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March Research Seminar

The Virgin Mary in Ethiopia: Marian Veneration, Africanity, and the Female Element

Date: 13 March 2024

Tine: 3pm (in the UK)

Venue: Online via Zoom

In our March research seminar, Cressida Marcus (St Cross College, Oxford) will present some findings about female piety and religiosity in today’s Ethiopian Orthodox practice, and she will relay the religious experience of women and enquire what makes Marian cultural figurations central in Ethiopia. The presentation, on the one hand, will reveal the vernacular proximity of ordinary women to the sacred by way of Marian veneration; while, on the other hand, it will illustrate in their piety, bodily choreography, and prayers, the female element in church worship.        


The fertility of women is closely connected to religious veneration as well as orthodox observances. It is to be argued that the figurehead of the Theotokos, while universally Orthodox Christian in its theology, in vernacular experience in the Ethiopian context, exhibits an Africanity. Marian veneration in this context buttresses a subordinate matrifocality alongside the patriarchal structure. Keeping in mind that women are oftentimes in the majority of churchgoers, a proximate fecundity then extends to the liturgical performance of the Ethiopic liturgy. Church centred devotion is grounded by the female dimension since the faithful’s femininity is ubiquitous, and is felt and found in the everyday. In speaking to the Virgin Mary, then listening for her response, her devotees are touched by her love and presence. This female element is perceived as a presence of a covenant of Grace and Mercy (Kidane Mehret). The presentation will treat this covenant of mercy as a multi-presence of Mary, as composite of her many personae, refractions and configurations such as queen, and mediatrix. Marian devotion invokes a female presence, and her veneration is an affinity, making a pious virtue of shared female intimacies. This female affinity is most concentrated at sites of female veneration during the devotional festal period of the Assumption (Filsetta). Marian devotion phenomenologically, is an umbrella for the felt presence of Mary, and by association, shared womanhood.

Cressida Marcus holds academic graduate and post-graduate degrees in Socio-cultural Anthropology. She has spent decades studying the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church tradition and faith community, spending time in northern Ethiopia. Three years of intensive field work, followed by programmatic research trips, including focus on the major fast and celebration of the Assumption (Filsetta), furnishes the ethnography. Her existing scholarly output includes studies of vernacular Marian devotion. Her doctoral thesis is entitled 'An African Christian Cosmos: The Ethiopian Orthodox Amhara (Gondar)’; and it will form the basis, in part, for her monograph, with the working title ‘Ethiopian Crucible: Hunger and Sacral Action in an Economy of Scarcity’. 


To join the audience, please register for the free Zoom link by sending an email to Catherine O’Brien at This is the sixth of a new series of online research seminars organised by the Centre for Marian Studies at St Mary’s University. To view the full programme, please visit:

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