I am delighted for the opportunity to interview Elizabeth Cunningham about her recently released novel in the Maeve Chronicles, called Red Robed Priestess. Elizabeth is a modern day Celtic Bard whose words flow like milk and honey. When I was reading Red Robed Priestess, my husband asked me why I was smiling. Two reasons – first, each word felt like nourishing soul food; second, there was Maeve’s dry wit, the kind that makes you laugh out loud.
Red Robed Priestess is the fourth and final installment in Maeve’s story, the life of Mary Magdalen. But be advised, Maeve is definitely not your mother’s Mary Magdalen, nor is she the Magdalen we meet in contemporary novels. Maeve is born of eight warrior witches in the Celtic Otherworld. She’s unabashedly honest. And unorthodox as well as fearless. Not so much the kind of fearless that stems from obligation or duty. It’s more the kind that is sourced in her unapologetic authenticity, as well as in her body. Her raw truth both inspires and scares me. Could I ever aspire to stand up for those I love the way she did? I certainly learned from her.
Not surprisingly, Elizabeth’s novel appealed to me, given that my own published novels incorporate Celtic tradition and lore, as well as the themes of embodied love that comes from the sacred union of the divine masculine and divine feminine within. But beyond these similar passions, Elizabeth and Maeve (hard to keep them apart in one sentence) will transport you to other worlds. To the Celtic Otherworld, to Roman occupied Britain, as well as to the world of deep emotion, and the complexity of human relationships. The world of love eternal. Be prepared for a poignant exploration of mother daughter bonds, and how you can find love in the most surprising people and circumstances.
So, here is the interview, Part 1, with both Elizabeth and Maeve, two fascinating and juicy women. As Maeve says in The Passion of Mary Magdalen: “Never apologize for mistaking a woman for a goddess.”
For those readers of my blog who are also authors, Elizabeth shares some unique insights into her writing life. Enjoy! (You can read Part 2 of this interview on Friday, December 9).
1. How does the ‘political and emotional complexity’ of Red Robed Priestess speak to our times?
Maeve and the Celts of the British Isles were facing the end of the world as they knew it. I think this realization has come to many peoples in many different times. Born just after the Second World War, I often think of how the world must have looked to Europeans, especially to Jews, as that disaster took shape and spread from country to country.
We are now facing economic, environmental and political upheaval on a global scale. We don’t know how things will play out, but business and life will are not going on as usual, and change is inevitable and imperative. Like Maeve and her combrogos, our courage and character, individually and collectively are being put to the test.
There are differences, too. While the parallels are not exact, the United States today is the Empire in much the way Rome was in its day. In that sense, the peoples of Afghanistan and Iraq are much more in the position of the Celtic tribes whose land was being occupied by a foreign power.
2. What inspired you for the relationship between Boudica and Maeve?
In Magdalen Rising, chronologically the first of The Maeve Chronicles, I hinted at the identity of Maeve’s firstborn child. Those who knew the story of the Boudica, the rebel queen who almost succeeded in destroying the Roman occupation of Britain, picked up that hint, and so I had to follow through in the fourth and final novel. I first heard of Boudica from my rather formidable mother-in-law, who could have led an army herself, no doubt. Born in South America, my mother-in-law claimed descent from Incan royalty. She spiffed up her son’s patrilineage by claiming Queen Boudica (whom she called by Boadicea) as his ancestress. The story of this heroic woman and her tragic fate took hold in my imagination long before I wrote The Maeve Chronicles. If my mother-in-law’s claim is true (big if) I am related to Boudica by marriage as well as through Maeve.
3. Where does your writing inspiration come from?
A good question and a hard one to answer. I was raised on stories: Bible stories, fairytales, the Narnia Books by CS Lewis. And I made up stories in my imagination before I could write. As I look back on my work, I can see I have always been seeking to marry things that other people might see as opposed: the human and the wild, the church and the heath, the one god with the many, with the goddess. I believe we are as much chosen by the stories as we choose them. Once you set out to be a storyteller or any kind of an artist, inspiration comes mainly because you show up for the work, day after day, whether you feel inspired or not. Then the Muse takes you seriously—and playfully!
“I believe we are as much chosen by the stories as we choose them.”
4. I know you learned a lot from loving Jesus. What is the most important thing you learned from loving him?
Maeve-At the risk of being cheeky, (well, I’ve risked that before) I think someone should ask him what he learned from loving me! Much as I’d like to answer that, I’ll stick to the question. I learned patience. I had to wait for him for a long time. No sooner did we find each other than he took off again. I had to learn surrender—not to him, but to the mystery. Like all of us, I had illusions/delusions of control. I thought I could step in and whomp his fate upside the head, change it to my liking. And I couldn’t. I couldn’t change anyone’s fate. And yet within that fate, I also learned we have choice. The choice to be kind, the choice to be brave, the choice to forgive, the choice to share what we have with friends and with enemies.
Elizabeth-I am still learning. Writing The Maeve Chronicles is the way I found to love him, writing from the point of view of an outsider, someone who never was or would be a convert or a follower. Aspects of institutional Christianity and its history can be appalling and yet I am still moved by Jesus, his story, and his affect on people. He is real to me.
“I think someone should ask him (Jesus) what he learned from loving me (Maeve)!”
5. Maeve – What is the most important thing you learned from your time with your warrior witch mothers in the Celtic Otherworld that is important for us today?
