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Author Comment
Registered User
(4/30/02 5:02:15 pm)
Possibly OT: The Virgin Mary and symbols
Weird question...

Went to a store the other day, a wonderfully eclectic store full of Asian and Latin stuff. I found this plastic Virgin Mary, from Latin America, and she has a snake at her feet! I had never heard of her being associated with the snake before. Does anyone know why she would be? Ideas I'm tossing around include:

(a) She is trampling the snake that tempted Eve, showing herself as the sinless foil for the woman who caused the fall.

(b) It's a remnant of Goddess religion, like the moon Mary also gets associated with sometimes.

(c) She is credited, in some story I've never heard, with some sort of miracle involving snakes, a St Patrick sort of story.

Any insight would be wonderful!


Marsha Sisolak
Registered User
(4/30/02 7:29:58 pm)
Re: Possibly OT: The Virgin Mary and symbols
We were taught the serpent represents Satan. Thus Mary is symbolized as the enemy of the serpent, and is victorious over the devil, through her offspring.

Hope that helps.

Registered User
(5/2/02 12:56:12 pm)
Thank you.

Registered User
(5/7/02 12:09:34 am)
Re: Mary
I'm pretty sure it is (a), symbolizing the fact that Mary is considered free of original sin. I think it's fairly common in art from parts of Mexico, and possibly from other areas as well. I live in LA and have seen similar figures quite a few times in local shops.

Edited by: cloudshaper at: 5/7/02 12:14:39 am
pauline storyteller
Registered User
(5/9/02 1:11:30 pm)
Re: Possibly OT: The Virgin Mary and symbols
My guess is the mother goddess alternative. A lot of ancient goddesses are from time to time portrayed with snakes at their feet, for instance Isis (Egypt), Aphrodite (Greek), Freya (Norse).
May be the reason that the snake is a "bad symbol" in Christianity is that it often were a sexual symbol in pagan religions. And a symbol of female power.

In some cultures, like Hopi, it`s good luck to dream about serpents (I don`t know why, but they are probably very different from Freuds reasons!)

St. Patrick is known for chasing all the snakes from Ireland. But as far as I know he did this without any help from Mary. I think that`s some of the point, actually. St. Patrick and St. Bridgid is more popular in Ireland than Mary because they`re Irish saints. And Ireland probably wanted to distinguish themselves from the countries that occupied them (Please correct me if I`m wrong!)


Unregistered User
(5/20/02 7:08:49 am)
Mary and the serpent?
The gnostic versions of Christianity considered the snake as the embodiment of wisdom (Sophia). Certain sects still venerate Mary Magdeline in the same role. Although images associating MM with the serpent wouldn't have her trampling it underfoot.

Unregistered User
(5/23/02 9:22:12 am)
Mary & the Snake
I think what you saw was a representation of the Virgin of Guadalupe. From what I recall the snake also does represent the devil and the passage to which this refers is in the Book of Revelation in the Bible, describing what biblical scholars believe is Mary, the Mother of Jesus. In this represenation she is wearing a cloak of stars and the moon and sun circles her head. She is standing on the snake to show her power over Satan.

The vision of the Virgin of Guadalupe to Juan Diego brought about the conversion of thousands of Indians to Christianity in Mexico. From what I recall, the Indian religions were matriarchal in origin and the visitation by Mary, as the Mother of God, was the interpretation of the female aspect of God, perhaps Sophia (Wisdom), which made it easier for the Native folks to convert since their diety was female and Mary represented female aspects of Christian deity. I would suggest researching the Guadalupe story.

Hope this helps.

Llama Dolly
Registered User
(5/26/02 8:43:12 pm)
St Bridget
Saint Bridget is actually the Christian version of the Irish Celtic patron mother goddess, Brigantia.

