Source: Pinterest. Artists unknown.
“God is a woman… and she’s black.*”
Historically. anthropologically, and archaeologically,
this is fact.
Of course, we all have our own experience of the divine.
But, how many of us have ever thought to imagine the divine as such?
What would the world look like if we did?
“Although not adequately disseminated in popular understanding, there is almost no resistance in the scholarly world to acknowledging African origins of humans. Resistance to accepting a dark African woman as the oldest mother we know, remains, however, in the scholarly world.”
(Birnbaum, Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers, p.3)
In other words… it is common knowledge that the earliest humans came out of Africa. Less well-known is the obvious conclusion that the earliest God was a black woman.
This past summer, I engaged in an independent study of the Black Madonna – a figure found all over Europe that demonstrates the way Christianity absorbed and mixed in the earlier dark Goddess traditions of Africa and other local Goddess-worshipping deities. Black Madonnas are found in many Christian churches, but few religious scholars talk about why “Mary” is black.
The oldest deity known to humanity, a “dark mother,” harkens back to the earliest of times when all peoples had darker skin. She stands as a reminder of our common ancestry. As Eurocentric ideals have influenced the social and political structures of the ruling classes of the past two thousand years, religion worshipping a white god and white savior (Jesus) has served as part of a larger racist structure to deify white skin, denigrate people of color, and justify imperialism. As part of the set of dualities associated with female, animality, nature, and inferiority, darkness has been associated with that which is uncontrollable and dangerous. In our cultural lexicon, darkness is associated with evil, cruelty, and a lack of morality whereas light and whiteness are associated with male, purity, life, and goodness.
Here’s a photo I took of a Black Madonna painting in Positano, Italy. Look at the reverence shown by the crowd. This image portrays a mythology of the African deity arriving on the shores of Europe as a blessing… they put out flowers for her. Positano is a seaside town and engaged in a lot of trade with Africa.
This Black Madonna in Positano, Italy is kept in a room that is roped off for safekeeping. But, her iconography is all over the rest of the church.
Priests are shown blessing her here. This is another photo I took at the church in Positano, Italy. By the time this painting was done (year unknown but my guess would be middle ages), patriarchy had already taken hold and turned Christ’s teachings into an arm of the authoritarian government. However, Black Madonnas, speak to an earlier time of priestesses and female power, celebration of diverse cultures, and shared power between men and women.
I don’t usually put my papers out online, because they need polishing. But, I feel compelled to begin sharing more of my writings, even in their “unpolished” form because this is a message the world needs to hear.
I will share some more quotes from Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, one of the foremost scholarly experts on the topic here, then post my entire paper below.
I want to thank Dr. Viviane Deziak, Alessandra Belloni, and Ratty for their support and insights as I dove deep into the mysteries of the Black Madonna this summer. Thank you for being a part of my journey.
With love and gratitude,
*Regarding use of the word “black.” I chose that word to make a point and because many use the words “black” and “white” to describe others. I prefer the term “European descent” to describe “whites” and “African-American” to describe “blacks.” I have done my best to find out what term each group prefers and have yet to find a definitive answer.”
*Also, I learned this phrase from Alessandra Belloni.
