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The Gospel and
the Grail

 
BY MARGARET STARBIRD

In 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 Christian mythology.

      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 Gospels.

      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 them unacceptable.

      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 translators.

      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 burial.

      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 Goddess Re.

      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 the Kingdom of God was already in their midst, they endeavoured to bloom where they were planted in their new environs.

      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 France, 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 a lid.

      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 people.

      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 rejected.”

      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

Footnotes:

1. James Robinson, ed., The Nag Hammadi Library in English (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988) p.135-136.

2. Edith Filliette. Saint Mary Magdalene, Her Life and Times. (Newton Lower Falls, MA: Society of Saint Mary Magdalene, 1983) p.137.

Margaret 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 orders only). 

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Margaret 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

The above article appeared in
New Dawn No. 86
(September-October 2004)