Many anti-Catholics charge that the Church's devotion to the Virgin Mary began because pagan converts to Christianity did not want to part with the mother-goddesses which they had loved and worshipped all their lives. So they hatched a clever scheme; they would "hide" their devotion in a Christian guise! They attributed the qualities of their beloved goddesses to the Mother of Jesus, and offered her the same devotion and sacrifices which they had previously given to Isis, Cybele, or other such false deities.
This would make Marian devotion just a carry-over from pagan goddess cults. Some anti-Catholics even go so far as to say that the "Mary" honored by Catholics is not the biblical Mother of Jesus but a pagan goddess masquerading as the humble handmaid of the Lord!
Problems with This View
As we have seen in the past few articles, this sort of charge is typical. Atheists and skeptics love to level similar arguments against the Trinity and the Incarnation. Yet in this case it is Evangelical Christians, who consider themselves "born again believers" in Christ, bringing the charge against Catholics. I often wonder whether they realize that they are using an argument commonly used by opponents of God?
An honest, careful study of the pagan goddess cults will reveal that, apart from a few externals (ie. the goddess may be considered a virgin and/or mother), they have nothing in common with Marian devotion. Catholic devotion to the Holy Virgin is beautiful and wholesome, and cannot compare to the profane, debauched worship once offered to goddesses.
Also, as we stated in the articles on the Trinity and Incarnation, converts to Christianity from paganism despised the darkness and superstition of their old faiths, and would never have carried their practices over into their new life in Christ. The martyrs who gave their lives rather than offer incense to an image of Caesar would never have worshipped Isis or Cybele, even under the guise of Jesus' Mother!
It seems that anti-Catholics who make this charge actually doubt the sincerity of the pagans' conversions. If one wants to worship pagan gods and goddesses, why convert to a religion which denies and denounces them? It would not make sense! Remember that Christians considered pagan deities to be demons, and the formula for Baptism involved (and still involves) a renunciation of Satan. So in order to receive Baptism, catachumens had to renounce their former gods! How could they continue worshipping demons after renouncing them? And why would they identify the Mother of their Savior with demonic impostors? Such charges are completely ridiculous.
Some may point to a group called the Collyridians, a small fourth-century sect in Arabia, mainly composed of women, who evidently worshipped the Blessed Virgin, offering cakes to her during a religious ceremony. Is this an early example of former pagans worshipping Mary as a "goddess"?
No, for the Collyridians were not Catholic. They were a syncretistic cult which, like the Gnostics and other such groups of that time, blended practices from various religious traditions. They took the figure of Mary from Catholicism and offered her sacrifices reminicent of those offered to certain pagan goddesses (see Jeremiah 44:18-19). This was an odd blending of contradictory faiths, but it was never sanctioned by the Catholic Church. In fact, the only reason why we know about this small sect is because Saint Epiphanius, one of the Church Fathers, condemned them in his work called the Panarion.
Catholics are not permitted to offer Mary the same worship which we offer to God. Mother Church has always regarded such a thing to be idolatrous and sinful. We love and honor Jesus' Mother because she is our Mother as well, but we know full well that she is a creature like ourselves. She is not equal to or greater than Her Creator, in fact she is nothing in comparison to the Infinite. So she does not deserve equal honor or worship with Him.
Mother of God = Goddess???
Nonetheless, some anti-Catholics still insist that Mary is a "Catholic goddess". I have even heard some claim that the Marian title Mother of God proves this! They seem to think that Catholics call her this because we believe that she gives Jesus His Deity. This is not true; every Catholic knows that Jesus was born of Mary so that He could become Man. If she were some kind of divine being, how could He have derived His humanity from her? We call her the Mother of God because Jesus is God and she is His Mother. The title says more about Jesus than about her!
Mary = Ishtar???
They may also point out that another Marian title, "Queen of Heaven", was also once applied to Ishtar by her Babylonian devotees (Jeremiah 44:18-19). They think that this somehow proves that Mary and Ishtar are the same being, and that Catholics really worship Ishtar when they honor Mary (some even try use that passage in Jeremiah to refute Marian devotion, since they run on the assumption that Mary is Ishtar and visa-versa).
This argument is illegitimate for two reasons. First, possession of identical names or titles does not prove identity. Many monarchs of different nations are called "Your Majesty" by their subjects, but that does not prove they are all the same person! Numerous pagans also called their gods father, like Zeus, who was called "Father of gods and men", and Odin, the "All-Father". Does that mean that Zeus and Odin are identical with God the Father? Of course not! Even so, Mary, the true Queen of Heaven, is not identical with Ishtar, who does not and never did exist in the first place.
Second, it fails to take intent into account. A Catholic who prays to Mary knows that she is not the goddess Ishtar and does not intend to pray to Ishtar, but to the loving Mother of Jesus Christ. Therefore the prayer is said to Jesus' Mother Mary, not some non-existent pagan divinity.
God knows this because He looks upon our hearts and sees our intentions (I Samuel 16:7). But too many anti-Catholics look at the outward appearance and judge us according to their own opinions and prejudices. They would best heed the words of Jesus to the Pharisees who judged Him the same way: "Judge not according to the appearance, but judge with righteous judgment" (Jn 7:24).
The greatest of all prayers to Our Lady is the "Hail Mary". Here is how that prayer begins: "Hail, Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you, blessed are you among women and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus". Where did we get these words from? The Bible! They are Scriptural addresses to the Mother of Jesus Christ (Luke 1:27, 41)! How can Catholics be accused of honoring a pagan goddess when we use words from the Bible addressed to Jesus' Mother? Words inspired by God the Holy Spirit Himself!
