The notion of Christianity as a ‘patriarchal religion’ might need a rethink in the light of the Virgin Mary’s culture-power and her ongoing influence on how we conceptualize women. I’m reminded of an interview with Joseph Campbell1 (perhaps the most famous expert on religions) who suggested Mary became a paramount influence from the medieval culture scheme forward. Here’s a snippet of the interview:
MOYERS: There are women today who say that the spirit of the Goddess has been in exile for five thousand years, since the….
CAMPBELL: You can’t put it that far back, five thousand years. She was a very potent figure in Hellenistic times in the Mediterranean, and she came back with the Virgin in the Roman Catholic tradition. You don’t have a tradition with the Goddess celebrated any more beautifully and marvelously than in the twelfth- and thirteenth-century French cathedrals, every one of which is called Notre Dame.
MOYERS: Yes, but all of those motifs and themes were controlled by males — priests, bishops — who excluded women, so whatever the form might have meant to the believer, for the purpose of power the image was in the hands of the dominant male figure.
CAMPBELL: You can put an accent on it that way, but I think it’s a little too strong because there were the great female saints. Hildegarde of Bingen — she was a match for Innocent III. And Eleanor of Aquitaine — I don’t think there is anybody in the Middle Ages who has the stature to match hers. One now can look back and quarrel with the whole situation, but the situation of women was not that bad by any means.
MOYERS: No, but none of those saints would ever become pope.
CAMPBELL: Becoming pope, that’s not much of a job, really. That’s a business position. None of the popes could ever have become the mother of Christ. There are different roles to play. It was the male’s job to protect the women.