As the Nativity of the Christian God creeps ever closer, allow me to detour just a bit and discuss one of the very ancient players in the story of Jesus: the Archangel Gabriel.
Of course Gabriel is familiar as the winged trumpeter, announcer of not only the end of time but also the pregnancy of the Virgin Mary, in which case he is pictured holding a lily. But wait a minute. Did you say he?
In fact, if all the history and language are considered, little doubt can be left that Gabriel is the one and only female Archangel. She is the ruler of the Cherubim and the Governor of Eden, the angel most concerned with conception, birth and death. In the very early Christian texts as well as the Jewish texts which inspired them, she is herself the Angel of Death. It is she who snatches the protesting soul from Paradise, transports it to a woman’s womb and calms its anxiety until it is born nine months later, only to take it back home at the end of life.
Gabriel is best known as the Angel who appeared to Mary, announcing the birth of the Messiah. In this role as messenger she is often depicted carrying a lily which has been said to refer to the virgin conception. In fact, the lily was originally not Mary’s flower but Gabriel’s. It is through this connection that her original identity can be surmised.
The Semite word Gbri probably descended from the Sumerian word Ningbri which is now translated as Ninharsag, the goddess of birth, death and rebirth. The goddess’ vagina, which she gave to her husband each year that he might be reborn, became a goddess onto itself: Lilu. Lilu or Lilitu in turn became the servant of first Inanna and then the Babylonian Ishtar. She was the divine prostitute who brought men into the temple to share in the Love goddess’ favors. Lilu, the lily, became Lilith, the Canaanite first wife of Adam. As the story goes, Lilith rejected her husband and his God preferring equality in the desert to subjugation by men. First Gabriel and then Mary take up the lily and make it a symbol of the virginal aspect of the goddess. Mary is not frightened when she learns, through her offering of the lily, that Gabriel is a woman. As St. Jerome writes, Mary “… had never been greeted by a man before” and her fear of doing wrong is quelled by Gabriel’s chaste revelation.
Of course, no amount of scholarly discussion of ancient religions and their relationship to the modern Big Three will change the closed mind of a fundamentalist. But here, at my house, Gabriel holds a fleur-de-lis, symbol of the Maiden, the Mother and the Crone. Bénédictions lumineuses ~
Pictures: Archangel Gabriel from the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck c 1432
Babylonian sculpture of Lilitu/Lilu