I will never forget watching a Christmas Eve documentary about a birth.
I was eleven years old. I watched as the young dark skinned, teenager with a thick black plait and a pendulous belly grunted and cried, pulling on a rope attached to the ceiling, surrounded by other women singing and supporting her. And then a wailing baby (arriving questionably without any vernix or blood or even an umbilical cord, from what I recall) was put on her chest. I didn’t really have a concept of midwifery yet. But I knew I wanted to be part of that.
I didn’t realise at the time that the documentary was about a lot more than birth. We’re fascinated by women’s ability to bring forth life.
It was a documentary about the Virgin Mary, who fits into a long line of legends and myths we have about fertility Goddesses.
But these myths come with issues. Women are either blamed or revered for bloody everything, have you noticed? Right back to Eve taking the fruit from the tree of life. We joke about the Madonna-whore complex like it’s no longer a problem, but the truth is our society still has issues with seeing women as real, living human beings with both good and bad traits.
Nowhere is this clearer than in the portrayal of the Virgin Mary throughout history.
Digging in to the book Mary: A Flesh and Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother has given me some tools to get closer to the truth of who she might have been. And what this means for us as modern women. And modern mothers. And modern midwives.
Whether you’re reading this because you’re interested or to find our more because Mary means something to you personally, I should warn you we’re going to question standard religious belief.
This is not because I don’t have respect for Christians or Catholics. Far from it - having a belief is a worthy and beautiful thing. But Lesley Hazleton, the author of ‘Mary’ is skilled at asking uncomfortable, important questions. Learning almost always starts with uncomfortable, important questions.
The first thing we should know about the mother of Jesus is that she wasn’t called Mary. When she was alive she would have been known as ‘Maryam’ and we’ve anglicised it to ‘Mary’.
The meaning of her name is related to wisdom as indicated by the ‘Maryamia’ plant, a type of loose leaf sage, which has some medicinal properties related to improved mental function.
It still grows in Palestine today and the infusion you can make with it is supposed to make you think clearly. It’s uncertain whether she was named after the plant or the plant was named after her.
Maryam was also not the pale skinned, blue eyed, perpetually young woman we know from art history. This is white privilege at work again. Maryam would have had olive skin and a body honed by the physical labour of shepherding.
Throughout history we’ve wallpapered over her with our current image of motherhood.
Women in History
Our historical knowledge about iconic women is often patchy. Each woman plays multiple important roles in society and yet they still blend into the background. Anyone who’s read the amazing novel ‘The Red Tent’ knows that the main character, Dinah, was mentioned only a few times in the Bible, yet when we link together each piece of historical fact with some plausible fiction, a rich tapestry of a woman’s life is discovered.
I hadn’t read anything like ‘The Red Tent’ before. ‘Mary’ is similar in places and although it’s a biography rather than a novel, certain areas have been fictionalised so we can feel the times: the stony, arid landscape, the strange religions, and the brutality of life in the 1st century BC.
What this means is we get to see the female story of the birth of Christianity.
This book is exceptionally bloody in places – the description of the crucifixion comes with pain, suffering and degradation that’s much worse than anything I’ve seen on ‘Game of Thrones’.
And because of this I’m not taken with an image of the Virgin Mary as just a saintly vessel. She’s a solemn, pure presence in church and elsewhere and this can seem normal to us, if we’ve grown up with it. But it’s not normal; every life has grit, especially a life in such a harsh world. As someone who’s been around a lot of strong women doing exceptional things, I want to know Maryam’s real story.
Women in Palestine
Think about the popularity of ‘One Born Every Minute’ and ‘Call The Midwife’. As humans we’re drawn to new life.
If you were a peasant villager around the time when Maryam lived, you would be even more enthralled by women’s ability to grow and birth babies. Your daily experience would be full of dry fields and a lack of water; reproduction would seem even more miraculous than it does today.
Maryam was just 13 when she gave birth to Jesus. This sounds shocking to us today - call social services and the teenage pregnancy team - but back then it would have been a typical age to become a mother. To make it to adulthood would have been a real achievement; starting young in this context was a good idea.
It also wouldn’t have been so scandalous to be a young, unmarried pregnant woman. Some may have this image of Mary lying about the events of the conception out of desperation, to avoid being cast out. But pregnancy as a product of rape was very common. The children of women in this position would have been absorbed as part of the clan and a husband would be found. Extended families brought up children as a matter of course. The only difference would have been that inheritance didn’t pass to a first born – as the father was unknown. But women and children would be supported in every other way.
Lesley Hazleton, the author of ‘Mary’ suspects that based on the evidence we have, far from being a passive container just there to carry a baby, Maryam would have been a healer and a midwife in her own right. She would have been a wise woman. She would have made salves to help infection and been able to set a bone.
She would have known how to crush herbs to ease contractions; known what to sing throughout the third stage of labour to ensure safety; known how to wrap the placenta in a cloth specially embroidered for the purpose and tuck it in next to the baby so they could draw on its power.
