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Tuesday, April 5, 2011

WOMAN


Prostitutes in Antiquity


"Prostitutes usually were slaves, daughters who had been sold or rented out by their parents, wives who were rented out by their husbands, poor women, exposed girls, the divorced and widowed, single mothers, captives of war or piracy, women bought for soldiers -- in short, women who could not derive a livelihood... In Palestine, torn by war, colonial taxation, and famine, the number of such women must have been great." - Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza "In Memory of Her" (1998 edition), p.128


The painting of Mary Magdalene is by Pietro Perugino around 1500, a few years before his contemporary Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa. They both have the same faraway look.










The first reference to Mary Magdalene in the Bible is in Mark’sGospel, in the longer (and disputed) ending of chapter 16.  There we read that Jesus had cast seven demons out of her.  This is where her problems began, for everyone assumes, as Mark may have meant them to assume, that this means she was a prostitute.  Some scholars have connected the seven demons and the seven deadly sins, as if she had them all.  If one takes a more psychological approach, perhaps she suffered from epilepsy and a mild form of manic depression.  Whenever she had an attack and started writhing on the ground, some people evidently thought it was sexy and took it as an invitation to take advantage of her vulnerability.


Surprisingly, that reference in Mark is the only time Mary appears in the Bible by name in any role before Jesus’ death.  But there is another earlier incident that has become identified with her and it appears in all four Gospels.  For example, in Luke’s Gospel 7:36-50, when Christ was in Capernaum he was invited to dinner by Simon the Pharisee.  (The Pharisees were Jewish religious nationalists who resisted the Roman occupation and maintained they were more religious than anybody else, which is why they got their reputation as hypocrites.  They are still around today.)  Simon also invited a “woman known in the town to be a sinner” to be one of the dinner guests, perhaps in order to tempt Christ.  While Christ reclines at a table, this unidentified woman weeps as she stands by him and her tears fall on his feet.  She wipes them with her hair, kisses them and perfumes them with oils.  For Simon the Pharisee this was a vile erotic spectacle of the fallen woman with her sensuously long hair and the extraordinary dinner guest.  Simon acted scandalized in front of the other dinner guests, but Christ turned the tables on him by defending the woman, arguing that as she felt repentant she was therefore pure of heart, implying that Simon, who believed himself to be pure, was a sinner.  Simon missed the point of course.


It may well be the same occasion that is described, only slightly differently, in Mark 14:3-9, Matthew 26:6-13 and John12:1-8.  The dating of these events and the details vary but could this be Mary Magdalene?  In John, the woman actually is identified as Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha that we met in the boat.  She anoints Jesus’ feet and dries them with her hair (in Mark, the woman anoints Jesus’ hair, not his feet).  This is where Pope Gregory’s pronouncement that there was only one Mary – Mary Magdalene -- comes in, for it certainly simplifies things.  But if this woman wasn’t Mary Magdalene, why suppress the role of Mary of Bethany and her sister Martha?  Conspiracy theories abound and some would say that the sisters were in on the planning that would lead to the Crucifixion and Resurrection, in fulfillment of the Messiah prophecy, something the male apostles had no inkling of and which they may have opposed.  In other words, were Mary Magdalene, Mary and Martha, Salome and other women, the true founders of Christianity and did sexuality play a larger role in Christ’s ministry than has been acknowledged?


After Christ’s crucifixion, Mary Magdalene is referred to several times by name and everything turns on whether she was the first to see the risen Christ.  If she was, then this certainly boosts her case, for that means he chose to reveal himself to her, rather than to the men – important symbolism for the rise of the new church.  According to Saint Paul, who probably wrote first, and gospel writers Mark, who wrote second, and Luke, who wrote fourth, Christ made his first appearance to Saint Peter.  Subsequently, however, Matthew (who wrote third) and John (fifth) both said it was to Mary.  This difference of opinion is crucial.  Feminist writers argue that when Mark wrote his Gospel, he came to a halt at chapter 16, verse 8.  By stopping there, they argue, Mark deliberately eliminated the verses (9-20) in which Mary Magdalene tells of her experiences seeing the risen Christ.  The feminists claim that Mark and Luke just couldn’t bear the fact that Christ appeared to a woman first.  They conclude that when those verses are restored, they qualify Mary as the leading apostle.  Most Bibles now include these verses (Mark 16: 9-20), believing them to be inspired, even though the editors are fairly sure Mark didn’t write them.  Thus Mary trumps Saint Peter who, after all, was the one who in a moment of weakness denied knowing Christ three times, while Mary and the other women risked their lives going back to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body.  We presume that Saint Peter won the power struggle, laying the foundations of the Christian church while Mary went off into exile.








