Monday, February 25, 2008

Women and Spirituality Blog

Carol P. Christ
She Who Is All Holy

When I moved to Greece about twenty years ago, I was sometimes asked what I taught in the university. When I replied “Goddesses” or “Greek Goddesses,” I generally received one of two answers from residents of the small town where I lived. “Oh, you mean mythology,” they said, “now we have Christianity, which is the truth.” I later learned that as there is no separation of church and state in Greece, this is what children are taught in religion classes in public schools. The second response puzzled me: “We have the Panagia, she is our Goddess.” From my studies I knew that Greek Orthodox theology did not consider the Virgin Mary – the person to whom the title Panagia refers – to be a Goddess. I presumed that those who responded thus were misinformed. One of the things I noticed as I felt my way into the life of my adopted country was the plethora of small whitewashed shrine churches dotting the countryside. These, I learned, can be dedicated to Jesus, or God, or the Holy Spirit, but more often are dedicated to a male or female saint or most frequently, to the Panagia. These churches are not used for Sunday services, but rather are visited by pilgrims who light candles and ask for blessings, especially on the name day or birthday of one to whom they are dedicated. Often shrine churches are found where springs gurgle up from the earth, at the mouths of caves, and on mountaintops. Traditionally these shrines are some distance from villages, once requiring communal pilgrimage on foot or donkey on festival days.


I attended such a celebration on the island of Skyros some years ago. The shrine church was located on a mountainside and in the mouth of a shallow cave. It was dedicated to the birthday of the Panagia, September 8. Like most of the locals we arrived by car. However, we still had to walk about twenty minutes along a mountain trail in the falling darkness. When we arrived at the church, we found the path blocked by a large woman who was stirring something in a big copper cauldron. This turned out to be lamb stew. People were seated near her on low benches and they held plates of food and glasses of wine, which were also offered to us. We had to climb over these people to reach the small church. Its entrance was blocked by three lamb carcasses making it necessary to pass under them to enter the church where we found a priest was chanting a liturgy. We lit our candles, said our prayers, and hastened back outside to join the others who soon began singing folk songs. That night I experienced the shrine church tradition as a way of marking the sacredness of the landscape echoing back to the days when Mother Earth was understood to be the Giver of All. I began to think about the name given to the Virgin Mary in Greece, Panagia. “Pan” means “all” and “agia” means “holy” in the feminine gender. I struggled to translate its full meaning. This title which is used as a name has nothing to do with “Virgin” or even “Mary.” “All Holy” is correct, except that it is gender neutral and “She” is definitely female. Finally I decided that the most accurate translation would be: “She Who Is All Holy.” This would have been one of the names or titles of the Goddess. In a strange way then, my Greek friends were right. In their “ignorance” of theological distinctions, they understood the Panagia as “thea,” “God-She,” or “Goddess.” Living in with them, I began to understand that this was not only a matter of “attributing” “qualities” of the Goddess “to” Mary, something that many scholars allege to have occurred. It was also acknowledging Mary as one of names of the Goddess. For me, the Goddess had died and was being reborn in the women’s spirituality movement. For my friends and their ancestors, there is a sense in which (despite theology) the Goddess had not died. This is why it made no sense to them when I spoke of the “return” of the Goddess.

These meditations have led me to participate more wholeheartedly in the Greek practice of visiting shrine churches, lighting candles, and asking for blessings. I have begun to think that these simple gestures are and were at the heart of Goddess religion. “She gives to me, I give to Her, we give to each other…the circle of life continues.” I have understood that there is a connection between the well-known Greek custom of offering hospitality and the ritual of asking for help from the Panagia: both are rooted in a deep understanding that what we need has been and will be given to us. I can and do pray to the Panagia at her pilgrim shrines, but I cannot become Orthodox because I know the theology of the church and I do not agree with it. At the same time, magic and secret ceremonies seem less and less important. My rituals are simple and I rarely practice indoors. “The forms change, but the circle of life remains.” Blessed be.

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