Elizabeth Cunningham

III.III. Section 3: I Am (not) the Community, Society, CultureElizabeth Cunningham
 
Maeve and the Primal Paradox: from The Passion of Mary Magdalen
 
The Passion of Mary Magdalen is one of the four The Maeve Chronicles, featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen who is no one’s disciple. Maeve and the mysterious foreigner, whom the druids call Esus, meet at the druid college on the Isle of Mona (Anglesey). She falls in love with the young stranger and saves him from becoming the Quinquennial human sacrifice that the druids believe would have protected the insular Celts from further incursions by the Romans. Thus she places the value of her beloved’s life over the good of her people as punishment for meddling in high mysteries, the druids exile Maeve, putting her out to sea in a small boat without oar or sail. Surviving her ordeal, Maeve sets out in search of her beloved. Along the way, she is captured by slavers and sold into prostitution in Rome.
 
These four scenes from The Passion of Mary Magdalen express Maeve’s continuing struggle with the primal paradox. Is community lethal or life-giving or both? Is her passionate quest for union and reunion with her beloved visionary or delusional? What does she owe her friends, her lover, herself? When there are conflicting demands on her loyalty, how does she choose? Is it possible to create a community of individuals that is fluid and organic, able to constantly adapt?

1.

 
Fresh off the slave block, Maeve first meets her fellow whores at the baths just before their working day begins. Maeve has been taught by the druids to regard enslavement as the ultimate shame that can befall a free Celt. With her single-minded mission to find her beloved disastrously derailed, Maeve must come to terms with choices that remain to her and reconsider the meaning of community and her place in its midst.
 
“Here is the way how to think of it, liebling,” said Berta.
 
We were all soaking together in the caldarium. I had grown up with springs and surf, but I had never been in hot water before (at least not literally). I was distressed to find myself enjoying the sensation; I was becoming Roman already. The big blonde, my fellow barbarian, had taken me under her wing, that is, she had a plump arm draped over my shoulder. The other whores sat across the pool, whispering and tittering as they eyed me and listened to Berta hold forth. Well, they could hardly help it. She had a voice as big as she was—the voice of someone who’d once lived in the open.
 
“You have been raped, yes? Who has not? I myself have been raped by a whole legion.”
“Oh, not the legion again,” said the little dark one. She caught my eye and winked at me.
“You know it’s true, Succula,” Berta scolded. “So. The Roman legion comes to my village. They burn the huts; they put the men to the sword, and they rape all the women. It is the same story everywhere. I was a virgin …”
“It“It is the eve of her wedding day,” added a woman, who was blacker than anyone I’d ever seen with coil upon coil of snaky hair.
“She hears the thundering of many hooves,” another woman continued.
 
I was shocked that they would mock such a terrible story. It took me awhile to understand. We all had terrible stories. Mockery kept the terror at bay.
 
“All right, all right,” said Berta crossly. “I wasn’t going to tell the whole story. I have a point to make.”
“So make it already,” the black woman said.
“If you would all shut up maybe I could.”
 
The others pantomimed sealed lips and made strangled noises.
 
“The point is,” Berta ignored them, “we have all had it stolen from us. Now we make them pay. It’s good. Yes?”
 
The lips came unsealed with general laughter and agreement.
 
I felt myself frowning. I was still tired and disoriented, but I knew something was faulty in their thinking.
 
“No,” I said, “Domitia Tertia makes them pay.”
 
They regarded me coldly, and I realized my mistake. I needed the good will of these women to survive.
 
“Well, at least she’s a woman,” I amended.
“And a whore,” Succula added.
“And a hardnosed, tight-assed bitch,” said the black woman.
“You got that right, Dido.” Everyone chimed in; this description was apparently a compliment to the domina.
“As you say, Red,” Dido added, addressing me directly for the first time. “She makes them pay. Does she ever. Nobody fools with her, and you won’t either, Hot Twat, if you know what’s good for you.”
 
Apparently these women identified with Domitia Tertia. I found their admiration perplexing.
 
“So,” said Dido, who shared a name with the fabled Queen of Carthage. “Are you really a novica? Never been a slave? Never done it for money?”
“I did it for passage on a ship.”
 
Applause greeted this admission.
 
“But it didn’t exactly work out,” I understated.
 
In fact, that was when everything had gone wrong. Maybe I was being punished—an unfamiliar and disconcerting line of thought for me.
 
