The Name of Mary

Today, on the 12th of September, the Roman Church celebrates the Feast of the Most Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary that was instituted in 1684 by Pope Innocent XI to commemorate the victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The collect for this feast goes as follows:

Grant, we beseech You, almighty God, that through the protection of the most holy Virgin Mary, Your faithful people who delight in her name may, by her loving intercession, be delivered from all evils on earth and be found worthy to attain everlasting happiness in heaven. Through Jesus Christ, thy Son our Lord, Who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end.

What is the meaning of the name “Mary”? Historically, it most probably comes from Hebrew Maryam, which in Hebrew itself has undergone change to Miryam (short a in a closed syllable has been reduced to i) and the Biblical character best known to us under this name is, of course, Miriam, the sister of Moses. In Aramaic, however, the name remained in its original form: Maryam. And it is in this form that it made it into the Greek text of the Gospels, where we find it transcribed as Μαριάμ, although only in the Nominative case, because in other cases the final -μ is dropped to make room for inflectional endings (e.g. Genitive Μαρίας). And here the etymological Odyssey really takes off the ground.

To be fair, there is no certain etymology of the name of Mary. It has been suggested that it has very ancient Egyptian origins in the word mr signifying ‘love’, but it’s still difficult to determine what would be the meaning of the other –m (or –ym for that matter) attached to the root. As with many things whose origins are clouded by their antiquity, Maryam has become open for various interpretations. Already the Jewish tradition ascribes to the name of Miriam various meanings correlated to her role in the story of Exodus. Her name is connected to the root mar which means ‘bitterness’, since the Hebrews were enslaved to a bitter toil in the service of the Egyptians; or to mar meaning ‘a drop of water’ due to her relationship to Moses’ being placed in a basket on the Nile, or due to her singing praises of the Lord in consequence of His deliverance of Israel through the Red Sea; or to Hebrew meri ‘rebellion’, since she rebelled against Moses in the desert. So we can see that there exists already a long tradition of symbolic interpretation of the name.

With Mary, the mother of Jesus, the search for meaning reaches a new level. E.g. there are some attempts at seeking the Hebrew etymology of the name by analyzing it as mar-yam, i.e. ‘a drop of the sea’. It was rendered in Latin as stilla maris and by copyist’s error turned into the well-known Marian title Stella Maris – ‘The Star of the Sea’, which fitted nicely with Mary’s role as a guide to God, helping the faithful to orient themselves to God among the storms of life. However, as I mentioned, in Greek and subsequently in Latin the name was rendered in the form of Maria, without the final –m, and as it was ‘read’ back into Aramaic, it has been related to the root mry ‘to lord over, to dominate’ from which the Aramaic-Syriac title of Jesus – Marya’ ‘the Lord’ – is derived. So, accordingly, Mary became understood as meaning Lady or Mistress, which already had entered Christian imagination as she was the mother of the Lord (Luke 1:43), a preeminently royal figure. By the way, it is possible that the name Maryam was already thought of as meaning Lady in the times of Jesus, since we encounter a similar one, namely Marta’ (known best to us in the English form of Martha), signifying exactly that: Lady or Mistress. The two names could have been considered as similar in sound and meaning, and both seem to be popular in the 1st century Palestine (this popularity even has been epitomized in the evangelical sisters Mary and Martha of Bethany).

When the name of Mary enters the Latin Church tradition, it also receives a new theological interpretation. As some of you may know, mare means in Latin ‘sea’ and maria is the word’s plural form – ‘seas’. And so, St. Louis de Montfort writes (True Devotion to Mary, 23):

God the Father made an assemblage of all the waters, and He named it the sea (mare). He has made an assemblage of all His graces, and He has called it Mary (Maria).

There are still many more interpretations of Mary’s name more or less reflecting theological insights of the authors contemplating the person of the Virgin. But why do these authors even bother to elaborate on this topic, especially that often they suggest several meanings of the name at once?

This is really simple. There is an ancient notion that a name somehow encapsulates the significance of the person bearing it, it summarizes the person’s character, role, fame, achievement, calling etc. So when various authors try to explain the name of Mary, they really try to say something theologically true about her. Therefore we shouldn’t dismiss their explanations despite their lack of etymological accuracy, because it’s not the point. The point is to meditate upon the mission that the Mother of God has been entrusted with, to reflect on who she is before God and before us. To be aware of these various interpretations of her name can be a great aid to a focused and fruitful prayer, such as Ave Maria. Whenever you call upon her name, you realize that you are invoking a person, whose significance is all that the spiritual masters have said about her name.

