The Passion of Mary Magdalen: A Novel

by Elizabeth Cunningham

Published by Monkfish

640 pages, 2006



The most provocative woman in the Gospels, Mary Magdalen makes only a few, dramatic appearances. You always knew there had to be more...

Make way for Maeve, the feisty, outspoken Celtic Magdalen, telling her own story, on her own terms. No one's disciple, she is lover, bard, priestess, healer. And like her beloved Jesus, Maeve incarnates the divine mystery of love -- in the flesh.

Flesh we first encounter stripped naked and displayed on a slave block in Rome. Born to warrior witches on an island in the Celtic Otherworld, raised to be a hero, Maeve is determined to find her lost beloved, a young man known to the Celts as Esus, whose life she once saved at enormous cost to herself. She has survived a shipwreck, trekked through the mountains of Celtic Iberia. Only an imperial power could slow this woman down.

Snapped up by an aristocratic madam, Maeve becomes not only an accomplished whore but also has a startling encounter with the goddess Isis, whose story of loss and longing affects Maeve deeply. A failed attempt at escape results in even more bitter slavery when Maeve is sold to a spoiled young matron with a terrible secret. Here in the house of her enemy, Maeve learns the healing mysteries that become the basis of her life -- and his. When Maeve lands in mortal trouble, priestesses, whores, matrons, and even Rome's chief Vestal Virgin must unite to bring about her rescue.

Free at last, Maeve goes straight to Palestine where she meets Mary of Bethany, a prickly would-be rabbinical scholar, and Ma (yes, his mother), a fey but autocratic matriarch. Neither one knows where Jesus is; he has vanished again. What is a girl to do but settle down in the good-time town of Magdala and open her own holy whore house, welcome each stranger as if he were a god -- until, at last, he is.

Equally strong-willed and charismatic, Maeve and Jesus form a union that is as stormy as it is ecstatic. Throughout the terrain of the Gospels -- its healings, exorcisms, miracles, feasting, riots, and terrifying prophecy -- the lovers fight and make love, comfort and confront each other, infusing this unique passion narrative with passion in all its meanings.

In this central novel of The Maeve Chronicles, acclaimed novelist Elizabeth Cunningham brings us a Mary Magdalen who defies all stereotypes -- old and new. Passionate and unrepentant, fierce and tender, Maeve leaps off the page, a luminous, embodied archetype for our time.



In the Night

This story begins in the night. There will be a dawn, I promise.

I will also tell of mornings when I didn't want to wake and noons full of harsh light and judgment. Sometimes there will be shade and ease in the afternoons, camaraderie and rest, even pleasure.

There will be passion, I promise. Morning, noon, and night, season after season. Passion that breaks time open wide so that you can taste the mystery inside.

This story begins in the night. It begins in the middle of the story. In the middle of the night. When the thief comes, when the bridegroom comes. When the bride has long since given up hope. When the foolish virgins are snoring. When only a whore is awake.

The last stranger has gone home. That's what we call the men who seek the priestess-whores at Temple of Isis Magdala -- Temple Magdalen for short a.k.a. the hottest holy whorehouse in the Galilee. Magdala is the place for nightlife on Lake Gennesaret, The Lake of the Harp, as it's called because of its shape. Many of the towns along the shore are fishing towns, but Magdala, sitting pretty under the cliffs of Mount Arbel, is right between two opposing worlds -- the swanky new Roman spa city Tiberias and Capernaum, a Jewish stronghold. Romans come to Magdala to slum; Jews come to get out from under the noses of upright neighbors. Native gentiles from the region of the Gerasenes across the lake find their way here, too. Magdala is the place where all the clashing elements in this country of crossroads mix it up. A honky-tonk town full of juke joints, bars, and street brawls. Where else will you find Roman soldiers and Jewish guerilla fighters gaming together?

At Temple Magdalen, on the outskirts of town, we welcome them all, because we remember what most religions teach but people prefer to forget -- the stranger could be a god or an angel.

Now the last stranger is gone for the night. Reginus has barred the gate. We need time to rest in these times of unrest. The priestess-whores are heading for bed. There's a storm rising on the lake. I decide to go to the roof of what I call the tower. I lived so many years inside high narrow walls, I love the roof and sleep there every night I can. It's too wild tonight to stay out, but I will watch for a while. The huge living darkness of the lake moves below me. Mount Arbel has my back. Even through the wind I can just hear the sound of our spring rising and flowing through the Temple towards the lake -- the spring that called me to this place so far from the tiny island where I was born.

"Red!" Reginus calls up the stairs. "There's someone at the gate. I told him we were closed for the night, but he won't go away."

"Is he a suppliant?" our other term for the stranger who comes seeking the goddess (even when he thinks he's just looking for a whore).

