Monday, July 22, 2013

The Tresses of the Magdalene

The painting in the manuscript is quite small, and shows a woman dressed in blue in the act of cutting off her long hair. The identity of the woman is not in doubt, for in the text above her we can read her name: Marie Magdalene. What perhaps makes this modest manuscript miniature so touching is that we do not see the Magdalene’s face: it is wholly hidden behind the curtain of her golden hair. What Mary Magdalene looked like is however we imagine her appearance to be, for history has left no record – not even a written description – of her physical appearance. In the painting she remains as anonymous as in history, although the gesture of the scissors about to close around her golden locks is telling enough, and we know that were there to come a next moment, then in that moment those tresses would fall to the floor.

Why should the simple act of cutting off one’s hair feel so charged with drama? Hair would seem to have mysterious properties, for we remember that mighty Samson was conquered by the simple act of having his hair forcibly cut off. In Samson’s case, it was an act of treachery by Delilah. The woman betrays the man, and the man is robbed of his power. But this is not the case with Mary Magdalene. The act is here clearly a voluntary one: she is cutting off her own hair. It feels like – and is – an act of penitence. A true gesture of penitence brings with it the blessing of redemption, and so far we are on familiar orthodox ground. Mary Magdalene, the fallen woman, is redeemed by her deeply-felt penitence. But for whom does the Magdalene really cut her hair?

If such a gesture moves us to the extent which it does, then it would seem to point to something beyond a mere penitent shedding of locks. A woman’s tresses – or perhaps more specifically: a woman’s tresses that are on view – have traditionally been associated with wantonness. More than one culture which has its basis in religious tradition has insisted that a woman must keep her hair concealed from view, because to reveal her hair is construed as a come-hither signal. But by whom? Such cultures are without exception male-dominated: cultures in which men have made the rules to which women must adhere. And keeping to such rules is dictated by the consequences of a loss of a woman’s good reputation. It is a simple rule through threat, and ostracism can be a powerful weapon.

Traditionally, Mary Magdalene’s loosely-worn hair is a sign of her fallen nature. But if the sacrifice of Jesus redeemed all, then if it is truly so that we are all one, then so must the sacrifice of the Magdalene’s. The blades of the scissors close, and the long tresses fall to the floor with a telling finality. Perceiving that her own reputation will be tarnished by orthodox thinking throughout the centuries, the Magdalene, the closest and most trusted of all the followers of Jesus, cuts off her hair for the wrongs done to, the prejudices towards, the transgressions against, the inequalities endured by, all women.

Today, July 22nd, is traditionally Mary Magdalene’s day.

The manuscript miniature is from the 15th-century Livre de la Passion. 


  1. Hair is an interesting biological feature in humans as well as part of the body that receives much attention. One feature of hair is protection of the head. Hair keeps the head warm in winter and protects against the sun in the summer. However the length that some can grow their hair certainly exceeds this biological function, so hair must also serve another purpose.

    It has much cultural and religious significance as well. Hair that appears long, full and gleaming seems to represent the attributes of youth and health. So it is not surprising that this is something that triggers a response in both men and women that it is an attractive feature. It's not necessarily sexual by itself but it may be associated to sex in that seeking out the healthiest partner to produce offspring may ensure better survival of ones genes. Hair appearance and quality may be one of the many attributes that on a physical level trigger something that states this person is a desirable mate or not!

    Women in most cultures wear their hair much longer than men, and also importance is placed on hair by society in general perhaps more for women than men. This is not to say that men do not also place importance on hair - they certainly do, but on the whole as men age many men lose their hair so it becomes a moot point! Hair can represent something personal about one's physical form and identity.

    Within the biological and cultural context for a woman to cut her long hair short has certain meanings. It could represent a turning away from placing importance on one's physical identity, perhaps symbolizing the inner decision to go beyond the desire to have a partner, to have offspring, etc. It may represent a turning away from the "world" to follow something more valuable, perhaps to follow a spiritual path. It makes sense from this perspective why Christian and Buddhist nuns cut their hair short. The Buddhist nuns shave their heads! Buddhist monks also shave their heads and I feel for the same reason. For a woman to cut her hair for penitence also represents the movement away from the importance placed on the physical identity and a movement toward something deeper.

    As a "fallen woman" Magdalene represents womankind who have been marginalized, sexualized, and made into victims of violence for far too long in our history. The cutting off of her hair is a symbol that women are much more than just being female, their physical form, their biology. They are the very essence of the eternal Divine One Spirit. This message is the same for men as well.

  2. Joseph, yes - It is because hair is so culturally significant that it can be - and is - used to give voice to symbolic intentions and make symbolic statements such as happened in the 1960's, which saw it as an expression of a new freedom in society. But we are, as you say, more than our hair. As my post describes, its loss can be a powerful gesture of sacrifice, and therefore also a compelling mirror for others to regard us as we truly are.