She is the handmaid of the Lord, who became a servant, but who through His humility earned for the human nature the share in His own divine glory (Philippians 2:5-11). As Jesus Christ is the Lord to the glory of God the Father, so Mary is the first to share in His glory – she is confessed as the Lady to the glory of Jesus Christ, because she is His masterpiece. Blessed be the name of Mary, Virgin and Mother!

Tolkienian intersubjective realism

Not long ago I was listening to a lecture devoted to Tolkien’s artistic languages such as Quenya or Sindarin that he created for his Legendarium of the Middle Earth. I have long been an avid reader of everything that came from Tolkien’s imagination and it has formed to a significant degree my own thinking and deepest intuitions. So as I was listening to this lecture it suddenly dawned on me that there is a very firm philosophical foundation underlying Tolkien’s philological creativity and as you dive deeper into Tolkien’s understanding of language, this philosophy takes over your own sensibilities. But first a bit of philosophical introduction.

Since the late Middle Ages we inhabit an increasingly nominalist worldview, i.e. we very often think that the names we attach to things are a consequence of arbitrary categorization by our minds and therefore this categorization is not inherent to the things themselves. E.g. we call things green not because the things we consider green have an inherent “greenness” that can be discerned within them, but because we arbitrarily lump together things that could be categorized differently and equally legitimately. Long story short, the resulting worldview is strongly subjective and relativistic. The “name” of a thing is a question of convention.

What is striking in Tolkien’s approach to language creation is that he insists that there is a certain fittingness of the sounds he settles for to name a thing. In the course of his designing of Quenya and Sindarin he repeatedly changed and adjusted forms of the words he had come up with so that they expressed better the meanings they were supposed to convey. The idea was that e.g. the Quenya word alda expresses in the most beautiful manner the “treeness” of the thing it designates, i.e. a tree. Tolkien constantly looked for sounds that would serve the meaning best and this quest of his was grounded in what he termed as “euphony” or “phonoaesthetics”. According to this idea the sounds of human language have a potential for beauty and for an appropriate expression of meanings.

In other words in Tolkien’s language creation we encounter a different worldview in which rational creatures are capable of naming things in accordance with their nature. The world is filled not with disparate entities, but by beings that have something real in common – certain natures – and language really attempts at reflecting these natures in a fitting way. This vision gains an especially attractive embodiment in Tolkien’s description of the elves, for the elves excel at naming things euphonically, that is with a beautiful and appropriate sounds. A language, however, is not a private enterprise but a common good, shared and used by all. Here emerges the idea of intersubjective realism. It’s true that an elf can consider a certain string of sounds as appropriate for a thing, but for a word to enter the common vocabulary it has to be approved by the community. So the sense of the beauty of particular sounds experienced by one rational creature is confronted by the sense of beauty of other creatures. This way the whole community discerns the proper names for things and comes at a phnoaesthetic consensus (usually by acclamation, in Tolkien’s world).

The things therefore have natures, these natures are accessible by reason and especially by an aesthetic “taste” of a person, and they can be expressed in a concerted intersubjective effort of rational creatures to name them. This is a beautiful literary embodiment of philosophical realism. When I first stumbled upon Tolkien’s works in my early teenage years I didn’t know a thing about realisms and nominalisms, but this Tolkienian vision of reality and its relationship to rational creatures so artfully turned into a narrative in his Legendarium made great impression on me back then. Only today I am able to recognize its influence on my thinking and reasoning, and especially on the first principles of my thinking as well, as on my philosophical “taste”. This proves how truly great literature is essential to laying down unconscious foundations of personality that will sustain it through the course of a person’s life. Many a time these unconscious foundations saved me from an existential crisis and I don’t doubt they will do this again in the future.

As we commemorated Tolkien’s death almost a week ago (2nd of September), it is appropriate at this point to say with thanksgiving this short prayer for him:

Requiem aeternam dona ei, Domine, et lux perpetua luceat ei. Requiescat in pace. Amen.

Or perhaps in Quenya:

Oia sérë á anta sen, Héru, ar oia cala nai sen caluva tennoio. Nai seruva sívessë. Násië.