The Divine Feminine in Christianity is an inspiring and provocative theme, challenging the dominance of male deities within the contemporary Christian “pantheon.” The irony is that historically, Goddess worship has always been a big part of Christianity. The Church fathers didn’t like to call it that, but in the development of the cults of the Virgin Mary, Christians openly incorporated the rites and attributes of the great Goddesses of the ancient world. The Divine Feminine was too much a part of the religious lives of the people and couldn’t be ignored.
The Christian church has been particularly adept in channeling the people’s instinctive devotion to a lunar mother goddess into the worship of the Virgin Mary. The love and loyalty she inspires are unparalleled worldwide. According to Marina Warner, “the moon has been the most constant attribute of female divinities in the western world, and was taken over by the Virgin Mary because of ancient beliefs about its function and role that Christianity inherited.”
Many areas of the world had some traditional cult to a mother goddess that was readily assimilated into Marian Christianity, and even continues to this day in the form of unique local customs, devotions, or apparitions. Similarly, other female deities and spirits were often incorporated into the local saint cults. Recognizable attributes of the great goddesses of the pre-Christian world—such as Isis and the Magna Mater—were regularly cut-and-pasted onto the burgeoning image of the Christian Mother of God, drawing their followers and spiritual heirs into her train. After all, a rose, by any other name, still smells as sweet.
Meanwhile, the stories of the Virgin Mary’s appearances to humble seers in remote places like Lourdes, Fatima, and Medjugorje, continue to fascinate both believers and doubters alike. But this is hardly a modern phenomenon, or even especially uncommon. These visions were already prevalent at the very dawn of the Christian era. Although Marian Christianity has traditionally claimed them all for its own—packaging the particulars in the language and symbolism of the institutional church—there is something much older and infinite going on here.
Where the Virgin appears, she exposes the cracks; the juxtapositions and the continuities between the imposed and imported Christianity and the underlying ancestral beliefs of Christendom. These visions are an open window into our shrouded past and our spiritual heritage. There, the great goddesses of the ancient world beckon to us, only partially concealed within the Virgin’s image.
Closer examination of modern apparition sites often reveals a long history of similar appearances. These sites may also have unique local practices that incorporate popular pre-Christian elements such as holy hills, healing springs, and sacred trees, with a mother goddess who just won’t go away. Her worship doesn’t just endure, it thrives. In the parishes, in the prayer life of the church, and in the hearts of the common people, she commands a passionate love and devotion that the masculine concept of God simply doesn’t inspire. The worship of the mother goddess is alive and well in any parish on the planet. The culture and creed may have changed dramatically, but the emotions and archetypes remain the same.
The earliest, and one of the most influential apparitions of Mary occurred while she was still alive, at least according to legend. She appeared in 40 AD in Saragossa, a town in the north east of what is now Spain, to St. James the Greater. This was James, the son of Zebedee from the gospels, the brother of John, and the disciple of Christ. Now what was a fisherman from Galilee doing so far from home? Legend says he was evangelizing among the unbelievers, when he beheld a vision of the virgin poised atop a pagan standing stone, or pillar. She requested that a church be built on the site, as she so often does in these encounters.
This was the reputed origin of the great Catedral de Nuestra Senora del Pilar, or, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Standing Stone, the patroness of all Spain. The Virgin of the Pillar was a huge success, fast becoming the most popular shrine in the region, where the Queen of Heaven herself was said to continue to appear regularly during services to those who had an eye to see. In this masterstroke of religious syncretism, co-opting and re-consecrating a site already sacred in the public mind, and enshrining a venerable local goddess within the novelty of the new Christian context, the church at Saragossa thrived by striking a balance between old and new, past and future, inspiring a powerful cult of popular devotion among both Christians and pagans alike.
Many cures, miracles, and mysterious visions were attributed to the Lady’s continued presence and intercession. In keeping with long-established, pre-Christian traditions, tokens of gratitude and other healing mementos were hung about the shrine. Cunningly crafted legs, arms, hearts, or other body parts, whether in wax or precious metals, were left as silent testimony to prayers answered; symbols of faith sustained, and offered, just as they had been for countless generations at the holy wells, sacred trees, and healing springs of these same people.
That good, old-fashioned, Bible-thumping, protestant fundamentalism we so take for granted today is a very recent innovation in the development of Christianity. For a solid 1500 years before the protestant Reformation, (and then some) the European Christianity of our forefathers was—by virtue of its existence among Europeans—so thoroughly saturated with the pre-Christian practices of those societies that it is really hard to draw the line between what it Christian and what precedes it. And I’m not sure that we should. No religion occurs in a vacuum. Contemporary Christianity is equally accommodating of, and a natural outgrowth from, the post-modern, consumer society in which it is practiced.
