This paper is an attempt to offer a contribution to the study of feminine archetypes through the figures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Although part of the Christian tradition, these two figures have also come to represent universal aspects of the Feminine. Therefore, while investigating the historical figures of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene is of indisputable interest, the paper focuses on their role as symbolical characters, arguing that their relevance as symbols is of primary interest. As a consequence, the paper proposes that the role we assign to both of them and to Jesus, the main representative of the Masculine in the Christian world, directly influences our idea of the relationship between Masculine and Feminine. The paper explores the delicate issue of Jesus’s sexuality, and ends by proposing a vision that welcomes many forms of the Feminine, and that can support in restoring the richness of the feminine archetypes from the limitations imposed on it by organized religion. The paper draws profusely on Carl Gustav Jung’s understanding of religious figures and motifs as archetypal products of the collective psyche.
On August 15th, 2019, I was walking the streets of Chartres, taking part in the celebrations of the Assumption of Mary. The procession, starting from the Church of Saint-Pierre and then weaving its way through the medieval town to end in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, is a majestic tribute to the Virgin Mary, one of the most glorious celebrations of her figure in the whole world. And yet, to my critical eye, the feast felt like a mixture of genuine adoration and a hypocritical, patronizing attitude towards the Feminine. How is it possible, I was asking myself, that in the 21st century we still have religious events supposedly dedicated to the divine Feminine in which not one woman has a role of relevance? How is it possible that in all of the hymns dedicated to the Virgin Mary we celebrate her virginal qualities, but never her full womanhood? What does that imply for our relationship with the Feminine within and without? Is a rite like the Catholic celebration of the Assumption of Mary a sincere tribute to femininity, or the perpetuation of an outdatedparadigm that no longer serves us?
As I was pondering those questions, in the days before and after the procession, I had the good fortune to deepen in the mysteries of the Virgin Mary together with a group of like-minded people. We explored the Feminine as seen through the Christian perspective, yet with a great deal of intellectual and spiritual freedom. We danced, prayed, chanted, and asked ourselves questions about the role of the Feminine throughout Christian culture. We spent memorable moments in the silent magnificence of the Chartres Cathedral, when it is empty and available to solitary pilgrims. All the time, I perceived the polarity between the devotion to the Feminine that resides in people’s hearts, and the crystallized forms of Catholic liturgy, a contrast to which Notre-Dame de Chartres itself is a testimony.
Today, through the representations and rites dedicated to the Virgin Mary, Chartres tells the story of a woman who was emblematically a support figure for the coming of her divine son. By visiting the cathedral, or browsing through a book like Visions of Mary (Geoffrion, 2017), which collects many of the images of the Virgin Mary at Chartres, one can appreciate that she is mainly represented as Jesus’s mother and disciple. Both of these roles involve a capacity to direct the attention of the onlooker away from herself and towards Christ. As a result, although Notre-Dame de Chartres is consecrated to the Virgin Mary, the authority of her son is always at the forefront, his wisdom and purpose emphasizing her obedience and surrender. The ubiquitous and somewhat bewildering representations of the Virgin Mary carrying an infant Jesus with the face of a mature man (Geoffrion, 2017, pp. 32, 38, 50) dramatically depict the contrast between Mary’s simplicity and Jesus’s all-knowing wisdom. In the words of Monseigneur Pansard, bishop of Chartres between 2005 and 2017, the Virgin Mary knew that her sole mission in the world was to manifest “the coming of the Word made flesh in and through her, Jesus Christ” (Geoffrion, 2017 p. xv).
Though revered and adored by millions, the Virgin Mary symbolizes a Feminine that is ancillary and subordinate to the Masculine, represented by Jesus. By and at large, this is the only version of the Feminine that has found mainstream acceptance in the Christian world. But, unbeknownst to many, the Virgin Mary has a “story.” Her character did not appear all at once; it has been crafted through the centuries. Following the story of the Virgin Mary enables us to appreciate a chapter of the overarching saga of feminine archetypes, a chapter in which the Mother Goddess of antiquity took a new form as the human yet more-than-human mother of the Savior.
When approaching the story of the Virgin Mary, or any other character of Christian mythology, we always need to take into account the interplay between the historical and the symbolic dimensions of their lives. If, on the one hand, the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the apostles, are historical characters whose deeds and words are recorded in the New Testament, on the other hand, they are archetypal figures. Their actions and words are loaded with a huge symbolic charge, and from how we interpret their feats depends, in no small amount, what kind of story we tell ourselves about our lives. As a consequence, the deeds and words of the Virgin Mary have a symbolic value that far outweighs their historical value. In other words, what the mother of Jesus did or said is not nearly as relevant as what we believe her to have done or said. For this reason, the story of the Virgin Mary has fascinated not only devotees but also students of the human psyche, amongst them Carl Gustav Jung. Jung’s contribution is invaluable because of his unique position as both a clinical psychologist, able to upholda scientific point of view on the individual and collective psyche, and a scholar of myths and religions who believed firmly in the reality of the irrational and the spiritual. Jung has dedicated time to the analysis of Christian symbols throughout his entire work, but in this paper I will be referring particularly to Mysterium Coniunctionis (Jung, 1989) and Answer to Job (Jung, 2011).
