Very early on, the Catholic Church chose August 15 (which would be the full moon of August if the new moon fell—as it did when the months were lunar—on the first of the month) to honor the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was proclaimed a holiday throughout the Roman Empire by Emperor Maurice around 600 in the East, and about 50 years later in the West.
This Catholic holiday replaced an earlier celebration that took place in Greece on the full moon of August in honor of Artemis and Hecate, which the Romans gave a fixed place in the solar calendar on August 13. It was known in Rome as Diana’s Feast of Torches.
The story of Mary’s Assumption derives from ancient stories called the “Obsequies of the Holy Virgin,” which were written in Syria at the beginning of the third century (or about 150 years after the event they relate). The story of “The Departure of My Lady Mary from this World” tells how Mary was lifted up into heaven bodily; in other words, she did not die, but became immortal. To commemorate this event, the apostles proclaimed a holiday in her honor, which is explicitly connected with the very crops that Artemis and Hecate were invoked to protect at the full moon of August:
And the apostles also ordered that there should be a commemoration of the Blessed One on the thirteenth of Ab (August), on account of the vines bearing bunches of grapes and on account of the trees bearing fruit, that clouds of hail, bearing stones of wrath, might not come, and the trees be broken, and the fruit, and the vines with their clusters.
Mary’s Assumption supposedly took place at Ephesus, where she was living under the care of the apostle John. Ephesus was one of the most famous sanctuaries of Artemis and home to the famous statue of Artemis with many breasts, symbolizing the productive and nurturing powers of the earth.
As early as the tenth century, the aroma of herbs and flowers was associated with Mary’s victory over death, and people brought medicinal herbs and plants (periwinkle, verbena, thyme), bound into a sheaf, to church to be incensed and blessed. In central Europe, this was called Our Lady’s Herb Day.
When Pope Pius XII proclaimed the dogma of the Assumption in 1950, the belief that Mary had been taken up to heaven, there was great consternation. How naïve! How medieval! But Carl Jung understood that this proclamation was one of the most important religious events since the Reformation. It brought the image of the divine feminine back into the light. The Queen of Heaven was being acknowledged once again and given her right place. The masculine Trinity had become a feminine Quaternity. This event preceded the women’s liberation movement and the renewal of Goddess worship.
August 15 also marks the start of Our Lady’s 30 Days, a time when animals and plants lost their harmful qualities and all food was wholesome, which ran until September 15, about the same time as the constellation Virgo is honored in the zodiac.
Gertrud Mueller Nelson tells about how her mother kept the holiday alive by taking her daughters on walks to gather wild grasses, a custom I’ve adopted in Seattle. It’s amazing how many kinds of wild grass grow on my city block.
Waverly Fitzgerald is a writer, teacher, and calendar priestess who has studied the lore of holidays and the secrets of time for decades. She shares her research and her thoughts on her Living in Season website and in her book, Slow Time. She is currently working on a series of essays about looking for nature in the city and blogs for the Seattle PI as the “Urban Naturalist.”
2017 Calendars Now Shipping