THE original Mother's Day, like all our best holidays, is of pagan origin. It was a celebration in Asia Minor in honor of Cybele.
Known as the mother of the gods, Cybele was associated with some pretty repellent rituals, which eventually caused the banishment of her followers in Rome.
The poet and classicist Robert Graves believed the battle between the pagan goddess and the Hebrew and Christian God to be fundamental to the development of Western civilization.
In his book "King Jesus," Graves argued that Jesus declared war on "the female," or the White Goddess of birth, love and death.
As the earliest-known European deity, the White Goddess appeared as the new, full and old moon and was also called the Triple Goddess.
Mr. Graves exalted matriarchy, which he believed had been supplanted in the centuries before Christ by patriarchal cultures.
In victory, the institutional and patriarchal Roman Catholic church subsumed and welcomed its former opponents by calling itself "Mother Church."
A form of Mother's Day returned, this time in honor of the church. In the fifth century, devotion to the Virgin Mary emerged as a new mother cult, with this mother of God firmly replacing Cybele, the mother of the gods. Meanwhile, in the Celtic continent and British Isles, the powerful goddess Brigit was replaced by St. Brigid, her Christian successor. Her sacred Mother's Day, which was connected with the ewes coming into milk, became St. Brigid's Day.
In America, the second Sunday in May was declared Mother's Day by congressional resolution in 1914. President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed mothers "the greatest source of the country's strength and inspiration."
While celebrating Mother's Day as the romantic, commercial holiday that it has become, we should ponder the triumph and ferocity of motherhood that lies beneath its sweet surface.
Julia Vitullo-Martin edited "Breaking Away: The Future of Cities" (Twentieth Century Fund Press).
Pub Date: 5/06/98