medieval art and artefact we encounter an abundance of
references to the Virgin Mary, the Mother of the Saviour
– sometimes seated with the baby Jesus on her lap, or
alternatively with the dying Christ in her arms. And almost
as often, we encounter Mary Magdalene, the woman whom
the Church named harlot but whom modern scholarship now
reclaims as the most intimate and beloved of all the followers
of Jesus during his brief earthly ministry.
Based on the meager evidence provided in the Gospels,
numerous legends and stories grew up around this fascinating
woman – the Mary called “the Magdalene” – and what interesting
legends they are! Side-by-side with the official and orthodox
slander that Mary Magdalene was a sinful woman from whom
seven devils had been expelled, we find legends and artefacts
that attest to her exalted role as Sacred Bride in the
Roman Catholic tradition and French myth maintain that
Saint Philip evangelised Gaul, travelling
as a missionary to remote reaches of that sweet and sunny
land preaching the Gospel of the Risen Lord. But if not
Philip himself, at least we know that the Gnostic Gospel
of Philip somehow traversed the blue expanse of the Mediterranean
and was transplanted on the gentle shoulders of Provence.
For it is Philip’s Gospel that states, “There were three
who walked with Jesus. His mother, his sister and his
spouse were each a Mary.”1
The Greek word koinonos could be translated
“intimate companion” or “consort.” In insisting on translating
“spouse” I am assuming that Jesus shared the strict taboos
of his contemporary co-religionists against promiscuity
and that the woman with whom he had an intimate relationship
was actually his wife, a theory more fully developed in
my book, The Woman with the Alabaster Jar.
This view survived in many areas in France and crops up
again and again in various places, like a fresh spring
breaking forth and then going back underground, for it
was a view ruthlessly suppressed by the fathers of the
orthodox religion who eventually mounted a Crusade to
subdue the region where this heresy was most virulent,
the Midi of France, and formed the Holy Office of the
Inquisition to prevent its reemergence.
In Special Issue No. 1 of New Dawn magazine, we
examined the mythology of the Sacred Union and Scriptural
evidence supporting it, including the gematria
and the anointing and passion narratives of the canonical
At the behest of Ireneaus, the outspoken Bishop of Lyons
who died in 202, the memory of Mary Magdalene as the pre-eminent
and most beloved disciple of Jesus was selected out of
the Christian story. About one hundred and fifty years
later, Anthansius, the Bishop of Alexandria, following
the lead of Ireneaus, banned the Gnostic Gospels and declared
Faced with the possibility of the total destruction of
their priceless papyrus codices, the very earliest prototype
of modern books, monks from a desert monastery managed
to hide their library of sacred texts in a large earthenware
jar, and to their fortuitous foresightedness we owe the
incredible find in 1945 of the hidden codices, including
texts known as the Gnostic Gospels.
Quite accidentally an Egyptian peasant struck the buried
jar with his shovel, and then broke the jar, hoping that
it contained buried treasure. He and his brothers retrieved
the papyrus books and eventually the surviving documents
made their way into the archives of modern scholars and
And what do these scrolls tell us? There is a great diversity
among them. Some are philosophical, some poetic. Some
are Gospels, some claim to be Acts of various Apostles,
some are philosophical, some visionary.
The people who hid these codices thought of themselves
as Christians, albeit persecuted Christians, an anathema
to their orthodox brothers and friends. They were eventually
hounded out of the Church, and their beliefs, like their
manuscripts, were forced underground.
After sixty years, scholars are still working to refine
their translations and interpretations of the texts found
at Nag Hammadi, and over the years of their endeavours,
one very significant development has emerged from this
library with regard to Mary Magdalene.
It is clear from their documents that the Gnostic community
in Egypt honoured her above the
other disciples and apostles of Jesus. They recognised
her as the “beloved” and most intimate companion of Jesus,
his confidante, his favourite, the woman with whom he
shared his vision, whom he kissed often. Apparently the
male apostles were jealous of this intimacy of Jesus and
Mary Magdalene, and in these texts Saint Peter is especially
unkind to Mary Magdalene and scornful of her testimony,
wondering how it can be that Jesus told her things that
he did not share with the male disciples.
Had Peter forgotten the testimony of the Gospels, the
assertion that while Peter himself denied and abandoned
Jesus, Mary Magdalene stood steadfast at the foot of his
cross and returned to his tomb at first light on Easter
morning to mourn his death and to anoint his corpse for
Had Peter forgotten that Mary Magdalene was first to encounter
the risen Saviour and carried the “Good News” of the resurrection
to the brothers of the Lord and the apostles? Had he forgotten
that she anointed the feet of Jesus with precious nard
– her dowry of perfume – from her alabaster jar, kissing
them and drying them with her hair? And had he somehow
failed to notice that this action was the passionate prototype
of the later Gospel scene, when Jesus washed the feet
of his male disciples, an action of servitude that Peter
had been so reluctant to accept?
