The Cult of Mary: How Supernatural Apparitions and Miracle Healings Led to Veneration of the Mother of Jesus

The Virgin Mary

The cover story for the latest edition of National Geographic. "How the Virgin Mary Became the World's Most Powerful Woman", looks at the rise of the 'cult' of the Virgin Mary, specifically through the lens of the miraculous/supernatural/Fortean apparitions of - and 'healings' by - the mother of Jesus throughout history. Award-winning journalist Maureen Orth looks at how the iconic religious figure has permeated Western culture (as well as Islamic culture to some extent as well), and how alleged miracles in her name provide sustenance to her on-going mythos:

Mary is everywhere: Marigolds are named for her. Hail Mary passes save football games. The image in Mexico of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most reproduced female likenesses ever. Mary draws millions each year to shrines such as Fátima, in Portugal, and Knock, in Ireland, sustaining religious tourism estimated to be worth billions of dollars a year and providing thousands of jobs. She inspired the creation of many great works of art and architecture (Michelangelo’s “Pietà,” Notre Dame Cathedral), as well as poetry, liturgy, and music (Monteverdi’s Vespers for the Blessed Virgin). And she is the spiritual confidante of billions of people, no matter how isolated or forgotten.

Praying for the Virgin Mary's and being devoted to her are a global phenomenon. The notion of Mary as intercessor with Jesus begins with the miracle of the wine at the wedding at Cana, when, according to the Gospel of John, she tells him, “They have no wine,” thus prompting his first miracle. It was in A.D. 431, at the Third Ecumenical Council, in Ephesus, that she was officially named Theotokos, Bearer of God. Since then no other woman has been as exalted as Mary. As a universal symbol of maternal love, as well as of suffering and sacrifice, Mary is often the touchstone of our longing for meaning, a more accessible link to the supernatural than formal church teachings. Her mantle offers both security and protection. Pope Francis, when once asked what Mary meant to him, answered, “She is my mamá.”

Her reported appearances, visions experienced often by very poor children living in remote or conflict-wracked areas, have intensified her mystery and aura. And when the children can’t be shaken from their stories—especially if the accounts are accompanied by inexplicable “signs” such as spinning suns or gushing springs—her wonder grows

Apparitions of the Virgin Mary have been reported throughout post-New Testament history, but in the last 450 years alone there have been more than 2000 reported sightings (see the map below for a graphic representation - the National Geographic story has a larger version for ease of viewing).

Virgin Mary Sightings Around the World

The Catholic Church however is very careful in officially recognising such events, with only sixteen of those being sanctioned as true miracles. Their pain-staking process of investigation covers many aspects of each sighting, though "the 'authenticity' and mental stability of the seer are prime, and anyone suspected of trying to gain fame or riches from contact with the Virgin Mary is ignored or condemned". Furthermore, "the Vatican would never approve an alleged apparition whose message contradicted church teachings, and the faithful aren’t required to believe in apparitions."

The locations of apparitions and healings, such as Lourdes and Medjugorje, have become famous the world over.

Here's a video made by National Geographic to accompany their story, "Five things to know about Marian apparitions":

One aspect unfortunately not covered in the story is the Fortean interpretation - are these apparitions actually Christian/Islamic, or are they something else, simply being interpreted through that lens? Jacques Vallee covered some of these thoughts in his book Passport to Magonia, in which he discusses VM apparitions of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Mexico, and another at Knock in Ireland, and how some elements also match those found in sightings of other strange phenomena, such as UFOs and 'fairy folk', throughout history. (I also specifically covered the similarity in 'sounds' heard during these sightings in my article "Her Sweet Murmur: Exploring the aural phenomenology of border experiences".) From spinning disks to falls of 'angel hair', there are some distinctly strange aspects to a number of 'Virgin Mary' apparitions.

An interesting article nonetheless, although one can only wonder how much criticism it might receive from scientific quarters given recent concerns that Rupert Murdoch's acquisition of National Geographic, and the subsequent cuts to staff within the organisation, might lead to a less scientific approach from the iconic science magazine.

Related stories:

Samsaric Sarcasm: A Humoristic Explanation for Reincarnation

(Click on the image for a clearer version)

Beat that, Dawkins!

