Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies, Vol 15, No 1-2 (2013)



Anna Fedele, Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 336 pp., $35 (cloth).

Anna Fedele’s Looking for Mary Magdalene: Alternative Pilgrimage and Ritual Creativity at Catholic Shrines in France addresses a fascinating, lively, and relatively unexplored subject matter: the “alternative” uses of Catholic shrines dedicated to the divine feminine in France (Saint Mary Magdalene in particular), and the ritual creativity that emerges as a result. Fedele situates this growing social phenomenon within a “wider context of alternative spirituality and contemporary Paganism in the United States and Europe, describing how Pagan concepts are slowly finding their way into predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy and Spain” (4). Indeed, the complex relationships (and tensions) that exist between Paganism and Catholicism (in both their local and global forms) are currently providing a lively arena for academic discussion, and Fedele’s focus on the figure of the Magdalene embodying these tensions makes an excellent critical contribution to these debates.

Based on rich, descriptive, and original fieldwork among individual pilgrims (or “spiritual travelers”) and three organized pilgrimage excursions to sites linked with Mary Magdalene in France, Fedele’s approach is reflexive and personable. She accounts for the diversity of pilgrims and their ritual experiences, addressing a complex and multifaceted subject with clear, approachable language. Concerned with the relationships between place, pilgrimage, ritual design, gender, and power relations, Fedele uses the accounts of her informants to inform not only the structure of the book, but also the theoretical premises upon which it is built.

Examining the “before,” “during,” and “after” pilgrimage states, the reader is guided through the pilgrims’ sequence. Fedele first focuses on the shared experiences and perspectives of the pilgrims, as well as their views on “past life experiences, the archetypal influences of gods and goddesses, and the importance of Native American shamanism” (28). The reader explores transformative processes of pilgrimage and sites related to Mary Magdalene chapter by chapter. This includes the pilgrims’ experiences of the “energy,” presence, and “power of the sacred feminine” found at the pilgrimage sites, the power and significance of menstrual blood, the female reproductive cycle, and the healing power of Mary Magdalene. The final chapter is based on the end of the pilgrimage process and reflects on the “meaning of pilgrimage itself” (243), providing an excellent resource for anyone interested in understanding how pilgrimage can be re-imagined.

Contextualizing the quest for Mary Magdalene with themes found among pilgrim informants, Fedele provides the reader with the elements necessary to create a full and comprehensive picture of this contemporary religious phenomena. Pilgrims tend to share a common view about humanity’s past and the rise and development of Christianity. Mary Magdalene is mostly perceived by these pilgrims as the “feminine equivalent to Jesus” (4). According to Fedele, “What these pilgrims wanted was a way to restore a part of Christianity’s ‘hidden’ past”(28). She emphasizes the pilgrims’ view that creating and performing new rituals at Catholic shrines is a form of reterritorialization of the feminine divine within Catholicism. The idea that Mary Magdalene helps to resolve tensions between Christian (Catholic) pasts and present spirituality is another theme (28). More specifically, Fedele writes, “Many pilgrims identified in Mary Magdalene a figure that allowed them to combine the Catholic symbols, figures, and rituals they had received from their families and social environment with the spirituality they had chosen to make their own” (16). Distinguishing between Gaian Goddess spirituality and Goddess pilgrims (12), Fedele suggests that Magdalene pilgrims are interested in “power places appropriated by the Church that are related with the hidden part of the Christian tradition Magdalene stands for” i.e. the “Feminine, the Goddess, or simply “darkness” (14). Another pilgrim theme uncovered by Fedele is that Native American shamanism and cosmologies are used to support and address ways of thinking about the world that are not found in patriarchal religions such as Christianity (266).

Fedele makes several admirable observations through this book, and her approach to “ritual creativity” is certainly among them. Pilgrimage is treated as a social phenomenon based on shared assumptions by both pilgrim leaders and the pilgrims themselves. According to Fedele, the ideas that inform the new Magdalene rituals are indirectly based on the scholarly descriptions of rituals as per Arnold van Gennep, Victor Turner, Margaret Murray, Michael Harner, Joseph Campbell, and Mircea Eliade (6). She discusses how the participants use language (such as “initiation rites” and “rites of passage”) borrowed from books on shamanism, spirituality, and/or pilgrimage. It is an interesting observation that Western scholarly attention has indirectly informed the ritual practices of contemporary Pagan/alternative pilgrims (instead of the ritual practices of others directly informing the theories of scholars). Also noteworthy is Fedele’s critical engagement and use of “ritual.” Here, “ritual” is used loosely due to the fact that the rituals that take place in relation to Mary Magdalene are not repetitious, but designed ad hoc, in the moment, and spontaneously. She writes“Given the fluidity of pilgrims’ rituals, it is analytically useful to consider ritual as a way of acting, rather than a set of unique acts” (20–21). This, it can be argued, is true of all ritual performances (one never steps in the same river twice), as might be argued by Performance Studies scholars such as Richard Schechner. However, Fedele’s approach makes a unique contribution to debates due to the nature of the rituals being carried out: they address particular facets of women’s lives which have been/can be traumatic. For example, the rituals observed of Magdalene pilgrims recognize issues such as abortions, hysterectomies, divorces, and menopause, and these rituals are “designed” to be empowering. Fedele recognizes these as modern adaptations of rites of passage and observes that rituals which are newly created are prime examples of “ritual in process” (6), warranting further scholarly attention.

A significant contribution to a number of academic disciplines, Fedele not only brings Catholicism into dialogue with contemporary Paganisms through Magdalene’s role as a “female savior” but casts a critical and appreciative gaze upon the alternative and highly personalized pilgrimage and ritual practices invested in Mary Magdalene. Particularly valuable for anyone exploring Pagan and other alternative traditions within Mediterranean and other predominantly Catholic cultures, Fedele’s work is an excellent guide to those seeking to understand the diverse roles that Catholic shrines dedicated to the divine feminine can play. The book is also an exemplary model useful to anyone wanting to write a monograph while remaining an invaluable resource for academics in fields such as anthropology, sociology, and the study of religions.

Amy Whitehead

University of Wales Trinity St. David


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