Did You Have to Make Her a Prostitute? by Elizabeth Cunningham

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.

Author: Elizabeth Cunningham

Author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring the feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one's disciple. I am also interfaith minister and a counselor in private practice.

28 thoughts on “Did You Have to Make Her a Prostitute? by Elizabeth Cunningham”

  1. I am in Montreal (great city for Maeve’s Feast Day) and will be out and about in a bit, but I will answer all comments when I can. Happy Feast Day!


  2. I love your (Maeve’s) comparison between stereotype and archetype. Enjoy Montreal; I hear that there’s a great sound and light show at the cathedral that I haven’t yet seen.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I find Mary Magdalene a fascinating study…Once while in Assisi I dreamed that both Mary Magdalene and Mary came to me from the same tower… Because I have a tendency to take myths and books not canonized seriously I suspect Mary M, was never a prostitute – However, I really like that fact that you make it clear that prostitutes are human beings, often women who may not have had other choices (and who cares what people do in bed anyway), and all need to be respected as women – just like the rest of us. Bravo!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Her July 22 feast day is observed by Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican, and Lutheran churches—and unchurched pagan types like me. I think it is a lovely sensual moment in the summer to celebrate. We saw day lilies in a dazzling array of brilliant colors at the Montreal Botanical gardens, also lavender and thyme and all sorts of aromatic plants.


      1. I am not sure when July 22nd was settled upon. I just googled and found that it was only elevated to a Feast Day in 2016 by the current pope. But people have been celebrating her for ages on that day. In southern France her alleged skull is taking out of the crypt at the St Maximin and paraded. (I have an article about it on my website see link in my bio, can’t easily post links in the comment section.) As noted in my article, no one knows much about her historically. Very likely she was not a prostitute. I made that choice as a novelist. What everyone does agree on is that she was one of the first witnesses of the resurrection. In the Gospel of John the only witness. She and, in some gospels, several women went to tell the male followers.


      2. I KNEW there was something special about this day! We awoke to sunlight and blue skies after a day of heavy rain. Thank you for this stellar post, Eliz! You know how I adore the Maeve Chronicles. You wouldn’t believe how often a phrase or incident from the Chronicles slips into my mind. I think Maeve is a permanent resident there. :)

        The Botanical Gardens in Montreal are one of my favorite spots. Perhaps one day you’ll walk through the Lilac Avenue in late May: you can become quite intoxicated with the scents and colors!

        Have a wonderful tour. I can’t wait until the sequel to your mystery comes out!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you so much! The day lilies were blooming along Lilac Avenue! We just happened upon them. What a gift!


  5. Love this, Elizabeth. My favorite fiction series, my favorite lead. I was recently hired as the Anti-Human Trafficking Specialist for my state’s coalition against sexual assault, so this is an issue near and dear to my heart.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Brava! I still think you’re the best writer of Goddess fiction on the planet. I’ve read all your books and understand the apotheoses.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I’m glad you are enjoying Montreal, Elizabeth. It is a marvelous city. If you find a Dominican Friary or Convent there, they are probably celebrating Mary, who has always been special in the Dominican family as the “Proclaimer of the Good News of Resurrection”.
    Outstanding sentence: “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.”
    For those interested, the latest I’ve read of Mary in biblical studies is: She might have been a mature business woman. She is one of the few women not described by her “attachment” to a man – father, husband, guardian, sons. She is named as “from Magdala”, an important centre for cloth dyes – possibly supplying material for the rich and royal. She had a good income – able to support the mission of Jesus and his disciples, without getting a male’s permission. (Judas had a “purse” to manage for the others so there was an income) . She was influential – in our patriarchal society still a cause for conflict. Peter had to “fight for supremacy”. (Think of Donny and Hillary) I wonder what Christianity would be like if Mary had been leader instead of James and Peter. I think that Jesus “goofed” on this one. Visionaries are often not practical.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh I would love to celebrate with Montreal Dominicans. Here helping my daughter settle, but will hold that thought in my heart. Bright Dark Madonna (3rd in The Maeve Chronicles) tells tales about the early church and the various struggles. (There is a chapter called The Penis Wars.) In Maeve’s story Mary of Bethany, Mary/Maeve of Magdala’s friend, is the one who fights fiercely for women to have authority as apostles. Maeve is no one’s disciple. At one point Mary scolds Maeve for missing an important meeting. Maeve (in throes of morning sickness) says “Why do we have so many meetings? We used to have parties!” Party on!


  8. Many western Christians do not know that the eastern Orthodox Church did not accept Mary M as a prostitute. “The Church has recognized her as a disciple and Equal-to-the-Apostles, and we ask for her continuing intercessions for us.” The Church has recognized her as a disciple and Equal-to-the-Apostles, and we ask for her continuing intercessions for us.” http://orthochristian.com/63238.html

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Here is to the eastern Orthodox church! Even with Pope Gregory’s error I believe the identification of her as a prostitute was more tradition than canon. As a novelist I wanted to explode stereotype and explore archetype. And Maeve wouldn’t even stay still for that!


  9. Here is a hymn, I believe for her feast day in Orthodox Church:

    Troparion (Tone 1)

    In keeping His commandments and laws, O holy Mary Magdalene,
    You followed Christ, who for our sake was born of a virgin,
    And in celebrating your most holy memory today,
    We receive forgiveness of sins by your prayers!

    Kontakion (Tone 4)

    When God, who is transcendent in essence,
    Came with flesh into the world, O Myrrhbearer,
    He received you as a true disciple, for you turned all your love toward Him;
    Henceforth you would yourself work many healings.
    Now that you have passed into heaven, never cease to intercede for the world!

    Kontakion (Tone 3)

    Standing before the Cross of the Savior,
    Suffering with the Mother of the Lord,
    The most glorious Mary Magdalene offered praise with tears.
    She cried out: What is this strange wonder?
    He who holds the whole creation in His hand chooses to suffer:
    Glory, O Lord to Your power!


    Liked by 1 person

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