the goddess speaks

...through her press secretary

The astute reader might just have caught the slightest implication in my story of Admonishing Lady that there might possibly be some survival of some pre- and non-Christian goddesses in some aspects of Christianity.

Between the two "wings" of the Christian Church, this is a bitter conflict. It's a hard-fought argument between sections of the pagan community as well.

Eschew Paganism

American fundamentalist preachers tell us that the Virgin Mary represents paganism and is therefore to be eschewed of all. Since fundamentalists can't excommunicate people, they pray for their souls instead. The argument is that many aspects of the Blessed Virgin Mary are derived from equivalent Old Testament descriptions. Since some of these descriptions can be related to pre-Christian goddesses, they are evil, and thus so is any recognition of The Virgin within Christianity.

Catholics, meanwhile, discuss the potential recognition of Mary as co-redemptrix, continue to have beautiful Lady Chapels, and in the main completely ignore the fundamentalists. In truth, none of this is new - Protestants have been denouncing Catholics as pagan since the reformation. The only difference is that nowadays an adherent of the catholic faith is less likely to be put to death. Some witches may have been burnt and hanged - rather more catholics perished. Catholics were on occasion hanged, drawn (whilst still alive) and quartered, with various parts of their anatomy sent around the country for display as a warning to others.

It has also been said by various members of the pagan community that wicca is Catholicism-in-drag. Those who quote the aphorism seldom mean it kindly: the implication is that in some way wiccans have "copped out" in adopting a framework of belief that echoes aspects of traditional Catholicism.

From a marginally more sympathetic point of view, Aidan Kelly suggested that if the Catholic Church were as Andrew Greenly describes it, there would be no need for wicca. Kelly was writing in "Crafting the Art of Magic", a textual analysis of Gerald Gardner's writings on wicca.

Greenly writes novels featuring an American Catholic church that recognises the value of femininity and the sacredness of sexuality. Many pagans have a sneaking suspicion that wicca, at least in its American aspects, has simply clothed Greenly's vision in reality.

Similar Outlets

Certainly Catholicism in mainland Europe provides, for many, the same outlet that some British and Americans seek in wicca. There are some fundamental differences in the approach to moral decisions, but I doubt that many people think about these on a day-to-day basis. Much more important is the ability to pop into the Lady Chapel in your lunch-hour and ask Mary Magdalene about the thorny problem of your sex-life. Light a candle, and, if it works, perhaps pay for an "ex-voto", a thank-you plaque, in much the same way that "thanks to St Jude" messages appear in the classifieds.

I'm not denigrating either Catholicism or wicca here. They're both valid mind-sets - experiential religions. The goddess speaks - indeed sometimes she sings. I don't have a problem with the thank-you candles and plaques, either. It's a really good idea sometimes to acknowledge that we've been fortunate, and if lighting a candle to Our Lady of the Last Minute Hotel Room works, then that's good enough for me. If we ask for something and get it for free, how can we ask for it again? A large demographic survey in the late 1990s strongly suggested that adherents of an experiential religion live longer. The most likely reason is that an experiential religion constantly challenges the adherent to examine lifestyle options, making it more likely that they will find a lifestyle which suits them. Where both wicca and Catholicism fall down is when other things are grafted onto the outside of the experience.

Abrogation of responsibility to either the confessional or the three-fold law might be one example. Another is where the thank-you becomes some sort of bargain - "if you get me out of this one, I'll...". Remove these aspects and most thinking pagans find themselves more comfortable with either system (not so American fundamentalists, but you can't have everything). So, are aspects of Mary based on pre-Christian goddesses? Are there elements of pre-Christian customs in modern Christian observance? Standing outside the Christian perspective, I find the case proven. Note, however, that the existence of some survival doesn't mean that every Madonna everywhere represents a fertility goddess. The fundamentalist viewpoint is that old ladies should be shocked to discover that they are pagan goddess worshippers. In truth, the fundamentalists miss the point: these old ladies aren't goddess worshippers. They may sit alongside goddess worshippers in the same pew, but it's all down to an attitude of mind.

The Bible

References to goddesses in the Old Testament of the Bible are fairly common. That in Jeremiah 44, 17-19 is well-known: the writer is bemoaning the fact that the crops have failed since worship of the new god supplanted the leaving out of drink offerings for the goddess.

