The premiere for American Templars, the movie based on the claim that Henry Sinclair reached America in 1398, occurred under the auspices of the Westford Historical Society the other day, and Newport Tower Museum curator Jim Egan was there, dressed like John Dee, to “raise awareness” of his belief that Gov. Benedict Arnold’s windmill was built not by Templar knights under Sinclair leadership but rather by John Dee. You really must click this link to see him in costume.
David S. Brody, the novelist whose book forms the basis for the movie, asked Egan to appear in the film, which he agreed to do on the condition that he be allowed to expound on his John Dee theory. That part got cut, and he was “a little miffed” that “my very brief appearance now implied I was lending support to the Templar theory.” And here I thought only alternative history documentaries pulled a bait-and-switch to manipulate peoples’ views.
Egan concludes that any publicity is good publicity, however, and showed up to the premiere in costume to make sure everyone knows about his ideas.
Well, that’s about right: One alternative historian using another alternative history event to promote mutually exclusive ideas. (The Newport Tower cannot be both the key to understanding Templars in America and an Elizabethan observatory.)
And now the pivot point: The Newport Tower plays a key role in Scott Wolter’s new book, and he connected it to a worldwide cult venerating the sacred female. Among the icons of this cult were Mary Magdalene and the goddess Isis, whose connection remains hidden beneath layers of conspiracy.
Since alternative historians are all about making connections between otherwise unrelated topics, I thought it might be interesting to share a case where there is an actual hidden connection between ideas—and one that, like Scott Wolter’s Mary Magdalene conspiracy—also involves a “hidden” layer to images of the Virgin Mary. (Wolter suggests some images of the Virgin are really coded references to the Magdalene.)
In Southern Italy, at Capaccio Vecchio, near Paestum, there is an interesting festival held in honor of Santa Maria del Granato (St. Mary of the Pomegranate), also called the Madonna del Granato, in which each year small decorated toy ships are carried up to a statue of Mary holding a pomegranate, even though the town is not on the sea and the people do not engage in seafaring. The original medieval cathedral of Mary of the Pomegranate, dating back to the early Middle Ages, was destroyed in the thirteenth century and the bishopric removed elsewhere, but today there is still a church on the site dedicated to Mary of the Pomegranate.
Archaeologists excavating at Paestum and its rural dependency, Foce del Sele, have found images of Hera holding a pomegranate (taken over from the pomegranate images of Hera at Argos, which was connected to Paestum), and it is surely no coincidence that Capaccio Vecchio is the hillside town where the last inhabitants of Paestum decamped in 877 to escape the malaria in the swampy region. At least one scholar, Helmut Kyrieles, has connected the odd rite of taking model boats to Mary to evidence discovered at another Archaic temple of Hera, at Samos, where similar model boats were also found. The conclusion is that the modern festival of the Lady of the Pomegranate took over and transported an ancient Greek festival of Hera, for whom the pomegranate was a sacred fruit, symbolic of fertility and resurrection, and associated in the most distant past with Hera’s pre-Olympian role as an earth goddess, according to Joan V. O’Brien.
Oddly enough, while the pomegranate continued in folk belief and in the out-of-the-way places far from the mainstream of Greek life, in more central locations, the pomegranate declines in importance or disappears after 600 BCE, when the new theology of the supremacy of Zeus (as promulgated by Hesiod in the Theogony) is firmly established. In the new theology, Hera is subordinate to Zeus and no longer a patron of fertility. And yet there is a continuity of belief on the fringes of the Greek world, as in the former Greek colony at Paestum, where this prehistoric image continues down to the present day.
I find that so much more interesting than imaginary Mary Magdalene cults.
This is of course but one of countless examples: In the late 1800s, you could find Orthodox peasants on Naxos conducting rites for a folk saint called “Zia” at an old sanctuary of Zeus, St. Dionysios replacing Dionysus on Naxos, St. Artemidos for Artemis on Keos, and Charon venerated everywhere in Greece as the ferryman of the dead, as of old. And on it goes.
I chose the example of Hera and the pomegranate because it is both more colorful and more closely related to the iconography of Mary and/or the Magdalene which so fascinates alternative writers. Here we have an instance that the suggestion of a hidden global cult cannot quite explain, for a pagan survival occurs, but not fully and not “masked.” No one goes to the site of the Lady of the Pomegranate to worship Hera in secret; the attributes carried over to the Virgin because someone at some time thought that pomegranate and ship rituals carried some powerful magic and thus added the iconography to the local Virgin.
I wonder if the carryover of Greek iconography doesn’t help explain the phenomenon of the Black Madonna that so fascinates alternative writers, including Scott Wolter, who see these brown or black paintings and statues of the Virgin as secret symbols of a global Isis cult masquerading as Christians. (Again, if that’s the case, then the pomegranate Virgin must prove a secret Hera cult, which nobody believes.) While most Black Madonnas are simply conventional images that have aged badly and darkened with soot and with grime and with time, even some mainstream scholars suspect that pagan imagery lay behind those among the Black Madonnas intentionally painted that color. But how could they represent Greco-Roman earth goddesses at six or seven centuries’ remove from paganism without continuity of imagery between Rome and the High Middle Ages, and with many images in lands never controlled by Rome?
It’s interesting that the Black Madonnas first show up in Europe after the start of the Crusades and thus after an influx of ideas from the Greek east. There, old accounts tell us that the Byzantines had for centuries reused old pagan images as Orthodox icons, renaming the old gods for saints and other figures. The custom continued down to modern times: James Theodore Bent reported in 1885 that at the village of Plaka in the Cyclades, a blackened icon of some kind was found among some rushes, and a church was built upon the spot, with the image receiving the name the Virgin of the Rushes. We know, too, that some images of Greek goddesses were black, representing the fertility of the earth. Pausanias tells us of Demeter Melaine (Demeter the Black), whose cult statue stood at Mt. Elaius (8.42.1), though this was a horse-headed statue in black clothes. Roman images of Diana were sometimes black in color, and Pausanias tells us of an image of Artemis, her Greek equivalent, carved of black stone (10.36.5). A similar statue exists in a Neapolitan museum.
In short, if the Crusaders saw recycled Greco-Roman art and imitated it on occasion when back home, this could account for why “pagan” imagery occurs in medieval churches without any need to appeal to a secret cult of Isis worshipers maintaining a secret font of goddess knowledge under the cover of Marian veneration.
If it could happen with the Lady of the Pomegranate, why not the Black Virgins of “Isis”?
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
Enter your email below to subscribe to my newsletter for updates on my latest projects, blog posts, and activities, and subscribe to Culture & Curiosities, my Substack newsletter.
Terms & Conditions
Please read all applicable terms and conditions before posting a comment on this blog. Posting a comment constitutes your agreement to abide by the terms and conditions linked herein.