Is Mother-Goddess Worship Still Alive?
MOTHER-GODDESS worship was still practiced during the days of the early Christians. The apostle Paul met up with it in Ephesus in Asia Minor. As in Athens, another goddess-worshiping city, he had borne witness to “the God that made the world,” the living Creator, who is not “like gold or silver or stone, like something sculptured by the art and contrivance of man.” This was too much for the Ephesians, most of whom worshiped the mother-goddess Artemis. Those who made a living by fashioning silver shrines of the goddess incited a riot. For about two hours, the crowd shouted: “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!”—Acts 17:24, 29; 19:26, 34.
The Ephesian Artemis
The Greeks also worshiped an Artemis, but the Artemis worshiped in Ephesus can only be loosely identified with her. The Greek Artemis was a virgin goddess of hunting and childbirth. The Ephesian Artemis was a fertility goddess. Her huge temple at Ephesus was considered one of the seven wonders of the world. Her statue, thought to have fallen from heaven, represented her as a personification of fertility, her chest being covered with rows of egg-shaped breasts. The peculiar shape of these breasts has given rise to various explanations, such as that they represent garlands of eggs or even bulls’ testicles. Whatever the explanation, the symbol of fertility is clear.
Interestingly, according to The New Encyclopædia Britannica, the original statue of this goddess “was made of gold, ebony, silver, and black stone.” A well-known statue of the Ephesian Artemis, dating from the second century C.E., shows her with black face, hands, and feet.
The image of Artemis was paraded through the streets. Bible scholar R. B. Rackham writes: “Within the temple [of Artemis were] stored her . . . images, shrines, and sacred utensils, of gold and silver, which on great festivals were carried to the city and back in a magnificent procession.” These festivals attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims from all Asia Minor. They purchased small shrines of the goddess and hailed her as great, their lady, the queen, the virgin, “one who listens to and accepts prayers.” In such surroundings, it took great courage for Paul and the early Christians to extol “the God that made the world,” rather than gods and goddesses made of “gold or silver or stone.”
From Mother-Goddess to “Mother of God”
It was to the elders of the Christian congregation of Ephesus that the apostle Paul foretold an apostasy. He warned that apostates would rise up and speak “twisted things.” (Acts 20:17, 28-30) Among the ever-lurking dangers in Ephesus was a return to mother-goddess worship. Did this actually occur?
We read in the New Catholic Encyclopedia: “As a pilgrimage center, Ephesus was considered the burial site of [the apostle] John. . . . Another tradition, witnessed by the Council of Ephesus (431), links the Blessed Virgin Mary with St. John. The basilica in which the Council was held was called the Mary Church.” Another Catholic work (Théo—Nouvelle encyclopédie catholique) speaks of a “plausible tradition” that Mary accompanied John to Ephesus, where she spent the rest of her life. Why is this supposed connection between Ephesus and Mary important to us today?
Let The New Encyclopædia Britannica answer: “Veneration of the mother of God received its impetus when the Christian Church became the imperial church under Constantine and the pagan masses streamed into the church. . . . Their piety and religious consciousness had been formed for millennia through the cult of the ‘great mother’ goddess and the ‘divine virgin,’ a development that led all the way from the old popular religions of Babylonia and Assyria.” What better place could there be than Ephesus for the “Christianization” of mother-goddess worship?
Thus, it was in Ephesus, in 431 C.E., that the so-called third ecumenical council pronounced Mary “Theotokos,” a Greek word meaning “God-bearer,” or “Mother of God.” The New Catholic Encyclopedia states: “The use of this title by the Church was undoubtedly decisive for the growth in later centuries of Marian doctrine and devotion.”
The ruins of the “Church of the Virgin Mary,” where this council met, can still be seen today on the site of ancient Ephesus. A chapel can also be visited that, according to a tradition, was the house where Mary lived and died. Pope Paul VI visited these Marian shrines in Ephesus in 1967.
Yes, Ephesus was the focal point for the transformation of pagan mother-goddess worship, such as Paul met up with in the first century, into fervent devotion to Mary as “Mother of God.” It is principally through devotion to Mary that mother-goddess worship has survived in the lands of Christendom.
Mother-Goddess Worship Still Alive
The Encyclopædia of Religion and Ethics cites Bible scholar W. M. Ramsay as reasoning that in “the 5th cent. the honour paid to the Virgin Mary at Ephesus was [a renewed] form of the old pagan Anatolian worship of the Virgin Mother.” The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology states: “The Catholic notions of the ‘mother of God’ and of the ‘queen of heaven,’ though later than the N[ew] T[estament], point to much earlier religio-historical roots in the East. . . . In the later veneration of Mary there are many traces of the heathen cult of the divine mother.”
These traces are too numerous and too detailed to be coincidental. The similarity between mother-and-child statues of the Virgin Mary and statues of pagan goddesses, such as Isis, cannot go unnoticed. The hundreds of statues and icons of the Black Madonna in Catholic churches throughout the world cannot fail to evoke the statue of Artemis. The work Théo—Nouvelle encyclopédie catholique says of these Black Virgins: “They appear to have been a means for transferring to Mary what remained of popular devotion to Diana [Artemis] . . . or Cybele.” The Assumption Day processions of the Virgin Mary also find their prototype in the processions in honor of Cybele and Artemis.
The very titles given to Mary remind us of pagan mother-goddesses. Ishtar was hailed as the “Holy Virgin,” “my Lady,” and “the merciful mother who listens to prayer.” Isis and Astarte were called “Queen of Heaven.” Cybele was styled the “Mother of all the Blest.” All these titles, with slight variations, are applied to Mary.
Vatican II encouraged the cult of the “Blessed Virgin.” Pope John Paul II is well-known for his ardent devotion to Mary. During his extensive travels, he never misses an opportunity to visit Marian shrines, including that of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, in Poland. He entrusted the whole world to Mary. It is, therefore, not surprising that under “Mother Goddess,” The New Encyclopædia Britannica writes: “The term also has been applied to figures as diverse as the so-called Stone Age Venuses and the Virgin Mary.”
But Roman Catholic veneration of Mary is not the only way mother-goddess worship has survived until our day. Curiously, supporters of the feminist movement have produced much literature on the worship of mother-goddesses. They believe that women have been sorely oppressed in this aggressively male-dominated world and that female-oriented worship reflects mankind’s aspirations for a less aggressive world. They appear also to believe that today the world would be a better and more peaceful place if it were more feminist-oriented.
However, worship of a mother-goddess did not bring peace in the ancient world, and it will not bring peace today. Further, more and more people today, in fact millions associating with Jehovah’s Witnesses, are convinced that this earth will not be saved by Mary, however much they respect and love her as the faithful, first-century woman who had the wonderful privilege of bearing and raising Jesus. Neither do Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the Women’s Liberation Movement, even though some of its demands may be justified, can bring about a peaceful world. For that they look to the God that Paul declared to the Athenians and to the Ephesians, “the God that made the world and all the things in it.” (Acts 17:24; 19:11, 17, 20) This Almighty God, whose name is Jehovah, has promised a glorious new world in which “righteousness is to dwell,” and we can confidently rely on his promise.—2 Peter 3:13.
As to the Bible’s viewpoint on woman’s position before God and man, this subject will be developed further on in this magazine.
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ASHTORETH—Canaan’s goddess of sex and war
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ARTEMIS—Fertility goddess of Ephesus
Musei dei Conservatori, Rome
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Christendom’s “MOTHER OF GOD”
Chartres Cathedral, France