Friday, January 9, 2015

Witches In the Blood: A Heart to Heart

This poem fell out of me several months ago while sitting in the garden with my wild-furred rabbit, reading about the era of the witch trials. There are still great taboos in our culture that I can feel lingering in me around discussing menstruation, around what "feminism" means at all. These are words very close to my heart, and raw too. Today they decided they wanted to be shared with you. I hope they find their way straight to the blood, past the mind and into the heart.

 I've gathered a few beautiful paintings of powerful womanhood from three wonderful artists—Rima Staines, Phoebe Wahl and Jeanie Tomanek.
Maiden, Mother, Crone, by Rima Staines

I have witches in my blood and so do you, womankind. 
Oh women in my blood, oh women of the New America
where Christmas is something people trample one another 
to death for in order to get the cheapest TV and your
breasts in public might disgust or else arouse some passing man
where your own blood is a thing you keep inside with 
white tampons and curse, because you have to sit in the office or attend
to phone-calls when rage and the power of the old earth
are moving down your body, when the moon has 
delivered blood down your legs and whatever grief you
carry, still you must keep the she-dog from snapping at everyone's hands, 
even though you, you of all creatures, are the only animal
to be purified every single month—
I want you to know there are witches in your blood
and they have nothing to do with the Devil. 

When I was eighteen I stood around a bonfire on St. John's Eve 
on a Danish beach. The bonfire was 20 feet wide. You could see 
half a dozen more, beacons down the beach. Everyone nearby gathered
to watch it burn. The heat was big, like a star. You couldn't get closer 
than fifteen paces. My clothes were wet from swimming in the sea, but 
I was sweating. On top of the bonfire was the effigy of a witch 
green and hook-nosed like a Disney movie or a cheap Halloween mask. 
I saw her and all at once I wanted to run. All at once the crowd pressing
around me, pressing around the fire, singing Danish words about
stars and witches and angels and saints, which I did not understand;
all of it was too much. In my blood I felt there were witches. 
I felt them screaming
at the stake.
I felt their fear of fire, and their rage, crying out

you murder me for singing while I cooked stew because the 
miller's son passed my window just then and fell ill the next day;
you murder me for taking off my stockings on the porch on 
a hot day and causing the stableboy thus to go lame when a horse
stepped on his foot later that night—
this is what you tell yourselves but I know that I die
because I am a woman who loves the world
who speaks to the waxwing at her window
who stands out under the sky to feel the moon
who knows how to ease the pains of birth and is not
afraid of blood but you are afraid of me
and well you should be because all women are also Skadi,
goddess of death who holds a wolf on a chain that could
devour the whole world in one bite.  

Even More Faith, by Jeanie Tomanek

Oh women in my blood
you are witches all, for a woman is a witch
when she pours her blood on the beet patch
when she kills the rabbit with a prayer
to the moon. A woman is a witch when she dances
with other women heart-to-heart
and when she sits to listen to the hummingbird scolding 
in the pear tree and when she takes her shoes off and 
smiles at the dirt; a woman is a witch when she gives birth,
and when she cries, and when she bleeds; a woman is a 
witch when she lives in the sacred chamber of her heart, 
and uses her eyes and ears and nose and tongue, and says 
what she senses. 

All women were in danger of the Inquisition. 
For five hundred years you women of my blood
you had to hide your hearts and still they caught you
and made you pay for the firewood and the ropes, and took 
all your worldly possessions when it was over. Old widows,
old crones who understood that it was a fever and not
a demon, and elderberries, not exorcism, would do the job
just fine—I do not forget you. I will not forget your faces. 

Inside of all fires there are stories. They live in the embers. 
Here is one. 

At the end of the world there was a woman
called a witch, a woman who knew the sacred knot tying of the 
umbilical cord, and was not afraid to reach into a woman's body to turn 
a breech birth right, a woman who knew the winds but would not
sell them in red knots to sailors because she did not believe a 
wind should be sold; a woman who talked to every creature she encountered
and waited for a reply. It will not surprise you they
wanted her dead. It doesn't much matter when, or where. 

Slova Sova by Rima Staines

A boy caught a spotted owl in the woods. He shot her off her nest
where she was feeding a woodrat to the last two spotted owls
in the world. He cut out her heart as the priest told him and snuck through
the witch's window in the dead of night. She was only a woman
after all, and she tended to sleep heavily. 
He laid the owl's heart over her own for this,
said the priest, would make her reveal her secrets, 
her familiar, some spirit demon who followed her always. 
It was an old truth--the heart of an owl, the heart of a woman,
heart to heart they spoke, though nobody could understand the owl language 
she used in dreams, nor the sorrow and the keening, for the owl
and her babies, for the sorry old world
which was at last at its end. 

She did indeed tell her secrets to the heart of the owl
and to the boy and the priest who were listening, 
ready to shackle her and take her away upon her waking, for they 
had all the proof they needed now. 

