By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Mary on a Cross’ is a song by the Swedish rock band Ghost. The song appeared on the band’s 2019 EP Seven Inches of Satanic Panic, and has become their most popular – and perhaps the most intriguing – song. People have been scratching their heads over the meaning of the song since its release.
So what exactly is the meaning of ‘Mary on a Cross’? Is it a drugs song? A sex song? Or even a love song? Are its lyrics blasphemous, and if so, how blasphemous? Let’s take a closer look at the song’s lyrics.
‘Mary on a Cross’: song meaning
Let’s start with the chorus to the song – which often carries the kernel of a song’s meaning – and work outwards from that. In the chorus to ‘Mary on a Cross’, the singer addresses someone – a lover, perhaps – and announces that they ‘go down’ like ‘Holy Mary’: Mary ‘on a cross’.
The singer contrasts this Mary with ‘bloody Mary’. The queen of England or the well-known cocktail? We cannot say. And this is where the meaning of Ghost’s song becomes more interesting.
One interpretation has it that the song is actually about drugs, and specifically, marijuana. Here, the suggestive – but also strangely enigmatic – words in the song’s title take on a punning meaning: ‘Mary on a’ (repeated before the word ‘cross’ appears) can sound a little like ‘marijuana’.
In this interpretation, the reference to the ‘bloody Mary’ makes sense: marijuana has a stronger effect on the singer than ‘another’ cocktail, no matter how strong that cocktail is. ‘Mary Jane’ (another name for marijuana) is better than a ‘bloody Mary’ for this reason, the singer maintains.
If we turn to the verses, with their numerous references to riding ‘high’, the drugs interpretation finds further support, and the reference to having ‘the blues’ similarly corroborates this theory. The ups and downs of the speaker’s or singer’s moods are regulated (he thinks) by drugs.
The singer doesn’t want to play by the rules, he tells us: the criminal (or, in most places, at best partially decriminalised) status of ‘weed’ around the world helps us to understand this line.
However, what’s so clever about the lyrics to the song is that they invite another, very different interpretation. The suggestive phrase ‘go down’ in the song’s chorus, as well as the references to running away with the woman addressed in the song (and tickling her ‘internally’: with what, we might ask?), invite a different theory: that this song is a ‘sex song’.
The words ‘on a cross’ are themselves ambiguous: are we talking crucifixion here (with Mary replacing Jesus on the Cross), or are we talking about someone forming a ‘cross’ shape with their body, arms and legs spread wide? After all, the song is called ‘Mary on a Cross’, not the (true) Cross. And sometimes people were crucified on an X-shaped cross, with their legs spread out rather than bound together.
Alternatively, of course, ‘Holy Mary’ refers specifically Mary Magdalene, whom the early Church decided was a prostitute, largely because of a confusion over two very different women named Mary mentioned in the New Testament. (Indeed, there’s more in the Bible suggesting Mary Magdalene was a madwoman than there is to suggest she was a ‘lady of the night’, as it were.)
In this analysis of the song’s meanings, Mary is kneeling at Jesus’ feet as he’s on the Cross, and this image is (shockingly! blasphemously!) used to suggest the girl in the song kneeling at the male speaker’s feet to perform … other acts (let’s just say we’re back to ‘go down’ again).
That internal ‘tickling’ the speaker promises to perform on her becomes … well, perhaps it’s enough to say that he’ll put that tongue he’s singing with to other uses.
If we analyse the rest of the song in this light, those references to riding (yes, riding) high and, despite experiencing the highs and lows of fame (‘stardom’), having each other to depend on (he will never let her go, he tells her), make more sense. ‘Mary on a Cross’ becomes a love song, albeit one with distinctly sexual undertones once we reach the chorus.
‘Mary on a Cross’: analysis
So there are two very interpretations of the song, and these two interpretations themselves involve negotiating a number of ambiguous details in ‘Mary on a Cross’. But which two theories concerning the song’s meaning is the ‘correct’ one?
That’s difficult to say. Roland Barthes, in his 1967 essay ‘The Death of the Author’, argued that we must move beyond the notion that the author of a text (a novel, a poem, a play … or even a song?) is some godlike authority on the meaning of that text. Instead, the meaning of a text lies ‘not in its origin but in its destination’.
There are good reasons for this. Let’s say that a poet wrote a very personal poem about their own sexuality, and someone notices that it’s (probably) autobiographical. That poet might decide to throw readers and critics off the scent by claiming that they meant something else by the words they’d use. Authors have all sorts of reasons for not wanting to go on record stating their text ‘means’ a particular thing.
And this is before we get into the realm of accidental meanings, or Freudian interpretations whereby an author (or songwriter) might have unconsciously given voice to some feeling or idea in their work without being conscious that they were doing so.
In any case, at present, Tobias Forge does not appear to have offered his own statement about the meaning of ‘Mary on a Cross’, rightly wanting the song to speak for itself, ambiguities and all. But of the two theories put forward above, perhaps the ‘sexual’ interpretation makes more sense (if the singer is addressing marijuana in the chorus, how can he tickle a drug internally?).
Of course, this is not to say that there is not some pun on the drug’s common name intended in that lingered-over ‘Mary on a’. After all, the two people in the song can get high and engage in various romantic (if that is the word) acts together. But it is perhaps a secondary piece of naughty blasphemy beside the song’s principal, though equally ‘blasphemous’, meaning.