Registered User
(7/2/02 12:17:07 pm)
snake & Virgin Mary
It seems that everyone is putting together the pieces of a very large puzzle, so let me start out by saying that everyone is right, so far, if only in part.
Remember that the Greek for snake is "drakon", and that the medieval dragon is interchangeable with "snake". All the Norse, Chinese, Native American, African et altri dragon tales have relatives in tales of snakes that existed later.
The Babylonian goddess Tiamat was a dragon (or snake) who feared humanity's existence, and attempted to destroy humanity before humanity could destroy all of creation. (It is interesting to note that this existed as a tale 6000 years ago, though it is only relavent today.)
In Judaeo-Christian terms, it seems that the snake-dragon may not originally have been intended as a focus for hate, but rather that developed purely as a result of Christian propaganda during the dark ages. In the same way, the goddess (Sophia, also a snake) was shunned by the Catholics, prompting division with the Orthodox Church, and the horned god was changed into "satan". Lucifer, the male aspect of an androgynous deity of love (the female being Aphrodite) became the symbol for the devil. All darkness and confusion seems to stem from these, at least in the Catholic interpretations. Only 300 years of reforms have begun to wipe away the vestiges of this oppressive system. Through it all, Mary stands as the only woman who ever was sinless (read "good").
However, in the Muslim world, an offshoot of Judaism much like Christianity, such symbols did not exist. The Muslims feel no need to villify imaginary symbols to move their points across.
The Judaic tradition of Qabala speaks of angels and old gods and goddesses. In that system of folklore, Lucifer is not seen as a bringer of evil and deviance, but only a maker of liberty, and thereby discordance. In this way, God is cast as perfect, for even though Satan rebelled, he nevertheless does God's will, serving humanity.
For this reason, we must look to the ancient middle East and medieval Europe to understand the symbol of the snake. Whatever really happened then, we may never know. What we do know is that the Catholic Church grew in power and became slightly corrupted. I do not mean to offend Catholics by this, it is only meant as history. The Church has taken many steps to make up for its mistakes.
The legend of St Patrick and the snakes can be seen as a symbolical way of eliminating femininity/wisdom/evil from Ireland. Any of these symbols works. Even the literal symbol works well, though I cannot say for sure that there are no more snakes in Ireland.
Also remember that the Renaissance Medici family was symbolized by a snake as a caduceus, even as was Hermes Trismegistus more than a thousand years before. It was a symbol of wisdom and medicine.
Now, back to the Virgin's statue. It seems that we can either accept the snake as a symbol of Mary or as Mary's victory, but without getting into the question of good or evil, I will reccommend the alliance theory, that the snake is Mary's symbol and banner.

Registered User
(7/3/02 8:52:54 am)
Dona Labismina
After posting yesterday, I came home from work and began to read a fairytale collection from where I had left off the previous night. The very next tale was "Why the Sea Moans" from Brasil. With the memory of the previous post still in my head, I was surprised to read the following:

"Once upon a time there was a queen who had been married for a long time but never had a child. She prayed, 'Please God, let me give birth, if only to a snake!' God heard her prayer and she gave birth to a baby daughter. Around the child's neck a snake was tightly coiled. The princess was named Maria, and she made a friend of the snake whose name was Dona Labismina."

The tale continues for a bit, combining elements of "Puss 'n Boots" and "Cinderella". My Portuguese is not that good, so if anyone knows what Labismina might mean, it could help shed light on this question. Or, it could be a dead end.
I just thought it interesting, seeing as the snake was the issue, and the little girl is purposefully named "Maria", an alternate of "Mary".
For those interested in the rest of the story, I would be willing to reproduce it here, if it weren't for the legal restrictions. The tale is from a collection in a book which is a recent (past decade) retelling by Neil Philip (author search). You can probably find it at Amazon. I found it on my mother's bookshelf.

Unregistered User
(7/3/02 3:32:23 pm)
Mary and Revelation
Hmm..some of Zeppelin's historical points don't jive with my (unabashedly Catholic) reading of Mary's --especially in your interpretation of her visionary appearance in Revelation (chapter 12). with all due respect to your considerable scholarship, I don't agree with you. Revelations is a very complex document--written most likely by two authors. Though the author identifies himself in the opening passages as "John"--the style makes it clear it's not the evangelist but certainly someone within his circle. The document was composed (if then by two authors) roughly between 70-95 AD--so it wasn't a document intended to take on pagan traditions of Europe and the dark ages--It should be understood as a tract for the author's times--written to increase the determination and hope of the Church during a violent period of persecution just after the crucifixtion and prophesying the certain downfall and destruction of Roman Imperial power. The author was really trying to address the issues of his world and the complicated questions of his own faith in what was to him an incredibly dark time--and one he imagine would soon be over. The images are drawn heavily from the Old Testament, especially the Book of Daniel and allows the author to refer to the new enemy Rome under the disguise of the old enemy--Babylon.

