Monday, August 15, 2011

Mary, Diana and Artemis: Feast of Assumption has lesbian goddess roots

Mary, left, took over the Aug. 15 holiday from the goddess Diana, right

A mid-August holiday was once the festival of the lesbian goddess Diana (Artemis), but it has been adapted into a feast day for the Virgin Mary.

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Mary, Diana and Artemis: Feast of Assumption has lesbian goddess roots

Midsummer feasts have celebrated the divine feminine on Aug. 15 since before the time of Christ. Now devoted to Mary, the holiday known as the Feast of the Assumption (or Dormition) carries the torch of lesbian spiritual power to a new generation on the same date.

Saint Mary, mother of Jesus, is honored by churches on Aug. 15 in a major feast day marking her death and entrance into heaven. Catholic and Orthodox churches call it the Feast of the Assumption or Dormition because they believe that Mary was “assumed” into heaven, body and soul.

The connections between Diana and Mary raise many questions. The concept of virginity has been used to control women, but sometimes it is a code word for lesbian. What shade of meaning is implied by the “virginity” of these two heavenly queens? Did the church patriarchs substitute wild lesbian Artemis with mild straight Mary -- or is Mary more versatile and dynamic than many thought?

The Virgin Mary’s holiday was adapted -- some would say appropriated -- from an ancient Roman festival for Diana, the virgin goddess of the moon and the hunt. Diana, or Artemis in Greek, is sometimes called a lesbian goddess because of her love for woman and her vow never to marry a man. The ancient Roman Festival of Torches (Nemoralia) was held from Aug. 13-15 as Diana’s chief festival.

According to mythology, Diana preferred the company of women and surrounded herself with female companions. They took an oath of virginity and lived as a group in the woods, where they hunted and danced together. Homoerotic art and speculations often focus on Diana’s relationship with the princess Callisto. The god Jupiter (Zeus) lusted after Callisto, so he disguised himself as Diana and seduced Callisto in a woman-to-woman embrace. The lesbian love scene is painted by artists such as Francois Boucher in “Jupiter and Callisto” (below).

“Jupiter (disguised as Diana) and Callisto” by Francois Boucher (Wikimedia Commons)
There are many more stories about Diana and the women, nymphs and goddesses whom she loved. The goddess Britomaris was another favorite of Diana. When the lustful king Minos pursued Britomaris, she escaped by leaping into the sea. Diana rescued her and, some say, fell in love with her. Diana also showed love for various princesses.  She gave the princess Cyrene a pair of magical dogs and granted the princess Daphne the gift of shooting straight. The princess Atalanta almost died of exposure as a baby girl after her father abandoned her because he wanted a son. Diana saved her and, with the help of a she-bear, Atalanta grew up to become one of Diana’s beloved companions. And this is just the beginning.

Diana’s main holiday was the Festival of Torches or Nemoralia. Hundreds of women and girls carried torches and candles in a night-time procession through the woods. They wore wreaths of flowers -- and even put flowers on the hunting dogs who walked with them. The group hiked a few miles from Rome to a sacred site, the circle-shaped Lake Nemi. The dark waters reflected the moon and the torchlight of the pilgrims. There they left offerings of apples, garlic, statues and prayers handwritten on ribbons. Click here for a vivid description of the festival. Ovid, a Roman poet who lived before Christ, described the magic of the festival:

Often does a woman whose prayers Diana answered,
With a wreath of flowers crowning her head,
Walk from Rome carrying a burning torch...

Click here for a beautiful painting of “Diana Asleep in the Woods” by surrealist Giorgio de Chirico. Diana sleeps beside an offering of fruit, her bow and arrow, and her large black-and-white spotted dog.

Artemis of Ephesus
Aspects of Diana and Artemis were taken over by the church more than 1,300 years ago. The Festival of Torches became the Feast of the Assumption. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus in Turkey was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, with an awe-inspiring statue of the “many-breasted” Artemis. The temple was destroyed and replaced by the Church of Mary. The Virgin Mary even assumed some titles once given to Artemis, including Queen of Heaven.

Books such as Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary by cultural historian Marina Warner show how the figure of Mary was shaped by goddess legends and other historical circumstances, resulting in an inferior status for women. In the novel “Mary and the Goddess of Ephesus: The Continued Life of the Mother of Jesus,” former seminarian Melanie Bacon explores the little-known tradition that after Jesus died, his mother spent most of her adult life in a community dedicated to worshiping Artemis.

