Magdala: Mary Magdalene and the Great Goddess

Magdala: Mary Magdalene and the Great Goddess

by Valerie Gross

Do you ever wonder what happened to all those Goddess-worshippers in the Bible?  You know, the ones who kept having their altars smashed and their sacred groves cut down and their priests and priestesses put to death?  Those who worshipped Asherah, consort of Yahweh, and Yahweh as consort of Asherah?

After the fall of the Solomon’s Temple in the 6th century BCE , and the ensuing exile to Babylon, we never hear about the Asherah “problem” again.  As far as the Bible is concerned, no one worshipped Her anymore.

I don’t believe it.  For one thing, to this day we have yet to hear of an entire religion being wiped out.  When persecuted, people hide, they have secret meetings, they create remote outposts where they can worship openly.   I believe that those who worshipped a sacred couple, Yahweh and his Asherah, Asherah and her Yahweh, lived on, and grew strong.

This is not just wishful thinking, not just a fantasy what-if.  In the Bible, in the New Testament, the four Gospels that tell the story of Jesus, tell it full of the symbols of Asherah, and her priestesses, if one understands how to read them.

We are told Mary the Mother communed with an angel and became pregnant.  To us 21st century folk, this is unique and miraculous.  To the people of ancient times, it simply indicated that she was a priestess.  For example, the followers of the great mathematician Pythagoras claimed that he had been born from his human mother and her union with the god Apollo.  This meant his mother was a priestess too.  (If you are interested in priestesses and their unions with Gods, look into the Sacred Marriage Ritual).

So we are told Mary had a child and brought it to Anna to be blessed by her in the Temple.  Second century, early Christian lore tells us that Saint Anne was Mary’s mother.  Thus we may see another confirmation of Mary’s status: priestesshood ran in the family.

All of this would have been obvious to those hearing the stories of the Gospels at the time they were first shared.  It was a common cultural language.  And it is not an accident that these stories were included.  The four Gospels of the New Testament were carefully selected from dozens of gospels (many of them known today as the Gnostic Gospels) that existed at the time, and edited to form a coherent narrative.  The men who edited them together had been appointed to do so by the Pope, and some evidence of their work survives to this date.  They were not shy about shaping these stories, and they were not worried about inconsistent timelines and characters across the four Gospels they included.

So when all four Gospels agree on a story, we know it is particularly significant.  The longest narrative on which they agree is the story of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, all featuring Mary Magdalene as the one who stayed at the cross till the very end as Jesus died, and as the first witness to his resurrection.

Now, that story of witness has no older context to us today than that the Gospels themselves.  But, to a 1st century audience, that story was 3000 years old.  It was the story of the Great Goddess who mourns her beloved’s death in winter and rejoices at his/her return in Spring.  It is Inanna and Dumuzi, Ishtar and Tammuz, Isis and Osiris, and Asherah and Tammuz/Yahweh, Demeter and Persephone.

That witness to burial and resurrection – this was the most important ritual a priestess of Asherah could perform.  And only the high priestess could do it.

Clearly, the early Church wanted its followers to see Mary as the new high priestess, descended from those they had known for thousands of years.  Just as the Gospels are sprinkled with references to Isaiah and other proof that Jesus was the Messiah whose arrival had been foretold in the Old Testament, so are they sprinkled with references to the approval of the priestesses and the embodiment of that ancient Goddess story.

While this would have been obvious to a 1st century or 4th century audience, it is not so obvious to us.  Because, unlike the book of Isaiah, that ancient story with the Goddess and the priestesses was not explicitly included in the Bible.

(Why?  Maybe it was so obvious at the time, they didn’t think it was necessary.  Maybe it was a conspiracy.  I’ll leave that question to the sociologists and the historians.  Me, I tell stories – rooted in history, blossoming in the heart and imagination. )

Peeling back the layers in the different Gospel stories, we find Mary Magdalene’s friend and fellow priestess Salome, who may well have been the author of the magnificent Gnostic Gospel called Thunder Perfect Mind. With them is Joanna, whose husband was the governor’s chief of staff.  That’s right, the wife of the governor Herod’s chief of staff was out there, wandering the countryside with these women and men who went around with Jesus.  And we are told that these women supported the group with their own money.

The money is key – women had such low status in the ancient world, only royalty and priestesses would have had any money and especially the freedom to move about without a man to answer for them.  So when we are told that these women had enough money to support a movement – one that was likely tied to the revitalization of the priestesshood and women’s value –  and enough freedom to devote their lives to it, that is also evidence that these women were of a different class of society than we are told even existed.

And what was this movement they were drawn to, in the middle of this land oppressed by Roman conquest and taxes, brutalized by local authorities and pummeled with drought, famine and plague?   What was born in the midst of a guerrilla warfare so intense that it exploded into full revolution only a generation later?  A movement of universal love, personal power, and total forgiveness.

Whether or not we believe Jesus was divine, became divine, or even lived at all, we cannot deny that something happened in the 1st century CE that forever changed how people understood and valued their relationship to each other, to God, and to their own souls.

We find at its essence what we would call today a humanist movement, one that affirms that all beings are precious, be they man or woman, soldier or tax collector, sinner or saint, Hebrew or Roman, friend or foe, dying or just born.   One that affirms that God cares more about who you are in your heart than how you act in Church or Temple.  Up until then, God was one to be appeased and feared and adored.   It was revolutionary, at the time, to consider that God loves us back, you and me, personally.

No one had ever said anything like this before.  It was completely radical, and it changed everything.

And while the records of time tell us that this message was communicated to the community primarily by Jesus, they also tell us that it was literally made possible by a group of powerful, self-reliant, independent women, especially Mary Magdalene, who never lost faith, not even in the face of death.

So what else can we know about these women?  What about Elizabeth, Hannah’s other daughter, who was John the Baptist’s mother?  What about Martha, Mary Magdalene sister?  And what about the six hundred of years of priestesses from the time of the fall of the Temple, to the time of Mary Magdalene’s birth?  How did they live?  What were they like?  What can we learn from them?

Through careful weaving of what is Biblically known with what is historically possible, I breathed them all back to life, in my book, Magdala, just for you.  Come and have a look.

About the author

Born in Manhattan in the 1960’s summer of love, Valerie Gross shares her time between her beloved native city and the wilderness that surrounds her, with her husband Paul, a musician. In addition to Magdala, Valerie has written an unpublished novel, Our Lady of Everything, and edits many works of scholarship, memoir and fiction. She has recently taken a break from teaching women’s spirituality workshops in order to devote herself full-time to a new historical fiction, set in America in the 1850’s.

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