.  Hundreds of women and girls carried torches and candles in a night-time procession through the woods. They wore wreaths of flowers — and even put flowers on the hunting dogs who walked with them.  The group hiked a few miles from Rome to a sacred site, the circle-shaped Lake Nemi.  The dark waters reflected the moon and the torchlight of the pilgrims.  There they left offerings of apples, garlic, statues and prayers handwritten on ribbons.  Click here for a vivid description of the festival.  Ovid, the Roman poet who lived before Christ, described the magic of the festival:

Often does a woman whose prayers Diana answered,

With a wreath of flowers crowning her head,

Walk from Rome carrying a burning torch…

Aspects of Diana and Artemis were taken over by the church more than 1,300 years ago.  The Festival of Torches became the Feast of the Assumption.  The Temple to Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, with an awe-inspiring statue of the “many-breasted” Artemis. The temple was destroyed and replaced by the Church of Mary.  The Virgin Mary even assumed some titles once given to Artemis, including Queen of Heaven.

Feminists praise Diana/Artemis as an archetype of female power, a triple goddess who represents all phases of womanhood.  She is the maiden, wild and free, with no need for a man.  She is the “many-breasted” mother who nurtures all life.  She is the crone, the hunter who provides swift death with her arrows in harmony with the cycles of nature.

The connections between Diana and Mary raise many questions.  The concept of virginity has been used to control women, but sometimes it is a code word for lesbian.  What shade of meaning is implied by the “virginity” of these two heavenly queens? Did the church patriarchs substitute wild lesbian Artemis with mild straight Mary — or is Mary more versatile and dynamic than many thought?

LGBT people and our friends may be inspired by the queer origins of this midsummer holiday.  May the Queen of Heaven, by whatever name, continue to bless those who remember her.

Cross posted at Jesus in Love.

Categories: General, LGBTQ, Mariology, Spirituality

Tags: , , ,

12 replies

  1. Oh, Hurrah! I have seen the “virginity” of Mary- mother and wife- as a way of imposing control and weakness on a demonstrably strong woman, and you have subverted that. Thank you. Control and weakness, but also Otherness, so her strength had to be mediated through the Church Hierarchy rather than directly. Whereas, she is a real woman, in her own strength.


  2. Thanks, ClareFlourish! The concept of virginity has been used to oppress women, but it can also be a powerful archetype of women’s independence. Virgin goddesses like Mary are even able to conceive children without help from a man… rather like lesbian couples who use artificial insemination today.


  3. I really like the artificial insemination aspect of a contemporary interpretation of Mary and her Goddess roots. I believe Soujourner Truth in her “Ain’t I a Woman Speech” said that “man” and she meant biological men had nothing to do with the birth of Jesus. So this feminist interpretation goes back to the 19th century.

    I just love this post. I like the idea of women free of men in every way, love the lesbian feminist journey outside the oppressive heterosexual constructs…. and we don’t need an oppressor under every roof in the land!

    Artemis in the warrior amazon side of Mary, Mary is the male biology defying archetype.


  4. I wrote a piece on Mary, virginity and miraculous motherhood in Jewish/biblical traditions here Hopefully it might supplement your post well, Kitt


  5. As a feminist gay man currently attending an MCC congregation, who also wants to affirm the best traditions of the church catholic, I must admit that I am disturbed by your post. I do not think Mary would approve of being worshiped, and as you rightly note, Queen of Heaven belongs to Artemis/Ashtoreth in the Biblical tradition. I have no problem with stories of Diana being surrounded by women, but I hope that readers of this post might consider that the Ba’al/Ashtoreth cult as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures was one of most woman-degrading religious systems in the Ancient Near East. I remember Mary, the Mother of God, but the Queen of Heaven deserves to be resisted in the name of Jesus, who liberated women from the control of religious systems, and continues to do so today.


  6. Kittrredge,

    I enjoyed your post for a multitude of reasons. The first is my trip to Ephesus last year, I was fortunate enough to see that statue (and have a small replica in my office). It is such an amazing sight. I was also able to see remnants of the Temple. It is interesting that Mary’s House is not to far up the hillside from where the Temple of Artemis stood.

