A Potpourri of Medieval Marian Folklore and Folk Magic
For a better understanding of the development of folk beliefs related to the Blessed Virgin it is helpful to have an overview on it’s beginnings between the 4th and 9th century AD.
In the Roman Empire the worship of pagan deities became illegal in 354 AD. Less than 100 years later, in 431 the first church has been consecrated to Mary in Ephesus, when the Council of Ephesus had decided to concede the title “Theotokos” (= god bearer) to the mother of Christ, a title that had long before been given to her in the Eastern church.
The first pictures of the Blessed Virgin appeared in Constantinople in the 2nd century AD.
These early illustrations depicting the Blessed Virgin showed three main types of imaging:
Hodegetria – pathfinder
She is shown sitting or standing, holding Her child, sometimes holding her right hand to the heart.
The child is often shown as lifting his right hand in a gesture of blessing. He is holding a scroll or in later versions a book in his left.
Nikopeia – victory granting
This second type of portraiture shows Mary frontally, her child sitting on Her lap. He is also looking frontally at the observer. The child is depicted with the same attributes as described above.
This type of representation was carried before the army when going into battle.
Blacherniotissa – the Praying One
This is the most ancient way to depict Her. This image shows Her without a child. Her left hand is lifted to the heart, the right hand pointing upwards to the height of Her shoulder.Sometimes She is shown with both hands holding Her cloak, as if drawing it like a hood over Her head. Some pictures show Her with both arms lifted. Occasionally she is surrounded by angels.
This form of expression is also called “Maria Orans” – the praying one.
If you take a closer look, on some of these, She looks as if blessing the observer of the picture.
Legends tell, that the original of this depiction had been painted by the apostle Lucas when the Virgin herself posed for him. As the mother of Christ she had been a busy woman, so she had not much time to stay until the painting was finished. Fortunately the angels assisted Lucas in finishing that artwork.
Be that as it may … Gemstones with a rough depiction of Mary with lifted arms were highly valued as amulets, as they were thought to be copies of the painting, that the apostle made of the Blessed Virgin, whose helpful energies now were to work for the owner of the amulet. In all these representations people could well recognise the goddess.
The cities along the Rhine, which had been garrison towns of the Roman Empire sheltered a mixed population of pagans and christians and are an example of the population’s mix of religions about the 5th century AD.
In that era of quick changing political circumstances and rulerships between the 5th and the 9th century AD the goddess in Her many manifestations became the only place of safety, comfort and steadiness for the people, living in the regions and cities, which once had been part of the now crumbling Roman Empire.
One reason for the enormous popularity of the Mother of Christ in those days may have been her bearing resemblance in iconography and titles with the Egyptian Goddess Isis, the universal mother, who had numerous worshippers and temples all over the Roman Empire.
It may be useful to have a look on the titles, with which Mary had been addressed in early prayers and works of the adoration of Mary.
She is „the morning star“, „mother of light“, „mother of the sun“, „flower of the field“, „mother of all flowers“, „rose“, „lily“, „garden in which the wise are blooming and get their names“, „sweet Mother Earth, granting milk and honey“, „flame“, „dove“, „rainbow“ and „queen of saints“ to mention only a few of her titles
In the early days of Christian religion most people were illiterates; and for those, who could read, write and understand Latin, in Europe written material, as copies of the bible or the gospels have been extremely rare, as all manuscripts had to be copied manually.
In consequence the early monasteries and churches had not much material to rely on or to teach the new dogmata. These gaps often were filled with material from oral sources, which led to a rich treasure of folk legends about Mary, which were circulating among the population.
In the 4th century AD statues of Her were applied for protection to the bows of ships and the bow fronts of houses.
In the liturgical instructions for Reims cathedral from the year 631 AD the feast of the birth of the Blessed Virgin had to be observed on September 8th.
Pope Sergius I. (+701) dictated processions to be held to honour Mary at her festivals.
As in the 8th century AD the adaption of pagan ideas and customs was not only desired, but moreover obligatory, a lot of consuetudinaries blended into the new religion. Processions of light-bearing worshippers were part of the rites for several goddesses; and the fluent passage from the old religion to the new had been so entirely that places and sometimes even statues had not been changed for the worship of the new goddess.
