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The goddess behind the mask

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.

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.



Pagan predecessors

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.

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Black Madonnas

Christianity did not suddenly usurp the old religions of Europe. Instead, the early Church worked subtly to take over gods and shrines that had existed for centuries before the birth of Christ. As a result, the Black Madonnas are a blend of paganism and purity and, as RICHARD LEIGH and MICHAEL BAIGENT show, are still surrounded by ambiguous associations that reach far back in time to ancient religious — and even demonic — beliefs

THE MEDIEVAL KINGS of France tradition­ally accorded a special significance to the Black Madonnas. This attitude was particul­arly evident in Louis IX, who ruled during the 13th century and is now known as Saint Louis. Saint Louis had always revered the Black Madonna at Le Puy. She does not appear to have been inordinately grateful, however, because Saint Louis, having laun­ched a crusade against the Saracens of Egypt, was resoundingly defeated and captured along with his entire army. Nevertheless, he commanded considerable respect from the sultan who had vanquished him; and on his eventual release, the sultan offered him as a gift any object he might desire from the Egyptian treasury. The King selected a statue of what he called ‘Our Lady and Child’ — a Black Madonna, some 27 inches (69 centimetres) high, swathed in bandages and wearing a copper crown.

Black Madonnas

This statue had been part of the Islamic treasure for centuries — indeed, it had been highly venerated by the Saracens, who claimed it had been carved by the prophet Jeremiah. In 1254, Saint Louis carried the statue back to France, and installed it at Le Puy in place of the Black Madonna which had formerly been there. At least one of the present-day Black Madonnas is thus un­equivocally Eastern in origin.

Harlot and nun

The Black Madonna Saint Louis obtained in Egypt, and many of the others as well, were originally pre-Christian Mother God­desses. It is well known that the Middle East — from Egypt, through Palestine and Syria, to Persia — was influenced by such goddesses in pre-Christian times. These Mother God­desses were worshipped under a number of names, but they were essentially the same figure. And their appeal was extraordinarily tenacious. Demeter, for example, was wor­shipped at Eleusis, Greece, as late as 1801; and when two Englishmen in that year removed her statue, a major riot ensued among the peasantry.

The Mother Goddess was an extremely complex figure. She was simultaneously good and evil, creative and destructive, bene­ficent and malevolent, light and dark. She embodied the myriad aspects of nature ­storm, drought and famine as well as bounti­ful harvests and the fruits of the earth. At times, she could be cruelly chaste, at times shamelessly promiscuous — a combination of harlot and nun. In order to reflect her dual character, she was sometimes depicted with one side of her face black, the other white. Alternatively, she was sometimes clad in a black and white garment. And on at least one site, there were actually two statues, identical except that one was light and the other dark.

louis 9

The ancient Mother Goddess was often associated with the Moon, which passes through a spectrum of phases, from dark to full. By virtue of the Moon’s influence on tides, the Mother Goddess was also asso­ciated with the sea and became patroness of mariners — who revered her as ‘Star of the Sea’ or ‘Stella Maris’. This led to her being further associated with the Pole Star, and with Venus as well. Like the Moon, Venus possessed a dual aspect — that of Morning and Evening Star. The former of these aspects was regarded as sinister; this is reflected in Judaeo-Christian tradition, where the Mor­ning Star is often linked with Lucifer.

The Mother Goddess was worshipped under a bewildering variety of names. In Egypt, for example, she was known as Isis ­who was often depicted as black and holding her son, Horus, on her knee. There would seem to be little question that the Madonna obtained by Saint Louis from the Egyptian treasury was originally an Isis figure.

In northern Syria and in Babylon, the Mother Goddess was known as Ishtar ­which was also the Babylonian name for the planet we call Venus. Like Isis, Ishtar was often depicted as black; and although she had beneficent aspects, many Babylonian myths — the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance ­stress the harmful side of her nature.

 Le Puy France madonna

In Phoenicia, the Mother Goddess was known as Astarte, and it was in the guise of Astarte that she exercised perhaps her most profound influence on Western tradition. The Phoenicians, of course, were seafarers. In the course of their maritime movements ­under the patronage of Stella Maris — they brought numerous images of Astarte to Wes­tern Europe, and these images subsequently became Black Madonnas. Like the later Christian Madonna, Astarte was often sym­bolised by a dove. Sometimes she was por­trayed as half black, half white. Sometimes she was worshipped in the form of a triang­ular stone, which was occasionally white, but more often black and probably meteoric in origin. Astarte figures prominently in the Old Testament, where she is referred to as `Queen of Heaven’.

In the chronicles that comprise the Old Testament, Astarte, the Queen of Heaven, appears as one of the primary adversaries or rivals of the God of Israel — the patriarchal God of Abraham and Moses. Indeed, the Israelites, on a number of occasions, defect from the God of Abraham and Moses and make their devotions to the Queen of Heaven. Jeremiah, for example, angrily con­demns his people for falling away from God and returning to the worship of Astarte ­implying that Astarte-worship was once the norm. The Old Testament tells us further that Solomon was a passionate devotee of the Queen of Heaven, to whom he erected altars on every high hill. It can be persuasively argued, in fact, that the Song of songs is not addressed to any mortal woman, but to Astarte. If this is true, the opening words of that famous text become particularly signi­ficant: ‘I am black, but comely, 0 ye daugh­ters of Jerusalem.

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