Sunday, April 09, 2006

Book review: The passion of Mary Magdalen

“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.”


Anonymous said...

amazing review, has me motivated to read the book. i've read the da vinci code, and i like dan brown as a fiction author, but dvc opened my eyes to the economics of religion. i'm really keen on reading it, and perhaps my next step is to get hold of a non-fictional biography of mary magdalene, jesus of nazareth (not the bible kind of biographis). hope i get such good books. thanks for the review again.

Anonymous said...

Am posting this cos this' more than a thot; it's actually disturbing: Would any Cunning Ham, Elizabethen or other otherwise, have dared - yes, that's the very word - to write a similar book about Islam or "the prophet" (or even draw a cartoon)?

Wherein you mix sex and religious faith (that concoction always sells - ask Osho); correction: porn, pop corn adventure, historical incorrectness and insults that hurt a tolerating many and religious belief?

Would any reviewer, Sunil or (any) other vice, having roots in a country that burns buses and pelts stones at innocents for a nude painting of a Hindu goddess, have dared to write "if you’re offended, you’ll miss the beauty of this book completely" about any comparable book (God forbid) on another religion?

The culture of silence and censorship have helped other religions - they wouldn't have to deal with reviews like
"It’s not the love of Mohammed/Lakshmi, or the devotion of Mohammed/Lakshmi, but the Passion of Mohammed/Lakshmi. And that’s the only title that would fit."

For a world that made a best seller of a bubblegum like the DVC (a book I refused to read the last 100 pgs of, cos after the mystery of the paintings, there was absolutely no fizz), these kind of books could only be expected. And they'll rake in millions and made movies of, inspiring other writers, reviewers and readers.

Isn't it time someone took a stance against such banality?

Sunil said...

anonymous.....i think you'll enjoy this, and if you find some good biographies, do let me know. are welcome to your opinion, but i'm not sure what your point is. This is not an irreverant book. On the contrary, the author is very much a believer (she's a preacher, and a daughter of an Episcopal priest), and her devotion for Jesus shows in this book, partly through Maeve. If you think it's banal, you should read it before you decide. It does not *hurt* religious belief, unless it is belief that does not allow any other viewpoint. There is a spirituality about this book, though it may not be bound by some people's idea of christianity.

As for me.......i review what ever book i like to read. If it is a good book and i feel like writing about it, i write about it. Don't bring religion in to my reviews. I don't. Here's an older review of a translation of Kumarasambhava, very much a hindu book, that i wrote about.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing that review. As for me historical fiction is not my cup of tea. I prefer my books to be either completely based on truth or completely fiction with some space for intuitive reasoning.
DVC didn't give me much pleasure. So I guess this one will not either. I think I'll give it a miss. Thanks for the info.

Sunil said...

TM....yeah....i know what you're talking about. Those are both good too.....and it's totally a question of choice.

For me.....have book, will read book :-)

Thomas George said...

Hi Anonymous,

You talk about other religions being intolerent, as the basis for Christianity to become intolerant. You know, it is a bad argument. When Islam rejects/tortures people who question their faith, they prove that they don't have faith; If they had faith in an all-powerful God, they would have let God handle these issues -- don't you think?

Everyone is entitled to an opinion about anything. If you start lgetting offended when others say things that you don't agree with, well, you will have to live a life filled with hatred and despair.

Ginnie Hart said...

I am on the last pages of this book, Sunil, and wanted to send a review of it to a friend, to whet her appetite. I couldn't have asked for a better synopsis. Thank you. I am a daughter of a baptist preacher, was a missionary in Peru, and can say that this book has been delightful to me because it's fresh and allows for the imagination. I don't for one minute believe it's "absolute truth," whatever that is. But it's "more than" what I already believe, which is what Truth is for me. Truth is always MORE THAN we believe. If we don't add imagination, creativity, thinking outside the box to what we believe, how can we ever think we know God! God is so much more. So it's not a leap of faith at all for me to believe the gospel stories are also "so much more."

Anyway, thanks for the thumbs up for a book that IS controversial for those of us who grew up in fundamentalism. So very refreshing!

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