So the first statue of the goddess, which had represented the Blessed Virgin in the cathedral of Our Lady – Notre Dame – in Chartres, France, had been originally from the time of the Druids and was lost during the troubles of the French Revolution in 1789.
The holidays, which should be dedicated to Mary were established at the convocation of Salzburg in 800AD.
September, 8th – Birth of Mary
February, 2nd – Candlemas – purification in the temple in Jerusalem
March, 25th – Visitation of Mary – the angel informs her that she will be the mother of the son of god
August, 15th – Assumption of Mary – Mary is entering heaven to sit beside her son.
Many churches and monasteries, which were dedicated to the Blessed Virgin had been founded in the 8th and 9th century.
The original cathedral in Paderborn had been founded and dedicated to the Blessed Virgin by Charlemagne after his victory over the pagan Saxons.
Not everywhere the use of places for church buildings, where pagan places of worship had been before, has been a sudden one or accomplished by bloody campaigns of Christians against pagans. Often the change happened little by little.
When the chapel of Our Lady of the Greenwood in Alsace has been build above a sanctuary , once dedicated to the Roman goddess Diana and to the local goddess of the wildwood, the old temple had long crumbled to ruins.
How powerful is the goddess of the wildwood!! Places, which are dedicated to Her echo forth Her divine blessing through all time and space to the visitor, as She is beyond time, space and conceivability.
Another church in the Alsace, dedicated to Mary of the Oaks, had been built at the spot of a Druids’ sanctuary. But when the church was built, the Druids were long gone, persecuted and killed during the rise of Cesar’s Roman Empire.
In many of the early churches the main image of worship, placed in the middle of the altar had been one of Mary. The medieval altars were arranged with the main image placed directly behind the altar. The other paintings and / or statues were arranged on pillars or substructures on both sides of the altar.
The chalice, the paten (-bowl with the Eucharistic bread), a copy of the gospels and the reliquary were placed on the consecrated altar stone, which lay under the altar.
As it had been part of the consecration rite for kings and bishops to be sat on the altar, the audience had the impression of the consecrated person sitting on the lap of the Blessed Virgin, usually place of Christ. This may have replaced pagan rites, in which the king married the goddess of the land.
The following excerpt from a German prayer from 840 AD may illustrate the veneration of the Blessed Virgin in the early Middle Ages:
“…grant us thy hand of peace,
Grant us confidence through your help;
Grant confidence to the mourning,
Dry our tears with your peace and
Dissipate our worries.”
From the 9th until the 12th century the worship of the goddess in her manifestation as Blessed Virgin spread all over Germany.
Girls and church bells and were named Mary; churches and abbeys were dedicated to Her, and legends were told about Marian apparitions and other miracles, attributed to The Blessed Virgin, wherever a new sacred mansion, sacred to Her was to be built.
There are legends about the Blessed Virgin, letting it snow in summer on a certain spot, such showing a place, where She wants a chapel or church to be built and dedicated to Her. These chapels were often named as “Maria Schnee” in Germany, “Maria ad nives” in Latin and “Notre Dame du neige” in French.
In many cases a hidden statue of Mary had drawn somebody ‘s attention by singing, until it was found in some hollow tree, under a hedge or even under the earth.
Some statues had been found by some cow or pig. In some cases the adder is mentioned as the happy finder, who drew some human’s attention on the sacred image.
Those readers, who may be familiar with the Pagan traditions of Western Europe may well detect here several ideas, related to the goddesses of the environment….
In the heyday of Marian poetry in the 12th and 13th century AD the first “biography” on the life of Mary in German was written in 1172.
In the same year Wernher von Augsburg wrote three hymns to Mary. A scroll with a copy of that text written on it was given into the hands of parturient women to ease their pains.
Legends about Mary were a popular topic of sermons. Some of Her titles from that era are „virgin“, „renewer“, „bringer of light“, „star-like defeater of darkness“, „bountiful giver of life“, „queen of heaven“, „conqueror of hard striking death“, „comforter“, „helper“.
Coins with an image of Mary as Maria Orans were worn on a necklace as talismans, sewn into the clothes or were incorporated into horses’ bridles.
Legends about miracle working statues of the Blessed Virgin spread all over the land. Her shrines and churches became well visited places of pilgrimage.
After the invention of printing in 1450 little slips, bearing the impress of an image of Mary were sold. They were bought to be swallowed as a remedy or part of a formula to heal all kinds of illnesses.
