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Vitvitskaïa and Mary Magdalene
Archetypes of a Feminine Seeker

Vitvitskaïa, the only woman described in Meetings with Remarkable Men, is indeed a remarkable and memorable character. She is not only intrinsically interesting, but because Mr. Gurdjieff speaks of her as "an ideal for every woman" also seems a fit subject for pondering.

What we know of her life before she meets Gurdjieff is his retelling of Prince Yuri Lubovedsky's account. When Gurdjieff meets her, he describes her as being "on the brink of moral ruin." Although he agrees to accompany Vitvitskaïa back to Russia at the prince's request, he considers her "worthless" and feels a mixture of "hate" and "pity" toward her. By the time she was 14 both of Vitvitskaïa's parents were dead, and her financial circumstances were dire. Gurdjieff speaks of her as being "very beautiful" and "frivolous" and "subconsciously depressed all the time," a combination that can only engender mishap and suffering. When the prince encountered her, Vitvitskaïa had been seduced by a "commercial traveler" who later robbed and abandoned her. Then she had become the mistress of "an old senator" who turned her out because he was jealous of another man. Later she had used her beauty to attract men to the house of a doctor in need of more patients. Through the help and guidance of Prince Lubovedsky and his sister, Vitvitskaïa's life enters an ascending octave. Through her work on herself she changes so dramatically that Gurdjieff barely recognizes her when he encounters her again four years after their first meeting. Vitvitskaïa becomes a Seeker after Truth and joins Gurdjieff and others on their expeditions. She becomes, as Gurdjieff says, "a woman sacred for us all."

A Sacred Woman

A woman who has much in common with Vitvitskaïa is Mary Magdalene, a significant figure in the New Testament. Throughout history she has been seen as a repentant prostitute, one who goes from moral ruin to becoming the cherished follower to whom Christ first appears after his resurrection. Because of the influence of Jesus on Mary Magdalene, and of the prince and Gurdjieff on Vitvitskaïa, both women, each representing an archetype of the female seeker, realize a higher state of being.

One curious commonality between the women is their relationship to the masculine. Gurdjieff describes Vitvitskaïa as "inimitable and fearless [and] who always wore men's clothes." There are three possible reasons why she wore men's clothes. The first two, that she is either a transvestite or a lesbian, must be rejected immediately, as Gurdjieff would not have abided either. The third reason is more symbolic and interior—her dress symbolizes the activation of the masculine principle within herself. Also, no longer frivolous and depressed, she has no need to attract men in terms of polarity, and so hides her great beauty behind men's clothing.

The connection between the archetype of the female seeker and the masculine is spoken about in some interesting passages in the Gnostic Gospels, particularly passages concerning Mary Magdalene.

Gnosticism, for those unfamiliar with the subject, was a movement originating around the Mediterranean in the Hellenistic world beginning in the second century c.e. Numerous Gnostic sects took their views from disparate sources: Plato, Hermetic philosophy, Egyptian mythology, Jewish mysticism, Christianity and others.

Simon Magnus, considered by some the founder of Gnosticism, is associated with another female figure, that of Helen, the whore of Tyre. Simon must save Helen because Thought (Epinoia or Ennoia) is imprisoned in female flesh. Simon takes Helen as his consort and she is transformed through her relationship with a male. The implication is that a defiled woman has within her something negative that needs to be transformed through and by the masculine.

The Nag Hammadi texts, a collection of some 53 texts made 1,500 years ago and discovered in 1945, are Coptic translations of ancient manuscripts originally written in Greek. These texts give us, among other things, a new vision of the complexity of early Christianity and the myriad influences of the Hellenistic world. The differences between the New Testament and the Gnostic texts are striking. In the Gnostic gospels God is not wholly other. Instead, the divine is seen as identical to the Self; Jesus is pictured as a guide of enlightenment and once the disciple has attained enlightenment he (or she) will become "as I [Jesus] am." Another difference between the Gnostic and orthodox gospels is that the former often use sexual symbolism to describe God, often speaking "of God as dyad who embraces both masculine and feminine elements."

In one of the Gnostic texts, the Gospel of Thomas, the following exchange takes place in the presence of Mary Magdalene.

Simon Peter said to the Lord, "Let Mary leave us, women are not worthy of life." Jesus said, "I myself shall lead her in order to make her male, so that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who will make herself male will enter the Kingdom of Heaven.... "

While both statements may seem misogynistic, Jesus' is to say the least, perplexing. Viewed literally it makes no sense and has puzzled scholars who have tried to explain it in historical and linguistic contexts.

Naassenes & Valentinians

The Valentinian teaching in the Gospel of Thomas is comparable to the teachings of the Naassenes, a Gnostic sect, who believed that:

Spiritual beings will come to the "House of God," there they will cast their garments and all of them will become bridegrooms, having been made male by the virginal Spirit.

According to the Valentinians:

The "seed of light," so long as it was still unformed (i.e. uneducated, untrained), is "a child of the female," but when it is formed (i.e. trained), it is changed into a man and becomes a son of the (heavenly) bridegroom; no longer is it weak and subjected to the cosmic powers, but having become a man, it becomes a male fruit. As such it can enter the Pleroma [the fullness] and unite with the angels. Therefore it is said that the woman is changed into a man and the community here below (on earth) into angels. One must bear in mind that in Greek "angel" (i.e. messenger) has the masculine gender. In Valentinianis...the "male" as it was created in Adam is the "elect" of the angels, the "female" which corresponds to Eve represents the "calling" of the pneumatics, who must be brought up to the male "elect" in order to become part of the Pleroma and attain again to the angelic status.

These passages not only show a connection to Gnostic thinking but also suggest its more esoteric view of Christianity. In ancient literature, the transformation of the female into the male is discussed and often described as being from all that is earth, perishable, passive and sense-perceptible into what is heavenly, imperishable, active, and rational. How this transformation takes place is due to the female's being guided or helped by the outer male. So, as in the case with Helen and Simon, it is Jesus who will make Mary male.

The passages could also be viewed in the context of a school debate, where Jesus corrects Peter's statement. Mary is not to leave the discipleship on account of her being a woman. Gnostic texts also show a rivalry between Mary Magdalene and Peter and the other male disciples for Jesus' affection. But Jesus considers Mary worthy of transformation; He himself will "make a man of her," give her a special teaching.

And so two questions arise. If a female needs to be transformed into a male (that is, activate and integrate the masculine within herself) before she can enter the kingdom, why does Jesus Christ, an enlightened being, choose to favor Mary, to appear to her after his crucifixion to give her a special teaching? And why does Mary, a brave, strong, independent woman seem to accept without question the idea that she must become male?

Many have assumed that this conversation reflects an historical situation and have tried to explain the passage in terms of the radical nature of Jesus' acceptance of women and Mary's position as leader.

The point is to recognize the importance of Mary of Magdala whom Jesus will make male because she is to become part of the Kingdom of Heaven. It is to be noted that the conflict with Peter is overt and at the center of the action. It probably reflects something of the situation of the churches at the time of the writing of the gospel. Peter was a leader in competition with Mary of Magdala or followers of Peter were in competition with followers of Mary. The redactor of the "Gospel of Peter" clearly places Mary in a position higher than that of Peter.

Looked at from a purely historical context, it may be true that in the culture of the place and time only a male could be taken seriously:

Only as a man could he [Jesus] have subverted the accepted definition of masculinity, validated the so-called feminine virtue despised by men but dear to God, redefined the relationship between women and men as one of equality and mutuality, and destroyed patriarchy's claim to divine sanction.