Elizabeth Cunningham

Author of The Maeve Chronicles

The Big Question: Did you have to make her a prostitute? Isn’t the traditional depiction of her as a prostitute just perpetuating a patriarchal virgin/whore stereotype with women divided and trapped on one side or the other?

I understand this point of view and am even sympathetic, but two things trouble me. One, as long as women disown prostitutes, see them as less than or other than themselves, we can be shamed, controlled, and divided against each other by the epithet: whore. Two, in our revulsion towards stereotype, we may miss the richness of archetype. For example, the stereotypical virgin is asexual, the stereotypical whore is amoral or has been stripped of her morals. The stereotypical virgin and whore are both victims, and there is some truth in that. In the realm of archetype the virgin and whore are both powerful. The virgin is not asexual; her sexuality is self-contained. The whore is not amoral; her sexuality is self-defined, and there is also truth in that. In any case, whether we think of stereotypes, archetypes, or complex human beings, the very word whore is loaded. The idea that Jesus might choose as his intimate someone who was or even had been a whore is too rich to pass up. Frankly, it makes me want to worship him and do all kinds of sensuous things to his beautiful feet.

As for my “making her a whore” which is the way people phrase it, the truth is, I didn’t have a choice. That is how she presented herself to me before I knew who she was. She showed up as a cartoon character during a time when I was drawing instead of writing. She had neon fiery orange hair, and she told me her name was Madge. More information followed. She was a painter who supported herself as a prostitute. She turned down my offer of a starring role in novels she considered “too boring” and demanded her own book of cartoons first. So The Book of Madge evolved during the Gulf War, and she became a Peace Prostitute, the founder of T.W.A.T. (Tarts With Attitude Triumph) and W.I.T.C.H (Women Inclined To Create Havoc). Women loved her and seemed to have an instant recognition of what I shall call, for lack of a better term, her archetypal energy. Still, one woman, a peace activist drawn to Madge almost against her will, burst out: “But you can’t make her a prostitute!” Why not? I asked. “Because prostitutes are either victims or enablers of the patriarchy,” the woman explained earnestly.

At a loss for an answer beyond, “Well, but that’s just who she is,” I began to read books about prostitution. The most interesting and thought-provoking were by women who were or had been sex workers themselves, for example Margot St. James’ A Vindication of the Rights of Whores and Nickie Roberts’ Whores in History. I also read books, mostly by Jungians, about the archetype of the sacred prostitute. I was distressed by an attitude I encountered in one of the latter, a belaboring of the distinction between sacred prostitutes and profane commercial whores. To me it seemed less like a drawing a distinction than one more instance of ladies drawing aside their skirts—a disdain not in keeping with the spirit of the goddess Ishtar who described herself as “a prostitute compassionate,” using the term harimtu which meant tavern whore, not high-fallutin’ priestess. (For more see Sacred Prostitution: The Whore and The Holy One.)

In doing research for The Passion of Mary Magdalen, I soon realized that temple prostitution, as it might once have been practiced, was mostly a memory in the first century, though perhaps a more recent and vivid one than it is in our time. Thus Maeve faces the challenge of re-membering and recreating lost knowledge, lost practices, lost perceptions. She also embodies and experiences all the contradictions about prostitution that still exist. Like women, girls, and boys all over the world today, a world in which sexual slavery is on the rise, she is sold into prostitution. At her lowest ebb, her most apparently powerless, she begins to discover, for lack of a word, the archetypal power of her sexuality. When she re-encounters Jesus, her long lost lover, her understanding of her identity is further challenged. At one point, alarmed at the turn the plot was taking, I complained to Maeve: What are you doing? You’re messing with my archetype! “So,” she said. “What good is an archetype, if you can’t explode it?”

I remember writing to a new friend, a writer whose work I admire and who is also a lover of Mary Magdalen. “I can’t help it,” I half-apologized, “for me she is a whore.” My friend replied, “I don’t mind in the least if you depict her as a whore, just don’t make her a repentant whore.” Deal!

My apologies to those who like to call her the disciple to the disciples. In this story she prefers the word companion, which does seem especially suitable as it means “one with whom you break bread,” a homely and intimate act that is described over and over in the Gospels. The Gospels also feature numerous complaints about Jesus’s promiscuous eating. He would eat with anyone!

Even a whore!