Have you ever wondered why it has to been so important for the Roman Catholic church to disempower women and suppress their rightful place in history? And have you ever questioned why it was so important to distort symbols and legends, which for thousands of years BC, had been connected to women and our innate spirituality?
Most people haven’t. Yet, they are important questions to ask. In 1988, Pope John Paul wrote an Apostolic letter titled Mulieris Dignitatem, meaning ‘On the dignity and vocation of women.’ In this letter, the Pope officially declared that Mary Magdalene was not a prostitute, and never had been. She was, instead, Apostola Apostolorum; ‘the Apostle to the Apostles’ – indicating that Mary Magdalene was the teacher to all the other Apostles. This letter not only puts her in a position of spiritual authority, it also raise her above the teachings of Jesus’ disciples. Yet, 28 years later, the church still preaches that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute and of no importance. Confused?
In 2011 I embarked on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela, in the North of Spain. However, more than one year before, I began having recurring dreams about Mary Magdalene, the Grail and goddesses from all around the world. The content of these dreams not only led me to discover Pope John Paul’s letter from 1988, they also inspired me to walk the famous Catholic pilgrimage called The Camino. For the first time in my life, I began to ask why the Catholic church was so hateful towards women. To say ‘ah, we just don’t like women’ and then spend more than a thousand years violently making women into 2nd class citizens, didn’t make sense at all. Their actions testify that there was something deeper, that there was a lot more at stake.
I am an Educational Psychologist by profession. I also have a life long interest in women studies, history, gender roles and religious art. These interests became crucial elements for my discoveries as I visited every single church and church museum along the Camino. Here I quickly became aware that the iconography in these churches and church museums had a different content to anywhere else – very different – and I have visited many Catholic churches over the years.
Within these Catholic buildings mighty women – depicted as scholars, teachers, writers, preachers and spiritual authorities – filled the walls, altars and panels. Hardly any women were named, whereas every single male was clearly identified. Who were these women, I wondered again and again? Why are they repeatedly shown as being worshipped by monks? Why is there always a tower involved in this iconography? As the puzzle slowly came together, I realised that the Camino held the answers to some of the most ignored questions of our time; why it was so important for the Roman Catholic church to disempower and suppress women; why Mary Magdalene was such a threat that she had to remain a shamed prostitute; and why the Roman church, to this very day, denies women spiritual authority.
Like a true Da Vinci mystery, the iconography told about ancient times and spiritual traditions that dated back to Cybele; The Mother of Gods, born out of Oneness, and Asherah; Wife of Yahweh and Mother of the Heavens. The powerful roots of Mary Magdalene and The Virgin Mary stepped out from behind the shadows together with all the forgotten teachers, writers, scholars and spiritual authorities which history had chosen to forget.
The history along the Camino refers not only to actual women who had once lived, it also gives evidence about a time when women were able to exist in their own right and not only in the roles of mother to carry on “his” bloodline or whore to satisfy his needs. The Camino talks about powerful and ancient traditions where women were spiritual leaders, equal to men; traditions that had existed for thousands of years across many cultures before the rise of the Roman Catholic church. The essence of these traditions hid a deep insight and understanding of a very powerful knowledge; the sacred teachings of Spirit & Matter.
At one point in time, women had become the symbol of Spirit and men the symbol of Matter. Spirit being the essence of the invisible Life energy, and the knowing that we are a part of this essence. When we experience and live this connection, we will be powerful and thus impossible to control. Women and all symbolism related to these ancient teachings of Spirit had to be eliminated. We had to learn never to ask questions or know about our spiritual inheritance.
This is why I think Mary Magdalene had to remain a prostitute and why we in our modern world still suffer the denigrating gender roles once created by the Catholic church; it is a matter of control. This is the story of The Hidden Camino and the reason why the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela had to become a Catholic pilgrimage.
Louise Sommer holds a Masters degree in Educational Psychology and a BA degree in Social Education and is specialised in trauma, complicated grief and crisis. Her passion has been investigating the role of women in European history. In an effort to understand where our modern-day thought patterns originate regarding gender (men, women, masculinity and femininity), she has educated herself through all manner of reference materials – from research papers, books and articles, as well as her extensive travels. You can buy The Hidden Camino as both e-book and paperback in all major online stores. Second Edition is out early June 2016. www.louisesommer.com; blog http://www.louisesommer.com/#!blog/c112v
15 thoughts on “The Hidden Camino – Our Hidden Story by Louise Sommer”
These historical origins of women suppression and discrimination have always interested me. I am always curious about how things are as they are and what could have been different. So thank you for this interesting post. I couldn’t help but wondering about Islam and women. At first sight it seems that this institute has an even greater fear of women than the Catholics, when looking at their practices. Do you think it has the same origins as for the Catholic Church? At which point in history did all this start?