It is THIS Mary, the one who weeps disconsolately over
the Saviour, at the banquet at Bethany
and at the tomb, who made her way into the legends and
lore of France. Her French name, “Madeleine” is the root
of the word “maudlin” which means continually sad.
We first encounter the French version of her story in
a fifth-century letter written in Latin copied from an
earlier source by an anonymous monk.2
This source asserts that just as the mother of Jesus was
given into the custody of Saint John, Mary Magdalene was
given into the care of Maximin, a man noted for his moral
integrity and honoured for the miracles he wrought, and
that together they brought the Gospel to Gaul. Maximin
became the first bishop in Gaul, and when Mary Magdalene died on the 22nd of July, Maximin
embalmed her body and placed it in a tomb over which he
then erected a beautiful basilica.
The carvings on her marble sarcophagus tell the story
of her anointing of Jesus at the house of Simon and of
her presence at his tomb on Easter morning, conflating
Mary Magdalene with the woman who anointed Jesus, as did
so many other early Christian sources. The village
of St. Maximin on the shores
of the Mediterranean in Provence
existed in Roman times and was later renamed to honour
the memory of this pre-eminent bishop who brought the
Gospel to their soil.
Ubiquitous in medieval art is the figure of Mary Magdalene
holding the alabaster jar of precious ointment, a reminder
of her role as the woman who anointed the messianic king
– the role and prerogative of the Bride in pagan mythology
repeated in the Christian story. In those ancient celebrations
of the Life Force and the symbiosis of male and female
in their joyful and fruitful union, it was the royal Bride
who anointed the king and who was reunited with him in
the garden after his resurrection.
This liturgical drama reenacted the cycles of life, death,
and rebirth /renewal and was a prevailing mythology of
vegetation and fertility cults in the ancient Near East.
Why were we surprised when Mary Magdalene thought that
Jesus was the Gardener when she encountered him risen
from the grave on Easter morning? It was an ancient role
of Tammuz, the “husbandman,” as well.
During the Saracen occupation of the southern coast of
France, the tomb of Mary Magdalene
was apparently moved and hidden as a precaution against
her remains being desecrated. Various conflicting reports
have surfaced as to the exact location of her bones: some
say they rest in the crypt at her basilica at Vezelay;
others that she sleeps in the basilica at St. Maximin.
And still another source puts her far away in Ephesus
in Turkey, under the protection
of the Apostle John at the time of her death.
At this late date, we may never discover which story,
if any, is accurate. But it is, after all, not the literal
truth that matters. Far more important is the story she
represents: the “bride” in exile, the “fallen Sophia”
separated from her bridegroom, the one who has forgotten
her true home. The prevailing myth of Magdalene is that
in searching for her Bridegroom, she finds her true self,
and it is that myth, on a spiritual level, that calls
us all to our own quest for union with the “Beloved Other”
and the faith journey of our own soul.
A compelling body of lore developed around the story of
Mary Magdalene and her journey to France.
In medieval legend, she is claimed to have travelled with
her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus, along with
several companions, including Maximin, in a boat with
no oars that somehow was driven off course during a violent
storm and landed on the sunny shores of Provence at Ratis, a region sacred to the Mother
Here the refugee family made their home, presumably trying
to fit as best they could into the existing community.
Perhaps, having heard the Gospel spoken by Jesus that
of God was already in their midst,
they endeavoured to bloom where they were planted in their
One could imagine Mary Magdalene studying herbs and flora
that grew in the meadows and woods near her new home,
perhaps learning their healing properties from other village
women, for it was later said that she is the patron saint
of perfume makers and pharmacists.
We have no written record of these hidden years, although
rumours and stories abound. Mary Magdalene was supposed
to have lived in the cave at Ste. Baume in the mountains
near Marseilles, spending thirty years as a recluse.
In medieval art she is often depicted dressed in a bodysuit
made of her own hair, sometimes with her pink knees peaking
through to remind us that she spent the entire thirty
years of her seclusion deep in prayer – some suggest in
penance for her sins. Paintings of this pious legend grace
many European churches, and in some of them, Magdalene
is accompanied by angels during her assumption into heaven,
another surprising myth associated with her, which puts
her, doctrinally speaking, on a par with the mother of
Jesus who was assumed body and soul into heaven. Yet how
can this be, if we have bones of Mary Magdalene in so
many earthly tombs? Surely we are mixing our metaphors.
