The Virgin Mary as Star of the Sea

Updated on August 6, 2018
Bede le Venerable profile image

Bede is an artist with a long time interest in the lives of the saints.

The North Star has many names; the ancient Romans called it Polaris because of its alignment with the North Pole; other names include Lodestar, Polestar, Alpha Ursae Minoris, Alruccabah, Navigatoria, and HR424. During the Middle Ages, however, the North Star went by the name, Stella Maris. Stella Maris is Latin for “star of the sea.” While this star is a trustworthy guide for sailors, the name Stella Maris was actually in reference to the Virgin Mary. Beginning in the fourth century and through the Middle Ages, Western Christians understood the name Mary as meaning “Star of the sea.” This article considers the historical basis and spiritual significance of this name, as applied to the Virgin Mary.

This is an anonymous 19th century painting of Mary as Star of the Sea.
This is an anonymous 19th century painting of Mary as Star of the Sea. | Source

What’s in a Name?

For the ancient Hebrews, naming a child was serious business. A child’s name distinguished his or her character and destiny. Something pretty sounding was secondary; a person’s name represents their soul, according to the Hebrew mind. Often biblical names are prophetic. The name Elijah, for instance, means, “The Lord (YHWH) is my God.” This accurately fits the fiery prophet who defended proper worship of God rather than Baal. Likewise, the name Yeshua (Jesus) means, “God saves.” This well accords with the patriarch Joshua (Jesus), who led the Israelites across the Jordan, as well as Jesus, whom Christians honor as the Savior. Christians have long-honored Jesus’ mother, Mary, as a very special person. What does her name signify? While there is wide ambiguity about the correct translation, the most popular understanding of the name Mary among Catholics is Star of the sea.

Source

A Look at Etymology

Because ancient texts of the Egyptian and Judeo-Aramaic languages omit vowels, scholars often argue over possible meanings of words. Context and etymology are essential factors to unlocking the correct meaning. Nonetheless, ambiguity often persists, such as the meaning of the name Mary. The word maris in Latin means sea and is quite similar to Maria. However, the name Mary is clearly not Latin in origin but finds its roots in the Egyptian name, Miriam. Here is where the etymology becomes complicated because there are over 100 possibilities of what the name Miriam means in Egyptian. Possible meanings range from “bitterness,” “beautiful,” and “love.”

Consequently, it is helpful to look at the Hebrew version of Miriam, which is Maryam. Wide variations also exist in the meaning of the name Maryam, such as “rebellion,” and “sea of bitterness.” Keeping in mind that a name represents the soul in Hebrew, such translations are unacceptable for a young girl. The second part of this name, yam, does, in fact, mean “sea”; however, the first part, mar, has several possible meanings. Mar literally means bitter, which is why some believe that Maryam means “bitter sea.” Nonetheless, in Hebrew, the adjective follows the substantive, which means “bitter sea” would appear as Yam mar.

The Stella Maris lighthouse along the Uruguay River in Argentina.
The Stella Maris lighthouse along the Uruguay River in Argentina. | Source

Eusebius of Caesarea, who composed a dictionary of proper names in the Bible, translated Maryam as “drop of the sea.” When St. Jerome (4th century AD) translated this dictionary into Latin, he rendered “drop of the sea” as stilla maris. Some believe that a scribal error caused stilla to become stella. However, Jerome elsewhere made a case for “Star of the sea,” by suggesting that mar was a contraction of ma’or (מאור), which means luminary or star.

Spiritual Significance

As citizens of the 21st century, navigating our way with GPS, we little realize how vital the North Star was to travelers in previous times. This trustworthy star guided sailors across the sea and travelers across the desert. Because it remains apparently fixed in the same location throughout the night, it served as a sure reference point in the heavens. Unlike shooting stars that dazzle the eyes for a moment and fade away, the North Star remains steady. In her role as a caring Mother, Mary likewise is comparable to this constancy.

Purity, radiance, and beauty- such qualities of a star are also applicable to the Virgin; however, the North Star fits her in particular because of its role as a guide to travelers. As our life on earth is similar to a tempestuous sea journey, so Mary remains firm in the heavens, guiding souls to the eternal shores. Byzantine Christians call her Hodegitria or “She who knows the way.” According to their understanding as well as Catholics, she knows the way to Jesus and to heaven.

