Hairy Mary: Mary of Egypt, Magdalene, and the Wild Woman

Migrating and drifting themes of the Hairy Maiden

Above: wooden sculpture of Mary Magdalene, by Gregor Erhart, Augsburg, 1515-20.

Nothing left of the historic Mariamma of Migdala which it purports to be: this is a concocted myth that remade her into a repented "fallen woman," straight outa of the sex trade. This idea was not original to christian scripture, but arose over time, as Magdalene was conflated with another woman who abased herself in repentence, bathing the feet of Yeshua with her tears and hair. That was bad enought, but by 600 CE, pope Gregory I had sealed the redefinition of this companion of Yeshua of Nazareth as a prostitute.

In the middle ages, the Magdalene was used as an ideological branding for women in prostitution, and for refuges for women fleeing its dire conditions (for which many had no alternative, no other means of survival). These places were based on the idea that sinful women owing repentence, not children trafficked at 12, or rape victims, or women cast out by their families, lacking any other means of a minimal livelihood. They were based on a denial of the reality of men buying sex at will from desperate women and children, some herded into brothels, others on the streets. Female wages did not meet the bare minimum to afford shelter: and so if they fled rape or abuse in the home, or if their father threw them out, this was the main economics on offer.

But the iconography is totally sexualized: a naked woman clothed only in her long hair. It's based on older tropes about the desert ascetic Mary of Egypt, which took off like wildfire and later became merged with the legends of Magdalene. It's staggering the degree to which this one leading female figure in the community around Rav Yeshua became tightly connected to the theme of sexuality, including in present-day reclamations that fixate on "the sacred marriage."

Who was this woman, really? Not this iconography, that much we do know. Imagine how she'd react to someone telling her, More than 1000 years from now, you will be symbolized without any clothing, looking demure, and covered only in light brown hair. It would be even more stunning to Miriam of Nazareth to learn that she had been proclaimed the virgin mother of a living god who had overthrown Judaic law to found a new religion syncretized with pagan Mystery traditions of a salvific dying and resurrected god. A religion that declared all who did not adhere to it damned, and which even, in the blood libel mythology, cast Miriam herself, as Mary, as an enemy to her own people. Makes you ponder the notion of truth in how history is represented through the lens of religious dogma.

"Mary of Egypt" living in a cave, clothed only in her abundant hair. Book of Hours, Lombardy ca. 1385-1390 (Paris, BnF, Latin 757, fol. 343v).

The story of Mary of Egypt was also a myth of female repentance, as Sophronius, the Patriarch of Jerusalem (634–638), told it (who knew what her real story was, if she existed!)

"Saint Mary, also known as Maria Aegyptiaca, was born somewhere in the Province of Egypt, and at the age of twelve she ran away from her parents to the city of Alexandria. Here she lived an extremely dissolute life. In her Vita it states that she often refused the money offered for her sexual favors, as she was driven "by an insatiable and an irrepressible passion", and that she mainly lived by begging, supplemented by spinning flax.

"After seventeen years of this lifestyle, she traveled to Jerusalem for the Great Feasts of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. [blah blah blah] Her Vita relates that when she tried to enter the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for the celebration, she was barred from doing so by an unseen force. Realizing that this was because of her impurity, she was struck with remorse, and upon seeing an icon of the Theotokos (the Virgin Mary) outside the church, she prayed for forgiveness and promised to give up the world (i.e., become an ascetic). Then she attempted again to enter the church, and this time was permitted in. ...

[She] went to the monastery of Saint John the Baptist on the bank of the River Jordan, where she received absolution and afterwards Holy Communion. The next morning, she crossed the Jordan and retired to the desert to live the rest of her life as a hermit in penitence. She took with her only three loaves of bread, and once they were gone, lived only on what she could find in the wilderness.

"Approximately one year before her death, she recounted her life to Saint Zosimas of Palestine,[6] who encountered her in the desert. When he unexpectedly met her in the desert, she was completely naked and almost unrecognizable as human. She asked Zosimas to toss her his mantle to cover herself with, and then she narrated her life's story to him." This scene was popular, lots of pictures of it, including one here:

The one shown below, whew. Once she becomes saintly, she no longer has breasts, according to this artist. The other, bigger category of female saints do, but they are virgin martyrs, often threatened with rape and torture (but saved by miracles).

No way to be a woman and not be sexualized, one way or another, in these representations, stories, images. A torturer cut the breasts off of santa Agatha of Catania (Sicily), who is shown here holding her severed breasts on a platter, in the company of another virgin martyr, Catherine of Alexandria.

Early medieval MS showing men torturing Saint Agatha by tearing off her breasts.

