Mary Magdalene was important in lives of the early followers of Christ. Her identity often gets reduced to that of a sinner and harlot. The ancient text did not document long discussions between her and Jesus. We know she made an impact! Iconography of St. Mary Magdalene: symbolism and meaning that is attached to her image helps to define her. These few symbols of Mary might help to expand, provoke, and clarify the gray areas of her history and blank spaces in her spirituality.
By tracking her symbols, Mary Magdalene’s un spoken story and history become lively discussion and food for pondering truth and message. Her symbols are everywhere in modern artifacts and decorative motifs, devoid of their original meaning. One of the most common is the jar she holds.
Research offered by Deborah Hodgson
Symbols of Mary: A Jar
In all four books of the New Testament (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) a woman anoints Jesus with ointment of pure spikenard from an alabaster container. In Biblical lore, Mary Magdalene anoints Jesus in an emotionally charged scene. The famous pint jar of ‘nard’ (or spikenard) was one of the most expensive luxury items of its day, suggesting that Mary may have been more affluent and more important than written legend would suggest. In the Book of John, Judas Iscariot complains of the waste of so much money. This ointment would have been too expensive for anybody but the very wealthy, even today.
Legend recounts that a visiting king at the birth of Jesus gave the jar of ointment to Mary, the mother of Jesus. High-ranking royals used the oil only for marriages, coronations and burials. It is perplexing why the gospel documents Mary Magdalene’s anointing or bathing with oil the head and feet of Jesus. Her behavior could have suggested her involvement in an ancient marriage ritual.
Of all her symbols, Mary Magdalene’s jar identifies her not only in the Bible, but is synergistic with many depictions of a woman with a jar. Often people associate Mary with the jar to anoint Jesus’ body in a tomb or women who carry healing potions.
Symbols of Mary: Pearls
Pearls represents the moon, because of their beautiful shape and radiance. The moon controls the tides of the oceans, whose strength and pull can synchronize a group of women’s menstruation, bringing them together.
Pearls are said to be symbolic gemstones of the goddess Venus. The Goddess Venus was born on the ocean during the Biblical flood and called priestess of women. Mary Magdalene’s feast day falls on 22 July, synergistic with Venus, when the planet shines the brightest. Tradition went that only nobles of royal blood lines could wear pearls until about a century ago. They also thought pearls represent the tears of Mary Magdalene: tears of happiness at being redeemed by Christ’s love. Remember, as you continue through this article, there is no hard evidence that Mary Magdalene was ever a sinner.
Legend states that Mary Magdalene served as a priestess at the temple of Artemis at Ephesus, cloistered with women there and at home. Pope Gregory deemed Mary Magdalene a prostitute in the ninth century, because of the temple practices of sacred prostitution. In Mary’s time, sacred prostitution was respectable and noble. It occurred only one day in a year, and only high-born noble women could take part. The custom dates back to the Biblical flood. As there were very few women survivors, they had to take multiple husbands to regrow the population in order that it could sustain itself.
As a royal and religious matriarch, not a sacred prostitute, they considered Mary Magdalene as a role model for women in orthodox cultures from ancient times to the present. The pearl is an analogy of Mary Magdalene’s life. The Iconography of St. Mary Magdalene has been confused with her symbolism and meaning. Her tragic holy and royal romance holds bright and shining wisdom yet to be revealed in her pearls.
Symbols of Mary: The Egg
They stain Easter eggs in Greece, a beautiful blood red. Where the red color came from is an interesting story, with some important clues about who Mary Magdalene and Jesus were. We have established that Mary Magdalene was very wealthy and not a prostitute, and that she was of royal blood. However, there are many ranks of nobility. So, how royal was Mary Magdalene?
The orthodox Catholic story of Mary Magdalene and the egg follows Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Mary Magdalene goes to Rome and gatecrashes a dinner party of Roman Emperor Tiberius to protest Jesus’ presumed death and the treatment of people in Jerusalem. Mary brings an ordinary egg as a gift and uses it to describe the great stone door rolling open while she explains to Tiberius, ‘he has risen.’ Tiberius retorts that ‘Jesus could no more have risen than you can make that egg in your hand turn red.’ Mary holds up the egg to Tiberius and his dinner guests and again proclaims, ‘he has risen.’ At that same moment, the egg turns blood red before an astonished Tiberius and his bemused dinner guests. This story is the basis for a Catholic religious festival every year at Easter, called ‘He has risen’ or Pascha. They dyed the red eggs with herbs and vegetables, such as beetroot. It is only in recent centuries that Easter eggs are rainbow colors and made of chocolate.
Symbols of Mary: The Pentagram
The story of Mary Magdalene gatecrashing a Roman emperor’s dinner party is mysterious. This woman could not have been a Palestinian prostitute, and not a Jew. Mary Magdalene would have been born into an imperial Roman family to get that close to the emperor of Rome. In this context, Mary Magdalene, if a Jewish lady of the night, would have been put to death before she reached three hundred feet of Tiberius or his dinner guests. But she was not. So this puts Mary Magdalene in a different social set.
Venus is the morning and evening star, and is sometimes known as the Jewel of the Sky; the pentacle or pentagram gets its name from its five points, penta is five in Greek. We identify Venus as many goddesses: in Babylon they knew her as Ishtar; Palestine: Ashtat; Greece: Aphrodite; Aztec: Tlahuizcalpantecuhtli; and Norse: Sif.
We derive the Venus pentagram symbol from the way the planet moves, orbiting the Sun at a different speed to the Earth. When we connect the points where Venus comes closest to the Earth, they form the shape of a pentagram, where Venus ‘kisses’ the Earth five times. But hang on a star-crossed minute! How did people 5,000 years ago know about Venus’s unusual orbit? Schoolbooks say we discovered the Earth was round and planets had orbits only a few hundred years ago.
Symbols of Mary: The Flower
We often associate Mary with the name of the Rose, their petals open to secrets and forbidden knowledge.
Symbols of Mary: The Skull
“The Bride: I am the Rose of Sharon, and the Lily of the valleys. Solomon: As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” Rose Windows of churches and cathedrals. They are, in fact, more like chrysanthemums. They carved old confessionals with a five-petaled roses to assure parishioners, who couldn’t read, that anything said in the confessional would be confidential. Flowers unfold their secret fragrance and beauty.
In France there is an Essene Masonic secret society called the Order of Saint John, whose members claim to be Desposyni, a branch of descendants of Jesus and Mary Magdalene. Their legend purports that John the Apostle was born to John the Baptist and Mary Magdalene. The legend says that after John the Baptist was beheaded, Jesus married his sister-in-law, Mary Magdalene, and adopted her son John. This would have been a respectable outcome for a widow in Mary Magdalene’s time.
Conclusion about Mary Magdalene
We know so little, but Mary Magdalene has survived as a mystery, a woman of grace, and persistent presence as she relates to the Jesus story. She will not be forgotten. I pray her portrayals bring us a richer understanding of who she could have been. I pray she helps us unveil the truth found through healing and wisdom. May the symbols of Mary be known to the public as we integrate the past two thousand years of misinformation and secrecy. It is time for female perspectives to be allowed to come to light. The internet has stimulated public debate in feminist communities. The information stream contains important clues for new deductions about Mary. Her truth hides in plain sight, waiting to be noticed.
Original longer article D. A. Hodgson in “The Heretic Magazine”, issue 11, 2016, USA, I adapted this text for this shorter post by Mary Jane Miller
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