“…the memory of the dark mother and her values have persisted for millennia, not only among women but among men – a memory that has acted as a subversive undertow to more than 2,000 years of the dominant violent civilization of the west.” (Birnbaum, Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers, xxxviii)
“Belief in the African origin of world civilization, a civilization centered on a dark mother, was widely held in the ancient world, up until the first centuries of the common epoch when clerical and secular authorities destroyed her images and attempted to suppress her memory,” (Birnbaum, Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers p. xxvi)
The Black Madonna: Healer of a Fragmented World
August 20, 2016
California Institute of Integral Studies
PARW 8799: Black Madonnas of Italy
Dr. Viviane Deziak
“Black Madonna” is the name given to figures and images found all over the world depicting a dark mother and child seated on a throne because they resemble the popular icon of Virgin Mary and Jesus. However, many of the Black Madonnas predate Christianity. Black Madonnas are one example of a dark mother creatrix that is the earliest form of divinity conceived by humans, originating in Africa. The darkness of the Black Madonnas’ skin stands in contrast to the whiteness of the Virgin Mary within Christianity. Black madonnas are connected to aspects of the divine that have been left out of Christianity such as embodiment, connection with nature, female power, an ethic of care, and reverence for darkness. The persistence of worship of the Virgin Mary, goddesses in general, and dark mothers such as the Black Madonna worldwide despite Christianity’s attempt to shift worship to a male god (and male authority in the world), demonstrates a deep human yearning for a female divine. The Black Madonna and other dark goddesses demonstrate a desire in the psyche to connected not just with the light, but with darkness and its associated stillness, silence, and mystery. Within official church doctrines, Virgin Mary is recognized as the mother of Jesus, but not given the status that a great mother goddess possesses. In fact, the mythology of the Virgin Mary is like a foil to the Black Madonna in that the Virgin Mary has come to represent subservience, obedience, self-sacrifice, and inferiority in comparison with men. In contrast, Black Madonnas represent the full power of the female as both human and divinity and a subversive antidote to the oppressive hierarchy, violence, misogyny, and destruction of the modern patriarchal era. Whereas the Virgin Mary idealizes whiteness, obedience, and acceptance of the social order, the Black Madonna is connected with darkness, autonomy, and revolutionizing the social order.
The philosophy of ecofeminism, which examines the ways that women, animals, and nature are simultaneously linked and degraded within patriarchal culture, provides a framework for understanding the Christian tradition’s denigration of darkness, nature, the body, and femaleness. In her book Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective, Marti Kheel addresses the Judeo-Christian ideals of transcendence, linearity, progress, and male as savior which pervade modern nature philosophy and theology: “nature’s evolutionary story also parallels the Jewish and Christian emphasis on history. Judaism and Christianity differ from earlier worldviews in the belief that life on earth follows a divine historical rather than cyclical development,” (Kheel 2007, 145). The cyclical nature of all life is a primary feature of early goddess cultures. The cycles of (a) birth, death, and rebirth, (b) seasons, (c) life cycles i.e. childhood, adulthood, and old age, (d) menstrual cycles, (e) lunar cycles, and (f) solar cycles of darkness and light from day to night have shaped human experience since time immemorial. The cyclical nature of life was often represented in the spiral, a prominent symbol in early cave paintings, artwork, decor, and figurines from the palaeolithic, neolithic, and even to this day in the form of labyrinths.
This idea of linearity fits in with the concepts of managing nature, triumphing over nature, and taking control of it – all masculine ideals that we see in modern culture today. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it is woman (Eve), animal (the snake), and nature (the tree) in the Garden of Eden which bring sin into the world. So, the idea of a human, male god and savior fits the ideology. The philosophy of a male god as the savior, the body as a source of sin, woman as guilty for bringing sin into the world, wilderness as something that ought to be controlled, are all a part of a set of dualities in which one side is inferior, and one side is superior. This “othering” process is inherent in sexism, racism, and destruction of the earth.
Kheel uses the term “masculinist” and “masculinism” to explain the way that within the set of dualities an entire worldview is informed. Masculinism and masculinist “refer to an ideology that endorses the explicit or implicit belief in the superiority of a constellation of traits attributed to men… In the modern era, the traits most commonly associated with masculinity are: (1) rationality, (2) universality, and (3) autonomy. These traits are counterposed to (1) nonrationality (or emotionalism), (2) particularity, and (3) relation and dependence. From these contrasting traits a series of dualisms emerge: culture/nature, male/female, good/evil, domestic/wild, conscious/unconscious, subject/object, human/animal. A common thread uniting these dualities is the theme of transcending the female-imaged biological world.” (Kheel 2007, 3) This set of value dualisms are the invisible lens through which most humans living in modern patriarchal cultures see the world, as evidenced in religion, storytelling, television and movies (our modern form of storytelling), jokes, and the language people use.
This duality is evident in the whitening of the dark mother. The Virgin Mary, though a powerful force in the world, can be seen as a watered-down version of her precursors: dark mother goddesses including what we call the Black Madonna. The Black Madonna is the healing balm many are yearning for, as she reminds us that “no one is to be left out.” (Galland 1990 xxvii) Instead of dividing the world into sets of inferior/superior, worthy/unworthy, good/bad, Her essence is one of love, inclusion, and celebration of all life.
