A Strange Salutation
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. (Luke 1:26-29 NRSV)
The encounter of Mary and the angel, traditionally called the Annunciation, is celebrated as a feast in many Christian religions. In medieval England it was considered the New Year. We must try, difficult though it may be, in reading about this encounter, to attend to the words themselves and not be overhasty in the meaning we ascribe to them. The Gospel of Luke is perhaps the most narratively satisfying of the four gospels, for it contains some of the stories most loved and celebrated by Christians. But because we love this story, we are likely, in our excitement and flights of devotion, to overlook meanings hidden in broad daylight.
As Mary is pondering what sort of greeting this might be, the angel continues,
Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end (1:30-33).
We want to take note of something here. This is the point at which Christians start getting excited. The Annunciation is a feast of what Christians call the Incarnation – the becoming-human of God by “taking on flesh.” The incarnation is indeed central to Christianity. But nothing of the sort is stated here in our story. The word “incarnation” does not come up in our text – or any text of the bible for that matter. To one who does not already believe in the Trinity or Incarnation (perhaps with John 1:1-18 in mind), there is no reason to suppose that it is God who will be born of Mary. After all, all we have thus far been told is that Mary has found favor with God. She will conceive and bear a son. He will be great, and will be called “Son of the Most High.”
Mary is predictably, once more, confused. She asks the innocuous question, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34), to which the angel has a ready response:
The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born [of you] will be holy; he will be called Son of God (1:35).
Once again, we have a strange utterance. The child to be born of Mary will be holy and will be called “Son of God.” And there is, once again, no suggestion that the babe will be God. Holy: yes. Son of God: yes. But God Himself – this is not promised by the angel. To one who does not already believe that “Son of God” means “God Himself,” all we know is this: God is going to father a son on Mary, who up to this point, has been a virgin and who is, by the way, betrothed to someone else. And like all Sons of Gods, this child will be a great king and hero.
A Golden Shower
And at a first glance, there is really nothing surprising about this story. It is strange, in the way all myths, folk-, and fairy-tales are strange. But not really surprising. It smacks of other Near Eastern myths wherein gods father children. For instance, in Greek mythology sometimes gods mate with other gods and beget children. Sometimes it is obvious what such couplings might mean. Of course the Sky (Ouranos) is married to the Earth (Gaia) – when he “rains” down on her, he makes her fertile and she bears “fruit.” Sometimes the pairings are more abstract, as when Strife (Ares) joins with Attraction (Aphrodite) to father Desire (Eros). It is easy to see, then, how some of these generative myths are allegorical. But there are also myths about gods fathering sons on mortal women. And these are somewhat harder to make sense of.
For instance, in the story of Danaë, Danaë is a virgin princess who is locked in a tower by her paranoid father, King Acrisius, who has learned from an oracle that he is to be overthrown by his daughter’s son. To prevent her from having any contact with men, and thereby conceiving his rival, Acrisius locks Danaë in a tower with no doors or windows, but only a high skylight for light and air. From above, Zeus, King and Father of the Gods, is captivated by her beauty and decides to seduce her. He does so by raining down through the skylight upon Danaë as a shower of gold coins. From this mysterious encounter, Danaë conceives and is found scandalously to be with child.
Do we not have here a sort of Greek Annunciation? Zeus (whose name simply means “God”) literally “overshadows” Danaë as a shower of gold coins and she conceives and bears a son, Theseus, who becomes the heroic king of the Athenians. Does this not explain the strangeness of the Annunciation? Can we not make sense of it by simply admitting that here, we have one more instance of a God fathering a son on a human woman; that this sort of thing has (at least in the imagination) happened before?
Christians fall into two general groups. The first group, more common in ancient and medieval times, deny there is any similarity between these two cases. The early Christians seemed to think that there was no truth, or else vanishingly little, to be found in the Greek myths. Mostly, they thought that they were stories made up by perverse poets to give license to obscene sexual behavior – for instance, coupling with gold coins. That the germ of their own religion might be found in such feverish fantasies never occurred to them.
The second group, more common today, admit that there is a similarity between the pagan myths and Christianity with one significant difference – that Christianity is actually true. Our “Myth,” so some say, became “Fact.” There is a historical dimension to Christianity not possessed by any other ancient religion. The difference between the “annunciation” to Danaë and the Annunciation to Mary, is that the Annunciation to Mary actually happened. Christianity is based on a historical fact and a historical person, while the Greek myths are not.
