With the publication of Holy Blood, Holy Grail in the mid-nineties and the Gnostic Gospels found in Nag Hammadi, a new perspective on the role of Mary Magdalene in the revelation and dissemination of the esoteric teachings of Christ has emerged onto the public stage. With the release of The Da Vinci Code, she has been placed firmly in the public consciousness, her story awakening both excitement and controversy.
It is my contention that Mary Magdalene was the carrier of a tradition of respect and reverence for the Divine Feminine, a secret initiatory tradition that leads back through Jesus, Gnosticism, the esoteric teachings of Judaism, and the Egyptian mysteries of Isis to the ultimate ground or source of all religions. By seeking out the alternative roads to understanding, by looking at the Gnostic texts, legends, symbols, and iconography, one discovers the distinct possibility Mary Magdalene was not only first witness to and herald of the Resurrection, but the chief disciple and recipient of Christ’s’ gnosis, as well as teacher and transmitter of these extraordinary Mysteries to the people of France.
On the shores of the Mediterranean Sea outside Marseilles at Les Saintes Marie de la Mere there is a small chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene and consecrated by Archbishop Roncalli (who later became Pope John XXIII). Given a place of prominence within this chapel are paintings of her arrival from Palestine in a small rudderless boat.According to legend, soon after the crucifixion and Resurrection, Mary Magdalene and her family were expelled from the Holy Land, set adrift on the Mediterranean Sea and made their way to this region, particularly the area around Southern France and Northern Spain. At this time in history, aside from the already established Celts, many Greeks, Arabs, Jews and others lived and travelled in this area. There was even a Jewish city known as Glanum Levi whose ruins can be found today in Provence.
In the midst of this cosmopolitan confluence of cultures, along with the exchange of goods there must have been an exchange of philosophical and religious ideas. It is very possible that during this period many spiritual and symbolic links were discovered between these diverse peoples and their traditional belief systems that stretched back to the temples of Egypt. Before her arrival in Les Saintes Marie Sur Les Mere, France was riddled with Isis cults. The name Paris etymologically can be linked to the pre-Celtic ParIsis, the grove of Isis. Clearly this region was fertile ground for Mary Magdalene’s mission.Following her arrival in France, she was said to have travelled the land, preaching the authentic Gnostic gospel of Jesus, which had been directly transmitted to her during his time on Earth and in mystic visions after his return to the more subtle dimensions of light. French religious literature from the Middle Ages is filled with legends and stories of the life of Mary Magdalene from this period until her death. Tales abound of her miraculous healings, her performance of the ritual of baptism, her aid in fertility and childbearing and even her ability to raise the dead. There are even reports of a secret tradition of the healing arts that exists today in France and traces its roots back to Mary Magdalene.1
After this prophetic mission was accomplished, Mary is reported to have withdrawn to a cave in Ste. Baum, where she spent the remainder of her days in pray and seclusion. She is believed to have been buried at Ste. Maximin where her remains were watched over by Cassianite monks from the fifth century until the Saracen invasion. Then in 1058, in a papal bull, Pope Stephen acknowledged the existence of her relics in the church of Vezeley, which became one of the major places of pilgrimage during the Middle Ages.
But before we look at the evidence for her distinctive role as Apostle of the Apostles and prophetic mission, let us take a look at the hidden history of Gnosticism, the powerful doctrine of Divine grace, healing and illumination that she was said to have transmitted.
The Gnostic Teachings
It was during the Hellenistic period that the mystic knowledge of Egypt, the great symbols, myths, astronomical, scientific and metaphysical teachings passed into the heart of the Mystery Schools of Greece and Rome, which included the region of Gaul where Mary Magdalene is reported to have lived and preached. These secret initiatory teachings of the Egyptians were also retained and transmitted through the inner circles of Judaism to Jesus himself.
At the heart of this lineage of transmission was an extraordinary metaphysical teaching known as Gnosticism. This teaching is believed to be the spiritual basis of his essential message to humanity, a message revealed to Mary Magdalene, his disciples and followers through the vehicles of metaphor, allegory and parable. Unlike the patriarchal, dogmatic, materially based teachings prevalent during this period, Gnosticism placed primary value on the feminine qualities of receptivity, intuitive perception, visionary experience and the art of healing. It was a teaching of love, selflessness, harmony and communion.
The mystic experience of, and communion with, the essential grace and majesty of Divinity, lay at the heart of this Gnostic transmission. The clear and immediate experience of this awakening was known as gnosis or wisdom. Often translated from its Greek root as ‘knowledge’, Gnosticism goes much deeper than mere intellectual understanding. Like a brilliant flash of light arising from the darkness, this understanding arises in the individual as a bright lucid awareness – an intuitive realisation of the pure essence, nature and energy of Divinity as it flows within oneself, the luminous realms and all of creation.
