What Is This Virgin Birth Business All About? By Marguerite Rigoglioso

Photo by Irene Young

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.


Categories: Theology

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11 replies

  1. This is fascinating. As a Classics major, I have always been drawn to Greek myth, but I never made these connections between mythological divine birth/sacrificial death and the Jesus story before. I look forward to reading more of your work in the future!


  2. Also, in the Hebrew Bible many of the male leaders had miraculous births from women who were barren, suggesting the intervention of God, or perhaps even that God was their father. However, the mothers were married and presumably not virgin.This connection is also usually not made or not made much of possibly because the focus has been not on the miraculousness of the birth but on the virginity of Mary.


  3. >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.

    That is…quite the leap.


  4. If you examine carefully the genealogies of ancient Greece, mythical, legendary, and historical, you will eventually come to a story of a young virgin girl who gave birth to the lineage holder. Many of the major legendary kings and leaders, even into historical times as late as Rome, claimed to be divinely born. I can only begin to document this phenomenon in my books, but a serious analysis of these family lines is in order. The documentation I do provide in my books should be enough to substantiate this claim and whet the appetite for me.


  5. Marguerite, congratulations on your ground-breaking work, as always.

    I notice what might be one of those telling “typos” in your last comment: “whet the appetite for me.” I suspect you were intending to write “whet the appetite for more.” Et voilà! The Divine breaks right on through…

    I do question whether the virgin birth stories are in fact literal and biologically accurate … or whether, instead, they are metaphorical, affirming the world-renewing, pro-creative power centered within women’s bellies.

    Have you found similar stories in Asian legends, myths, and cultures? Such cultures often sustain explicit practices of internal alchemy that name and develop the body’s center as regenerative source.


    • Nice to hear from you, Lisa. Yes, I can’t get rid of that darned typo, and I can’t figure out if it is just an egostistical ejaculation, or what! In any event. My books are devoted to arguing that these virgin birth stories reference cultic practices; they are not metaphors. They reference what was believed literally to have been women’s capacity for divine conception under intense ritual conditions. There are also miraculous birth stories all over the world: Krishna, the Peacemaker of the Iroquois Confederacy, Lao Tsu, Buddha, etc., etc. Asia is probably filled with them, which would require a study by someone into those cultures, literatures, and oral traditions


  6. Hello Marguerite, not only was the Peacemaker of the Iroquois Confederacy conceived through parthenogenesis but stories passed down among the Ojibwa (or Chippewa) wise-women speak of it as well. They too knew that children conceived this way became great healers, visionaries and/or leaders.
    For an in depth look at the above info, and to read about a woman in modern times that conceived and gave birth this super-natural way, I sincerely hope that everyone will go to: http://www.thestoryoflaurie.blogspot.com
    Of course you’re already aware of it, and we discussed it, but my blog/article will serves as a good ice-breaker for those who’ve not heard of it before. I believe, more than ever, that it is time for the world to acknowledge parthenogenesis—–the jewel in the crown of creation!


    • Thanks, Den, for providing that wonderful link. Laurie’s story is incredibly compelling. Yes, there are many virgin birth stories around the world. The work I’ve done is the tip of the iceberg. Much to be explored here about women’s potentialities.



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