As the Romans thought of Polaris as occupying the north pole of the heavens, so Christians think of Mary as occupying the center of Heaven, as the greatest of the saints. “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star.” (1 Cor 15:41). Though there are brighter stars than Polaris, its location is the reason for its importance. For Christians, Mary’s importance is primarily because of her proximity to God, as Jesus’ mother. Contrary to a common belief, Catholics and Orthodox Christians do not worship Mary; rather, they venerate her as the Mother of Jesus and the greatest of saints.

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The North Star appears in the center of these stars because of its alignment to the North Pole.  This is a statue of Mary, Star of the Sea, venerated in a church of Sliema, Malta.This type of icon, known as the Hodegitria Mother of God, is popular among eastern Christian. She points the way to Christ. The stars on her garments, however, are not in reference to Stella Maris but symbolize her perpetual virginity.
The North Star appears in the center of these stars because of its alignment to the North Pole.
The North Star appears in the center of these stars because of its alignment to the North Pole. | Source
This is a statue of Mary, Star of the Sea, venerated in a church of Sliema, Malta.
This is a statue of Mary, Star of the Sea, venerated in a church of Sliema, Malta. | Source
This type of icon, known as the Hodegitria Mother of God, is popular among eastern Christian. She points the way to Christ. The stars on her garments, however, are not in reference to Stella Maris but symbolize her perpetual virginity.
This type of icon, known as the Hodegitria Mother of God, is popular among eastern Christian. She points the way to Christ. The stars on her garments, however, are not in reference to Stella Maris but symbolize her perpetual virginity. | Source

Stella Maris: Development During the Middle Ages

The understanding of Mary’s name as Star of the sea took firm hold among Western Christians during the Middle Ages. St. Isidore, a seventh-century bishop from Seville, reaffirmed this understanding in his Etymologiae. In the eighth century, St. Alcuin of York dedicated a Marian altar with the inscription, lux et stella maris, “light and star of the sea.” St. Paschasius Radbertus wrote in the ninth century that the “Star of the Sea” should be our guide to Christ, "lest we capsize amid the storm-tossed waves of the sea."

Some of the most beautiful Gregorian chants that emerged during the Middle Ages, such as Ave Maris Stella (9th c.) and Alma Redemptoris Mater (12th c.), include this image. The latter hymn, sung during Advent, says, “Loving mother of the Redeemer, who remains the open gate of heaven and star of the sea, help the fallen people who strive to rise again.”

St. Bernard (11th c.), composed an inspired homily regarding Mary as Star of the Sea. He recommends that all who are traveling on the troubled waters of life should look to Mary. “Mary’s name is said to mean, ‘star of the sea,’” he says, “If the winds of temptation surge, if you run aground on the shoals of troubles, look to this star, call upon Mary! If you are tossed by the winds of pride or ambition or detraction or jealousy, look to this star, call upon Mary! If anger, greed, or the allurements of the flesh dash against the boat of your mind, look to Mary! In dangers, in straits, in perplexity, think of Mary, call upon Mary… Let her name be always in your mouth, and in your heart, and if you would ask for and obtain the help of her prayers, do not forget the example of how she lived.”

The miraculous statue of Mary, Star of the Sea, in the Basilica of Our Lady, Maastrict. Our Lady, Star of the Sea is the patroness of the Netherlands.
The miraculous statue of Mary, Star of the Sea, in the Basilica of Our Lady, Maastrict. Our Lady, Star of the Sea is the patroness of the Netherlands. | Source

As the Scholastic Era developed, several important theologians supported this meaning of Mary’s name. St. Bonaventure says for instance, “This name is most fitting for Mary, who is to us a star above the sea. She guides to a landfall in Heaven those who navigate the sea of this world…Well do we compare Mary to a star of the sea, because of her shining purity, her brightness, all that she does for us.” St. Thomas Aquinas endorsed this understanding of Mary’s name, saying, “Thus the name ‘Mary,’ which is rendered ‘Star of the Sea,’ suits her, because just as sailors on the ocean are guided to a harbor by a star, so Christians are guided to glory by Mary.” The Carmelite Order, founded principally to honor the Virgin Mary, developed strong devotion to this image. Stella Maris is the name of their principal monastery located on Mt. Carmel in Israel.

