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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Magdalene’

Well-adjusted people realize that words have different meanings in different contexts.  –  Elizabeth Nolan Brown

Mary Magdalene 

No, it isn’t “orthodoxy” that Mary Magdalene was a whore; quite the opposite, in fact:

A new film about Mary Magdalene sets out to refute the commonly held assumption that she was a prostitute redeemed by Christ…A new film, though, flips the script to show Mary in a new light – as an independent free-thinker who…deserves to be considered as an apostle in her own right…This is deeply contentious territory that flies in the face of the commonly accepted orthodoxy that Mary of Magdala was a prostitute…It is a notion that has been perpetuated for centuries – partly thanks to Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had Mary sing about the “many men” she’s “had” in Jesus Christ Superstar…Put all the evidence together and it is easy to conclude that Mary has been the victim of 1,400 years’ worth of character assassination…

Critic Neil Smith’s madonna-whore complex is on full display here; portraying Mary as an “independent free-thinker” is supportive of the idea she was a harlot.  Before the advent of the currently-fashionable “victim” nonsense, we were always seen as independent, uppity women who won’t mind our “place”; in fact, that’s exactly why patriarchal religions dislike us.  But then, I guess we couldn’t expect much from a mind that thinks it makes sense to blame Jesus Christ Superstar (recorded October 1970) for a 1400-year-old tradition.

The Truth About “The Truth About…”

Another of those nonexistent false sexual assault accusations:

Thomas Mowbray didn’t even know Eboni Sanders.  They both lived [in Pittsburgh, PA] in the same…building…In early February 2016, they ran into each other in the laundry room.  Mr. Mowbray claims Ms. Sanders came on to him and that he declined…Twelve days after that, Pittsburgh police charged Mr. Mowbray with indecent assault after Ms. Sanders claimed that he had groped her…The charges marked the beginning of a nightmarish two years in the criminal justice system for Mr. Mowbray…and his girlfriend, Patrese Thompson …Over that time, Pittsburgh police filed six criminal cases against Mr. Mowbray and two against Ms. Thompson — all based on shocking allegations made by Ms. Sanders of gun-toting assailants, assaults, threatening letters and phone calls, stalking, contract killings and knife-wielding attacks…Mowbray spent more than six months in jail.  But on Feb. 22, the last of the cases was withdrawn by…prosecutors.  Police had finally [accepted] what the couple had long insisted — that Ms. Sanders was lying.  Now she is the one facing criminal charges.  “For two years of our lives, this woman has been using the criminal justice system to terrorize us,” Ms. Thompson said…

Too Close To Home

Everyone harmed by prostitution laws needs to keep suing over them:

Three men arrested in a 2016 prostitution sting in Bellevue are suing King County and Bellevue police for defamation, [explaining that] officials exaggerated their crimes to satisfy a private foundation that provided a grant for the [pogrom]…Keith Emmanuel, Richard Homchick, and Charles Peters…were only charged with second-degree promoting prostitution during the sweep…However, during press conferences and other public appearances, Bellevue Chief Steve Mylett, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, and former sheriff John Urquhart made statements that made it seem like the three men had engaged in crimes like rape and human trafficking…Those statements were made, the suit alleges, to satisfy Demand Abolition…[billionaire sociopath Swanee Hunt’s] foundation that had given the county a grant to [harass sex workers] and [persecute clients].  Demand Abolition gave the prosecutor’s office a $50,000 grant in 2014…and has continued to give grants each year since.  “Defendants have deliberately conflated that prostitution charge with human trafficking and sex slavery as part of a concerted plan to secure private funding by generating publicity and manipulating media coverage of the arrests,” the suit [states]…To keep the grant, the prosecutor’s office had to meet performance targets…increasing the arrests of [men] by 50 percent…

Full of Themselves (#614)

California produces the most horrifying and racist anti-massage-parlor propaganda, hands down:

