Bill Long 11/02/04
Playing with Images of Mary Magdalene
The word maudlin has been a word with a remarkably large number of significations over time, according to the OED. At one time it referred to the herb Achillea Ageratum, which is now known as Costmary. At one time, also, it was the name of a kind of a peach or pear. There is a maudlin daisy and maudlin pot, and July 22 is even known as maudlin tide, the time of the feast of St. Mary Magdalen. Then, in its more popular meanings, it can be defined as "weeping, tearful, lachyromose" or "characterized by tearful sentimentality; mawkishly* emotional; weakly sentimental."
[*Don't you just love the sound of mawkish? It sounds like "hawkish" and therefore you think that it ought to mean something like harsh or grating. But it doesn't. Mawkish can mean to have a nauseating taste but, figuratively, means "feebly sentimental; imbued with sickly or false sentiment; lacking in robustness." "The elderly greeter welcomed me with a mawkish smile."]
Then there is the connection of maudlin with drunkenness. The phrase "to drink maudlin" designates that stage of drunkenness characterized by shedding of tears and effusive displays of affection. But it all goes back to a woman, Mary Magdalene, whose name is pronounced "maudlin" by English people who have hung around Oxford or Cambridge. And the more you look at that woman, the more confused you become.
Meeting Mary Magdalene
Lots of men would like to meet Mary Magdalene or, better said, lots of men probably met her 2000 years ago. When the Gospel of Luke says that this was the Mary from whom Jesus had cast seven demons (Luke 8:2), it stimulated creative thought among many (celibate) Christian monks to wonder just what those seven demons might have been. Indeed, the nineteenth century artist Jean Beraud depicts her as a femme fatale, attired in an ornate gown as she melodramatically kneels at the foot of Jesus. A 2002 exhibit at the American Bible Society called "In Search of Mary Magdalene: Images and Traditions" explored some of the rich divergence of images of Mary Magdalene. Professor Diana Apostolos-Cappadona (check amazon.com) has devoted much attention to explicating the mystery of Mary Magdalene.
But this "Mary with the checkered past" is not the dominant way that she is portrayed in the New Testament. There are two stories, one where she is expressly named and one where she is not named but the Church has universally recognized her as the woman in the story, which give us the root images from which maudlin is derived. First the less certain reference.
When Jesus is reclining at dinner at the home of Simon the Pharisee, the dinner is interrupted by a "woman in the city, who was a sinner." She approached Jesus with an alabaster jar of ointment, stood behind Jesus, "weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. Then she continued kissing his feet and anointing them with the ointment (Lk 7:37-38)." Leaving aside the notable eroticism of the story, we note how striking a story this is. It is vivid, earnest and is the occasion for Jesus to articulate important teachings about forgiveness. The story is associated with Mary Magdalene because her name is mentioned 2 verses after the end of the story as a person who accompanied Jesus in his ministry. Seventeenth-century Italian artist Carlo Dolci no doubt had this text in mind in his painting "The Pentitent Magdalene." Thus, we have Mary the "sinner" and Mary the penitent. But the most powerful is still to come.
John 20: 1-18
Mary Magdalene also appears at Jesus' tomb on the day of resurrection. She "stood weeping outside the tomb." Here, she is weeping not in penitence, as in Luke 7, but in sadness. To the angels she says, "They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him (20:13)." Then Jesus appears to her and asks her why she is weeping but she, "supposing him to be the gardener (20:15)," doesn't recognize him.
It is these two pictures of Mary, her overwhelming grief at the tomb, and her inability to recognize Jesus, that have bequeathed the major significations to maudlin. She is so overwhelmed by grief that she can't see straight. Thus, Mary is, as it were maudlin drunk. But she is also tearfully sentimental, weeping all alone while the disciples ran back to their homes. She is, in short, maudlin.
Conclusion--A Magdalene (Maudlin) for Today
So, why do we have to freeze Mary Magdalene in her maudlin condition? Isn't it a bit degrading to be known forever as the weeping, sentimental woman, kind of like the Christian Niobe who is just thought of as crying all the time? Why not recapture some of her potentially risque persona, or, by an aggressive reading of Luke 8:2-3, see her as one of the "financial backers" of the "Jesus venture"? This would be a Magdalene that the 21st century could really understand, and it might even affect our use of the word maudlin.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long