The Sub Tuum
The Oldest Marian Prayer
If we are asked to name the oldest prayer to the Blessed Virgin Mary, what
would we answer? Most of us would probably say the Hail Mary - but we would
The complete Hail Mary did not come into effect as a prayer until the
fifteenth or sixteenth century. Obviously, the words of the first part of
this favourite prayer can be traced back to New Testament times. However,
they were woven into a prayer only many years afterward, and the second part
came into play solely in the Middle Ages.
On the other hand, the Marian prayer that can legitimately be held up as the
oldest is a short supplication addressed to Mary known as the Sub Tuum from
the first two words of its Latin translation. In English it is usually
entitled "We Fly to Your Patronage."
We fly to your patronage,
O holy Mother of God;
despise not our prayers in our necessities,
but deliver us always from all dangers,
O glorious and blessed Virgin.
In medieval times, the Sub Tuum had been introduced into the liturgical
prayer of the Church - forming part of the Divine Office, now known as the
Liturgy of the Hours. For hundreds of years, it has been one of the four
Marian anthems to be recited at the conclusion of Night Prayer (Formerly
known as Compline).
HISTORY OF THE PRAYER
There is good reason to believe that this may be termed a lived prayer - one
whose words were fashioned out of pressing need. When it was first used by
Christians, the "dangers" mentioned were a harsh reality for those who
uttered the words - dangers that spelled fierce persecution and horrible
death. For although this deceptively simple prayer was once regarded as
dating from the Middle Ages, it really goes back to third-century Egypt.
At that time, Christians were being battered by the persecution of the Roman
Emperors Septimius Severus (193-211) and Decius (249-251) and decimated by
deportations. Therefore, it was all too natural for such a short spontaneous
prayer to rise constantly to their lips. From them, it passed on to other
Christians, especially in their worship.
In the Coptic Rite of the third century, for instance, the Sub Tuum was part
of the liturgical office of Christmas. At the end of that century, Patriarch
Theonas of Alexandria built the first real church for local Christians (who
prior to that time were accustomed to assemble in homes and cemeteries) and
called it the Church of St Mary Virgin and Mother of God. Thus, it is
evident that Alexandrian Christians were already calling Mary the "Mother of
God" in the third century - long before St Athanasius, who was usually
credited with coining the phrase.
Indeed, the title "Mother of God" was a traditional one in Egypt even before
the advent of Christianity. It was originally the title given to Isis,
mother of the god Horus. The Coptic Christians, quite naturally, bestowed
this title on Mary - and they did so even before the Council of Ephesus
officially endorsed this exalted title for Mary in 431.
In addition, the great Alexandrian theologian Origen, who lived at the
beginning of the third century, set forth the reason why Mary could
rightfully be called the Mother of God. And the Greek term for "Mother of
God," Theotokos - because of its popularity in the Egyptian Church - became
a hallowed Marian title.
Thus, the Sub Tuum may be regarded as a precious heritage of the Egyptian
Church, which tradition tells us was founded by St Mark the Evangelist. It
is just another of the contributions of this Church that aided the formation
of the Christian Faith and also assisted at the birth of the monastic
In 1917, an innocent-looking papyrus leaf originating in Egypt found its way
into the John Rylands Library of Manchester, England. This set in motion a
series of events that had a great effect on Mariology. By the time the
experts completed their painstaking work of examining this three-and-a-half
by seven inch papyrus and the ten lines of Greek letters inscribed in
capitals on it, the year was 1938 and the term "Mother of God" was proven to
have been addressed to Mary a hundred years before previously thought.