Nina Paley is the artist behind the highly-acclaimed indie film Sita Sings the Blues, as well as the short This Land is Mine. She also collaborated in the film The Prophet, based on the famous book by Khalil Gibran.

H/T Mark Brady

This Must Be the Place: Reflections About Life and Death from an Old Mariner

In our present culture, growing old is viewed as an hourglass tragically running out of sand. For an old Danish mariner it means becoming "full of days," and hence the opposite.

This Must Be the Place is a touching reflection about how a life well lived can only result in a good death.

Have YOU found your place yet?

Stephen Colbert: On Faith & Humor

I was born and raised a Catholic. As a Mexican, there's nothing exceptional about that; but there was a time in my life when I was really committed to my Catholicism. I went to Mass (gladly!), took Communion, despaired when I had 'unclean thoughts' --which was pretty much *all* the time-- walked dozens of miles to see pope John II at San Juan de los Lagos --I was so tired I slept through most of the Eucharist-- and even went with a group made of fellow high-school students to a few 'evangelization journeys' at some of the poorest communities in Mexico.

And, for a little while, I seriously considered the possibility of taking the vows to become a priest.

Eventually I became evermore disenchanted with the church --even though to this day I still hold a special fascination for Jesus, thanks to J.J. Benítez's "Caballo de Troya" novels-- until a day came when I realized in my heart I no longer felt as a Catholic; to the point that nowadays I can barely stand being inside a church during one of the usual social events my family drags me to.

As a renegade Catholic, you keep telling yourself that you 'smartened up', and finally opened your eyes about the many things in the religious dogma which doesn't make any kind of sense; you also tell yourself that if someone decides to remain in the church, is because they haven't yet looked hard enough to those logical fallacies, thus suffering some sort of cognitive dissonance. Some people even have a complete 180° and become rabid anti-religious atheists; there's no greater zealot than the late convert...

Which is why it was so interesting for me to listen to Stephen Colbert, one of the smartest Television figures in the world today, discuss with Fr. Thomas Rosica on the video above how much he loves his Catholic faith, and how for him there doesn't seem to be any conflict between it and his intellect. The conversation was recorded on April 1st, for the Salt and Light media organization.

"Logic itself will not lead me to god... but my love of the world and my gratitude toward it will."

In a way it's interesting to think how there seems to be an interesting rapport --see what I did there?-- between Faith and Humor: Both require a fair amount of intelligence --you cannot make a good joke if you don't understand WHAT things are funny-- and yet at the same time both have to be able to transcend rationality --you cannot 'overthink' a joke; it has to be a visceral reaction in order to be funny.

A strange thing to consider, especially in a time in which Religion and Humor have become something of a mortal combination. While Stephen mentions during the interview how he was glad he was not on the air when the Charlie Hebdo news broke --because he wouldn't have been able to respond-- later in the interview he might have inadvertently hit the nail on why the satire of Charlie Hebdo provoked such a caustic reaction, by discussing how according to C.S. Lewis' Screwtape Letters, 'flippancy' is the only type of humor which doesn't bring joy, and thus moves you away from God.

I also enjoyed how Stephen shares my concept of a Jesus who was laughing all the time.

if Jesus didn't laugh [at Peter falling on the water like Wile E Coyote] then I'm in trouble, because that's the God I worship

Well, I worship a 'God' --however you choose to define 'It'-- who put someone like Stephen Colbert in the same space rock I happen to inhabit at the moment.

New Gods and Monsters - A New Book From Ian 'Cat' Vincent and Daily Grail Publishing To Be Released in 2016

Holy Yoda

I'm excited to announce that in 2016 we will be publishing a new book from Ian 'Cat' Vincent on the development of new, strange, myths and religions in the modern world. Darklore readers will no doubt be familiar with Cat's fascinating explorations of the modern Slenderman mythos and 'hyper-real religions' in our recent releases - but now we'll be getting a full-length book treatment from Cat - titled New Gods and Monsters - that will surely blow all of our minds.