I would highly recommend grabbing a bible and having a look at chapter 12--it's not very long but its spectacular. Most of the document is in highly imaged visionary, metaphorical language--and this passage is no exception. It's not about "scripture" but expressing the hidden face of the divine through exceptional images and events. (how do we express the hidden truths of the divine in language?) Mary is never refered to by name other than "the woman adorned with the sun, standing on the moon, and with the twelve stars on her head for a crown." She is in labor--and is attacked by a huge red dragon with seven heads, each crowned with a coronet and "it's tail dragged a third of the stars from the sky and dropped them to the earth." He waits at her feet to devour the child at birth--but when she delivered a male child, he was taken into heaven, while the woman escaped into the desert where God had made a place of safety for her. The dragon and the angels engaged in war, the Archangel Michael recognizing the dragon to be a form of Satan. When the devil was cast down to earth, he sprang in pursuit of the woman but she was given a huge pair of eagle wings and flew away from the serpent...and well it just keeps getting better and better.

But this passage is one of many--referencing the Old Testament often--using the wealth of images to make prophecies about the design of an immediate future. How it has been interpreted visually since is another interesting question--the images of Mary with the moon and the stars, her heel planted on the head of the serpent or dragon have much to do with what was "fashionable" in artistic expression--just watching the body of Mary change throughout art history tells you less theologically about her role and what aspect of her as a female figure was considered important at the time (her always seeming pregnant belly at one time, her breasts leaking milk at another, her complacent face--even Michelangelo's "Pieta" with its eternally youthful mother balancing the grown man dead in her lap--contrasts to the last "Pieta" he was carving as he himself was dying and it is a haunting figure of old age combined with an older woman's grief and helplessness.)

I know it seems fashionable now to read Mary as a "goddess" figure--a Christian overlay and a weak one at that--offering submission and chastity. But nothing could be farther from the truth. She was born without original sin (immaculately conceived)--what that means is not just that she was a "good girl" but that she was the only human being--since Adam and Eve--whose vision, whose unabridged awareness of God was not limited by the stain of sin--she had sight, she had a far reaching understanding, and she had the capacity to recognize the importance of the request that she be the Christ bearer. When she said yes at the annunciation--she said yes not only to the birth but to the death as well--which she saw and understood. And at the death, it is Mary who bears the weight of real grief, the only one to truely what has been lost--and she shields us from utter despair of that knowing. That is what being born without original sin gives her which we lack. What is important though about the figure of Mary (for Catholics anyway) is her humanity--she represents not the female divinity--but the conjunction of all human beings with the divine--she is "the bridge," "the ladder down which God climbed." She represents men and women in their interaction with the divine. Wadsworth would call her "our tainted nature's solitary boast." Perhaps one of the most interesting contemporary writers on Mary is Adrienne Von Speyr--a twentieth century Catholic mystic, an intellectual, a physician, a feminist--friends with Satre and de Bouvior--raised a Protestant but had visions all her adult life and carried the stigmata on her hands. Her book "Handmaid of the Lord" is an amazing text and study on Mary that reintroduces one to this incredibly powerful figure--even if you aren't really big on Mary--or only in an oblique sort of way, the book is really superb from a feminist and existentialist point of view.

va bene

Registered User
(7/3/02 3:58:26 pm)
Re: Mary and Revelation
I appreciate the book reference and have just ordered it.

The Catholic religion (separate from the Church) in its deep reverence for Mary elevates and celebrates women and mothers. . .and it always has.

Mariology brings sacredness to the everyday life of women.


Unregistered User
(7/3/02 4:18:21 pm)
thanks and apologies
thanks Chris...let me know how you like the book.

and utter apologies for mangling Sartre and de Beauvoir's's waay too hot here.

