Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th Century was well aware that you can destroy a woman by calling her a whore. Mary Magdalene was the “Apostle to the Apostles” and one of the very few to see the risen Christ, but Peter was the head of the Church. To affirm the sexed hierarchy of leadership within the Catholic Church, the reputation of Mary Magdalene was attacked. She was called the penitent whore without a shred of evidence.
There’s a lot of truth in that. Sex workers are real but “whores” and “sluts” are mostly a figment of patriarchy. I mean this in the sense that the term is an ideological container for the dissonance sexual attraction creates inside of misogyny. Pope Gregory had no intention of elevating Mary Magdalene and following a thread about the corporeal nature of Christ and the necessity of reproductive labor and salvation. Pope Gregory was neither the first nor the last person to conclude or project prostitution narrative onto Mary of Magdala. Mary Magdalene is the #1 pornstar at the Vatican for the abundance of reverentially erotic images produced of her over the centuries. She cultivates devotion precisely because of her presumed background in the sex trade. She is the perfect compliment to Virgin Mary, Mother of God. The Madonna and The Whore fit seamlessly onto the story of the redeemer of humanity.
There is a strong push within feminist theology to counter the idea that Mary Magdalene was a whore, to remind people that the accusation is without solid biblical evidence. There is nothing in the text to ‘prove’ that Mary Magdalene was even in the sex trade and there are so many Mary’s in the book that it’s easy to confuse one with another. These refutations seem superficial when reframed: what is lost if Mary Magdalene is associated with prostitution and what is gained? Does the story of Jesus Christ lose its power if his closest and most loyal confidante who remained to bear witness to the execution and received his brutalized corpse was or was perceived to be a prostitute?
On a material level, it is important to note that Jesus was an insurrectionist and that his homeland was under a violent military occupation by the Romans. This is an economic and political climate that ensures both widespread sexual exploitation and commerce. Christ would have been speaking directly to this demographic and we have passages that verify this. Although it was not Mary Magdalene that he rescued from a stoning, Jesus very much did interrupt the religious law that condemned a woman’s sexuality and survival mechanism. He directly opposed the criminalization of prostitution because he was aware of the broader context of the behavior. Regardless of whether Mary Magdalene was or was not a prostitute, Jesus of Nazareth was an ally to sexually indecent women.
There’s a lot of writing and research into the literal Mary Magdalene. Much of it is mythology. I don’t know if there was a literal Christ who was born, lived, and murdered at a real time and place described in the New Testament so I’m even more ambivalent about a literal Mary Magdalene. Much of their story is taken from ancient traditions and archetypes. The “Christ Savior” figure of other times and places has very often had a feminine consort who is very often a sacred whore and mother. These characters are metaphors for archetypes or universal forces or the architecture of the divine. There is a symmetry that almost feels like a rthymn to the mythology, a balance between God the Father (generative force), The Son (unifying force), and The Holy Spirit (diversifying force) as well as the Mother of God (generative and unifying) and The Lover of God (unifying and diversifying). The birth of the savior and the death of the savior are of vital importance and it’s absolutely key to the myth that Jesus’ death was witnessed by Mary the Mother and Mary the Lover. He was born to Mary the Mother and his death was attended to primarily by his lover.
Michelangelo’s Pieta captures this idea as well. We know that Mary the Mother held her son’s body after death but this sculpture makes her appear very young. Was this just a youthful and flattering depiction of a mother cradling her 30 year old son after his public execution, or is it his lover holding him? Mary was almost always depicted as youthful under the very patriarchal idea that her purity would prevent her from aging. It’s a natural thought for an ideology that constantly anthologizes women’s bodies. And yet, there are whispers about this statue and the questions that it raises about the corpse king.
I understand the urge to protect the divine feminine for those who don’t have the ability to allow their sexism, internal and external, to fall silent. So much damage is done under the concept of the ‘whore’ or the ability to strip a woman of her worth with nothing more than ideology. Too many people equate ‘whore’ with ‘bad’ rather than ‘whore’ as ‘sexual laborer.’ I lean less towards material truth and more into the spiritual truth that these stories reveal. Christianity is only palatable to me with The Madonna and The Whore as inextricable to the cosmology.
So often I have chased ‘The Goddess’ across time and space and tradition. She reveals herself to people in so many ways and there are times when I have peaked behind curtains to look for her in places where I was not invited to gaze. White women have the bad habit of looking for better fertility or sexuality or spirituality through colonialism. We seek the divine in the cultures we have conquered or have benefited from conquering when we should be breathing life and air into the goddesses in our midst. Mary the Virgin and Mary the Whore are just two vital facets of divinity. These are goddesses before me and I invite revelation with my worship.