I have a great admiration for the Catholic scholar, writer, herbalist and musician Hildegard von Bingen. How did she manage to have her name remembered and not all the other wise women in our Western history? I know that there was a lot of resistance from the male hierarchy towards her but she seems to have been able to thrive despite this.
Hildegarde was a highly gifted visionary, who brought through the old concept of divine female Wisdom (Sapentia) and Green-ness (Viriditas). However, many other visionary women were driven into obscurity, their words not only ignored but actively suppressed in many cases. I see several factors that helped Hildegarde avoid this fate. One, she was of aristocratic background, an oblate (given to the church) in childhood; that gave her literacy and a place to stand and be heard. She did encounter opposition from the patriarchal clergy early on, but: Two, she took positions that accorded with doctrine in significant ways: supporting the Crusades (European invasion of Palestine and neighboring regions) and seeking out the backing of their primary promoter, Bernard of Clairvaux. This relationship is what vaulted Hildegard into international prominence and her influential correspondence with rulers and popes, and in which she hewed to church doctrine. Among these conformities to doctrine was, Three, her missionary attitude toward the Jews (who were undergoing pogroms in her region during the Crusades):
“Provoked by the itinerant preachers who accompanied the crusade, the aggression was soon directed against people of other beliefs in the home countries. Already in 1096, many Jews had become victim of fanatic crowds in towns like Mainz, Trier, Speyer and Worms, which were all very close to Hildegard’s future places of work. Although she does not mention it in her writings, Hildegard certainly learned about these occurrences in the course of her life and was also in contact with the Jewish population in her region: According to her Vita she visited Jews in order to question them and perhaps in order to discuss the interpretation of the Holy Scripture with them. Hildegard „refuted them by her own law and encouraged them with words of pious admonition to the belief in Christ“.” So she was concerned with converting the Jews, not with protecting them from violence, even at the level of mentioning that violence, much less condemning it.
In my view it is the ways that she conformed with dogma that allowed her to rise and her works to be preserved, not the ways she departed from it, the things we value in her today.
Also, about Islam: it is not so simple. Both religions encode patriarchal law, in different ways, and both draw on Judaism while also condemning Jews. Islam did not have a priesthood, though it did have its own parallel to canon law; but that exists in several versions / schools. The Catholic priesthood barred women from performing the sacraments (after the first couple centuries, when those were still evolving) but in Islam there are supposed to be no intermediaries with the Divine. Women could lead prayer among women (in Muhammad’s time, they could act as imams in mixed congregations, but not later). Pressure from below forced the Catholic church to (selectively) swallow the Goddess, through the cult of the saints, while the Qur’an condemns praying to female angels as well as making icons. So the female divine is less visible in Islam; but Muslims did not conduct witch hunts, and women were able to preserve ancient traditions of dance and the drum to a greater degree than in Christendom. Lots of factors to consider.
Thank you so much for elaborating on all this. I am seeing Hildegard von Bingen from a new perspective now. Always important to see the whole historical and sociological context of the era and not to be biased. The figure of Hildegard becomes more human also with knowing this.
Your notes about Islam are also very valuable. Also here and more so today, it’s so important to see the whole context when trying to understand and not judge.
Thank you very much for your kind words!
Hildegaard von Bingen was indeed an extraordinary visionary and artistic talent. She was very intelligent and had a quite feisty temperament. Combining these two made it possible for her to work the system, but this is where history can be tricky, as there obviously have been men within the Church who supported her and to some degree, protected her. We know she was financially supported by some of the most wealthy and powerful families of her region so that has helped as well.
The history we are being taught in Europe (I don’t know about American schools) is all about the kings, their wars and lots of dates of the wars. If lucky, a ‘crazy’ mistress might be mentioned. History as we are being taught is literally HISstory. Now we need to do a lot of HERstory and then we can start creating OURstory.
Hildegaard has experienced a renaissance over the last ten years. Some great books have been written about her and new recordings of her music released.Today, it is becoming more acceptable to talk about the women in history. But we still suffer from the ‘Madonna – Whore’ syndrome; They are either saints or mistressess…However, that concept is slowly changing too.
