On the Greek island of Skopelos, visitors may come across a tiny church that perhaps holds one of Greece’s greatest religious mysteries. That is the church of Panagia Polemistra (Our Lady Warrior), a small single-aisle basilica built on the ruins of an ancient temple from the sixth century BCE. The ancient temple was once dedicated to no other than the goddess Athena. Similarly, in other churches across Greece, mystifying religious artifacts perplex the visitors. Icons of the Virgin Mary stopping a group of soldiers, sometimes clutching a sword, always casting a stern gaze. What secrets could these representations of Mary reveal about religious syncretism in Greece?
Virgin Mary and the “Great Mother” Archetype
In early Christianity, Mary was primarily venerated as a symbol of maternal love due to her role as the mother of Jesus. This is reflected in texts such as the apocryphal Gospel of James, which presents the Mother of God as a humble and pious woman. Mary’s role soon expanded to include symbolism related to her Assumption into heaven, her Immaculate Conception, and her perpetual virginity. These beliefs contributed to her perception as a symbol of purity, forgiveness, compassion, and maternal care for all humanity.
It comes as no surprise that the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung considered the Virgin Mary as a representation of the “Great Mother” archetype. In the chapter “Four Archetypes” from the Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Mary is included in the same category as all goddesses of fertility and personifications of the Earth. Therefore, if she were to be associated with any ancient Greek deity, this would be Demeter, goddess of fertility and agriculture and mother of Persephone.
For example, the church of Panagia Mesosporitissa (Our Lady of Sowing) in the Greek city of Eleusis is built in close proximity to the city’s archaeological site. In the same exact area where ancient Greeks held the secret rites to Demeter and Kore (Persephone), Christian Greeks dedicated a church to the Virgin Mary.
Get the latest articles delivered to your inboxSign up to our Free Weekly Newsletter
Every year, on the 21st of November, churchgoers celebrate the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple by cooking and distributing “polysporia”. This dish contains boiled legumes, wheat, pomegranate, and raisins, and it can be traced back to pre-Christian times. In 2019, the Greek Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, publicly described this tradition as “a revival of a corresponding tradition of antiquity”.
“Our Lady of Sowing” is not the only description of Mary. It is common for Greek Orthodox saints and prophets to carry specific epithets that describe a particular characteristic they possess. In Greek Orthodox Christianity, the most profound epithet for Mary is the one of “Ypermahos Stratigos” (Invincible General). This representation of Mary as a strong military commander is diametrically opposed to that of the motherly figure. Could this indicate that the Virgin Mary is a continuation of the goddess Athena?
Goddess Athena in Greek Polytheism
Athena was the Greek goddess of crafts, wisdom, and strategy and the Greek equivalent of the Roman Minerva. Her main two symbols were the owl and the olive tree, and she was always portrayed in armor. According to Greek Mythology, she had emerged from Zeus’s head, and her main role was to deliver words of wisdom into people’s minds. The goddess inspired generals, philosophers, politicians, and heroes to think clearly and logically.
Although she was often associated with warfare, Athena despised violence for the sake of violence. Contrary to the hot-headed god of war, Ares, she motivated her devotees to participate in just wars. The ancient Greek speech writer Lysias described such wars as the defense of a land that rightfully belongs to a group of people.
“Now in many ways it was natural to our ancestors, moved by a single resolve, to fight the battles of justice: for the very beginning of their life was just. They had not been collected, like most nations, from every quarter, and had not settled in a foreign land after driving out its people: they were born of the soil, and possessed in one and the same country their mother and their fatherland.”
(Lysias, Funeral Oration 2.17)
Athena was also a patroness and protector of cities, particularly of Athens. According to an ancient myth, Athena had competed against Poseidon, god of the seas, for the possession of the city. After spawning the first olive tree, the Athenians selected her as their patroness. The most astounding temple on the Acropolis hill was dedicated to Athena, and it is no other than the Parthenon (Temple of the Virgin Goddess). As the temple’s name suggests, the Greek goddess remained unmarried and a virgin, although she raised a boy as her own.
Goddess Athena was one of the most important deities in the ancient Greek pantheon. Although at first glance, she appears to possess different characteristics from Mary, both figures stand as symbols of divine virginity, wisdom, and strategy.
Similarities Between Virgin Mary and Athena
1. Divine Virginity & Motherhood
The perpetual virginity of Mary is a Christian doctrine that Mary was a virgin before, during, and after the birth of Christ. In Greek Orthodoxy, Mary is often called “Aeiparthenos” (ever-virgin). This doctrine asserts that Mary remained a virgin throughout her life, preserving her virginity as a symbol of her purity and sinless nature.
Similarly, the goddess Athena was one of the virgin goddesses of antiquity. One of her epithets was “Parthenos” (Virgin), and her most astounding temple was no other than the Parthenon on the Acropolis Hill. Athena also had the role of enforcing sexual modesty. In the myth of Medusa, as we know it from Ovid, the goddess transforms a woman into a serpentine monster because she lost her virginity in her temple. Although Medusa was raped by Poseidon, the act was still considered a hybris towards the goddess.