“Don’t tell us.” Dido held up her hand. “The bastard drugged your drink and you woke trussed up and on your way to market.”
“And on the way he sticks you every time he feels like it,” added Berta. “Don’t feel bad, liebling. It’s not your fault. There is nothing you could have done to stop it.”
 
Yet that’s where the shame was, that it had happened to me at all. How could I have allowed it? How could I have been so stupid?
 
“Hey, none of us know until it’s too late: you gotta drug their drink first,” Dido answered my thoughts.
“That’s right, liebling,” Berta patted me and made comforting clucking noises.
 
Suddenly I was undone. Their unexpected kindness loosed my tears. I covered my face, expecting my weakness to be met with contempt. Instead I found myself surrounded by female bodies. Breasts brushed against my cheeks, bellies against my breasts. I breathed in the sweet, salty scent of women, the scent of home and I cried even harder.
 
“I was born,” I said when I could speak again, “on an island of women.”
“Only women!”
“I had eight mothers.”
“Sweet Isis!”
“And one old, old woman.”
“My granny used to take care of me,” someone sighed.
“And then the Romans came?” prompted Berta.
“No. No, Romans. The Romans will never find my mothers’ island. It is not in the same world.”
“Then why did you leave there? Why would you ever leave?” Dido sounded angry and wistful at once.
 
Why? I knew, but I could not begin to say.
 
“It’s all right,” soothed Berta. “You will tell us your story when you’re ready, yes? Listen now, liebling. Let me tell you how we do things here. You stick by us, we stick by you.”
“Don’t try to act like you’re better than everybody else,” Dido explained.
“Don’t steal anyone’s regulars,” added Succula.
“And then we teach you everything we know. All the little tricks.”
“How to spit it out without him knowing.”
“The sure fire hand job.”
“How to keep your womb locked up tight.”
 
I was a long way from druid school.
 
“Don’t worry,” said Succula. “Tonight everyone’s gonna know you’re new. Novelty will make up for lack of technique. You’ll catch on.”
“So, are you with us, Red?” Dido fixed me with a deep black gaze; she was gorgeous. “We’re all foreigners here, except for Succula. She was raised in the house. What matters is we’re all whores. You can be out for yourself or you can be one of us. How do you want to play it?”
 
I looked at the women surrounding me, their impulsive kindness now replaced with wariness. If I got close to them, would they hold me back or would they help me? Part of me wanted to say, I am not one of you; I will never be one of you. You are slaves to the Romans, and you accept it. Then I remembered my beloved prophesying in a druid grove. “Rome is not a place,” he said. “Rome is cruelty.” And here, among these women, I had, for a moment, been back home with my mothers.
 
“I’m with you,” I said.
“Good. Now let’s show her how we seal a deal.”
 
As one the women rose to their knees and dipped their forefingers into their vulvas. They waited until I did the same; then we all pressed our hands together,
and each woman gave me a smacking kiss on the mouth.
 
“Now you’re a whore, liebling!” exulted Berta.

2.

 
Many years later, Maeve and her sister whores win their freedom. Dido and Berta accompany Maeve to Jerusalem. When Maeve’s search for her beloved remains fruitless, the women found their own holy whorehouse in Magdala, Galilee, determined to create a free-wheeling, eclectic community where all are welcome, not just the men who seek their services.
 
When I think of those early days at Temple Magdalen, I see images of feet. Our feet, painted with henna, anklets jingling rhythmically as we dance ourselves into ecstatic trance. Our feet planted in the soft, new-turned earth of the gardens we made or cooling in the spring after a long day. Our feet climbing trees when we pruned the upper branches and our feet purple with crushing the grapes of our first harvest for wine.
 
I see the feet of the men, too, the suppliants who began to come, only a few at first, but as word spread more and more each evening. The pampered feet of Roman magistrates, the callused feet of soldiers and rebel hill fighters, the feet of peasants, the soil worked so deeply into their soles that the distinction between earth and feet is almost lost. And of course the feet of fishermen who stood among the fish guts and never seemed to be quite free of scales.
 
Picture all of these feet finding their way to our temple gate. No one is refused. Gold coins, a basket of fish, a loaf of bread, a morning’s labor in the vineyard, all offerings are acceptable. Maybe it is because we are veiled, as we guide men through the honeycomb of passages in the temple, that I am so aware of the suppliant’s feet. I hold the lantern low, so he can only see enough to take one step and the next. At every turning we pause, and he must shed something, his cloak, his insignias of rank, tokens of piety, or good luck talisman, and finally, his tunic, his undergarments, and sandals.
 