My mothers had a now almost famous saying that “a story is true if it’s well told.” They—and my whole chronicles—make the case for poetic truth. In your time many people do not understand story. They take everything—especially the Bible—as literal truth, as fact. They confuse fact with truth. The people who first told the stories in the Bible had no such confusion. They knew that story is a way to connect with the divine mystery. It was the connection that mattered, the meaning. That is why there are four Gospels, not one!
That said, you could also say that my mothers were spin masters. There was an important truth about themselves and what they did, about me and who I am that they omitted and/or prettified. And that omission brought me and others to grief. People need to think more about intent. My mothers’ intent was good but not very well-thought-out. They wanted to give me a sense of powerful and poetic paternity. And they did. In the end my actual father’s identity merged with that of my mythic father. But my mothers also had a hidden intent, to cover a rash and destructive act of their own.
What any Celt of my time will tell you is: words and stories are magical. They have the power to create and to destroy. People today need to take words more seriously. They need to restore story to its honored place and they need to stop knowingly and cynically repeating lies.
“…words and stories are magical”
6. Elizabeth, what drew you to Magdalen in the first place?
I did not have an ambition to write about Mary Magdalen, though of course she always intrigued me as she does many people. The character who became Maeve arrived when I had taken a break from writing, appearing first as a line-drawing, evolving quickly into a colorful cartoon character named Madge with fiery-neon orange hair. Soon she needed balloons for all her outrageous theological observations. I was enchanted with her and invited her to be in my next novel. She turned down all my proposals until, noticing the similar letters in Madge and Magdalen coupled with her very red hair, I asked if she would star in a novel about the Celtic Mary Magdalen. That’s the one, she agreed.
Madge, the contemporary incarnation of the character, is an unapologetic prostitute—her solution to an impecunious life in the arts. Although there is no evidence that Mary Magdalen was—or was not—a prostitute, I was intrigued by that perhaps unfounded legend just as others are outraged by it—perhaps because they are outraged by it. To me the Magdalen represents the divine incarnate as a woman. She bears all our cultural and historical projections and assumptions about female sexuality. I did not want to save her from her perhaps undeserved reputation. I wanted to explore the archetype of the whore—but with a twist, for my Magdalen is completely unrepentant!
“She bears all our cultural and historical projections and assumptions about female sexuality.”
7. How do you, Elizabeth, integrate Magdalen with the Episcopal theology, with your long line of ancestry in the Episcopal priesthood – or not?
Mary Magdalen is part of Christian story and always has been. Whatever theories anyone has about her background and occupation, in all the Gospels she is a first witness, sometimes the first witness to the Resurrection. My father, as an Episcopal priest, was what is known as “low church” more towards the Protestant end of the spectrum, far from the Anglo-Catholic veneration of saints. So I only heard about Mary Magdalen in the Easter Gospel and the Virgin Mary at Christmas. Women were pretty much missing from the story. I departed from the Church years before I began writing The Maeve Chronicles and became a pagan priestess, though I have no orthodoxy in that realm either. I wrote about that shift in my novel The Return of the Goddess, A Divine Comedy.
As much as I felt at home as an earth-centered pagan, I could never turn my back on my roots. There are Christians who hate and fear pagans and pagans who hate and fear Christians. I could not join either camp. Long before I started The Maeve Chronicles I had a title in my mind that I thought might go with a poem: “A Witch’s Love Song to Christ.” In a way, that is what The Maeve Chronicles are—at least in part. What’s different about The Maeve Chronicles is that they are not his story through her eyes. It’s her story and he happens to be an important part of it. For the last two books he does not appear in person at all.
Theologically, I am very much a celebrant of the Incarnation. I love Jesus because he had feet and walked on the earth. I wanted to write the story of a divine incarnate woman who can walk with us through our own heartbreaking and magnificent experience of incarnation.
The Maeve Chronicles, in part “A Witch’s Love Song to Christ.”
Elizabeth Cunningham is the author of The Maeve Chronicles, a series of four novels featuring a Celtic Magdalen, including her latest, Red-Robed Priestess. The first three in the series are Magdalen Rising, Passion of Mary Magdalen, and Bright Dark Madonna.
Elizabeth is the direct descendant of nine generations of Episcopal priests. When she was not in church or school, she read fairytales and fantasy novels or wandered in the enchanted wood of an overgrown, abandoned estate next door to the rectory. Her religious background, the magic of fairytales, and the numinous experience of nature continue to inform her work. Cunningham also authored many individual books as well, such
as The Wild Mother;The Return of the Goddess, a Divine Comedy; How to Spin Gold, a Woman’s Tale; Small Bird, and Wild Mercy, and a recently released album, MaevenSong.
Although Cunningham managed to avoid becoming an Episcopal priest, she graduated from The New Seminary in 1997 and was ordained as an interfaith minister and counselor. Both The Maeve Chronicles and her interfaith ministry express Cunningham’s profound desire to reconcile her Christian roots with her call to explore the divine feminine.
Since her ordination, Cunningham has been in private practice as a counselor and maintains that the reading and writing of novels has been has been as important to this work as her seminary training.
She is also the director of the Center at High Valley where she leads singing and poetry circles as well rituals celebrating the Celtic Cross Quarter Days. The mother of grown children, Cunningham lives with her husband in a sacred grove in New York State’s Hudson Valley.
Jodine Turner is the author of the visionary fiction Goddess of the Stars and the Sea series, and author of this blog. Her newest novel, Carry on the Flame: Ultimate Magic releases December 2011.