A common smear against veneration of Mary is its supposed vestigial paganism. But when the gospel account of Mary—let’s take the Annunciation in Luke 1—is compared with the ancient myths of ancient Greece and Rome, it is striking how different Mary is from her supposed pagan counterparts.
This is more than an exercise in contemporary apologetics. Luke was written in Greek and his readers most assuredly had to be familiar with the ancient myths of the time, even if they did not believe them. We see things radically anew when we read the gospel in this broader cultural context, as did all the Church Fathers.
In the ancient world, heroes—extraordinary figures who transcended their humanity to become something like a god—had special origin stories. Many, who later went on to found cities or new nations, had miraculous births and infancies just as do the superheroes of today.
Consider Romulus and Remus, the twin founders of Rome. Their mother was one of the Vestal Virgins—a priestly cult of women devoted to the hearth goddess—who had the misfortune of being raped by the war god Mars or the hero Hercules, depending on the account. Her virginity violated, she was put to death while the infants were left to die of exposure, only to be saved and suckled by a wolf. As far as birth myths go that’s pretty tame, actually.
But the pattern of an innocent virgin or nymph being unwittingly or unwillingly bedded by a lustful god is a recurrent motif in ancient Greek myth. Europa was abducted by Zeus, the king of the gods, and later gave birth to Minos, the founder of Minos. Another forced union between Zeus and the virginal Callisto led to the birth of Arcas, a mythical king of the Arcadians. Likewise, Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, though their union produced no children, perhaps because he was the god of the dead.
Of course, not all birth myths cast victim virgins.
In Roman mythology, the roles are seemingly reversed for the hero Aeneas, also a mythical founder of Rome whose father, Anchises was human, while his mother was the goddess Venus. In one way the story is true to the form of the others cited above: Venus seduces Anchises only by disguising herself as a human princess, with the deception only being revealed afterwards.
But otherwise, Venus is very much unlike the nymphs, who so often seem to be little more than receptacles for uncontrollable divine passion. In the epic poem the Aeneid, written about 20 to 30 years before the birth of Christ, she is depicted as something of a force of nature, constantly intervening to shape the fate of her hero son, or intervening on his behalf with other deities.
The birth stories of the gods are even weirder.
Dionysus, the god of wine and theater, was born from Zeus’ thigh. His human mother Semele had died after seeing Zeus in his full divine glory, so Zeus had stowed his son until he was ready to be born. But Zeus was not always so kind to his children. Worried that one of his unwilling consorts—this time a fellow deity, Metis—would give birth to a rival claimant to the divine throne, Zeus swallowed her and her unborn child. Zeus later developed a severe headache. Another god cracked open Zeus’ skull and out came Athena.
Perhaps fittingly, Zeus himself had to force his own father, Cronus, to vomit out his brother and sister gods, the future Olympians.
The gospel stands apart from these myths. Those who insist otherwise face an immediate conundrum. The child that was born to Mary was neither a hero bound to ascend to the divine nor a god who had briefly condescended to the inconveniences of human childbirth. Being fully man and fully God, Jesus was neither of these and beyond both.
This difference is reinforced from the beginning in the figure of Mary herself. With the above myths in mind, listen anew to the Annunciation account in Luke 1.
And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent from God into a city of Galilee, called Nazareth, to a virgin espoused to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel being come in, said unto her: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women” (verses 26-30).
After the birth of Jesus is described and the miraculous means of His conception, Mary then responds: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it done to me according to thy word. And the angel departed from her” (verse 38).
The differences between this true story and ancient myth are immediately obvious. First, the appearance of a messenger announcing what is to come. Mary is surprised, clearly, but she is now prepared for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The moment of conception, this wondrous meeting of earth and heaven in the womb of Mary is, moreover, not some sudden unplanned event, but rather the design of divine providence, as the angel explains.
Notice this too: it is the Holy Spirit—God as wholly other—whom Mary will encounter, not some lustful anthropomorphic deity. And yet, Mary has been specially prepared for this. She has already been ‘filled’ with grace.
And then finally there are her words of assent to her role in God’s providential plan. Her ‘Yes’ to God. Or in Latin: Fiat…let it be done.
A tremendous amount of theological reflection has been poured into this moment, indicating as it indeed does the importance of cooperation in grace, faith in the Word of God as a free act, and Mary’s special role as a co-redemptrix in God’s plan of salvation—all valid.
But in the context of ancient myth, the simple fact that Mary even was granted an opportunity to say ‘yes’ at all is significant. It is indicates that she was to be no passive vessel of the Holy Spirit, that she is no way should be likened to those darting nymphs and strange virgins of ancient myth—just as we would shudder at the remotest suggestion that the Holy Spirit has passions as we do or that God ‘forced’ Mary to participate in this plan. For us, that sounds blasphemous. For the ancient Greeks and Romans it would have been quite the norm.
But then is Mary perhaps more like Venus, the goddess? The best answer to this suggestion, I believe, rests in one of the most conspicuous objects of Marian veneration: the icon. Find an icon of Mary—any one. One of the most common types is the Mother of God or Theotokos icon, in which a large figure of Mary is depicted with an infant Jesus. (This icon has numerous variations on this basic type.)
Here’s what Google Images pulls up when you search for these icons. Notice something? Jesus, as far as this author can tell, is in every single one. OK, that’s something we take for granted now. But take a look at what Google Art Project yields for Venus (a warning to readers: some non-ancient art images may be caught in there, so view with caution).
Do you ever see Venus with Aeneas? Possibly. But one thing is clear: her identity is no way inextricably linked to Aeneas. Her maternal relationship with him is incidental to who she is, whereas, with Mary, it’s clear her entire identity is bound up with her son. All that Mary is points to Jesus. Perhaps that’s why her figure looms so large in the icons, to drive home the message that Jesus had a fully human mother, not some on-again-off-again maternal deity with her own life.
Luke 1 offers us a true story that is at once more ordinary and extraordinary than ancient myth because it is both more human and more divine. It is more human because Mary’s dignity as a person capable of freely choosing self-giving love is upheld. And more divine because it reflects both the majesty and loving-kindness of God the Creator.