Black Madonnas

Christianity did not suddenly usurp the old religions of Europe. Instead, the early Church worked subtly to take over gods and shrines that had existed for centuries before the birth of Christ. As a result, the Black Madonnas are a blend of paganism and purity and, as RICHARD LEIGH and MICHAEL BAIGENT show, are still surrounded by ambiguous associations that reach far back in time to ancient religious — and even demonic — beliefs

THE MEDIEVAL KINGS of France tradition­ally accorded a special significance to the Black Madonnas. This attitude was particul­arly evident in Louis IX, who ruled during the 13th century and is now known as Saint Louis. Saint Louis had always revered the Black Madonna at Le Puy. She does not appear to have been inordinately grateful, however, because Saint Louis, having laun­ched a crusade against the Saracens of Egypt, was resoundingly defeated and captured along with his entire army. Nevertheless, he commanded considerable respect from the sultan who had vanquished him; and on his eventual release, the sultan offered him as a gift any object he might desire from the Egyptian treasury. The King selected a statue of what he called ‘Our Lady and Child’ — a Black Madonna, some 27 inches (69 centimetres) high, swathed in bandages and wearing a copper crown.

Black Madonnas

This statue had been part of the Islamic treasure for centuries — indeed, it had been highly venerated by the Saracens, who claimed it had been carved by the prophet Jeremiah. In 1254, Saint Louis carried the statue back to France, and installed it at Le Puy in place of the Black Madonna which had formerly been there. At least one of the present-day Black Madonnas is thus un­equivocally Eastern in origin.

Harlot and nun

The Black Madonna Saint Louis obtained in Egypt, and many of the others as well, were originally pre-Christian Mother God­desses. It is well known that the Middle East — from Egypt, through Palestine and Syria, to Persia — was influenced by such goddesses in pre-Christian times. These Mother God­desses were worshipped under a number of names, but they were essentially the same figure. And their appeal was extraordinarily tenacious. Demeter, for example, was wor­shipped at Eleusis, Greece, as late as 1801; and when two Englishmen in that year removed her statue, a major riot ensued among the peasantry.

The Mother Goddess was an extremely complex figure. She was simultaneously good and evil, creative and destructive, bene­ficent and malevolent, light and dark. She embodied the myriad aspects of nature ­storm, drought and famine as well as bounti­ful harvests and the fruits of the earth. At times, she could be cruelly chaste, at times shamelessly promiscuous — a combination of harlot and nun. In order to reflect her dual character, she was sometimes depicted with one side of her face black, the other white. Alternatively, she was sometimes clad in a black and white garment. And on at least one site, there were actually two statues, identical except that one was light and the other dark.

louis 9

The ancient Mother Goddess was often associated with the Moon, which passes through a spectrum of phases, from dark to full. By virtue of the Moon’s influence on tides, the Mother Goddess was also asso­ciated with the sea and became patroness of mariners — who revered her as ‘Star of the Sea’ or ‘Stella Maris’. This led to her being further associated with the Pole Star, and with Venus as well. Like the Moon, Venus possessed a dual aspect — that of Morning and Evening Star. The former of these aspects was regarded as sinister; this is reflected in Judaeo-Christian tradition, where the Mor­ning Star is often linked with Lucifer.

The Mother Goddess was worshipped under a bewildering variety of names. In Egypt, for example, she was known as Isis ­who was often depicted as black and holding her son, Horus, on her knee. There would seem to be little question that the Madonna obtained by Saint Louis from the Egyptian treasury was originally an Isis figure.

In northern Syria and in Babylon, the Mother Goddess was known as Ishtar ­which was also the Babylonian name for the planet we call Venus. Like Isis, Ishtar was often depicted as black; and although she had beneficent aspects, many Babylonian myths — the Epic of Gilgamesh, for instance ­stress the harmful side of her nature.

 Le Puy France madonna

In Phoenicia, the Mother Goddess was known as Astarte, and it was in the guise of Astarte that she exercised perhaps her most profound influence on Western tradition. The Phoenicians, of course, were seafarers. In the course of their maritime movements ­under the patronage of Stella Maris — they brought numerous images of Astarte to Wes­tern Europe, and these images subsequently became Black Madonnas. Like the later Christian Madonna, Astarte was often sym­bolised by a dove. Sometimes she was por­trayed as half black, half white. Sometimes she was worshipped in the form of a triang­ular stone, which was occasionally white, but more often black and probably meteoric in origin. Astarte figures prominently in the Old Testament, where she is referred to as `Queen of Heaven’.

In the chronicles that comprise the Old Testament, Astarte, the Queen of Heaven, appears as one of the primary adversaries or rivals of the God of Israel — the patriarchal God of Abraham and Moses. Indeed, the Israelites, on a number of occasions, defect from the God of Abraham and Moses and make their devotions to the Queen of Heaven. Jeremiah, for example, angrily con­demns his people for falling away from God and returning to the worship of Astarte ­implying that Astarte-worship was once the norm. The Old Testament tells us further that Solomon was a passionate devotee of the Queen of Heaven, to whom he erected altars on every high hill. It can be persuasively argued, in fact, that the Song of songs is not addressed to any mortal woman, but to Astarte. If this is true, the opening words of that famous text become particularly signi­ficant: ‘I am black, but comely, 0 ye daugh­ters of Jerusalem.

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