But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goes forth out of own mouth, to burn incense unto the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done...

...for then had we plenty of victuals, and were well, and saw no evil. But since we left off to burn incense to the Queen of Heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, we have wanted all things...

One can argue about the original language, but only to the extent of whether the queen of heaven is "a goddess" or "The Goddess". The fact remains that the passage is suggesting that leaving out offerings might be a good idea. This passage on its own doesn't suggest that Mary is "The Goddess". But "Our Lady Queen of Heaven" is a fairly common designation for Mary in Catholic attributions (as indeed is "Our Lady of the Sea", a designation for Athirat, consort of El, who appears as Asherah in the Old Testament of the Bible).

The image of the Madonna surrounded by stars, which is a favourite piece of European iconography and often related to "the Queen of Heaven", is supposedly derived from the image in the "Apocalypse of St John". In truth, it predates that quotation: it was, for example, a common depiction of Venus in Roman art, appearing in British mosaics just before the Book of Revelation (as it is known in many English-speaking countries) was being composed. Is it possible that this is a case of the local population continuing to do what they always did?

Strange and Wonderful Ladies

All that, however, is a paperwork exercise. What of actual customs? Well, if I cite the Teutonic Frau Holle punishing women who work during Christmas, I'm halfway there. Frau Holle is Holda, who may or may not also be Frigg - in any case she is a pre-Christian goddess in her own right. Having a pre-Christian goddess protecting the sanctity of Christmas seems strange at first, so it might represent a survival.

In fact the case is pretty clear: English-speaking guides in Austria regularly use "Celtic" as a code-word for "folk religion absorbed into Christianity". They commonly relate that as late as the seventeenth century, folk customs were being subsumed by the church. The argument ran "I know you like doing this, but I'm afraid the bishop will ban it unless you do it under the ægis of the church, and pay your tithe." It's hard for an English-speaker to judge exactly how widespread the practice was, but it certainly happened in a number of places.

Since I've already annoyed everyone I'm going to, I might as well cite as my second witness "Our Lady of Guadaloup", sometimes referred to as the patron saint of the Americas. Early in the sixteenth century, The Virgin Mary appeared to a humble "Indian" (using the most common term for his ethnic extraction) and told him to build a church. He went to the bishop, who refused, and eventually as a sign, the Virgin told him to fill his cloak with roses. When the cloak was opened, an image of the virgin was miraculously imprinted on the cloak.

The rest is, as they say, history. The church was built and splendid it is. So far so good, but the apparition was on a spot sacred to a local moon-goddess and contemporary commentary contains regular suggestions that she was showing the local population how to worship her properly. I find the case fairly convincing here as well. It's likely that, as in the High Tirol, the local population were continuing to worship as they always had, and that the honour of both locals and church was satisfied.

Why is any of this important? Am I just trying to annoy a lot of people in a few hundred words? No to that latter, though I do feel that people should think about things rather than just blindly doing them. To the former, well, anything which causes arguments may cloud our interpretation of source material - we'll never solve the arguments, but if we understand them, it makes it easier to understand what people mean, rather than just listening to the words they're saying. Why is that important? You've read this far and you don't know?

Fundamentalist Christians have, as always, been careful and thorough in their biblical scholarship. There are clear references to goddesses throughout the Old and New Testaments, and some aspects of some Marian cults clearly reflect those earlier goddesses. Strip away the overtly Christian aspects of Catholicism and underneath are remnants of older goddess worship - The Blessed Virgin, Mary Magdalene, Mary the Egyptian and so on have parallels in "she whom Solomon worshipped", in Artemis of Ephesus and in a hundred other goddesses of the period. Could it be that pagans who disparagingly suggest that wicca is Catholicism in drag have it precisely the wrong way round: that Catholicism is goddess-worship in drag, that wicca is Catholicism stripped naked and that wiccans, probably coincidentally and certainly not in the way that their spin doctors would prefer us to understand it, are indeed the inheritors of a centuries-old tradition?

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With permission, I'd like to share with you a comment from a reader. It's a three-sentence summary of everything I think I was trying to say about the debate... [top]
"You may not need walls, or a statue, to see the Lady. But you can see that a cathedral built by another faith is still beautiful, and that within it the Lady is still there. Some people need the stained glass in order to see Her, but that's not wrong."