You ask about Islam which is the newest of the major religions. You are right when describing their view on women. But it is not like that in all the muslim countries. The media only shows us the negative and violent part of the Middle East, but I have met many incredibly strong, independent and very intelligent women from this part of the world. They do not all live as they do in Yemen. During the Middle Ages and for many centuries later, women experienced the same incredible violence and suppresion from the Catholic Church. Their fear of women was in every way just as bad as you see in Yemen.
You also ask about the origins of the suppression of women. I can speak for Europe only. Historically there seems to be two movements that started the change from partnership societies to patriarchial societies.Firstly we know that waves of immigrants from the Black Sea started arriving in the South of Europe BC. These groups came over a long time period, and they had a quite aggressive attitude. Secondly, we also know, that there was equality within the early Church. Around 400-500 AD the core values of the Roman Catholic changed dramatically. Mary Magdalene was made into a fallen woman, sinner and prostitute. The Virgin Mary was made into a Virgin and ‘the Mother of Christ’ and everything related to our past cultures, spiritual traditions, Goddesses etc was violently removed, erased and made into ‘evil’. I also write a lot about this in my book.
Here’s some links to my blog that you might enjoy:
Thank you so much for taking the time to answer my questions and to give this valuable context regarding Hildegard von Bingen. I really appreciate it. I will certainly read your blog articles and I’m looking forward to order and read your book. My husband and I are fervent hikers, a.o. in the Pyrenees, both French and Spanish side. We have often crossed the Camino pelgrims but have never been attracted to walk the Camino, mainly because it is rather crowded and we prefer the quiet of the magnificent mountains. We have also always associated the Camino with some parts of Catholicism which we are not so enthousiastic about (both raised Roman Catholics as many in this part of the world). Your perspective is fascinating and maybe I will some day search for this other side of history myself when traveling Europe and visiting churches and other places. Now that I think of it, I’m an art historian by training, but the curriculum never touched on this other iconography and the truth behind it. I’m eager to discover more.
Thank you for this beautiful, stirring post. I am very moved by the images you included.
I spent twenty years researching and writing a series of novels about Mary Magdalen, who in this version is a feisty red-head Celt named Maeve, raised on the Otherworldly Isle of Women. How she came to be the Magdalen and what happened before and after the Biblical events, well, therein lies a tale or a Midrash. She never converts to Judaism or Christianity, though when captured into captivity in Rome, she does make the intimate acquaintance of Isis. She is also, in my version, a prostitute, first as a victim, bought and sold into that condition, and then as a triumphant, free, always unrepentant woman. I totally agree that there is no historical evidence that she was a prostitute. A pope made it up for the purposes of a patriarchal story line. That’s why I wanted to reclaim that stereotype and restore its ancient archetypal power. Not that my fictional character gave me much choice. In my novels the role of the apostle to the apostles goes to Mary of Bethany with whom Maeve has a close if prickly friendship. I also do not resonate with the holy bloodline story as so much of Jesus’s–and Maeve’s message–is a challenge to inherited authority and seeing the divine in all your brethren and sistren. But I could not spare Maeve the joys and challenges of raising a child. Suffice it to say that her daughter is a lesbian pirate and horse whisperer. It may sound as if I paid no attention to history at all, but I did. I also made many onsite research trips. I make no claims to historicity, just that if the reader of these novels willingly suspends disbelief, she will have an amazing journey with Maeve, who though not an apostle, undergoes her own apotheosis. I can’t include links in a comment but the name of the series is The Maeve Chronicles.
Thank you again for your work. I am going to order The Hidden Camino today!
Maryam of Magdala was a Jew. Gospel writers painted her as having been possessed by seven devils to discredit her religious authority. The Christian priesthood invented the patriarchal story line of her being a prostitute, also for the purpose of discrediting her religious authority. The theme of “sacred prostitution” was taken up by Victorian scholars who could not, as Louise has written, envision a woman in a spiritual leadership role that was other than sexualized. The formula “woman = sex” is still very much with us, as is framing of sex as being for the benefit of men, and defined in those terms. Sacred sexuality is a thing, but we need another name for that that is not weighed down with the ocean of female tears, that does not evoke the long-standing structures of women’s oppression, whether it is within the slave-brothels or at the hands of individual pimps or women’s desperate measures to put a roof over their heads and food in their childrens’ mouths.
