Mary, called Magdalene
Mary, called Magdalene by Margaret George
good books, fiction books, best books, book review
There, on the cover, you see the famous painting entitled, St. Mary Magdalene Approaching the Sepulchre by Giovanni Girolamo Savoldo (c.1480-1548) which I’ve seen on a couple of books regarding the subject: most notably this one and a 2nd non-fictional titled “Mary Magdalen Myth and Metaphor” by Susan Haskins. The latter I had lying around in a stack of books that I would pick up now and again. It’s interesting, but being the non-fiction that it is, can get a little stale. Margaret George takes mass quantities of research and history and turns them into readable fiction history. Fiction perhaps, but they offer new insights into aspects one, namely me, may not have considered.
The painting on the cover depicts the moment in which, according to the gospel of John, Mary, weeping into her cloak hears the risen Christ call her. The moment she lifts and turns her face is the moment that Mr. Savoldo tried to capture. It’s not my favorite Magdalene painting, but it captures a pivotal moment in time for women—never mind Christians. Culminating all three books that I’ve mentioned plus a host of other types of research M.George found one of the most slandered yet mysterious personalities that Jesus would have been hanging out with. It all points to one thing: a lowly woman was allowed the honor of first seeing the risen (in the Christian tradition) King.
I prefer to think of the Magdalene as Donatello did (c.1457) in his wooden sculpture of the subject in the Web Gallery of Art: Donatello’s Magdalene
One would say that Donatello fashioned his statue after the story that was directly commencing the ascension Mary traveled to Ephesus and on her journey fasted, wore the “wild hair” clothing and ultimately became sainted. However, my review doesn’t cover that since the subject book never tries to iron any of that out. Thankfully so.
So how does one create a story about a woman who is only mentioned a few times in the four canonical gospels of the Bible? Of course, you would start with the book itself. Then you would probably move to the Gnostic gospels since we would be abstaining from religious dogma or cliquish practices caused by those things and deal with them with the same historical value. Then we’d find ancient records, documents, letters and use the lives of other women living during the same period and then the Gospel of Mary. From there we’d spice it up a little, encourage the reader to become involved and bring the character back to the one single point: the woman who not only became the first apostle of Christ but ushered in the beginning of Christianity as we know it. Now I dunno about you—but I’d say the Magdalene played a pretty significant part- but all she’s known for is seven devils, playing the painted up harlot or being “unclean.” You have to love mainstream media and biblical interpretation.
Enter a couple of thousand years, crazy ideas, and innocent mix-ups concerning the women of the bible. Suddenly this incredible personality is a penitent whore, prostitute, lover of the Christ and demonic possessed pitiful excuse for a soul. If you would decide to read this book, you have to toss out every idea you’ve been coerced into believing. First, read the four gospels that it all began with and then jump into M. George’s novel with both feet. Don’t confuse Mary’s. Think about the single fact that Mary, called Magdalene, was the only woman Jesus referred to without a man’s name somehow attached. Mary, mother of Jesus. Mary, mother of James. Joanna, wife of Herod’s clerk. Susanna, wife of… etc. Then came Mary, called Magdalene.
The subject book is fiction and begins with the childhood of Mary. She grows up in you, and an upper middle class strict Jewish family are taken to a time when many Jews, including her family, were making arrangements to travel to Jerusalem for the Feast of Weeks. Mary is from the fishing village of Magdala, and her father runs a fish shipping company. Herod even requests the Magdala fish for his banquets. During the trip, Mary’s family meets many other Jewish families traversing the distance on foot. Most notably one such family of Joseph, Mary, James, and Jesus. This was the only time I had a problem with the book. The dialogue that passes between pre-teens doesn’t fly; I don’t care what year it is. I’ve never heard any 8-9 year-olds say some of the things that passed between them. Sure, I can see Jesus waxing exceedingly philosophical but not the others. However, after this little issue, I was hooked. Hooked because this woman and her fictionalized account were told in a way that I could picture every piece of ancient life in a way never before described.
It is at this point in the story that you are introduced to the strict observance of Jewish law that Mary and her family are constricted by. How manacled they are by the simplest of tasks: the rules which included the most notable one that will affect her for the rest of her life—idolatry. The relish her father, Nathan, takes in instilling in his family that even the slightest offenses will cause not only embarrassment in his community but the necessary penance that must be observed.
While traveling the distance to Jerusalem and bedding down in the tents, one night Mary finds an object that captivates her. Oh, sure, we don’t know what that’s like: as a child a doll or a toy, as an adult a piece of jewelry or sculpture (ahem). Mary cleans the little obviously female statue and is quickly enamored by its beauty. So much so that she hides it from her father who would undoubtedly bash it to pieces and then sacrifice more animals than a floor-length mink coat. Upon arrival at Jerusalem, you are given a spectacular description of the Feast and the temple. The political mood and how much friction between the Romans, Jews and Gentiles were building up to a violent crescendo upon a rock.
As the story goes further, you are introduced to a Gentile friend of Mary’s that she hides from her parents. Mary learns to read with a friend and can see the world in a whole different perspective. It is at this young age that Mary begins having emotional issues that could be described as one of the first demons to start that fateful journey. Not that possessions weren’t prolific—not that they aren’t now. Just that to understand the “seven devils” theory I believe you have to try to understand where all that started. M. George decides to bring it on by voices Mary might hear or self-mutilation. I concur with that, and any pre-teen girl could very well point out a few friends if not themselves who deal with the same “demons.”
