For ages, tradition portrayed Mary Magdalene as a prostitute. Was it just the simple male fantasy of a beautiful sinner saved by Grace? The story itself probably wasn’t true. Two apostles (Mark 16:9 and Luke 8:2) describe how Yeshua expelled seven demons from Mary Magdalene, but nobody seems to know what this means. Hindu-inspired interpretations suggest the episode was in fact an awakening of Kundalini energy in her seven chakras, and a transformational experience in which all past negative tendencies could be expelled. Who knows?
In 591 CE Pope Gregory announced that Mary Magdalene and a nameless prostitute mentioned in the Gospel of Luke were one and the same woman; this was accepted as true for centuries. I was surprised to discover as a student of medieval philosophy and theology in Toronto that in 1969 the Catholic Church quietly admitted the lack of evidence in the Bible connecting Mary Magdalene to the prostitute.
Even more radically, Margaret Starbird, in her book, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar: Mary Magdalen and the Holy Grail argues that Mary Magdalene is the same person as Mary of Bethany – ‘the woman with an alabaster jar’ who anointed him with ‘a very expensive perfume’ (Mark 14). According to Starbird, Mary’s family belonged to the once powerful tribe of Benjamin, and therefore a dynastic marriage between Mary and Jesus (who was said to belong to the tribe of David) was arranged and took place. By using genealogies from the Old and New Testament, she concludes that their union was described in the Bible as the wedding at Cana where Jesus turns water into wine.
Starbird also believes that Mary Magdalene was, in fact, the ‘holy grail’ with which medieval troubadours, poets and knights (including the Templars) were so obsessed. In that version of her story, on the day of the crucifixion Mary Magdalene, pregnant with Jesus’ child, escapes to Alexandria with the help of Joseph of Arimathea. From there, once a baby – a girl called Sarah – is born, they travel on to southern France. This is, they believe, the reason for the worship of Mary Magdalene as the mother of Jesus’ child (sang raal or holy/royal blood rather than san graal or holy grail) in southern France throughout the Middle Ages among the Cathars, a Christian sect that was later considered heretical and purged between 1209 and 1229.
So why did the perception of Mary Magdalene as a beautiful-yet-sinful temptress remain in the public imagination? The perpetuation of this image would not have proved so effective over the centuries if the interpretation wasn’t somehow attractive to us. Did it survive because it was an exciting way of telling young Yeshua’s story? Having a repentant, seductive sinner, a beautiful ex-prostitute, in his entourage?
Joseph Campbell, a great writer on myths and their power in our lives, believed that the mythical figures of our culture are embedded somehow in our deeper consciousness, that often we subconsciously inherit or accept a prevalent myth and live it, even if it makes us miserable.
The clue to a happy life, he said, was to consciously choose our own myths so we can live the life we want to live, rather than carry on unconsciously fulfilling the social expectations around us. What is my archetype? I want to be powerful, wise and seductive. I want to be spiritual, creative and radiant. I want all of that, yet I do not feel empowered as a woman. I have always felt I was a girl, not a woman.
As a young woman I wanted to lose my virginity so I could become a real woman. I needed the sexual ritual, the sexual bonding with an ‘other’ who was completely different from me — not only physically, but mentally and emotionally. I craved these differences so I could identify myself against them. Perhaps it was because I grew up among women, I don’t know. I longed for that presence of another, a man — not to lose myself in him or worship him, but to know myself through him, so he could be my telling mirror.
I longed for a man in the wicked, provocative manner of a young woman curious of her powers, wanting to unleash her sexuality and test its impact. I wanted to be empowered by my sexuality and was drawn soon enough into the paradigm of seductress and the transgression of sanctioned, permissible love. I didn’t know then that a seductress always lives within the fantasy men create about her and is kept busy sustaining that fantasy so men continue to desire her. In the end she is always trapped by the desire to be desired.
I didn’t know then that being desired did not intrinsically create devotion and love. It generated more desire, more passion, more bondage, until the cycle wore itself down in emotional exhaustion. That knowledge, that experience, came many years after my graduation — after I left Toronto to live in Malaysia, then in Melbourne. After several complicated relationships with complex men. When the seductive question ‘How could he resist me?’ transformed into the knowledge that ‘Just because he might not be able to resist me doesn’t mean he will give me what I want.’
I did not know that that the mirror of my being could only be found within me.
(To be continued.)