PASSION *IS* PRAYER - Villains & Sidechicks 3: Veronica Franco, Ishmael, and the Roots of Eve-il
Updated: Feb 17
CONTINUED FROM SHE-ROS, VILLAINS & SIDECHICKS:
SHE-ROS & VILLAINS - The Characters That Made Me
VILLAINS & SIDECHICKS 1: Kitty-Cats, Dommes & Dinner
MATA HARI - Villains & Sidechicks 2
Temptation of Belly Dance - In the Garden 2006
In 1998, I was introduced to another gorgeous movie about another gorgeous courtesan-artist who battled against religious/societal oppression and misogynistic limitation with the weapons she possessed: her beauty, her sensuality, her mind, heart and wit.
The movie was Dangerous Beauty, and the courtesan was a 16th Century Italian poet in Venice, named Veronica Franco. While the movie barely scratched the surface of this incredible woman's life, it provided a sweeping inspiration for me to delve further into who she was. (1-4)
In her era, there was a distinction between common prostitutes and the intellectual elite of sex workers, the "honest courtesans." Franco was one of the latter. She was highly educated at a time when women's roles in life were primarily reduced to three choices: wife, nun, or prostitute. (Hey, haven't we discussed that recently...?) She started out in an arranged marriage, but wound up taking an exalted rendition of the third route. She became the professional lover of the wealthy and powerful, supporting a household that included her three surviving children.
The movie skips over her time as a wife and mother, as well as the hardships in her final years, but what it provided, in stunning, eye-candy glory and witty duels of tongue and blade, was a heroine I could look up to and from whom I could take heart and inspiration.
In contrast to the model woman of her day, married either to a man or to God, courtesans were highly educated, eloquent, artistically skilled, and they were afforded freedoms customarily reserved for men. They could own property, move about freely, take lovers, and speak with their male counterparts on nearly equal footing. As such, there was a reason why the femme fatale courtesan-spy became such an established trope--because the profession lended itself to espionage.
At a time when the clitoris was hailed as the Devil's Teat (5)--such a dangerous nub proved that anyone in position of one was a witch in league with Lucifer--Franco was an avid feminist, championing women of any station. Not content to merely court the men who would give her wealth and favors, she used the might of her pen and the wealth she earned to campaign for women's equality, assistance for what they they deemed "fallen women," and protection of those who were being abused.
Unfortunately, this was also the religiously fanatical time of the Holy Inquisition. (6) When a scorned suitor leveled an accusation of witchcraft at her, Veronica Franco was arrested and put on trial. Once again, she used the powers of her own mind and the eloquence of her tongue to defend herself without the aid of a lawyer.
She was acquitted.
Unfortunately, when she had to flee Venice from an outbreak of the plague, her house was looted and she lost much of her wealth. She didn't have an explosive, notorious end like Mata Hari, but neither was she hailed as a 16th Century Magdalene of Repentance, which is probably why she is a more obscure historical figure. Most come to know her from Dangerous Beauty, like I did.
Although the situation in which I grew up wasn’t anywhere near as repressed and strict as that of Veronica Franco’s world, I still found myself trying to navigate similar choices. Being raised as a Good Catholic who started realizing she wasn’t one as early as second grade, there were really only two paths a girl could take while asking herself what kind of woman she wanted to grow into.
Are you a bad witch? Or a good witch?
It didn’t matter that we had been told “anything boys can do girls can do, too.” The reality was that we were still highly pigeonholed by the Madonna/Whore complex we had inherited from our ancestors. Even today, we often are.
One of the biggest reasons I love Dangerous Beauty is how clearly it paints this war that pits women against each other in a fight for the barest scraps of respect, position, personal power, and love:
It also pits women against themselves. Whichever side we choose, we pay a steep price if our spirits are not naturally in alignment with one extreme or the other. If we conform to a path out of fear, desperation, or the belief that there is no other way, rather than our innate desire, we wind up as shells of the person we could have been, had this polarization and either/or mentality never existed.
One of the seeming antagonists of the film is Giulia, the wife of Veronica's primary lover. I see her as a powerful, beautiful, intelligent woman in her own right, one with an enormous heart and drive, squashed and scared into a role that doesn't fully suit her. She simply chose the other side of the path to deal with this dilemma. I see her as the protagonist of a different tale:
I dream of Balance. I dream of Freedom. This is what I was desperately searching for when I discovered belly dance, and when I discovered alternatives to Catholicism in my sophomore year of college at a time when I had lost faith in everything, including the belief that life was worth living. I was yearning, not only to find a place where I felt that I belonged, but especially for female companionship.