Doug Bennett, the founder of Magdalene Hope, a [prohibitionist group]…and his [gang] of [busybodies]…[literally spy on Asian-owned massage businesses,] spending their evenings watching the parlors, [stalking] masseuses after they leave and gathering evidence to pass on to the…[cops]…Massage parlors have been [dysphemized as] “modern-day brothels” and “prostitution rings.”  They are [fantasized] by [“trafficking” fetishists] to be storefronts for a complex network of human traffickers shuffling victims throughout the region, multiple [conspiracy theorists, pigs, white supremacists]…and [other tinfoil-hat wearers] said on and off the record…

Naturally, the California Massage Therapy Council is quoted.  Don’t miss the part about how Bennett and his cronies pray together before literally stalking women late at night, and be sure to click on that link in the first line for a look at one of “Magdalene Hope’s” hilariously-bad propaganda ads.

The Widening Gyre (#663)

What hysteria about “crime” in Italy would be complete without bringing in the Mafia?  This lurid, self-righteous mess should serve as a warning to clients to be careful which “journalists” they talk to; this unethical, pompous fantasist fully admits that the only reason she didn’t out a man she interviewed, despite her promise that she wouldn’t, was that he had a wife and children.  Yet she clearly sees herself as moral while the women who honestly sell sex and keep their clients’ confidences are “degraded victims” and the clients who enable them to earn a living are “rapists” who “keep this lurid business of sex slavery alive”.

Opting Out (#700)

“At least one person noted that the UK was at risk of looking like idiots”:

Twitter and other social media companies have so far refused to engage with the government’s plans to introduce age checks to limit underage access to online pornography…Lord Erroll…who chairs the Digital Policy Alliance (DPA)…admitted the ultimate sanction intended for sites that fail to implement AV is unlikely to be applied to Twitter.  Unlike Instagram and Facebook, Twitter has no rules against the posting of sexually explicit material and hosts many accounts that promote publishers and stars of pornography.  “The challenge with that is if you block Twitter, people will just say this is an overreaction, it’s mad, and it would not go down well in public,” Erroll said…

For Those Who Think Legalization is a Good Idea (#737)

India’s pigheaded resistance to decriminalization continues:

On February 28…the Union cabinet approved the Trafficking of Persons (Prevention, Protection and Rehabilitation) Bill, 2018…[it] falls into the familiar trap of trying to use criminal law to solve a social problem.  The IPC already criminalises trafficking…The new Bill introduces 15 new offences on top of this, and introduces numerous…ambigu[ous]…clauses…[which] unfairly target…marginalised actors and rely…heavily on criminalisation…It only creates further confusion by introducing existing offences in the new packaging of “aggravated offences”, adding more layers of bureaucracy and complicating enforcement…The Bill…relies on the raid, rescue and rehabilitation model, which…is nothing but victim detention, resulting in the complete loss of liberty for an adult woman.  The rehabilitation process disregards the wishes and choices of the “rescued” person, especially sex workers.  Such a paternalistic approach…ignores the agency of adult women to determine what is good for them…

Torture Chamber (#770) 

The state wants us to call these subhuman monsters “correctional officers”:

Jailhouse video reveals California sheriff’s deputies watching and sometimes laughing as a schizophrenic man who had been strapped naked to a chair for 46 hours writhes on the floor of his cell, loses consciousness and eventually dies…the county [was forced to pay Andrew] Holland’s family $5 million for his death, which a medical examiner determined was caused by a pulmonary embolism…[directly caused by] the [inhumane] restraint chair…

Legal Is as Legal Does (#811)

What terrible “crimes” these “gangsters” are accused of:  not paying licenses.  Assisting migrants.  Illegally subdividing a building.  Doing their employees’ laundry.  The fiends!