Here's a précis of New Gods and Monsters:

“To a new world of gods and monsters!’
-Dr. Pretorius, in The Bride Of Frankenstein

Despite the predictions (and hopes) of some, the early 21st Century of the Common Era is not a time of less religion than before - 85% of the planet’s population profess to hold some religious belief. But... some of those beliefs are a long way from orthodoxy.

As a result of the rise in popular culture in the last century and the increasing speed and density of communications media to carry it, the modern world has a plethora of stories - avowed fictions among them - about religion, myth and magic to chose from. Increasingly, peoples’ beliefs are directly affected by these stories. Some believers take metaphorical comfort and confirmation of their own orthodox beliefs from them, some incorporate part of pop culture into their belief system... and some even take these fictional tales and treat them as the basis of their own new religions.

New Gods And Monsters is the story of these stories - how they began, how they became popular, the influence they can have on us and what they imply for a future seemingly ridden with religious strife.

Super excited about this, can't wait to get it into your hands next year! For a taster of the themes that Cat will be riffing on in New Gods and Monsters, see the embedded talk below on "Science Fiction's Gifts to Paganism" and the 'Sample Articles' page at the Darklore website for his essays on Slenderman and hyper-real religions.

Exploring Overlapping Themes Between NDEs and UFO/Alien Encounters

Last week I received a last-minute invitation to join Gene and Chris on The Paracast on Thursday. It was the beginning of a chain of SNAFUs on my part, in which I found myself out of home and unable to return at the appointed hour of our Skype seesion, and couldn't even warn Gene because my phone ran out of battery and megabytes on my data plan --fortunately Gene was kind enough to re-schedule to later in the evening. Chris on his part also suffered problems of his own and couldn't join us (it turned out his good friend, Zuni elder Clifford Mahooty, had a sudden health problem and Chris went to his aid. It seems Clifford is doing much better now and is out of danger, but I'm sure many Grailers will still want to send out his prayers and good wishes to him).

So in the end it was me, Gene and Curt Collins of Blue Blurry Lines who filled in as guest co-host. Despite the initial mishaps --and the occasional technical problem on my end-- it was a delightful conversation which took on a rather weird spin: We started up with the usual UFOlogical subjects --including "the topic that shall not be named", which is how Gene refers to the Roswell slides brouhaha of May 5th-- but then for some reason I can't fully explain --and bear in mind I came to the interview *completely* unprepared, worried only about getting back home on time-- I shifted the chat into deeper and fringier waters, when I mentioned the apparent similarities between near-death experiences (NDEs) and what is commonly referred to as 'alien abductions' --I guess sometimes it pays to 'play it by ear'!

We talked about many other things, in that episode --which you can listen to by clicking here-- but then on the next Friday, Gene sent my a second e-mail asking if I would be interested in writing a little editorial for the Paracast Newsletter, 900-1000 words long, expanding on these overlappings between NDEs and alien encounters.

At first I agreed (since I still felt in debt with Gene for behaving so unprofessionally the day before) not knowing whether I would be able to add anything beyond what I had already mentioned on the interview. Then I had the insight of asking Mike Clelland for help; Mike has been looking into the direct contact experience with a very 'out-of-left-field' approach which would be completely unheard of in uptight organizations like MUFON --that's why I enjoy reading his Hidden Experience blog so much, and also look forward to his upcoming book about owls and alien encounters.

Mike quickly replied back and pointed to a Hidden Experience audio conversation he recorded with Dr. Suzanne Gordon in 2013, which dealt with exactly this kind of criss-crossing correlations, between the type of liminal experiences that are often regarded as independent of each other by traditional investigation --if an NDE subject were to fill a questionnaire prepared by a UFO organization, the results might conclude him to be a an alien abductee, and viceversa. Mike also adviced me to look into the work of NDE researcher Dr. Kenneth Ring, who was among the first to observe these correlations with an open mind --others who were unafraid to look into these overlappings were the late Dr. John Mack, and of course Terence McKenna, the 'Bard' of the psychedelic movement.

With all this I began to expand upon my notes more and more, and then after my mind was 'fully pregnant' with potential I set myself to the task, and did not stop until the 'small' 900-1000 word-long editorial grew into a 4650-word behemoth, which I titled "Charon's Silvery Boat: Overlappings Between Near Death Experiences and UFO/Alien Encounters."

