If you’re visiting the South of France, you’ll of course want to stop by Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume. They have the skull of Mary Magdalene.
There are a lot of Marys in the Bible — specifically, in the New Testament. (There are no Marys in the Hebrew scriptures, but Myriam is the Hebrew version of Mary; and she is Maryam in Aramaic, the language Jesus et al spoke. The Greek translation of the Bible uses Mariam, and in the New Testament, the Greek is Maria.)
Mary Magdalene is not the prostitute. In fact, to make this easy, let’s run through the list of Marys in the New Testament:
1) Mary, the mother of Jesus.
2) Mary Magdalene, or Mary of Magdala. She is not the prostitute. She is a woman whom Jesus heals by casting seven demons out of her. She is described as one of the disciples of Christ, and is a woman of wealth. She financed a lot of Jesus’s ministry work.
3) Mary of Bethany. She is the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who you may remember was raised from the dead by Jesus.
4) Mary of Clopas. Too complicated to get into here. She only appears once, as one of the four women at the cross. James Tabor believes that Mary of Clopas is actually Marym, the mother of Jesus, under her new married name, to a man named Cleopas.
5) Mary, the mother of James and Joseph.
6) Mary, mother of John Mark.
There is also a woman, in the Book of John, who is “caught in the very act of committing adultery” (John 8:4). We don’t know her name. But her story gives us the oft-used quote “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” Somehow (and I’ll tell you how in a titch), Mary of Magdala, who just had a case of the demons, got conflated with the woman caught in adultery. And the poor woman caught in adultery somehow (again, in a titch, hold tight) also became a prostitute.
We can blame this on Pope Gregory I.
Gregory was a 6th century Christian, and the 64th pope (not counting the anti-popes). He is known mainly for two things: converting a lot of pagans to Christianity, and, in a series of Easter sermons in 581, rolling Mary Magdalene, Mary of Bethany, and the adulturous woman all into one Mary, who was also a prostitute.
Gregory was wrong to do this.
(Btw, you can visit Gregory’s tomb at St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. He died at the age of 64 without much muss or fuss.)
But back to Mary Magdalene’s skull, kept in the South of France, in the Church of Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume.
Is it Mary Magdalene’s skull? Maybe! None of our bones, it turns out, have “property of [your name here]” helpfully stamped on them. One thing about religion: it doesn’t have to be true to be believed. And if enough people believe that that skull with the weird golden wig is Mary Magdalene, then, much like the Velveteen Rabbit, it becomes, in a sense, the skull of Mary Magdalene. A sort of transubstatiation, if you will; and if you’re Catholic, you definitely won’t. As it turns out, Truth is less objective than we are probably comfortable admitting. Truth is Time + Consensus.
Humans are a meaning-finding phenomenon in the universe. Something about our brains, maybe, and how we developed consciousness. And meaning shifts, over time, through stresses and accumulation. Certain trees were sacred to certain spirits. Certain wells were tended by gods or faeries or spirits of some kind or other. And there is a transition that starts to happen, historically, in Europe, where Christianity starts to edge out magic as the system of belief. Healing pools that once might belong to a naiad, say, were converted to sites sacred to the Blessed Virgin. Churches were built over spaces that had been previously claimed by other gods. The magic, for what it’s worth, was still in effect; it was just now attributed to Someone Else. Miracle sites were converted from their pagan origins to Christian ones. “You can still worship here, but here is how you will now worship.”
Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte-Baume has Mary Magdalene’s skull. But who knows what god is effecting the miracles attributed to her? The Romans were there before the Christians, and the Romans themselves displaced a Celtic population. The universe is vast and lovely and filled with mystery, and how you pray is how you pray.