"No." Reginus climbs the rest of the way up. "He says he has a sick man with him. That's what makes me suspicious. It could be a trick. They might be robbers. It could be even an ambush. It's so dark tonight I can't tell if the thing slung across his donkey is a man or a sack of grain."

"I'll go speak to him," I say.

"Domina," says the man at the portal, using the Latin word for lady, but he is no Roman. "I have a sick man. Near death."

The man is a Samaritan, I am guessing by his accent.

"Why do you seek help at Temple Magdalen?" I ask in Aramaic.

"Please, there is nowhere else. I found the man naked and bleeding on the Jerusalem-Jericho road. He'd been beaten and left for dead. What was I to do? I couldn't leave him there. I've been traveling for two days now, but no one will take him in. They don't know who he is -- a Jew, a Samaritan, an outlaw, a demoniac? I can't keep caring for him myself. I don't have the skill or the time. I'm just a merchant on my way to Tyre to meet a shipment. I've heard you welcome the stranger here. I've heard there are healers here."

"If it's a trick, it's a trick," I say to Reginus. "We'll have to risk it. What you have heard is true," I say through the portal. "In the name of Isis who welcomes all, I welcome you."

Reginus and I open the gates, and the merchant leads his burdened donkey inside. It is a man and not a sack. That much is clear by the torch in the wall.

"Help me, both of you. The rain hasn't started yet. I want to examine him first by the spring, and wash his wounds there. The water has healing properties," I explain to the Samaritan. "I'll get a lamp while you move him. Carefully."

Even though I am a seasoned healer, I am taken aback by what I see. This man hasn't just been beaten. He's starving. I can count all his ribs. He is covered with sores; his hair is matted and thick with dust. The Samaritan has done his best to bind the man's wounds, but he has bled through the bandages. I kneel down and place the lamp at his head, so I can get a better look at his face.

His face. My heart knows before my eyes; my eyes know before my mind. All I know is I am lost. There are lines here that go on for miles, for years. I am looking at his face, and what I see are his feet, brown as earth, beautiful, lost. I see the sun wheeling out of control, and the stars trying to find him. The moon flinging the ocean after him. And he is lost. No, I am. We are. From each other.

"Maeve, we are lovers," he pleaded on another shore in a terrible dawn after a long night long ago.

"You are lovers," said the old woman, "but not just of each other, you are the lovers of the world."

"We can't love if we're apart," he said.

"We can't love unless we part," I answered him.

I didn't know then what I meant. But now here I am, here we are in this moment, and all the loss is lifting, changing, like leaves turned by the wind before the storm.

"Red, honey," says Reginus. "Why are you crying? What's wrong?"

"Whore's tears," I say. "Cure anything."

I soak them up with the hem of my garment, and begin to wash his wounds.

And my own wounds.

By our wounds we are healed.

Here is the story, of my lost years and what I found, of our found years and what we lost. Stories unfold in time, backwards, forwards, every moment changing the meaning of all the others. This is a passion story -- my passion, his, ours, yours. Passion breaks time open.

Come. Taste the mystery.


The Vine and the Fig Tree

Chapter One


"What am I bid for Red here?" the pug-faced slave dealer harangued the thinning crowd. "Last lot of the day. Who bids for Red?"

"My name," I said one more time, "is Maeve Rhuad." I wasn't sure if I was speaking in Celtic or Latin or Greek or even if I was speaking out loud. But that didn't stop me. "I am the daughter of the Warrior Witches of Tir na mBan, daughters of the Cailleach, daughter of the goddess Bride, daughter of--"

"Put a sock in it, Red," muttered Pug Face (or the first century street Latin equivalent). "How many times I gotta tell you, you ain't got no lineage now. You're property. Mine. Until I unload you. If you know what's good for you, you'll keep your mouth shut and look pretty."

Immediately I opened my mouth again. Then I thought better of it. Confrontation and defiance hadn't gotten me anywhere -- except shackled and displayed on a slave block at the southwest corner of the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the heart of the Roman Forum.

Not that I knew the exact address then; I wasn't even certain I was in Rome, but I had strong suspicions. All my life I had been taught to hate all things Roman. Only Rome could be as hellish as this place appeared to me. You must understand; I had never, ever been in a city before, unless you count the port at Ostia where I was captured. Until now my knowledge of architecture was limited to round wattle and daub huts. You may think I'm an ignorant barbarian. The Romans certainly did. In fact, I had been kicked out of one of the finest schools in the world, the druid college on the Isle of Mona, where I had been studying literature, medicine, and law. So there. Not that I appreciated the opportunity when I had it. Not that I could ever go back. Not only had I been expelled and exiled -- sent beyond the ninth wave as the druids so poetically put it -- they were also mighty particular about their students bearing no taint of slavery.

