Mary, Mother of God or Godd/ess?

While I have always intuitively seen Mary as more than Theotokos, my training in orthodoxy came to overshadow my orthopraxis of Mary. But today I hold a different stance because  I have come to view my Marian practice as indeed worship of the Divine Godd/ess. 

At a surprisingly early age, perhaps ten or eleven years old, I became the author of my own religious narrative, meaning, I took it upon myself to initiate and pursue the deep mysteries of my Catholic faith. Weekly Mass became an event, not an obligation, and something to which I attended independent of my large, Irish-American Catholic family.  The singleness of my worship at such a young age drew stares and whispers from those families that arrived intact.  And while I was not unaware of their curiosity, I found it easier to lose myself in the absolute wonder of my environment.  This environment of the tangible and non-tangible is what Andrew Greeley has since come to identify as “the Catholic Imagination,” where a Catholic sensibility is manifested in cathedrals and high art, but is also awash in the mundane of our daily lives. Additionally, our family’s dependence on Saint Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, was a close second to a strong devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary.  By this I mean to suggest that she was our go-to heavenly figure when in need, and I, the appointed family petitioner.  Through the years I would take each family crisis directly to Mary through the recitation of the Rosary.  The thought never occurred to me that doctrinally Mary functioned as mediator between the Father and Son and not as Godd/ess.  While I never identified her as the personification or manifestation of Godd/ess, that is exactly how my practice or devotion to her played itself out, until I left the church in my early twenties, certain my emerging feminism could not include the sexism and androcentrism of an all male priesthood.  But twenty years later, when I discovered my husband had been involved in a five-year affair, I immediately ran for my childhood rosary beads, which I had not used or thought about since my youth.  

Throughout my theological training as an undergrad and then graduate student, my childhood encounters with Mary took a back seat to Christological endeavors that sought to disentangle a Jesus of history with a Jesus of faith.  Never would I have entertained a theological discourse that questioned Mary as anything other than Theotokos, until I began to see the trajectory of the Divine Feminine in sacred writings of the Wisdom/Sophia literature of the Hebrew Scripture and recently, the Kabbalistic tradition of Shekinah. .  While I have always intuitively seen Mary as more than Theotokos, my training in orthodoxy came to overshadow my orthopraxis of Mary. But today I hold a different stance because  I have come to view my Marian practice as indeed worship of the Divine Godd/ess. When the veneration of Mary, along with its rituals, prayers and intuitive desire for God as feminine is examined within the context of Sophia and the Shekinah as divine Co-creators, the nature of Mary is best understood as one with God and more than Theotokos.

The role of Mary has been a divisive one within Christianity over the centuries.  Historically Church councils sought to clarify Mary’s role through dogmas as both eternal Virgin and Mother of God, becoming the female face of God.  By so doing, Mary became the Great Mother (Magna Mater), with attributes of earth-mother goddesses mapped onto her, functioning as a female deity performing essential tasks for Christians once attributed to ancient goddesses.

Liberation theologian Leonard Boff in his study of Mary seeks to divinize her as hypostatically united to the third person of the Trinity.  This movement of Mary as Mother of God to God is based upon Boff’s observation of devotion to Mary.  Citing the little known or used doctrine of sensus fidelium, or the “sense of the people,” Boff insists on the collective unconscious of the Church in Jungian terms as our “interior archetypal archeology…for the divinization of the feminine.”  Boff, and arguable so, points to the faith of those outside the realm of hegemonic power and theological discourse, in other words, to the everyday faithful who have come to worship and depend on the figure of Mary as their God.  States Boff, “They relate to her as to someone by whom we find ourselves affected absolutely, as an ultimate source of comfort, grace, and salvation.” I should state here that Elizabeth Johnson in her text She Who Is offers a convincing argument against a Marian pneumatology as argued by Boff as well as his essentialist view of women and motherhood.

But how do we go from worshipping Mary as number one intercessor to Number One?  A critical feminist approach to the exegesis of sacred scripture, tradition and practice begins with the destabilizing of static interpretation and authority.  Additionally, the revelation of God cannot be fixed to the written boundaries of a canon or religious dogma but must seek new methods of what constitutes the sacred in text and praxis of the community. According to Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza a feminist reading of scripture and dogma must distance itself from Western authoritarian hegemonic understandings of sacred text while developing and conceptualizing both sacred text and dogma from a relational/contextual category by incorporating a post-colonial reading of both.  In so doing, radical reconceptualization based on the experience of women and the community, redefines and expands which beliefs and practices become normative as divinely inspired. Additionally, Miriam Levering’s definition of what constitutes sacred scripture serves as a catalyst for expansion and destabilizing of canonical texts, Levering circumscribes scripture as “a special class of true and powerful words, a class formed by the ways in which these particular words are received by persons and communities in their common life.”   In other words, how the whole community synthesizes into practice those sacred words contributes to their sacredness.