One final word of warning: when we approach archetypes of a religious nature, curiosity must always be accompanied by respect. The following considerations are meant to inquire into the story of the archetypes of the Feminine and perhaps offer alternative points of view to the standard narrative of Catholicism. It is not my intention to downplay or undermine the devotion that thousands of people, from the bottom of their hearts, tribute to the Virgin Mary every day.
The Bearer of God
The appearances of the Virgin Mary across the twenty-seven books that compose the New Testament are scarce. Yet, today, millions of devotees around the world make her the object of their religious adoration. From a character of relatively limited relevance in the Gospels to sitting by the very side of the Christ in the heavens, the Queen to his Kingdom, the Virgin Mary has had a breathtaking journey through the centuries. But the story of the Virgin Mary starts even before her first appearance in the Gospels: she is Christianity’s response to the eternal need for an image of the feminine aspect of God, a role held in the past by Goddesses such as Inanna, Demeter, or Isis. In the Words of Anne Baring and Jules Cashford, authors of The Myth of The Goddess (1993), the Virgin Mary is “the unrecognized Mother Goddess of the Christian tradition” (p. 547).
In the Jewish tradition, the spiritual medium where Christianity was conceived, the presence of the feminine aspect of God had progressively withered and eventually disappeared, until the Jewish God, Yahweh, had stabilized as an eminently male deity. The feminine role was held no longer by a Goddess, but by the people of Israel, whom Yahweh treated as a submitted wife, destined to endure the rage of her God-husband at the slightest hint of infidelity. This dramatic relationship between Yahveh and humanity reached its apex in the Book of Job. Job, a pious and observant Jew, is subjected to extreme physical and psychological duress by God, who, following Satan’s suggestion, puts Job’s fidelity to the test. Jung explored in depth the psychological and archetypal meaning of this drama, proposing that it represents the point of inversion where the lack of the feminine element of compassion and wisdom puts God in a morally inferior position to man (Jung, 2011, p. 42). As a consequence, a religious renewal takes place with the advent of Christianity; God needs to incarnate again.
The drama enacted in the Book of Job shows that no religion can hold for too long without the qualities of wisdom and compassion brought by the Feminine; the outcome is a God so temperamental, so brutally unjust, that it ends up losing his moral ground in favor of man. As a result, the feminine aspect of God is called again to manifestation in her role of helper and advocate, so that the kind, just, amiable aspect of God can be shown anew to man (Jung, 2011, p. 34). This entails a long preparation for a radical reform of the Jewish religion, which eventually manifests itself in the pivotal event of the Incarnation, the foundational act of the Christian mythology. God had already created Adam, a man made from the dust of the Earth. This time, the renewal of God is so drastic and complete that he incarnates into man through a human mother, the Virgin Mary.
The Virgin Mary thus appears on the stage in a unique and delicate position: that of being the mother to a son that is God incarnate, while being herself a human woman, with no divine attributes in the original narrative of the Gospels. The paradox of a human, mortal woman giving birth to a God generated significant inner contradictions in early Christian theology. Cyril, Patriarch of Alexandria, attempted to solve the problem in the Council of Ephesus (431 CE) by pronouncing Virgin Mary theothokos or God-bearer against the more rationalistic position of Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, who maintained that the Virgin Mary was the bearer of Christ (christothokos), but could not be the bearer of God. We can still feel the vehemency of this doctrinal struggle in a bas-relief in the choir of Notre-Dame de Chartres, where Nestorius lies cowering, a broken bishop’s staff in his hand, while two lighting bolts point towards him from a stormy cloud above, in a clear sign of heretical defeat (Geoffrion, 2017, p. 35).
Nestorius’s position was an effort to maintain the two planes, the human and the archetypal, separate. Had he won the theological dispute, the Virgin Mary would have kept some of her humanness, with the implicit consequence of also humanizing Christ, whom Nestorius believed to possess two distinct, separate natures, the human and the divine. From Cyril’s position, instead, originates the literal interpretation of the Virgin Mary as having given birth to God himself, which creates a psychological need for her essential, ontological difference from any other woman, symbolized by her virginity. With the deliberation of the Council of Ephesus, the Virgin Mary begins her journey towards divinity and away from humanity.
The progressive deification of the Virgin Mary progressed with varied intensity, her figure and status being addressed in ecumenical councils and, much later on, in papal bulls. In parallel, her popularity among the Christian faithful continued to grow. This process reached its climax in the year 1950 with the publication of the papal bull Munificentissimus Deus (Pius XII, 1950). Pope Pius XII declared that the Virgin Mary was to “be taken up body and soul to the glory of heaven where, as Queen, she sits in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages” (Pius XII, 1950, section 40). The Virgin Mary’s Assumption into the heavens became official Catholic dogma thanks to the culmination of a double process: the constant effort of the Church orthodoxy to perfect and refine the archetype of the Feminine she was representing, and the “overwhelming need to include an image of the feminine in the conception of the divine” (Baring & Cashford, 1993, p. 554).
