The Ladies in Gray: The Collyridian Experience
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Posted: May 10th. 2009
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As religion seems once again to be at a turning point, a time of very appreciable change, and a remarkable amount of attention is being focused on interspiritual communication, it is time for the Collyridians to make themselves known. We’ve been ever-present, and more than one Pagan author has mentioned how their grandmother or mother made Mary an integral part of their spiritual practice amidst the dictates of their Christian faith. To this day, her role in Catholicism and even some Protestant paths is open for debate, for to many adherents she is Queen of Heaven, the Eternal Virgin, and Mother of All.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive essay on what it means to be a Collyridian (or Philomarianite as we are sometimes called) , but simply an introduction to our beautiful and long-forgotten ways, which may be noted to be not so very different from those in Pagan households. This is true to such an extent that many of us identify as Pagan or ChristoPagan because we are not seen by the Christian community as anything but heretics, or at the least, misguided individuals who need to remember why it’s called the Christian church.
For this reason, I refer to us here as the Ladies in Gray, the majority of our known “members” being female (although not exclusively) . We’re in the liminal space between the Pagan and the Christian worlds, and in more than one way, although as with Pagan sects (Wiccan, Asatru Reconstructionist, etc) and Christian denominations (Catholic, Methodist, Church of Christ) , we each have our own methods of carrying out our beliefs. Some of us even honor deities in these Pagan paths, myself included, making this a very definite alternative path.
No doubt one of the first things that springs to mind, is the question of why Mary is so important? By all accounts, Jesus was the important one in the stories we’ve managed to accumulate, right? I would argue it depends on whom you ask.
In the early stages of the Christian church, it was a motley assortment of hundreds of individual sects, all with their own viewpoints about how things should be done. One of the few things most of them did agree on was the place of women in the church, which at the time, was the same as the place men had in it. They were teachers and leaders, and it took several centuries for that to “change”. I put the word into quotes, because in the background was always the Mother, and her teachers, even if they did not have formal titles.
Following in her footsteps became the approved fashion of behavior, and many women in particular held onto her image as the consummate model for how they should lead their lives. This standard is still held by women all over the world, who look upon her face, and receive serenity in knowing they are holding true to her symbol of not just motherhood, but also as a force of strength during times of extreme adversity.
For in so much as some may wish that women would forget this longing, it is one that has never completely gone away. What is more, it seems to be growing as time goes on.
Accordingly, we are finding one another, and the time is coming when we may very well be a collective group as we were before. Yes, in AD 375 ours was an actual Arabic sect, described by Epiphanius of Salamis in his treatise on heresy entitled the Panarion. While some are skeptical that ever a “cult” existed by this name, because Epihphanius was the sole writer on the topic, others are just as certain that it did, but was suppressed into extinction by the 6th century. And yet, here we are.
To date, every Collyridian I have encountered includes liturgy (whether adapted or self-written) in their spiritual practice, and keeps a defined set of holidays based on those aspects of Mary that most closely speak to them. For my own part, I celebrate twenty-two holidays, though these include the solstices and the equinoxes. The month of May is especially important, the entire month being devoted to Mary, and it is likely not just simple coincidence that the month is named for the Roman goddess of Motherhood and Reverence (Maia or Maiesta) .
This brings me to the topic of what Collyridians share in common with our Pagan brothers and sisters, whether we integrate other Pagan deities into our spirituality or not. The beliefs shared are many, and understanding this is vital to bridging the gap between how we are viewed by those in the Pagan community, and the reality of our practices.
Like so many other goddess-oriented religions, ours includes offerings in its practice, and indeed our very name means “cake eaters” due to the cake and bread offerings made to Mary in those days. Some consider honey to be a suitable component, considering it is the product of bees, and they have long symbolized Mary in her Virginal state. In addition, as Sue Monkk discovered while researching for her novel The Secret Life of Bees, Mary is sometimes referred to as a beehive. Of course, she is not the only goddess to have associations with bees, and in fact arguably the greatest Pagan mother of all is similarly inclined, the Hellenic deity Demeter sharing this association.
Bees are not the only symbol she shares with Pagan deities, and the dove is probably the better known animal association. When the female entity Shekinah was eliminated from the belief system of the Judaic faith, the Holy Ghost was integrated in, its symbol becoming the dove.
