Monday, May 18, 2015

Mother Mary versus Io

   (Bulgarian readers can read this post on my Bulgarian blog.)
   The quotes below are from two texts that have endured the test of time. Find the similarities and the differencies:

" 26And in the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent out from God, to a town in Galilee named Nazareth, 27to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, of the house of David.  And the virgin's name was Mary.  28And the angel went in to her, and said, "Hail, O favored one!  The Lord is with you."
   29She was very troubled by the utterance, and wondered what sort of greeting it might be.
   30Then the angel said to her, "Fear not, Mary, for you have found favor with God.  31You shall conceive in your womb, and shall bear a son, and you are to call his name Jesus.  32This man will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.  And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, 33and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there will be no end."
   34And Mary said to the angel, "How will this happen, since I am not knowing a man?"
   35And in answer the angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you.  For this reason also, the one to be born will be called holy, the Son of God.  36And behold, Elizabeth your relative, even she in her old age, has conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her, she who was called barren.  37Therefore with God, nothing will be impossible."
   38"Here am I, the slave girl of the Lord," Mary said.  "May it be to me according to your statement."  Then the angel left her." (Gospel of Luke, Chapter 1.)

   "[645] Io: For visions of the night, always haunting my maiden chamber, sought to beguile me with seductive words, saying: “O damsel greatly blessed of fortune, why linger in your maidenhood so long when it is within your power to win a union of the highest? Zeus is inflamed by passion's dart for you and is eager to unite with you in love. Do not, my child, spurn the bed of Zeus, but go forth to Lerna's meadow land of pastures deep and to your father's flocks and where his cattle feed, so that the eye of Zeus may find respite from its longing.”
    [655] By such dreams was I, to my distress, beset night after night, until at last I gained courage to tell my father of the dreams that haunted me... Then at last there came an unmistakable utterance... commanding him clearly that he must thrust me forth from home and native land to roam at large to the remotest confines of the earth; and, if he would not, a fiery thunderbolt would come from Zeus that would utterly destroy his whole race.
    [669] Yielding obedience... he drove me away and barred me from his house, against his will and mine; but the constraint of Zeus forced him to act by necessity...
    [846] Prometheus: There is a city, Canobus, on the extremity of the land at the very mouth and silt-bar of the Nile. There at last Zeus restores you to your senses by the mere stroke and touch of his unterrifying hand. And you shall bring forth dark Epaphus, thus named from the manner of Zeus' engendering; and he shall gather the fruit of all the land watered by the broad-flowing Nile. Fifth in descent from him...  shall give birth in Argos to a royal line..." (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound, translation by H.W. Smyth.)

   This post was inspired by a discussion to a post on atheism in my Bulgarian blog. I accused the Christian God in forcing a hapless maiden to give birth to His son. A Christian opponent objected that my statement was "the top of ignorance" and that "Mother Mary voluntarily said, May it be!". My opponent's opinion is widespread among Christians; but is it true? I think that the unbiased parallel reading of the two sources suggests that Mother Mary had about as much choice as Io. You can see that the angel describes her fate in future tense without any hint of conditional tense. In this situation, May it be! is hardly more meaningful that the signature at the end of the lawsuit which indicates that the person in question has received a copy of the verdict.
   But even if Mother Mary had given her consent gladly, could we accept it as valid? After all, a person must be aware what he is consenting to; as in medical ethics, consent must be informed. The angel, however, does not inform Mary. On the contrary, he dis-informs her. He stresses that her son will reign, but omits the teensy, weensy detail that his reign will be entirely posthumous and his life on Earth will have an early and extremely painful end. I doubt very much that Mary felt "favored" when she saw her son on the cross.

   Actually, in Aeschylus' play Prometheus also manipulates Io, though not as unscrupulously. The difference between the Christian and the Pagan text is in the later reaction by the maiden herself and the other women:

"39At that time Mary got up and went with speed to the hill country, to a town of Judah, 40where she entered the house of Zechariah, and greeted Elizabeth.  41And it came about that when Elizabeth heard Mary's greeting, the baby in her womb did leap, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  42And she shouted out in a loud voice, saying, "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!...
  46And Mary said: "My soul does magnify the Lord, 47and my spirit did rejoice in God my Savior, 48because he looked toward the lowly station of his servant. So behold: all the generations after now will consider me blessed, 49because the Mighty One did great things for me." (Gospel of Luke.)