In spite of the emotional problems she suffers, Mary and her parent’s brow-raising skepticism of her future, a suitable husband, Joel, comes along and quickly Mary is content in married life. Throughout the subsequent chapters, the reader is reminded of Mary’s weakness for the precious object she found those early years traversing the distance to Jerusalem. M. George doesn’t try to sway the reader into believing any of the relationships Mary had with any “demons” were all of her raving imaginations or evil spirits in the 1st person. That’s why I liked the whole idea—because she was only giving you the rough outline—if you as a strict traditionalist believed that those demons were undoubtedly definable, real beings—then so be it. If you as a skeptic thought those demons were only figments of a distressed imagination—then you’re right as well. We all know how they arrived wasn’t the vital detail of Mary’s relationship with Jesus. What she does offer you is that just like in our times it takes a door to open our minds to the freedom of allowing rampant evil to take hold. Doesn’t matter what religion you are or if you have any at all. The best thing is we cannot deny it.
Ultimately, Mary bargains with her Goddess so that she may be able to bear a long sought after the child. Oh, she keeps her home by strict Jewish law, but sometimes she sneaks out the beautiful idol and finds guidance. Enter the goddess Ashara. The child, a daughter, is born and motherhood begins. As with most women who have children there comes along with it a particular depression, mood or opening of the world not there before. Unfortunately, this opens Mary to a whole array of emotions never experienced and pushes the lid wide open. Unable to contain the madness she finally tells her husband of the idol and starts the wheels moving. They visit a local priest, think things are okay for a while, but they go right back where they were–much like any addiction can have a grasp on you.
After traveling to see a high priest known far and wide for exorcising demons, he tells Mary that she must take the Nazirite vow to cleanse her spirit. After 40 days of the Jewish method of cleansing, she still finds her soul locked up tight with evil spirits as bedfellows. This is how you can understand why a woman “of her own substance” would leave everything and everyone to find a person who might unlock the chains to this dark prison she lives. More frightening than any Halloween tale I’ve ever heard is the ordeal of Mary in the caves that the high priest directed her out of exasperation. While trying to feign off 3 or 4 personified demons, she only invites others to join them. Maddening!! Guess you had to be there–it was the perfect description of literally living on the edge of insanity.
Enter the fateful meeting with Jesus. In between that, we are introduced to all the characters in the four gospels each with their own unique story and personality. When Jesus calls out Mary’s inhabitants–nay afflictions–by name, most certainly she was locked into a promise without ever speaking it. Romantic love? Perhaps. Why wouldn’t any woman who’d been undone even after seeking the highest authority of assistance have the passionate love for a man who’d not only pulled her out of death but several others too? Ah yes, unrequited as it was or wasn’t. The author defines the latter.
Jesus travels with Mary back to Magdala, and once her family sees the brood she’s been moving with… Well, you get the idea— we’ve all been lulled into that idea about a woman who traveled alone with a bunch of men. Mary is cast off. Cut off from her daughter and branded a whore. A brand that she would wear for hundreds of years no matter how she got it.
This is where the relationship between Jesus and his followers is built up. Mary becomes Jesus’ most avid follower and even supports him financially. I liked the way M. George whipped up the Judas character into the storyline. He was certainly a likable fellow and his bitter, doubting cynical stance, seemed right on the money. Mary disapprovingly finds Thomas scribbling down quotes that aren’t exactly word for word—it’s those small bits of story that keep the characters true to historical form. When Jesus tossed out things like loving the enemies and cutting of offending hands his disciples standing off to the side wondering where talk like that came from is like watching a confounded listener of scripture judge words meant for another time.
The author engages you in the fellowship of the group. A band of followers leaving everything behind for the sake of one man. That in and of itself is miraculous. No government subsidies to rely upon—nothing but one another and the enigmatic leader who changes all. Which brings us to the most fateful event. The crucial turning point for Mary and millions of others who would read her account via the New Testament. Here, only one disciple comes to the tomb to complete the burial preparations that could not be completed during the darkening of the Sabbath but is most assuredly the beloved disciple. Mary couldn’t have just loved Jesus as the Son of God she came to find, but how could she not love him as a man being an imperfect woman in wait for a savior? So whom does the history of the New Testament God bring to the tomb? A woman. A woman who doubly loves our Christ. Not a man who may have taken the “gardener” for a mimic and in a frenzy of bitterness attacked and killed him–for he had not ascended and was flesh. For all heart stricken disciples, save one, are hiding in the house waiting until the craziness of Jesus’ death to die down. Some say the book of John’s author could have been Mary herself. If the book of John was authored in 70 AD and it is historically annotated that John and Mary traveled together there could have been both viewpoints. Could not the beloved disciple have been her?
NOTE (my note added months later): After much thought on the matter of Mary M. going to the tomb it is realized that in those particular times there were religious orders and deities filled with ideologies that only men could join. You couldn’t be a woman; most certainly not a child and most importantly you couldn’t be cripple, lame, blind, etc. Enter a God who accepts all– isn’t that what people were waiting for? Mithra-ism flourished in the Roman army ranks around 300CE. The beginnings of fraternal orders and Masonic worship. Propaganda grew!
The culmination of the story finalizes Mary’s life with the historical one in which she was sainted as well as a human touch—which adds the bitter sting of irony. After reading the book, I found myself diving into historical accounts of gospel authors and old history websites. Margaret George brought to life a woman who though painted with several hues of a scandal was as colorful and richly detailed as any woman who would have made the life choices that she did. Mary’s life was a saga rich with complex relationships, the hardness of life, and a real Love who rescues her from death.