The Black Madonna’s dark color is important because it stands in opposition to racism and in celebration of darkness in a primordial sense. The Black Madonnas are not all literally black. Many have light brown and brown skin as well. But, because she harkens back to the earliest of times when all peoples had darker skin, she stands as a reminder of our common ancestry. As Eurocentric ideals have influenced the social and political structures of the ruling classes of the past two thousand years, religion worshipping a white god and white savior (Jesus) has served as part of a larger racist structure to deify white skin, denigrate people of color, and justify imperialism. As part of the set of dualities associated with animality, nature, and inferiority, darkness has been associated with that which is uncontrollable and dangerous. In our cultural lexicon, darkness is associated with evil, cruelty, and a lack of morality whereas light and whiteness are associated with purity, life, and goodness.
When cleared of the cultural associations, one can see that darkness is a moral-neutral and crucial phase of life. It is in the unseen, unmanifest, invisible realm that all life beckons forth. Beneath the ground, in the stillness, quiet, and darkness of winter seeds prepare themselves for a new season. In the darkness of the womb, an egg incubates. To deny the importance and power of darkness is to deny life itself. Dark and light are essential components of life. One cannot be better than the other. In fact, becoming more comfortable with darkness, stillness, and the mysteries of silence is part of evolving humanity toward compassion.
The Black Madonna figurines and images have been known all over Europe for many years, but her message is being revealed as we seek answers to our modern dilemmas of war, extreme economic disparities, world hunger, pollution, destruction of nature, violence against women, and an increasingly unhappy, stressed-out population. “The Black Madonna is now appearing with ever increasing frequency because the world has become so frighteningly out of balance by an overly developed logical, linear, masculine consciousness. The emphasis on rationality, production, accomplishment and conquest has placed humankind in a perilous state.” (Politzer 1995, 2) The Black Madonna reminds us that we are loved, nurtured, nourished, cared for, and that “everything will be okay.” We do not have to fear our bodies as storehouses of sinful impulses, but learn to trust our instincts, our bodies, nature’s cycles, and each other.
The earliest humans in Africa worshipped a dark mother as the divine. As these early humans migrated out of Africa in about 50,000 BCE, they brought their religion with them. As humans settled worldwide, the dark mother goddess was a primary component of worship: “belief in the dark mother [was] carried by african migrants into islands of the Mediterranean and to all continents of the earth after 50,000 BCE.” (Birnbaum 2001, 81) As with any deity, the dark mother changed form unique to each location and culture as societies changed. Some of what we call Black Madonnas pre-date Christianity and others were produced about later, as her iconography was especially popular in the middle ages. But, both the pre-Christian and post-Christian versions have their roots in the earlier worship of a dark mother goddess. “In the middle ages, enthroned black madonnas of France and Spain recalled Isis of Africa suckling Osiris, and seated Cybele of Anatolia giving birth. In the middle ages, sanctuaries of black madonnas of France became way stations for the major pilgrimages.” (Birnbaum 2001, 140)
Many Christian churches were built on temples, holy wells, and sacred sites devoted to goddesses. For example, Cybele’s “temple stood on the Vatican, where St. Peter’s basilica is today, up to the 4th century A.D. when Christians took it over.” (Birnbaum, 1993 76). So, it made sense that as leaders of the Christian church were seeking to convert people to the new religion, they integrated aspects of the earlier female goddesses. The Virgin Mary and the Black Madonna is an example of this. The Black Madonna is often thought of as another version of the Virgin Mary – and she is – but she also harkens back to the earlier dark mother. “In the common epoch, the memory was transmitted in stories and rituals associated with icons of black madonnas and other dark women divinities.” (Birnbaum 2001, xxxvi)
Anatolian mother goddesses such as Artemis and Cybele are examples of early deities which pre-date Christianity, are likely linked to the early dark mother goddess of Africa, and influenced the image of the Virgin Mary and her relative, the Black Madonna. Artemis was an ancient Anatolian goddess with a large site of worship in Ephesus. She is related to Cybele as well. Each of these goddesses had a huge following and rites associated with each were an integral part of their respective cultures. Each of these goddesses were independent, autonomous, and seen as a creatrix. They were both life-giver and death-wielder, the dark mother from which all things come and to which all things return. There was likely comfort in this sense of an ever-present loving mother and home to which we return once the body dies. Images of Artemis demonstrate her loving care for her human (and animal) children. One of the most famous of Artemis’ statues is commonly known for being many-breasted, exemplifying her generosity and nourishment of humanity. Artemis is a mother to the natural world as well, as this statue, in particular, depicts animals on her skirt and in general, she was known as a lady of the beasts. Many believe Artemis was also a protector of wildlife, though she was later reduced to a bow-and-arrow wielding huntress, and daughter of Zeus. Her connection to nature is still evident, though in her later form of the forest-loving huntress as Artemis in Greece and Diana in Rome. The darkness of these mother goddesses is an essential aspect because the Earth itself is dark within.