Yet, the coronation of the Virgin Mary as a Queen, her elevation to the de facto status of Goddess meant, paradoxically, her ultimate defeat, for every step towards her perfection entails a step away from a major source of power as a feminine archetype: completeness. Jung, in one of his most profound insights, intuited that while the Masculine naturally tends towards perfection, the Feminine tends towards completeness (Jung, 2011, p. 33). Completeness means the capacity to embrace both the light and the dark aspects, the ordinary and the sublime, and all the infinity of diverse and even apparently opposite qualities that life can produce. The strive towards perfection, the polishing of the Christian doctrine to eliminate any traces of impurity, is thus an eminently masculine impulse that carries over from the Old into the New Testament (Jung, 2011, p. 37).1
Consequently, the theological discussions that have brought the Christian ideal to perfection do not have the same consequences for masculine and feminine figures. When the divine Feminine manifests itself in the Virgin Mary, a perfected, light, sublime version of the Mother Goddesses, the principle of completeness is gravely harmed. The Virgin Mary, considered as a feminine archetype, is robbed of her completeness and, therefore, of her feminine power. Through and despite her ongoing glorification, the Virgin Mary is stripped of her most important quality, the capacity to embrace diverse and contradictory aspects of the Feminine. Even her physical body is declared perfect and incorruptible, unlike that of Jesus, who suffered and died. The Virgin Mary is the paradigmatic example of what happens to a feminine archetype when it is obsessively polished through the masculine process of perfection: her power to compensate for perfection is forever maimed. The feminine ideal is “bent in the direction of the masculine,” and despite all the glorification and recognition, it succumbs to patriarchal supremacy (Jung, 2011, p. 37).
But perfection has a price: if religious images are a representation of our collective consciousness, the incessant masculine pursuit of perfection in Christianity not only subordinated the Feminine in all of us but effectively slashed it into pieces, wounding her in one of her most fundamental qualities. Today, when we walk among the impressive stained-glass windows of Notre-Dame in Chartres, we are surrounded by a perfect, yet incomplete feminine archetype, mutilated and incapacitated, as we shall see, not just once but twice.
The Double Split
The events of the Incarnation happen right in the midst of what Anne Baring (2013) called the solar era,2 a time rife with shifts and separations. The solar era was the theatre of a double split that tore apart the primordial unity of the psychic self, as the increasingly complex human consciousness fought to separate itself from the original matrix of instincts, and attempted to master and dominate the nature from which it had emerged (Baring, 2013, p. 114). As we have already seen, the harrowing split between Masculine and Feminine, reflected in the shift from the Mother Goddesses to the male Gods of the Iron Age, precipitated the transformations leading to the events of the Book of Job.
But another painful rift took form during the solar era: that between light and dark. Before the solar era, for long millennia, the world of divine archetypes had been ruled by powerful feminine figures, the great Mother Goddesses of the Bronze Age (Baring, 2013, pp. 63-67). From a psychological standpoint, writes Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz (2017), these figures symbolized an absolutely complete, yet unreflecting femininity, that encompassed both nurturing and destructive aspects, embodying all the qualities of the feminine spectrum, from the light and sublime to the dark and fearful (p. 25). This paradoxical coexistence of light and dark attributes is still visible in the masculine deity of the Old Testament, Yahweh, who could bestow the sweetest blessings or the most bitter curses on his people, demanding fear as much as he demanded love.
However, in the course of the evolution of human consciousness and the archetypes that populate it, the all-including, paradoxical deity came to a point of such tension that it needed to split. Yahweh became the infinitely good Christian God, who banished darkness from the representations of the divine. Similarly, Christianity’s version of the complex feminine deities of yore is the Virgin Mary: an archetype of innocence and purity, without any of the dark qualities that the Mother Goddesses possessed. From her first appearance in the Gospels to the proclamation of the Assumption, the Virgin Mary ends up retaining nothing of the dark, chthonic power of the Mother Goddesses. While the Virgin Mary is the successor in a line of feminine divine figures, she was allowed to embody a reappearance of the Mother Goddess only at the price of disinfecting her dark side (Von Franz, 2017, p. 25). Today, the version of the Feminine that finds acceptance in an already male-dominated Christian pantheon has lost every connotation of darkness, earthiness, and sensuality; she has been split twice, first from her Masculine side, and then from her own darkness, being reduced to a hyper-development of the light aspect of the Feminine.
