If you want to be spiritual, ask uncomfortable questions,’ Goddess News, Spiritual Blog, Divine Feminine,
Dr Joanna Kujawa
Mary Magdalene and Gnostic Mysteries of Sexual Alchemy
As regular readers of Goddess News know, I am in the process of writing a book and these last few blogs are (modified) excerpts from the book, which is growing beautifully among the disruptions of coordinating 442 postgraduate students, lecturing and marking – and everything else. Sometimes I have to question my sanity because in order to write this book, I have turned down at least three opportunities to contribute to academic books which already have publishers and publication in which would enhance my academic profile. But I am the prodigal daughter and am following my soul – perhaps this is the rebel signature on my life?
This is the third blog in the series of my exploration into sexual alchemy and its connection with Goddess traditions, especially those of Mary Magdalene. Before I proceed, I would like to explain once again why I write about this. Firstly, sexuality has often been a spiritual experience for me and I have always felt removed from the public understanding and media portrayal of sexuality as a base instinct. That is only one of many possible interpretations of sexual experience and definitely not how I experience it. Secondly, when I am in a more conspiratorial mood I think there might be some external push (by the media and institutionalised religions) for us to disengage from a deeper link between our sexuality and spirituality. For me, apart from my own experience and study of Tantra, Mary Magdalene and the lineage of goddesses which she embodies can be a link to the spiritual tradition of sexuality in the West.
This blog is a continuation of my earlier blogs: https://www.joannakujawa.com/what-was-the-great-magic-of-isis-and-the-sexual-alchemy-of-mary-magdalene/ where I followed the trail of as Tom Kenyon and Judi Sion claim in The Magdalen Manuscript: The Alchemies of Horus and The Sex Magic of Isis (2006)and which seemed a bit too ‘stretched’ for me,
And https://www.joannakujawa.com/sex-magic-in-egypt/ in which I followed the trail of Wendy Berg and Mike Harris in Polarity Magic: The Secret History of Western Religion (2003) to ancient Egypt.
(If you are not interested in this follow up and want to read something more personal, I can refer you to https://www.joannakujawa.com/exploring-goddessess-of-eros/ )
The question that I would like to ask in this blog is: could the sexual magic used for the purpose of transfiguration or even ascension found in Ancient Egypt also be found in the first century – the times of Mary Magdalene? By that time, historically, Egypt had become a different place. Alexander the Great of Macedon conquered Egypt in 332 BCE and had established a new dynasty – a Ptolemaic dynasty – of Macedonian-Greek origin with Ptolemy I Soter (also known as Ptolemy the Saviour). The old pharaohs were gone and the Ptolemaic Dynasty survived until Cleopatra’s rule, which ended with her death in 30 BCE. This began a new era of Hellenistic Egypt combining Greek and Egyptian traditions. This is important for us because the city of Alexandria became the cultural and spiritual centre of the Western world – something which will lead us back to Mary Magdalene and a possible connection – whether mythical or real –between her and Isis.
Could the tradition of sexual magic that dated from the times of the 18th Dynasty survive in this kind of environment with its mixing of the Greek rational approach and ancient mysteries of much older Egypt? I think the answer is a firm ‘yes’ simply because in this great amalgam of cultures and traditions that was Alexandria one ancient cult that still stood strong was that of Isis. Even the last pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Dynasty, the famous Cleopatra, considered herself the very embodiment of the Goddess Isis. When entering Rome in 46 BCE, Cleopatra was adorned with the symbols of Isis. Thus, the Isis tradition was alive and well – even in the most powerful circles.
Unlike with Tantric sources, I have never come across any ancient Egyptian sources on sexual alchemy in the form of a manual the way some of the Hindu Tantric works survived. At the same time, if you read between the lines of some Gnostic sources, it could be argued that there was definitely something akin to sexual alchemy being practised in Egypt and in the ancient world in general. This knowledge was kept secret for fear of it falling into the wrong hands and being accessed by people who would not use it for their spiritual advancement but rather for their own often selfish means or even to harm others. The only sources we have of the possible survival of sexual rituals in Alexandria come from the Christian critics, in works written by them to shame what they perceived as heretical interpretations of Christ’s teachings. As in the case of the Cathars in 12th-century France, these kinds of sources are often exaggerated, as their sole purpose was to ridicule these kinds of practices.