A triad-controlled prostitution racket that brought sex workers from Europe, Asia and mainland China into Hong Kong has been broken up in one of the city’s biggest anti-vice crackdowns with the arrest of 75 people…the syndicate had turned 72 subdivided flats into one-woman brothels…four vice establishments and unlicensed massage centres in the same district were also controlled by the gang…the syndicate had its own laundry centre…and supplied towels to sex workers…police arrested 14 men and 61 women…

Overdue

“Fainting-couch feminism” is a brilliant coinage:

…[Massachusetts politician] Michelle DuBois…has been calling for the removal of a statehouse sign that reads “General Hooker Entrance” (so inscribed because it stands opposite a statue of [US Civil War] General Hooker), which she described as an affront to “women’s dignity”…If that isn’t the ultimate in futile, fainting-couch feminism, I’m not sure what is…attitudes like hers—which treat women as excessively fragile beings, and which posit that female “dignity” is diminished by even so slight an association with sex work as walking under a door that says “hooker”—just props up old-fashioned and patriarchal ideas about sex and gender…

Cops and Robbers (#813)

As I surmised, this sleazy attempt to hurt sex workers’ income is bankrolled by billionaire sociopath Swanee Hunt:

[Pigs trying to harm sex workers] are using cyber-based “patrols” to [harass potential clients]…[in] Los Angeles…Working in partnership with Demand Abolition, a [vanity project] focused on eradicating [sex workers]…sheriff’s deputies post ads to make contact with would-be buyers.  Once phone contact is made, detectives identify themselves as members of the [vice squad]…advise the caller that solicitation is a crime and offer referrals to sex addiction treatment.  Investigators also use electronic “bots” to send [propaganda] text messages to buyers…During the first month of operations this year, nearly 1,900 conversations took place with potential sex buyers which prompted more than 30,000 text warnings designed to disrupt [sex workers’ business]…

Guinea Pigs (#818) 

Every New Orleanian knows that cockroaches can’t stand sunlight:

[After] The Verge reported the existence of a six-year predictive policing collaboration between the New Orleans Police Department and Palantir Technologies…which…was unknown to the public and key members of the city council prior to publication…outgoing…Mayor Mitch Landrieu…[said] his office would not renew its pro bono contract with Palantir, which has been extended three times since 2012…The mayor did not respond to repeated requests for comment from…media since news of the partnership broke.  There is also potential legal fallout from the revelation…[which was not included in] discovery evidence [for a number of criminal trials]…

The Mote and the Beam (#818)

When an incredibly bad law skates through a legislature, follow the money:

FOSTA…offer[s] a powerful incentive for online platforms to police the speech of users and advertisers.  A perceived violation of a state’s anti-trafficking laws could lead to authorities seeking civil or criminal penalties, or a barrage of lawsuits.  So, why are movie studios involved at all in this debate?  Hollywood is lobbying for laws that will force online intermediaries to shut down user speech.  That’s what they’ve been seeking since practically the beginning of the Internet…For legacy software and entertainment companies, breaking down [Section 230] is another road to a controlled, filtered Internet—one that looks a lot like cable television.  Without safe harbors, the Internet will be a poorer place—less free for new ideas and new business models.  That suits some of the gatekeepers of the pre-Internet era just fine…An Internet that’s policed by “copyright bots” is what major film studios and record have advocated for more than a decade now…

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Every year on her feast day, I honor St. Mary Magdalene; even though the Church does not officially recognize her as the patron of whores, she certainly is in the public imagination.  And if beliefs have power, that recognition of sacred whoredom in the minds of millions has far more metaphysical and philosophical weight than any official Church designation.

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The sacred whore may have largely ceased to exist in the mundane world of matter, but she still exists in the human unconscious.  And in the West, it has pleased her for a number of centuries now to work under the stage name Mary Magdalene.  –  “Magdalene’s Day”

Today is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, who was almost certainly not a whore; however, as I’ve explained before, that hardly matters.  Most people raised in the Christian tradition think of her as the patroness of whores, and that’s more important than any official designation.

