Poisoned Honey: A Story of Mary Magdalene

Poisoned Honey: A Story of Mary Magdalene

by Beatrice Gormley

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This story begins with Mariamne, a vulnerable girl who knows little of the ways of the world. Much as she wants to be in control of her own destiny, she soon learns she has no such power. She must do as her father and brother see fit, and when tragedy strikes, Mari must marry a man she does not love and enter a household where she is not welcome, for the good of her


This story begins with Mariamne, a vulnerable girl who knows little of the ways of the world. Much as she wants to be in control of her own destiny, she soon learns she has no such power. She must do as her father and brother see fit, and when tragedy strikes, Mari must marry a man she does not love and enter a household where she is not welcome, for the good of her family.

But she finds a small way to comfort herself when she meets an Egyptian wisewoman who instructs her in the ways of the occult arts. In the spirit world, Mari finds she has power. Here, she really is in control of her fate. But is she? Or is the magic controlling her?

This gripping portrait of one of the most misunderstood and controversial Biblical figures is the story of a young girl’s path through manipulation and possession, madness and healing, to a man who will change the world forever.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

School Library Journal
Gr 9 Up—Rejecting the traditional conflation of Mary Magdalene with unnamed sinful women in the Gospels, Gormley evokes an anguished teenager healed by controversial Rabbi Yeshua. Mariamne tells her own story: a happy childhood with her doting merchant father, a thrilling first love, the melodramatically simultaneous loss of her father and fiancé. To recoup her family's finances, Mari unhappily weds a nasty old man and, relentlessly undermined by a domestic rival, eventually retreats into her voice-filled imagination. Gormley makes Mari a skilled narrator, strategically planting details that will reappear later on and briefly introducing the stories of Miriam and Esther. Mari's character is a human mixture of willfulness, weakness, needs, and gifts; her spirit-possession is convincing, her cluelessness about her rival, less so. Five parallel third-person chapters follow the moral development of Matthew, a despised tax-collector's son: he has his own familial and social losses, and their threads entwine. Yeshua appears in the last third of the novel, which ends as Mari and Matthew join his followers. Fast paced and vivid, the novel will appeal most strongly to Christians, but other readers will find the portrait of a person, and a time, memorably real.—Patricia D. Lothrop, St. George's School, Newport, RI
Kirkus Reviews
In this follow-up to her 2007 novel, Salome, Gormley gives readers the story of Mary Magdalene. Asserting in an author's note that there's no biblical evidence that Mary was a prostitute, the author presents her instead as a bright, imaginative child forced into marriage with an elderly man whose family despises her. Mary takes refuge in fantasies of another world, the demonic denizens of which become increasingly real, threatening to consume her. In a subplot, tax collector Matthew tries to ignore the injustices his Roman superiors demand he mete out. The lives of both change when an itinerant healer, Yeshua (Jesus), a charismatic and engaging character, casts out Mary's demons and shows Matthew a different way to live. The setting is vivid, the characters realistic and convincing, the plot exciting. While readers are left to decide whether Mary suffers from demonic possession or mental illness, Yeshua's miraculous gifts are presented as fact. Christian readers are well served here, but in today's religiously diverse society, non-Christians may feel uncomfortable with the doctrine that underlies the story. (Historical fantasy. 12 & up)
Publishers Weekly
As she did in Salome (2007), Gormley crafts a gripping reimagining of a biblical figure, this time Jesus' disciple, Mary Magdalene. The author brings to life the culture of first-century Palestine, skillfully exploring the impact of family obligations, gender roles, business practices, and Jewish/Gentile religious customs on a young woman's decisions. After the prophet Miryam tells 13-year old Mari in a vision, “you are consecrated to a higher purpose,” Mari convinces herself she can obey her spiritual calling by submitting to an arranged marriage. But when fever takes the lives of her father and her fiancé, Mari becomes dependent on less benevolent men and is faced with bitter choices. Gormley's portrayal of Mari's gradual possession by evil spirits proves both convincing and terrifying, as demons force her to alienate herself from family and friends, setting the stage for a climactic miracle of deliverance. Gormley creates a memorable portrait of this famous but often misunderstood character, along with compelling characterizations of Matthew the tax collector and Jesus, making this book an important contribution to the genre of biblically based fiction. Ages 12-up. (Mar.)
Children's Literature - Barbara L. Talcroft
Who was Mary Magdalene? Much has been written; little is known. Author Gormley has provided a childhood for her in Magdala—on the Sea of Galilee—and imagined the death of her handsome betrothed as well as a mind that sees visions and increasingly hears voices. When her father's death reveals unpaid debts, Mariamne—her name in this novel—is bullied into accepting an offer of marriage from an older man she finds disgusting. The helpless girl escapes from her bleak domestic existence by entering a virtual garden—with a password from an Egyptian wisewoman—and communing with voices. When the voices take over and she becomes violent, her brother drags her off to an exorcist—a young rabbi called Yeshua. Now we are at the point where Mary Magdalene first appears in the Bible. The Book of Luke relates that Jesus drove out seven demons from Mary Magdalene and healed her. Mariamne leaves home and follows Yeshua, becoming a treasured companion and one who most understands his revelations, though there are uneasy hints of trouble in the future. In her author's note, Gormley discusses Mary's fate at the hands of later Church authorities, who turned her into a repentant harlot, a tale not refuted until 1969. Mature teens might read Joan Acocella's essay in Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints (Pantheon, 2007) for more information, especially about Gnostic texts discovered in 1896 and 1945, where Mary Magdalene appears as a leader of early Christians with special spiritual insight, though already resented as a rival by male apostles. For patient readers, this novel makes a good entry point into the fascinating story of an enigmatic woman with a long afterlife in legend and art. Reviewer: Barbara L. Talcroft