We speak of her union with Christ in heaven, but it is,
in the end, a metaphor for the soul’s journey. The body
itself is the earthen vessel for the soul.
Perhaps the most powerful of all the metaphors associated
with Mary Magdalene is the Holy Grail. French legend declares
that Mary Magdalene brought the Holy Grail with her to
fleeing persecution in Palestine
with her friends. The year given is CE 42. The legends
are much older than their written form, so the original
story eludes us. Where and how it sprang from the collective
unconscious is unknown.
But the spelling of “holy grail” in Old French is very
suggestive: “sangraal.” This word could be broken after
the first three letters: “san graal,” giving us the currently
accepted reading “holy grail.” And the legends of the
Grail insist that it is a chalice, the one used by Jesus
to institute the Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper on
the night before he died. But if one takes the same word
and divides it after the “g,” one has an entirely different
“take.” The legend now asserts that Mary Magdalene brought
the “blood royal” to the coast of France.
One does not carry the “blood royal” around in a jar with
Furthermore, the legend states that there is a little
girl on board the boat from Israel,
travelling with the three Maries (the three from Philip’s
Gnostic Gospel!). This little girl is called “Sarah” –
a word that in Hebrew means “Princess.” There is no birth
certificate for this child, no wedding license for her
parents, but she is allegedly pre-adolescent (between
9 and 12 years of age) in CE 42. And, perhaps because
no one could otherwise explain her presence, she is said
to be a servant of the three Maries.
Later legends and rumours circulated about the “sangraal”
– the royal bloodline of the Davidic Kings. We cannot
prove that the bloodline survived in the royal families
of Western Europe as alleged in these legends, but it is obvious that the
heresy existed and was widespread, since numerous medieval
artefacts and artworks attest to it.
Whether or not it existed as a historical fact, the
mythology of the “Sacred Union” survived in the “underground
stream,” irrigating oases of spiritual awakening and inspiration,
art and literature, always hidden because of the danger
posed by the Inquisition, but bursting forth in unexpected
times and places.
Unicorn tapestries, tarot trumps, medieval watermarks
and numerous paintings contain symbols that point directly
to the “Great Secret” – the Heresy of the Holy Grail –
discussed at length in The Woman with the Alabaster
Jar (Bear and Company, 1993).
It is these fossils lodged in the art and literature of
the Middle Ages that were the vessels of the heresy, amazingly
resilient in the face of adversity and suppression. The
Great Secret survived with incredible tenacity because
the truth of the Sacred Union that imaged the Divine as
partners was rooted in the Scriptures themselves, affirmed
by legend and lore and cherished in the hearts of the
It has now resurfaced at the threshold of the third millennium
Domini, most recently in The Da Vinci Code that
cites Holy Blood, Holy Grail and The Woman with
the Alabaster Jar as two of its major sources of inspiration
for Magdalene’s story.
In reclaiming Magdalene as the “chalice” of the sangraal,
we reclaim the Sacred Partnership set at the very heart
of the Christian story, “the cornerstone the builders
Let us build the “kingdom
of God” with this as the foundation
stone for a new dispensation of inclusive and egalitarian
principles that embrace the entire human family – “in
memory of her.” H
James Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English
(San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) p.135-136.
Edith Filliette. Saint Mary Magdalene, Her Life and
Times. (Newton Lower Falls, MA: Society of Saint Mary
Magdalene, 1983) p.137.
Starbird is the author of several widely acclaimed books
on the mystery of Mary Magdalene, including The Woman
With the Alabaster Jar (paperback, 199 pages, $37.95),
The Goddess in the Gospels (paperback, 181 pages,
$35.00) and Magdalene's Lost Legacy (paperback,
170 pages, $32.95), which are all available in Australia
from New Dawn Book Service, PO Box 758, Cleveland QLD
4163. Please include $5.00 p&h per order (Australian
Starbird holds BA and MA degrees from the
University of Maryland and studied at the Christian Albrechts Universität in Kiel, Germany, and
at Vanderbilt Divinity School in Nashville,
TN. A “cradle” Roman Catholic, she taught religious education and Scripture
classes for many years. The author of several books on
the sacred feminine in the Christian tradition. Information
on her books is available from New Dawn Book Service,
PO Box 758, Cleveland QLD 4163, Australia.
Starbird and her husband of 35 years live near Seattle,
Washington. Her website is www.telisphere.com/~starbird