Reversing Eve’s Curse. Mary Magdalene Pilgrims and the Creative Ritualization of Menstruation,Journal of Ritual Studies Fedele

This article is about the creative ritual practices of a group of Spanish and Catalan pilgrims who visit French shrines dedicated to Saint Mary Magdalene. Raised and educated in Catholic families, these women describe themselves as being part of the worldwide Goddess movement and do not consider their theories and rituals to be in conflict with Christian values. During their pilgrimages they celebrate rituals in shrines that they feel were unjustly monopolized by the “Church”. The pilgrims see Mary Magdalene as the guardian of menstrual blood, and advocate a “feminist reading” of Jesus’ message. They perform creative rituals to commune with “Mother Earth” by offering Her their menstrual blood. The creative ritualization of menstruation allows the pilgrims to reinterpret Catholic rituals thereby transforming negative concepts related to body and gender they have received from their Catholic families. The pilgrims’ rituals of offering also foster an embodied relationship with the divine.

Analysing one particular menstrual ritual I will show how offering their blood to Mother Earth these women literally turn upside down the central ritual of Christianity, the Eucharist. Through this strategy they manage to ritually transform menstruation from a curse into a blessing and to elaborate new notions about their body and sexuality. I will analyse these womens’ conceptualization of menstrual blood drawing on historical studies about the meaning of menstruation in Christianity as well as anthropological studies about menstruation in traditional as well as in Western societies. I will argue that proclaiming the sacrality of menstrual blood these women try to repair a social order in which menstruation is still often associated with female subordination. With their rituals these women aim to provoke not only a healing process on a personal level but also a shift of perception on a social level.

(with Élisabeth Claverie) Introduction: Uncertainty in Vernacular Religions,
Special Issue: Uncertainty in Vernacular Religions, Social Compass

In this special issue we explore the ways in which the dogmas and rituals created by religious institutions are creatively used and transformed in the everyday lived religion of people. We encouraged the authors to produce ethnographically grounded papers that explore the role of uncertainty and doubt in religious practices, focusing on the way in which people put to test the efficacy of rituals as well as the healing power of sacred figures and sites. How do people establish that a certain religion works for them in a historical period in which they are increasingly aware of the existence of religious traditions that are different from the one they grew up with? How do they criticize with their own religious creativity the dogmas and rules of the religious tradition they belong to? Contrary to the assumption that religion works as a sort of magical remedy against uncertainty, providing people with a set of answers and solutions they totally embrace and rely upon, what emerges from the ethnographical examples of this special issue is that uncertainty and doubt are inherent in lived religion and play an important role in the ongoing process of construction of religious rituals and narratives.


Energy and transformation in alternative pilgrimages to Catholic shrines: deconstructing the tourist/ pilgrim divide, Journal of Tourism and Cultural Change

In recent years an increasing number of travelers have visited sites considered ‘power
places’, with the intention of tapping into their energy and the experiential
transformation and healing associated with such sites. This article is based on
fieldwork among pilgrims influenced by the international Goddess movement, visiting
Catholic shrines in Southern Europe; the analysis reflects an ethnographic perspective
on how these pilgrims conceptualize their journeys. Their approach to sacred sites is
by no means unique but rather the expression of an engagement both with pilgrimage
and tourism, one in which both the notions and experiences of energy and
transformation play key roles. I will argue that in the context of these sacred
journeys, the use of an energy language to make sense of travel experiences and the
emphasis on personal transformation allow the pilgrims to deconstruct oppositions
implicitly associated with the tourism/pilgrimage dichotomy.

Creativity and Uncertainty in Contemporary Crafted Rituals

This paper is based on fieldwork among Portuguese, Italians, Catalans and Spaniards influenced by the transnational Goddess spirituality movement. Through an analysis of ritual narratives I will analyze the role of doubt and uncertainty in contemporary rituals created within Goddess spirituality. I will show that contemporary crafted rituals offer a privileged window upon the uncertainty intrinsic in ritual because participants feel less constrained by a long lasting religious tradition and talk more openly about their doubts and their strategies to neutralize them. Drawing on Simon Coleman’s analysis of pilgrimage and ritual (2002, 2009, 2013) I suggest that uncertainty may play an important role not only in rituals created in the context of contemporary spirituality but also in other contemporary rituals created in plural and increasingly secularized Western contexts.

This article has been published in French in the journal  Social Compass

2012: The Environmental prophecy that Could not Fail

This article forms part of a debate section about the prophecies related to the year 2012 in the journal Religion and Society: Advances in Research.4 (2013): 167–195. debate apocalypse RSAS


Black Madonna Versus White Madonna

Gendered Power Strategies in Alternative Pilgrimages to Marian Shrines

This chapter describes the theories and rituals of pilgrims influenced by the transnational Neopagan movement visiting Catholic shrines holding dark madonna statues and is based on observations of three organized pilgrimages. “Black Madonnas” represent, for these pilgrims, “the dark side of the Feminine” and serve as a counterbalance to the “White and Immaculate” Virgin Mary they know from their childhood in Christian, mostly Catholic, families. Non-Catholic devotion to Black Madonnas with its critique of “the Church” and “patriarchal” society represents a privileged window upon the supposed opposition between “religion” and “spirituality”. Through the analysis of fieldwork data and of the pilgrims’ comments, Fedele argues that these pilgrims’ spirituality has many things in common with vernacular Christian religion of the past and present. The author further situates the pilgrims’ theories in a wider historical context and shows how Black Madonnas allow these spiritual travelers to acknowledge and come to terms with the gendered disempowerment they experienced within Christianity and to find a different approach to their vulnerable, gendered bodies.