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There were three who always walked with the Lord: Mary, his mother, and her sister, and Magdalene, the one who was called his companion. His sister and his mother and his companion were each a Mary.  –  The Gospel of Philip

Today is the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, long considered to be either a prostitute or “reformed” prostitute and therefore the subject of special devotion by many Catholic (and Orthodox, and Anglican, and Lutheran) whores.  As I have explained before, there is no canonical evidence for this; the idea seems to date to a sermon  delivered in 591 by Pope Gregory the Great, in which she was identified as a repentant harlot (possibly by identification with the “adulterous woman” whom Jesus rescues from being stoned in the 8th chapter of John).  But the four canonical Gospels are not the only ones:

…among those used by Gnostic congregations (and subsequently excluded from the canon) were four more Gospels:  Thomas, Philip, Mary and Judas, all but the last of which assign a much more prominent role to Mary Magdalene than the four canonical ones; indeed, the Gospel of Mary is actually attributed to her.  These Gospels refer to Mary as Jesus’ “companion” and describe him as loving her more than his other disciples and often kissing her on the mouth…the Gospel of Mary identifies her as the unnamed “disciple Jesus loved” mentioned so often in John…

Pope Gregory may well have been aware of these gospels, and perhaps intentionally conflated the Magdalene with the adulteress as a way of smearing her in a time of increasingly-patriarchal Church practices and increasingly-prudish Church attitudes toward sex.  It is possible that one of the reasons Mary the Harlot caught on so quickly as a mythic figure was that she built upon and supplanted the clearly sexual (though not specifically professional) portrayal in the Gnostic gospels, oral traditions of which could well have survived their suppression two centuries before Gregory’s sermon.  I might even point out that she could well be viewed as a Christianized Venus, just as the Blessed Mother is a Christianized mother-goddess and Jesus himself a Christian solar deity.  The actual biographical facts of the lives of the human beings upon whom the mythic figures are based is of no more importance than whether Buddha could actually perform miracles, King Arthur pulled a sword from a stone or Mohammed flew into heaven on a winged horse; as in the case of Saint Nicholas (the official patron saint of whores), the mythology which has developed around the historical Mary Magdalene has a life of its own independent of the mundane facts.  The process of apotheosis creates a new being separate and distinct from the long-dead person whose name he or she shares, and that being inhabits the irrational realm of faith rather than the rational one of fact.

Simply put, Mary Magdalene the symbol is an entity wholly distinct from Mary Magdalene the first-century Jewish woman, and whether the latter was a whore, wife or mere follower to Yeshua bar Yosef is immaterial to the power of that symbol.  For centuries, the name “Magdalene” has been synonymous with “prostitute” in Christendom; when in the 13th century the idea arose for the first time that whores were “fallen” women in need of “rescue”, the asylums established for the purpose were called “Magdalene homes”.  Though few of these institutions survived the Black Death, the movement was revived in the mid-18th century and the number of such places multiplied with the rise of the “white slavery” myth a century later; though they again died out in most places in the early 20th century, they continued on in Ireland until 1996.  In various parts of the British Isles, the term “Magdalene” became “Maggie”, and applied either to whores in general (in England) or ones confined to Magdalene laundries (in Ireland).  The working girls in a number of folk songs are named “Maggie”, and of course Stephen Crane gave us Maggie:  A Girl of the Streets; some of y’all have probably guessed that I chose the name “Maggie” for a reason, and perhaps noticed that the name “Maggie McNeill” has a similar cadence to “Mary Magdalene”.

So even though I well understand that Mary Magdalene may not have “really” been a member of my profession, I also understand the difference between fact and truth.  The sacred whore may have largely ceased to exist in the mundane world of matter, but she still exists in the human unconscious.  And in the West, it has pleased her for a number of centuries now to work under the stage name Mary Magdalene.

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Then Mary wept and said to Peter, My brother Peter, what do you think?  Do you think that I have thought this up myself in my heart, or that I am lying about the Savior?  Levi answered and said to Peter, Peter you have always been hot tempered.  Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries.  But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her?  Surely the Savior knows her very well.  That is why He loved her more than us. –  The Gospel of Mary 9:5-9

Repentant Mary Magdalene by Giampietrino (c 1525)Today is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene, long identified in Christian folklore as a prostitute (repentant or otherwise).  Now, there is no Biblical evidence to that effect; Luke describes her as a woman “from whom seven demons had come out”, presumably one of Jesus’ miraculous cures.  In fact, the four canonical Gospels say virtually nothing about her prior to the crucifixion, though all four identify her as the person to whom the resurrected Jesus first appeared.  But as I explained in “Mary Magdalene”, the canonical Gospels are not the only ones:

