The town of Magdala beside
The sea could boast the pride
Of second place in Herod's heart
After Tiberias. Apart
From all its fishing fame,
A story fastened to its name
That even little children knew
By heart. But very, very few
Could tell the meaning of the tale.
The story goes that once a trail
From Egypt led to Galilee,
And men, from Migdol by the sea
Beyond, brought sacred stones and built
A tower with the mud and silt
From Chinnereth to hold the stones
In place. And all the human bones
Of priests and holy men were stored
Inside. And far above this hoard
Of holy relics, at the peak,
There lived a hawk with piercing beak
And seven eyes. And from his place
Above the sea he turned his face
From south to west and north and east,
And there, all-seeing, never ceased
To guard the ancient shrine and spire
Called Magdala. No foreign fire
Could pierce the shield of seven eyes,
Or strike the tower in disguise
From any point on earth, 'til one
Dark night it was as if the sun
Flashed for a moment in the sky,
And lightning made the tower lie
In ruins with ten thousand stones
Thrown down with all their holy bones.
These things the children knew by heart,
And sculptors turned them into art,
And bards would make them into rhymes,
And dancers into baffling mimes.
But none could say what these things meant,
Except a few who claimed descent
From those whose bones were buried there —
A tiny cult around the heir
The coast stood, glorious and strong,
The capital, Tiberias,
The home of Herod Antipas.
And here, unknown to all his land,
And even to his wife, he planned
His every move with counsel from
The cult of Magdala. And some
Advisors thought it strange that he
Would spend his time with three
At night behind closed doors:
Herodias, his brother's wife,
In spite of court and market rife
With rumors; Chuza, steward to
The king, who took his every cue
From Herod's whim; and finally
A slave girl, bought from ancestry
In Magdala, who all agreed
Had lost her mind, and couldn't read
Or write or even speak — it was believed.
And thus the people were deceived
And simply thought: the king sleeps with
Herodias, though she is kith,
And Chuza has his own cuisine:
The slave called Mary Magdalene.
But there was deeper evil here,
As oft there is when sex and fear
Consort to turn the crushing wheel
Of providence and boldly deal
In demon oracles. The cult
Of Magdala was this: consult
The ancient Horus, fathered by
Osiris and his sister, high
Above the clouds of Egypt long
Ago, and soaring as a strong,
All-seeing hawk with seven eyes
To favor man or maid who lies
Down with another's spouse. And so
The favor comes, and seven demons go
From Horus into her whose name
Is like the tow'r of ancient fame
In Magdala. And in the night,
Filled sevenfold with demon sight,
The mindless Magdalene can speak,
And tells the king of those who seek
His throne and how he might proceed
To keep his life and save his seed.
Thus year by year the king unlocks
The secrets of his foes. "A fox,"
They call him, and his power grows.
He marries Philip's wife and goes
More public with his cultic mind,
And claims that sometimes one can find
That prophets come back from the dead.
Then one day Herod's secret dread
Starts to unfold. A prophet has
Appeared in Galilee. And as
Elijah frightened Ahab once,
This man named John the Baptist hunts
For sin in kings the way a hound
Tracks foxes on the open ground.
So one night Herod called the cult
Of Magdala, and said, "Consult
Now, Mary, with your hawk and gods
And tell me truly if the odds
Are high that John the Baptist will
Destroy my throne. And should I kill
Him in the field or put the hound
In chains?" Her sunken eyes were round
With fright, and she began to shake.
"The seven eyes of Horus make
Me fear," she said. "What do you see?"
The king inquired. "Now speak to me,
You hollow-headed witch! What do
You see?" "It's dark," she said, "all through
The land, it's dark. And then, as though
The brilliant sun flashed down below
The clouds for just a moment there,
The midnight sky was everywhere
Ablaze with light, and on the land,
By human mind and art unplanned,
As far as I could see, strewn stones
In disarray, and ashen bones,
Then darkness once again." "What more?"