Registered User
(7/3/02 8:56:33 pm)

Allow first to apologise for any offence in my writing on Mary. Admittedly, I am not a Catholic and am not as intimately familiar with the Catholic understanding of Mary. I nevertheless have a great respect for her as an historical and mythological figure. One of my favorite parts of the New Testament is the Cana wedding, where she appears to be exasperated with her son's behaviour, and says to the head servant "Do as he tells you." I see much of the women in my family in that little episode.
On a less personal note, I beg to differ with your interpretation of Mary as immaculately conceived. As far as I can remember, that reference is in non-canonical books (nativity gospels) from the time period- though it may currently exist as Catholic dogma- with those books to draw upon. Correct me here, please. My only point is that where Christianity is concerned, too many dividing lines are drawn upon what people said about Jesus, and not unification on what Jesus said about people. But- once again- that is coming from outside of the tradition.
Many thanks for your inspired writing on the subject. Even though I have deeply devout Christian friends, they tend to have widely divergent beliefs on Mary. I have a difficult time trying to establish a picture. It seems, as I grow older, that it is easier to picture her as my own mother. I understand how Mary can be seen as a ladder from God down to humanity; however, it seems that too many people rely on this Catholic ladder system.
That is not to say that there is anything wrong with it, only that it does not allow for the average mortal to communicate with God. I seem to remember that as being one of Martin Luther's sticking points with the church. Where does a highly spiritual person fit into this framework? There is no dearth of examples of people excommunicated for their fervor, though the story of St Francis makes me wonder how bad it really is. Even Nostradamus's alleged prophecies have escaped Catholic criticism though they appear largely heretical. I am also reminded that many early church canons excluded Revelations on similar grounds as heresy (though it contains similarities to Nostradamus, who was btw a devout Catholic himself).
You bring up a great point about Revelations 12, with the serpent (read 'dragon') standing in front of Mary, ready to devour the child. Maybe the artist of the statue whose existence started this discussion had in mind a plurality of this image as and that of the ancient mother-serpent? It would make for an interestingly deep work of art. It seems to me that the image of the mother is ingrained too deeply upon the human psyche for even the powerful church to wipe it away. No wonder there was need for an overlay- however natural or unintentional- of Mary onto the ancient goddess-figure.
Now, I know that Mary is portrayed as chaste and eternally a virgin, but it seems from Matthew 12: 46 al fin that his mother gave birth to other sons. Some have tried to explain this away with a number of excuses, but they seem very flimsy, and some even contradict the Gospels! I- once again, as a non-Christian- do not understand the need for Mary's chastity. She had a husband, she was a woman. Even if she was godly to whatever degree, should anyone simply accept that she remained a virgin the rest of her life? The Bible does not seem to directly state this, though I know that there are many allusions.
My only point is that most of the opening to your final paragraph states ideas not stated in scripture. Admittedly, I would prefer to stick to the facts as stated in the New Testament, i.e. the words coming from the mouth of Jesus. I am skeptical even of Paul's writing as it appears to be too much interpolation and exclusion.
Concerning your comment about "pagan traditions of Europe and the dark ages", I was referring to only the Christian teachings of that setting. The pagan traditions of target were pre-Christian, and thus pre-Dark Ages. And the pagan traditions of the middle-east (of Jesus's time and before) were not that far removed from the European ones. With this in mind, I will say that the "pagan" imagery appears to be very much in mind to the author(s) of Revelations. Even the author(s) of the first few chapters of Genesis had the old mythology in mind. And in the few "one-god" religions that existed in ancient times, the practitioners always drew upon the previous deitific surroundings to set the mythology for their one-god. Take a peek at Akhen-atun of al-Misr or Ahura Mazda of Persia to see what I mean.
I would also like to remind you that at the time of the writing of the Revelations, Christianity was still almost exclusively Jewish. The stories of Jesus's birth and other myths concerning his mythology were grafted onto the Biblical story by assorted authors coming from many other religious traditions, that of Mithra being the most prominent. You can look up the pseudopigraphical books to see what I mean. They were mostly written down in the 2nd and 3rd centuries CE by people who most definitely did not know Jesus, and maybe only questionably knew some of his disciples.
And one more thing: Christianity changed as it took root all over the world. Even in the supposedly unified Catholic Church of 800 CE, there were variants in practice in Ireland, Britain, Germany, France, Italy, Iberia, the Slavic nations, and the Balkan nations. There were even minor divergent strains in Syria, Turkey, and Egypt.
Thank you for the book reference ("Handmaiden of the Lord"). I will get my hands on it soon. I am currently engrossed in "James, the Brother of Jesus" by Robert Eisenman. It's pretty dry, but I am digging my way through a new interpretation for its own sake. As soon as I am done with its 1000-odd pages, be assured I will turn to your recommendation.