My relationship with my best girlfriend from high school had sputtered and faded by the end of my freshman year. My severe depression in the wake of being dumped (by someone so abusive he had given me repressed memories) prevented me from connecting with my roommates, three other girls from the theater department. Plus, I was a semester-and-a-half away from dropping that major--my grandest life dream since I was in kindergarten, when adults had begun asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up.
I ached for inspiration and I ached for girlfriends, so those first eight weeks of belly dancing with Hala and Diana were like a life buoy to the drowning.
Having my eyes opened to the world beyond what I had been taught as a child helped me understand that life was worth it--provided I could carve my own path between the extremes of other people's ideas. I began to realize that the Madonna and the Whore were not disparate enemies, but two sides of a coin. For someone like me, they could be One and the Same.
“I confess as a girl I loved a man who would not marry me for want of a dowry. I confess I had a mother who taught me a different way of life. One I resisted at first but learned to embrace. I confess I became a courtesan. Traded yearning for power, welcomed many rather than be owned by one. I confess I embraced a whore's freedom over a wife's obedience...
I confess I find more ecstasy in passion than in prayer.
Such passion IS Prayer.
~Dangerous Beauty, Veronica's Confession
Warning: all the spoilers for the movie!
I had known from the age of twelve that I did not want to bear children and be a “normal” wife. That was also the same age I started understanding that my tastes in sexual expression painted in colors beyond vanilla-white--something I kept even from my best friend and the boyfriends who would later come along.
So being groomed to one day stand up and swear that I would have procreation-based sex only within the bounds of marriage where I was forbidden from using condoms or telling my husband NO--that sounded like a whole lot of NOT FUN. No matter. Two years later, I was officially cast out and boxed into Camp Whore by my initial toe-dips into the realm of sexual exploration.
As much as we rail against the patriarchy these days, it was the girls who were indoctrinated into those mindsets who caused the worse damage. Then the boys just took it and rammed it into the ground.
So I developed a curiosity about religious figures I was not supposed to want to emulate, but to whom I was constantly likened. Mary Magdalene was the closest ideal that a non-virginal “fallen woman” like me would ever get to becoming “pure…wholesome…good…worthy of love…” If I could redeem myself enough, maybe (and that was a big maybe) I could even become the kind of woman you’d marry, not just fuck-n-forget.
But in order to follow in her footsteps, it had been made clear that I would have to repent my evil ways, beg for the mercy and forgiveness of the church, and then never sin in that way again.
I knew I would.
I loved sex. I loved to kiss and caress, to embrace and entwine, to enjoy the fusion of two separate entities into One. I loved to behold and explore with reverent wonder my lover’s body and his inmost being. On the occasions when I found one who returned such rapturous attention, I loved experiencing his wonder, his worship of what he found.
In my explorations outside of Catholicism, I discovered theories that spoke of the Divine being present inside every one of us. Not as a separate soul that would cower in judgment before an oppressive, wrathful, closed-minded, male entity on a cloud at the moment of death--and lo, there I would either be damned to eternal burning or welcomed into Heaven for having been chaste, obedient, and subservient to all the other oppressive, closed-minded male bodies who ruled over my life after baring as many (preferably male) babies as could be spurted into and out from my womb as possible.
In contrast, these other theories said that my soul and its holy flesh were a piece of The Divine. Simply one manifestation of The Whole. A microcosm of the macrocosm, not separate from, not subservient to, but always connected to the Greater, and to every other manifestation, whether human or otherwise.
In this way, how could an act that paid ecstatic homage to such a miracle be sinful? At its most fundamental and biological, the sex act created new life, so how could it be something so dirty we could barely even mention it in polite conversation? My female body was designed as the carrier of new life, so how could it be evil by its very nature from even before its birth?
Once upon a time, some societies chose to pass down a dead person’s property, name, and rulership through a patrilineal line rather than through the matrilineal. Since there is no way for a male to KNOW 100% FOR SURE that the sons he is passing his stuff down to are legit his biological progeny, the only way to get anywhere near a fair amount of certainty is to scare the holy living crap out of women so that they refuse to open their legs to anyone except their sanctified, legal owner.