This is a view of the Mediterranean Sea as seen from Stella Maris Monastery, located on Mt. Carmel, Israel. Below is a small chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart.
This is a view of the Mediterranean Sea as seen from Stella Maris Monastery, located on Mt. Carmel, Israel. Below is a small chapel dedicated to the Sacred Heart. | Source

Visions of Saints

Finally, some saints have seen visions of Mary that correspond to the title of “Star of the sea.” St. Catherine Labouré, for example, twice experienced a vision of the Virgin Mary. In the second vision, Mary asked Catherine to have a medal struck according to a certain pose; the Virgin extended her arms in supine fashion, whence rays streamed out of her hands, similar to a star. The Miraculous Medal is a long-standing devotion among Catholics. The second interesting account comes from St. Faustina Kowalska. In August of 1925, her guardian angel took her on a journey to Purgatory. While there, St. Faustina saw the Blessed Virgin visit Purgatory to bring refreshment to the souls suffering there. According to St. Faustina, the souls in Purgatory call Mary the Star of the Sea.

Modern Devotion

While biblical scholars wrangle over the precise meaning of Mary’s name and astronomers debate over what the North Star should be called, devotion to the Star of the Sea remains firm. Many churches, schools, colleges, shrines, and lighthouses, particularly along coastal areas, use the name, Stella Maris, Our Lady, Star of the Sea, or Mary, Star of the Sea. The feast day of Our Lady, Star of the Sea is September 27. The Apostleship of the Sea (AOS) especially celebrates this day, with a Mass at Westminster Cathedral, London. The AOS, alternatively known as Stella Maris, is a worldwide Catholic organization that provides chaplaincies and practical support to seafarers. May Our Lady, Star of the Sea, lead all souls across the uncertain waves of this life to the port of heaven.

References

Mary in the Middle Ages, by Luigi Gambero, S.M., Ignatius Press, 2005

A Dictionary of Mary, Compiled by Donald Attwater, P.J. Kennedy and sons, 1956

More on the name Maryam

An article on Our Lady, Star of the Sea

St. Bernard’s homily in full



Comments

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  • Miebakagh57 profile image

    Miebakagh Fiberesima 

    4 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

    Hi, bede, good talk. I agreed with you. Those who let the star of the sea, the mother of the Lord Jesus guide them will do well.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    4 months ago from Minnesota

    Hi Dolores, I’m glad that you enjoyed the article. That’s neat about your sister. They couldn’t have chosen better a better place to be married. I hope that the Star of the Sea guided her marriage through rough waters. Yes, how sweet to finally plant our feet on that blessed shore.

  • Dolores Monet profile image

    Dolores Monet 

    4 months ago from East Coast, United States

    Hi Bede - I enjoyed reading this one and especially love your last line. My sister was married at St. Mary's Star of the Sea church in an ocean side town. It's a beautiful old church, erected when the town was filled with professional fishermen.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    4 months ago from Minnesota

    Thank you for that favor, Miebakagh. I owe you one.

  • Miebakagh57 profile image

    Miebakagh Fiberesima 

    4 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

    Hi, bede, you are very much welcomed. I had shared the hub my facebook. I want it to go wild viral. Thank you.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    4 months ago from Minnesota

    Those are some great thoughts, Miebakagh. If somebody showed respect towards your mother and gave her a bouquet of flowers now and again, wouldn’t you be pleased with that person? Yes, you would regard that person as a friend. But, wouldn’t you be angry if somebody showed disrespect towards your mother? I would be mad, for sure. Jesus looks kindly on us if we show respect towards his mother.

    You've made me realize that I have to do better.

  • Miebakagh57 profile image

    Miebakagh Fiberesima 

    4 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

    Hi, bede, that is the truth. Every Christian, whether Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Pentecoatals or Evangelistics must respect the Virgin Mary. Jesus Himself said a good thing about a certain woman, who fore-sees his death and began to wipe. With her tears, she wash his legs. And then anointed Him with a costly oil. Also, there was this lady with little means of livinghood who offer her penuery as offing. Jesus commended these characters. We think about them, and apply their principles in daily lives. But most of the time Christians delegate Mary to the dustbin. I will tell Jesus in my prayers for the good his mother did for him as a baby till he grows up to a man and become our lord and savior. Have a nice day.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    4 months ago from Minnesota

    That’s an interesting thought, Miebakagh. Yes, if St. Paul appeared at a bookstore one day, I would certainly want to shake his hand and say “thanks.” Christians are indebted to him for his various epistles…how much more respect do we owe Mary who brought Jesus into the world and cared for him as a child?