Now here I was in the heart of the first century's Evil Empire -- on sale.

"A fine female specimen, no more than fourteen years old." In fact I was closer to nineteen, but false advertising is nothing new. "In prime condition. Good breeder, would make an excellent wet nurse." Here he slipped his hand into my rag of a tunic and whipped out a breast, aiming it at the crowd as if about to demonstrate. "What is more, the merchandise in question is a novica." Translation: a first-time slave, a desirable commodity especially when young. "Fresh from Sardinia," he added for good measure. Everyone there but me knew that Sardinia was a penal colony; to be a slave in Rome was definitely a step up.

"Or so you'd have us believe," said a balding man, swathed in complicated folds of white fringed with purple that I would later come to know as a toga worn only by men of senatorial rank. "Along with all the other lies you've written on that plaque around her lovely neck."

I had wondered about that. Though I speak five languages, I read only ogham, the sacred druid alphabet.

"I've a good mind to set the aedile on you for misrepresenting your wares," the man continued wagging a threatening finger. "If that girl has ever seen Sardinia it was only on the way from Gaul -- or worse. I know a Celt when I see one. They are useless as slaves, untrainable and some of them are downright treacherous."

I considered loosing one of the battle cries for which my people are famous -- the kind that make Roman knees rattle and Roman testicles retract, but then I thought better of it. Anything would be preferable to the holding tank, a lightless back room of a fish shop where I had woken bound and gagged after having been raped, beaten (carefully so as to leave no marks) and drugged into a reasonable facsimile of submission.

"Now, now, now, there's no cause for that. You got no right to drive away a man's custom, sir. Red here is no savage. Why she speaks Latin like a senator. Go on, Red, say something for the gentleman."

He smiled for the benefit of the crowd and yanked my chain hard enough to remind me who was shackled and who wasn't. Like I didn't know. Still, I found, I couldn't resist. I turned to him.

"Your father," I said in my sweetest, clearest voice, "fucked a sheep, and your mother did it with a donkey."

The crowd, growing now, roared and applauded. It was a good show -- as long I wasn't their slave. Pug Face jerked my chain so hard I nearly fell to my knees; then he lifted his hand to strike me.

"No," someone shouted. "Let her say on! She's only proving your point."

His face had turned an unbecoming shade of puce, but pleasing the crowd came first. He lowered his fist, which I took as a signal to continue.

"Which explains your face," I said. "Though it is hard to say which coupling resulted in your unfortunate conception. Take your pick of lineage. And as Bride is my witness, I do not intend to insult a worthy animal who gives wool or one that is of use in bearing burdens. It is not the sheep's fault that you fart in your sleep or the donkeys that your breath stinks of rancid meat and sour wine or that the fleas desert the rats in preference for your smelly hide--"

If he didn't drop dead of a stroke -- and I had some hope he might -- or if I didn't get sold to someone quickly, I might not live to enjoy another night among the fish guts. Oh well, death was more honorable than slavery, and now that I was on a roll I couldn't stop to save my life. I might be speaking Latin, but I was a Celt. In other words: impossible to shut up as long as I was breathing.

"One thing is certain," I went on, "you are a slave and the son of slaves. You are a coward and the son of cowards. When the sun rises in the morning it turns red with shame that it must shine on you--"

Then I felt the lash of the whip; I stopped for a moment to breathe. "And the moon hides its face and weeps," I improvised wildly, anticipating the next stroke, knowing that watching a slave being beaten to death would be considered a mild entertainment for people who regularly watched men slaughter each other.

But the next stroke never fell. I turned and was rendered temporarily speechless by the sight of the tall, handsome woman who had mounted the block and grabbed Pug Face's arm, knocking the whip out of his hand.

"Don't mar your wares before I get a good look." The woman's voice was brisk.

More swiftly than I would have imagined possible, Pug Face recovered himself and shifted smoothly into his most obsequious gear.

"Delighted to see you, domina. Always a pleasure to do business with you. Delighted to be of service. Would you like me to remove her garment?"

"If you can call that sack a garment. Yes, strip her. And don't even think about telling me she's a virgin with that mouth on her. You're lucky I didn't go to the aedile about that last piece of baggage you passed off as pure. Next time you say you have a virgin for sale I'm inspecting her hymen right here. As for this one, there's no need for me to get a crick in my neck. She's already whelped at least once. See?" She pointed. "Stretch marks. What happened to the brat?" she addressed me. "Dead, exposed, or sold?"