The fissure between light and dark ran transversally to the masculine-feminine split, but women and the Feminine have largely carried the burden of being identified with the rejected, dark parts, to the point that today, Western civilization is characterized by a largely unconscious association between evil and feminine (Von Franz, 2017, p. 53). Feminine equates dark, and there is no space for darkness in the scorching light of the Church. But even in the centuries immediately after Jesus’s death, not everyone in the Christian world embraced the splitting of divine images. While the Church Fathers were at work polishing the Christian doctrine of any impurities, the Gnostics, a group of early Christians, refused to reduce God to a partial aspect of itself. In their writings, they interpreted Jesus’s teachings in a way that sought to mend both the split between Masculine and Feminine and that between light and dark. Their theological positions would soon cause them to be denounced as heretics by the Church Fathers, and their work to be banished and destroyed.
A Thundering Voice
The Gnostic Christians held a philosophical and mystical position that affirmed the unity and completeness of the divinity. The study of the Gnostic Gospels, made possible by the fortunate discovery of a collection of papyrus codices in Nag-Hammadi, Egypt, in 1945, offers a different and complementary view on the life of Jesus, the message he was preaching, and the role of the Feminine. While the Gnostic teachings expressed some of the highest mystical products of the Christian tradition, they were also seen as a terrible danger by the emerging Catholic Church. Irenaeus of Lyon, one of the Church Fathers, was particularly active against the Gnostics, and he wrote an entire work, Against Heresies, to refute their beliefs. To Irenaeus, we also owe the proclamation that only the four Canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) are valid accounts of Jesus’s life and teaching. There cannot be more nor less than four Gospels, reasons Irenaeus with unassailable logic, because there are four corners of the world and four winds (Meyer, 2007, p. 7). Another Church Father, Athanasius of Alexandria, a sincere admirer of Irenaeus, produced in 367 CE a list of the twenty-seven books that form the New Testament as we know it today. Naturally, that list included none of the Gnostic Gospels, although today most modern scholars agree that there is no valid reason to consider the Canonical Gospels as intrinsically more trustworthy than the Gnostic Gospels (Meyer, 2007, p. 7).
The Gnostics give us a unitary image of divinity that does not reject the dark or feminine aspects of God. They celebrate the complementarity of opposites while recognizing a supreme principle that transcends all duality. The Gospel of Philip, for example, teaches that all the opposites are siblings of one another and that they will eventually dissolve into their original nature (Meyer, 2007, p. 162). The Feminine has her own powerful voice in the Gnostic Gospels. The Gospel of Philip uses the theme of union in the bridal chamber as a metaphor for the reunification of opposites inside each one of us, declaring that Christ came to heal the separation of male and female (Meyer, 2007, p. 175). The Feminine has a place even in the Holy Trinity, which in Catholic Christianity is an all-male team composed by a Father, a Son, and a masculine Holy Ghost. The Gospel of Philip considers that the Holy Spirit is female as a self-evident truth: its author cannot understand how some say that Virgin Mary became pregnant of the Holy Spirit, because “when did a woman ever get pregnant by a woman?” (Meyer, 2007, p. 164). Although it does not say so explicitly, this question implies that the Virgin Mary must have been fecundated by a man and that the conception of Jesus must have happened through the union of male and female.
But the Gnostic texts do not only speak about the Feminine; the Feminine speaks in them. In Thunder, Perfect Mind, a mysterious female entity announces herself as a supreme principle to whom we had better pay heed. This entity presents herself as a complex, paradoxical union of opposites: “For I am the first and the last / I am the honored and the scorned / I am the whore and the holy / I am the wife and the virgin” (Meyer, 2007, p. 372). The roaring feminine voice showers us with a barrageof paradoxes, claiming with unabashed pride that she is all of that and more. These words speak to the part in us that seeks completeness and not perfection, the part in us that thrives in paradox because it longs to expand so wide as to embrace all opposites. Thunder, Perfect Mind is a grandiose testament to the majesty of an all-embracing Feminine. Next to such thundering power, the symbol of the Virgin Mary, albeit reassuring in her lightness and comforting in her maternal warmth, feels thin and incomplete.
Both the Gnostic and the Canonical Gospels trace their message to the events of Jesus’s life and ministry. Neither category of Gospels is a particularly accurate historical reconstruction, but they regard the characters of Jesus’s story and their action in different ways. In particular, the Gnostic Gospels give relevance not just to the Virgin Mary, but also to another woman that could support her in holding the completeness of a feminine archetype. A woman that, throughout the events described in the Gospels, is right there, under our eyes, by Jesus’s side, suffering and hoping with all the other disciples.
She is, naturally, Mary Magdalene.