    Using your analogy about virginity I find interesting. Virginity is used as a means of controlling women. I did some work with Transvestism in early antiquity. Ascetic lifestyles for women was seen as a means to escape the sentence of childbirth and attain salvation. Woman, dressed as eunuchs/monks would enter a monastery many times escaping a forced marriage or abusive husband. There is usually a reveal involved that causes this awe that woman can be so holy. How this relates is that in the end, it was the woman controlling her own virginity as a means of attaining salvation.

    I studied Artemis/Diana in as the Woman of the Stars in the Book of Revelation and would claim that it was her (Artemis/Diana) that inspired the Woman of the Stars. The parallels you point out are striking with Artemis, especially with the Queen of Heaven motif that was so prevalent in the time of Domitian and a time when Artemis was worshiped and her Temple stood.

    As one writer also pointed out, Mary is believed to have conceived without the help of a man. We have a genderless deity who causes Mary to be with child. There was no man involved. For Catholic Moral Teaching, artificial insemination is forbidden. It would seem from that understanding compounded by how Mary is revered in the tradition, that an opening of mind would occur with respect to that possibility for couples to conceive.

    You pointed out that maybe Mary is in fact a tamer version (obedient if you will) of Artemis and that she might have more in common then one would think. I want to through this out for consideration and question. What if Mary was a reconfiguration of Artemis (taking something from cultural familiar and old and reworking it). What if her character, as pure, obedient and willing to serve a rhetoric against those that reverred Artemis; a statement of superiority within their religion or circle vs. that of their pagan neighbors. Or what if it was a political promotion of one “goddess” over another, i.e. inferiority vs. superiority (God picked our girl over yours for this special mission)? These theories hold water with respect to the Book of Revelation. I would love to hear your thoughts.



  7. Every time you hear about the “pagan” pre-Christian cults, you have to be aware of who the authors were in those old testament texts in the first place. Obviously, Jesus was enlightened and rose about the patriarchy of his day. However, once Christianity gained more power, it took away power from women. It’s a common patter… women the innovators of a new belief system or early followers, then the system rises in power and prestige, and then the men derail and enslave women or chase them out of the positions of power. It repeats in every profession, even the early days of computer programming.

    So if we expect to overthrow the rule of the fathers once and for all, we’re going to need strong tactics to control the woman affirming information, to do our own research, and failing to remember, to imagine something where the Virgin Mary and Artemis unite.

    I think virginity is actually a great power lesbians for centuries have known. And it is not really about men at all, but the full power of women connected to each other. It is post-male dominance, post-ownership, which is the model of hetero marriage to begin with. I’d say women were clever enough to found nunneries, and to create woman only socieities for this very reason… freedom.

    For most of human history, childbirth meant a very real chance of death for women, and yet men, fully aware that women risked death, had no problem demanding repeated child birth. I think the power of the Virgin Mary among women worldwide is a sense that there was something subversive in the sub-text of the story. And I think it is one reason radical feminism is so attacked worldwide, for the very reason that it gets at the very cause of male supremacy, and that there are spiritual ways of dealing with the rule of the fathers.

    To me, the feminist purpose of it all is to get the boot of the male supremacists off my neck, so I celebrate Artemis with her hounds and bows and arrows, celebrating this freedom in the forests with her band of women warriors, and if you add the story of Mary and see her as an aspect of a freedom tradition of women, it can be positively subversive in every way. I love it!!!


  8. Living in Greece I have no doubt that people continued to worship the Goddess under the name Panagia, or She Who Is All Holy. This most common name for Her has nothing to do with Mary or with Virgin. It is also interesting that Acts reports that Paul was driven out of Ephesus by those who woshipped Artemis of Ephesus the Great One and that the title Theotokos or God-bearer was “approved” at Ephesus.