You stone them. You beat them and cast them out. You take away their children and brainwash them into reviling their “evil whore mother” and "those brides of Satan." You lock them away--literally, or in the prisons of their own minds. You turn them against one another and especially against themselves. You make them revile their sexual natures and their inherent desires. You convince them that they are the origin of sin, and that they are damned to eternal roasting if they don’t repent and cast out the old religions that used to celebrate the Divine Feminine with symbols of the Eternal Life Cycle.
Symbols like the serpent, the sacred tree, pregnant bellies, milk-full breasts, certain bad fruit, the Dance of the Seven Veils.
You demonize the Queen of Heaven and Earth who went down through the seven gates of the Underworld, who died and hung on the hook for three days (yes, dead for three days), and then rose again, even more powerful, glorious, and wise than when she had made Her descent. (11)
You demonize Her priestesses and ruling, matriarchal, matrilineal Queens as harlots, whores, evil sorceresses, murderesses, temptresses, home-wreckers, and any other villainous label you can slap on them. You bring down superior war technology upon them to conquer their fertile lands, obliterate the millennia of their power from the dawn of written history, and you convince everyone that The Might of the Phallus Has Always Ruled since the time of the cavemen because this is the natural order. After all, males are bigger, stronger, smarter, rawr.
You certainly don’t tell little girls that once, all throughout the world for thousands of years before written history, ancient people were populating what would eventually become archeological dig sites with--not phallus sculptures.
Nope. The prehistorical ancients used to craft pregnant women as their most widespread spiritual tokens. (10)
Why? Because pregnant women were magical. They birthed babies from between their legs and spouted life from their nipples--whooooah... They were not chattel to be branded with a man’s name and sold to the highest bidder, then corralled for breeding until they were used up and/or died.
While I was in college, the historian in me sniffed and snuffled at all these things that had never smelled right. There I discovered all sorts of fascinating things that transplanted religious texts like the Bible from the category of “this is the infallible word of God and a historical record of the One and Only Truth” onto the shelves that contained other mythological texts about deities. I figured that, even if those words had been inspired by the Divine, they had to go through a human hand in order to be written onto paper, and those hands went through multiple language translations in order to be read by me and our local priests.
Plenty of opportunity for human mistakes (and slants).
The final chink that disintegrated my dilapidated religious armor happened when I read those famous words by Daniel Quinn (7) at the age of twenty-two:
"TEACHER SEEKS PUPIL.
Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person."
I...I was a pupil. Yes, desperately seeking a teacher. And I totally wanted to save the world!
Wasn't I a good devotee of Dorothy, Annie, Leia and Wonder Woman? And, okay, Catwoman, too. But I only wanted to purrrrloin goods away from the rich and oppressive to free the poor and downtrodden like Robin Hood, and I really was a good-hearted masked marauder.
The book Ishmael (7) gave me gifts I had been searching for since getting in trouble for asking philosophical questions of religious teachers in second grade. It BLEW my mind wide open to considering questions such as, “What is the broader political and historical significance of Cane and Abel? What reasons might be behind the story's creation beyond what I was told in catechism class? Could it have other driving motivations beyond teaching, ‘Murder makes you evil’? Could it actually be politically motivated propaganda from the Agricultural Revolution?" (8)
I don’t bring this book up to debate religious text and history. I would have to re-read it to deliver my thoughts on it today. The important thing is what it did to my search for a spiritual path that resonated with my heart and nature: it blasted the last indoctrinated shackle keeping me confined to any one mode of thinking.
It gave me no answers.
Instead, it gave me something far more valuable: a devotion to questions.
It gave me the impetus to pursue my insatiable curiosity no matter how unpopular it was with people around me. After reading Ishmael, I then read the Bible cover-to-cover for the second time in my life. If you’re the same kind of Catholic as my family, you know that this path is not much for Bible reading. Instead, priests and other church leaders pick which texts to read during a service or class, depending on the event and which lecture they plan to give. (This is why it was so important to have those texts written in a language that common people could understand.)
When I was eleven or twelve, I started becoming supremely frustrated with the inability to have my questions answered by church authorities and other adults. I’d never had much use for Confession, because if I ever wanted to speak to God and tell Him that I was sorry for something…well…I just did. Then I tried really hard to never do such a thing again. If I felt so awful about something that I went to the Almighty about it, I usually didn't repeat that mistake.