If we are to undertake a feminist reading of sacred scripture and tradition, then we must also take seriously what Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and others consider a radical reconceptualization based on the experience of women and our community.  Additionally, we must incorporate what Sandra Schneider’s understands to be the interpretation of sacred text as “a dialectical process that takes place between a reader and a text and culminates in an event of meaning.” In other words, a dance of interrelatedness occurs, as the reader takes in her own meaning of the text independent of the author’s intent.

When engaged in a hermeneutics of suspicion, feminist readings of sacred texts can be destabilized in order to expand the anthropology and dignity of women. Additionally, through the destabilizing process, a kenotic space is opened up that affirms our experience of God in all its multiple personifications, including that of Mary as Mother, but also as God incarnate.

Cynthia Garrity-Bond: Feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate at Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past three years Cynthia has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interests includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, agency and resistance to ecclesial authority, embodiment, Mariology and transnational feminisms. Having recently returned from Southern Africa, Cynthie is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.

Author: Cynthia Garrity-Bond

Cynthie Garrity-Bond, feminist theologian and social ethicist, is completing her doctorate from Claremont Graduate University in women studies in religion, with a secondary focus in theology, ethics and culture. For the past two years Cynthie has been teaching in the department of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University where she completed both her BA and MA in Theology. Her research interest includes feminist sexual theology, historical theology with particular emphasis on religious movements of women, transnational feminism and ecofeminism. Cynthie is researching the decriminalization of prostitution from a theological perspective.

15 thoughts on “Mary, Mother of God or Godd/ess?”

  1. Bravo Cynthie.

    My Irish Catholic grandmother also taught me to love the Blessed Mother, even though I was not raised Catholic. While living in Greece, I at first avoided churches as symbolizing the faith I had left behind. When I tried to explain to Greeks that I was looking for the female face of God, they always replied “We already have that, we have the Panagia.” Of course theologically they also only have the Theotokos, but interestingly they do not speak of the BVM, but of Pan-Agia, She Who Is All Holy–much more of a Goddess name. Some years ago, I realized that the Goddess never died in Greece, she was just worshipped under another–or possibly even the same–name and she still retains her connection to sacred places in the landscape. Unfortunately connection of Mary or any other aspect of Christiantiy to the landscape or to the Earth is pretty much a non-issue in the US of A–which is a problem in general and in terms of viewing Mary as Goddess.

    As I believe the worship of Mary as Panagia, She Who Is All Holy, does not stem from the Bible, I think a hermeneutic that would allow Her to be understood as God Herself would have to focus more on the “faith of our grandmothers” than on scriptural justification.

    I have also argued (including with my friend Charlene Spretnak) that Eve and Mary must be reconciled if Mary is to be a Goddess, otherwise, we will still have the evil naked sexual Even and the clothed asexual Mary. And women, will still be readily called “sluts” when or sexuality is at issue.

    Meanwhile, I do light candles to the Panagia, and open my heart to her in shrine churches in Greece. Because SHE is there.


  2. Cynthia,

    Thank you so very much for this post and for posting it today, Good Friday. I am on a path of discovery and understanding of Mary or the Godd/ess myself. I am a second career Masters of Divinity Student seeking the feminine face/personality/incarnation of the Divine. I haven’t worshiped in a Christian church in years (except for Christmas and Easter with my family). I grew up in a very patriarchal family within a patriarchal church and two years ago, i found myself unable to pray, every name/word/image with which I tried to address the divine stuck to the top of my mouth like peanut butter. A Native American friend told me of the tribal dances where the footsteps, drum beat, heart beat are actually prayers. That helped along with calling Creator. I have been visited in my dreams by women, one of them actually identified herself as Maria de Dios, several times over the past two years. I have followed her to the Caribbean, California, Arizona, and native holy places in my home state of Tennessee. I don’t know who she is, is she Goddess or is she Mary? Does it matter?

    I am dreading the Easter service in my church on Sunday. I feel an obligation to go with my family, but I have a feeling the message will hurt my heart and soul. Thank you again for writing of the Godd/ess today.