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Random House Children's Books
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Read an Excerpt


A Sparrow Falls

The first “voice” I heard was a sparrow’s. So I’ll begin my story with a sparrow falling—with the murder of a friend.

I was nine years old, growing up in the town of Magdala, where Mount Arbel casts its shadow onto Lake Gennesaret. When I was a young girl, Herod Antipas had been ruler of Galilee for many years. My family, though, had been in the sardine-packing business for generations. We were known for high-quality salted fish long before Antipas’s father, Herod the Great, became king of Greater Judea, and even long before the Roman armies tramped into our land.

My name was Mariamne, which is the Greek version of the Hebrew name Miryam, and my family called me Mari. I lived with my father, Tobias; my mother, Tabitha; my widowed grandmother, Abigail; my older brother, Alexandros; and my younger sister, Chloe. We had our own house, but we shared the walled courtyard with my uncle and his family. As my grandmother’s elder son, my father was head of the family group.

One morning, as the sun was coming up across the lake and my father was saying morning prayers on the roof terrace, I took grain to the courtyard to feed the chickens. It was important to give them just the right amount of grain. If we didn’t give them enough, they’d try to escape to find food somewhere else. If we gave them too much, they wouldn’t search for the bugs we wanted them to eat.

I tried to give each chicken its fair share, although that wasn’t easy. There was one hen that the others pushed aside, for no reason that I could see. There was a sore on her neck where the others had pecked her. After I gave the flock their grain, I dropped a handful right in front of the pecked hen.

As the chickens gathered clucking around my feet, a sparrow flew into the courtyard. He stayed just out of reach of the chickens, several times his size. He was a neat, pert little bird, and his bold stare made me smile. Give me some, too, he seemed to say. I’m hungry. I threw a few seeds his way, and he gobbled them up before the chickens could run over to them. Many thanks! he seemed to say.

“You’re welcome, sparrow,” I said. I was so charmed by the little fellow that I didn’t notice my brother, Alexandros, on the stairs behind me with his slingshot. I heard a whirr, then a sickening thump as a pebble struck the sparrow. The pebble clattered on the courtyard flagstones, and my sparrow fell lifeless.

“Got him, the little thief!” exclaimed my brother.