At some places of pilgrimage the pilgrim could also buy so called prayer stripes.
A prayer stripe, dedicated to the Blessed Virgin, which had been sold to pilgrims in an Austrian monastery was 1,88 m – about 6 ft. – in length; and the owner was ensured by the text, written on it, that this was ” the true height of our dear lady, Mary, Blessed Queen of Heaven, whose holy height on silk ribbons is distributed to all pilgrims, who visit the sacred house of Loretto.” (From this silk ribbon the blessing was transformed to the paper stripes, described here.)
The following lines on the paper stripe, sold at a monastery in Austria describe the powerful effects of each copy of that sacred height:
“Everyone, man or woman, carrying the height with them or having it in their homes may expect mercy of exceptional greatness from our dear lady, not alone here, but also in eternity.”
The description is followed by two prayers to Our Lady, praising the sacred height and asking that ” trusting in the sacred height of Mary I may be protected by your motherly compassion from all misfortune, fire, water, from spiritual or bodily fall, from bonds and prison and all evil persecution, from bullet and arrow, from evil magic and all dread, from wrongful verdict and prosecution by enemies, from malicious gossip and defamation and from all evil, that could do damage to body or soul.”
At the end of the prayer stripe the size of the foot of Mary is added by a mark of 13,5 cm with the explanation that “this is the true size of our dear lady’s foot” and that “this size is kept in a monastery in Spain. John the Pope has granted 700 years of indulgence (from purgatory) to all, who prayerfully kiss this measurement.”
The above described paper stripe had been made in Cologne and was sold to pilgrims at several places of pilgrimage, which were dedicated to Our Lady.
Little slips with prayers to Mary written on them became popular talismans of protection and were placed under the bed’s pillow, under houses’ and stables’ thresholds and roofs – in short – everywhere, where protection against misfortune, envy, evil and illness was desired.
The peaceful coexistence of pagan and christian ideas in the northwest of Germany may be illustrated by the fact, that in the heyday of Marian spirituality the Saxons still hung the furs of the animals, who were killed in the first hunt of the year into the branches of Teutoforest’s mighty and time honoured oaks.
The house of the goddess has many rooms – through the aeons She is honoured and worshipped with many names all over the planet.
She is the universal mother of life, Auset in ancient Egypt, called Isis in Ancient Greece and in the Roman Empire, Demeter of the Eleusinian mysteries, Mother Hulda of the Hercynian woods and Mary, divine creatrix – helpful, compassionate, comforting and caring.
The catholic dogma revers Her for Her chastity and Her capacity for suffering, but denies Her the position of goddess, which is reflected in the liturgy for example in the fact, that godfather, son and Holy Spirit are worshipped kneeling, whereas when praying to Mary and the saints, standing is the correct position.
I remember my wonderful spiritual teacher Olivia Robertson, deeply devoted to the Divine Feminine. She always used to remind us, that kneeling is a gesture of submission, whereas the path of the Goddess is a path of beauty and joy and not of slavery. The gods and goddesses don’t want us kneeling, but dancing! So we should stand straight, when invoking the goddess or when getting the priestly consecration into Her divine service.
Mary, our dear lady, the blessed virgin should be accepted and honoured as a part of the universal pantheon of the goddess, not because of her chastity or her capacity for suffering, attributed to her by patriarchal dogma, but for Her being one of the many manifestations of the Divine Feminine, although a comparably new one.
She is one manifestation of the goddess and an important part of our herstory and history and European culture.
She is the healing, helping, comforting and compassionate mother of all sentient beings, and She is a spiritual refuge for all, who turn to Her with an open mind.
The oldest prayer to Her christian manifestation had been found on a papyrus scroll from the third century AD
“We flee under your protection, oh sacred mother of god.
Do not reject our prayer, when we call to you in our sufferings;
Liberate us from all dangers,
Glorious, blessed virgin.”
“Sub tuum praesidium confugimus,
Sancta Dei Genetrix.
Nostras deprecationes ne despicias
in necessitatibus nostris,
sed a periculis cunctis
libera nos semper,
Virgo gloriosa et benedicta. Amen.”
walk in love and beauty blessed by the mother of all, Goddess of ten thousand names and uncountable faces!