    C Teichmann


  3. As a child I was terrified of Mary. We had a portrait of her in our home,where she is holding a bleeding heart in the palms of her hands and seemed to be reaching it out towards me, forcing me to take notice of it. I identified it with blame and punishment. I have tried to find a copy of this on the internet but haven’t come across one like it. it must have been a common picture at the time, and surely it wasn’t as scary as I remember it. i am only now, coming to a place where I can think of Mary in positive terms. Thanks.


  4. Thank you all for your positive response to my post on Mary. @Carol, do you know of a study that has examined Mary and her relationship to particular landscapes? I had never thought about this aspect before or its lack in the US. What about Our Lady of Guadalupe? I’m thinking of particular sections of Los Angeles, for example Boyle Heights, maybe this could be argued as a geographical location, what do you think?

    @Caren, yes, the reentry into Christianity after certain discoveries within academia can be troubling, I know it was for me. Depending on the parish you are and its iconography, maybe you can focus on Mary instead of all the boys you will be surrounded by. I always switch to inclusive language in the prayers, it’s kinds fun to see the reaction of those around me.

    @Barbara, I’ll be sure to check-out the recommendation, thank you. @Lori-Ann, so sorry you did not have the same reaction of Mary. I know the icon you are talking about, “The Sacred Heart of Mary,” can be scary to a child, or for that fact, anyone. But think of all the other amazing icons of Mary, they are so beautiful and comforting. I hope you can find one that brings you peace instead of dread–I think she is worth it.


  5. I can’t think of a book on Mary/Panagia and landscapes. However, in all of Europe, in folk Christianity, the landscape is identified with Mary and the saints, not only with female saints. In Crete where the birth of the Mary Sept 8 is celebrated in many locations, there are churches associated with mountaintops and caves and trees and springs. In Ireland and N. Europe generally there is the holy well tradition. In many cases places already recognized as sacred were simply baptized with a new name. I did think of Guadalupe, who is not so much imposed on the landscape as created by baptizing an existing Goddess.
    Why this did not happen as much in the US may have to do in part with the Puritans and perhaps also with the widespread relocations of the Indians away from their beloved sacred places.


  6. Regnum Marianum – Boldogasszony

    Regnum Marianum is the old Catholic name of Hungary – the Kingdom (Country) of Mary. The name comes from the tradition that the first Hungarian king, Saint Stephen, dying without an heir, has offered the country to the Virgin Mary.

    Boldogasszony, (also called Nagyboldogasszony,) the Hungarian equivalent and referring to the Virgin Mary – the patron saint of the Hungarian nation. Originally, Boldogasszony was one of the main deities of pagan Magyar mythology. The name was transferred to the Virgin Mary on the advice of St. Gerard, one of the chief Christian evangelizers of Hungary.

    Stephen I, the first Hungarian king (997–1038), offered his country to Mary as the “Great Lady of the Hungarians” (Magyarok Nagyasszonya). As a consequence, the country was often referred to as Mary’s realm, – Regnum Marianum.

    Some communities in Hungary also use this name for themselves to express their intention to make their life worthy to Mary. The best known of these is the Regnum Marianum Community.


  7. Caren, go to church Sunday, but know in your heart you do so as an act of love and compassion toward your family, not one of worship to an alien god. (As you might, say, attend the Hindu wedding of a close friend. You are there for the friend, not the unfamiliar deities). Nothing can hurt your soul except you allow it to. That’s how souls are made.

    Lori-Ann, the picture you remember from your childhood is possibly that of the Sacred Heart of Mary. You should be able to find it through google. Yes, a lot of Catholic imagery is strange, but then so is the popular iconography from any religion – apart from Judaism, Islam and some Christian sects, who do away with iconography altogether (which to my mind is even stranger). Hekate with six arms is quite odd, as is elephant-headed Ganesh, until you absorb the interpretation that goes with these images. I guess it’s the difficulty of trying to express the inexpressible in a populist way.

    I have abosolutely no problem with Mary as Goddess. I entirely subscribe to the widely held view that the early Church, unable to stamp out the enormous popularity of the Great Goddess throughout the Mediteranean and the Near East, simply incorporated as many of her aspects as they could into the figure of Our Lady. The worship of Isis was, in fact, in competition with the new Christianity in the first few centuries, and might even have triumphed over it had not the early Church done everything to crush what it most feared and disliked in the older religion (especially the power it gave women) and moulded the rest into the cult of the Virgin.(see,for example, R.E. Witt: ‘Isis in the Ancient World’) The iconograhy alone is enough to make the case – simply look at any statue of Isis with Horus and you will see the Madonna and Child. (And of course many people believe, with good reason, that the statues of the Black Madonna found throughout Europe were originally dedicated to Isis).