In Gnostic Mysteries of Sex (2015), Tobias Churton explores painstakingly but thoroughly the accusers of the Gnostic and Hermeneutic (followers of Hermes Trismegistus) movements, which were possibly involved in some ancient sexual rights – these Gnostic groups were often connected with Egypt. I am not going to name the various Gnostic sects, as they are complex and Churton has already devoted a book to them. For the sake of the argument, I will mention two Gnostic groups with such interests: one is the Naasseni (or Naassenes) and the other the Peratics. We know of the Naasenni from Hippolytus, a Roman theologian who lived at the end of the second and beginning of the third centuries CE. Another more recent source on the Naasseni comes from the Gospel of the Egyptians, discovered along with other Gnostic texts in Nag Hammadi in 1945. The Naasseni apparently, like the Tantrics, believed that certain sexual rites involved the ‘transformation of mundane sexual fluids into holy sacraments’ and practised ‘a specific formula for retention of sperm’ or ‘taking sexual fluids orally rather than scattering them or leaving them to nature’. Radical enough practices to upset many holy fathers – that is certain.
We know of the Peratics through the writings of another second-century theologian, Clement of Alexandria, as well as those of Hippolytus. According to Churton, in Hippolytus’ writing about the rituals of the Peratics he unknowingly describes the movement of Kundalini energy practised by the Tantric yogis, except that Hippolytus calls the Kundalini the ‘serpent’ – a fair enough description as the Kundalini energy is described as a coiled serpent which, upon spiritual awakening, moves upward. The practice of using ‘sexual intercourse as a sacred religious mystery’, Hippolitus writes, is believed by the Peratics to ‘lead them upward to the Kingdom of God’.
In general, I agree with Churton that ancient sexual alchemy was a form of hieros gamos, or a re-enactment of the (what was perceived to be) original mating of gods and goddesses. This was not done to feel sexy but rather to connect with the original energies of creation, or their personification as gods and goddesses. This is why the priestesses in Innana’s temples and, I assume, in Isis’ temples merged with the goddesses they served and ‘intimately’ connected with the masculine and feminine energies of the deities. Sexual rituals, Churton says, ‘were linked to the mysterious powers of actual creation, life in itself’ and, as such, they tapped into something ‘magical and mysterious’. This is exactly what traditional Tantra in my understanding and experience refers to – the intrinsic power of pleasure and desire as connecting us to the Source of it all. That is why both Egyptian sex magic and Tantra are often focused on the re-enactment of the relationship between the masculine and feminine polarities as seen in their respective mythologies/theologies of creation. And, I would add, these practices focus through sexual ecstasy on returning to the space of feeling of the original unity which had existed before the polarities came to be and to which all the great mythologies of creation refer.
The examples above are not only very similar to Tantric practices but possibly originated in Sumer, especially since we know that her Sumerian predecessor Inanna and her priestesses definitely performed sexual rituals. It would not be a surprise if these rituals were then transferred to Egypt and practised at the temples of the sun during the 18th Dynasty by Akhenaten and Nefertiti, and even earlier by Hatshepsut. Afterwards, clearly, in some form they survived to the times of Mary Magdalene and beyond.
