When I toured with The Passion of Mary Magdalen, opening by belting out the first paragraphs of the novel’s prologue in song, (ending with the line “when only a whore is awake!”) that question almost always came up. In celebration of Mary Magdalen’s feast day, I’d like to offer answers that continue to evolve.
There is no scriptural evidence that Mary Magdalen was a prostitute. In a sermon, 6th century Pope Gregory I gave as his opinion: “This woman, whom Luke calls a sinner and John calls Mary, I think is the Mary from whom Mark reports that seven demons were cast out.” (This confusion and proliferation of Marys inspired me to make a joke. Q: How many holy Marys does it take to change a lightbulb? A: I don’t know. I keep losing count.)
In fact, very little is known about Mary Magdalen. There are fourteen references to her in the Gospels, then she disappears from the New Testament. The possibly Gnostic gospel of Mary dates to the 2nd century CE, and there is no scholarly consensus as to which Mary is the source of the tradition. Early on Mary Magdalen gave history the slip and took on an extended life in legends, which take her to Ephesus as well as to France where her alleged fingernails, bones, and skull reside and continue to be venerated.
All of which makes Mary Magdalen a novelist’s dream. But why depict her as a prostitute? Many people now see her as a key disciple, who should have been the heir to Jesus’s teachings instead of Peter. Others see her as his bride, the mother of a sacred bloodline. Why compound what scholars now consider a pope’s error and perpetuate what many people view as a degrading stereotype?
Answer one: Mary Magdalen as an archetypal force first came to me through drawings as Madge, a 20th century woman, who supported her painting by working as a prostitute. (She also made a recent appearance in FAR’s pages). In her novel-in-cartoon, Madge becomes a peace activist and founds P.O.W.E.R (Prostitutes Opposing War Everywhere Rise). When Madge agreed to star in my novels as Maeve, the Celtic Magdalen, she made it clear that she would not renounce—or repent!—her life as a prostitute.
For answer two, a quote from Nickie Roberts, a former prostitute and prostitutes’ rights advocate from her book Whores in History: “To this day the whore stigma affects all women, whether or not we subscribe to the good girl/bad girl dichotomy which can be traced back to the beginning of patriarchal thought. Any woman can be branded a whore if she steps out of line.” When women see prostitutes as other than or less than ourselves, we give power to the patriarchy. Maeve is bent on reclaiming that power.
Maeve notes: “Stereotypes are flat, one dimensional, like the donkey you blindly pin the tail on. Archetypes are rich, lush, juicy…you can’t keep a good archetype down.” The intent of stereotyping is to belittle and control. An archetype can be expansive, liberating, and subversive, challenging the status quo.
Answer three: Like some 20 million people worldwide today, Maeve is a victim of human trafficking: captured, drugged, and then put up for sale on a slave block in the Roman forum. There are an estimated 42 million sex workers in the world, trafficked, forced by economic necessity, and some working by choice, all of whom deserve human rights. Many contemporary interpretations of Mary Magdalen remove her from their ranks. Maeve chooses to stand with the prostitutes of her time and ours. Being a prostitute, a spiritual leader, a bride (she and her pal married over my objection that she was ruining my archetype), and a mother (of a gender queer pirate) are not mutually exclusive.
When Maeve and her sister-whores, priestesses of Isis all (Isis having done a stint as a prostitute herself in the Temple of Astarte) escape from Rome, they found a holy whorehouse in Magdala, Galilee, reviving a practice that had died out long before the first century CE. Their credo: to welcome everyone as the god-bearing stranger, not only clients but anyone in need. In the course of their lives, Maeve, who traces her lineage to the goddess Brigid, and Jesus, whose chroniclers trace his lineage to King David, both come to understand that there is something more essential than bloodlines. Here Maeve welcomes a Jewish widow whose family’s land has been confiscated by a tax collector.
“At Temple Magdalen we are all exiles. I was exiled by my own people; Berta and Dido were captured and taken far from their homes. Even Paulina, a Roman, well, let’s just say she had to leave town in a hurry. You were driven off your land. Our Isis was a wanderer, too, for a long time, looking for the body of her murdered lover.
“We don’t come from the same places; we don’t have husbands or families, just each other and this place to be for now. I want the people who come here to be able to eat if they’re hungry, heal if they’re sick, rest if they’re tired. I want us to be able to dance together and sing. Can that be? I don’t know. I only know you are welcome here—not as a slave but as a companion.”
But did I have to make her a prostitute? Twenty-seven years have passed since I began the twenty-year odyssey of researching and writing The Maeve Chronicles. Yes, I had a choice, one I made over and over again: whether or not to listen to the story Maeve wanted to tell. I am glad I did.
Happy Feast Day of Mary Magdalen, however you understand and celebrate her.
Note: I will be traveling on July 22, so I probably won’t be able to respond to comments on that day, but I will when I return. Thanks!
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. She has recently released the 25th anniversary edition of The Return of the Goddess, A Divine Comedy. Her graphic novels The Book of Madge and Madge Returns, having sold out as a signed limited edition, are now available in one volume from online purveyors. She is also the author of three collections of poems as well as the classic cozy mystery novel Murder at the Rummage Sale. She has just completed a sequel. A fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute, she lives in New York State’s Hudson Valley.