When we think about Jesus and his miracles, we never stop to question where he got his knowledge. He was the son of God. But much of what he achieved was in the capacity of a healer: curing blindness and leprosy, stopping haemorrhage, raising the dead.
In Biblical times, women whose names we have never heard were the ones on the ground taking care of people and saving lives with their knowledge about health, sex, and the way communities worked. Women like Maryam.
It might be that Jesus was brought up as a group of skilled individuals which included women. This puts an entirely different spin on the presence of myrrh in the stable where Jesus was born; this natural tree resin was prised as an antiseptic and healing balm. There are texts written that refer to Jesus teaching 17 disciples, some of whom were women, including his mother (one of these texts is the ‘Pistis Sophia’, discovered in the 17th Century). In a male dominated society, over time this history may well have been lost in the official Biblical texts.
Lesley suggests that Maryam taught her son the healing skills that wise women had and this, along with his teachings, created a movement that we still celebrate today.
The other key factor in this story is that if Maryam was a midwife, she would have known about methods of abortion; at the time wild rue and artemisia (wormwood) were used very effectively. Today we believe that before modern science there was widespread ignorance and lack of treatment, but there were actually political sanctions in Rome to stop high born women from terminating pregnancies, because there were concerns about a dwindling population. Abortion was a real choice.
If this was the case, Maryam decided to have her baby. She was young and unmarried and still wanted to keep her child.
The name she gave her baby was ‘Yeshua’ or in English, Jesus. This literally means ‘Ya saves’ or ‘God saves’ which as Lesley points out, would have been a very appropriate name for a baby Maryam choose to keep, especially if that baby was conceived as a result of rape.
It takes Maryam out of the role of a victim and is the action of a brave, intelligent woman.
What This Means for Us
I think many of us feel like there are big problems in the world that could be addressed with more female centred thinking. With Trump doing...well, whatever it is he feels like on any given day, something is skewed.
According to the research, a good modern woman is still expected to be ‘modest’. Hard to get anything done if you have to be modest all the time.
This modesty factor can be seen in the way we still revere Mary as a virgin. But why do we think virginity is good, exactly? Is having sex wrong? Are women who lost their virginity through rape therefore bad?
Lesley writes about a possible mistranslation of the Hebrew word ‘almah’ which can means ’young woman’ and not ‘virgin’ at all. It’s possible the whole Virgin Mother part of the Bible is simply a misunderstanding.
Many legends refer to mothers conceiving babies with the help of Gods, meaning they were raped by a God and had sex with their husbands on the same evening. This more pragmatic approach to human conception meant certain political leaders could claim to be part divine, even if they had two human parents. Could it be that Maryam was understood to be in this category, like so many mythical women before her?
I know I’m on dangerous ground here. But good writing can flip the way the world is perceived. The book ‘Mary’ has certainly done this for me.
I’m not sure virginity is essential to revere Maryam as a mother. But I also leave my mind open to the mystery of it all.
I'll Leave You with This...
There was a series of Gnostic (ancient religious) Gospels discovered in 1945 in a small Egyptian settlement called ‘Nag Hammadi’. These date from the 3rd and 4th centuries. One of them contained a strangely modern sounding poem called The Thunder, Perfect Mind.
As Lesley points out, it’s written in a woman’s voice. I’ll put a few lines here (I assume the copyright has expired by now!)
The Thunder, Perfect Mind
For I am the first and the last.
I am the honored one and the scorned one.
I am the whore and the holy one.
I am the wife and the virgin.
I am the mother and the daughter...
I am the barren one
and many are her sons.
I am she whose wedding is great,
and I have not taken a husband.
I am the midwife and she who does not bear.
I am the solace of my labor pains....
I am the mother of my father
and the sister of my husband
and he is my offspring.
I am the slave of him who prepared me.
I am the ruler of my offspring.
Doesn’t this sound like the current experience of being a woman? It’s just like that Meredith Brooks song: 'You look at me like maybe I'm an angel underneath...I’m a bitch, I’m a lover, I’m a child, I’m a mother, I’m a sinner, I’m a saint…'
I think this sums up Maryam. Think about how many have prayed to her for different reasons. She has been so many things over the centuries and it’s likely she was many different women during her life as well. Maryam is a metaphor for all women.
But I’ll try and remember she was a real person too. I hope she’d be happy about that.
P.S. I was very lucky that Lesley Hazleton sent me my copy of Mary: A Flesh and Blood Biography of the Virgin Mother as it’s hard to get hold of quickly in the UK and I wanted to review it before Christmas. However, Amazon will send you most things if you’re patient. I also rang my local bookshop and they said they could order in a secondhand copy for £7. Or you can try your Uni or local library.
Lesley Hazleton is one of my favourite authors and has a couple of TED Talks here and here – though my favourite is her Tedx ‘What’s Wrong with Dying?’ which made me laugh out loud and cry a bit too. I also need to tell you that she’s a psychologist, journalist and author and when she sent me the copy of Mary she had written ‘Midwives Rule!’ in the front cover. Totally agree there!