To the dismay of many long time fans of National Geographic, its December issue featured a cover story called “Mary, the most powerful woman in the world.” This is distressing in that in a magazine devoted to science and geography, this article is neither. It is an article about a fictional woman important in many Christian sects who most likely never existed. Scholars who have studied writings from 1-35 CE (there was no Year Zero) have found no mention at all of Jesus, let alone of Mary.
Jesus and Mary first appear in the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) which were written about 70 CE by men who were not even alive when Jesus was supposed to have lived. The fact that Jesus and Mary are legends in no way reduces their power among the faithful, but the stories and the morals they draw from them are drawn from legends rather than historical facts.
But it really seems excessive to call a fictional person “the most powerful woman in the world,” especially since the author of this first person account, Maureen Orth, is clearly a Christian believer who is not able to distinguish between fact and legend, and who seems to take all of these early stories quite literally.
Given that Mary herself has but a few lines in the Bible itself, most of the stories that have grown up around her are centered around “sightings” of Mary by believers.
In other words, the article is really about mass hallucinations, and it does not really question the reports of sightings at the various shrines the author visited. Sightings seem to be pretty much world wide as shown in a map created by the NGM staff based on data provided by Michael O’Neill, who calls himself a Miracle Hunter. He also has a brief video clip on the article page.
Now, an article about the pervasiveness of some religious myths would be interesting in some magazines, but surely not in National Geographic, who has mostly tended to deal with hard science. Could this be because of a change of ownership?
As you may have read, in order to save itself, National Geographic sold itself to Rupert Murdoch, of Fox fame in September. He took over in November and proceeded to lay off most of the magazine’s award winning staff. Well, if it was that recently, surely Murdoch had little to do with this story which appeared in the December issue. It might be possible, however, that this new ownership influenced the choice of this article for the cover of the magazine, but the article was clearly being written for some time, as the author (or some photographers) travelled to Mexico, Bosnia and Herzogovina, Poland, Rwanda, Haiti (which provides the obligatory NGM boob shot), Egypt, and Lourdes, where the author herself bathed in the legendary baths.
Has National Geographic ever written such a blatantly religious piece before? Well, sort of. In 2012, they produced a piece on The Apostles, but it had a much more scholarly tone. And this August, they published a more factual piece on the new Pope, and his interactions with the Vatican. Are they going to keep this up? Yes indeed. There is a TV program called The Cult of Mary scheduled for the National Geographic Channel, using much the same photographs. It seems a shame.