Unfortunately many women now believe, against all historical evidence (not only about MM but about the culture of Jewish Palestina at that time) that she was “a sacred prostitute for the Goddess.” This meme continues to spread, to the point of drowning out our real history in all its expanse and richness. We need to know about women who are spiritual leaders without relationship to a man, whether as disciple or as partner. That is difficult if not impossible within the framework of Christianity. Common Christian women tried mightily to re-center women’s realities, smuggling in goddesses as apocryphal saints, or elevating stories of female resistance as in the complex of Wilgefortis / Ontcommer / Uncumber / Liberata, all of which revolve around rape and / or forced marriage.
What I wrote is fiction. Avowedly. No one knows that much. It is important to be clear about when and where imagination is in play but imagination is a gift.
Thank you, Elizabeth! I do wish I had taken even more photo’s as evidence. However, I also think the photo’s I have, speaks for themselves. Associated professor in history from Elon University, Dr. Jim Brown, said about my book: “Wonderful experience! Louise Sommer shows us that our learning and history must be more than a passive experience.” Refering back to my reply to Anne De Smet above, history is so much more than wars, kings and dates. Go deeper, and most importantly, go experience (see, feel, smell, learn from the locals…) the places you wish to understand.
We do have actual evidence via the Papal letters regarding Mary Magdalene. The really odd thing is; why do they still refer to her as a prostitute? It just doesn’t make sense.
Regarding your own novels (I especially like the lesbian pirate and horse whisperer) I do think it is important to explore our history. As a psychologist I know how powerful storytelling is and how important it is for our healing. So continue with your good work :-)
Thank you, Louise! I am reading your book on kindle. Many thrills of recognition. Great appreciation!
Excellent article, thank you! I hope myself to walk the Camino next year.
So many things come to mind, but, what I have been thinking mostly these days, is that women world-wide have been enslaved, and economically and every other way, slavery is convenient, and once in place, not easily relinquished. I personally see the arising of women worldwide, and in uncovering the her-story of theology as well, as an unprecedented revolt against a long, long institution of slavery. So how could the institution of the Catholic Church, founded in patriarchy, be any other way than to co-op, denigate, and dismiss? The reduction of Magdalene from disciple to prostitute is what the whole institution has done to women, keep them down so the energies of half the human race can remain enslaved. In this way, the arising of women could be seen as the holistic healing of the fragmented psyche of humanity – restoring the Balance.
But the Camino was a Pilgrimage long before Christianity,and like other Pilgrimages, many of the places of pilgrimage drew people to them. Sacred caves, sacred springs that later developed churches and Black Madonnas to preside over them, ley lines and ley crossings………all healing and transformative places that unknown peoples have come to. I guess, in my own journey, I hope to touch that deep Overlay, to add my footsteps.
“But the Camino was a Pilgrimage long before Christianity,..” Lauren, this intrigues me. Actually the whole article intrigues me. But prior to Christianity, why did people make this pilgrimage? Were certain Goddesses/Gods involved? Was it a spiritual journey? and to what end? I have so many questions. I’ll have to read Louise’s book when it comes out next month. Fascinating topic. Thank you, Louise.
Thank YOU – and great questions!
Yes, my book will answer all of your questions, but it was the CRONE goddess the Celt’s worshipped at Finisterra (the original end destination of the Camino.) The CRONE goddess name was Orcabella. You can still see her grave today. It’s just outside Finisterra. You can also find the ‘SUN stone’ and other megalithic structures the Celt’s used for their initiations.
The ritual’s performed at Finisterra were some of the most sacred rituals used by the Celts. So Finisterra was a very sacred place for them. Walking the Camino to Finisterra, was a part of this initiation; an initiation where we experienced ONENESS with our innate spirituality. We were ‘impregnated’ by the divine Spirit so to speak.
This is why Camino Francés had to become Catholic – although it would have been much more logical to have chosen the British pilgrimage to Canterbury and Glastonbury.
I am very happy you liked the article.
Of course you will walk the Camino! As I write in my book: “It is the Camino that has plans for us. Not the other way around.” So believe in your journey, and listen to the signs and your dreams like we have done since the beginning of time.
My book will answer all of your questions and reflections expressed, but you might also find the answer I wrote to Anne De Smet above, interesting. And keep asking questions. They are important!
Finisterra was the original end destination of the Camino and was used by the Celts. Santiago De Compostela is the Catholic end destination, and was built especially for this pilgrimage.
The original Celtic purpose of the Camino is closely linked to the Celtic legend ‘Tir-na-Nóg’ – another Grail story. You might enjoy reading the interviews on my website (look under ‘The Hidden Camino’)