So, hypothetically, sexual magic or alchemy, as Tom Kenyon and Judi Sion claim in The Magdalen Manuscript: The Alchemies of Horus and The Sex Magic of Isis could have survived until the times of Mary Magdalene. Wendy Berg and Mike Harris in Polarity Magic: The Secret History of Western Religion (2003) also look into the mystery of Mary Magdalene with respect to polarity magic – with some exciting insights. They focus, for example, on the wedding at Cana referred to in the canonical scriptures (the Bible) where the miracle of turning water into wine is of a mystical nature and signifies the transformation from one state of consciousness to another or the forming of one state of being into another – which is, what I believe, what the sexual magic in Egypt and Hindu Tantra was about. The wedding itself, on the other hand, is of alchemical importance, as it symbolises the merging of the physical and spiritual realms. Sadly, this profound understanding was lost in Orthodox Christianity and has rendered us with a religion of suffering and rituals which have lost their central meaning for us. These rituals provide a spiritual evolution possible for all of us and which was brought to us by great beings such as Jesus and Mary Margdalene. In this vein of thought, the ritual of the wine being drunk by a priest in a church symbolises the embodiment of the spirit by the priest on the behalf of the whole community, rather than a historical memory of the Last Supper and the macabre events afterwards, if they are to be understood literally. The wedding at Cana is also very interesting because, as some researchers claim (most famously Margaret Starbird), it was also the time when Jesus married Mary Magdalene. The claim that Jesus was married is made that much stronger if we remember that he was most likely a rabbi from a wealthy family and as such, by tradition, he had to be married.
It is good to be cautious however as some other independent researchers on Mary Magdalene have good intentions and intuitions but are a little lax on checking their facts. For example, they are completely right in connecting Mary Magdalene to the ancient goddesses of the past. However, many of them suggest that Mary Magdalene was not from Magdala because the town did not exist in the first century CE. This turns out to be a false claim, as archaeological excavations have proved them wrong. At the same time, the town of Magdala could be of great importance in our search for traces of Mary Magdalene. Berg and Harris again point out that Magdala, like some towns in the northern Galilee, was not Orthodox Jewish and was known for its heretical leanings towards mystery schools. It is also pretty much accepted by mainstream scholars (including Candida Moss) that Mary Magdalene came from wealth and, along with other women, was a financial supporter of Jesus’ movement. Following Starbird and Berg and Harris’ research, it was most likely Mary Magdalene who was the woman anointing Jesus with spikenard, a very expensive ointment. It was this act, according to Berg and Harris, that outraged Judas and lead to the betrayal. Judas’ motivation was not financial, as the official story goes, but religious. He believed he was informing the religious powers about the heresy in performing an ancient ritual of anointing a young god/king by a priestess (Mary Magdalene). There could be some truth to this story simply because it is apparent even in the canonical Bible that Mary Magdalene was somehow prominent in Jesus’ life and usually named first when women in his circle were mentioned. If Mary Magdalene was a priestess of an ancient, possibly hermeneutic, order, this would explain why not only Judas but also other disciples had a problem with her prominence in Jesus’ life.
So could Mary Magdalene have been at least partially Egyptian (as a carrier of ancient mysteries)? Here some interesting information comes from an 18th-century nun, Anne Catherine Emmerich, who claimed to have had visions of Jesus’ life, with the visions also including Mary Magdalene and Lazarus. In this nun’s version of the story, Mary Magdalene was a sister of Lazarus (and this is the same as Mary of Bethany). Their father was supposed to have been a wealthy Egyptian man who married a Jewish woman and eventually converted to Judaism.
This interpretation is in perfect alignment with my original intuition of Mary Magdalene’s connection to the ancient goddesses of Sumer, Babylon and Egypt who were always the trigger point for the transfiguration of a young god/king. They were the ones who performed the magic/ritual in preparation for this significant alchemical event of transfiguration from the physical to spiritual form. Also, in this version of events, Mary Magdalene is not a prostitute but a priestess carrying the secret knowledge of the past and she is necessary female presence representing a goddess for the purpose of this transfiguration. In short, without her the resurrection would not have been possible. The same way as without Mary the Mother, Christ would not have been embodied.
Still, is it probable that Mary Magdalene was connected to Egyptian mystery schools and somehow actually practised sexual alchemy as a means for transfiguration and ascension?
For me, Mary Magdalene can stand for one of two things.
One, she represents the same archetype remerging from our collective unconscious as Ninmah, Inanna, Isis,etc. She is all of them, under different names, with small changes in the twists of essentially the same plot. This archetype, although repressed for millennia, carries the secret of our true destiny and powers. It carries the secret locked in our ‘junk’ DNA that can, and one day will, completely transform us as species. So, in a way, arguing from an historical point of view about Mary Magdalene as an individual or as a character from a particular set of scriptures is secondary. What is important is the possibility that we carry her message to us within us – the greatest alchemy of our transformation (transfiguration) into our highest possibility. And this is where I choose to focus.