From the Gnostic viewpoint, the answers to all of life’s mysteries can only be found when one “opens oneself to this divine current and allows oneself to be penetrated by it to the point where one is fully transformed and illuminated by it.”2 From the viewpoint of many early Gnostic communities, this divine current was perceived as the feminine, healing and nurturing energy of God’s Holy Spirit.
The fundamental doctrine of the Gnostics relates the dualistic nature of the world in which we reside, the eternal struggle between good and evil. They believed that Jehovah, the wrathful god of the Old Testament was a false god and expression of what they called the demiurge. For how could a fully enlightened divinity contain within him the base emotions of anger, jealousy and vengeance? For them, the real God was a loving deity equally and directly accessible to all. This God taught that love, compassion and the true sacrifice and transformation of the self, or ego, was the highest spiritual path.
The Gnostics believed that the plan of this demiurge, or Satan, was to trap spirit in matter, and the Earth itself was a prison in which souls were exiled from their divine home. For them, the real world was the non-material world of spirit and all of their rituals and practices were designed to purify them and provide them with the means to find their way out of the impure world of matter, darkness and suffering and return to their true home in the Light.
Clearly, these sacred esoteric teachings were revolutionary. Unlike the fixed, restrictive, hierarchical systems prevalent during this period, these teachings were open to all, female, male, rich, poor Jew or Pagan. This all-inclusive transmission of teachings formerly reserved for the elite was at odds with the practices of Orthodox Judaism and the emerging Church of Rome. For once the seeker had been touched by this Gnostic current, she or he came to recognise their own divine nature and perceive their place in the world from a whole new perspective. No longer did they need the intercession of a priest or rabbi to connect them with their spiritual inheritance.
Evidence of Mary Magdalene’s primary role as disciple, visionary, mediatrix and herald of these revolutionary teachings can be found in a number of Gnostic texts. These include The Pistis Sophia, The Gospel of Philip, The Gospel of Mary and more.
Apostle of the Apostles
The Pistis Sophia is a Coptic Gnostic revelatory work composed and/or compiled in Egypt around the middle of the second century CE. It claims to disclose the “secret teachings of the Savior,” reserved for his inner circle of initiates during the eleven years following his Resurrection. Filled with powerful, poetic imagery, this text reveals the intimate connections between this emerging form of Christianity, Paganism and beliefs and rituals founds in the Egyptian Book of the Dead.3 It also clearly recognises and demonstrates Mary Magdalene’s essential role as foremost disciple, seer and prophetess.
It appears the teachings found in the Pistis Sophia were created specifically for the apostles who would go forth and spread his gospel. It takes the form of a dialogue between Jesus and these apostles and consists primarily of questions and answers. It is fascinating to note that in this text, out of the forty-six questions asked of him, thirty-nine of them come from Mary Magdalene. Due to her sincerity, astute level of inquiry and ability to comprehend the essence of his words, time and time again she is praised and recognised by him for her clarity and insight.
For example, after Jesus presents the first part of these mystical teachings concerning the aeons, orders and regions of the “Great Invisible,” he acknowledges Mary Magdalene’s superior capacity for contemplation, insight and revelation.
It came to pass then, when Mary had heard the Savior say these words, that she gazed fixedly into the air for the space of an hour. She said: “My Lord, give commandment to me to speak in openness.” And Jesus, the compassionate, answered and said unto Mary:
“Mary, thou blessed one, whom I will perfect in all mysteries, of those of the height, discourse in openness, thou, whose heart is raised to the Kingdom of Heaven more than all thy brethren.”
Throughout the text, after listening to her interpretation of his teachings, he acknowledges her perceptive abilities,
Well, said, Mary, for thou art blessed before all women on earth, because thou shalt be the fullness of all fullness and the perfection of all perfections.
This is only the first of a number of texts that speak of Mary Magdalene’s gifts and unique relationship with Jesus. According to a group of Gnostic Gospels discovered in 1945 in a cave in Upper Egypt near the village of Nag Hammadi, she was said to be an inspired prophetess who continuously experienced the living presence of her Lord within her.
In The Gospel of Mary, from this collection, Mary Magdalene, the visionary, reveals to the other disciples teachings that were transmitted to her through visionary experience. In this gospel, she clearly takes the lead, not only soothing and reassuring the male apostles who fear capture and death, but relating to them teachings of the Savior that she alone has been privileged to receive. As in the Pistis Sophia, the Savior blesses her for her visionary capacity. When Peter questions her vision, Levi responds with, “If the Teacher held her worthy, who are you to reject her? Surely the Teacher knew her very well, for he loved her more than us.”4
In The Gospel of Philip, from the same collection, the disciples appear to be jealous of the intimate relationship between the Savior and Mary Magdalene.
The Companion of the savior is Mary Magdalene. But Christ loved her more than all the disciples and used to kiss her often on the mouth. The rest of the disciples were offended by it and expressed disapproval. They said to him, “Why do you love her more than all of us?” The Savior answered and said to them, “Why do I not love you like her? When a blind man and one who sees are both together in darkness, they are no different from one another. When the light comes then he who sees will see the light, and he who is blind will remain in darkness.”