Never mind that I was naked, far from any place I could call home or any people I could call mine in front of a leering Roman crowd. There are things you recover from -- like being raped by a man who turned out to be my father, which is why being raped by my captor was a mere outrage. And there are things you never get over. Having a child stolen from your arms is one. I stared at the woman. I saw how hard her face was, hard as the street stones pounded into the innocent earth, smooth as the marble slabs the Romans like to pile into huge, ugly buildings. I stared till my eyes were dry and I could no longer see the brightness I'd once held against my breast. The woman made the mistake of staring back. Her face did not soften exactly, but something strained it for an instant.

"Never mind," she said. "As far as I'm concerned, you have no past as long as it doesn't interfere with present purposes. Mine. Now, open your mouth."

"A fine set of choppers if I do say so myself." Pug Face inanely took credit.

What could he or anyone in this world know of the source of my strong teeth and bones, the sixteen lactating breasts of my mothers and the magical orchard on Tir na mBan that blossomed and bore fruit the year round.

After she inspected my teeth, she searched my head for lice. "He's gotten better about cleaning them up," she spoke to herself. "Or maybe this one kept herself clean. Would have been a shame to shave this head. And as red below as above. That could be popular."

"I'll come around if you set her out," said one man. "I like them picante."

"I haven't quite made up my mind. You there," she said to Pug Face, "show us how clean you think she is. Wait, let me have a look at you first."

To the crowd's delight, she inspected his mouth as thoroughly as she had mine. Then she gestured for him to lift his tunic and with an apparently practiced eye she appraised his prick. Pug Face bore it all with an ingratiating grin. He wanted a sale. Badly.

"I just need to be sure, because I've no doubt you've sampled her. All right. Now put your mouth where your money is." To me she said, "Bend over."

I gave her another blank stare, but this time she wasn't playing. She grabbed my hair and forced my head down. I lost my balance and ended up on all fours. Before I knew it, his snout was buried in me. Given my position, nose to the ground, ankles bound, there was only one path of resistance open to me. I took it.

It was long; it was loud, both redolent and resonant. The crowd applauded, and Pug Face surfaced sputtering, holding his nose with one hand while he felt around for his whip with the other.

"There are men in this town who will pay good money to be humiliated like that," mused the woman. "O.K., I'll take her."

"An excellent choice, Domina." Pug Face recovered instantly. "A girl with rare talents. Because you are such a good customer, I'll let you have her for one hundred and fifty denarii."

"One hundred and ten, take it or leave it."

"Domina, you would not make a pauper of me, take food out of my children's mouths. One hundred and forty."

They went on with their obligatory haggling. The morning market was closing up. The entertainment was over. Men moved off towards the baths; women went home with their purchases. Ignored for a merciful moment, I tried to stand again, but I found I was too dizzy. If my stomach had not been empty, I would have vomited. The midday sun beat down and rose up from the stones, glared off the buildings. Nothing in my life had prepared me for this moment. Nothing. Not incest, not childbirth, not exile or shipwreck. Not even watching my beloved disappear in the mists on the other side of the Menai Straits. Esus. Esus. Would I ever see him again? I had never doubted until this moment.

"Red, a word to the wise. Unless you're sailing on a ship or seasoning a broth, salt water is of no use whatsoever. Dry up. If there's one thing men can't stand, it's a whore with leaky eyes. They get enough of that at home."

I didn't know the word whore, not in any of the five languages I spoke. Didn't even have the concept. I was named for an infamous warrior queen who had thirty men a day, if she chose. If she chose.

"Stand up." She put a strong hand under my arm and pulled me to my feet. Pug Face undid my shackles, then lifted the plaque from my neck. "And don't you dare faint on me," she added. "If there's anything I hate more than weepers, it's fainters."

She put her arm around me as I stepped down from the block. Her touch was kinder than her face or voice. It confused me.

"Can you walk?" she demanded. "I'm open for business in three hours. You've got a lot to learn. Fast. Bone," she called, and an enormous eunuch hove into view. "Take her other arm. Let's go."

"Good riddance to bad rubbish," Pug Face muttered behind us. I heard him spit, and a blob landed next to my foot. Before I could even think of retaliating the woman grabbed my chin and locked my face into forward position.

"You're going to have to get used to scum, Red," my new captor told me.

"My name," I began, but I couldn't get it past the lump in my throat.

"Is whatever the clientele decide to call you," she finished for me.

With that she and the giant eunuch led me out of the relatively open spaces of the Forum through the crowded squalor of the notorious Subura and then up hill to Mons Esquilinus. | June 2006


Copyright © 2006 Elizabeth Cunningham


Descended from nine generations of Episcopal priests, Elizabeth Cunningham lives in the Hudson Valley. She is the author of four previous novels and a volume of poetry. Maeve has now taken over her life; she doesn't really mind.