I do not wish to go into all the difficulties of this position, though there are plenty enough. 1 What I will say is that this is an example of how Christians sometimes get excited and jump to overhasty conclusions when reading their holy texts. These kinds of Christians are always trying to force a decision. Either Christianity cannot be like any other religion, or it can, but that doesn’t matter because it’s actually true. We are finished forcing a truth value onto the utterance before we’ve even come to the end of the gospel lection.
Suffice it to say, that the stories are superficially similar. And they are also different. But what is different about them is not simply that one “actually happened,” while the other was made up. What is different is how the events in each story happen and what that means to Christian and pagan believers. It is not merely that they are different that is significant – it is literally how.
How Can This Be?
We would do well to start with the question “how,” for it is Mary herself who asks the question: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (1:34) The Greek reads, πως εσται τουτο επει ανδρα ου γινωσκω: How will this be since I know not a man/husband? Mary is not ignorant. She, like us, knows where babies come from: how they are made. In saying she does not know a man, she is not claiming to have no male acquaintances. She is claiming to not be in any sexual relationships from which she could get pregnant. We know what goes into making a baby; or rather, we know what must go into a woman before she can conceive a baby.
Might not all this apply to Danaë? Could she not have wondered to herself, having become pregnant, “How could that be, since I knew not a man?” But then… there was that funny business about that golden shower that felt so delightful, and that bit of spare change still lodged in my crotch this morning. I suppose it had something to do with that.
It is here that we run up against the salient difference between the two narratives. The striking difference between the story of the annunciation to Mary and her conception and the story of Danaë and her conception is not merely that the one is “true” and the other “false.” It is that in one we can ask the question “How?” and in the former we cannot. Or rather, we do not ask it. It does not occur to Christians to ask how in the case of Mary.
The Annunciation and the Golden Shower of Danaë are both popular subjects for painting. We might say that these images are icons – or ikons, if you like. Though their subject matter is often historical in nature, the point of religious artwork is not representational (the same way photographs and portraits are) but pedagogical. When we look at a piece of religious art, we are not (at least in theory) trying to figure out what “really” happened. The proper way to examine religious art is not necessarily to get caught up in details but to pay attention to structure. This is true at least of Christian ikons. The Greeks, who were polytheists as well as idolaters, may have had quite different uses for their religious images. But we can still imagine, generously, that what we have said was largely true for them as well and can therefore treat images of Danaë as pagan ikons.
So if we wish to see the salient difference between the two stories, it makes sense to consult their ikons. We may start with paintings of Danaë.
Notice how in the painting above, Danaë och guldregnet by Adolf Ulrich Wertmüller, like in any Annunciation painting, there is the woman and the angel (in this case cupid). Something mysterious is going on, for rays of gold are falling down upon her as she lays back in ecstasy. This painting, despite Danaë’s naked body and bare breasts, is in fact chaste and restrained. For there are other paintings far more explicit about what is happening. Take for instance a somewhat disturbing anonymous German painting from the late 18th century.
In this painting, a more acute shower of gold coins falls directly onto Danaë’s womb as she lays back, a satisfied look on her face, and she is seemingly lulled by her nurse. (Btw, nurses are always lascivious enablers in these kind of stories). Another painting by Andrea Casali gets straight to the point, that is straight to the crotch.
One more painting should suffice to give us a sense for what is happening. A late medieval painting by Jan Gossaert (1478-1532) shows Danaë draped in blue with a shower of gold coins falling directly between her legs as she herself looks on, a dazed look on her face.
What should, of course, strike us as so stunning about this painting, is that Danaë is draped in blue, the traditional color of the Virgin Mary in western religious art. The setting of Danaë’s seduction is also similar to those of many Annunciation paintings. We can compare it even to other works by Gossaert, for instance, a Madonna from 1516.
The Virgin’s right breast is also often left exposed (for she has been breastfeeding), just as Danae’s right breast is exposed in Gossaert’s painting. In fact, it is easy to see how, if the gold shower were replaced by a child, and Danaë covered up a bit, she could be a Madonna, even in another of Gosseart’s paintings.
It may have been somewhat sacrilegious to depict Danaë this way. But the similarity of the subject matter obviously impressed Gossaert, as it impresses us. The question then becomes, should it impress us in this way?
The Swan or the Egg?
What do all of these paintings have to do with the Annunciation and Mary’s question: how can this be? Certainly it makes sense that medieval and renaissance painters would, having long painted Madonnas, been impressed by the story of Danaë, and painted her accordingly. That explains why some such paintings are suggestive of the Annunciation. But need we read into that? What’s all that got to do with the question “how did it happen?” One thing that is obvious about the paintings of Danaë we have examined is how they play at sexuality. The shower of gold coins is a metaphor for Zeus, but it is obviously Zeus who enters Danaë and impregnates her. Hence why the gold coins fall toward her vagina, sometimes in an alarming jet. That Zeus is meant by the gold coins is clear from paintings where he is explicitly shown.
