Beltane and Greek Easter: Mary and the Goddess by Laura Shannon

Today, May 1, we celebrate Beltane, the Celtic festival between the Spring Equinox and the Summer Solstice. Starting tonight, we also celebrate Greek Easter, with its ritual drama of life and death. 

In the Western Church, Easter never falls as late as May, but in the Orthodox calendar, Easter and Beltane more or less co-incide every few years. It’s a reminder of connections between Christian and pre-Christian traditions, both in the archetypal cycle of life, death, and regeneration, and in links between the Christian Mary and the pre-Christian Goddess in her various names and forms.

Both Easter and Beltane belong to the family of festivals on or around the spring equinox, celebrating the renewal of life, the return of the sun and the sowing of crops. Others include Nowruz /Newroz, Kurdish and Persian New Year; Passover; Holi; and Ederlezi/St George’s Day.

Many elements in the Easter story resonate with pre-Christian myths. Spring was the time to honour Demeter, Inanna, Ostara, Flora, Mokosh and other Goddesses who brought life to meadows and fields. The death and rebirth of the gods Attis and Dionysos were celebrated in the springtime, as was Persephone’s journey to and from the Underworld, reenacted in the Mysteries of Eleusis. The grief of Persephone’s mother, the Goddess Demeter, is mirrored in the grief of Jesus’s mother Mary.

Sharing this grief through the Easter rituals helps people cathartically reexperience their own grief ‘in community with others’, as Carol P. Christ explains in her moving post, ‘The divine drama and the universality of death‘: “The ‘theodrama’ of Easter, like the rituals of Eleusis, tells us is that no one is exempt from the suffering caused by death – not the divine Mother, not the divine Father, and not the divine Child. There is great consolation in learning again that death and suffering are universal. This in turn opens us to the possibility that rebirth and regeneration are also universal. […]Perhaps the real lesson of Greek Easter is not once and for all triumph over death, but rather celebration of the interconnected cycles of birth, death, and regeneration in all of life.”

The power of the life force embodied in the Divine Mother is honoured in the Akathistos Hymn. Also known as the Praises, Rejoicings, or Salutations to the Mother of God, this much-loved hymn is sung on the first five Fridays of Lent in the Greek church. 

Cave at St. Isidoroi Church on Lykavittós Hill, Athens

Because of the lockdown, we could not go in person, but services have been broadcast from one of my favourite churches in Athens, St. Isidoroi on Lykavittós Hill. This cave-church opens deeply into the rock, next to a yoni-shaped cave surrounded by cypress trees, and an ‘ayiasma’ or holy spring of healing water. In antiquity, sacred sites with caves, trees and springs were often devoted to worship of the Goddess, and I feel the presence of the Great Mother very powerfully in this extraordinary setting, going back through time. 

‘Virgin of the Rock St. Isidorítissa’, St. Isidoroi Church on Lykavittós Hill, Athens

Lykavittós is is a holy hill with an ‘omphalós’ shape, resembling the prominent navel of a pregnant woman, or perhaps her pregnant belly. The miracle-working icon here is the ‘Virgin of the Rock’, hung with myriad votive plaques attesting to prayers answered and healing received. [2] 

Lykavittós Hill, Athens, with the shape of the omphalós, sacred navel or pregnant belly of the Divine Mother. (Public domain)

The Akathistos Hymn honours the Mother of God and her life-giving womb as the ‘living and abundant fountain’ and ‘source from which springs forth the flowing river’, among many other exquisite epithets. The hymn is said to have been written in the 6th century, but I believe its roots lie in much more ancient songs of praise to the Great Goddess, Divine Mother. 