Nature goddesses could be seen as the opposite of the Judeo-Christian male god, who is seen as transcending nature and promises humanity that he will save us and help us transcend nature as well. Instead of teaching that humans are born out of love and will return to love upon death, an inferiority complex is encouraged by the Christian church. There are certain rites and practices (such as confession and baptism) we must participate in to overcome and transcend our sinful, human nature and to be “saved.”
Our own human mothers are degraded in the church practice of baptism, as the female ability to give birth is both copied and one-upped. As Gloria Steinem explains, the Christian church tells us that we were “born in sin” because we were born of woman. Our mother may have given us a mortal life, but the church and its priests can do “one better” and give us everlasting life. The church co-opts the female birth process by “sprinkling imitation birth fluid” as part of the ritual. (Steinem 2008) Although healing rituals in the water can be a powerful and empowering process, the associated ideology of Christian baptism, and the larger story we are telling about the need to ‘cleanse’ oneself should be more carefully examined. Renewal is an important part of life. However, the idea that one’s human nature is evil and bad and needs to be saved is a mindset that perpetuates separation from wholeness and peace with oneself. In contrast to Christian ideas of salvation, which erase female reproductive power, denigrate embodiment, and imply an inferiority of the material world, some worshippers of the Black Madonna see “the fertility of the earth, not the resurrection of Jesus, [as] associated with salvation.” (Birnbaum 1993, 68).
The process through which Christianity became a standardized religion and consolidated belief system is complex. What one can surmise, though, is that during the time of Jesus, many people were still worshipping goddesses. In many areas of Europe, Africa, and Asia, the goddess had been changed into a consort – no longer the powerful goddess whole-unto oneself. The power of the Goddess as a creator was taken away from her. The stories shifted from the Goddess creating and birthing the world to the Goddess co-creating the world with a male, to the Goddess playing a minor role as consort and subservient wife or sex object, to a male creator. The male as creator and birther is seen in the Roman pantheon where Zeus is able to give life on his own (Athena), and the Christian god creating life, and Adam fashioning Eve from his rib. These ideologies erase the power of female creativity, deny the reality of nature, and allow male figures to usurp social power.
Christianity (in its various denominations) as we know it today is not representative of the original teachings of Christ (which likely were about love and not patriarchal politics) and nor does it reflect the immense diversity of worship that people have been engaged in since Jesus’ time. Alternative versions of Christianity flourished from the beginning of Jesus Christ’s teaching, as various disciples and teachers spread their own interpretation of his message over time. As the Christian religion was associated with governments (beginning with the Roman empire around 400 CE), it became more about political consolidation of power than true spiritual revelation. Religion is a way a culture disseminates and reinforces its beliefs, ideals, and social structure (in this case, social hierarchy. )
The Black Madonnas are part of a tradition of rebellion against oppressive hierarchy as their greatest worshippers appear to be peasant, revolutionaries, and activists. In Italy, Black Madonnas have featured prominently in peasant revolts, social movements, and anti-authoritarianism (Birnbaum 1993).
