Saturday 9 July 2016

Written in Water #12: Saints of the Sex Workers

Mary of Egypt, by José de Ribera, 1641.
When you talk about gender, particularly when dealing with issues from ages less sensitive, or when dealing with things that might be considered hate speech now, it is important to remind readers that the dissection of gendered slurs and just general misogyny are a par for the course in this sort of thing, and to warn that if these things distress or perhaps recall unpleasant and painful experiences, then perhaps this piece is better not read.

OK. If you're still here, let's begin.

Saint Pelagia, Saint Mary, and Saint Mary of Egypt were, it was said, whores.

I've talked about that word, and the Latin word – meretrix – it comes from, why it was used, how it was a swearword, a slur, before. It stands. Part of the business of translation is to translate things with their appropriate force. When I translated Prudentius' poem about the death of St Lawrence, I used rhyming couplets, because I wanted to get across the disconnect between its high-faluting tone and its comedically grotesque content. When I translate meretrix as "whore" I mean the word with all its implied hate built in. But what does that even mean? What did they do to cause the label to be applied to them, even after they were saints, so that through posterity, in the Catholic and Orthodox calendars, they would continue to receive the name: whore?

Every time I write it, it's an accusation. It's a condemnation on me for saying it. But I want you to see the ugliness here. 

In all of these stories, the sex worker is assumed as the lowest of the low, and in Latin literature as a whole, and her actions are sinful in and of themselves, and it is the prostitute who is to blame for the commodification of the sexual act.

Mary is the niece of a Hermit called Abraham. Her father dies, and he brings her up in his little house in the desert. A nameless monk from elsewhere decides that he wants her, and for a year or more pesters her and attempts to seduce her, and one day she comes out of the cell and they have sex, then and there, and the monk goes away satisfied and Mary is so consumed by guilt that she thinks she can't be loved by God anymore, and runs away to a town nearby, and goes to work in a brothel.

Abraham misses this; he is in his cell, praying. He has a vision, repeatedly of a dragon swallowing a dove, and the dove being brought out of the dragon's stomach alive. He finally wonders if something is wrong, and he goes to find Mary and finds her gone. So he begins to look for her. It takes him two years to find her. He goes to the brothel. Pretending to be a customer, he gains entry. She doesn't recognise him, but somehow knows something is up, because she breaks down in tears and tells the old man how unhappy she is.

Nonetheless, he only reveals himself, pulling back the hood of his cloak, when they are alone, and all he wants is to take her home. And although he tells her that anything she's done can be forgiven, she starves and scourges herself. Abraham lives another ten years in the desert, she five years after that.

The nameless monk who has sex with her is perhaps a recognition even in the early years of the church that not all apparently holy people were good people, but he has no name. He goes away satisfied. He pays nothing. Which is perhaps of course inevitably the fate of the privileged and respectable sexual predator. Mary's blame of herself, her guilt, leaks from the page like tears. She becomes a sex worker because she believes she's done something unforgivable.

And there I suppose is the thing: she believes that her sexuality, awoken, excludes her from the grace of God. Or so she thinks. Abraham doesn't think so, and the kindly old hermit comes and gets his niece and brings her home, telling her all along that he loves her. It isn't her fault that she loses her virginity and her self-esteem in one go, but the assumption that one sexual encounter and you might as well go and do it for money, that's always there.

What's interesting is that alone in these stories, the assumption the sex is unforgivable is wrong. Don't get me wrong, the assumption that it's bad is front and centre, but to be honest, even the pagans were weird about sex back then. But Mary is wrong to think that her sexual encounter with the monk is beyond the pale. Abraham, for all of his all-too-ancient attitudes, loves her whatever. 

But still, I wonder about the dynamic of the story, about Abraham's sweetness and Mary's guilt and self-loathing, and I wonder why, if she was as forgiven as her uncle intended, why the slur, whore, was attached to her, forever.

So much for Mary.

The story of Pelagia is less straightforward.

Told by a priest named Jacob of Edessa, the story begins at a convention of bishops at Antioch (in modern Turkey). A bishop named Nonnus is teaching in a public place, when suddenly, a procession passes by.

As all of us were admiring his holy teaching, look, all of a sudden the most famous actress of Antioch passed us by, the best of the ballerinas and comediennes. She was riding on a donkey, and she was dressed so ostentatiously that you couldn't see anything of her beneath all the gold and gems and pearls. Even her feet were covered in gold and pearls. She had a train of boy and girl slaves with her, all dressed in expensive clothes, each with a golden collar, some in front and some behind. No one could ever have enough of her loveliness. She passed by us, and the air was filled with musk, and some of the sweetest fragrances in the whole world.
Jacob of Edessa, The Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 2
Her name is Margarita. Pearl. 

