I’ve written before in another venue about the Assumption feast and its connection to events past. The cult of the Panagia, the Christian “Theotokos”, began to develop in the 4th century 301-399 CE. Church fathers were putting the pieces together to create a great religion based around the concept of the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Why not venerate his mom too?
The new religion needed coverts and, other than Romans and tribes to the east, the obvious choices were first the local Jews and then the Greeks. As a culture, historically the Greeks were accepted and borrowed foreign (Egyptian, Assyrian, Phoenician etc) deities which they discovered in their travels around the Eastern Mediterranean. So the introduction of the new god Jesus was just another addition to the pantheon.
As Polytheism concurrently continued to be popular, the new religion tried to co-opt whatever ‘pagan’ personalities and rituals regular people needed to make their lives complete. Little by little the gods became Christian saints yet still held their original pagan roles and their rituals were modified and adapted into the church canon.
Case in point:
Sometime in mid-summer since 566 BCE, some suggest between mid-July and Mid August in the modern calendar, a great and important festival was held in Athens in honor of the virgin goddess and protector of the city, Athena. Called the Great Panathenaea, the festival lasted several days and included among other events a large ordered procession which led from the gates of the city to the Acropolis. The point of the pageantry was to honor the goddess by undressing the pre-classical and small wooden cult statue of Athena Poleas (of the city) and replacing her gown or ‘peplos’ with a brand new one that had been woven over the nine previous months.
The event was so important to Athenians that it was depicted in stone on the Parthenon as part of the great freize (now in the British Museum). The Virgin Goddess was so important to the Greeks that they built the magnificent Parthenon (and its predecessors) for her as well as temples dedicated to her all over the Greek world.
Could such an important pagan celebration of the Virgin survive the advent of monotheism? With a little modification, sure. What was needed was a new quasi-deity who, with some helpful declarations by the church fathers, could take the place of the Athena. Hence the elevation in the early years of the church of Mary as a venerated virgin. The summer celebration of Athena was replaced by a feast dedicated the Mother of God. As it was she who took Athena’s place, temples to Athena gradually were renamed as churches dedicated to Mary the Panagia. The Parthenon itself made the switch to The Church of the Holy Wisdom at the end of the 6th century CE. Under the Venetians in the 13th century it became a Catholic church dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Here in Skopelos the great temple complex to Athena in Pefkias (6th century BCE) became the Panagia Polemistria and perhaps the other local Panagia churches were built over the foundations of temples to Athena.
As no one is really sure where and when Mary died (Ephesus, Jerusalem?), the concept of the Assumption of the Mother of God came from apocryphal stories from the 4th century (maybe as early as the 3rd). With need to replace the old gods the story gained traction and was naturally embellished as it was retold. Official acceptance of the accumulated Assumption stories came about in the east in the 6th century and in the west in the 8th century though, in the west, it wasn’t until 1950 when the Assumption was declared dogma (true) by Pope Pius XII.
Though paintings in western art show the Virgin hovering above her tomb, Orthodox icons show Mary lying on her bier surrounded by the Apostles and the feast is named the “Sleeping of the Mother of God”.