   "[877] Io: Oh! Oh! Alas! Once again convulsive pain and frenzy, striking my brain, inflame me. I am stung by the gadfly's barb, unforged by fire. My heart knocks at my ribs in terror; my eyeballs roll wildly round and round. I am carried out of my course by a fierce blast of madness...
    [894] Chorus: Never, oh never, immortal Fates, may you see me the partner of the bed of Zeus, and may I be wedded to no bridegroom who descends to me from heaven. For I shudder when I behold the loveless maidenhood of Io, cruelly crushed like this...
    [901] When marriage is on equal terms, in my opinion it is no cause for dread; so never may the love of the mightier gods cast on me its irresistible glance. That would indeed be a war that cannot be fought, a source of resourceless misery..." (Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound.)

Which ending do you like more? Speaking of myself, I have been attracted for some time to the pre-Christian heritage, quite like the Renaissance Europeans. The monotheistic tradition reduces the human to a mere tool of some omnipotent non-human force and doesn't allow him even to grumble; this does not suit my taste.

Update: The discussion of this post led me to some thoughts I'd like to add:

1. Mary, after sending Gabriel away, "gets up" and "goes with speed" to seek Elizabeth,  whom the angel has reported to be in advanced age and pregnancy. In other words, the young woman doesn't rush to believe everything she is told. Instead, she shows admirable critical thinking. In this context, "May it be to me according to your statement" may be interpreted as a mere formal polite expression to get rid of the uninvited guest who is at this moment not considered trustworthy.

2. After seeing that Elizabeth is indeed pregnant, Mary becomes jubilant. The loud announcement how happy you are, especially when associated with your child, is considered in most cultures "pulling the devil's tail" - an act of hubris which brings misfortune by angering the supernatural forces. I'd like to know whether there are interpretations of Luke's text from this angle.

3. The logic-defying interpretations of Io's fate as blissful, e.g. by N. Wecklein and R. Houbeck, can be explained as conscious or unconscious extrapolations from Mother Mary.


William Moulton said...


Why do you call your correspondent above a "Christian opponent ". You wanted someone to reply and discuss your article with you right? You wanted to raise awareness on the issue of choice and yournew ,Christian friend did just that. And if this good friend's tone was inflammatory, all the better. No such thing as bad pubblicity! Right?


Maya M said...

There is nothing wrong in being an opponent on some matter. However, the commenter in question could never be my friend. If you could read my Bulgarian blog, you'd know why. She joined a discussion against creationism and started to badmouth science. This is a sure way to anger a person who earns her bread by teaching science! Then we had a long exchange of opinions, in which she resembled a radio (loud output, no input). I hope she never visits again, because she gets on my nerves too much.

However, you are right that I should be thankful to her. She inspired me to write this post. It would not exist without her, so she is almost a co-author.

I'd wish to do some amateur research on the Gospels (beginning with Mark, considered by scholars the oldest). However, a problem with such studies is that, before you have immersed in the field even your tip-toe, many are offended. And you are right that the development of a thought requires interlocutor(s).

William Moulton said...


Remember this blog? I think I took a pretty safe approach discussing the Iliad and the Book of John. In each story are people who lived in the same paradigm in the same part of the world. Regardless of their perceived reality they would have a common structural belief system based on the "world-wide" Hellenistic view of things spread around by the Romans. I proposed an article once suggesting the Apostles were writing to a "Greek" audience and had to address the concepts their readers would be asking about. If done carefully I think you can study and report on Mark. Why not take a Bible study class?


Maya M said...

Yes, I liked very much that post of yours and the approach in it. From you, I know that the Hellenistic view is one of the starting point for any study of the New Testament. Another source is the Jewish view, and here I am quite ignorant. E.g. the Gospels cite a lot of prophecies - do they really exist, and if so, where are they from? This is just one of the questions.
I'd likely benefit from a Bible study class, but for the foreseeable future, I cannot engage in any such structured activity (therefore I haven't enlisted also in Hour 24).
You maybe saw that your interest made me update this post, adding some thoughts that would otherwise remain unwritten and eventually be forgotten!