Protestants often accuse us of worshipping Mary. They think we put her on an equal footing with Jesus and essentially exalt her to the level of a goddess. We Catholics obviously deny these charges, but it’s not always easy to see how we can escape them. On the surface, some of our beliefs about Mary do seem difficult to reconcile with her status as a created being, so it is understandable why our separated brethren would have trouble with them.
In this article, I want to look at one of these troubling Marian beliefs, one that at first glance may seem inescapably idolatrous. I want to examine the Catholic tradition of portraying Mary crushing the head of a snake and the belief it expresses. This tradition draws on a key biblical image for God’s victory over evil, so it looks like we are attributing that victory to Mary rather than to God. Nevertheless, this motif actually has a very solid basis in Scripture. The Bible itself tells us that Mary played a key role in God’s defeat of evil, so there is nothing wrong with depicting her in this role.
The First Gospel
To understand what I mean, we have to go to the source of the image, the opening chapters of Genesis. Right after Adam and Eve committed the world’s first sin, God pronounced a punishment on the snake that tempted them:
“And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” (Genesis 3:15)
We learn in Revelation that this snake was actually the devil (Revelation 12:9), so these words foretell mankind’s perpetual enmity with the devil and his minions. At first glance, it looks like this struggle will last forever, but if we look closely, God was actually implying that humanity would eventually emerge victorious. For one, the fact that this is a curse on the snake rather than on Adam and Eve suggests that the devil will get the worst of it. Secondly, the blows they will strike also indicate this. Mankind will crush the snake’s head, but the snake will simply strike humanity’s heel. Again, we see the devil getting the worst of it. In fact, having your head crushed is fatal, so God is actually saying that the snake will be killed. Now, the devil can’t literally die, so this must mean that humanity will eventually win its fight against him and defeat him entirely.
More specifically, by using the image of crushing a snake’s head, God’s words subtly imply that he will send a single representative of the human race to strike the final, crushing blow to the devil and his minions. See, it doesn’t take an entire race to crush a snake’s head. No, it just takes one person to do that, and after the snake is dead, there is no need for other people to continue stepping on it. Consequently, this text doesn’t simply foretell the redemption of the human race; more specifically, it prophesies a savior who will defeat the devil and his minions on behalf of us all. As you can probably figure out, that savior is Jesus. In a nutshell, God’s punishment on the snake in Genesis foretells the redemption later won for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Now, this raises an obvious question. If the motif of crushing a snake’s head draws on a prophecy about Jesus, why do we apply it to Mary? This doesn’t seem to help our case at all. If anything, it seems to prove that we Catholics do in fact put Mary on an equal footing with Jesus. However, the issue is not quite so simple. The image of crushing an enemy’s head extends well beyond the first few chapters of the Bible. Specifically, there are two other passages in Scripture that make it perfectly legitimate to depict Mary this way. First, let’s look at a text from one of St. Paul’s letters:
“For while your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, I would have you wise as to what is good and guileless as to what is evil; then the God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” (Romans 16:19-20)
In this passage, St. Paul is clearly drawing on God’s punishment of the snake in Genesis, but he puts a new twist on it: he applies it to all Christians, not just Jesus. By doing this, he is teaching us that we can all participate in Jesus’ victory over Satan. Even though Jesus struck the definitive blow 2,000 years ago, we all have to defeat the devil in our own individual battles. We all need to conquer sin in our own lives, and when we do that, we participate in Jesus’ victory over evil and crush the head of the snake with him. As a result, it is not wrong to depict Mary or anyone else standing on top of a snake. Like all Christians, she too participated in Jesus’ defeat of the devil, so it’s perfectly legitimate to represent that participation in our religious art.
Blessed Among Women
Nevertheless, this still leaves us with some questions. We do not normally depict anybody else crushing a snake’s head, so why do we depict Mary this way? What makes her so special? The answer involves another Bible passage, this time from the Gospels:
“Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” (Luke 1:42)
These words, familiar to most of us from the “Hail Mary,” were spoken to Mary by her cousin Elizabeth. At first glance, they do not seem to have any relevance whatsoever to our topic, but let’s delve a bit deeper. This verse calls to mind some passages from the Old Testament in which other women were given similar acclaim (I’ve highlighted the key phrases in them):
“Most blessed of women be Jael,
the wife of Heber the Kenite,
of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
He asked water and she gave him milk,
she brought him curds in a lordly bowl.
She put her hand to the tent peg
and her right hand to the workmen’s mallet;
she struck Sisera a blow,
she crushed his head,
she shattered and pierced his temple.
He sank, he fell,
he lay still at her feet;
at her feet he sank, he fell;
where he sank, there he fell dead.” (Judges 5:24-27)
“O daughter, you are blessed by the Most High God above all women on earth; and blessed be the Lord God, who created the heavens and the earth, who has guided you to strike the head of the leader of our enemies.” (Judith 13:18)
In both of these texts, a woman is proclaimed most blessed because she killed an enemy of Israel by striking his head, and when read in the context of the entire Bible, they clearly call to mind both God’s curse on the snake and Elizabeth’s words to Mary. Just as these men had their heads crushed, so too was the snake to suffer the same fate, and just as these women were praised as most blessed of all, so too did Mary receive the same acclaim. Once we realize this, we can see that these passages form a bridge between Elizabeth’s words in Luke and God’s words in Genesis.
These two women foreshadowed Mary, and they did so precisely because they crushed their enemies’ heads, which implies that Mary must have done the same. Now, Mary was called most blessed because she was Jesus’ mother, so it stands to reason that this is how she crushed her enemy’s head. More specifically, as the mother of our savior, she participated in his crushing of the snake’s head in a unique way. She gave the world its savior and made his victory over Satan possible, something that nobody else ever did or will do again.
Mary Crushes the Snake’s Head
Once we understand that, we can see why we often portray Mary standing on top of a snake. It does not mean that she defeated evil by herself or that she usurped Jesus’ role as our savior. No, it is simply a recognition of her singular, unrepeatable contribution to our redemption. We all participate in Jesus’ victory over evil when we defeat sin in our own lives, but Mary did more than that (although she definitely did that too). She was the mother of the savior, so she played a unique and crucial role in that victory. Because of that, it’s entirely fitting that our religious art express that special role by depicting her crushing the head of a snake.