Here's a sample of what I wrote, treating both types of experiences as if they were different manifestations of the same phenomenon:

  • The experience transcends national, ethnic, religious or social boundaries. Unlike what Stephen Hawking would have us believe, UFOs are not just seen by crazies and weirdos, and alien abductions are not an exclusively American anomaly --even though the database is currently skewed in favor of that nationality, presumably because that's where it has raised the most attention. Likewise NDEs are reported by people from many different religious backgrounds, including those who had a completely atheistic worldview.
  • Despite certain variability, the experience possess a prototypical 'core'. Even though no NDE or UFO/alien encounter is 100% alike --in fact, these type of experiences seem to be deeply personal, and thus hard to convey to a third party -- there's an emerging narrative easy to identify in both NDEs and alien abductions. This uniformity, researchers say, is what makes them hard to dismiss as mere hallucinations --although skeptics would claim the uniformity is the result of either hoaxes or delusions caused by modern cultural 'contamination'; even though these experiences have been reported across different cultures for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
  • The experience manifests independently of the subject's volition. With the NDEs there's either a grave illness or a life-threatening accident that brings the individual to the brink of physical death, in a set of circumstances outside of its control. The lack of choice is also shared by alien abductees, who are said to be taken by non-human entities without their consent (the old Contactees of the 50's and 60's might be perceived as an exception to this, and maybe we could say the same if someone experiences an NDE after deliberately attempting suicide).
  • The subject experiences a detachment of his physical body (OBE). This sense that the experiencer's consciousness dissociates itself from the regular vantage point of the body, and allows it to observe the surrounding environment from a different POV --i.e. from above the hospital room-- is probably universal in the NDE literature. Although OBEs are rather common in the modern alien abduction/encounter narrative, we cannot claim it's a stereotypical aspect of the experience --in fact, the 'physicality' of abductions is a much contended point in the field; then again, obsessing with 'trace evidence' has not yielded the expected rewards of respectability traditional UFOlogy has sought in the last 60 years…

The rest of it you can get access to by simply subscribing to the Paracast newsletter, free of charge. Once I fulfilled my deadline, Gene invited to continue the discussion we'd started last Thursday, and to discuss my editorial with him and Chris --who could now re-join us once the issue with Clifford had been solved-- on the 'After the Paracast' supplement podcast, which is part of their Paracast+ membership. The monthly or annual subscription fee grants you access to both the 'After the Paracst' catalog, as well as an ad-free version of their regular show --the annual subscription also gets you an e-book version of Chris O'Brien's 'Stalking the Tricksters' [Amazon US & UK]

You will notice the text acquired a 'scholarly' tone that is quite uncharacteristic of my typical writing. Again, this is not something I had originally anticipated, yet evolved 'organically' as I started to work into what I wanted to convey --which, it must be stressed out, is NOT terribly ground-breaking, since I'm only expanding on what other people had already noticed. If anything, I may have been the first guest in The Paracast to talk about NDEs --something in which I DON'T consider myself to be any kind of authority, or particularly versed in-- and discuss how this and other type of mystical experiences hint at our remaining ignorance with regards to hard problem of human consciousness; which I personally believe to be a crucial part of what we inadequately refer to as 'the Paranormal.'

After I submitted my text document to Gene, who proceeded to prepare it for inclusion in the newsletter, I wanted to add another point to my list of implications to our culture these experiences represent: They force us NOT to jump into Conclusions. To me the folly of the first UFO organizations who started to look into the mystery of 'flying saucers', is that they did so with the preconceived premise that these unknown objects are extraterrestrial vessels of some kind, and have therefore tried to FORCE the square UFOlogical data to fit into the round hole of the ETH. Likewise, I think it would equally unwise to look into the ample NDE literature and unilaterally conclude these experiences prove the existence of 'God' and 'Heaven', according to the expectations of religious doctrine --what seems to be going on is far, FAR more complex than that.

What these experiences DO seem to hint at --I refrain to use the word 'prove' at this point-- is that our current materialistic paradigm which equates Mind solely with the biological machinery of the human brain is sorely need of an update; so too is the methodology of UFO organizations, which should let the data lead them into a conclusion, instead of the other way around.