Even the Canonical Gospels leave little doubt that Mary Magdalene was a prominent follower of Jesus and identify her as one of the women that supported him and the twelve apostles (Luke 8:2-3). She is present at Jesus’s crucifixion (Matthew 27:55), she is the first to discover Jesus’s empty tomb (Mark 16:1-6) and, according to John, she is the one to whom the resurrected Jesus first appears and speaks (John 20:1-10). In the Gnostic texts, the references to her status and authority are even more direct. In the Dialogue of The Savior, one of the Gnostic treatises of the Nag-Hammadi codex, she is one of three selected disciples, together with Matthew and Thomas, that can ask questions directly to Jesus. She is praised as “a woman who understood everything” (Meyer, 2007, p. 308), in stark contrast to the orthodox representation of the Virgin Mary, often depicted with closed eyes to signify “her limited understanding of all that was to come” (Geoffrion, XXX, p. 45). The Gospel ofPhilip calls Mary Magdalene Jesus’s companion (Meyer, 2007, p. 167). The word for ”companion” used by the original Coptic, a variation of the Greek term koinonos, has spun its fair share of controversy over what was the degree of intimacy between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Be it as it may, in the Gnostic Gospels Mary Magdalene comes alive, her character matching the Virgin Mary in authority as a much-needed complementary feminine voice.
Throughout the middle ages, Mary Magdalene continued eliciting a peculiar fascination and spawning legends that assigned her those qualities and traits that were missing from the incomplete feminine archetype built around the Virgin Mary (Baring & Cashford, 1993, p. 589). However, her character followed a somewhat opposite parable to that of the Virgin Mary: from a figure of great relevance in the Canonical and even more so in the Gnostic Gospels, Mary Magdalene underwent a process of distortion and devaluation. Perhaps the most well-known mystification about Mary Magdalene is the belief that she was a repentant prostitute. This misconception originated from the identification of Mary Magdalene with the unnamed woman that anoints Jesus in an episode recounted, with significant discrepancies, in all four Canonical Gospels (Matthew 26:6-10, Mark 14:3-9, Luke 7:36-50, John 12:1-9). The details of the scene differ among the Gospels, but Luke specifies that the woman “lived a sinful life” (Luke 7:36) and “was a sinner” (7:39). Although Jesus speaks highly of the love shown by the woman who washes his feet with her own tears, wipes them with her hair, kisses them, and anoints them with perfume, the simple mention that she was a sinner was enough for some to conclude that she was a repentant prostitute. None of the Gospels identifies the woman who anointed Jesus with Mary Magdalene; Luke, shortly after recounting this episode, mentions Mary Magdalene by name in a wholly different context (Luke 8:2), suggesting that she and the sinner were two different people. However, during the centuries, the belief arose that Mary Magdalene and the sinner woman were one and the same person.
That Mary Magdalene was identified as a prostitute, on a symbolic level, may be a consequence of her character becoming the emblem of the redemption of sexuality within the Christian imaginary (Baring & Cashford, p. 589). This is a difficult role to sustain, especially in a culture that rejected sexuality and considered being called a prostitute as a terrible insult. Even those historians and scholars that reclaim the role of Mary Magdalene have gone to great lengths to clarify that she was not a prostitute (Meyer, 2007, p. 739), implying that if she had been one, she could never have been one of Jesus’s prominent disciples. Yet, for all we know, Jesus himself did not care about what his disciples did before joining him, as long as their devotion was sincere. Matthew the Evangelist, for instance, was a tax collector (Matthew 10:3), an office that was considered despicable by the Jews of the time, who lived under Roman occupation (Matthew 11:19).
But the Gnostic Gospels introduce us to a darker side-effect of Mary Magdalene’s authority. According to the Gnostics, her unique status in Jesus’s consideration elicited the jealousy of some of the other disciples, especially Peter. In the Gospel of Philipp, Jesus explains to the other disciples his predilection for Mary Magdalene in terms of her superior spiritual evolution and capacity to see the light where others are in blindness (Meyer, 2007, p. 171). The fragmentary Gospel of Mary, the only early Christian Gospel ascribed to a woman, offers us two dramatic scenes that show both Mary Magdalene’s authority and Peter’s resentment. In one of the scenes, speaking to the disciples that are terrified about what is going to happen after Jesus’s death, Mary Magdalene comforts and encourages them (Meyer, 2007, p. 742), showing a serene leadership based on compassion and empathy. In the second episode, after Mary Magdalene reveals some of the esoteric teachings that Jesus has transmitted to her, Peter attempts to rally the others into mistrusting her. It takes Matthew’s intervention to calm Peter’s anger and restore dignity to Mary Magdalene’s words (Meyer, 2007, p. 745). Peter’s aversion to Mary Magdalene is spoken of in yet another of the Gnostic texts: the Gospel of Thomas. Here, Peter tries to convince the other disciples to cast Mary Magdalene away, intimating: “Mary should leave us, for females are not worthy of life” (Meyer, 2007, p. 153).
Curiously, the Catholic Church bases its authority on Peter’s supposed primacy among the apostles. His claimed role as founder of the Church of Rome makes him the first of the uninterrupted lineage of Roman bishops that ends with the current Pope. Although Peter’s presence in Rome is never mentioned in the New Testament, his position as founder of the Roman Church is underwritten by the authority of Irenaeus of Lyon, the stern persecutor of the Gnostics, who solemnly declares that every Church should agree with the Church of Rome, founded by Peter and Paul, on account of its preeminent authority (Irenaeus, n.d., III.3.2).