Or as in the following painting by Jonas Hoffman wherein Zeus is literally an old man from whom gold coins fall.
There is, then, no real mystery surrounding Danaë’s pregnancy. For myth gives way to metaphor, and it is clearly Zeus who has gotten her pregnant – old though he may be. The golden shower may have been a kinky part of the sex, but the sex is as we would expect. Naturally, for we have been standing on formality for the sake of chastity. We know what the Greek gods were like – particularly their king and father.
Anytime we ask the question “how?” we are asking about efficient causality. That is, we are asking about cause and effect. We want to know what cause effected some occurrence. If we say A caused B, we are saying that B happened if and only if A happened; just because A happened, B happened. It seems to have taken some time for humans to figure out that sex causes pregnancy, but they did eventually figure it out. It probably helped to watch their newly cultivated livestock.
To ask how Danaë got pregnant is a little like asking which came first: the chicken or the egg? Or in a related case, the swan or the egg. For another myth in which Zeus fathers children on a mortal woman is that of Leda and the Swan – another popular subject for painting. In this myth, Zeus seduces Leda in the form of a swan the same night she sleeps with her husband Tyndareus. Subsequently she lays two eggs out of which hatch two children each. Two of the children (it is not clear which) belong to Zeus, and the other two to Tyndareus.
In this case, we know what came first (pun intended) – it was obviously the swan, for Leda lays eggs. Although she goes on to have sex with her husband (who doubtlessly has no idea who or what has recently been with his deviant wife) there is no doubt that the swan played a causal role in the generation, or hatching, of her young.
I have said that there is a superficial similarity between the myths of Danaë and the golden shower, Leda and the swan, and the Annunciation to Mary. I have also claimed they are different, yet I have denied that this difference lies in that one is grounded in history while the others are merely myths. What then, is the difference?
Suppose for a moment that the stories of Danaë and Leda were certainly true. That is, they actually happened, while the story of Mary was false. Suppose Leda and Danaë were real women and they were telling the truth and really did have an extraordinary experience with a swan or golden shower, (as opposed to an encounter with the pool boy or milk man as we previously supposed). What would we learn? We know that sexual activity of a certain kind is the efficient cause of pregnancy. And sex with a bird and a pile of money is a kind of sexual activity. What we would learn is that this kind of sexual activity counts as an efficient cause of pregnancy.
Suppose that the story of Leda and Danaë were meant to explain something to us – a previously unexplained pregnancy. When their gynecologists interviewed them and checked thoroughly for anything out of the ordinary, they would perhaps find a penny or down feather where it oughtn’t be – and then we’d know. It would be gross and bizarre, but we would not wonder at it. For we would simply be adding to our knowledge of sexuality. We would know that the world is just like that; that this sort of thing just sometimes happens. We would move on to the next kinky scandal.
A Monstrous Birth
But that is not all we would learn from the story of Danaë and Leda. For suppose that all of the myth were true. That is, suppose there really was a God named Zeus who in the guise of a swan, or shower of gold, and anything else you can imagine, impregnated mortal women. Would this not be a cause for wonder? Apparently not. For the Greek themselves seemed to hardly take not of how strange it was. On the contrary, one gets the impression they rather expected it. For as we mentioned, “that sort of thing” just happened sometimes. In fact, the story of Danaë and Leda might be part of a larger explanatory framework explaining where strange or exceptional children come from – they are fathered by the gods.
Hesiod (c. 750-650 BCE) seemed to have this in mind in Theogony:
Now sing, Olympian Muses, daughters of Zeus / Who holds the aegis, sing the company / Of goddesses who lay with mortal men / And bore them children who were like the gods.
The evolution of Greek religion, seems to have been especially concerned with tracing the divine lineage of their heroic ancestors. The divine achievements of previous generations stood in need of divine explanation, and so it was given – the gods hooked up with humans.
An Unsightly Intruder
I have said that there is a superficial similarity between the myth of Danaë and the Golden Shower and the Annunciation to the Blessed Virgin. I have claimed they are different, yet I have denied that this difference lies in the belief that one is grounded in history while the other is merely a myth.
Blah Blah Blah
1 One such difficulty is that it while seemingly putting Christianity on a firm foundation, it unwittingly buys into the materialist thesis that only material facts in space-time can be “true” thereby doing more harm than good for Christianity’s case.