Thursday, October 28, 2010
Mary Magdalene's Red Hair : Ravishingly Racist?
Today, I'd like to bring Mary Magdalene's hair color to your attention. Certainly, there is much more to the woman than her hair, and I will be writing more about her in the future. For the moment, though, I want to put in my two cents on the historical and contemporary obsession with Mary Magdalene's hair color.
Throughout medieval European history, Mary Magdalene was most often portrayed as an intensely emotional red head who liked to lounge around half-dressed while holding skulls and looking depressed. From this, we can learn two things: one, that painters in repressed societies will use any excuse to doodle naked chicks. The second thing we learn is that gingerism, a form of intra-European racism, was widely practiced in Europe. Gingerism is racism towards redheads. In the case of Mary Magdalene, red hair was assigned to her because gingerism dictates that redheads are hyper-sexual and deviant. (Hmmm...hyper-sexual, aggressive and unstable - where have I noticed that type of scapegoating before?)
These days, Mary's hair color has started to mean something different to followers of the "Holy Blood, Holy Grail" theory, which is that Mary Magdalene was married to Jesus. Some say it symbolizes Mary's carrying on of Jesus' bloodline, or the divine feminine symbol of red rose. That's a real step up in terms of defining Mary Magdalene by her hair color.
On the one hand, this is great. People are taking what was originally intended as prejudice and turning it into something else. On the other hand, it's infuriating, because it denies a portrait of Mary that is historically accurate.
Some time ago, I read a book, "The Expected One", written by Kathleen McGowan. In the book, a red-haired female author named Maureen Paschal runs around Europe having mystical experiences. These experiences are coupled with visions of a red-haired Mary Magdalene tearfully accompanying her husband Jesus on his final walk to crucifixion. In the end, Maureen learns that she is a direct descendant of Jesus and Mary Magdalene's Union, and that she must dedicate her life to continuing her ancestors' holy work. In the author's foreword, McGowan insists that all of these events are true and that only names had been changed to protect her sources' identities. The book jacket shows McGowan in a thoughtful pose with what is obviously dyed red hair.
Is Mary Magdalene a figure of Biblical Mythology, or was she a flesh and blood woman? We may never know. Was she married to Jesus of Nazareth? Quite Possibly. Was she a redhead? Probably not. You see, there's a little thing called genetics that comes into play here. This factor demands that, as wonderful as this new understanding of Mary's hair color is, it's probably based on historical inaccuracy. It's been a fairly recent phenomenon for people in Western society to start portraying Jesus as a person of color. Only in the last 15 years or so has it become widely acknowledged that blue-eyed and blonde saviors come from Norse lands, not Nazareth.
Now I know that in theory, it doesn't matter what color Biblical figures were. Their deeds, and not their skin or hair color, is what truly matters - I know this. In theory. In reality, however, I live in a world where achievements by Africans or any persons of color are often ignored or somehow appropriated by white-supremacist revisionist history. Growing up, I was taught through omission that all great innovations (except maybe the Egyptian pyramids), came from folks with lighter skin and hair. So it is extremely important to me to know about all gifts people of color have bestowed on the world. Whether Mary Magdalene was a prostitute, apostle, Goddess, wife, or all of the above, she was a person of color. Do redheads of color exist? Certainly. I hope I am not offending redheads with brown skin. Mary Magdalene may very well have had red hair. But there's a very good chance she didn't.
Of course, there's always the alternative perspective. Mary Magdalene is also referred to as The Black Mary. Some say this is in reference to a skin color that would have been noticeable to those living in the European region she fled to according to holy bloodline theory. Others, however, believe it has an esoteric reference. Regardless of which perspective you hold of Ms. Magdalene, I felt it was important to bring you another one - the perspective of Mary's red hair as a form of double-racism. Firstly because of the intra-European cultural appropriation and discriminatory use towards redheads - and once again as cultural appropriation of the achievements as people of color.
On the fourth hand...
I have to look at my own participation in this den of prejudice and projection. It is time for me to make a confession. I am something of a redhead groupie. I, too, exoticize redheads. I stare discreetly at redheads on the bus and in restaurants. In conversation, I make completely unnecessary comments about their hair color; something like, "hey, you have red hair". As if they didn't know. I'm trying to convince my red-haired friend *Nancy to give me a lock of her hair to include in a scrapbook page about how much I love redheads.
How can I write about these prejudices when I have them myself? I felt it was important to give voice to a perspective I haven't found online in the thousands of pages about her infamous hair. Now that I've added this perspective, I need to take the next step. Perhaps I should follow Jesus' advice and focus on removing the log in my eye before trying to remove the speck in my companion's eye. Now, is that really a log, or is it a strand of hair? And if so, is it black and curly or red and wavy? Just curious.
* Name changed to protect the innocent.
Sources for Further Reading
Wikipedia's Red Hair File
The Penitent Mary Magdalene in "The Little Mermaid"
Was Mary Magdalene a Redhead?; by Tali Tamir
Northernway.org's Mystery School; Gnostic Gospel Studies