But inside, quietly where they couldn't see, she untied
the knots she had been keeping safe in her womb, the only
secret place: red thread and gold, nettle and wool. She
unraveled them with her owl words and her woman's hands,
the knots holding all the songs of all the birds now extinct, 
and all the calls of all the mammoths who once walked the world,
knots holding the souls of women who had seen enough,
who had called for Skadi with their last breath at the stake,
for her to come and unweave it all. 

And so she did
a woman like any other, with the heart of an owl to her own. 
She undid the knots and let go the wolf , the She Wolf 
whose heart was a furnace of hematite and gold, 
the hound whose teats made the Milky Way
who howls in the ovaries
of the woman who bleeds at her office desk
with a tampon between her legs. 

Another Night Journey by Jeanie Tomanek

Then, there were witches everywhere in the air, by which I mean
a great wind came, a great fluttering of long gone wings. 
Wolves ate the world, and the boy, and the priest
and the witch, and gave birth to it anew one moon later
in a flood of blood. 

The woman at her desk began to howl and to keen, then,
opening all the windows, ushering in 
a flood of robins, and the winds that had been
untied at the end of the world, and its beginning. 

Phoebe Wahl


  1. Oh my, how I love this. It's so rich and wise and powerful. I can never get enough of your wonderful writing.

    1. So touched to read your words Sarah. Thank you so much. xx

  2. I agree with everything that Sarah said above. Sylvia you are a wonderful, gifted and wise word witch xoxo

    1. So honored by all the kind words of all of you other word witches. Beautiful. Thank you Monika! x

  3. This is so wonderfully inspiring ;-) even the simplest of things a woman does can mark the fact that we are all witches deep down and there is no way we can stop up its bloodlines, not even through the greatest persecution, which still of course continues to this day in certain lands. Coming from an ancestry which runs through Lancashire in England, my family's lands saw a devastating time during the witch hunts; the trials of the Pendle Witches, one of the most famous witch trails in England, took place not far from where my mother was born and raised. I therefore feel a strong affinity with the history of the European hunts and like you, Sylvia, can often feel this anguish running through my veins.

    One book you may love to read, that links witches' testimonials from the hunting times with shamanism, root working and herb craft, is 'Cunning-Folk and Familiar Spirits: Shamanistic Visionary Traditions in Early Modern British Witchcraft and Magic' by Emily Wilby. It is a very detailed account of evidence given at witch trials in the 1600s and goes onto explain how the women's closeness to their 'familiars' demonstrates a tradition of shamanism being practised in Europe right up until those times. Reading this restored my faith in the fact that women's wild work is so essential and (still) so misunderstood.

    1. Thank you so much for your insights Lulu! I am going to seek out a copy of this book, it looks wonderful; writing this, and some other research I've been doing, has stirred up a longing for a novel in me, a strange wild woman's feast of a novel... :) Very impractical of me at the moment with five million other things to do, but these things just come knocking when they feel like it, don't they, and wait as long as they need! Blessings to you. xx

    2. go with your longings and write it! the time will find you x

  4. Love this poem, love it!
    You are very gifted. Everything I read of yours feels so natural and easy, and just right. x

    1. Bless you Trish! So glad you loved these witches...

  5. Sometimes I wonder about untying the wind... such a rich and intense collection of images - both word and pictures. Thanks for this offering for me to start my Saturday out with heart wide open!

    1. Yes, untying the wind, it holds such a fierce beauty to me, that image. Thank you for your kind words.

  6. Oh Sylvia. My head is still flying after reading your exquisite poem. I often feel what a fitful existence it can be to be a woman, but this poem put into words all the emotions. Thank you. I love the ending picture by Pheobe Whal. What a great question it asks!

  7. Speechless my dear friend. You have stirred the very depths here and I am quite sure that even the wind is tingling all over. Wow. xx-Nao

  8. thank you. such sharp and burning truths...all women know---en sus ovarios---this edgy place, i think. and it may be that one day, nothing will save us but that wolf-wind whirling and howling inside the women of the world...

    here's one i wrote last summer:


    oh he's a fine fat rabbit now…
    i like them as well as toads
    lay your sign or symptom before me
    i will tell you what it bodes
    i have no fear of age or endings
    i find i like being a hag
    i keep the bones of trouble-makers
    in my old crane-skin rune bag
    i gather herbs in the hedges
    and watch the moon rise over the hill
    i smile because you think you'll never need me
    and i know that you will
    some day when the iron in your blood
    tastes of metal in your mouth
    a time when your life is a flood
    or a long soul-powdering drought
    you will knock at my door one evening
    you will seek my creaky art
    i will see if you are worthy
    i will test your burning heart
    you may not like the taste of my magic
    or what i have to tell
    the shapes in my fire may frighten you
    you may fear the final spell
    but i can find the straighter path
    i can show you what is true
    i can heal the hurt you didn't know you had
    i can bring you home to you.

  9. Wonderful words, powerful prose. Thank you.

  10. Oh WOW.... This is powerful stuff indeed, powerful witchy stuff.