The Virgin Mary as Star of the Sea
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.
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. According to the Hebrew way of thinking, a person’s name represents their soul. 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.
A Glance at Etymology
Because ancient texts of the Egyptian and Judeo-Aramaic languages omit vowels, scholars often quarrel over possible meanings of words. Context and etymology are essential factors to unlocking the correct meaning. Ambiguity nonetheless persists, such as in 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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 unvaryingly call Mary, Star of the Sea.
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.
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