MARY, The Mother of Jesus, hence the Mother of God.

     She's a very special person, not only among women but the among all of the human race. For a person of such importance in salvation history, one may ponder whether her given name has an appropriateness to her role. If God intended the meaning to be significant, then we should search it out.

Looking into the origin & meaning of Mary

     The Dictionary of Mary says that more than 70 meanings have been applied to Mary over time, most based on devotion rather than philology. The Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary says of the number of given meanings, none are certain. This is echoed by A Catholic Dictionary which says the origin and meaning of the name are uncertain. But while A Catholic Dictionary says the name may mean "wished-for child," it says it seems certain it has "nothing to do with 'bitterness,' 'the sea,' or 'a star.'"

Myrrh & bitterness

     But let's look at these seemingly certain rule-outs.  First, let's look at bitterness and what several other sources have to say.  A name book by Lareina Rule says Marah was the Hebrew word for the bitter resin myrrh, used in Biblical times as incense and perfume. She says Mary comes from Hebrew "marah; miryam 'bitter or bitterness.'" In What's in a Name by Favius Friedman it says Mary "stems from Mara, Hebrew for 'bitterness or rebellion.'" The Dictionary of Mary says Mary is Maryam in Aramaic and Myriam in the Hebrew Old Testament. Consider Ruth 1:20, which says "Do not call me Naomi ("pleasant"). Call me Mara, for the Almighty has made it very bitter for me," and consider the contemporary Spanish word "amargo" which means bitter.

     Let us delve into the idea a little further. While "bitter" certainly seems inappropriate to Mary, it was myrrh that was one of the gifts of the Wise Men, and according to St. Iraneus (cited in Spargo-Clarke's The Catechism Explained), it was symbolic of mortification, because Christ was to suffer as our Redeemer. And suffer He did, greatly.  Mary cooperated in the Redemption and suffered as His mother. Christ died for our sins, and so much that is bitter in the world stems from sin. The forbidden fruit of Paradise, left us a mouth full of bitterness. When you link the bitter of myrrh to perfume as well, it lends itself to further contemplation. Not only may it remind us of Mary's suffering but it may remind us of her joy as well and all those things pleasing about her: her virtuous attributes. We may think of Mary as a rose of pleasing fragrance, yet bearing the thorns of suffering.

Star of the sea?

     What of "the sea" and "a star" mentioned above by A Catholic Dictionary?  The Dictionary of Mary tells of the following explanation, through the work of St. Jerome: the Hebrew yam means "sea," and from it came stilla maris "drop of the sea," the sea being God.  A copyist erred, and the "i" became an "e," making stella maris, changing the meaning to "star of the sea." This in turn became a favored title for Mary through the hymn Ave Stella Maris, "Hail, Star of the Sea."  Stella is star in Latin.  Even if "star" is etymologically unfounded, still "star of the sea" is a happy mistake.  It can lead one to think of ourselves being on the sea of life, away from our heavenly shore, with Mary as a guiding star, showing the direction in which to steer.


     But what of another meaning mentioned by Favius Friedman, that of "rebellion." It's been cited elsewhere, in the Maryknoll Dictionary and the Websters Collegiate. Rebellion also seems inappropriate to Mary, for she was certainly not rebellious to God, quite the opposite.
     But is there another way of looking at rebellion? Did it have another shade of meaning in Biblical times, apart from the concept of revolting against authority or government?   It does today: Webster's New World Dictionary for Young Readers lists as a first meaning for rebellion: an armed fight against the government or revolt, but as a second a more generic definition: a fight or struggle against any kind of control.  We certainly need to fight or struggle against the devil's control. But whatever the past meaning, rebellion derives from the Latin prefix re meaning "back, again" and bellum meaning "war," which also gives us belligerent (warlike) and antebellum (before the war). Reader's Digest Family Word Finder says rebellion literally means "to make war back."
     A strong word, war. But is war out of the question in relation to Mary's name?  Rev.12:7 tells us that a war broke out in heaven, and that Michael and his angels battled the dragon.  In 12:9 it says "the huge dragon, the ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan" was cast down to earth with his angels.  It further says in 12:17 that the dragon "went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring, those who keep God's commandments and bear witness to Jesus." Note the use of the words "wage war."  That applies to us.
played and plays a major role in dealing with the mess that resulted from the Fall of Man, instigated by the devil who was part of the angelic rebellion.  If the devil is going to wage war against us, as Scripture says, then we need to fight back.  If we look at the word rebellion as not applying to Mary's person, but to her role in combating and reversing what the devil instigated, and what he still seeks to do to us, then rebellion or "warring back" makes sense.  We are in a battle.


A Canaanite source?

     The same Marian dictionary says several interpretations of the name Mary are indicated by modern linguistics, as being more probable. The most probable relates to a language akin to Hebrew, that of the Canaanites. Archeological expeditions at Ugarit in Syria 70 some years ago, brought to light an idiom used in those regions. In unearthed tables was name myrm, from the verb rwm, literally meaning "lofty" or "high": therefore, "august" or "exalted."  It certainly fits Mary, exalted by God.

     Happily, in the process searching for an answer, we are thinking of things to contemplate about Mary and her linkage to salvation. Whether or not we find something definitive in linguistic history, a byproduct of the search is the stuff of meditation.

                                                                                 John Riedell


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