Because I have no reason to doubt Philip’s account or the words found in these early texts, I feel that the Christianity brought to France by Mary Magdalene has a different feel about it because it was closer to the authentic teachings of Jesus. If Mary Magdalene truly was the Apostle of the Apostles, then Jesus transmitted more to her or perhaps she understood this transmission better than the rest of the apostles. Through this lens we can begin to perceive and acknowledge the different understanding and practice of Christianity that emerged in Southern France, one that lasted over 1,200 years and in a sense pervades the place to this day.
When one looks at the history of the region one finds evidence that with her arrival, a surge of spiritual awareness, code of ethics and respect for feminine values began, which wove itself into the very fabric of the psychic landscape of Europe. The Order of the Knights Templar was created in this region. The alchemists began their flurry of Cathedral building to preserve the secret metaphysical teachings passed down to them from ancient Egypt. The Crusades and the entire Back to Jerusalem movement began in this area. The mystical Kabbalistic texts the Bahir and Zohar emerged from this region, bringing to the Jewish people knowledge of the Shekhina, or ‘indwelling presence’ and ‘feminine potency of God’. The cults of the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene and Black Madonna, symbolically representing the three aspects of Isis in her role as Universal Goddess, arose here and spread throughout Europe.
It was here the troubadours and poets such as Wolfram von Eschenbach, Robert de Bouron and others sang their songs of devotion to the feminine principle and wrote their fables of the Holy Grail. And it was here in the beautiful mountains and valleys of Provence and Languedoc that the Cathars, as carriers of the Gnostic transmission of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, rebelled against what they considered to be the excesses of the priestly hierarchy, renounced all worldly possessions and fully committed themselves to the path of spirit. Among the Cathars, women as well as men were priests who transmitted divine grace and healing power through the laying on of hands in their sacred initiatory rites that link back to Mary Magdalene, Isis and the healing traditions held by the temple priestess.
As time marched on, the Church of Rome, threatened by the inroads these powerful Gnostic teachings were making among the local populace, labelled them heretical and moved to suppress them. To cement the rule of the Church of Rome, Pope Innocent III called for a Crusade against this Gnostic Cathar heresy. This crusade, which had as its focus the torture, murder and eradication of these loving and compassionate people was the starting point of a wave of fear, suffering and suppression of the feminine in both her divine and worldly aspects that would spread throughout Europe and become known as the Holy Inquisition.
Closer to our time, there are the visions of Saint Bernadette and the healing waters of Lourdes, as well as the mystery of Father Sauniere, Rennes Le Chateau and his strange chapel dedicated to Mary Magdalene. Then there is the saga of Otto Rahn searching through the hills and valleys of this region for the Nazis trying to find the Holy Grail for the upper echelon of the SS. There are the legends of the secret alchemists who live in a magical castle somewhere in the Pyrenees recently popularised in the Harry Potter series. Finally, emerging from this region, is the mystery of the Alchemical Cross of Hendaye, the prophetic visions of Nostradamus and the Basque legend that John of the Apocalypse still lives in a cave in the Pyrenees and will leave that cave only at the end of time.5
These events and stories reveal that Mary Magdalene and the Gnostic current may very possibly be the driving force behind the rich history of this region. Whether it is fact or legend that Mary Magdalene actually came to this area is less important than the power and impact her life and teachings had upon the people of France. It is obvious to anyone who opens their eyes to see, that early in the history of this grace-filled tradition, Mary Magdalene, Apostle of the Apostles entered and has remained at the heart of Christianity.
1. From a conversation with minister and playwright Lila Sophia Tresemer, co-author of the play and DVD, Re-Discovering Mary Magdalene (written with her husband, David Tresemer), for which I created the choreography. In their travels through France, she discovered a tradition of using the healing oils of Mary Magdalene that was said to have been passed down to healers now living in the south of France.
2. Sharron Rose, The Path of the Priestess; A Guidebook for Awakening the Divine Feminine (Inner Traditions, 2002) p.104
3. From the forward by Leslie Shepard to G.R.S. Mead’s, Pistis Sophia (University Books, 1974), p. xvii
4. From the recent translation by Jean-Yves Leloup, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (Inner Traditions, 2002).
5. For greater insight into these events see Weidner and Bridges, The Mysteries of the Great Cross of Hendaye: Alchemy and the End of Time (Destiny Books, 2003) and the Sacred Mysteries DVD, Secrets of Alchemy: The Great Cross and the End of Time.
Top image caption: The “Mother of the World” by mystic and artist Nicholas Roerich (1874-1947). Nicholas and his wife Helena taught that the World Mother has manifested many times over the millennia. (Image courtesy of the Nicholas Roerich Museum, New York, www.roerich.org).
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