Despite the sadomasochistic, misogynistic, and transcendent Church doctrine, many within the Christian church have tuned into deeper truths of love, equality, justice, and reverence for women. Born in about 1130, Joachim of Fiore is one such visionary. He founded a monastic order, which translates to the Order of the Flowers. It is not a coincidence that the site of his worship was an area called Crotone, in the southwest of Italy houses a temple to the Black Madonna, which was built on an earlier temple to Hera (Hera was originally an autonomous mother goddess). Joachim envisioned the creation of a better society, which he called the age of the holy spirit. He saw time as a natural progression from the age of the father, to the age of the son, to the age of the holy spirit. “Joachim said that the age of the holy spirit would usher in a new society and a new era of liberty and peace.” (Birnbaum 1993, 154) Joachim’s was a utopian vision in which “everyone will have equal access to the necessities of life, yet differences according to varying gifts will be recognized.” (Birnbaum 1993, 155). Although Joachim’s vision of Heaven on Earth did not include full liberation for women, there was a sense that he recognized the “spiritual maternity,” (Birnbaum 1993, 154) of the holy spirit and to this day, he is regarded and celebrated by the locals for his vision of a better world. “Joachim of Fiore has endured in the vernacular beliefs of subaltern classes of Calabria as a prophet of peace, love, and humanity.” (Birnbaum 1993, 156) Fiore was persecuted for his beliefs and charged with heresy. Although he never outright claimed the holy spirit or any aspect of god to be female, his ideals of egalitarianism challenged the social and political hierarchy. The patriarchal social structure was not something new brought about by Christianity. The Mediterranean and larger area of Europe had already begun shifting toward the value hierarchy which subordinated women, animals, and the Earth by the time of Plato and Pythagoras (6th-4th Centuries BCE).
Pythagorean philosophy, though containing some aspects of wholeness, reverence for life, and harmony in particular was an antecedent to the view of mind being separate and better than the body, and female as inferior to the male. Pythagoras seems to follow a pattern common to many early philosophers and belief systems. Much of his knowledge came from ancient Goddess traditions: “who taught whom is unclear; in the classical literature it was said that Pythagoras of Samos derived “the greater part of his ethical doctrines from Themistoclea, the priestess at Delphi.”” (Birnbaum 1993, 157). However, over time, even as there were female Pythagoreans, the ways of the goddess were associated with being ‘out of control’, less rational, and too wild. Worship and proper behavior for women and all people became more rigid. “Although important in the history of philosophy, women Pythagorean philosophers mark the decline in women’s status in the Greek and Roman eras. . . Significantly, the woman trained in “moderation . . . piety . . . reverence” did not indulge in “mystery rites and celebrations for the festival of Cybele.” (Birnbaum 1993, 157) The ceremonies for Cybele referenced here likely included wild dancing, music, and many forms of emoting. Worship of Cybele was part of the original form of “carnivals:” folk celebrations of changing seasons, farming practices, and life cycles.
Around the time of Jesus, the female ideal was becoming one of domestication, taming of wildness, and molding oneself into a quieter, less commanding presence. In earlier eras, women and men shared power, women were respected and often held positions of spiritual leadership such as that of a priestess, shaman, or oracle. This new form of piety for women paralleled shifting iconography away from wildness, darkness, personal power, and embodiment as expressed in the Black Madonna, dark mothers in various forms, and toward obedience, purity, subservience, and denial of sensation. Within goddess-worshipping culture, devotion was ecstatic and creative. Within an increasingly patriarchal culture, religiosity was becoming increasingly rigid and controlled. Whereas before, pleasure and following the impulses of the body, as with dance and music, was paramount to celebration of the divine, the new form of worship was the exact opposite – subduing pleasure, divorcing oneself from the body, and controlling natural impulses.
In response to women’s increasing social power over the past century, some within the Christian religion have sought to maintain power by expanding the vision of God the Father by saying that God is really beyond sex, that He includes She and that calling Him a “him” is just a figure of speech. Despite many claims that Christianity is about a God that is beyond male or female, the archetype of God remains heavily male and the preponderance of male leadership within the church demonstrates a denigration of women. Even as men within the church may be aware of feminist values and the need to integrate women, old habits die hard. Language such as “He,” “Father,” and “Lord” all imply a male power. Some churches such as United Church of Christ have attempted to right this wrong with including the appellation Mother-Father God in their teachings. However, the vast majority of Christians the world-over, speak of God as He.