Another famous early apparition occurred in France at Le Puy (about 325 miles south of Paris) on the site of Mount Anis, a volcanic peak on the Velay plain. Mount Anis had long been a site of pre-Christian worship, and was the home of the Pierre des Fievres, or Fever Rock, a huge, prehistoric standing stone. Legend says that soon after the arrival of Christianity in the area, in the year 46 or 47 AD, a devout Christian widow named Villa was suffering with fever when the Virgin appeared to her. Villa was instructed to ascend Mount Anis and lie upon the Fever Rock. When she did, and fell asleep, and awoke in perfect health.
The Virgin requested that a chapel be built on the site, and so the local bishop, St. George of Velay, came out to investigate on July 11. As he neared the rock, he was surprised to see that the ground had been miraculously covered with snow. A stag sprang out of the thicket, and circled the rock, tracing with its footprints in the snow the floor plan of the future shrine. More visions and healings were reported over the years and the shrine became such a popular pilgrimage destination that a hospice had to be built as well. Charlemagne was said to have visited Le Puy twice.
Another glorious vision is reported by Lucius Apuleius in his 2nd Century AD novel, The Golden Ass. He tries to describes her divine appearance, rising from the sea:
… if the poverty of my human speech will allow me, or her divine power give me eloquence to do so. First she had a great abundance of hair, dispersed and scattered about her neck, on the crown of her head she wore many garlands interlaced with flowers, just above her brow was a disk in the form of a mirror, or resembling the light of the Moon, in one of her hands she bore serpents, in the other, blades of corn, her robe was of fine silk shimmering in divers colors, sometime yellow, sometime rose, sometime flamy, … whereas here and there the stars peaked out, and in the middle of them was placed the Moon, which shone like a flame of fire, round about the robe was a coronet or garland made with flowers and fruits.
Of course, Lucius was no Christian, but a devotee of the goddess Isis! It is this Egyptian goddess, from whom the Christian Virgin borrowed so much of her imagery, that Lucius is describing here. While there is plenty of excellent material available on the subject of modern Marian apparitions, to my knowledge, no one has ever undertaken a serious astrological analysis. These compelling stories, and their intriguing characters, surely beg the astrological question. What do the underlying planetary alignments reveal about these events, and just what sort of people are these visionaries?
These kinds of questions inspired me to write Visions of The Virgin Mary: An Astrological Analysis of Divine Intercession. In pursuing the answers, I’ve come to believe that astrology provides some distinct advantages when examining the complex and confusing subject of mystical experiences. Astrology lifts us above cultural and religious boundaries, elevating the mind to contemplate human behavior within a more cosmic framework. Astrology alone charts those fundamental forces within our being that have animated human consciousness from the beginning, revealing the dominant themes—both natural and supernatural—in any given moment.
Consequently, the charts for the visions and visionaries not only reveal recurring planetary patterns, but the archetypal imagery associated with the astrological components, like the Moon, Venus, and the sign Virgo, neatly correspond with the mythological dramas playing out in the details of the apparition stories.
At a time when we are so tragically divided by the clash of religions and cultures, perhaps some common ground can be gained in the patient study of the cosmos, and in the recognition of our own timeless and universal archetypes in action—a very Catholic goal, indeed.
Ironically, the very word “catholic,” which means universal, broad, and all-inclusive, originated as an astrological term. According to Franz Cumont, it was introduced to distinguish between local, tribal gods, and celestial, planetary gods. A catholic planetary deity was not limited in influence to any particular place or people, but ruled over activities or experiences that affected the entire earth and the whole human race. Used in that sense, the introduction of this term represented a philosophical step forward from the pettiness of warring tribal gods to a more all-encompassing concept of divinity and order.
Even more ironic is the realization that this term, “catholic,” has through the ages—in the pursuit of orthodoxy and the persecution of heresy—come to signify its own opposite. I would like to use this potent word, but in that older, expanded sense. In examining the astrological forces underlying these Marian apparitions, we encounter truly catholic influences—not limited by place or local beliefs, but reflecting a larger, universal order which links us all together in time within the vast beauty of the cosmos.
I know astrology can get very complicated very quickly, but I’ve tried to write about it in a way that any reader can easily understand. Even if you know absolutely nothing about astrology, by the time you finish this book, you will have learned quite a bit. It’s all done in context, within riveting stories that demand to be told—introducing visionary characters you will never forget, and under the guidance of a tender mother goddess. She is a most persistent manifestation of the Divine Feminine in Christianity, who won’t go away, but keeps showing up, reaching out to anyone who has an eye to see, or an ear to hear.