Be well,


P.S. Chris, as much as I would like to agree with your statement about the church always upholding women and mothers, even the Bible contradicts it. Paul suggests that "women should remain silent in the churches; they are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says." (I Corinthians 14:34, hence my questioning of Paul's commentary.) And the burning times of the Inquisition also sting in a painful reminder of just how fond the Church was of women, especially women in power. Even today the Church excludes women from the potential duty of being humanity's bridge to God, though it was Mary- a woman, not a man- who was the alleged first.

Unregistered User
(7/4/02 6:08:02 am)
small reply

Many thanks for the long and interesting reply--I wasn't offended by your interpretation at all--I just have a different take on the subject. I am reluctant to give too long a reply--as I fear this thread may be a bit boring for the board...(like how people really are interested in St. Thomas's arguments on the immaculate conception?) but I do want to acknowledge a few of your excellent points.

You are correct when you say that the dogma of Mary's immaculate conception is a "modern" interpretation (not finalized as a dogma until 1854 under Pope Pius IX) yet it was an ongoing debate/discussion and a lively one at that for centuries. And while you are also correct that the texts do not give explicit reference to immaculate conception, theologians (including ancient ones) argued it was implicitly contained in the scriptural texts. (there is a reference to the canonical text of Gn 3:15--which raises another point about what actually is considered "canonical texts" --that too has a long tradition of debate and divergence. The OT can be composed of either 22 or 24 canonical texts--and some argue the NT is also canonical.) I am fascinated by the ongoing tradition of argument and interpretation. For me, the Church and matters of faith--despite the seeming rock hard quality of dogma-- have a tensile flexibility that makes them challenging, demanding at times. It resists our desire to delineate and structure as "fact" matters that can be only perceived as issues of faith (at least to the faith community). And it seems almost contradictory--to find the language, the hard lines with which to draw the edges of the undefinable mysteries of faith. We are as desirous and as hampered as the author of Revelation. Perhaps its why I have always loved the gospels of John--for language is turned on its head--abstract and explosive with interpretive possiblities. (speaking of which Von Speyr also wrote a four volume explication of the gospel of John--it is as rich and astonishing as anything one might read on the subject--each line, sometimes each word explored, tasted almost, to the fullness of its possible meanings.). On another side note--the translation of "brothers" from the Aramaic and Hebrew in Matthew 12:46 doesn't necessarily mean "sibling"--but was a term applied to cousins and even more distant relations of the same generation.

okay...there's too much in this thread, that while interesting and fertile territory may wind up too off-topic to the board. I apologise for seeming cowardly, and not replying to all your comments, but there is a cautious line between theology and mythology and I guess I am worried about getting mired in that space.

Registered User
(7/4/02 9:52:26 am)
Re: small reply
True, on the count of winding a bit off-topic; but thank you indeed for such lively response. I'll just lock this away up in my head with all the other things!


William Saxton
Registered User
(7/9/02 3:42:07 pm)
Re: Possibly OT: The Virgin Mary and symbols
I look forward to understanding more about this good-mother symbol of Mary. Went to a talk about her last Sunday; not too informative. She's a heck of a lot better than the alternative!

Judith Berman
Registered User
(7/10/02 7:01:47 am)
snakes and the caduceus
I believe the caduceus was originally the symbol of Hermes the god of classical myth, not Hermes Trismegistus the legendary sage/ ancestor-figure of alchemy and rosicrucianism.

On the other hand, there does at times seem to be some confusion between the two, and Greek writers like Herodotus were greatly impressed by Egyptian priests and their magic. Many modern cliched notions about magicians derive from classical Greek views of Egyptian priests, from magic wands to magic spells. I have a recollection of seeing an Egyptian priest's staff shaped like a snake, and I think this may have been a common object type, but my home Egyptology section is too small to confirm this.

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