You may have heard of the Black Madonna, but have you heard of the Hairy Mary Magdalene? Or the Hairy St. Mary of Egypt, from which the story may have originated? Even if you split hairs, it’s another example of how religions changed and incorporated earlier stories, which got revised and edited by men who often had a political and gender bias, and in this case, absurdly so. (See the earlier article about Mary Magdalene for more insight.)
Warning: If you are uncomfortable with frank discussions about anatomy that sometimes get hairy, this might not be for you.
Hairy Mary is the subject of a viral Twitter thread by the Vagina Museum in the UK. The museum started when the founders heard about a penis museum in Iceland and decided there should be an equivalent for the female anatomy to empower women. Bravo.
Here is the Twitter thread below. The museum also wrote about the story on Facebook for those who prefer that.
As you can see, there were depictions of Hairy Mary Magdalene covered in hair in the 15th and 16th centuries. Sometimes, she had a thick layer of golden Wookie-like body hair, while other times, she had long Repunzel-like hair cascading down her body from her head.
Ascending Hairy Mary
Below is the painting called “The Ascension of St Mary Magdalene,” by an unnamed Danube School painter, circa 1510.
Here is the caption that the Vagina Museum shared on Facebook, which is fascinating. It seems that the story may have originated from Egypt but from an unrelated woman, St. Mary, who was ascetic, or “practicing self-denial for spiritual discipline,” per Merriam-Webster.
“Mary Magdalene is portrayed covered in body hair in this painting, and in many others in this period. According to legend, after Jesus ascended to heaven, Mary Magdalene went to live in the desert as a penitent. During this time, she was naked and it was said that her hair grew over her body to hide her nudity. While some painters depicted this story with long hair, others took a more literal route and made her whole body hairy. A very similar story is attributed to the unrelated ascetic, St Mary of Egypt, and the stories were probably conflated.”
According to the Twitter thread, the legend is that Mary Magdalene went into the desert to be ascetic and “ceased to care about worldly things such as clothes, so her clothes fell apart and she was naked. To protect her modesty, according to the story, her hair grew over her body.”
They go on to show that some artists featured Hairy Mary with hair covering her body while others, like Titian, preferred to go the Repunzel route. However, they tended to expose her breasts.
“You might have noticed that Mary’s boobs are out in most of these depictions, despite the story clearly specifying the purpose of the hair was to hide her boobs. We don’t have an explanation for that. Artists just liked painting titties is the likely reason,” the museum put it plainly.
In ancient Roman writings, people living in the desert were also stereotyped as headless beings with faces on their chests called the Blemmyes.
There are lots of Hairy Mary depictions in sculpture and paintings which are certainly shocking to look at today.
One wonders what people say about these depictions in modern times, but perhaps the comments were not that dissimilar to when they first appeared?
The Desert Mother, St. Mary of Egypt
It gets even stranger because the story’s origins seem to be from the Egyptian “Desert Mother,” of which there were many.
“It’s likely that the Mary Magdalene hair story isn’t even *about* Mary Magdalene. A very similar story about the 5th century St Mary of Egypt (known as Desert Mother) features a penitent called Mary whose clothes disintegrated in the desert,” they tweeted.
The story goes that St. Zosimas of Palestine found the hairy woman in the desert.
“The story probably mutated to being about Mary Magdalene rather than Mary of Egypt because she was a popular figure for sermons and religious texts to use as an example of penitence. Hairy, hairy penitence,” they concluded.
The story was about a woman of ill repute, a 5th-century prostitute called Santa Maria Egiziaca or Maria Aegyptica, who converted to Christianity in Jerusalem. Then, she went to live out her life in the desert as a hermit. It’s easy to see how the story is similar to the one of Mary Magdalene, whose story was similarly tarnished as a “repentant prostitute.” It was a story that disempowered women, and perhaps led them away from valuable insight.
In the comments, writer and author Annie Zaidi pointed out similar stories from India.
“Similar stories about poet-saints in India. Lal Ded was known to wander without clothes, and so was Akka Mahadevi. Don’t think there are texts that specify hair as a cover, but modern pictorial representations do give them abundant hair that makes their nakedness invisible,” she tweeted.
Although the story of Hairy Mary, from Egypt or otherwise, has generally become obscure, Saint Mary of Egypt became the “patron saint of penitents” in Roman Catholic, Anglican, Orthodox and Coptic faiths.
Featured image: Ascension of Mary Magdalene via Wikimedia Commons, public domain with Icon of Mary of Egypt being handed a cloak by Zosimas, French, 15th century (British Library) via Wikipedia, public domain