Feminists praise Diana/Artemis as an archetype of female power, a triple goddess who represents all phases of womanhood. She is the maiden, wild and free, with no need for a man. She is the “many-breasted” mother who nurtures all life. She is the crone, the mature hunter who provides swift death with her arrows in harmony with the cycles of nature.

LGBTQ people and allies may be inspired by the queer origins of this midsummer holiday. May the Queen of Heaven, by whatever name, continue to bless those who remember her.
Related links:
Are there any lesbian goddesseses?

Black Madonna becomes lesbian defender: Erzuli Dantor and Our Lady of Czestochowa (Jesus in Love)

Queer Lady of Guadalupe: Artists re-imagine an icon (Jesus in Love)

Related books:
Mother of God Similar to Fire” with icons by William Hart McNichols and reflections by Mirabai Starr presents a wide of variety of liberating icons of Mary, including a black Madonna. McNichols is a New Mexico artist and Catholic priest who has been rebuked by church leaders for making icons of LGBTQ-affirming martyrs and saints not approved by the church.

Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology” by Carol P. Christ and Judith Plaskow. Two pioneering leaders in the study of women and religion discuss the nature of God / Goddess.

Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary” by cultural historian Marina Warner shows how the figure of Mary was shaped by goddess legends and other historical circumstances, resulting in an inferior status for women.

Holiness and the Feminine Spirit: The Art of Janet McKenzie,” edited by Susan Perry, includes many black Madonnas in an art book to nourish devotion to Mary with reflections by diverse women.

Image credits:

“Diana of Versailles,” Roman artwork, Imperial Era (1st-2nd centuries CE). Found in Italy. (Wikimedia Commons)

“Assumption of Mary” by Guido Remi, 1642 (Wikimedia Commons)

“Artemis of Ephesus,” 1st century CE Roman copy of the “many breasted” Artemis stattue of the Temple of Ephesus (Wikimedia Commons)
Icons of the Assumption of Mary and many others are available on cards, plaques, T-shirts, mugs, candles, mugs, and more at

This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved. presents the Jesus in Love Blog on LGBTQ spirituality.


Ann said...

Thanks - Artemis seems a bit more fun than Mary.

Terence Weldon said...

Kitt, this assessment of Diana and Artemis is fascinating. I am very conscious of the abundant gay (male) gods in Greek and world mythologies, but know far less about the goddess's. This is helpful.

I'd like to add a note about the Assumption, which I was hoping to write about myself, but didn't get to. As a South African Catholic during apartheid, I was very conscious of the Assumption as the designated national feast, and knew that it was somehow symbolic of the struggle against racial injustice, but never really grasped why.

I still don't know the official reason for the choice, but listening to the Gospel reading on Sunday, it struck me that there's a strong clue in the words of the Magnificat, the text for the day:

"He hath scattered the proud in the conceit of their heart.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat,
and hath exalted the humble."

Those words had obvious relevance for the victims of apartheid - and still do, for the oppression of sexual minorities by some of the churches.

Yewtree said...

Excellent post - I learnt things I didn't know!

Artemis of Ephesus was a different goddess to the Greek Artemis or the Roman Diana; she was more akin to Astarte or Ishtar.

Many of these virgin goddesses were able to conceive without the assistance of a man; it was a classic attribute of Moon Goddesses.

@Terence - thanks for sharing that about the Feast of the Assumption - fascinating!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Yes, Ann, Artemis does have more fun. It doesn’t sound very fun to give birth in a stable as an unwed mother. But I do believe that Mary was a full, willing participant in the conception of Jesus. In my novel “Jesus in Love” she remembers it as a supremely delightful experience of holy Eros.

Terrence, thanks for highlighting Mary’s connection to social justice, which doesn’t seem to be as strong in Diana’s mythology. In researching this piece, I was surprised to learn that the Feast of the Assumption is a national holiday in a long list of countries, including Austria, Chile, Lebanon and Rwanda. I assumed it was because of the Christian heritage of these countries, but I would like to learn more about its meaning as a public holiday in South Africa and elsewhere.

Yewtree, Artemis of Ephesus certainly seems different because of her motherly attributes… and yet many online sources include her with Greek Artemis. Thanks for mentioning that many virgin goddesses conceived without any help from a man. Obviously Mary represents this tradition. Lesbians who give birth through artificial insemination can also be considered “virgin mothers.”