Peter, the apostle who, according to the Gnostic Gospels, spoke with such violence and contempt towards women, is today regarded as the rock upon which the Catholic Church is built. Mary Magdalene, on the contrary, is not even officially counted as one of the apostles.
The Problem Of Sex
Although the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene are important characters in the Bible, Christianity remains a masculine-based religion with Jesus Christ as its central figure. The competing views on the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene’s role and status, therefore, have to be also considered for the implications they have on the figure of Jesus. The whole doctrine of the virginity of Mary is, in a way, necessary to justify the anomaly of Christ’s supernatural birth, in conformity with what Jung called the general pattern of the birth of the divine hero (Jung, 2011, p. 44). Similarly, the medieval speculations about Mary Magdalene’s erotic nature point to the uncomfortable question of Jesus’s sexuality. Was Jesus celibate? Did he have a romantic relationship with Mary Magdalene? These questions are as uncomfortable for the ecclesiastic hierarchies as they are fascinating for popular imagination, as shown by the success of Dan Brown’s bestseller The Da Vinci Code (2003), despite mixed critical reviews.
While the Canonical Gospels make no explicit reference to Jesus’s sexuality, the Gnostic Gospels are more suggestive in this regard. The Gospel of Philip, besides referring to Mary Magdalene as Jesus’s companion, states that Jesus loved her more than all the other disciples and that he “kissed her often” (Meyer, 2007, p. 171).3 Does this refer to sexual intimacy or a purely spiritual companionship? Once again, we might never be able to find a decisive answer to such questions, but the temptation to imagine a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene has deep roots. On the other hand, the mere suggestion that Jesus may have had an active emotional and sexual life is usually enough to trigger all sorts of cultural and psychological barriers. For example, Jeanne de Quillan, the curator of the Gospel of the Beloved Companion (Quillan, 2010), supposedly a Gospel written by Mary Magdalene herself, calls the question of Jesus’s relationship to Mary Magdalene “sordid in its tabloid fascination” (Quillan, 2010, p. 10). Why such resistance to what could be a beautiful story of human love and companionship?
If we let go for a moment of our preconceptions, the idea that Jesus—a young, healthy man, full of inspiration and courage, who wandered together with a handful of passionate people—led a celibate life seems rather difficult to justify. History and experience suggest that, under similar conditions and difficulties as Jesus and his disciples endured, people tend to seek and share intimacy. And since there is very little historical evidence to support any specific position around Jesus’s sexuality, common sense would suggest that he had at least some occasion to engage in the basic human experience of erotic intimacy. It seems fair to assume that Jesus and his disciples, their heart aflame with love for God, may have become physically intimate in the cold nights of Judea. But religious images do not need to respond to reason, and the exegesis of biblical texts may never lead to any convincing conclusion on such matters. Too many centuries have passed, too many translations and modifications have accumulated on one another, and there is too much at stake for us to hope to find a conclusive answer in any of the biblical texts that have survived to our day. However, as noted before, what matters most in the life of Jesus and his disciples is what they represent as symbols. The question then becomes: what does the accepted version of Jesus’s life mean for the relationship between Masculine and Feminine? What vision of the relationship between the sexes is supported by Jesus being celibate and would be jeopardized by the fact of Jesus’s sexuality?
The question of the interaction between masculine and feminine archetypes, and ultimately the issue of sexuality, are themes that every religion must confront and express a position on. Christianity, as we have seen, had as one of its founding drives the re-incorporation of the feminine element into the divine drama, and it cannot therefore completely dispense with her, as other religions have done. But in the centuries following Jesus’s death, through the theological elaborations of the Church Fathers and then of the Church, the choice most of Christianity made was to elevate the Virgin Mary to the sole symbol of femininity, and relegate Mary Magdalene to a dubious secondary role, while claiming Jesus’s absolute celibacy. In this way, the model of a celibate Masculine and of a virginal Feminine were ingrained in the collective psyche and supported the creation of a celibate male priesthood. But there is more. Once we look at the Christian stories as archetypal stories, we need to take into account another masculine-feminine relationship: that between Jesus and his mother, the Virgin Mary. And here, we may be in for a shock.
From Mother to Queen
The language of Munificentissimus Deus,the papal bull that declared the Assumption of Mary as Catholic dogma, says a lot about how the relationship between Jesus and the Virgin Mary came to be perceived two thousand years after they lived and died. The bull speaks about “the intimate union of Mary with her Son, and the affection of preeminent love which the Son has for his most worthy Mother.” (Pius XII, 1950, section 25). It refers to the Virgin Mary as “heavenly spouse,”4 who “has been lifted up to the courts of heaven with the divine Bridegroom” (Pius XII, 1950, section 26). It proclaims a likeness between Mary and Christ “that forbids us to think of the heavenly Queen as being separated from the heavenly King” (Pius XII, 1950, section 33). In sum, the Virgin Mary, by the 20th century, has become Jesus’s companion, sitting by his side in the heavens. To understand how unsettling of a message this is for our psyche, just imagine what would be the scandal if in any of today’s kingdoms, like Thailand or Spain, the newly appointed king announced that he was taking as queen, spouse and royal consort his own mother.
