Hail Mary, Empress of Hell

Ave Maria mater Domini nostri Iesus Christi regina cœli domina mundi imperatrix inferni misere mei & totius populi Christiani Amen.

Antiphon from the Saltair Mhuire, attributed to Domhnall Albannach Ó Troighthigh, in manuscript dated 1477.

Hail Mary, mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, Queen of Heaven, Lady of the World, Empress of Hell, have mercy on me and the whole of Christian people.

To speak of Mary as Empress of Hell may sound surprising and even confusing. But St. Alphonsus explains.

“Not only is the most Blessed Virgin the queen of heaven and of all saints. She is also queen of hell and of all evil spirits. For she overcame them valiantly by her virtues. From the very beginning God foretold the victory and empire that our queen would one day gain over the serpent, when he announced to him that a woman would come into the world to conquer him: “I will put enmity between you and the woman. . . . She will crush your head” (Gn 3:15). And who could this woman, his enemy, be but Mary, who by her fair humility and holy life always conquered him and beat down his strength?”

The most famous and enduring example of this, and possibly the source of the Queen of Heaven/Empress of Hell dichotomous terminology, is variations on the Theophilus legend. This is especially interesting because Theophilus is the forerunner to one Herr Doktor Faustus. In this legend/miracle story, Theophilus makes a transaction with the devil for the rights to his soul. Near death, he comes to regret his decision, and begs Mary to help him. As Mary is infinitely merciful, she does. She girds her loins for battle, descends into hell, and steals back the charter conveying Theophilus’ soul to the devil!
Possibly the most interesting part of this miracle story is Mary’s mission to hell is portrayed as warfare. The tales evoke the devil’s anger, and use language of violence and theft to describe Mary’s actions. In her guise as empress of hell–that is, more powerful even than Satan–she is not the mother of mercy, she is the “queen of vengeance.”

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