…Gnostics were driven from Christian congregations early in the 4th century and their doctrines declared heretical in 388.  Before this time there was no official consensus on which texts actually constituted the Bible, and among those used by Gnostic congregations (and subsequently excluded from the canon) were four more Gospels:  Thomas, Philip, Mary and Judas, all but the last of which assign a much more prominent role to Mary Magdalene than the four canonical ones; indeed, the Gospel of Mary is actually attributed to her.  These Gospels refer to Mary as Jesus’ “companion” and describe him as loving her more than his other disciples and often kissing her on the mouth; indeed, the Gospel of Mary identifies her as the unnamed “disciple Jesus loved” mentioned so often in John.  These clear expressions of favoritism appear to have perturbed the male disciples, particularly Peter, who is said to have argued with Jesus about his allowing a woman to be not only equal to the male apostles, but actually preferred to them…

This argument is portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar, though changed in two ways:  the critic is Judas rather than Peter, and the criticism is about her being a hooker rather than a gender-hierarchy thing.  The tradition of her being Jesus’ (perhaps sexual) companion seems to have survived the suppression of the books, and “in a sermon in 591 Pope Gregory the Great identified Mary Magdalene as a repentant harlot, possibly by identification with the ‘adulterous woman’ whom Jesus rescues from being stoned in the 8th chapter of John.”

So even though Mary was never the patron saint of prostitutes (that role fell, interestingly enough, to Saint Nicholas), the legend that she had been a whore was a popular one; hence the application of her name to “Magdalene homes”, the asylums for the “cleansing” of ex-prostitutes which became popular in the 13th century and then again in the 18th.  The most notorious of these were of course Ireland’s Magdalene Laundries, the last of which only closed in 1996; the long-awaited report on the atrocities committed therein was released only last February, and the nuns who ran them are still trying to evade responsibility.  The legend also inspired me to have the sacred harlots in last week’s fictional interlude all take the first name “Magdalene”, just as regular nuns all take the first name “Mary”; in our world the Catholic Church officially repudiated that doctrine in 1969, but as you probably noticed a lot of things are different in the world where that story takes place.

But canonical or not, the legend is still a popular one; its only real rival is the theory that she was actually Jesus’ wife, and that one is of comparatively recent vintage (though its proponents claim it existed as a secret doctrine since the people it concerns were still alive).  In movies, books and the popular imagination Mary Magdalene is still the whore (repentant or otherwise) who was closer than any other person to Jesus, and I think it very likely that it will continue thus for a very long time to come.Mary Magdalene in the Cave by Hugues Merle (1868)

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After this, Jesus traveled about from one town and village to another, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom of God. The Twelve were with him, and also some women who had been cured of evil spirits and diseases: Mary (called Magdalene) from whom seven demons had come out; Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household; Susanna; and many others. These women were helping to support them out of their own means.  –  Luke 8:1-3

Like many Catholic girls of affluent or upper-middle-class families from south Louisiana, I attended an all-girl Catholic high school run by nuns.  And though my path is quite different from theirs and would undoubtedly horrify most of those good ladies, I have nothing but respect for them as a group and will still greet them politely upon meeting them in public.  The education they gave me has served me well, and despite our different philosophies and spiritual beliefs we have in common a decision to pursue a life different from that of most women in modern society.