What conclusion that could be, I cannot truly say; yet I suspect NDEs, 'abductions', psychedelic trips and other types of visionary experiences hint to a much disregarded aspect of the human condition. Perhaps looking deeper into these intersections might help us seem them --and ourselves-- on a clearer light.


The Real Walking Dead: Funeral Customs of the Toraja of Indonesia

Toraja people dressing one of their deceased family members

Throughout human history, our definition of death has varied wildly. Even in the scientific terms of Western culture in recent centuries, we have gone from looking for signs of breath, to signs of heartbeat, through to realising that a person can sometimes be 'brought back' from death more than an hour after the heart has stopped beating.

Resuscitation expert Dr Sam Parnia has noted that the problem is that our concept of death has "traditionally been very black and white" - we have tried to frame death as a certain moment, rather than what it really is: a process.

The Toraja of Indonesia, on the other hand, fully embrace death as a process - though perhaps more in a spiritual sense rather than as part of Parnia's scientific model. For them, death is a transition...and a somewhat lengthy process at that.

The Gale Encyclopedia of Religion notes that Toraja funeral rites can be broken down into four fundamental stages:

During the first, the deceased is said to be ill: Washed, dressed, and adorned, he may be nurtured for as long as a year. Then comes the first festivity, lasting from five to seven days, with sacrifices, lamentations, songs, and dances; this marks the difficult passage from life to death and ends with a provisional interment inside the house. During the following intermediary period, these festivities increase. Finally the ultimate ceremony is performed, requiring several months of preparation during which winding-sheets, cenotaphs, and, most notably, an effigy (the famous tau-tau) are employed, not without ostentation; it concludes with the burial and the installation of the deceased in the beyond.

In case you were wondering: yes, the above means that the Toraja basically continue interacting with the corpses of their loved ones for years, feeding, bathing, and dressing them. In August the Ma'nene ritual is held, during which time corpses are exhumed to be cleaned and fitted out with new clothes, and repairs are made to their coffins. As part of this ritual, before being re-interred the dead are quite literally walked around the village.

Deceased Toraja couple

And while the Toraja continue interacting with the physical remains of their ancestors for many years, the dead also may communicate with their descendants in another way: in his book, Communing with the Gods, Charles Laughlin notes that the Toraja "sometimes experience their long dead ancestors in dreams, and these experiences are taken to be real."

For more on the funeral customs of the Toraja, see the TED talk below, and also this detailed article at Ancient Origins. A gallery of images of the Ma'nene can be found at the Daily Mail.

Find more fascinating articles like this one by liking The Daily Grail on Facebook, and by following us on Twitter.

New Zealand School Students Perform the Haka at the Funeral of a Teacher

Palmerston North Boys' High School in New Zealand has posted the above video of the Haka performed by students during the funeral of one of their teachers, Mr Dawson Tamatea.

On watching the video, not only does it come across as a massive sign of respect for Mr Tamatea, but also as quite a cathartic ritual for the students, allowing them to express their emotions and feel part of a cohesive group during this tough time - two things that often don't happen in Western culture during emotional periods.

Modern society in New Zealand has done a great job in integrating and respecting historical Maori culture. It makes me wonder how many other modern societies could benefit from embracing their indigenous cultures.

The entire school performing the Haka during the arrival of Mr. Tamatea in the hearse. This was a very emotional and powerful performance. We are extremely proud of our boys' performance and we know that Mr Tamatea would be too.

For those watching in other parts of the world, this is our school Haka. This is the translation:

Be prepared take hold
Reach out
We of Palmerston North Boys' High School stand steadfast
Within our Domain
Standing firm
Standing proud
Standing with respect
To uphold
To uplift
To uplift
To uphold
The prestige of our school
Our aims are to seek knowledge
And reach our goals and aspirations
Seek the horizon of aspirations
And draw near to it
Those aspirations that are near, take them
And it be known, yes, let it be known
Let your adrenalin abound high above
It is done!!!