I figured it was the same for having my questions answered. Rather than going through second-hand--HUMAN (read: fallible and always male) interpreters--I decided to go directly to the Source that was said to be flawless. I mean, if God Himself was educating me through His words, how could I go wrong?
Alas. I came away from that experiment more frustrated, confused, and disgruntled with what was said about the societal roles of females, followers, slaves, and enemies than when I’d first cracked open my Children's Bible. I especially couldn't reconcile what the Old and New Testaments were telling me about how I should act. Smite? Forgive? Eye-for-an-eye? Cast no stones? I really kind of wanted to stab some recompensatory eyeballs with lunchroom forks, but forgiveness felt better.
Since I was reading at a high school level, I decided to hunt down the tales that had given me trouble in an even purer source: the weighty family Bible with its golden edges and fancy, vellum paper. I was very excited about this. You know how I am about all things shiny as well as geeky.
Having those issues spelled out in even more explicit detail enraged me. I eventually slammed the thing closed and started pressing for a release from my catechism classes. It was granted, until the Killer Bronco Incident when I was thirteen.
I did my second read-through of the Bible at age twenty-two, now on my burgeoning adult brain, while equally immersed in belly dance and my college history courses. I'd also just had the last of my seven childhood veils whisked from my eyes thanks to my new philosophical gorilla-teacher, Ishmael. Using my elevated arts of discernment, I found all sorts of inspiration in the Bible for the kind of person I wanted to be. I also found all sorts of stuff I had no interest in emulating.
So I cherry-picked. I also picked some apples.
I saw the pie I had made. I ate from it as well, and behold, it was good.
Thus plumped to fulfillment from the Tree of Knowledge, I only wanted more.
After the dust of my brains finally settled, I proceeded to devour the Ishmael sequels, then continued digging. My curiosity became such a well-known obsession that I was gifted with a set of all the great religious and philosophical texts for Christmas. I dove into those, too, and added some more fruit to my pies before I finally decided to abandon dogma for devoted questioning.
After all that, I remained firmly perched on the fence about saying that I knew, with any sort of authority, the difference between Good and Evil. In fact, with every year and every new idea I encountered, that became more of a fuzzy, gray area, full of contrasting perspectives. Later, it became as variegated as the rainbow.
“A woman's greatest and most hard-won asset is an education.” ~Veronica Franco, Dangerous Beauty
No surprise, my archeological spirit-digs outside the handful of stamped and approved texts led me to alternative versions of Mary Magdalene. I had grown up believing she was a “weak and bad-but-salvaged female”, rather than a powerful, influential, passionate woman, one of the most important apostles who had been repainted with an oppressive androcentric brush. (9)
As such, I started questioning what I had read about all those other Bad Girl Icons of Christian infamy: Jezebel. Salome. Lilith. And the Fallen Root of All Eve-il herself. Those studies taught me about the joys of figs, bananas, and pomegranates, and behold, those were very, very good.
In other words, I began asking a lot of questions about one of my most intrinsic characteristics: the fact that I had been born with a uterus and the Devil's Teat.
What I discovered pissed me off.
Then it set me free.
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CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: SALOME 1 - My introduction to Veil Dancing
--OR this piece covers more about my adventures with sex and religion.
A FEW TOE-DIPPING LINKS INTO ALL THOSE TOPICS I DISCOVERED
--Veronica Franco Wiki
2) Counter-Reformation 16th Century Women - and a website devoted to the Veronica Franco Project by Margaret F. Rosenthal
3) The Honest Courtesan - Veronica Franco, Citizen & Writer in 16th Century Venice by Margaret F. Rosenthal
5) The Devil's Teat: the war against and the power of that button of Eve-il - the Clitoris
10) When God Was A Girl - A 3 part series about the archeological search for long-lost Goddess worship. I kept hoping there was a segment that covered boys in big boats with Bibles, and the cultures of the Pacific, the Americas, and the rest of Africa beyond the northern coast. Alas, not in this series. It doesn't cover much past the "dark ages." Trying to squeeze this entire topic into three hours? Yeah, it's a quick and cherry-picked overview. But if this aspect of archeology and anthropology is a new concept, even Part 1 should get you started down this massive rabbit hole.