Images and Icons

In April 2005 articles began appearing in newspapers about a woman who noticed an image of Mary, the mother of Jesus, beneath an underpass in Chicago, Illinois. The location became a shire with offerings to the image. Seeing images of Jesus or his mother Mary in everyday items gets a lot of media attention. Some articles were derisive, some simply reported the facts. Religious leaders were quoted. The image was defaced a number of times, and cleaned up by volunteers and city workers. A play was written about it.

Eleven years later the underpass shrine to Mary is no longer in the news. But revered women with access to powerful males, and a willingness to intercede with them, are a common theme in myth and folklore. Demeter defended her child in opposition to the male hierarchy of Greek gods. Athena helped Odysseus in his journeys.

Requesting the intercession of Mary with her son Jesus—or his father—has been common in Christian culture for much of the past 2000 years. To encourage it, existing cultural women of power were often adapted by the Christian missionaries and theologians as Mary figures, or re-identified as Christian saints, and then venerated by some believers. The Irish goddess Brigit is possibly the origin for the Irish saint Bridget. Prior to the claimed apparition of Mary to Mexican native Juan Diego in 1531 (known as Our Lady of Guadalupe), the local Catholic church dedicated to Mary had been built over a destroyed shrine to the local mother goddess Tonantzin.

It is understandable that the mythic images of Mary continue to be valued in some human cultures. The sacred story says that a young Jewish girl was approached by a messenger of the Divine, asking her to consent to take on a burden that would benefit all humanity. Other women have done the same many times, and Mary continues to be one role model for such actions.

In addition to media attention and a play about the event, in 2008 British singer/songwriter Talis Kimberley wrote a song called “Underpass Mary” (Words and music by and © Talis Kimberley, 2008). What I find remarkable about her song is that it is written from the perspective of the icon:

 Underpass Mary’s not long been a god.
She was once simply rust stains and salt.
They saw the shape of her, gave her a name
And she quickened with each gift they brought;
Wishes and candles and whispers and tears
She can’t help them all, but she’ll try…

In depth psychology mythic images are not static. They are human representations of archetypal energy, always filtered through the perceptions and understanding of those identifying or describing the images. As we interact with the images they can become very real to us. This song implies our regard may also make the images aware, and maybe give them a purpose.

Because mythic images are not static, an individual, or groups of individuals, can lose interest in a previously treasured image. It may stop having “juice” at that particular place and in that particular time. In 1968 Gene Roddenberry explored this in an episode of Star Trek  called “Who Mourns for Adonais?” (written by Gilbert Ralston and Gene L. Coon). A shrinking group of Greek gods, who resettle on another planet, kidnap part of the Enterprise crew so they will again have worshipers. They don’t understand why crew members are unwilling to resume their role as devotees, subject to every whim of the gods. But those representations of certain archetypal energies no longer have power for the crew members of the Enterprise.

Forty years after this episode aired Ms Kimberly’s icon is more resigned than those Greek gods:

…And seasonal weather brings seasonal fears –
When hurricane season comes by
Her faithful keep watch on the sky:

 Underpass Mary shoulders her godhood.
Deity costs her all she can pay;
When the rain chooses to reclaim her altar
Salt stains and rust will be washed clean away –

Underpass Mary knows time’s against her…

No candles for Underpass Mary, today.

It is often difficult to move on from mythic images that used to have power for us. Many of us seek consistency, wonder what changed, what will replace them, and may be afraid that nothing will. For those who equate an image with a “real” deity, losing it can be interpreted as losing value, or as being pushed away by that deity. In response they can deny the value of all mythic images. A difficult transition at best.

When creating or interacting with mythic images it might perhaps be better to hold them more like Underpass Mary rather than those Greek gods, accepting that they have power for us at this moment in our lives.

Website link for Talis Kimberley:

YouTube link for song:

Lola McCrary is a member of the Immanence Editorial Board.  She has an M.A. in Integral Psychology from John F. Kennedy University and currently works as a first reader, fact checker, and proofreader of both fiction and non-fiction in her areas of interest.

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