Some rich and powerful men turn back. This is not their idea of a whorehouse where they are accustomed to paying for (the illusion of) control. To become the god-bearing stranger, the suppliant must surrender, forget who he is in the world, be naked as he was at birth. When he leaves everything behind but himself, the whore-priestess leads him to a hot spring. She bathes him from head to toe. She anoints him with warm, fragrant oils. And here is our mystery, our surrender: to know that each stranger is the beloved of Isis. Through us she will know him, love him, heal him. Always it is when I touch the stranger’s feet that she becomes fully present in me; there is no more distinction between goddess and priestess.
 
And I know something more. For it is my own beloved’s feet that I picture most clearly when I think of him. It is his feet that walk beside me in my dreams, his feet, brown as earth, beautiful as the flight of birds. In the feet of every god-bearing stranger I remember him whom my soul loves. When I open myself to the goddess, he is restored to me again in the stranger’s embrace.
 
That is all I am going to tell you about the mysteries of sacred prostitution. Because in some deep part of yourself, whether from this life or another, I know you remember. The light flickering on the curved, mosaic walls, the sound of water, the scent of spices, oil and honey. The way age and beauty and rank are consumed like so much candle wax by living flame. If you don’t remember yet, someday you will.
 

3.

 
Here are the rules of their eccentric order, their attempt to resolve the primal paradox.
 
Isis knows we did not set out to found a prototype kibbutz (though there is a kibbutz on the site of Temple Magdalen today.) We did not have strict rules or exacting requirements for membership. We were whores; we took all comers, whether they were suppliants seeking the embrace of the goddess or homeless laborers seeking work and shelter or sick people seeking healing. People came and went. There were seldom more than we could handle; for there was a built-in self-selection process: the censorious, the self-important and the humorless tended to leave in a hurry.
 
Our rules were simple if eccentric. “Worship whomever the hell you please” was one. Some of us sang hymns to Isis morning and evening, vesting and garlanding her graven image. All of us shared in a Shabbat feast with Judith presiding and reciting prayers in Hebrew. “Don’t say it: Sing it” was another Temple Magdalen tradition. When conflicts arose, as they must when two or three are gathered together, they were aired in song. Try singing the next time you have a beef with someone. (Recitative: I’m sick of washing the dishes you leave in the si-ink!)You and your adversary will probably end up laughing till you cry and fall into each other’s arms to keep from falling down. That’s what happened at Temple Magdalen more often than not.
 
And of course we discovered the magic of the axiom “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” millennia before Marx. Somehow there was always enough—enough help with the harvest, enough food to go around, enough people to mind the children or tend the sick. Maybe it was all the dancing we did on Friday nights after the Shabbat meal. Those who couldn’t dance clapped and drummed and sang wild, wailing Middle Eastern melodies. We were all in the rhythm, trusting to the ebb and flow, the waxing and waning of moon, sun, and seasons.
 

4.

Then one night a Samaritan knocks at Temple Magdalen’s gate saying he has a sick man near death. Thus Maeve and her beloved are reunited at last. Jesus and Maeve enjoy a sort of honeymoon while he recovers from his wounds. Then the primal paradox recurs. Can Maeve pursue her passion for Jesus and remain part of the community she helped to found? However much he is welcome in the community, can Jesus fulfill his own unique purpose as a hanger on at a whorehouse? Once again, it is Maeve’s sister-whore Dido, who poses the fateful question.
 
The story, Jesus’s and mine, did not end at Temple Magdalen. In fact, you say, you’ve never heard of Temple Magdalen. You’ve never heard this part of the story at all. If it’s true (and not just some wishful fantasy of mine) then why didn’t it? End at Temple Magdalen, that is. Why didn’t we slip into that peaceful, plotless obscurity storytellers have in mind when they conclude: “And they lived happily ever after.”
 
That was my question exactly—or unspoken question, to be more precise.
 
What more could any man want than what was on offer at Temple Magdalen? Plentiful food and wine, days of honest labor leavened by nights of feasting, song, and lovemaking?
 
Come on, Maeve, a voice inside me nags. He may be the son of god or the son of man or the son of Joseph (or not) but he’s a guy.
A guy? What’s that supposed to mean?
You know. He’s a guy. He doesn’t want to live in a matriarchal paradise. He feels like a drone.
A drone! There’s plenty of work to do here.
Mary, Red, Maeve, Temple Magdalen is your place.
Not just my place. Dido’s. Berta’s….
Your place.
His place, too.
No.
If not here, then where?
Birds in their trees have their nests, foxes have their dens, but the son of man has nowhere to lay his head.
 