Gender, Sexuality and Religious Critique among Mary Magdalene Pilgrims in Southern France

Based on fieldwork among non-practicing Catholics visiting the shrine of La Sainte-Baume in Southern France, this chapter explores the ways these pilgrims mobilize the figure of Mary Magdalene to criticize the Christian values and beliefs they received in childhood. I will look at the new meanings ascribed to pilgrimage in this context, centring on the pilgrims’ appropriation of the cave of La Sainte-Baume to empower women, and arguing that the pilgrimage and its rituals allow these pilgrims to formulate new ideas of female corporeality and sexuality. My analysis of this kind of pilgrimage is as a ‘critical journey’ centred on the critique of a ‘patriarchal’ belief system, which is perceived to be inherent to Christianity and to its perspectives on gender and sexuality.

Published as chapter 4 in:

Gender, Nation and Religion in European Pilgrimage, Willy Jansen and Catrien Notermans eds. Franham: Ashgate, 2012.


The Metamorphoses of Neopaganism in Traditionally Catholic Countries in Southern Europe

This article is based on fieldwork among Italians, Catalans and Spaniards influenced by Neopagan beliefs and practices arriving from the United States and the United Kingdom. Raised in Catholic families these people have come to embrace Neopagan beliefs and reject the beliefs and norms they received from their parents. They criticize monotheistic religions as patriarchal and worship female divinities such as “Mother Earth” and the “Goddess”. However they do not break completely with their past, and seek to create rituals that combine Pagan and Christian figures and to foster the return of a “Christian Goddess”. Trying to connect with the Celts, the Etruscans or other ancient civilizations they consider as their “matriarchal predecessors” in Europe, they find that many of the places they consider as “sacred” and “powerful” have been “monopolized” by the “Church” and turned into Catholic churches. They therefore try to create a sort of Southern-European Neopaganism that reunites both the Pagan and Christian heritage they perceive as their own.

Chapter in: Sites and Politics of Religious Diversity in Southern Europe, Llera Blanes Ruy and Mapril José eds., Leiden: Brill, 2013.

In this essay we analyse the personal relationships that believers establish towards the Christ of Lepanto. We considered the visit to the Christ during the cuaresmal period as a kind of short pilgrimage that allows people to enter a space marked by some clear signs of liminality. After describing the different uses that the Catholic Church makes of the figure of this Christ in the cuaresmal period and during the rest of the year, we focused on the different kinds of “alternative” rituals that people perform, apparently  to oppose to the official practices, using the Christ as a sort of door that permits them a dialogue  with God.
“This article describes the beliefs and some of the ritual practices of a group
of female pilgrims visiting places in France and Catalonia that they associate
with the figure of Mary Magdalene. It pays particular attention to the pilgrim’s process of learning ways to relate to her own body and to her menstrual cycle. Drawing elements from neo-paganism these women reinterpret
the meaning of Christian symbols and places. They consider Mary Magdalene both as a forerunner of feminism and as a model for independent
women. Performing a ritual of offering menstrual blood to the earth, they
establish an intimate relationship with what they identify as the “Mother
Earth”. Theories used to justify the beliefs in the sacrality of menstrual
blood are largely derived from anthropological texts.
“In recent years, the pilgrimage shrine of La Sainte-Baume has attracted an increasing number of non-Catholic pilgrims influenced by the ‘New Age’ and the Neopagan movement. These pilgrims consider Mary Magdalene as a sort of female counterpart of Jesus and the mountain of La Sainte-Baume, where according to a Christian legend she spent the last part of her life, as a ‘power place’ charged with ‘healing energy’. Based on 3 years of field work among Mary Magdalene pilgrims and drawing on Tanya Luhrmann’s idea of ‘interpretive drift’ (1989), the essay describes the way in which these pilgrims gradually shift from their previous Christian background towards what they generally identify as ‘spirituality’. The pilgrims reconceptualise La Sainte-Baume and its saint, and make their own a shrine they feel was misappropriated and unjustly monopolised by the ‘Church’.
Keywords: feminist spirituality; Neopaganism; Roman Catholicism; Mary Magdalene; shrines; pilgrimage; Da Vinci Code”
What are the problems encountered by an ethnographer in describing pilgrims influenced by recent reinterpretations of Mary Magdalene? Which books do these pilgrims rely on in formulating their own ideas, and what pilgrimage routes do they follow in France? Dan Brown’s novel The DaVinci Code has popularized the idea that Mary Magdalene was Christ’s wife and the mother of his children. Even before the publication of this best-seller, however, pilgrims were making their “energetic connections” in churches from Provence to Burgundy. Their theories of the Magdalene, consisting of an eclectic mix of Christianity and elements of the New Age and Wicca movements, form a contemporary mythology and serve as the basis for ritual practices. This way of understanding pilgrimage is both recent and rapidly evolving, and a number of Catholic shrines in France are now receiving a new type of pilgrim.

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