Two, Mary Magdalene as the other goddesses (including Isis) could be the human embodiment of the divine story of our potential. That is, every so often a human being may embody the essence of that story and live yet another version of how it plays itself out. In each case though, the goddess is the centre of a very important transformation from matter into spirit and assists the crossing over to the spiritual realm. The story is relived and repeated for our benefit until we finally understand its alchemy or magic (including possible sexual elements of both), which are only tools for this transformation.
More on this in my future blogs on Sophia.
If I you still have the patience to do so, please indulge me in reading a small section (or at least the highlighted one) of my earlier book Jerusalem Diary about my take on Mary Magdalene and Jesus:
‘When Steve and Martin invited me to follow them to Jerusalem as a chronicler of their adventures, they asked me to read The Urantia Book, a modern-day Gnostic text. I liked parts of it, especially the chapters describing Yeshua’s earthly life. There was one problem though — I found the descriptions of the spiritual universe too strange for my taste. Which was an odd reaction, because the esoteric visions of the universe (and its many layers inhabited by celestial beings of all kinds) had always been an integral part of most Gnostic texts. For me there was an ongoing problem with every inspired spiritual text: How do you reconcile the profound insights present in these texts with half-mad visions of far-away galaxies? Although The Urantia Book made interesting points about Yeshua’s life, it didn’t explain much about Mary Magdalene’s past before she met Yeshua. In the book she is called Miriam of Magdala, a woman with a questionable past who joins other women following Yeshua on his mission. The ‘questionable past’ suggests some wickedness in Mary Magdalene’s conduct before she met Yeshua. No details are given.
I am more interested in the traditional Gnostic Gospels written soon after Yeshua’s death and forbidden by the synods of the Church. The Synod of Nicea in the fourth century allowed only four gospels to be chosen for the Bible: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Other gospels were considered too controversial for the sensibilities of the bishops and church rulers. These gospels included the Gnostic Gospels, among them my favourites: the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, the Gospel of Thomas, and the Gospel of Philip.
Despite long centuries of repression, the Gnostic Gospels were unearthed one by one. The first of these was the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. It was found at the end of the nineteenth century in Egypt, then acquired by the National Museum of Berlin, and has been lovingly transcribed line-by-line, translated and popularised by the French scholar, Jean-Yves Leloup (2002). This gospel’s earliest sections are as old as the so-called canonical gospels of the Bible. The most controversial lines of the Gospel of Mary Magdalene deal with the jealousy of the apostles at Yeshua’s sharing of his teachings with her: ‘How is it possible that the Teacher talked in this manner to this woman, about secrets of which we ourselves are ignorant? Must we change our customs and listen to this woman? Did he really choose her, and prefer her to us?’(17:9-20). According to Leloup, the anger of the apostles had nothing to do with Yeshua’s personal relationship with Mary Magdalene. They were angry because he considered Mary Magdalene worthy of giving her ‘his most subtle teachings’ (2002, p.7). In doing this, Yeshua not only went against the traditional belief that women were unworthy of learning, but also let it be known that he treated her as equal to them. Despite her past, her transformation was complete.
But what sort of transformation was it? Surely not one which asked her to sacrifice sexuality for wisdom? I would hate to think she lost her sensual appeal after gaining wisdom and spiritual growth. I see her as she was presented in the Gospel of Philip in her resplendent sensuality, or as Leloup says, ‘in the lively power of her sexuality’ (2002, p. 7). The Gospel of Philip notes (59:9): ‘Lord loved Mary more than other disciples, and often used to kiss her on her mouth.’ I rather like the story of Yeshua kissing her – against all rules, against all proprieties.
This is how I see it: the morning sun reflecting brightly on the white stones of the synagogue in Capernaum; Yeshua’s disciples standing around him, together with a curious crowd and some followers; and he just kisses her. He kisses her as she is standing in front of him in the glory of her beauty and the sensuality of her past.’
As always, I would love to dialogue with you through the comments section.
Dr Joanna Kujawa