Conner Habib, Ida Craddock & Sacred Sexuality

Over at Reality Sandwich, my friend Conner Habib has just launched a new series of essays named The Sex Radicals: Seven Thinkers Who Can Revolutionize Sex in Our Cultures, intended to highlight intelectual figures whose philosophy changed his own perspective about sexuality, and whose teachings he thinks could prove intrumental in reshaping the Western attitude about this truly vital aspect of the human experience.

Because let's face it: Even though we seem to think we're experiencing the most sexually liberated age in history, there are still many puritanical taboos plaguing our society's attitude toward Sex and Eroticism --the fact that in an American office complimenting a co-worker of the opposite gender for their looks can be perceived as sexual harassment, prostitution is still illegal in most countries of the world, breastfeeding in public freaks the crap out of many people, and we still stubbornly cling to the delusion that children are asexual beings, is proof enough that as high-minded as we pretend we are, from the waist-down we're still pretty much stuck on the Dark Ages…

But why bringing this up to the attention of the Grail community, you may ask? As Conner himself is quick to point out in the introduction to the series, several of those radicals he is intending to "invite to the orgy" were also riding on the fringes of Science, Spirituality and the Occult; to the point that a few of them, like the (in)famous Wilhelm Reich, are still relegated to the 'cooky cupboard' by the mainstream.

[Their craziness] in fact, is a large part of what makes them important. To come up with new possibilities for the world, you have to hang out in the impossible and the imagined quite a bit. You have to say outlandish things to see if they’re true. To stand outside the depressing weight of our reality requires deep and intense encounters with your own imagination and seeing things that others don’t see.

Some members of the list will already be familiar to you, like Reich (whom I've just mentioned) and Aleister Crowley --whose name either rhymes with 'holy' or 'fouly', depending of what you think of him-- but others you might have never heard of before. Take for example Ida Craddock (1857-1902) with whom the #SexRadicals series gets started: Aside from being a XIXth century feminist and crusader against the sexual repression of her era --this was after all, the time when boys were given Medieval-like contraptions intended to prevent them from 'suffering' wet dreams at night-- she also claimed to have had sexual intercourse with an angel named Soph:

After some loving correspondence with Soph, Craddock did, and reported her ecstatic sexual experiences with him in a language that strongly resembles the language of objectum sexuals, who fall in love with and make love to objects and landmarks. It’s a moving language of ecstasy – an encounter with a partner whose being-ness others can’t understand. The invisible breath of the angel so in love with you, that you’re the only one who can see him.

Alas, poor Ida paid dearly for the hot angelingus action, and other terrible 'perversions' she committed in the eyes of her many enemies --her own mother included, who was totally scandalized by her daughter's claim that sexual pleasure was a sacred gift every human had the right to claim, and that moral conventions forbidding us to do so was the real serpent we needed to cast out of Paradise.

Make no mistake about it, my fellow Grailers: When it comes to Sex, Spirituality, paranormal phenomena, and many of the things we outsiders value in life, Transgression *is* the scarlet letter stamped on the forehead of those who dare to step out of line of what the Status Quo considers 'respectful' or 'credible'; and yet it is by the cumulative power of those transgressions how our society is forced to drag forward one inch at a century, until the deviancy is grudgingly adopted and becomes part of the ruling paradigm --which eventually signals the need for a new revolution to kick us out of our prudish complacency, and make things interesting for the younger generations...

Enjoy Conner's Sex Radicals series --and bring lots of lube, to grease the hinges of the Doors of Perception.

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Jeff Kripal at TedX Houston: The Art of Making the Impossible Possible

For some reason this video fell off our radar when it was released in 2013 (but it's never too late to correct that mistake): Jeffrey Kripal, professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Rice University, and the author of Mutants and Mystics and Authors of the Impossible, spoke at TedX Houston in 2012 about the literary quality of what we call 'paranormal' phenomena, and how these experiences tend to disrupt the either/of logic we are conditioned to use in our modern world, because they have an external component as well as an internal one --often deeply personal and meaningful to the experiencer.

It is because of this ambiguity that many great artists are drawn and inspired by these kind of events, which also hint at the pivotal role Consciousness may play in the scaffolding of Reality itself.

  • Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred [Amazon US & UK]
  • Mutants and Mystics: Science Fiction, Superhero Comics, and the Paranormal [Amazon US & UK]


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