SYMBOLIC VIRGINITY


Mary Magdalene as a fallen woman, like Eve the vile seducer or Jezebel or Delilah, who betrayed their men, is a lot more interesting than Mary the apostle.  How great it is to readMartin Luther’s words: “Mary loved Christ with a hearty, lusting, rutting love.”  Rutting is such an evocative word, suggesting Circe’s pig sties and out-of-control carnal affections.  Mary does not fit into the Bible’s notion of the good woman.


As everyone knows, there are only two acceptable roles for women in the Bible’s world: mothers and virgins, ideally both together in the same person, as with the Virgin Mary. 





Symbolic virginity was extremely important back in the Middle Ages.  For example, in the monasteries of Provence and Burgundy, the holy fathers turned Mary Magdalene’s shame into a sacred ritual of olfactory ecstasy that practically mimicked sexual ecstasy.  The Cistercians considered the act of anointing with perfumes, oils, ointments and incense to be vitally important to their spiritual lives and it’s easy to see why.  Who would argue that perfumes do not exert a powerful erotic charge on us?  The tradition spread northwards from Provence where the heat and the scent of lavender and jasmine can be intoxicating.  There were those who argued that feminine perfumes and the makeup used by Provençale women needed to be condemned regularly.  That is also why the Magdalene’s anointing Christ three times has become the subject of vast scholarship seeking to understand this troubling erotic dimension.  For, unfortunately, feminine charms can lead the brothers to their destruction.  Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, whom we met elsewhere, was obliged to ban his monks from seeing even their own mothers and sisters.  As sons of Adam they must repress their sexual desires when Eve called, they must inflict physical discomfort on themselves and transfer their desire onto the sensual pleasure of inhaling deeply.  As they reflected upon the scent of perfumes wafting on the air and listened to the preacher’s sermon, they could approach God in humility.  The incense had to be completely pure.  Just as Mary’s own life was purified, incense could fill the house like a sinner’s repentance filled their souls.  Anointing became a metaphor for conversion.  But the other equally important reason was that the brothers retained their virginity while also experiencing sexual release.





Symbolic virginity was extremely important back in the Middle Ages.  For example, in the monasteries of Provence and Burgundy, the holy fathers turned Mary Magdalene’s shame into a sacred ritual of olfactory ecstasy that practically mimicked sexual ecstasy.  The Cistercians considered the act of anointing with perfumes, oils, ointments and incense to be vitally important to their spiritual lives and it’s easy to see why.  Who would argue that perfumes do not exert a powerful erotic charge on us?  The tradition spread northwards from Provence where the heat and the scent of lavender and jasmine can be intoxicating.  There were those who argued that feminine perfumes and the makeup used by Provençale women needed to be condemned regularly.  That is also why the Magdalene’s anointing Christ three times has become the subject of vast scholarship seeking to understand this troubling erotic dimension.  For, unfortunately, feminine charms can lead the brothers to their destruction.  Saint Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, whom we met elsewhere, was obliged to ban his monks from seeing even their own mothers and sisters.  As sons of Adam they must repress their sexual desires when Eve called, they must inflict physical discomfort on themselves and transfer their desire onto the sensual pleasure of inhaling deeply.  As they reflected upon the scent of perfumes wafting on the air and listened to the preacher’s sermon, they could approach God in humility.  The incense had to be completely pure.  Just as Mary’s own life was purified, incense could fill the house like a sinner’s repentance filled their souls.  Anointing became a metaphor for conversion.  But the other equally important reason was that the brothers retained their virginity while also experiencing sexual release.





This engraving combines elements of alchemy, Christianity and the Kabbalah, and it foreshadows Rosicrucianism. It is from Khunrath's 1595 book, Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae ("Amphitheater of Eternal Wisdom"). The Hebrew lettering and fiery rose petals are artistic but it's the naked woman at the center of the red flames that matters...













The most influential religious women of the medieval era worshipped the feminine spirit associated with the Virgin Mary rather than Mary Magdalene. Consider the great 12th-century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), a contemporary of Eleanor of Aquitaine and Bernard of Clairvaux (both of whom she corresponded with).  She was very forthright about the dangers posed by sexuality but she had a women’s perspective:




"...a woman who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role in coupling with another woman is most vile in My sight, and so is she who subjects herself to such a one in this evil deed..."


"...And men who touch their own genital organ and emit their semen seriously imperil their souls, for they excite themselves to distraction; they appear to Me as impure animals devouring their own whelps, for they wickedly produce their semen only for abusive pollution..."


(translation by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop)







Eleanor confronts Rosamond inside the secret bower. The painting below is by pre-Raphaelite painter Evelyn de Morgan (1855-1919) from around 1905.





But if Hildegard condemned homosexual behavior and masturbation (along with the ordination of women) and praised virginity instead, many nuns in the world of the medieval monasteries found a place for Mary Magdalene’s message of playfulness and sexual curiosity that always came along with her penitence.


For example, below is the Hildegard Codex, "The Universe" (from 1151): is this in fact a sexual image?





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