A Great article by John Elder Sydney Morning Herald
Mother’s Day explained: The cards, the flowers – the myths, the motivations
Flowers, perfume, chocolates and lunch. That sounds more like a hot date than something you do with your mother. Was Mother’s Day invented by Oedipus the ancient king who married his mum and ruined all he knew?
Perhaps Oedipus as a little boy served his mother breakfast in bed, was encouraged by her rapture and it all went pear-shaped from there. For Oedipus, every day was mother’s day – but he existed (mythically, anyway) at a time when mother goddesses held sway.
The rise of the all-powerful mother goddess began in Phrygia, what is now western Turkey, in the form of Cybele, known as the Mountain Mother, who was thought to take the form of a black meteorite – a lump of rock that had fallen from the sky. She was represented in statues as a matronly-looking woman sitting on a throne (the oldest of which goes back 8000 years) and celebrated in violent orgiastic rites.
The Greeks adopted Cybele around 600 BC. But the wild celebrations were toned down and she was conflated with other female goddesses – including Demeter, who nearly caused the world to freeze and starve when her daughter Persephone was kidnapped and taken to the underworld by Hades. Demeter was worshipped in a women-only festival that included a ritual of carrying torches, signifying the mother’s search for her lost daughter.
The Romans, following a prophecy, decided that possessing Cybele’s earthly form – that black lump of rock – was key to them winning the second Punic war.
None of that sounds warm, soft and mothery. Did Mary, the Virgin Mother of God, wipe those pagan frauds from the face of the earth, assert gentler virtues more worthy of celebration and otherwise put the “mum” in chrysanthemum?
There’s an argument without end that the powerful pagan goddesses – whose priests were squealing eunuchs – were transformed into the elevated but passive Virgin Mary. In 2008, Philippe Borgeaud, professor of the history of religion at the University of Geneva, published a book Mother of the Gods: From Cybele to the Virgin Mary that found plenty of commonality between Cybele (Mother of the gods) and Mary but gave the thumbs down to Mary having god-like status.
A feminist reading has it that Mary has served as a figurehead for a cult of motherhood that has put women on a pedestal – to be cherished, honoured but afforded no real power.
Jesus, you can’t conflate feminism and Mother’s Day! Who the hell wants to wear sensible shoes to brunch?
The Mother’s Day we celebrate today has feminist roots – and had nothing to do with mums putting their feet up and downing a plate of soggy, kid-fried pikelets. In the 1850s, a West Virginian women’s organiser, Anna Reeves Jarvis, established Mother’s Work Day clubs to improve sanitary conditions and lower infant mortality. When the US Civil War broke out, the women’s groups tended to injured soldiers from both sides of the conflict.
After the war, Jarvis and company organised Mother’s Friendship Day picnics as part of a pacifist campaign. The aim was to unite former enemies. The campaign ramped up in 1870 when suffragist poet Julia Ward Howe – ironically, the composer of The Battle Hymn of the Republic – issued a widely read “Mother’s Day Proclamation” that called for women to stage rallies and otherwise take an active political role in promoting peace.
The proclamation included the lines: “Our husbands shall not come to us reeking of carnage/For caresses and applause.”
So Mother’s Day started out as a sex strike?? That explains the flowers and chocolates: use the kids to butter up mum for a bit of…
No, no. The commercialisation of Mother’s Day was the unintended consequence of a successful campaign by Anna Reeve Jarvis’s daughter – also named Anna – to establish an annual celebration of motherhood. On May 10, 1908, a special service was held in a Grafton, West Virginia church which has since been renamed as the International Mother’s Day Shrine. Other cities caught the bug.
Finally, after a campaign of intense lobbying, US president Woodrow Wilson set aside the second Sunday in May 1914 as an official Mother’s Day holiday.
The business community, seeing great opportunity jumped on board and so began the ritual of giving flowers, candy and cards. Anna Jarvis was appalled and, in a bid to return the holiday to its religious roots, formed the Mother’s Day International Association. She organised boycotts, threatened lawsuits,and crashed conventions. On one occasion she physically attacked first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, who had turned Mother’s Day into a fund raising event for charity.
Jarvis continued fighting the commercialisation of Mother’s Day up until she was placed in a sanitarium in the 1940s, suffering dementia. Visitors no doubt had the good sense not to take her roses.
May 8, 2016 –
Senior Reporter for The Sunday Age
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