Some, such as the medieval mystic Joachim say that “in Jesus there is neither male nor female, [but this is] a conflation of genders that Italian feminists consider a major source of obfuscation that undergirds the oppression of women. It is precisely this area of the historical difference of women from men that Italian feminists consider significant for a new society of equality with difference, liberty, and justice.” (Birnbaum 1993, 154) The solution to patriarchal divinities should not be to create a sexless divine.
With the rise of Christianity and its associated socio-political structures, local worship was absorbed into the larger, increasingly hegemonic religion of Christianity. One of the ways Christianity was able to gain a foothold was by mixing Christian iconography with the local belief systems. Since many people worshipped a dark mother, Christians brought in a new mother – the mother of Jesus. “The highly venerated goddess . . . descended sharply to become the subordinate mother of Jesus in christian doctrine. Demoted from goddess to saint, left of out of the trinity, her many characteristics reduced to obedience and patience… The valence of the goddess may have persisted in the role of black madonnas in the prophetic tradition of Judeo-christianity and in the sybilline prophetic tradition transmitted by women peasants.” (Birnbaum 1993, 105) The mother of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, was not as powerful in the Christian iconography as the male god even though she birthed the Christ, and over time her status has lowered even more within the teachings of the church. However, in contrast to official church doctrine which diminishes Mary’s power, the Virgin Mary is one of the most powerful deities among the Christians of the world. There is something about her that draws people in and they feel nurtured by her – something lacking in the male god. Even as most do not know about the dark mother worshipped by early humans, the Black Madonna, or goddesses in general, the Virgin Mary is one of the most revered figures worldwide known to perform miracles and she is one of the most common figures of spiritual apparitions such as a Mary appearing on a piece of toast. This demonstrates that she cannot be erased.
Inviting in a variety of images of the divine, helps us to celebrate diversity and support the full flourishing of all life. If we imagine the divine in a limited way, we limit our ability to connect with the many varied beings with whom we share the earth. Often times, worshippers of Mary are charged with idolatry by the Christian church, yet the popularity of the crucifix within Christianity is testament to the fact that humans need symbols and images of the divine in order to relate to it. There are some who wish to do away with all images of the divine. But, given that humans are relationship-oriented and our connection with the divine is a relationship, it would require a lot of ‘mental gymnastics’ to connect with a divine without any relatable qualities. Although one may try to connect to the values the divine possesses such as love, peace, and joy, the human mind can better grasp ideas that have a form.
Therefore, for those of us who do embrace images of the divine as part of our relationship to it, it makes sense that a liberatory approach would be to “include the full reality of women as well as men… along with symbols of the natural world.” (Galland 1990, xxiii) Limiting the divine to one sex, one color, and even one species limits our ability to connect with the larger reality of life – we are part of a large array of many types of beings. Catholic theologian Elizabeth A. Johnson explains that we must move beyond “the idolatrous fixation on one image… and [so that] the truth of the mystery of God, in tandem with the liberation of all human beings and the whole earth, can emerge for our time.” (Galland 1990, xxiii). The Black Madonna is one example of a powerful deity, tied to the oldest of human roots, who can help us piece back together a fragmented humanity. She helps us to “re-member” who we are: one part of an interconnected web, all worthy of autonomy and all deeply loved.
Birnbaum, Lucia Chiavola. Black Madonnas: Feminism, Religion, and Politics in Italy. San Jose: ToExcel, 1993
Birnbaum, Lucia Chiavola. Dark Mother: African Origins and Godmothers. San Jose: Authors Choice Press, 2001.
Galland, China. Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna. New York: Penguin, 1990.
Kheel, Marti. Nature Ethics: An Ecofeminist Perspective. New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008.
Politzer, Vivian. “Black is the Color of Life: Reflections on the Symbolic Meaning of the Black Madonna.” Site Saver: The Newsletter of Sacred Sites International Foundation. 5:2. Winter 1995. 2-7.