Ladder of Heaven: The Miracles of the Virgin Mary in Medieval African Literature and Art

Princeton University Press. Under contract.

Stories have been told for almost two millennia about the Virgin Mary and the miracles she has performed for the faithful who call upon her name. These folktales are lush repositories of cultural knowledge and literary practice, providing an unparalleled comparative literature opportunity to study tales across regions, languages, and periods. As a result, hundreds of books have been published about the European collections of such tales. Unfortunately, one of the most important collections of such folktales has gone virtually unstudied, despite being among the most significant in the early African literature canon. It is titled Täˀammərä Maryam (The Miracles of Mary).

When the people of highland Ethiopia began to convert to Christianity in the fourth century, Christ’s mother Mary was not an important figure in the religion. By the middle ages, however, many Christians around the world prayed to her and believed that she had supernatural powers. Nowhere was this more true than in highland Ethiopia. In the 1400s, reverence for the Virgin Mary bourgeoned there and stories about her life and miracles spread. Belief in Mary is still so strong there that some have informally claimed that she is more important than Christ. One can still today hear of her miracles on city buses and rural coffee houses, and see her icon in most any highland Ethiopian living room. Täˀammərä Maryam, the compilation text of hundreds of such tales, has been in daily use since the fifteenth century as a central part of the ancient church liturgy of Ethiopia and Eritrea. Each of its thousands of orthodox churches and monasteries has had a copy of this book and they are vital to the felt and religious life of millions in northeast Africa and the diaspora. Täˀammərä Maryam was never more important than the Bible, but it infiltrated every aspect of daily life, becoming the hearts of a people.

Ladder of Heaven is about this remarkable body of medieval Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Egyptian literature told about the Virgin Mary and preserved in highland Ethiopia. The Ethiopian Orthodox Church wrote them down on parchment manuscripts produced in its many royal and monastic scriptoriums. Some of these stories were translations of tales originally written in Greek or Latin about what the Virgin Mary had done for people in Europe and the Levant. But most of these stories were original compositions in Gəˁəz, the liturgical and scholarly language of highland Ethiopia for two thousand years, and were about what Mary had done locally. The tales range from the legend of how the Virgin Mary came all the way from Jerusalem to travel through highland Ethiopia with her family, to stories about how the Virgin Mary aided Ethiopian emperors during certain battles. The tales narrate how Mary saved many from going to hell, including scribes, monks, youths, wives, and cannibals. They show her healing the sick, finding what’s been lost, and protecting the innocent from the dastardly. No sin is too great for her power and no plea too late for her mediation. Many of these highland Ethiopian stories are parables dense with meaning, with lively language and vivid metaphors, yielding riches to careful analysis.

These tales are of special interest at Princeton University, which has in its Firestone Library the largest and finest collection of Täˀammərä Maryam manuscripts anywhere in the world outside of Ethiopia. 

This book is supported by the digital humanities project of PEMM, which is supported by two major grants from the National Endowment of the Humanities.