    Robert Graves was right when he said (in ‘the White Goddess’) that the Church had kept the faith of the Goddess alive since antiquity; and the Protestant fundamentalists were also right when they said that much of Catholicism was undiluted paganism (see especially Eamon Duffy’s wonderfully revisionist account in ‘The Stripping of the Altars’).

    Orthodox Catholics, of course, are careful to avoid the worship the Virgin; but if you are looking for the Goddess in the landscape, I recommend a visit to Malta. There you will discover sanctuaries dedicated to Her which are so ancient that it is impossible to any longer say where the landscape ends and the temples begin. And when you have visited the temples go into any Maltese church and observe for yourself how the All Powerful Mother still lives and watches over us as Mary, Queen of Heaven: She who stands upon the crescent moon and is crowned with stars.


  8. Cynthie, thank you for this evocative post. Your story about your early devotions reminds me of my early heart connection with the saints and Jesus, and vows made for life… The passionate inner sanctuary of a child is seldom open for family members to see… your family was lucky to appreciate your gifts.

    Carol, I remember that in Puerto Rico in the 50s and 60s people used to whisper about “beatas.” These were usually women who hosted rosary recitations at their homes, and for that they were the laughing stock of more “modern, progressive” people. I feel that US influence in PR, as well as Vatican II, has done away with beatas. But on a more recent conversation with a Colombian woman we were touching upon the subject of a few pre-Vatican II churches in Miami, FL where the mass is chanted in Latin, and the congregation is mainly from Central and South America… and then she remembered that in her country there are still beatas, and that whenever anyone has an illness or a problem they cannot resolve they seek to join one of these women in their home for a Novena (nine days of reciting the rosary to Mother Mary). So, it looks like Marian practices are maintained in the US by the so called Hispanic/Latina (nothing to do with Latin ;) women (from over 20 different countries).

    Lori-Ann, even though I was raised in a home where images of the Sacred Heart of Mother Mary and of Jesus were promiment and I was positively impressed by the dramatic energy they inspired in me, I can relate to another image that I repelled and was impose upon me: La Dolorosa, or Mother of Sorrows… my mother gave me the middle name Dolores, which literally means “pains.” Needless to say, I never use it. On second thoughts, I am proud of the fact that She has seven swords in Her Heart… because I consider seven to be a magic number. But I rather not carry such a heavy name.


  9. Vrinda, I understand your rejection of the image of the Mother of Sorrows, especially as it is contextualized within Catholic teaching. One of the things I most disliked about Catholicism as a child was cult of suffering in the Church.

    But as a pagan practicing within Goddess Traditions, I have come to a wholly new understanding of La Dolorosa. I have, in fact, a very beautiful 16th C carving of the Pieta on one of my personal altars: Mary holding the dead body of her Son in her lap. As a child, I would have been told that the little statue was about sin, suffering, and submission to the will of God. And I would have at once rebelled, and asked, if God loves us, why does he let us suffer ? And why, especially, should Mary, who had submitted to God’s will, have to suffer ?

    Now, I believe that suffering is not something that can be explained and certainly not in a simple formula as ’caused by sin’ – for if that were the case, why should animals who never sin at all suffer so much? But I do understand that my beloved Goddess is a refuge from, and a protection against, the suffering of the world.

    When I look upon my Pieta, or an image of the Dolorosa, I see the Goddess absorbing all the suffering that ever was back into her being, as the earth absorbs the spilled blood of its children. I see a Goddess who understands my pain, and the pain of those I love. Who doesn’t judge but simply accepts and loves and heals. The icon is violent and terrible, but that is how the world is: the Pieta is an image not of the suffering Goddess, but of the Goddess who takes upon herself the suffering of her children: who cries out for them and grieves for them and consoles them, just as an earthly mother cries out and grieves for and tries to heal her children.

    We cannot ignore suffering: whether our own, or that of those dear to us, or the wider suffering – especially that of children and animals – throughout the world. Christianity has tried to explain all this agony as a result of sin, and as a consequence made a fetish of suffering. Better, I think, to take our grief to our beloved Mother who won’t try to explain anything, and most certainly won’t tell us that it is all our own fault, but who will recognize and accept our grief because it is her own.

    The Pieta is the Dark Mother not as an image of grief itself, but of the way grief is healed by the profound understanding which flows from Her love.

    Blessings on all who suffer: may the Mother hold and comfort you.


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