The Black Goddesses in Christian Europe and Hinduism

Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Zaragoza, Spain

Myths, whether from extinct, ancient religions or the contemporary religions of today, seek to make sense of us and the world in which we live. The issues arise from the human experience. At least, this is how I see religions when they work. They resonate with mythic or archetypal situations, emotions and thoughts in human experience. They offer comfort and strength in the face of unbearable pain, sorrow, or loss and help us deal with our powerlessness in the face of the impersonal workings of Mother Nature.

The Benedictine monastery on Montserrat enshrines the Virgin of Montserrat, the most venerated image in Catalonia. Locals call her La Morenata, the Dark-Skinned one. She is one of several black madonnas especially in Spain and southern France. Scholars have theorized about why they are black. There is something apparently potent about black statues as for another example look at the Black Nazarene of Quiapo.

For me, statues and other images of devotion for people all over the world comprise a special form of art that evokes a particular emotional response in men and women. Kali, the Hindu goddess of death, is black, too—”the black one.” She is seen as the consort of Shiva who is called Kãla, meaning black, time, death or lord of death. In Hinduism, the major gods often have female consorts that some scholars believe were older than the male gods. They came with the Aryans, the female goddesses were already there when the Indo-Europeans came. I suspect the black madonna images of Europe are also associated with the matriarchal pagan religions, assumed into Christianity and given a thin veneer to hide their older origin. We see how older beliefs are incorporated into Christianity in the Philippines, too. It is most pronounced in Buddhism whose outward appearance changed from country to country, from Hinayana to Mahayana. The male-female coupling of gods with goddesses seems to reflect the basic structure of the universe as theorized in Taoism, for example, the yin and yang of all phenomena.

I am fascinated by etymology of words, what they originally meant. Words for me are archaeological deposits of history and human experience. If we go back to the origins of words we use today we might discern something universal in how they point to ordinary human moments of awareness. We can see the connections between the present and the past. This is one reason that I enjoyed traveling in Spain (we did both north and south now, but have not visited Portugal, the remaining portion of the Iberian peninsula that shares much of its early history with Spain).

Many of the Spanish conquistadores and navigators came from the Basque Country of Northern Spain, Viscaya in Spanish (hence, Nueva Viscaya in the Philippines). Elcano, Urdaneta and Legaspi all were Basques. They lived on the Atlantic coast of Spain so early on mastered sailing and navigating the oceans, initially in search of cod or bacalao. They were not intimidated by the ocean and blazed the trail that eventually connected Europe with the Americas and Asia, and led to colonialism with its two-edged sword. The colonized peoples learned about Western civilization (like Christianity) while losing much of their own cultures and for centuries were considered inferior to the conquerors, a heritage many formerly colonized nations still struggle with today.

Nuestra Señora del Pilar is a whole other story. She is, of course, venerated as “mother of the Hispanic peoples.” Her feast day is a national holiday in Spain. The statue is almost as small as the virgin of Montserrat. It stands on a pillar (she is said to have appeared to Santiago to whom she gave this statue and the jasper pillar – “On this site, build my house…”) surmounted by a huge Baroque golden halo.

About orlando gustilo

Digital content producer, photographer, writer.
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