There was a longlived artistic tradition that fixed its pornified gaze on the torture of St Agatha.

I'll spare your eyes, but if you scroll down this page, it shows the ghastly celebration of the torture of Agatha of Catania.

Some pictures show breast-rippers of a kind used in the witch trials and especially public executions, inflicted just before they burned the woman.

Kirsten Wolf's good article "The Severed Breast: A Topos in the Legends of Female Virgin Martyr Saints" is available online.

"Saint Barbara, for example, was first stripped of her clothes, beaten with ropes, lacerated with sharp combs, and then imprisoned; secondly, she was burnt; thirdly, her breasts were cut off;4 and, finally, she was led naked through the city.5 Saint Dorothy was first cast into a vessel of burning oil and starved in prison; secondly, she was lacerated with hooks; thirdly, her breasts were burnt with torches; and fourthly, her face and body were beaten to a pulp.0 Saint Margaret of Antioch was hung upon a rack, beaten with rods, and lacerated with iron rakes, then imprisoned, and finally bound and put in a tub full of water.7 Fides, one of Saint Sophia’s three daughters, was punished by being beaten, by having her breasts torn off, by being thrown on a red-hot gridiron, and by being put in a cauldron full of boiling wax. ...

"A number of scholars have commented on the apparently sexual orientation of the tortures. Atkinson (1983:189) draws attention to the fact that while both men and women were beaten and burned, women saints were also sexually humiliated and assaulted, stripped naked, taken to brothels, and subjected to tortures such as the severing of their breasts. ... it is a fact that male saints were spared corresponding sexually humiliating tortures. ...

" Because of this different treatment of male and female martyrs, Atkinson (1983:189) claims that it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the descriptions of the sufferings of female virgin martyrs were experienced as erotic. Heffernan (1988), in a similar vein, argues that “[t]he dominant image of the female invariably turned sacred biogra­ phy into something akin to a sexual melodrama, replete with anguish and physical cruelty depicted in an unabashedly erotic manner” (281- 282). Gad (1971) comments on “den utilslørede sadisme, der ikke skjuler hvilke instinkter genren også vender sig til, og som hos Agatha er af mere klart sexuel karakter end i andre” (58).

"Carlé (1980) goes so far as to assert that the legends of female virgin martyr saints may have served as a kind of pornography: 'The pornographical details are especially numerous, though ex­tremely unvaried in details, in the last part of each legend, when the woman is tortured and humiliated in various ways in order to break her down and make her sacrifice to the Roman gods. Keeping in mind that the story began with a conflict concerning the sexual integrity of the woman, the writers of the legends could gain some pornographic value from these situations as well. The most common examples will be about women who are raped in prison, or undressed in court; the amputation of the woman's breasts is also rather common. On the whole, the legends could be described as yellow’ literature, sadistic scenes, staged on the great theater of society.'

"A similar assertion is made by Atkinson (1983): “On the highest level they [the legends] inspired faith and courage, perhaps especially in women, for whom these were the only models of active and heroic femininity. ... But on the lowest level, their indulgence — perhaps even delight — in the details of sexual abuse can only be described as pornographic"."

Back to Magdalene: good tracking of the medieval representations here: "Mary Magdalene’s image was conflated, contorted and contradicted

The Gospel of Mary depicted her as the most beloved disciple of Jesus.

Pope Gregory I conflated Mary Magdalene with Mary of Bethany and identified her as a prostitute. She was tagged as a sinful woman.

But during the Counter-Reformation period, the Catholic Church epitomized her as the ‘Saint of Penitence’.

The secret behind hairy iconographies of Mary Magdalene

It is believed that after Jesus’ ascension, Mary Magdalene decided to live as an ascetic in a desert; praying and fasting. She lived in the desert for such a long time that her clothes were ragged."

Same trope as Mary of Egypt; but of course other versions of Magdalene story predominate.

Mary Magdalene, Sforza Hours, about 1490 CE

Ascension of Mary Magdalene, by Tilman Riemenschneider

This line of stereotyping collided with the folk tradition of the wild woman, who had hair all over her body. Belgian Book of Hours, ca 1490. One of her names was Rauhe Else.

If she looks pious with angels, not the wildwoman. Magdalene, even if she has fur all over.

Another Wild Woman, Jacob Elsner, "Geese Book" Nuremburg, 1507.

The Hairy Mary link, you'll note they cut out fur around the breasts. This is a theme, even on one of my favorite Wild Women, 1505, now in Basel.

Here's Mary Egypt assimilated to the Wild Woman, in deep communion with the land. Calendarium Decretals of Gregory IX, circa 1300 CE British Library

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