  9. Carol, I loved your little ” ” around the word “approved.” It was fascinating to read about Artemis at Ephesus, and how Theotokos was “approved” at Ephesus too. Again, we have to look at who’s doing the approving, and who loses after the “approval” goes through.

    The heart of all great feminist thinking is knowing exactly what power group gains the most by controlling belief and theology. And the challenge of all women is to get at the truth of who The Great One might be for us. Not the patriarchal woman, but the free woman, not the church “fathers” but the church “mothers” throughout time.

    Paul was driven out of Ephesus by the Goddess worshipping people of Ephesus— I never knew that. So I think we can see that Paul, obviously, is no feminist. So what do colonizers do? They appropriate. Patriarchy having no energy of its own, becomes an energy drain on women. Multiply this by thousands of years and you have a horrifying “energy crisis” of epic proportions for the power of women. This spiritual power and finding out the simplest things… Ephesus, Artemis, Mary… And these connections point to a truth about “pagan” cults that “Christian and Jewish” men were always trying to destroy. The destruction of the Goddess is what male supremacy and the rule of the fathers is all about. It is their toxic waste and energy drain on the brilliance of women.


  10. I am glad to read so many comments from various viewpoints.

    Turtle Woman, thanks for your enthusiasm expressed in multiple comments. I’m glad you brought up the “subversive sub-text” of Mary’s story. It’s worth mentioning that the Mary of the Bible was also subversive in the opinions she expressed in the Magnificat. She celebrates a God who “casts down the mighty from their thrones and exalts the lowly… filled the hungry with good things and the rich are sent away empty.” Even Diana didn’t go so far in envisioning a world of justice!

    Michael, thanks for the link to your well researched article. I will also add it as a comment on the original post at the Jesus in Love Blog.. You conclude, “Miraculous/virginal conception/motherhood as applied to Mary and Jesus is not a pagan import into early Christianity based on a misunderstanding of the term of Son of God, but instead comes out of the heart of ancient Temple Judaism.” It’s good to know that the miraculous motherhood idea could come directly from Judaism… although perhaps there was some cross-pollination of ideas between Jewish and pagan ideas long, long ago. My point is that church leaders (maybe around the 3rd century) adapted a pagan goddess festival into a feast day for Mary.

    Robert, you raise a valid point about the historical Mary. She did not want or expect to be worshipped, and that is one of her wonderful qualities. Mary was a real human being, not a goddess like Diana. In this article I am writing about the miraculous Mary as a female embodiment of holiness — a concept that does disturb many followers of Christ, especially in the Protestant tradition. Goddess-worshipping cultures are not necessarily good places for real women to live.

    Michele, thank you for your eye-witness account of a trip to Ephesus. Your work with transvestism in early antiquity sounds fascinating. The pattern you describe continued in later eras. A good example is Joan of Arc. Cross-dressing was the actual “crime” for which she was burned at the stake. I want to include more of these cross-dressing saints in the LGBT saints series that I am writing at the Jesus in Love Blog, so I would like to hear more of your research. Thanks for pointing out that Mary gets her “Queen of Heaven” name from the Book of Revelation. Yes, I do think the Mary of faith (as opposed to the historical Mary) was shaped by church tradition partly by reconfiguring Artemis, perhaps in the 3rd century. Their goal may have been to eradicate the pagan goddess, but it was inevitable that some of her attributes were incorporated into the new “Queen of Heaven.”

    Carol Christ, your books have shaped me, dating back to “Womanspirit Rising.” I am honored to hear from you here! Thank you for your first-hand report of ongoing goddess worship in Greece — I understand that you live on the Isle of Lesbos. Paul’s conflicts in Ephesus over goddess worship set the stage for debates that continue to this day. As Turtle Woman wrote, Paul is “no feminist,” and yet he is also the one who wrote, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”


  11. It is often speculated Women who took ceremonial vows of Chastity of Artemis or other Virgin Goddesses were Lesbians living in secret.

    I wish more people would study the possibly that the Early female Christian saints who refused to Marry might have similarly been Lesbians.


  12. Possibly this is how Ephesus left their “first love” – through a worship of Mary.


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