Still, such erotic, nuptial language when speaking about a mother and her son should not completely disconcert us. Jesus and the Virgin Mary are archetypal, mythological figures, and the theme of incest between the Great Mother and her God-son is one of the oldest motifs in mythology. The Assumption of Mary into the heavens is really a wedding feast, the Christian version of the sacred marriage, of a clear incestuous nature (Jung, 1989, p. 466). Jung suggested that the origin of the incest myth may be rooted in the primitive belief that the son is a reborn father, in an expression of an eternal pattern of renewal and rebirth (Jung, 1989, p. 150). This motif has its roots in the far depths of our ancient psychic structures, but what does it mean for the relationship between Masculine and Feminine in us? In the collective consciousness of today’s Christian-based cultures, the Masculine is allowed to relate to the Feminine only as a son to a (virgin) mother. The Masculine’s counterpart, sitting by his side, is his own mother. If we reflect upon this, we realize that just as the Feminine is condemned to a secondary role, the Masculine is condemned to a state of perpetuated infancy. If the Masculine sees the Feminine only as a mother, he is kept into the role of son and unable to mature into a partner.
This vision of the Feminine as a virginal mother reminds me of the attitude certain men have towards their mother, whom they love ferociously, often to the discredit of women of their own age, while stubbornly refusing to see her as a sexual being. As a man who grew up in Rome, just a few kilometers away from the Holy See, I have witnessed this phenomenon quite directly. Is it too far-fetched to suppose that there is a connection, however indirect, between these collective behaviors and the sanctioned relationship between Jesus and his mother, the only Masculine-Feminine relationship available at the highest level of Christian symbology? In a general heterosexual pattern of development, learning how to relate to the Feminine as a lover and not anymore as a mother is a milestone of growth.5 A man that does not pass through this fundamental initiation is likely to have an unhealthy relationship with the Feminine, great difficulty in accepting her sexuality, and an unspoken need to not acknowledge her darker, wilder side—for that would mean having to admit the darkness of his own mother. In a sense, the Christian story about Jesus and the Virgin Mary condemned the whole masculinity to a chronic incapacity to relate to the Feminine in a mature way. The male priesthood of the Catholic Church is perhaps the most extravagant expression of this incapacity. That such a priesthood is celebrating the Feminine in the feast of the Assumption of Mary is almost a hymn to an infantilized, hypocritical relationship between man and woman.
Conversely, a sexualized Feminine is dangerous, not for herself, but because it forces the Masculine to look away from whatever ideal of perfection he may entertain, and face his own dark side, his instincts, animality, and sexuality. Yet only a Masculine that is able to do that can hope to establish a mature, equal relationship with the Feminine, and benefit from her gifts and wisdom. Today, we witness the effects of over three millennia of almost undisputed dominance of the masculine archetypes. With his relentless search of perfection, with his tendency to analyze and divide, the Masculine has gifted us with discernment, detachment, and the development of a refined intellect. But the consequences of the uncontrolled tendency towards perfection are beginning to show with unprecedented clarity. While a global claim for the resurgence of the Feminine is today looking like an increasing necessity, the Masculine in all of us, men and women, urgently needs to grow out of a prolonged, unhealthy state of artificial infancy.
A Vision of Marys
Religious stories such as those that populate the Gospels are born as expressions of unconscious archetypes: nobody creates them intentionally. Religious images erupt spontaneously out of the collective unconscious, often with astounding force, and enter the field of consciousness as finished products, in dreams and prophetic visions (Jung, 2011, para. 557). But when, over time, those initial spontaneous expressions start becoming codified in sacred texts, when they riseto the rank of religious dogmas, they end up shaping the collective psyche and, therefore, our societies and our lives. Once the stories of these characters are written and handed down through generations, the interpretation society gives to them, whether by popular consensus or by authority, makes all the difference. Life in a fundamentalist Christian family is very different from life in a tolerant one, though both may refer to the same archetypal stories in the Bible. Therefore, revisiting and reimagining the story of religious archetypes is an act of independence, a way to reclaim our sovereignty over our own psychic world.
Usually, however, the capacity to seize those religious images and interpret them is the self-appointed prerogative of Churches and religious hierarchies. This is one of the reasons why organized religions hold such power: they are recognized authorities in the interpretation of collective archetypal symbols that affect the psychic state of millions of people. However, in the absence of a continued religious revelation, dogma inevitably starts to decay. Eventually, wrote Jung, the fate of every religious dogma is to become “soulless,” because life wants to create new forms (Jung, 1989, p. 347). The religious images and motifs become old and crystalized. Tension accumulates in the collective unconscious until it erupts again in the form of a religious renewal, the birth of a new paradigm, and a new vision of humanity and its place in the Universe.
