We have already noted the importance of the Black Madonna to Saint Bernard. It is thus not surprising that, of all Biblical texts, the one to which Saint Bernard most frequently addressed himself was the Song of songs. He is said to have written more than three hundred sermons on it.
Needless to say, Astarte was vigorously condemned by both Jewish and Christian teachers. By the advent of the Christian era, in fact, she had been masculinised and turned into the arch-demon Ashtaroth, one of the most powerful of Satan’s minions. And yet, as a Black Madonna, she continued to attract devotees — including a pillar of Christendom as august as Saint Bernard.
As we have noted, numerous Black Madonnas were undoubtedly carried to Europe by the Phoenicians. In subsequent centuries, the whole of the Mediterranean world — the world of the Mother Goddesses — fell under the sway of the Roman Empire. According to Imperial policy, the Roman army conscripted its recruits from one part of the Empire and dispatched them as garrisons to others. Thus, Roman conscripts from the Mediterranean were posted to northern Europe. Many of them brought their guardian deities with them.
There is reason to believe that the Mother Goddess was already well established in Europe even before the Roman Empire established its dominion. Certain Black Madonna sites — Chartres and Le Puy, for example — were important Druidic centres, and the Black Madonnas found there may well date from Druidic times. It is known that the Celtic tribes in pre-Roman Gaul worshipped a god named Belen, whose consort and sister was the Black Virgin Belisama. The cult possessed a sacred stone at Chartres, above the subterranean crypt where the Black Madonna was subsequently found. It is thus reasonable to assume that the Black Madonna found at Chartres originally represented not the Virgin Mary, but Belisama. Similarly, the Black Madonna found at SionVaudemont in Lorraine seems to have represented the goddess Rosemertha — the local consort of the Teutonic god Wotan, from whom Vaudemont (`Wotan’s Mount’) derives its name.
As the Roman legions overran western Europe, the native Mother Goddesses were amalgamated with their imported Roman equivalents. Celtic and Teutonic deities were identified with the corresponding god or goddess in the Roman pantheon. Arduina, the tutelary goddess of the Ardennes, was equated with the Roman moon goddess Diana. Diana, however, represented only one aspect of the Moon — the bright, benevolent and chaste aspect. Arduina incorporated the dark side of the Moon as well, and, in this capacity, was portrayed as a Black Madonna. One of the centres of her cult was the town of Lunéville (`City of the Moon’), where a large statue of her was situated. In the 6th century, this statue was destroyed by a zealous Christian missionary. Nevertheless, the cult of Arduina persisted. As late as 1304, the Church was still issuing vehement edicts against it.
When Christianity first spread to Europe, it was a rigorously patriarchal creed. This rendered it unpalatable to the populace at large, who sought in it an equivalent of their ancient Mother Goddesses and could not find any. In order to establish a foothold, Christianity had to adapt itself, had to render itself more acceptable to its potential converts. Thus, the cult of the Virgin Mary was introduced and made to harmonise in as many respects as possible with previous beliefs. Mary’s Assumption, for example, was officially celebrated on 15 August — the date of the chief festival to Diana.
For the same reason Mary, in the popular mind at least if not in that of the theologian, came to be associated with the Moon. European peasants would refer to her as ‘Our Moon’, ‘Perfect and Eternal Moon’ and `Moon of the Church’. Alternatively, the Moon itself was often called ‘Notre Dame’. Confronted by this popular identification the Church was obliged to make certain concessions. Pope Innocent III sanctioned the association of Mary and the Moon thus:
Towards the moon it is that he who is buried in the shadow of sin should
gaze. Having lost divine grace, the day
disappears, the sun no longer shines for him, but the moon is still on the
horizon. Let him speak to Mary; under her guidance many every day find their way to God.
Identification with the Moon was not the only respect in which Mary came to take on attributes of the old Mother Goddesses. By the Middle Ages, as we have seen, she had acquired Astarte’s former title, ‘Queen of Heaven’. She had also acquired from Astarte the title ‘Stella Maris’, ‘Star of the Sea’.
This Mary, had precious little to do with the Virgin Mary of the Gospels or of official theology. In fact she remained an essentially pagan Mother Goddess, overlaid by a transparently thin veneer of Christianity. The people themselves did not bother to quibble about names. The goddess, for them, had once been called Belisama or Arduina or Rosemertha. Now the Church insisted that she be called Mary. But despite the new designation, she herself remained essentially unchanged.
However, the figure of Mary as propagated by the Church does not seem to haveharmonised with her pagan predecessors as perfectly as might have been desired. As we have seen, the ancient Mother Goddesses were multi-faceted and characterised by a dual nature. They combined, in one and the same figure, diametrically opposed attributes — the conflicting attributes traditionally ascribed to the feminine principle. Christianity refused to acknowledge this ambivalence. Instead, it postulated a Virgin who was pure, immaculate, chaste, asexual, totally devoid of any negative or dark aspects — in short, an idealised and ultimately lopsided image.
To the former devotees of a complex, multi-faceted conception of the feminine, the image of Mary promulgated by the Church seems to have been oversimplified, incomplete, perhaps even ‘too good to be true’. Through their own personal experience, they were already familiar with other, darker aspects of both femininity and nature — aspects which Mary, pristine and unsullied as she was, could not accommodate. To whom could they ascribe the negative aspects of their former Mother Goddesses? The Church insisted that these aspects be ascribed to the Devil; but the people themselves did not see the ‘dark’ side of the feminine as unequivocally evil. And in any case, evil or not, they had often of necessity to come to terms with it, to appeal to it, to propitiate it. This situation seems to have dictated a search for an alternative feminine figure within the context of established Christianity — a figure who, unlike the Virgin, could accommodate the darker aspects of the old Mother Goddesses.
Such a figure was readily available in the Magdalene, who represented everything the Virgin did not. Concurrent with the cult of the Virgin, there arose a cult of the Magdalene, which gained increasing status during the Middle Ages. While the Church insisted on a rigorous distinction between the Virgin and the Magdalene, the people sought a conception of the feminine which reconciled and combined the two — and thereby constituted an organic continuation and perpetuation of the Mother Goddesses. This seems to have found expression in the already ambiguous figure of the Black Madonna.
Most Black Madonnas were loosely associated, at least in part, with the Virgin. When first discovered, the pre-Christian statues were regarded as miraculous pagan precognitions of Jesus’ birth. As we have seen, however, the Black Madonnas were also attributed with characteristics and powers quite divorced from the Virgin sexuality, for example, fertility, marriage, the underworld, earthly rather than heavenly bliss, matter rather than spirit. To this extent, the Black Madonnas represent the Magdalene as much as they do the Virgin indeed in some ways more so. In fact, there are certain Black Madonnas which, quite explicitly, are not associated with the Virgin at all, but with the Magdalene.
Les Saintes Maries de la Mer near Marseilles, for instance, is a major centre for the cult of the Magdalene; and the Black Madonna there is generally acknowledged to represent the Magdalene. On this basis, it might be argued that all Black Madonnas — at least in Christian times — were once deemed to represent Jesus’ companion, rather than his mother.