Since I began writing for FAR in July 2012, I have written about Mary Magdalen, or excerpted a passage from one of my novels, near or on her July 22 Feast Day. For why I made the controversial choice to depict her as a prostitute, see last year’s post. The below excerpt is from The Passion of Mary Magdalen. I made this selection in remembrance of all the refugees in the world today. In this passage, Judith, a Jewish widow whose family was driven from the land by tax collectors, returns to the place where Maeve (my fictional Celtic Magdalen) and her friends have recently founded a Temple to Isis on the outskirts of Magdala. Maeve has just invited Judith to join them. (Edited for brevity.)
She stared at me, her eyes full of anger and longing.
“I will not be a slave and a whore where I was once a wife, the one who made the challah bread, who said the Sabbath prayers over it. This was our place, my husband’s and mine. We brought the best we had to the temple, the finest oil and wine, the unblemished kid—”
“Goats? You kept goats? You know how to make cheese?”
She sat quietly for a moment before she answered. “How can I live here with you?” she wondered. “I don’t understand.”
I waited, too, before I spoke, waited for the words to be given to me. The warm afternoon air was still. I could hear bees buzzing, and even at this distance I could hear the sound of the spring water finding its way to the lake.
“I don’t understand either,” I finally spoke, and I felt Judith’s listening deepen. “Where I come from, the islands to the north of Gaul, where the Romans reach but have not yet grasped, we call ourselves the combrogos, the companions. We live in tribes, some bigger and stronger than others, some warring with others. Still, we are the companions. The children of Israel are all related, too, though you may disagree among yourselves. It’s the same with Berta and Dido’s peoples, I’m sure. What else do any of us have in common except that the Romans want us all to be their slaves and make their bread for them?
“Here 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.”
Judith’s eyes never left my face; they were huge, dark, and hungry.
“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.”
I began to pick up the wine flask and the cheese that remained, thinking to give Judith some time alone in what had been her family’s olive grove.
“What is your name?” the woman said, as if it were an urgent matter for her to know, as if she knew what a difficult question it was for me.
“Mary?” I tried the name for the first time. “Mary of Magdala. At least that’s what your god’s angels call me.” It still didn’t sound right. “But you can call me Maeve.”
Judith never did call me Maeve. On the side of the angels, she always referred to me as Mary when she spoke to me or of me. She is greatly to blame for why I am remembered as Mary in the Gospels. Except that I can’t really blame her for anything, for I don’t know how Temple Magdalen would have managed without her. How she reconciled herself to living with a bunch of idol-worshipping whores remains a mystery to me, but once she made up her mind, she never second-guessed herself.
Judith’s arrival marked the beginning of what I like to call our unintentional community. We did not have strict rules or exacting requirements for membership. We were whores; we took all comers, whether they were suppliants seeking the embrace of the goddess or homeless laborers seeking work and shelter or sick people seeking healing. People came and went. There were seldom more than we could handle; for there was a built-in self-selection process: the censorious, the self-important and the humorless tended to leave in a hurry.
Our rules were simple if eccentric. “Worship whoever the hell you please” was one. Some of us sang hymns to Isis morning and evening, vesting and garlanding her graven image. All of us shared in a Shabbat feast with Judith presiding and reciting prayers in Hebrew. “Don’t say it: Sing it” was another Temple Magdalen tradition. When conflicts arose, they were aired in song. Try singing the next time you have a beef with someone. (Recitative: I’m sick of washing the dishes you leave in the si-ink!)You and your adversary will probably end up laughing till you cry and fall into each other’s arms to keep from falling down. That’s what happened at Temple Magdalen more often than not…
Somehow there was always enough—enough help with the harvest, enough food to go around, enough people to mind the children or tend the sick. Maybe it was all the dancing we did on Friday nights after the Shabbat meal. Those who couldn’t dance clapped and drummed and sang wild, wailing Middle Eastern melodies. We were all in the rhythm, trusting to the ebb and flow, the waxing and waning of moon, sun, and seasons.
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. Her novels The Wild Mother and The Return of the Goddess have both been released in 25th anniversary editions. She is also the author of Murder at the Rummage Sale. The sequel, All the Perils of this Night, will be published in 2020. Tell Me the Story Again, her fourth collection of poems, is forthcoming Fall, 2019. An interfaith minister, Cunningham is in private practice as a counselor. She is also a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute.
Categories: Ancestors, Art, Books, Community, Family, female friendship, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Foremothers, Gender and Power, General, Herstory, Interdependence of Life, Jewish Feminism, Mary, Sabbath