Two Maries

In Brief

Looking out across the sand flats toward the incoming tide in Proteus, Stephen sees first a dog and then two human beings to whom the dog belongs. He will soon see the indistinct humans as "A woman and a man," then as "Cocklepickers," then as "red Egyptians." But before he can see clearly enough to resolve even their gender, he imagines them as female figures from the Bible: "The two maries. They have tucked it safe mong the bulrushes." He is joining two very different biblical passages, and thereby joining ideas of womanhood, birth, and death.

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The "two maries" are "Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses" (Matthew 27:56). They sit outside the rock cave in which Jesus' body has been placed, and on the following morning they come back to the sepulcher, Mark's gospel noting that they have "brought sweet spices" to the tomb "that they might come and anoint him." But the large stone sealing the tomb has been rolled away, Jesus' body is gone, and an angel sitting at the tomb tells them that he has risen from the dead. As the women go to deliver this news to the disciples, Jesus appears (to both women in Matthew, and only to Mary Magdalene in Mark) telling them not to fear and to inform the disciples that they will see him alive.

The reference to "bulrushes" alludes to the story of Moses' infancy at the beginning of Exodus. The Jews descended from Joseph and his brothers have multiplied to an alarming extent, and a Pharaoh "which knew not Joseph" gives orders that all male Jewish babies shall be killed. In order to evade this command, Moses' mother hides her son, "And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river's brink" (2:3). The child is later discovered and adopted by the Pharaoh's daughter.

Why should Stephen recall these two stories as he struggles to make out who is walking toward him on the strand? There would seem to be a connection with the two women who earlier descended "the steps from Leahy's terrace," since he imagined one of them as a midwife carrying "A misbirth with a trailing navelcord." These two new figures, like the midwives, have to do with both birth and death.

The cultural role of women as caretakers both at the start of life and at its end makes other appearances in the novel. At the beginning of Hades, Bloom sees an old woman peering through her window at the funeral carriages and thinks of the tradition of women preparing the bodies of corpses. He makes a connection to childbirth: "Extraordinary the interest they take in a corpse. Glad to see us go we give them such trouble coming." In Oxen of the Sun, the two old women on the beach return in one of Stephen's monologues: "The aged sisters draw us into life: we wail, batten, sport, clip, clasp, sunder, dwindle, die: over us dead they bend. First, saved from water of old Nile, among bulrushes, a bed of fasciated  wattles: at last the cavity of a mountain."

JH 2015
Myrrh-bearing women at the tomb of Jesus, by an unknown artist. Source: portmanteaus.wordpress.com.
19th century British oil painting of Moses and his mother, held in the collection of the Kingston Lacy Estate, Dorset. Source: www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk.