Hogwarts and the Black Madonna

The Four Houses. 

Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. For anyone who doesn’t know, these are the four houses that children are sorted into at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, the wizarding school that Harry Potter attends in J. K. Rowling’s fantasy novel series. The four houses each embody certain character traits: Gryffindor for the brave at heart; Hufflepuff for the just and loyal; Ravenclaw for those of wit and learning; and Slytherin for the cunning who lead. The Harry Potter series taps into these innate universal archetypes in a big way, particularly those archetypes that are present in Christian symbolism. I could talk at length on this, so I’ll just give one example for now. Harry Potter is a magical orphan, adopted by lesser parents. Superman (who I’ve spoken about before) is the same, an orphan boy adopted by lesser parents, and Jesus is the same, an orphan boy adopted by lesser parents.  And the reason this archetypical ideal chimes with us so innately is that to some extent we all have that sense, that we have our ‘real’ parents, whether they were good or bad parents, who fell short, and then there is some ideal beyond, like nature or the sacred or the unknown, which are our true parents. We were physically born of our mother, but in a more primal sense we were brought forth out of the earth, or out of this cosmic order. So in the same way certain architypes, certain characteristics, are embodied within in each of the four houses.

The Four Elements.

It’s very interesting to note how much the traits of these houses are paralleled within depth-psychology personality types, as you find them on personality tests, most notably Myers-Briggs. As each of us could be sorted into one of these four houses: Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin, so too, each of us has primary personality types: Thinking, Feeling, Sensation, and Intuition. Four is the magic number it seems. And where else do we find the number four? The four noble truths of Buddhism, or tying back to my alchemy address, the four elements of alchemy: fire, air, earth, and water. And when it comes to Harry Potter these all correspond very closely. House of Gryffindor: personality type ‘intuition’, element fire. Harry Potter, who is of the house of Gryffindor, in his time of trial is brought the sword of Gryffindor by the phoenix which rises from the fire. House of Hufflepuff: element earth, personality type ‘sensation’, house animal a badger. House of Slytherin: element water, personally type ‘Feeling’, house animal a serpent. And on and on it goes. J. K. Rowling is constantly playing with these four archetypes. The fact that Harry Potter draws so heavily upon such archetypes seems to me a very good reason for the books series’ immense success. They’re not just nice stories, they chime with some innate human truths. Four is the magic number.

Rublev's Icon of the Trinity

The book series is tapping into archetypes in a big way, particularly those archetypes that are present in Christian symbolism. In Orthodox Christianity however, the magic number is not four, it’s three. Reality is seen through a trifold prism. The idea then is this - primal reality consists of certain stories, stories called archetypes, stories that we can’t help enacting in the world. The biblical tradition chimes with us so intuitively because it reflects these inborn archetypal narratives. Perhaps the biblical narrative reflects these primal archetypes better than anything else, hence its enduring significance. The Bible reflects something of the universal language (as an aside, when we talk about the symbolic significance of three in the Bible, you don’t need to assume that that entails full blown trinitarian theology. Mathew 28 v. 18 reads, “Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, And of the Holy Spirit.” So, tri-fold-ness is part of the Biblical tradition. It’s the coequal nature of Jesus and God the Father which is not. That is all later theological extrapolation). So, if four is archetypally speaking such an important number, we may well ask, why three, what happened to the fourth? And what is the fourth for that matter? It’s surprising how well this works. Let’s take the four primal elements: Fire, Earth, Air, and Water, and think how they intuitively line up with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Start with the easy one: Holy Spirit obviously corresponds with Air. Air, wind, breath, dove, etc.: Holy Spirit. God the Father, refining fire of the Lord, we can line up with the element fire. And Jesus, whose first miracle was water into wine, who walked on water, who’s followers identify themselves with a fish, is aligned with the element Water. This leaves Earth – the forgotten element of Christian symbolism.

And what does Earth represent? The fertile ground beneath our feet. The foundation of life. The Earth which nourishes and shelters. The earth which is the womb from which all things spring. The divine feminine, which is often coupled with a strong sense of mystery, the dark earth which conceals the unknown. One can attempt to shoehorn the feminine into the Trinitarian model. Many have tried to varying degrees of success. Historically speaking though, it has certainly been lacking. Interestingly the Catholic tradition has attempted to redress this lack through the figure of Mary: note that this move was not a conscious act. There was never a group of theologians in the Middle Ages that sat around and said to one another, ‘you know Catholic theology is really lacking the divine feminine. We should promote some Mary devotion’. No, it arose as an intuitive response from worshippers. So, in this way, Mary can be understood as the fourth member of the Trinity.

The Pieta by Michelangelo.

Mary’s significance has grown and developed a great deal beyond the Biblical narrative. In the Bible Mary is surprisingly absent. Outside of the birth narratives which we read and think about during Christmas, she appears very little. She’s mentioned in passing in the first Chapter of Acts, in which we’re told she was with the other disciples just before Pentecost. And in Matthew when Mary and Jesus’ brothers come to speak to Jesus, and Jesus responds in his unflattering way, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’. And finally there are a couple of mentions in John, and John is considered the most historically dubious of the Gospels. So, John puts Mary at the Wedding of Cana, the other three don’t mention the wedding. And John puts Mary at the crucifixion, the other three don’t. However, Mary is very much present in the Christian imagination. Take for example the crucifixion. The historicity of her presence there is doubtful, but she is often portrayed as present in paintings. Or take the famous statue by Michelangelo – Mary cradling her crucified son. Likewise, in film, Jesus’ mother Mary is often given a more significant role, always on the periphery of Jesus’ ministry. Even though, again, this is not in the Bible. Also, the theological significance of Mary has been greatly amplified. In Luke we get the Song of Mary, the Magnificat, “For he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden: For behold, from henceforth: all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is his Name.” These two lines, only present in the Gospel of Luke, have had a monumental effect. Essentially all Mariology has been justified on the strength of these two lines. So, how has Marian theology developed?

Mother of God icon by Jan Isham.

As the theology of Jesus’ divinity takes shape, Mary’s status needs to change. Affirming Jesus as God becomes the normative Christian belief, and as such Mary, by extension, becomes not just the mother of Jesus, but in some sense the Mother of God. Also, the normative Christian belief was that if Jesus was God, he must have been without sin. As you probably know, from the original sin onwards, taint was passed down generation to generation, which is of course a horrid and weird belief. But nevertheless, that is what people thought. As Jesus was without sin, or even without the taint of original sin, Mary too must have been without sin. And so, the theology developed that she too was sinless. In Genesis it says that the wages for sin is death. But if Mary was also without sin, it has to follow that she cannot die by natural means, and so, the idea was developed that Mary did not die, but rather in the end, she (like Jesus) was taken up into the heavens. This is known as the Assumption of Mary. Although this idea goes back to the 6th Century, it only became Roman Catholic dogma in the 1950s. This move in the 1950s has been seen as the ultimate confirmation of Mary’s divine status. In a way, the fact that the Church has elevated the divine feminine in Mary is more important than the convoluted way that it got there. Unconscious as the Church was to responding to this lack inherent within the Godhead.

 Einsiedeln, Switzerland's mysterious Black Madonna

Einsiedeln, Switzerland's mysterious Black Madonna

And so, all this brings me to the Black Madonna on your order of service. I’m sure you have seen examples of this before. As Christianity takes root within different cultures and amongst different races, there is almost always a process which takes place, in which the imagery of Jesus and Mary are adapted to reflect the ethnicity of those who are worshipping them. So, whereas in our western culture we are most familiar with the fair skinned, and young-looking Mary in blue, in India, she is depicted as an Indian, in China as Chinese, and in the Middle East as Middle Eastern, as so on. And so, one would imagine that the Black Madonna arose as an expression of African Christianity. Certainly subsequently there have been many such African Christian artistic interpretations of the Madonna and Jesus. The original figure however was actually European. Swiss, to be specific. There is a small church near Zurich which contains a black Madonna from the 10th or 9th Century, which birthed a whole Black Madonna tradition across Medieval Europe. Of course, there was no black population in these places in Medieval times praying at these alters, these were white Europeans praying to a Black Madonna. The theory for how this came to be was simply due to intense exposure to candle smoke, which over time caused the Madonna statue’s skin to blacken. This was then reproduced and copied in its blackened state in other statues and icons across Europe. But again, I don’t think it matters so much how the Church got to that; just the mere fact that there were medieval white peasants venerating a Black Madonna I think is pretty phenomenal in itself. It doesn’t seem adequate to call this an historical accident. As stated, the phenomenon seems to arise from a lack within the normative religious expression of the day.

The Black Madonna encapsulates that fourth and absent dimension of the God-head. Not simply feminine, but of the earth. Through her we plumb the depths of our being and confront the powers of primal transformation, resulting in vital and creative growth. The presence of the Black Madonna fulfils a need within the collective unconscious. Her presence informs us that we must fully embrace the darkness of the unpredictable and unknown. That through these pilgrimages and journeys of the unknown, we emerge into new life. As such, an aspect of the divine is brought to light, and in this illuminating of one aspect of the divine that is rarely given expression, we grow in our appreciation of the depths of the sacred within ourselves. We draw a step closer towards that spiritual holistic wholeness that we seek.

Amen.