Nuns, like everyone else, are individuals.  Some are strict, others easygoing; some are stupid, others brilliant.  They can be friendly or reserved, dogmatic or liberal, pompous or humble; and so it goes without saying that any girl educated by them will have some nuns she remembers fondly and others she would prefer to forget.  My favorite was one of my English teachers, a learned and spunky little lady who always said what she thought whether anyone liked it or not, and whose ideas were rather liberal for her generation; it was by her that I was first exposed to the idea that there are many paths to God, and we are called upon to follow the one which our hearts tell us is right despite what others might think.  For the year she taught me and whenever she met me in the halls afterward, she often spoke her mind to me in terms the other girls sometimes considered shocking, but always did so with a twinkle in her eye which let me know that it was said with genuine affection and phrased in a way that she knew would get my attention.  For example, at my senior prom (which she chaperoned) she said to me “Miss McNeill, you are the only woman I know who can wear an evening gown and still look naked.”  I remember especially that I was struck by her use of the word “woman” rather than “girl”, considering that I was 16 at the time.  And on a much earlier occasion, when we were discussing patron saints in a literary context, she gestured toward my blouse (which was, as usual, not buttoned as high as it was supposed to be) and asked, “Who’s your patron saint, Miss McNeill?  St. Mary Magdalene?”

“Mary Magdalene” by Anthony Sandys, circa 1860

And that is my rather roundabout introduction to this brief discussion of St. Mary Magdalene, whose feast day is today (July 22nd).  For many centuries the tradition has endured that she was a repentant prostitute (which is obviously what Sister was referring to that day), but is there any real evidence of that?  And if she wasn’t a whore, what was she?

First of all, she was one of four women named Mary mentioned in the Gospels (the other three being Jesus’ mother, James’ mother and Mary of Bethany); she is distinguished from them by the adjective “Magdalene”, which has generally been interpreted to mean she was from the town of Magdala on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.  However, “Magdala” in Aramaic (the common tongue of the area at the time) means either “tower” or “exalted”.  So her name might also mean “Mary of the Tower” or “Mary the Exalted”, both of which have implications we’ll look at a little farther down.  With the exception of the reference which forms the epigram above, she is not mentioned at all in the canonical Gospels until the crucifixion, which she is said to have witnessed to the end along with Jesus’ mother and some other women.  All four Gospels state that she was the person to whom the resurrected Jesus first appeared, after which she promptly vanishes from the Bible.  So how in the world was she ever identified as a prostitute?

The first clue may lie in the events of the 4th century, a time when the Church changed dramatically in several ways.  The most important of these is probably the harsh suppression of Gnosticism, a pre-Christian mystical tradition which became interwined with early Christianity until the Church fathers began to see it as divisive; Gnostics were driven from Christian congregations early in the 4th century and their doctrines declared heretical in 388.  Before this time there was no official consensus on which texts actually constituted the Bible, and among those used by Gnostic congregations (and subsequently excluded from the canon) were four more Gospels:  Thomas, Philip, Mary and Judas, all but the last of which assign a much more prominent role to Mary Magdalene than the four canonical ones; indeed, the Gospel of Mary is actually attributed to her.  These Gospels refer to Mary as Jesus’ “companion” and describe him as loving her more than his other disciples and often kissing her on the mouth; indeed, the Gospel of Mary identifies her as the unnamed “disciple Jesus loved” mentioned so often in John.  These clear expressions of favoritism appear to have perturbed the male disciples, particularly Peter, who is said to have argued with Jesus about his allowing a woman to be not only equal to the male apostles, but actually preferred to them.

The early Christian church was fairly egalitarian by the standards of its time and Gnosticism was even more so, but the masculine hierarchy descended from Peter (who became the first pope) had by the 4th century changed the Church into a far more traditionally patriarchal institution which frowned upon the idea of Jesus favoring a woman above men.  The Pauline view of sex as inherently sinful grew along with the institution, and by this time the doctrine of Jesus’ celibacy was firmly entrenched and priests were generally expected to treat their wives like sisters; it should therefore come as no surprise that Gospels which not only showed Jesus as preferring a woman but clearly displaying sexual interest in her would be suppressed.  But just because a text is forbidden to the common people doesn’t mean the leadership is ignorant of its contents, so it is perhaps due to this tradition (and the desire to combat persistent oral tradition of it) that in a sermon in 591 Pope Gregory the Great identified Mary Magdalene as a repentant harlot, possibly by identification with the “adulterous woman” whom Jesus rescues from being stoned in the 8th chapter of John.

