Academic journal article Magistra

Symbolic Grain and Symbolic Bread: Relationships between the Ancient Grain Goddess and the Virgin Mary in the Late Middle Ages

Academic journal article Magistra

Symbolic Grain and Symbolic Bread: Relationships between the Ancient Grain Goddess and the Virgin Mary in the Late Middle Ages

Article excerpt

The duster of metaphors surrounding the Christian concept of the girl of life belongs in an ancient and complex symbolic language of agricultural communities of Old Europe where the worship of the grain goddess was central to all aspects of life.(1) As divine perfection of earthly fecundity, she was considered the germinating energy of the seed. The son of this goddess was usually the dying-and-resurrected god who personified the grain. Barbara G. Walker explains that "his `death' (reaping) brought life to humankind; he descended into the underworld (planting); and he rose again from the dead, only to be harvested and sacrificed again each season."(2) The grain goddess also performed the miracle of transformation, making grains into bread.

Christianity took over the ancient symbolism of the vegetation cycle and incorporated it into its scriptural and liturgical basis. Christ identified himself as the heavenly bread: "Moses gave you not bread from heaven, but my Father giveth you the true bread from heaven.... I am the bread of life: he that cometh to me shall not hunger: and he that believeth in me shall never thirst" (John 6: 33, 35).(3)

The Lord's Prayer alludes to the plea for daily bread. In earlier times, a plea for the sustenance of life must have been a plea directed to the grain goddess, who was the protectress of grain and the giver of bread. In the context of the source and sustenance of life, scholars have recognized various similarities between the grain goddess and the Virgin Mary. Jean Seznec declares:

It is now recognized that pagan antiquity, far from experiencing a "rebirth" in fifteenth-century Italy, had remained alive within the culture and art of the Middle Ages...they [the gods] had never disappeared from the memory or imagination of man.(4)

The Virgin's role as the sacred grain goddess in medieval spirituality, however, has not yet been fully explored. Representations of the grain goddess from the Upper Paleolithic period,(5) hidden allusions to the power of the divine feminine principle as the life-producing vessel, and the late medieval text and iconography of the grain goddess illuminate the concept of the Virgin Mary as the giver of the Living Bread.

Symbols representing the grain goddess's fertility appear from the Upper Paleolithic period. Her pregnant body was associated with the fecundity of the seeded earth and all its creatures, while her dark body was considered the cave-temple. At the beginning of the neolithic period, this already ancient deity was "transformed into an agricultural goddess, the progenitor and protectress of all fruits of the harvest, but especially grain and bread."(6) Numerous statuettes of the grain goddess depict a pregnant figure whose belly is decorated with lozenges and dots.(7) The dots might represent the seed inside the womb or field, while the lozenges symbolize the fertile field. The early agrarian people sowed the seed in the womb of the grain goddess, harvested it as the fruit of her body and used it in making bread.

In the neolithic period, special altars were built for her next to the bread ovens. In the shrine of Sabatinivka, she was worshiped on the platform near the oven or other area of grain preparation. Marija Gimbutas identifies the prehistoric bread oven in the shrines as "an incarnation of the Grain Mother."(8) Anthropomorphized miniature models of ovens are found in the Vinca site (figure 1). This figure attests to the identification of the bread oven with the grain goddess, the giver of bread. Thus, from prehistoric times, the woman's body was envisioned both as the fertile field and the "mystic oven," in which life-sustaining bread was produced.

Modification of the dominant mother-goddess religion occurred during the fifth millennium B.C. when the nomadic herders began to move from the Eurasian steppe into the eastern Mediterranean areas. Although the invasion marked the patriarchalization of agrarian culture, the concept of the grain goddess as the life-producing principle was prevalent in ancient Near Eastern religions. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.