Many of the names given to the Panayía in the Akathistos Hymn are also found in the Hymns to Inanna from 2300 BCE. [3] Both Inanna and the Panayía are described as Mountain and Queen. Both give life, mercy, compassion, and protection. Both are radiant, shining, and powerful. Inanna is associated with the sacred storehouse or gipar – grain store and birthing hut – and its gateposts and doorway; Mary, too, is ‘storehouse of God’s providence’ and ‘doorway of sacred mystery’. [4]

From this point of view, Mary can be seen as the Christian iteration of the Great Goddess, her essence undimmed by changes of name. These hints of pre-Christian reverence surviving within the heart of Orthodox tradition help me feel at home in the Greek church as a devotee of the Divine Mother in all her forms.

No matter what faith we follow, we can take comfort in the healing power of the universal mothering principle, so desperately needed after the devastating pandemic of the past year. By embracing the sacred values of the Divine Mother, we may learn to embody her compassion, mercy, and protection, in a just and sustainable way of living for all beings. This is the original resurrection and true renewal which I would like to see blossom in the world.

(c) Laura Shannon

Footnotes[1] Glenys Livingstone notes the balance between Beltane in the northern hemisphere and Samhain in the southern hemisphere, reminding us that ‘Samhain and Beltaine are essential to each other – one cannot be without the other. […] Life is built on death: this moment and all presently manifest beings would not be here, if all had not passed before.’
[2] See ‘The Divine Mother gives birth! The dance circle as symbolic womb‘ and ‘Evangelismos and the Virgin of the Rock
[3] Inanna, Lady of Largest Heart, by Betty De Shong Meador (2000)
[4] See ‘Akathistos Hymnos: Mary and Inanna

Author: Laura Shannon

Laura Shannon has been researching and teaching traditional women’s ritual dances since 1987. She is considered one of the ‘grandmothers’ of the worldwide Sacred / Circle Dance movement and gives workshops in over twenty countries worldwide. Laura holds an honours degree in Intercultural Studies (1986) and a diploma in Dance Movement Therapy (1990). She has also dedicated much time to primary research in Balkan and Greek villages, learning songs, dances, rituals and textile patterns which have been passed down for many generations, and which embody an age-old worldview of sustainability, community, and reverence for the earth. Laura’s essay ‘Women’s Ritual Dances: An Ancient Source of Healing in Our Times’, was published in Dancing on the Earth. Also a musician, Laura performs throughout Europe and in the USA with her partner Kostantis Kourmadias.

10 thoughts on “Beltane and Greek Easter: Mary and the Goddess by Laura Shannon”

  1. I celebrated May Day/Beltane yesterday because we had the first real rain in two months… I think it’s often overlooked that this turning is the last water festival until fall- there is no spring without water because nothing grows…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Brava! I was hoping someone would write about Beltane, and I especially like the quotations from Glenys and Carol. (The FAR community is filled, of course, with scholars.) And your final paragraph is a lovely summing up of universal mothering, which we really do need during this pandemic. Brightest blessings for the holiday to you and everyone on our blessed mother planet.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Like the sacred dances to which you invite us, your writing, too, leads us to wonder and contemplate the divine feminine. Thank you Laura!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Kyriaki Eleison! Tomorrow I’m hosting (or maybe alone) a Beltane/Greek Orthodox liturgy from the Fellowship Of Isis, with the Oracle of Sophia; Sophia, the woman, the saint, and the Goddess. Thank you for your article!


  5. Thank you for your informative and fascinating post. I always enjoy reading about the links between Christianity and pre-Christian myths, and especially between Mary and the Goddess. Happy Beltane/Easter!


  6. So glad to get Laura ‘s good piece, Bealtaine as it is known here in Ireland is clearly connected to Easter and Christianity and especially with the pre Christian goddesses.
    . Not enough notice is taken of. Bealtaine, the goddesses and other Celtic festivals


  7. So glad to get Laura ‘s good piece, Bealtaine as it is known here in Ireland is clearly connected to Easter and Christianity and especially with the pre Christian goddesses.
    . Not enough notice is taken of. Bealtaine, the goddesses and other Celtic festivals


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