The worship of Jesus' mother appears quite an anomaly in christianity: Mary appears to be a very important female character, called "mother of god" in one of the most famous Christian prayers. This is the reason why some scholars saw in her worship a more or less important remainder of paganism. This happened especially in the United States where there are some wiccan groups who consider Mary as the goddess or as one of the goddess shapes or manifestations; this opinion showed up also in European pagan or wiccan groups who follow the USA line.
We can understand easily why this happened in United States, because this country was born on a mixture of cultures among which the Protestant one rules: I'm underlining this feature because one of the most important charges made by Protestants to Catholics at the time of the schism was that Catholics adopted some features and even practices from the pagan graeco-roman world and gave them a continuity instead of replace them with what they called vera religio, the true religion, that is Christianity. The sentence we quoted just a minute ago, that Mary is the "mother of god" began to be used just at the time of the schism: in fact, according to the Council of Trent, this sentence had been written by the church itself and had been first used in the Roman Breviary by Pius V in 1568 during the Feast of annunciation and then ratified after the battle of Lepanto in 1571. The prayer in which the expression appears is also a late prayer: it has been dated at about the IV century, and this should lead us to think that it's actually the result of the absorption of pagan cults.
But, the question is: how much can we really talk of pagan remainders in mariology? Is really true that Mary can be compared to the "Mother of the Gods"?
First of all we must distinguish the use of the goddess iconography, that means the adoptions of the ways in which a goddess is represented, from the adoption of her worship. Most of the confusion between these two facets of the problem is due to the heavy penetration of Christianity in people's way of thinking, that causes people to look at the pagan antiquity through a Christian worldview, implying that the divine expressed by each religion is considered the expression of one same thing. This happens also when someone says that the worship of saints gives to Catholicism a polytheistic underlayer. Actually, the concept of deity is the same only in monotheistic religions: just the fact that the gods are inside the phenomena of the world and not outside them, makes the gods different from the Christian god. Both Isis and Mary are mothers and often represented while holding their children in their arms, but this doesn't mean that there is the same philosophical and religious conception behind these two figures. The low regard some people have for this conception leads them to say that the worship of Mary and the worship of pagan goddesses is just the same.
Let's stop a while on Isis. There are many versions of the myth of the birth of Horus from his mother Isis, included the one without any sexual referral in it. When Seth killed Osiris and tore his body apart, scattering it across Egypt, Isis looked for her husband's body and found every piece but the genitals so, since her magick could not keep him alive much long, she made a gold penis, to make love with him and so Horus was conceived. Isis, together with Cybele, is one of the goddesses whose iconography helped Christians a lot to construct images of Mary, but whose temples were destroyed and covered by churches. There are four temples of Isis in Italy laying under Christian churches dedicated to S. Stephen; in Italy there are also two churches called of "St. Mary over Minerva", built on sites sacred to the goddess. This has a strong symbolic meaning: to defeat a goddess like Isis, who has really become a Great Goddess, with the help of neoplatonic ideas as we'll see later, Christians needed to underline the supremacy of the male, while to defeat a wise, strong, independent goddess like Minerva, christians needed to set against her the image of a submissive and chaste woman who is at the same time human but passive receptacle of non-human. A woman who lacks of that sensual element that Christians felt they couldn't control. No continuity here, but an explicit exchange of an idea with its opposite. Therefore, there's no reason why we should think that one figure has absorbed the others.
We must say that in this process some pagans helped a lot. I refer to some philosophers, from Plato to the neoplatonic ones, and to some heavily misogynic poets like Hesiod. Christians refer to them when they want to deny female sexuality and compare it to the role model offered by Mary. These philosophers introduced the idea of the One from which everything derives, including male and female gender (while Heraclitus' idea of formation and dissolution is the idea of united opposites generating a dynamic harmony, very close to one of the pillars of Baltic paganism, the idea of darna). This was not a problem for paganism at those times, but these ideas were imposed as "high" culture for political reasons, because these philosophers belonged to the dominant aristocratic circles. It's a problem for modern paganism, because neoplatonism was so involved in Christianity that it's now someway dirty with it and today we can't read a neoplatonic work without seeing Christianity in it. There are Pagans today that prefer to distinguish paganism, that is every prechristian religion closer to the original, from neoplatonism; others consider the neoplatonic ideas as the highest top of paganism of which they are the philosophic theory.
Actually neoplatonism changed paganism and while Plotin wanted to make paganism more resistant to Christianity, in facts neplatonism handed paganism to Christianity, at the point that we believe we can see residuals of paganism in the worship of Mary.
Because of Neoplatonic ideas about the One, ideas that spread in cultured classes who wanted to be a defense line for paganism, all goddesses from polytheistic pantheons begun to be considered aspects of a unique goddess or, better, of a unique divine, which was understood as male or female from time to time only in popular and folk culture (and this was considered a mistake the cultured ones must avoid). This is not like the interpretatio, which is a translation of divine figures from one culture to another, this is more a unification, making everyone the same, the One. From neoplatonism comes also the expression "mother of god" (we must keep in mind that the Council of Trent comes after the cultural explosion of the Renaissance), but when this expression began to be used in the prayer, it has already become harmless because it was no more related to the Pagan Mother of the gods or to christian minorities. At the beginning, the worship of Mary has been promoted in order to put the accent on the human nature of Christ, set against the monophysitism, the belief in the only divine nature of Christ, so Mary had to be considered the mother of the man, opposed also to Pagan myths where the children of mortals and gods became gods themselves at the end of their exploit.
So we can't consider Mary as some kind of fertility goddess, and we can't deceive ourselves with the belief that there is still paganism under the cover of Christianity. This happens often in the United States, where a protestant worldview rules, considering Catholicism quite "pagan", but we pagans must understand that this behavior of Catholicism caused the worst damages: it substituted paganism in people's minds without denying it so strongly, so it's more difficult to free ourselves from its worldview.
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