“My name,” I said one more time, “is Maeve Rhuad…….I am the daughter of the warrior witches of Tirna mBan, daughters of the Cailleach, daughter of the goddess Bride…”
And so it begins, one of the most remarkable adventures I’ve read in recent times. I started reading Elizabeth Cunningham’s The passion of Mary Magdalen with a little bit of caution. After all, Mary Magdalen was a hot commodity, especially after The Da Vinci code. I half expected another pulp-thriller that wove between religious imagery and wild fiction. I ended up being only half right. The passion turns out to be full of religious imagery and wild fiction, but turns out to be a rollicking entertainer with a most remarkable story and wonderful style.
The second most famous woman of Christianity in this story is a wild, beautiful, red-haired Celt. She’s the daughter of warrior-witches, from distant Celtic isles, foster-daughter to a great Celtic king, and trained in the lore and wisdom of druids. The book though starts off in a Roman slave market, in the city that all roads led to. Here we meet our protagonist, in the story being narrated by her. She’s bought by a brothel madam, the greatest domina in Rome, and from then on, the adventure never stops. Maeve first becomes a reluctant whore, and then goes on to become the most coveted prostitute in Rome. We are drawn in to an ancient world of decadence and splendor, and squalor and misery. To a republic where there are perhaps more slaves than citizens, yet all slaves are not the same, and all slaves certainly were not unhappy. Maeve makes friends at the unlikeliest places and forms a deep bond with her fellow prostitutes.
Yet, deep down, she is constantly reminded of her lover, who came to her in the Celtic isles. He is Esus to her, though he called himself Yeshua. And the strangest of events separated her from him. And she constantly has the same dream, a dream of the great Egyptian goddess, Isis, the goddess of all life and fertility, and her quest on a boat for her divine but separated lover, Osiris. Maeve escapes, only to encounter the priestesses of Isis, who see in her a connection to the goddess. And then, from whorehouse, she becomes slave to a Roman mistress, the endearing and slutty Paulina, a woman of much beauty, but deeper sadness.
Cunningham delves deeply in to the lives, miseries, stratagems, intrigue and complexity of slave life in Rome, even as Maeve continues her adventures. From whore-slave, she also becomes a priestess of Isis. There’s even a remarkable encounter with Rome’s vestal virgins. And they all, including Maeve’s friend and admirer, Joseph of Arimathea, journey on to the holy land, and Jerusalem, fleeing from Rome. There, Maeve establishes a “divine” whorehouse, a temple of Isis (the Temple Magdala), where she is priestess, whore, and healer, welcoming every person in as if he were divine.
Amidst all this we also meet the other Mary, the most important woman in Christianity. She’s a rather likeable but completely dotty character. And she decides to give Maeve the name Mary of Magdalen. And then there’s yet another Mary, of Bethany, who (in this book) is a Jewish scholar, who was supposed to marry our (largely absent) hero, Jesus, but doesn’t. Jesus himself makes a physical appearance only late in to the second half of the book. Till then, he’s with the readers only as a part of Maeve’s dream and memories, even while Maeve searches for him in the desert, amusing and annoying the populace (including John “the dipper” Baptist) to no end. Finally, she finds him, or rather, he finds her. And she heals him back to life.
And Jesus turns out to be a character only almost as strong-willed, and perhaps a little less charismatic. After all, here he’s still unsure if he’s the son of god, while Maeve has the deeper sight, and is intimately bonded with Isis. Their union is passionate (none of that “Maeve was touched (asexually) by Christ” stuff here), stormy and wonderfully drawn out. They fight and make up, and understand each other; while Jesus’ other disciples bumble around, taking everything Jesus says literally.
There are famous stories from the bible and the gospels here. The one about Jesus walking on water, or feeding a crowd, or making water at a wedding turn in to wine (of course, by now you must have guessed whose wedding it is in this story), all those good stories. Except that they are all quite different here, and superbly written. Even the miracles Jesus performs have more to them than meets the eye. And the “lost years” of Jesus are for any one to imagine, so Elizabeth Cunningham does just that, and does a good job of it.
There are a few stylistic elements in this book, like Maeve’s narration suddenly drawing modern allusions, which startle you at first, but then grow on you. After all, Maeve isn’t a woman of that time, but is just a woman, for all time. Elizabeth Cunningham’s Maeve also has a wonderful sense of humor, which shows up just when you’re being bogged down by a touch of excessive sentimentality. If you’re squeamish about sex, sexuality, gays or lesbians, or blunt passion, you can give this book a miss. If you’re tied to the bible and the (four) gospels as the literal truth, you might cry blasphemy.
But this is a thoroughly wonderful book (my only complaint being that it is a tad longer than it should have been). Elizabeth Cunningham’s Maeve might even draw plenty of controversy. But then, if you’re offended, you’ll miss the beauty of this book completely. It’s hard not to constantly admire and love Maeve’s spirit, stubbornness, love, temper, loyalty, wit, and passion.
It’s not the love of Mary Magdalen, or the devotion of Mary Magdalen, but the Passion of Mary Magdalen. And that’s the only title that would fit.
“Stereotypes are flat, one-dimensional, like the donkey you blindly pin the tail on. Archetypes are rich, lush, juicy………….you can’t keep a good archetype down.”