Greek Orthodox icon of Mary with red Easter egg.

The early Church was not remotely as monolithic as it later became; there were wide doctrinal differences from diocese to diocese and even between congregations, but from the 4th century on a long series of councils, purges and declarations of heresy shaped the Church into a form more closely resembling its modern one.  The most important of these for our purposes was the Great Schism of 1054, which divided the Church into what we now know as the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faiths.  The primary reason for this split was of course a power struggle; the Pope claimed jurisdiction over all other bishops, while the four Eastern Patriarchs considered the Bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) and that of Constantinople to be equal as the dual emperors of the divided Roman Empire had been.  The Pope had long struggled to impose Western dogma over Eastern churches, which in many cases disagreed with it; one of the controversial doctrines was that of the celibacy of priests, which had become mandatory in the West but fallen out of favor in the East.  Given these differences, it is unsurprising that the growing Western view of Mary Magdalene as redeemed whore never caught on in the East, where she was instead portrayed as a woman so virtuous that a popular legend claimed Satan thought she would be chosen as the mother of Jesus and therefore sent Luke’s “seven demons” to trouble her.  In Greek tradition she is said to have invented the Easter egg when, in an audience with the Emperor Tiberius, she turned eggs blood-red (the traditional color of Easter eggs in Greece) as a sign of the resurrection of Jesus and thereby gained his permission to preach in Rome.

In the West, however, the idea of Mary Magdalene as a reformed harlot quickly took hold; she was generally depicted in art as having long red hair which she left immodestly displayed (rather than covered by a veil as was traditional in the Middle East even then).  She became the symbol of penitent sinners, especially prostitutes; because of this her name was applied to the “Magdalene homes,” asylums for the “reclamation” of prostitutes which began to spring up all over Europe early in the 13th century.  Conditions in these homes ranged from the tolerable to the terrible depending on their endowment and management; a few cared for ex-whores indefinitely while attempting to find them husbands, but the majority were semi-prisons in which the women were “cleansed” by teaching them the “value of honest work” (i.e. unpaid drudgery) with a harsh regimen of long hours, short rations and strict rules while supervisors read from the Bible or various didactic tracts.

Irish “Magdalene laundry”, circa 1910

Most of the Magdalene homes died out after the Black Death decimated 14th century Europe, but a few survived the centuries and the movement actually experienced a revival throughout the English-speaking world in the mid-18th century.  Their numbers dramatically increased with the rise of the “purity movement” in the late 19th century, but by the early 20th their treatment of ex-whores had become so harsh that only the truly desperate were willing to go there and they largely vanished in all countries but Ireland, where they were called “Magdalene laundries” because the inmates were used as washerwomen.  The last of these laundries only closed in 1996 in the wake of a public scandal over physical and sexual abuse in such facilities; the Irish government is still investigating the staggering number of claims against them.

Though the Catholic Church repudiated the doctrine of Mary the Harlot in 1969, the popular image continues in movies such as Jesus Christ Superstar (where I first encountered it at the age of 12), The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ.  Other media have suggested the possibility that she may actually have been Jesus’ wife; this idea was popularized in 1982 by the book Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which suggested that the Catholic Church had suppressed the knowledge of Jesus’ marriage not only to support the doctrine of priestly celibacy, but also to prevent his blood descendants by Mary from challenging the authority of the Pope.  Those familiar with The Da Vinci Code will of course recognize this premise, which was borrowed from the earlier nonfiction work.  A few Neopagan writers have even proposed that Mary Magdalene may have been a temple prostitute for one of the mystery religions such as the very popular Isis cult; they suggest this could not only be the source of the seemingly contradictory harlot and holy woman traditions, but also explain her name (“exalted tower” could equal “temple”, thus “Mary Magdalene” = “Mary of the Temple”).

We may never know the true story of Mary Magdalene; across such a stretch of time it is difficult enough to verify details of the lives of kings, much less those of low-born women.  But no matter what the truth may be, I think it is likely that her name will continue to be associated with our profession, at least in Western popular culture, for a very long time to come.

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