Do these same words apply to any pagan goddess? Are non-existent female divinities "full of grace"? Is the Lord with Ishtar? Is Isis "blessed among women"? Is Jesus the fruit of Hera's womb? No! No! No! and GOD FORBID!!! These words are applied by God Himself to the human Mother of Jesus Christ, the holy handmaid of the Lord. She is the one we address in the Hail Mary, and no other!
Same Place of Worship
Others will point to the fact that some churches named after Our Lady are built over ancient pagan temples which were dedicated to goddesses. Does this prove that Catholics are still worshipping a pagan goddess at her old sacred places?
No, and here is why. A little over a decade ago, an Evangelical congregation in my area began to outgrow the small church in which they were meeting. So they purchased the much larger local Masonic temple, which was up for sale. They cleaned the place out, moved in, and to this day that is still their church building.
Did they stop worshipping the God of the Bible when they moved into that former Masonic temple? Do they currently worship the "Great Architect" of Freemasonry because that building was once used for that purpose? That's absurd; they are obviously worshipping the same God they always have. The former use of the building is irrelevant, since its former owners are gone.
The same goes for Catholic churches built over ancient pagan temples. They signify the defeat of paganism, not its perpetuation!
The "Goddess Treatment"?
Other objectors will say something like, "Though the Church officially condemns the worship of Mary, in popular devotion she is often treated like a goddess". I call this the "stupid laity" argument. It assumes that some Catholics (Latin Americans are often singled out) are either backwards and ignorant of their Faith or just exhibit an excessive, emotional zeal which leads them to commit a kind of "practical Mariolatry".
Apart from the implicit racism - which is disturbing in itself - we should notice that those who make this charge never actually define exactly what they mean by "treated like a goddess"! This is a vague charge often made but never explained. As we saw above, the Collyridians actually "treated Mary like a goddess", but the Church condemned them, and it would condemn any modern attempt at offering her sacrifices as well! But Catholics just don't do that at all.
It seems to me that, in this case, worship is "in the eye of the beholder", but not in the heart of the devotee. If a non-Catholic sees Catholics carrying a statue of Mary through the streets, or adorning a shrine or kissing an icon, he or she may think that they are "treating Mary as a goddess", when in fact the Catholics themselves know that they are honoring the Mother of Jesus, not worshiping a female pagan deity. And as stated above, God sees their hearts, so He knows that too.
Mother and Child Statues
Another common tactic is to point out some alleged similarities between some idols of pagan mother-goddesses and Catholic images of the Blessed Mother. Portrayals of Mary holding the Baby Jesus are said to be copied from statues of Isis holding Horus, or some other goddess holding her child.
This argument is also quite specious. Motherhood is common to all the cultures of the world; it's not hard to believe that it would have made its way into the various world religions!
"Primitive people, with good reason, regarded the birth of a baby with a distinct awe. It would have been a natural development for them to worship images of a mother and child"1Catholics portray Mary holding the Christ Child because that is what she did when He was a baby. Most mothers hold their infants, and Mary held her Son when He was little. That doesn't make her a pagan goddess! We could make the same charge about any artistic portrait of any mother and child, but it would be no more legitimate.
"And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him" (Mt 2:11). Were the Magi commiting idolatry because they bowed down before a Child held by His Mother? Would you refuse to fall down and worship Christ if you saw Him in His Mother's arms?
The Real Origin of Marian Devotion
So when and how did Marian devotion start? It started with the holy angel Gabriel, who said to Mary "Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with you" (Luke 1:27). It started when her cousin Elizabeth, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, cried out to her "Blessed are you among women...blessed is she who believed" (Luke 1:41-45). It was God Who inspired the first devotees of Mary! He even inspired Mary herself to prophesy "From henceforth all generations shall call me blessed" (Luke 1:47). This is the biblical basis for Marian devotion.
Marian devotion also existed during the centuries of persecution. One of the oldest catacombs contains a drawing of the Madonna and Child dating back to the second century, and the oldest known prayer to Mary, the "Sub Tuum Praesidium", dates back to at least 300 AD!
We fly to your patronage, O holy Theotokos2;No, devotion to Mary did not originate with pagan goddess worship, but with early Christians who despised paganism and would never have adopted its practices. Though there may be similarities between pagan goddesses and Mary, but this does not prove that the latter descended from the former. Marian devotion is authentically Christian.
despise not our petition in our necessities,
but deliver us always from all dangers,
O ever-glorious and blessed Virgin.
1Ralph Woodrow, The Babylon Connection, (Palm Springs, CA: Ralph Woodrow Evangelistic Association, 1997) 34.
Note: Ralph Woodrow is an Evangelical preacher. He was once strongly anti-Catholic, and wrote the book Babylon Mystery Religion, in which he argued that Catholicism is a continuation of ancient Babylonian paganism. Since then he has rethought that belief, taken Babylon Mystery Religion out of print and replaced it with The Babylon Connection, which debunks most of his past beliefs. He still has some wrong notions about Catholicism, which he occasionally expresses in The Babylon Connection, so I can't generally recommend the book (I do answer some of his misconceptions in the Is Catholicism Unbiblical? section of this site).
However, The Babylon Connection is for the most part a sound refutation of many charges of "paganism" made against the Catholic Church. The above quote is a good example of that.
2Means "Godbearer" or Mother of God. This title came into Christian use very early.
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