I screamed at him; I ran to Imma, our mother, with the sparrow’s broken body. “Look what Alexandros did! On purpose! He’s a murderer.”

Alexandros ran after me to tell his side of the story. “But Mari was feeding the chickens’ grain to the sparrows!”

Of course, our mother took Alexandros’s side. She scolded me for giving good food to a wild bird, and she told me it was ridiculous to call the death of a sparrow murder. “If we grieved every time a sparrow falls,” she said sternly, “we’d be in sackcloth all the time.”

I saw that it was no use, and I hated Alexandros so much, I couldn’t stand to look at him. So I went back to the courtyard.

Later that day, I talked Yael, our serving woman, into taking me down to the shore. On the rocky beach, I made a sort of tomb out of stones and laid the sparrow in it. “That’s quite a fine sepulcher for a bird,” Yael remarked. “In fact, it’s finer than the one they’ll lay me in.”

“Really?” I asked. Forgetting my own sorrow for the moment, I gazed up at her glum face. I was shocked at the idea that no one cared as much for Yael as I cared about my sparrow, but maybe it was true.

“You’re too young to know what a miserable world this is,” said Yael. “But you’ll find out soon enough.”

How could Yael think that about the world? It was glorious. The world was full of wonders, from the artful design of a sparrow’s feathers, to the snug feeling of my sister’s back against mine in our cot at night, to the plump sweetness of an apricot from our orchard. In the synagogue, the scripture readings often mentioned all the things the Lord created. Sometimes I imagined the One sitting at his heavenly workbench, smiling with pleasure as he turned out sparrows and warm bodies and apricots for us to enjoy. It made me sad that Yael didn’t see this.

The very next morning, while I was feeding the chickens as usual, a sparrow perched on the courtyard wall. “Go away! Shoo!” I told him. I was terrified that my brother would kill this one, too.

Don’t worry. I’ll stay out of range of the slingshot, said the bird.

I don’t mean that he seemed to say it; he spoke just like a person, only in a chirping kind of voice.

Here’s what to do, the sparrow went on. Save some of your bread from breakfast. When no one’s looking, put the crumbs on top of the wall, right here. He hopped sideways in one direction, then the other, to mark his words.

I knew that sparrows couldn’t talk, so I must have been making this up myself. Still, I did as the sparrow told me. Later, when no one else was watching, I saw him come back to eat the crumbs.

The next time I had a chance to talk to Abba, my father, alone, I told him the whole story of the sparrows. He listened with his arm around me, his eyes serious above his gray-streaked brown beard. When I finished, he kissed the top of my head and said, “That second sparrow is wise beyond its years! It’s true that you shouldn’t give the chickens’ food to wild birds. But if you want to share your own bread with them, that’s your right.” He added, as if to himself, “Alexandros shouldn’t be slinging stones inside the courtyard; someone might get hurt. I’ll talk to him.”

After that, my father began taking Alexandros to work with him every day. I was glad to have him out of the house, although I think my mother missed him. I kept on leaving bread for Tsippor, or Birdie, as I called the sparrow. Whenever I was upset about something, I would sit on the stairs and talk it over with Tsippor while he pecked the crumbs.

One Sabbath, sitting in synagogue, I listened to a psalm that made me think of Tsippor: “For your name’s sake lead and guide me, take me out of the net which is hidden for me. . . .” Those lines brought such a vivid picture to my mind: of the One tenderly untangling a terrified bird from the hunter’s net. Later, I overheard Alexandros stumbling as he tried to recite the same psalm for Abba. How could he have trouble memorizing such unforgettable words?

I didn’t tell my younger sister, Chloe, about my sparrow friend, but one day she overheard me talking to him. I asked her if she heard the sparrow answer me, but the idea seemed to frighten her, so I said it was just a game. During the next year or so, I talked to Tsippor less and less, although I still fed him.

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Beatrice Gormley is the author of dozens of books, including Salome, Miriam, and Julius Caesar: Young Statesman. She lives in Westport, Massachusetts.

From the Hardcover edition.

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