Rachel, Mary, and Fatima

Essay Excerpt

The Jewish matriarch Rachel, the Christian Virgin Mary, and the Islamic Fatima al-Zahra are female saints whose cults are located within monotheistic, male-dominated religious traditions. Each of these saints is either the only or the most important female cultic figure within her own tradition. Comparison of the stories and cults of Rachel, Mary, and Fatima reveals two sets of issues. First, on every level of analysis the three figures differ from one another in substantive ways: these saints are associated with dissimilar myths, imagery, and theological notions. Second, all three saints are addressed in rather similar rites for similar purposes. In the ritual sphere three different myth-types within three different theological and cultural frameworks are transformed into intercessors who epitomize and specialize in concrete, human problems.

A number of studies of Mary have appeared during the past half century, yet she has usually been viewed in the context of ancient goddesses rather than of female saints (Bachoffen 1967; Briffault 1927; Harding 1971; Kinsley 1989; Neumann 1963; Walker 1983).2 There have been no major cross-cultural studies of cults of female saints (for studies focusing on the internal life of the female saint rather than on cult, see Ramanujan 1984; Watkins 1983; Weinstein and Bell 1982) and Rachel and Fatima have accordingly received almost no attention in the religious studies or social science literature (on Fatimasee Lammens 1912; Massignon 1955; Veccia Vaglieri 1965; on Rachelsee Lipshitz 1967). While saints are situated somewhere in between the divine and human realms, it is my contention that studies of goddesses are of limited value in helping us understand the phenomenon of female saints. Saints' stories may encompass elements of earlier goddess mythologies, yet saints, unlike goddesses, are mortal beings perceived as possessing neither the ability to create nor to destroy. Furthermore, the active cults of the three saints described in this article developed many centuries after local goddess cults disappeared, making a historical connection difficult to prove. Instead, as I shall argue below, cults of female saints may be better understood in terms of their structural significance within particular cultural contexts. (Sered, 131) 

About the Author

Susan Sered, PhD, has published widely in the fields of medical anthropology, religious studies, and gender studies. She is author of six books and dozens of articles including "Uninsured in America: Life and Death in the Land of Opportunity" (University of California Press, 2005). She currently is studying the health and health care experiences of low wage women and of women in the criminal justice system. Her main interests lie with women's health, culture, illness and healing, anthropology of religion, gender and religion, and criminalized women.

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