Marguerite Rigoglioso, Ph.D., is the author of The Cult of Divine Birth in Ancient Greece and Virgin Mother Goddesses of Antiquity (Palgrave Macmillan 2009, 2010). She teaches pioneering courses in women and religion at Dominican University of California, the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), and the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. Marguerite delivered the James C. Loeb Classical Lecture on her research on divine birth at Harvard University in October 2009. She holds a doctorate in humanities and a master’s in philosophy and religion from CIIS, as well as a bachelor’s degree from Vassar College, with high honors. For more information about her work, including podcast interviews and video presentations on her research, visit http://cultofdivinebirth.com.
Mary was not alone in her work to bring an avatar to the planet, nor was she a passive vehicle for this process. That is my scholarly conclusion after devoting my dissertation and first two books to an exploration of the concept of divine birth in Western antiquity.
But the story does not begin or end with Mary.
My research has focused on the supernatural conception stories of ancient Greece, which span from mythological tales to legendary accounts of historical figures such as the mothers of Pythagoras, Plato, and Alexander. By taking a feminist lens to mythology, legend, history, and ancient ethnography, and by considering that myth may record women’s repressed religious activities, I make the case that various specialized priestesshoods were dedicated to achieving miraculous birth as an elevated form of spiritual practice. I show that the intended purpose of divine birth was to conceive a highly special individual. In the Greek tradition, this individual could be a hero or heroine, gifted spiritual leader, demi-god, or full-fledged deity. In short, the child was a representation of the divine on earth.
The entire program was based on an apparent ancient belief that such an elevated being could only be incarnated through non-ordinary methods of conception. The practice, as I elaborate, required celibacy as a bio-spiritual necessity, the entering of deep trance states, and engagement with the light/matter interface.
I show that achieving divine conception on the part of the priestess was considered the highest level of magico-spiritual initiation possible, and that it resulted in what was believed to be her becoming divine on the ontological level. She was thus frequently the focus of cultic worship, either as a nymph, a heroine, the eponym of a town or geographical location, or a full-fledged deity herself.
Because it may be easier for us to understand this concept by looking at the Christian tradition, I invite us to think about the Virgin Mary: The ambiguity about her ontological status –– Was she a human? Was she a divinity? –– stems from the fact that she was believed by many to have been a woman who became a goddess through her successful miraculous conception of Jesus.
I have further observed that the child of the divine conception was considered to be of a divine nature and similarly became the focus of worship. In some cases, such individuals were believed to achieve full-fledged divinity particularly if they agreed to undergo a ritual sacrifical murder. Into this category I place, for example, Dionysus, Asclepius, and Heracles, for whom one could make a case that all were historical figures with human incarnations, and whose death stories hint of instances of ritualized self-sacrifice. And we can think of Jesus here.
Through this research, I have come to the conclusion that a belief in divine birth was at the foundation not only of Greek religion, but of Western civilization itself. This puts what amounts in many cases to young virgin girls just past puberty at the heart of the Western enterprise. Mary would have been just one in a long line of such priestesses, a topic I will be developing in forthcoming work.