Here's the thing. She's an actress. Now in ancient theatre of the respectable kind, the comedies and tragedies, all the actors were men. Female actors did the mimes, the sacred fertility shows, and these were bawdy, and had nudity, and included simulated sex acts. Writers of the time tell us that these shows included actual sex acts, and that the women who performed in these shows were sex workers too, but actually, we don't know if that is true. Here the point is that this woman is an actor. She is given the label, whore, for a thing that is only rumoured? She is an actress: that makes her a stripper and a porn star too, doesn't it? Surely she also sells herself? Surely she is promiscuous?

The bishops are all horrified and look away, but Nonnus gazes at her openly. That night he has a dream of a bird covered in filth, which he grabs and douses in a font, and cleanses. The following day is Sunday. Nonnus takes the pulpit and who is there but the actress? She comes to him later; he demands a chaperone. She wants to be baptised. Her real name is Pelagia, Margarita is just a stage name.

He introduces her to a nun, to talk things through, gives her a place to stay. She sells everything she has and sets her slaves free, giving them the money. That night, Satan himself comes to the cathedral.
He said, "Why are you doing this to me, Lady Pelagia? Why are you playing the part of my personal Judas?"
Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 9
 He tries to make her go back to the theatre. She says no. Satan leaves.

In the morning, though, Pelagia is gone, and one of Nonnus's cloaks with her.

Three years later, James, still working for Nonnus, asks to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Nonnus asks James to send his regards to a hermit who lives nearby called Pelagius. James seeks out Pelagius.
I found the hermit on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus had prayed, in a modest little shack, closed off on all sides, except for a little window in the wall. I banged on the shutter of the little window, and she opened it and at once recognised me, but I didn't recognise her. How could I have possibly recognised her since when I saw her before, she was indescribably beautiful, and now her face had wasted away from her starving herself? Her eyes looked like ditches in her face.
Life of Saint Pelagia the Whore, 14
Pelagia, for it is of course she, posing as a man, accepts the greeting and closes the shutter. James goes away, and then thinks maybe he should ask the hermit something, so comes back a few days later, to find her dead. And they find that Pelagius was Pelagia, and consider it a miracle that a woman could be a miracle working hermit too.

Pelagia, never gaining the label, whore, except by reputation, becomes a saint by becoming a man. But the slur sticks nonetheless. It remains on the title of her story.

And then, Mary of Egypt.

The best monk in the world spends the season of Lent in the best monastery in the world; his name is Zosimas, and he has a cycle of stories of his own. This isn't his story, although it might as well be. He goes into the desert to pray, and meets a naked old woman in the desert.

Her skin was completely black, all tanned by the heat of the sun, and the hair on her head was white like the clouds, and short, and like wool. And it fell no farther than the nape of her neck.
Sophronius, Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, the Whore, 7
He puts a cloak around her.

They pray together. She levitates, for no apparent reason. 

He asks for her story. She says she's from Egypt. She was promiscuous from a young age. That's it. She slept with anyone who asked.
I took nothing from anyone for it; now that I was mad with passion... I fulfilled my sexual needs for free. I was evil! And don't think I took nothing because I was rich – no, I lived by begging, and sometimes working as a weaver. 
Life of Saint Mary of Egypt, the Whore, 13
So in fact, she was explicitly not a sex worker. She just liked sex.

She one day decided, she says, to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

She won't say how she paid her way across the sea. She says the air will turn blue.

Zosimas says, no, tell me.

So she explains that she slept with every man on the ship. When she arrives in Jerusalem she tries to go into church with the pilgrims, presumably including the ones she slept with on the boat, a divine force bars her access to the church. She sees a vision of the Virgin Mary.

She turns and buys three loaves of bread, and retreats into the desert. There she lives fifteen years, eating nothing else.

In the desert, she becomes a different person.

Illiterate, she now knows the Bible by heart. She levitates, walks across rivers. Zosimas thanks her for her story. And then for the first time in her life, he gives her the rite of communion.

He comes back a year later, and brings her some food. And then plans to come back a third year, but loses his way, and finds her dead. He never knew her name, but a lion appears and writes her name on the ground: Mary of Egypt. And the lion buries her.

The Orthodox church in particular honours Mary of Egypt in the week before Easter. They say the moral of her story is that even the greatest of sinners can become miracles workers.

But what was her sin? She liked sex. She slept around. In the society I live in, it is no big deal. But back then, that made her the worst. It earned her the label, whore.

So there you go. An actress who dared to be extravagant. A woman who believed that sex workers were the worst, and that she was the worst, and that therefore there was nothing else she could be. And a woman who just liked sex. And all of them received a slur that even remained attached to them though they became saints. What happened to the monk who took Mary's virginity? Who decided Pelagia was selling sex? Why should Mary of Egypt be banned from the Church in Jerusalem and not the men she had sex with on the boat?

We still do this to women, even now. We still shame them, even when we tell them it's OK. It's a canker that has eaten through the middle of our societies throughout history. It's a story that needs to be turned over and told, and hung out and examined. We need to be aware of where we come from, the mistakes we made. We need to understand why.