Despite their virgin nature, both Mary and Athena experienced motherhood. From Luke (1:26-38), we know that angel Gabriel visited Mary to announce that she would conceive a son by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Annunciation of the Lord, as it is called, resulted in the incarnation of Christ. Similarly, Athena experienced motherhood after Hephaestus attempted to have intimate relations with her. Although Athena rejected the god, the attempt resulted in the birth of a young boy named Erichthonius out of the Earth. The goddess decided to take care of the boy in secret.
2. Holy Wisdom
Another common characteristic between goddess Athena and the Virgin Mary is their wise nature. Athena was the guide of wise men and wisdom seekers (philosophers). One of her favorite heroes, whom she helped in Greek mythology, was Odysseus. That is because the king of Ithaca was not only brave but also cunning. According to Homer, he was the one who came up with the idea of the Trojan Horse, a plan that impressed the goddess.
Similarly, Mary is often associated with the concept of Holy Wisdom (Sophia) and the incarnation of the divine logos. In Greek Orthodoxy, Mary is the bearer of Sophia (the Greek word for “wisdom”) or rather Hagia (Holy) Sophia, to be precise.
“The Lord himself created Wisdom;
he saw her and recognized her value,
and so he filled everything he made with Wisdom.”
If the name Hagia Sophia sounds familiar, that is because of the Byzantine architectural wonder with the same name. The former cathedral of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, was built to venerate Mary as the bearer of divine wisdom and logos. Moreover, the Akathist — a Byzantine hymn from the seventh century CE — includes a kontakion addressing the Mother of God as the bearer of divine wisdom and logos. The Virgin Mary is described as a “vessel of God’s wisdom”, a “breaker of the webs of the Athenians’ logic” and a “drawer of many from the abyss of ignorance”.
3. Symbols of Power, Strategy, and Protection
Interestingly enough, the Akathist also includes a kontakion addressing the Mother of God as the “Ypermahos Strattigos” (Invincible General) and “savior of Constantinople”.
“O Invincible General, we your faithful inscribe to you the prize of victory as gratitude for being rescued from calamit., O Theotokos (Mother of God). But since you have invincible power, free us from all kinds of perils so that we may cry out to you: Rejoice, O Bride unwedded.”
In Greek Christian tradition, the Virgin Mary is often depicted as a patroness and protector of a city, just like Athena. For example, it is documented that in the battle of Constantinople in 626, the Virgin Mary caused the Avars and their Persian allies to flee. Similar stories of Mary protecting a city -usually with a predominant Christian Orthodox population- have been heard throughout the years. One of the most recent reports is from World War II, when German tanks approached the Greek town of Orchomenos. According to people’s accounts, the Virgin Mary reportedly stopped the tanks from entering the town — a belief that is shared by Greeks and Germans alike.
Moreover, many of Mary’s epithets show her connection to Athena. For example, on the island of Skopelos in the Aegean Sea, there is a small church dedicated to Panagia Polemistra (Our Lady Warrior). The ancient temple that preceded the Christian church was built in the sixth century BCE and was reportedly dedicated to no other than Athena. It is worth mentioning that, similarly to Athena, the Virgin Mary does not seem to lead “unjust wars”. Her main role is to assist in defending and protecting a land, not to cause destructive wars.
Lastly, another proof of Mary’s strategic powers is the date chosen for the Greek Independence Day. On the 25th of March, Greeks celebrate both their national revolution and the Feast of the Annunciation (Lady Day).
Virgin Mary & Athena: Religious Syncretism in Greece
The connections between Mary — mainly in Christian Orthodoxy — and Athena are countless. Both religious figures are symbols of divine virginity, wisdom, and strategy; sometimes, their temples even share the same grounds. This unorthodox connection may result from syncretism, a blending of different beliefs, practices, and cultures into a unified whole. This phenomenon occurs when cultures come into contact, leading to the adoption and integration of elements from one culture into another.
The transition from paganism to Christianity was very gradual. Already since the Hellenistic expansion, an influx of mystic religions from the East had influenced Greek culture. Finally, when Apostle Paul delivered his Aeropagus sermon in Athens, he made sure to bridge any cultural gaps in the presentation of the gospel.
“For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
(Paul Addresses the Areopagus)
After the official adoption of Christianity, the Byzantine Empire was initially very tolerant towards paganism. By the closing of the Athenian Academy in 529 CE, Christianity had already absorbed countless elements from the ancient Greek religion. Like Athena’s and Demeter’s temples in Skopelos and Eleusis, many pagan temples were transformed into Christian churches.
The signs of the continuation of Greek heritage from antiquity to modernity are all around us. We just need to pay close attention. Greeks may not be worshipping Athena anymore — at least to a great extent — however, they venerate a Virgin Mary different from the others; a stern-looking Mary who whispers words of wisdom and is there to fight alongside them when they are under attack.