Mother Mary, known by many titles

By | May 22, 2009

Honoring Mary dates to the earliest days of the church. The oldest recorded prayer to Mary, the Sub tuum praesidius, can be found on a fourth century Greek papyrus preserved in Manchester, England. It begins, “Mother of God, (hear) my supplications: suffer us not (to be) in adversity, but deliver us from danger.”

Today, we call Mary the “Mother of God” almost automatically. However, that was not always so. And, even though that ancient prayer exists, just one century after it was written down a great controversy arose over calling Mary by this title.

It was the year 428. On one side was Proclus, a bishop in Asia Minor (now part of Turkey), who publicly praised Mary as Theotokos — which in Greek means “God-bearer.” On the other side was the Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius.

Nestorius objected to the title, Theotokos, because he felt it implied that God had needed a human birth and a human pregnancy like anyone else. For Nestorius, Mary had only given birth to Christ’s human body. Nestorius felt Christ was more accurately two persons: one human and one divine. Therefore, Mary could only be the mother of the human person.

Nestorius put it this way: “Everywhere in Scripture, it is preached that the Virgin is the mother of the child, not of the divinity. The divinity is without mother and Mary has born — not the divinity — but a man, organ of the divinity and its temple.”

Proclus did not agree and argued that to deny that Mary was the mother of God made Man, was to deny that Jesus was truly God and truly human. Proclus said that the title Theotokos acknowledged the true divinity, as well as the unity of Christ’s person. (As we say, two natures in one person.)

The controversy grew and led to the calling of the Council of Ephesus in 431. This council denounced Nestorius as a heretic and removed him from power. (Proclus was named Patriarch of Constantinople three years later.) The council also confirmed Mary as Theotokos, a title she has retained ever since. This was clarified further by the Council of Chalcedon, 20 years later, in its assertion about Christ’s two natures — divine and human. (It is from these two councils that we have the creed which we say at Mass.)

Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Redemptoris Mater (Mother of the Redeemer), said of Ephesus: “The dogma of the divine motherhood of Mary was for the Council of Ephesus, and is for the church, like a seal upon the dogma of the Incarnation, in which the Word truly assumes human nature into the unity of his person, without canceling out that nature.”

The Eastern church more often uses the title Theotokos for Mary than we do in the Western (Latin rite) church. There are a few other titles for Mary, common in the Eastern church, that we might be interested in knowing:

Meter Theou. This Greek phrase literally means “Mother of God.” It is found on nearly all religious icons of Mary in the standard iconographic abbreviation of ?? ??. Next time you look at the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, you might look for this title in the upper part of the background.

Hodegetria. This title means “She who shows the way.” In nearly every Eastern rite icon of Mary, the child Jesus is present — since Christ is the center of faith. When Mary is portrayed as “She who shows the way,” she is depicted as gesturing toward Jesus. Legend says that the original icon of this type was written (saying “painted” is not correct for the making of icons) by St. Luke. The famous Black Madonna, Our Lady of Czestochowa, is in the Hodegetria style.

Aeiparthenos. This title for Mary proclaims her “Ever-virgin.” The lesser title of parthenos, meaning “the virgin,” was applied in earlier times to the Greek goddess, Athena. This is how the Parthenon in Athens got its name, referring to the city’s patron goddess. 

Panagia. This means “All holy” or “most holy.” When Mary is represented on an icon as Panagia, she is shown full length, standing with hands lifted upward, in what is called the orans position. The Christ child is also shown, in a circle in front of Mary’s heart. The icon is meant to represent the moment of Christ’s conception. This icon is sometimes called “Our Lady of the Sign.”

Achrantos. In speaking of Mary, we often refer to her Immaculate Conception. The Eastern churches often call Mary Achrantos, which is Greek for “pure” or “spotless.”

Nikopoia. This title refers to Mary as “the bringer of victory.” Icons of this type date to fifth century Constantinople and show Mary enthroned in the robes of an empress, with her feet on an imperial footstool. On her lap is the Christ Child, the Victor. In icons of the adult Christ, the Greek word NIKA often appears, and refers to Christ as the conqueror or victor.

In honoring Mary, by her many titles, during this particular month of May, we also honor her son, whose victorious Ascension we celebrate on May 21.

Sources: University of Dayton at;; “The Catholic Encyclopedia;” “Dictionary of Mary;” “Modern Catholic Encyclopedia;” “Our Sunday Visitor’s Encyclopedia of Catholic History;” and the “Catechism of the Catholic Church.”


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