The virgin-mother aspect of Mary is one reason it seemed so strange when the conservatives attacked my lesbian Nativity scene a few weeks ago by saying, “A REAL Family is a MAN & a WOMAN producing a child.” According to the Bible, Jesus was conceived by Mary and God without a man -- not a “REAL Family” in the conservative sense.

Trudie said...

On my next-to-last day of my visit out west when I read this post, I got into quite a discussion with my daughter about the juxtaposition of the feasts of the Christian calendar and various pagan festivals. Subsequently, I researched several such instances, including the feast of Mary's "Dormition" and several of the festivals celebrated by Indian pueblos in the Southwest that have been correlated with various saints days -- Santo Domingo and San Felipe being two examples. This is indeed a fascinating sideline.

Kittredge Cherry said...

The correlation between Christian holidays and pagan festivals is indeed a fruitful area for inquiry. Thanks, Trudie, for a comment that encourages me to delve even further into this subject. What did you find out about Mary’s Dormition?

This raises a question in my mind for Terrence: Do you know which Christian feasts might be connected with “the abundant gay (male) gods in Greek and world mythologies” that you mentioned?

I used to have an encyclopedia on women and mythology (can’t recall the title), and it seemed like every single Christian holiday and symbol had a pagan predecessor. That seems to upset some Christians, but to me it doesn’t do anything to change the power of Jesus’ example and teachings.

Finally, Trudie, have a safe trip home from “out west”!

Trudie said...

Thanks, Kitt. I have indeed arrived home safely and am trying to get into the swing of things again.

The term "Dormition" was of course the predecessor of the concept of "Assumption". It referred to the idea that rather than dying, Mary "fell asleep" and her physical body was taken to heaven along with her spirit. I somehow like that term much better than the later one. Anyway, though the "doctrine" of the Assumption was not formally promulgated until recently, as your discussion indicates, devotion to Mary has generally included the perception that she is very present and very active in heaven.

Years ago my father was deeply interested in the idea of Christian missionaries "baptizing" the various pagan festivals in the areas where they evangelized. His primary concern, though, was that while the Church was very proactive in recognizing the value of this type of ecumenism, it was far to slow to accept the activity of the Holy Spirit within its own ranks, hence the rejection of the honest speculations of such people as Luther, Calvin, Galileo, and in recent times, Teilhard de Chardin and John McNeill.

Turtle Woman said...

Artemis is one of my favorite goddesses, and of course, this post exposes the conspiracy of the patriarchs to erase powerful women, and change them into compliant women. Or as Mary Daly said, in commenting on the the assumption being made into infallable papal doctrine in 1950... "When Mary goes up, women go down." Meaning, the 50s were an oppressive time for women, and so Mary was used against independent women. This combines the two goddesses, and reveals a larger truth. I can imagine Mary and Artemis on an archery range shooting arrows at bulls eyes...

Kittredge Cherry said...

The two newest comments by Trudie and Turtle Woman highlight two ends of the spectrum on how to view the practice of goddess festivals becoming Christian feasts. Both are valid in my view.

Was Diana “baptized” and adapted into a still-powerful Mary in a process of improvement upon the past? Or was Diana “erased” and replaced with a weaker, compliant version in Mary?

Turtle Woman, I love your vision of Mary and Artemis/Diana shooting arrows together on the archery range. I tried hard to find an artwork showing them together for this post. I was shocked to find that there are absolutely NONE that I could find through image-search on the Internet. Are there any artists out there who are willing to create it?

I do like the separate images of them that I put together at the top of the post. Mary looks almost like a triumphant cheerleader, while the more athletic Diana turns to look at her in surprise as if to ask, “Hey, where did you come from?!”

Kittredge Cherry said...

Update: This article was cross-posted at the Feminism and Religion Blog, where many comments raised other relevant issues, including the Jewish sources for the story of Mary’s miraculous birth, the historical Mary, and first-hand reports from women who visited Ephesus and Greece. You can see it all at this link:

I also want to share an intriguing link left at the Feminism and Religion Blog by Michael Carden. He concludes, “Miraculous/virginal conception/motherhood as applied to Mary and Jesus is not a pagan import into early Christianity based on a misunderstanding of the term of Son of God, but instead comes out of the heart of ancient Temple Judaism.”

Anonymous said...

Read Joseph Campbell's excellent research on the subject - well worth it!

Kittredge Cherry said...

I love Joseph Campbell, and his PBS series “The Power of Myth” has been an important influence on me. Thanks for the tip, Gray!