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by Nick Inman
Up in the hills near where I live in France there is a church decorated with fading 18th-century murals. Some of the paintings are obviously products of artistic imagination. The angels looking down from the vault and the gigantic red devil gathering up sinners across the west wall have a sense of unreality about them. But what about the characters from the Bible depicted in the apse, around the altar? It is not so easy to say whether they are fictitious or not.
One red-haired woman is particularly interesting and it is her that I have come to see and photograph. I was brought up believing that Mary Magdalene was a prostitute who was taught to repent her previous life of fornication by Jesus. A role model for all Christian women: she would never be as perfect as the sin-free Virgin Mary but if she was evermore on her best behaviour she would be among the saved. It was true, I was assured, because it was in the Bible.
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Actually, the Bible has little to say about her. It is vague about most characters in it. No one gets a lengthy biography and there are holes in everyone’s story. Most of what we think we know about Mary Magdalene is later invention – by the men who led and wrote about the developing Church, notably Jacobus de Voragine in his medieval bestseller, The Golden Legend. Making Mary Magdalene a whore on permanent probation was undoubtedly a good way to encourage obedience in women who were given a subservient role in a world which nominally made celibacy and chastity (and hence deliberate infertility) into the highest virtues.
In Provence, Mary Magdalene is the protagonist in a very different legend. There are various versions of it but the essence of all of them is as follows.
Around the year AD40, the Jews of Palestine (among them the followers of Christ) were being persecuted. Mary Magdalene was forced to board a boat with at least five companions: Mary Salome (mother of James the Greater, venerated in Santiago de Compostela), Mary Jacob (mother of James the Less), Lazarus (who Jesus had raised from the dead) and his sister Martha, and another disciple, Maximinus. There is a striking resonance, of course, with the modern day refugees who try to cross the Mediterranean. This boat, however, had no oars or sail or even rudder and those on board seemed sure to perish.
Miraculously, the vessel landed on the shore of the Camargue at what is now Saintes-Maries-de-la Mer. Mary Salome and Mary Jacob stayed where they had arrived and a cult of the “Saintes Maries” developed. A church dedicated to them now stands on the site.
The other people from the boat went off to convert Gaul. Maximinus became the first bishop of Aix and Lazarus bishop of Marseilles. Martha is famed for taming a monster in the town of Tarascon with the cross, holy water and a sash from around her neck.
Mary Magdalene went first to Marseille and then to St-Baume where she lived in a cave in the hills for the last thirty-three years of her life. On the day she knew she was to die, it is said, she went down to the plain so that Maximinus could give her communion and arrange her burial.
Her remains were discovered in the 13th century. They were moved to Vezelay, in Burgundy, for safekeeping but finally returned to Saint-Baume where they are now displayed for the faithful in the Basilique Sainte-Marie-Madeleine de Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. The cave where she lived is a sanctuary tended by Dominicans.
A variation of the legend has it that Mary Magdalene gave birth to a daughter. In the 1980s three British authors* assembled the ingenious theory that she was the consort-wife of Jesus and that she went not east but west, to Rennes-le-Chateau in the hills of the Aude – but that is another story.
Is any of this true and does it matter whether it is or it isn’t? What is the value of a legend? Is it just a good yarn, an entertainment that each person can make of what he or she wants. Or is there something here to engage our minds?
The 21st century is clear on the issue. The contemporary world is built on fact and legends are not to be taken seriously.
We are all expected to take a loyalty test. Either you are guided by evidence or you “believe” something else. This is one way of differentiating between the thinking of the “Old Age” (empiricism, the tangible world) and the “New” (esotericism, the invisible world).
If you want to be thought of as intellectually respectable not soft-headed, you must shun ambiguity. If something is not verifiable it is to be regarded with suspicion. The dubious is strictly second rate. This is the creed of the machine: the emotionless brain that despises that which it cannot categorise.
Legend, however, is not to be disparaged so easily. It is a slippery substance. It is not true – you can’t prove Mary Magdalene ever came to France – but there is no good reason to assume it is purely a lie. It is a kind of intermediate knowledge.
A legend is a story and stories have become valueless in a literal age. Technological overload is causing us to forget why we tell stories. For marketing purposes, all stories are rolled into one word – fiction – meaning distraction and entertainment that doesn’t contribute to knowledge in the way that science does.