Many hold that Mary is the Holy Ghost in the known Trinity as Christians practice, and the dove is therefore her symbol, one that is also indicative of Aphrodite. As the Stella Maris, or Star of the Sea, Mary also shares the association with Aphrodite of being the Goddess of the Oceans. Indeed, Aphrodite is sometimes referred to as Mari, and unfortunately when Christianity became popular, many of Aphrodite’s temples were either torn down to erect ones for Mary or simply overtaken for the same reason.
Perhaps more than any other, Mary is associated with the Goddess Isis, especially in her form as the Black Madonna. Well documented is the borrowing of the posture of Isis with the infant Horus in Egyptian statuary that was used by Christians to represent Mary with the infant Jesus in their own depictions. These representations are numerous, and can be found throughout Europe, though as China Galland discovered on her pilgrimage, no one can truly say why the statues are dark.
Some say it is the result of fire, others that it is their age (despite the fact some were clearly made from dark wood) , and still others feel they are blackish in shade because they represent the Deep Mother, or the Cave Mother, the Eternal Womb of the Earth as it were.
As with Aphrodite, when the Cult of Isis finally ended, temples were adapted for Christian use by Mary’s followers. This did not end the borrowing, however, and Mary owes at least two of her titles to Isis: Queen of Heaven, and Mother of the World.
Sadly, I must confess that even some Pagans are unwilling to address the issue of these associations, feeling that it allows Christianity to encroach too completely on hard-won Pagan freedoms. While I can see their point of view, such behavior means that a division will remain between the two.
Like Pagans and Christians, the majority of Collyridians have shrines and altars as an important part of our spirituality. The images we choose are as varied as our personalities, but for my own part, I combine the two areas and include a small statue of a Black Madonna and a donkey that was the single surviving piece from a childhood nativity scene.
My Pagan statuary is also included on this shrine/altar, and when I work magick it is on this surface that it takes place. I keep my stones here, my candles, and my offering bowl that also acts as a receptacle of ash when I burn paper scraps of intention or perform banishings.
There are those that would denounce this cross-use of materials, but I would then remind them of the Hedge Witch that uses her knife to chop vegetables in the kitchen, not just to perform magick in the circle. In my workplace it isn’t suitable to include a full-fledged shrine, but I have a small card with the Hail Mary on the back of it, the image being of Mary sitting down, her hands spread in invitation, and twelve stars (the apostles/number of signs in the zodiac) encircling her head.
Regarding how Collyridians view the virginity matter, this also varies with the individual. I have met sisters and brothers that were staunchly insistent that Mary was a virgin, and remained one, after the birth of her son.
Others have decided that she may have been a virgin prior, but that his passing from her body effectively ended this state, and that after he was born she acted as a wife in all ways to her husband. I’m of the school of thought that Mary was a Virgin in the sense it was used by the civilizations that pre-dated/were concurrent with early Christianity, and that the term was meant to imply she is independent.
In the Christian mythos, she fulfilled the place ordinarily held by such female deities as a self-sustaining entity without need to rely on a man, which is no doubt why Joseph suddenly falls out of the picture in the New Testament. He had his role in order to make the situation more ethical by Christian standards, but then was unnecessary as Mary and Jesus fill their own roles as Maiden/Mother/Crone and the Sun of God/Self.
As the interspirituality movement gains momentum, I hope to see more Collyridians revealing themselves to those of us that are already present as such in the community or newcomers awakening to their spirituality and seeing ours as a viable form of religious belief that speaks to them.
We have the chance to work toward ending spiritually harmful situations by providing a bridge between the two communities, to aid in healing old wounds created by oppressive dogma, and to provide a spiritual home for those that have too long felt like outsiders.
Begg, Ean. (1997) . The Cult of the Black Virgin. New York, NY: Penguin Classics.
Epiphanius of Salamis. (375) . Panarion (or Against Heresies) .
Panarion Galland, China. (1990) . Longing for Darkness: Tara and the Black Madonna.
New York, NY: Viking Press/Penguin Group.
Monkk, Sue. (2002) . The Secret Life of Bees. New York, NY: Penguin Group.
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