Cakes, Collyrids, Communion, and Challah
The term “Collyridian” was used to refer to a very early Christian sect, said to be exclusively female, that looked upon Mary as their main deity and worshipped her, baking and offering her little cakes, or “collyrids.” This interesting bit of information comes from the writings of an early church father, St. Epiphanius of Salamis, writing near the end of the 4th century CE. His feeling was that the cult originated in Thrace and upper Scythia, but was also found in Arabia. He considered the cult to be foolish and idolatrous and included it on his list of heretical sects. It should be noted that Thrace (modern-day Bulgaria and northern Greece), Scythia (the Ukraine and southern Russia), and Arabia were all places where goddess worship of some kind flourished. In particular, the worship of Astarte/Anat and Isis was quite widespread at that time.
Some writers note that the Collyridians worshipped Mary as the Queen of Heaven—which definitely links her to the goddesses Inanna, Ishtar, Astarte, Isis, Hera, and others—and also mention that the Collyridians ordained women as priests.
St Epiphanius had this to say:
"What happens is that certain women decorate a chair or a square stool, spread out upon it a fine linen cloth, and on a certain day of the year put out bread and offer it as a sacrifice in Mary's name. All the women partake of the bread.... Whether these idle women offer the small loaf to Mary herself in worship of her, or whether they make this worthless offering on her behalf, the whole thing is ridiculous.”
When I read this I was immediately reminded of the Jerusalem Temple’s bread offerings (mentioned in my last blog post)—the Shewbread/Presence Bread that was offered weekly to the (feminine) Presence of God, Wisdom, and eaten by the priests on the Sabbath. I felt strongly that this practice and that of the Collyridians had to be related.
After all, it is known by Jeremiah’s reproof to the people that it was the custom for women to bake “cakes for the Queen of Heaven,” pour libations to her, and pray to her.
"Seest thou not what they do in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem? The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger." (Jeremiah 7:17–18)
And it’s known by the people’s response to him that this was a long established part of their religious practice.
"But we will certainly do whatsoever thing goeth forth out of our own mouth, to burn incense unto the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto her, as we have done, we, and our fathers, our kings, and our princes, in the cities of Judah, and in the streets of Jerusalem, for then we had plenty of victuals and were well and saw no evil..." (Jeremiah 44:17)
It is known that in the original, pre-captivity Jerusalem temple, bread offerings were made to the Divine Presence (later referred to as the Shekhinah)—the Divine Feminine in her form of “Wisdom,” who originally was Asherah or Astarte. (1). This was most likely the origin of the shewbread offerings, which continued on into the second temple although Asherah and Astarte were gone by then, their cults having been violently removed from Temple practice just before the Babylonian captivity, with the feminine “Wisdom” being turned into an abstract principle and facet of the (now) supreme male deity.
After the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans and many of the Israelite people scattered to other lands, the bread offerings continued in the form of the challah bread of the Sabbath, a rite which continues to this day. I find it interesting that the Sabbath is often referred to as a queen and a bride.
But in the branch of Judaism that became early Christianity the practice of bread offerings was continued in the form of the Holy Eucharist—the body and blood of Christ, who was seen as Wisdom, an incarnation of the Divine (and previously feminine) Wisdom.
I think it highly likely that the original Collyridians simply carried on this very ancient custom of making bread offerings to the Divine Feminine—Wisdom, the Holy Spirit, the Goddess—who in the Christian era had come to be seen as being embodied by Mary, mother of Jesus.
Nothing else is known of the Collyridians beliefs or practices but the fact that the cakes were offered to Mary, mother of Jesus, and that they considered themselves part of Christianity suggests that they knew about Jesus but considered his mother more important. Some have suggested that the Collyridians may have known the Holy Spirit to be feminine, and considered the Holy Trinity to be the Father, the Son (Jesus), and the Mother (Mary).
From Ephiphanius’s account of the Collyridians we learn of what may have been their major ritual—the decoration of the chair and the offering of the cakes. The chair, whose decoration may have been a ritual to turn it into a throne, instantly reminded me of the Egyptian goddess Isis, whose name means “throne”, and also of the “Seat of Wisdom,” one of the many epithets used by the Catholic Church for the Virgin Mary. Both throne and seat imply that the Divine Son—Horus in the case of Isis and Jesus Christ in the case of Mary, both of whom are often pictured as an infant seated on his mother’s lap—emerged from the lap/womb of the mother. And as we have said, Christ was seen as an incarnation of Wisdom, who was, in the Hebrew tradition, originally considered feminine.
1) Barker, Margaret, The Hidden Tradition in the Kingdom of God; also Temple Theology.