The irony is that we all tell stories to ourselves and others all the time – including the people who believe that they are intellectually macho enough to see that all existence is material and that proof is the only guarantee of information.
This is especially true in history, which is everything we know about where we come from; and everything we have tried out and learned. Most of human history – prehistory – has no documentation to go with it at all. For the rest of the past we have relatively little to go on. Much of it is suspect and open to interpretation. We possess hardly any of the “soft” material that we need to understand history: the recorded thoughts and feelings of humans who have lived before us. All that we have in this respect is legend, which is unreliable. It is important to recognize this but not be inhibited by it.
We must have the courage to explore the disorientating interface where fact and fiction intertwine because legend caters to our archetypal needs. Somewhere inside it are truths; but more than that, legend explores questions for which there are no definitive answers.
Legend is the way we speak of that which cannot be expressed in other language: human experience (thought and feeling) and the numinous. It perpetuates our collective unconscious.
If we remember Mary Magdalene, it is for reasons of our own that are worth teasing out. Inside ourselves we have the information to re-hydrate her and learn what she represents to us.
If she existed at all, she must have had a life beyond the three mentions of her in the New Testament. A life similar to yours or mine. We have no reason to suppose that she suddenly died after the gospel accounts end, having fulfilled her walk-on part. She must therefore have emerged out of the shadow of the crucified man-god and had a story of her own.
The same is true of the other woman central to Christianity, who we think we know better.
To begin with, the mother of Jesus was no more than a background character. Early Christianity showed no curiosity about her. Only later did Mary develop into something else, becoming something very close to a deity in her own right.
In several parts of France there are clues to how this process happened. Many churches venerate ancient statues of the Virgin Mary which have black skin. Many spurious reasons are given for this – candlesmoke, the colour of the wood etc – but it is far more likely that the name of the mother of Jesus was merged with effigies of existing goddesses with lineages stretching back to pre-Roman civilisations.
Every religion – every expression of human hopes, fears desires – has both a masculine and feminine component. A male god and his son, whose words were interpreted by a male priesthood, could not entirely supplant an archetypal belief in the female energies that underpinned the world, along with the male ones.
The Virgin Mary became the irreproachable mother to us all and the perfect woman free from the crude limitations of incarnation, especially doubt, choice and compromise. We may like to believe that such a person could exist in reality but we know she doesn’t. The gods and goddesses may look like us but they are not like us because their supernatural abilities to overcome the stresses we face distance them from us.
The religious urge is always accompanied by a dose or pragmatism and the need for real role models is supplied by legend.
Mary Magdalene is the necessary counterpart to the Virgin. Although she is a saint, she is seen comparatively rarely in churches, in contrast to the “other,” male, disciples of Jesus who have been celebrated and immortalized as Apostles. She is normally reduced to a role with a message. She is the ever-repentant sinner with sensual red hair standing at the foot of the Cross besides the Virgin Mary, who has been declared incapable of sin.
Mary Magdalene is like us. She is an imperfect woman and, perhaps, an imperfect wife and mother too. Well intentioned, we suppose, and keen to learn and listen but entirely human living in a world of endlessly difficult choices. She is, in short, complex. The doings of complex people do not make for good sermons: they cannot be simplified into a message of virtue over vice; they cannot be idolized as faultless; they are inconvenient if you want to build an ideology in monosyllabic words.
It is as if Mary Magdalene came to stand for everything that was awkward in the new religion; the gap between fine ideas and human reality. All those thousands of devout men preaching over the centuries about how to live in accordance with God’s desires for us, and not one of them (as far as we know) had ever had an open honest sexual relationship with another person. No wonder Mary Magalene was once vilified for being part of the story of Christianity but retaining her humanity. No wonder we want to know what became of her.
That is, if she ever existed; if she was ever more than a name. Language blurs fact and fiction making it hard to distinguish between someone real (your neighbor) and a mythological personality (a god of antiquity). Mary Magdelene inhabits that space between what we know and don’t know, reminding us that both certainty and mystery have equal importance to us.
* Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln. The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail. London: Jonathan Cape, 1982.
About the author:
Nick Inman (born in Yorkshire in 1956) is a travel writer and photographer specialising in France and Spain. in 1984-5 he spent nine formative months living with the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is the author of A Guide to Mystical France: Secrets, Mysteries, Sacred Sites, as well as Politipedia, The Optimist’s Handbook and Who On Earth Are You? He lives in southwest France.