Jesus stayed with us for almost four weeks, the end of the month of Sebet and the beginning of Adar—what you would call late February, early March—one of the most beautiful times of year in Galilee when the hills are bright with wild flowers and the fig trees turn a soft green; the vines flower, filling the air with such an intoxicating scent that you can get drunk just breathing it in. Jesus helped with the spring plowing, though it was clear that he didn’t have much experience. He did, however, know which prayer to say, as he did for almost every occasion: “Lord, my task is red, the green is thine: we plough but it is thou dost give the crop.”
 
Every night we fell into each other’s arms and made love as if we were the spring sun and the rich, red, new-turned earth evoked in the prayer. By unspoken agreement, we fasted from speech and took all our nourishment from touch, instinctively storing each other in our cells. For those few weeks I received no other men.
 
Then came the great divide.
 
In Rome Isis worshippers held a festival parade to Ostia to bless the ships—or they did till most of us got shipped out. In Magdala we had introduced our own spring celebration of Navigium Isidis. We paraded along the shore from the Temple Magdalen to the port where we blessed the fleets, never mind that they were fresh-water fishing boats instead of sea-going vessels for carrying grain. We were quite sure Isis didn’t mind, and the fishermen loved it. So did the local merchants. People came from towns all over the lake to drink and dance and garland everything and everyone with flowers.
 
That year the Jewish festival of Purim coincided with the Navigium. We had planned to include the story of Esther’s deliverance of her people in the festivities. Esther, Isis, Astarte, to us, all celebration was good. We assumed Jesus would join our procession, but when we left the gates of Temple Magdalen, Jesus turned in the opposite direction, towards Capernaum.
I want to celebrate with my own people,” he said to me. “Can’t you understand that, Maeve?”
No.” I saw no reason to make it easy for him.
I’ll be back tonight,” he said. “We’ll talk then.”
 
It sounded more like a threat than a promise.
 
If you’re a good Jew, you’ll be too drunk!” I called after him.
 
I don’t know if he heard me or not; he kept on walking.
 
The Navigium Isidis was one of our busiest nights of the year, everyone decked with flowers (and little else) slipping into the hedgerows to make love. Though we had taken a number of women into training as whore-priestesses, it would be a challenge to receive all the suppliants that would seek our gates tonight.
 
While we all bathed, usually our most relaxed time of day, I could feel Dido and Berta watching me, wondering what I would do but not asking. The tension in the air was palpable. I felt badly for ruining the party atmosphere of the whores’ bath, and so I left abruptly, stealing away to my tower, training my eyes on the road to Capernaum.
“All right, Maeve.” Dido with her cat-like tread took me by surprise. “This is it.”
 
I felt strangely relieved at being confronted at last.
 
There’s a suppliant at the gate. He’s asking for you. A farmer. He says he comes every year. He’s drunk and spouting poetry, says you are his red earth, and he’s the plow. You know the rest.”
 
The way to a whore’s heart. What priestess of the mother-of-grain could resist?
 
Is it that pig farmer from the country of the Gadarenes?” He was a spring regular, and his offering meant a week of barbeque.
Smells like it,” said Dido; she waited a beat. “So?”
So?” I repeated, stalling for time.
I need to know, Maeve. For myself: Are you still with us? Are you still with Isis?”
 
Or are you with him, she did not say, but I could hear it. Whose side are you on? Did it always come down to that?
 
My beloved is mine and I am his; he feeds his flocks among the lilies.
 
I am with him, and I am with my goddess, I wanted to say to Dido. I am with you, and I am with myself. I am that I am. Can you understand that, Dido? Can you understand that, Jesus?
 
Such is my love, O ye Daughters of Jerusalem.
 
Tell the pig farmer I’ll be right down.”
 
Dido gave me a long searching look; then she turned to go.
 
Reprinted here from The Passion of Mary Magdalen by kind permission of Monkfish Book Publishing Company, Rhinebeck, New York.
 
 
 
Elizabeth Cunningham is best known as the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of award-winning novels featuring a feisty Celtic Magdalen. She lives in New York State’s Shawangunk Mountains. She is a fellow emeritus of Black Earth Institute. For more: elizabethcunninghamwrites.com/
 

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