The king demanded, "What's in store
For me? Whose bones were these? What light
That shines out like the sun at night?
And whence these stones strewn everywhere?
Speak now, enchantress, or I swear
I'll throw you to the bones that you
Have seen, and in the dark you'll rue
The night that you defied the king."
But Mary's tongue had taken wing,
And seven demons spurned the rage
Of Herod Antipas, his wage,
His bed, his roof, his bread.
Night, Mary Magdalene lay flat
And bleeding on a reddish stone
Where she was whipped half dead and thrown
To die outside the city gate
Alone, and there to demonstrate
What happens when a sorceress
Insults the king. Her simple dress
Was shredded now and fever shook
Her fragile frame. And darkness took
Her hope away that anyone
Might find her there — as if the sun
Could shine at midnight by the sea
Of Chinnereth in Galilee.
The hours went by, then suddenly
She heard a sound, and tried to see
What stirred. And just before the dawn,
She saw two figures, as if drawn
Like silhouettes in black against
The sky. In fear, her muscles tensed
As one of them approached and said,
"Is that you, Mary? Are you dead,
Or do you live?" She answered, "It
Is I. And who are you?" "Unfit
To save your soul, nor even life."
"What is your name?" "Joanna, wife
Of Chuza." Mary moaned, "Unfit
To save because you'd rather spit
On Chuza's concubine? Why have
You come?" "First, Mary, here is salve,
To clean your wounds, and water for
Your fevered throat." Joanna tore
A cloth and cleaned the crusty blood
From Mary's back. "There's lots more crud
Inside than you can clean with oil
And medicine, if you should toil
A thousand years. It took that long
For me to get this way. How strong
Are you, Joanna? Horus and
His seven hawk-like demons stand
Against the strongest alchemy."
"I know," Joanna said, "and we
Must not engage beyond our length
Of skill. But there is one whose strength
Is greater than your Horus and
His hawk-like gods. And none can stand
Against his word." "And where is he?"
She asked Joanna. "If I see
Him will he punish me?" "I think
He'd rather make you free to drink
At springs of life, all sound and dressed
In robes of joy, and unpossessed.
His name is Jesus. When I learned
What happened with the king, I yearned
For you to meet the one who made
Me whole. And so I went and prayed
That he would come, and he
Agreed. O Mary, look and see
What he can do for you!" The Lord
Approached the bloody stone where sword
And scourge had taken life for ten
Dark centuries gone by. And then
He raised his hand by Chuza's wife
To make the stone a place of life.
Before the Lord could speak a word,
The demons made her like a bird,
With fingers like the talons on
A hawk, and all her muscles drawn
Like bowstrings ready for the fight,
And screeching voice combining fright
And insolence. "We know your name,"
They screamed, "You are the Christ, the same
Old Holy One of God, who cast
Us out of heaven ages past,
And split the midnight sky with light,
And shattered all the towering might
Of Magdala." Then Jesus said,
"Be silent, Seven Eyes! The dead,
There in the tombs, behold you get
Your last abode, until the net
Of wrath removes your last desire,
And casts you in the lake of fire."
The seven demons overthrown,
Now Mary crumples on the stone.
And Jesus reaches out his hand
And touches her, "Come, Mary, stand."
Instead she crawls and clasps his feet,
And weeps with heaving sobs and sweet,
As if a thousand years of chains
Were cut away and deepest stains
Were clean, and all her mind
Were given back to her, inclined
Another way. "Now cease to hold
My feet," he says, "for it is told
Of old that I must drink my cup."
Then gently Jesus lifts her up
And says, "For this I must be free —
Like you. Now come and follow me."
And so, sweet fire of candle three,
That burns so bright and painfully,
Come, light the midnight of our days,
And strike the towers of our ways.
And when we think our chains are strong,
And slavery has been too long,
And wicked ropes are bound too tight,
And demons lurk beneath our sight,
Think not that we are too unclean:
Remember Mary Magdalene.
Come sweetly, painful flame, and be
The fire that sets the captives free.