Are we now in a time where the Christian religious images are ready for such a renovation? We do not know; religious renewals do not announce themselves any more than earthquakes. But we may ask ourselves whether the religious archetypes we have access to are still fresh. Is the Virgin Mary, today, suited to express the essence of the Feminine? To me, the answer is a clear no. She is too partial, too polarized towards the light and the sublime aspects, to hold that point alone. Once again, this is not merely theoretical speculation. The effects of the partiality of the feminine archetype as embodied by the Virgin Mary are tangible and real. Millions of girls all over the world, educated according to Christian standards, have been conditioned to strive towards an unreachable ideal in order to express their femininity fully. With rare exceptions, most women today, even in so-called liberal countries, have received distorted messages in regards to their natural sexuality, learning to repress it or hide it in one way or another. After all, the Virgin Mary was able to realize herself as a woman, without having passed through the threshold of becoming a sexual being, with all the initiations and responsibilities that passage entails.
Is there any alternative story we can imagine for the Feminine? Those of us who have been socialized in a Christian-based culture must come to termswith the female characters in the mythological narrative built upon the Bible. Two millennia after the death of Christ, those characters are fundamentally the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Sure, we can try to bypass the Christian mythology altogether and turn to other archetypal images of the Feminine, such as Isis, Inanna, or Kali. Indeed, those goddesses are magneticand powerful in their own right. And yet, these archetypal figures do not have nearly as much power in Western culture as those of the Christian myth. The most wounding, the most hurt, and the most potential of healing in Western culture, resides in the Christian archetypes and stories. Though some of us have developed an understandable resistance to those stories, and the process of re-approaching the Christian myths may require patience, allowing space for an alternative reading of the narrative of Jesus and his disciples may be the way to bring those archetypes closer to our lives and re-establish rapport with them. The Gnostic Gospels, finally available to the general public albeit in fragmented form, are one of the sources for such alternative reading.
A verse in the Gospel of Philip says that Jesus always walked with three Marys: his mother, his sister, and his companion, Mary Magdalene (Meyer, 2007, p. 167). This is a wonderful symbolic representation of a Masculine that recognizes the Feminine as a mother, sister, and lover.6 This image presents a vision of many Marys, a vision in which Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary are not antagonistic but can live side by side. The Feminine, as a comprehensive expression of many diverse female forms, has space for both of them and more. She is vast enough to contain complementary, different, even opposite archetypes. Both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, as expressions of femininity, can live next to each other in fruitful collaboration, all of them available to inspire women and men. Seeing Mary Magdalene as an empowered woman, both companion and disciple of Jesus, can contribute to healing the masculine-feminine split in our individual and collective psyche, and give those cultures that are still based on the Christian myth permission to express and develop aspects of the psyche that have long been repressed. Shifting from visions of Mary to a vision of many Marys is a way to expand into a broadened horizon and restore, on a collective level, some of the unfathomable complexity and completeness of the Feminine, so that it can balance the masculine tendency to perfection.
By acknowledging and healing our relationship with mother/father, sister/brother, and lover, we can start to bridge the painful rift between Feminine and Masculine and begin a process of inner integration. I say begin, because the work of inner integration has really no end. Once the split between Masculine and Feminine is sufficiently mended, the next step, as far as I can see, is addressing the split between light and dark, a task that may prove to be even more challenging. More mending, unifying, and putting in rapport will always be needed to counterbalance the masculine tendency to perfection, clarity, discernment, and division.
This process of growth into completeness needs to happen on the practical as well as on the theoretical level. Study alone is not enough to support the healing of those internal cleavages, because these fractures reside in deep layers of our psyche. To speak to those deep layers, we need to learn and master the language of symbol, initiation, and ritual. The Holy Scriptures of every religion are an invaluable resource, comparable to both a dictionary and a grammar book, for those of us who wish to learn such a mysterious language.
1 We can appreciate a similar impulse to refinement and perfection in other masculine religions like Buddhism and Islam. By contrast, mystical traditions like Gnosticism, medieval Alchemy or Vajrayana Buddhism have stressed the necessity of seeing the completeness in the divine, often paying the price of persecution for their positions.
2 The solar era began about two thousand years before the birth of Christ, giving rise, among others, to the patriarchal religion of the Old Testament.
3 The text of the Gospel of Philip is fragmentary, and the word indicating where exactly on the body Jesus kissed Mary Magdalene has been lost.
4 The same expression was also sometimes used to refer to the Church.
5 I believe that the same pattern applies to homosexual development as well, though the subject would require a separate discussion.
6 The Gospel of Philip is written from the standpoint of the Masculine, but in the same way we can imagine a Feminine relating to the Masculine as a father, brother, and lover.
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Geoffrion, J. (2017). Visions of Mary : art, devotion, and beauty at Chartres Cathedral. Brewster, Massachusetts: Paraclete Press.
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