In order to truly appreciate the rich history of Mother’s Day, the evolution of motherhood as a concept is explored from ancient times to the 17th Century.
Mother’s Day and its Historic Roots in the Ancient World
Mother’s Day, as we know it today, is a fairly recent development in terms of world history. The celebration of motherhood with its individual and human focus has only developed over the past few hundred years. In antiquity, the rituals honoring motherhood were of a symbolic and mythological nature; ancient societies were honoring symbols and goddesses, unlike the honoring of individual mothers it has evolved into today.
Egyptian Roots of Mother’s Day: Isis as Mother of the Pharaohs
The ancient Egyptians and their annual festival honoring the Goddess Isis is one of the earliest historical records of a society honoring a Mother deity.
Isis became known as the “Mother of the Pharaohs” from her personal history which tells how she reassembles the 13 dismembered pieces of her dead husband’s body, who was murdered by Isis’ jealous son, Seth. She then uses the reassembled body to impregnate herself and gives birth to Horus. Horus grows up and overtakes Seth, becoming the first ruler of a unified Egypt, and by extension, Isis becomes known as the “Mother of the Pharaohs.”
Roman and Greek Roots of Mother’s Day
Roman roots of Mother’s Day can be traced to their celebration of the Phrygian goddess Cybele, “Great Mother.” Cybele’s roots extend from the Greek goddess Rhea, considered the mother of most major deities.
Other societies honored similar deities to Cybele and Rhea such as Gaia, “Earth Goddess,” and Meteroreie, “Mountain Mother.” While the Mother Goddess was being celebrated across different cultures, in some regards, she was being viewed and honored in similar ways, with festivals and flowers, suggesting the ancient world as the place and time where an early conceptualization of motherhood as creator was somewhat widely understood or felt across cultures.
While some festivals celebrating the Mother Goddess were seen as too wild, less-offensive celebrations during which honey cakes were eaten and flowers were distributed were taking place throughout Asia Minor and later in Rome. The Roman celebration of the Mother Goddess took place around mid-March, similar to the greek festival honoring Rhea, called Hilaria. During the games of Hilaria, there were arts, crafts, flowers, and a parade of sorts traveled the streets carrying a statue of the Goddess.
A Shift in Concept: the Ancient World to Europe’s Late Middle Ages
A big shift in the concept of motherhood comes with the evolution of the holiday instituted by early Christians in Europe. This holiday fell on the 4th Sunday of Lent, the 40 days of fasting prior to Easter Sunday, representing sharing in the sufferings and transformation of Jesus Christ. This day was initially used to honor and celebrate the church in which they were baptized, their ‘Mother Church’. The mother church was decorated with flowers and many offerings. Thus at this time and in this part of the world, motherhood was assigned a religious spiritual significance as the mother of our very souls was seen as the Church.
From the ancient world, it is evident how the first celebrations of motherhood were established out of reverence for the mothers of the deities and of the earth and mountains, having a decidedly more collective, mythological and symbolic significance. Then we see how in the 17th Century, early christians linked the concept of motherhood and the church by honoring their ‘Mother Church’, emphasizing the spiritual nature of motherhood in religious terms.
The Evolution of Honoring Mom, the Individual
England in the 1600s sees a clerical decree further expand the celebration of spiritual motherhood to include real mothers, and mothers as individuals are praised and acknowledged, culminating in what became known as Mothering Day.
Mothering Day further individualized the concept of motherhood as the day became a holiday for the working classes of England, and for many servants and trade workers, this Lenten holiday became their one day off in which they would visit their homes and families. Mothering Day also provided a one-day break from the rigorous fasting and penance regimes of Lent so that families could enjoy a feast to celebrate the special mothers in their lives.
The history of the establishment of Mother’s Day is vast and comprehensive and varies from place to place, so I have left off here with the evolution of the idea of motherhood from the collective to the individual, and will shortly be posting an article tracing the history of Mother’s Day in the U.S.