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    4 months ago from Minnesota

    Hi Linda- recently, I gave a little talk on this subject (a rare occurrence), and thought I’d turn it into a hub. I’m glad that you learned more Mary as Star of the Sea.

  • Miebakagh57 profile image

    Miebakagh Fiberesima 

    4 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

    Hi, bede, thank you for sheilding more light in your response. I do not see any wrong now in paying respect to Jesus earthly mother like you pay respect to a senior citizen. If we sa Christians pay respect to Apostle Paul for all the visionary epistles he wrote, how much more due weown respect to the mother of Jesus, who inspire Apostle Paul?

    The hub is very informative and educative.

  • AliciaC profile image

    Linda Crampton 

    4 months ago from British Columbia, Canada

    This is a very informative article. I'm glad that I've learned more about Mary and her role as Star of the sea.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    4 months ago from Minnesota

    Hi Frances- thank you for such an uplifting and kind comment. It means a lot. I will have to listen to Palestrina’s Ave Maris Stella, maybe on youtube. Perhaps you haven’t delved into Gregorian chant too much, but the various chant versions of this piece are among my favorites.

    One of the saints from your neighborhood, Louis de Montfort, likened Mary also to the moon. Sometimes it’s too overpowering to approach the divine Majesty (similar to the sun), but Mary is gentle and approachable like the moon.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    4 months ago from Minnesota

    Thank you Mary for commenting; I’m glad that you learned more about your lovely name. You are lucky to have such a good patroness. My sister’s name is Mary, though to this day I call her “Mare.” She’s always had a great love for the sea, though she probably doesn’t realize this meaning of her name.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    4 months ago from Minnesota

    Thanks much for the comment, Eric. I had to look up “epistemology,” thinking it had something to do with epistles. There will always be counter arguments to what I presented here, but sometimes it’s best to go the way of the heart.

  • Bede le Venerable profile imageAUTHOR

    Bede 

    4 months ago from Minnesota

    Hi Miebakagh- I’m glad that you enjoyed the article and learned that Catholics don’t worship Mary. After all, she’s a creature, not God. Look at it this way, Jesus fulfilled the Ten Commandments, right? Then he certainly would have honored his mother. Catholics imitate Jesus by honoring his mother. When Jesus said to St. John while dying on the cross, “Behold your Mother,” (Jn. 19:25), he was including all future generations of disciples. She is His mother and our mother, so we fulfill the commandment and pay her respect.

  • Frances Metcalfe profile image

    Frances Metcalfe 

    4 months ago from The Limousin, France

    Hallo Bede. I think your articles are beautifully written, and this is no exception. I was brought up Catholic but have never heard Mary being referred to as Star of the Sea, so a revelation for me. However one piece of music I like to go back to time after time is Palestrina's Missa Ave Maris Stella. I confess I hadn't really taken much notice of the title, only the sublime, peaceful nature of the music. Knowing the background to Mary's name will furthermore enhance my listening quality of the luminosity Palestrina's transparent writing brings to the text, enriching the experience.

  • aesta1 profile image

    Mary Norton 

    4 months ago from Ontario, Canada

    This is very informative as you lead us through exigesis, Church history but still clearly presented the image of the Stella Maris. I am personally happy as I've learned more about the meaning of my name and try to live up more to the positive.

  • Ericdierker profile image

    Eric Dierker 

    4 months ago from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A.

    Very good you did the etymology/epistemology extremely well. Thank you for this in depth look at Mary.

  • Miebakagh57 profile image

    Miebakagh Fiberesima 

    4 months ago from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA.

    Hello, bede, I enjoy your new hub, the start of the sea. It is educative. For years, I heard and had read that Catholics worship the Virgin Mary, mother of Jesus. Now, you have got me off the hork. The photos are very beautiful. They are delights for the eyes. Thank you.

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