15th August: The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

ON the feast day of Mary the fragrant,

Mother of the Shepherd of the flocks,

I cut me a handful of the new corn,

I dried it gently in the sun,

I rubbed it sharply from the husk
With mine own palms.
I ground it in a quern on Friday,
I baked it on a fan of sheep-skin,

I toasted it to a fire of rowan,

And I shared it round my people.
I went sunways round my dwelling,
In name of the Mary Mother,

Who promised to preserve me,

Who did preserve me,

And who will preserve me,

In peace, in flocks,

In righteousness of heart….

That is an extract (and translation from the original Gaelic) of ‘Lollach Mhaire Mhathas’ - ‘The Paean of Mother Mary’.  The bannock so created was called the ‘moilean maire’ – ‘the fatling of Mary’.  The ceremony, which originates on the island of Barra in the Outer Hebrides was carried out inside the home on the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary, today the 15th August. The reference to sheepskin suggests that the bread was boiled first then baked on hot stones - sort of pre-historic bagel..... and rowan was a powerful prophylactic against evil influences.  However we are reliant on what might be a not very good Victorian translation here, so if there are any Gaelic speakers out there.....

Before the twelve day amendment to the calendar in 1752, the Assumption would have coincided with the feast of ‘Lughnasa’, one of the four great feasts of the Celtic pagan year, sometimes known as ‘Tochmarc Emire’ - ‘Earth’s sorrowing to autumn’ which was the time to celebrate the first fruits of harvest.

I don’t want to get bogged down in the finer points of Christian theology, there are plenty of you out there who know much more than I do.  There isn’t much mention of Mary the Mother of Jesus in the New Testament, she has a starring role early on but then fades into the background. Her death in particular is a mystery.  She starts to re-appear in apocryphal and Gnostic writings from the third century onwards. Gradually over the centuries her role as the ideal mother, the feminine side of Christianity, the Goddess of Heaven and the role model for Christian women is added to and reinforced. Like some wonderful silken tapestry woven over the centuries her image develops and changes, becomes more beautiful and more mysterious.

This is an ikon of the 'Virgin of Tenderness' painted by John Coleman for Truro Cathedral. I went to a concert there a few days ago and found myself sitting right in her line of sight.

Mary was both a pivot and a problem for early church patriarchy.  The early Church fathers determined that she was and remained a virgin and the stars on her cloak are a pre-Christian symbol of maidenhood.  I wonder if we still living with the legacy of those early fathers? The early church’s ambivalence to women and to the messiness of menstruation, procreation and childbirth turned her into a model that for me robs Mary of her essential womanliness.  Perhaps the they were afraid that if they didn’t idealise her and de-sex her she would be too like those earthy female deities; Gaia, Cybele, Isis, Ishtar and the similarly virginal Artemis.

'La Madonna della Cintola' by Benozzo Gozzoli (1420-1497) Vatican Museum.

The doctrine thus developed that Mary's untouched and untainted flesh meant she did not suffer death and decay as an ordinary mortal but went to heaven in her body, which is why in paintings of the Assumption we see her ascending in clouds in glory.

There is another tradition associated with the Feast of the Assumption and it comes from herbal medicine.  The fifteenth day of August was an auspicious day to collect herbs for winter preservation; medicinal herbs were brought to the church to be laid on the altar and blessed.  Their association with Mary and her complete translation to heaven ensured such herbs became powerful medicine and thus many healing herbs and flowers became associated with the Virgin. Marjoram was Mother of God's Flower, bee balm and lemon balm were both called Sweet Mary, catnip was Mary's Nettle, sage was Mary's Shawl, dandelion was known as Mary's Bitter Sorrow. Most of all it was lavender, representing cleanliness and purity that was Mary’s favourite.

In the great painting schools of mediaeval Italy, the most expensive colour was ultramarine, which is made from ground up lapis lazuli, a blue rock from a single mine in Afghanistan. Amongst painters trying to impress, like Titian and Gozzoli whose wonderful painting is above, ultramarine became the colour of choice for the cloak of the Mother of God  - and the Virgin Mary became associated with all things blue.

Blueberry and Lavender Compote

I think the farmed blueberries you buy these days are often very bland, the addition of lavender perks them up nicely.

300g blueberries
1 dessertspoon caster sugar
2 heads lavender
Rind and juice of half a small lemon

Put the fruit, sugar and lemon rind and juice into a small heavy pan and set over a gentle heat. Pull the individual florets from two heads of lavender and added them to the fruit and then add the two heads whole. When the fruit has barely burst remove the lavender heads and have a little taste, add a little more sugar if you feel it needs it. There should be an intriguing whisper of lavender flavour. Serve with scones, ice cream, greek yoghurt....

C’est la fleur. La violete,
La rose d’espanie
Qui tele odeur done et gete
Tous nos rasasie
Haute odeur seur tote fleur
A la mere de haut seigneur

 From ‘Les Miracles de Nostre-Dame’ by Gautier de Coincy (1177-1236)


Christine Natale said...

Magnificent Liz! Absolutely lovely post! Thank you so very much.

Mary Beth said...

Liz, as usual, you have drawn from many different sources to come up with a thoughtful, inspirational, ORIGINAL as well as beautiful post on Mary, Mother of God.

I am always uplifted when I read of "another way" to imagine the Blessed Mother. And a way to incorporate some of the lovely herbs that are flourishing in my garden right now.

More, more, more! (and what are those pretty blue star-shaped flowers?)

Liz Woods said...

Thanks both. The flowers are borage...one of my favourites, not least because once you have it in your garden, without being invasive, a few plants will pop up every year. It's traditionally used in that great English summer drink - Pimms. There's a saying 'I borage bring courage'...

lavender lady said...

dear Liz,although Lavender is for purity,Rosemary is dedicated to Mary...the flowers are blue because on the way to egypt BVM placed her cloak on the bush and the
flowers turned blue. Sweet mary is Costmary and calendula is Mary's gold...I shall go out and harvest!!!
your info on taking the herbs to the altar is very informative and a custom I must start...bless you!!
lavender lady