Months after finishing the last rewrite, synchronicities and connections to Mary Magdalene keep coming my way. Last week, researching, Magdalene’s feast day I found the following little tale, said to come from the apocryphal Arabic Infancy Gospel, part of which has been incorporated into the Koran. As my readers know, in writing Magdalene A.D. I incorporated many bits and pieces from apocryphal stories and medieval legends about the Magdalene. I’m always delighted to come across a new tale.
An Apocryphal Account of the Nativity
Joseph therefore arose, and taking Mary his spouse, went away to Jerusalem, and came to Bethlehem, to be enrolled along with his family in his native city. And having come to a cave, Mary told Joseph that the time of the birth was at hand and that she could not go into the city; “But,” said she, “let us go into this cave.” This took place at sunset. And Joseph went out in haste to go for a woman to be near her. When, therefore, he was busy about that, he saw a Hebrew old woman belonging to Jerusalem, and said: Come hither, my good woman, and go into this cave, in which there is a woman near her time.
Wherefore, after sunset, the old woman, and Joseph with her, came to the cave, and they both went in. And, behold, it was filled with lights more beautiful than the gleaming of lamps and candles, and more splendid than the light of the sun. The child, enwrapped in swaddling clothes, was sucking the breast of the Lady Mary His mother, being placed in a stall. And when both were wondering at this light, the old woman asks the Lady Mary: Art thou the mother of this Child? And when the Lady Mary gave her assent, she says: Thou art not at all like the daughters of Eve. The Lady Mary said: As my son has no equal among children, so his mother has no equal among women. The old woman replied: My mistress, I came to get payment; I have been for a long time affected with palsy. Our mistress the Lady Mary said to her: Place thy hands upon the child. And the old woman did so, and was immediately cured. Then she went forth, saying: Henceforth I will be the attendant and servant of this child all the days of my life…
And when that old Hebrew woman saw the manifestation of those miracles, she thanked God, saying: I give Thee thanks, O God, the God of Israel, because mine eyes have seen the birth of the Savior of the world. And the time of circumcision, that is, the eighth day, being at hand, the Child was to be circumcised according to the law. Wherefore they circumcised Him in the cave. And the old Hebrew woman took the piece of skin; but some say that she took the navel-string, and laid it past in a jar of old oil of nard. And she had a son, a dealer in unguents, and she gave it to him, saying: See that thou do not sell this jar of unguent of nard, even although three hundred denarii should be offered thee for it. And this is that jar which Mary the sinner bought and poured upon the head and feet of our Lord Jesus Christ, which thereafter she wiped with the hair of her head.
There are many ritual practices connected with birth relics – placentas, umbilical cords, and cauls. This story uses a naval string (umbilical cord) to connect Magdalene with the ancient rites surrounding women’s mysteries and the holy act of giving birth. It’s interesting to note how it intimately connects a woman who hasn’t given birth herself with the birth process. In my novel Mary Magdalene gave birth to a daughter who died in childhood. However, I wrote the scene in the mamissi (the birthing chamber in the Temple of Isis) to emphasis the inclusive symbolic importance of birthing to all women, whether or not they have actually carried a child. Birth, a time when life and death tango together on the threshold of reality, truly thins the veil between this world and those other realms of mystery we intuit but rarely more than glimpse. As a symbol it has great power to open our eyes and ears to other landscapes both within and without.
Another interesting point in this apocryphal version of The Nativity is the addition of another character – the midwife. In the mamissi, Isis and Hathor, two powerful goddesses act as midwives for the women who come to give birth in the temple. My novel also introduces the Marys, a quasi-secret cadre trained to guide women through the passages of their lives. Today we might call them doulas, from the ancient Greek meaning a woman who serves. Doula “refers to a trained and experienced person who provides continuous physical, emotional and informational support to the mother before, during and just after birth.” Of course, the Marys serve as life-log guide through womanhood, but it isn’t far-fetched to see maturation as a constant process of rebirth.
The critical importance of companionship and support of other women in the birthing process of both real babies and the self cannot be exaggerated. For me, Mary Magdalene symbolizes the empathy, courage and willingness to serve, which have been such an important part of my own relationships with the women who grace my life. The desire to portray the constant spiritual midwifery women offer one another was my chief motivation in writing this book.
You’ll notice I chose the umbilical cord rather than the foreskin. Jesus’s foreskin became a popular as a holy relic on December 25, 800, when Charlemagne gave it to Pope Leo III on being crowned Holy Roman Emperor. Charlemagne claimed an angel gave it to him as he prayed at the Holy Sepulcher. It reposed in Sancta Sanctorum of the Lateran basilica in Rome with other relics until looted during the Sack of Rome in 1527. It continued to be venerated through 1983 when a local priest absconded with it. Naturally, there were other claimants to the holy prepuce as well. All in all, seventeen other churches claimed to possess the sacred scrap of skin. Not to belabor an old point, it seems obvious to me that the foreskin story is yet another blatant example of a patriarchal attempt to appropriate the inherent power of the feminine for themselves.
Isn’t it curious, how many strands one can pull out of this little tale? They lead forward and backward through time. Teasing them out we find ourselves connected to millenia of human history, conjecture and concerns. Tug on them and reverberations ring through our collective unconscious.