Early morning in the hay barn
On this day when
birds choose their mates,
when love flies out
into the world, rises
sharp eyed from
among the feathers
we hang in thin air, fragile,
part of everything,
love the wind which
love the path
in the heart where
all paths cross.
Caribouddhism, Gary Lawless, 1998
I was dragging bales of straw from the back of the hay-barn to mulch the summer garden.
It was seven in the morning, the heat was rising already and some of the old bales fell to pieces as soon as I laid hands on them: every time I drew breath, I got more
dust than air. I was climbing up the mountain of hay for the last time when suddenly I fell back onto the hay – enough, I had to take a break!
The sun, just rising over the hill, lit up the barn and the sun's rays were full of spinning, golden specks of dust and all of a sudden, I felt a moment of irrational
happiness: happy for no reason, happy just to be alive in that place and at that hour. The barn itself, made of stones picked up after the earthquake, old beams, corrugated iron and reeds from Antonio's field,
was a source of physical pleasure for its plain materials and the cool shade it offered my dusty work. The smell of fresh-cut hay was sweet and the sheep, grazing in the shadow of the field maples nearby,
seemed to share the moment.
That mountain of green hay I sat on was itself a monument to the work of the men of the house who had loaded, carted and unloaded it the previous week. Only those who
have made hay know what a hot, prickly job it is and what a sense of relief comes from seeing the dry hay under a roof and safe from storms. Like other moments of the farming year - when the new wine is filled
into the barrels, when the olive oil is finally pressed and in the demijohns, or the wheat and barley is poured into the storeroom - the arrival of the hay placates ancestral fears of winter.
When I lived in Rome in the Seventies, I certainly called myself a feminist and I would never have entertained the idea of a sexist division of roles, but country life
has tempered my opinions. I see now that there are jobs that women do more skilfully, and likewise, jobs that men do better. This mulching of the garden, for instance, is work that needs slow and patient care
and I have often had visiting female friends help me and they have always shown what Thomas Hardy called "that empathy for plants that women have": of course - we have been gathering plants for a thousand millennia!
Men on the other hand have often been impatient with this job: they prefer to work with tools instead of their bare hands.
Sitting on the fragrant hay, tons of winter feed for the horses, donkeys and sheep, I felt gratitude for male muscles – and not just the muscles, but for the
solar energy men have, the taste for action, that decisive rolling up of sleeves when there's a heavy job to be done. The poetess Kate Barnes in her poem The Lion, talking of a young woman at her first
encounter with the love of men, says, "for how could she have guessed it/ that this world of clay could contain/ the gold, the fire, the burning, starry animal?
In many traditional cultures, it was the work which defined femininity or masculinity. For the Zuni people of New Mexico, the differentiation of the sexes
derived from the division of labour: it might happen that at puberty, a boy decides to "change sex" culturally speaking, because he prefers women's work. So the division of roles is not a condemnation to stay
with a certain gender, but a choice. However, it would be interesting to know if the Zuni girls have the same choice here.
I remember the first time that one of my hens went broody and my shepherd friend Luigi pointed out that I ought to move her to a quieter place. "But she'll peck me" I
replied, not having as yet any familiarity with sitting hens. "What sort of a woman are you?" exclaimed Luigi. This hurt my pride: no-one had ever called my femininity into question over a broody
hen before! But here in the country, hens are women's business, pigs are men's business…
Now I can see this primary division of labour, which for years looked to me like an excuse for oppression, as the beginning of communion and therefore community. The
work can be seen as reciprocal help: these tasks are gifts we offer each other, a way of expressing care and love. It is much easier to see this reciprocity in lives which are rich in manual work. It is
not impossible for me to prune the vine, but it certainly helps to have a large hand when cutting through gnarled, old knots of wood. Martin could easily make the bundles of kindling, but he has not got the
endurance for this long, slow job that takes so much staying power and patience. When I look at the vineyard, pruned and tied and ready for the new spring growth, it's better than a candlelit supper: without
words, it says "This is for you", and it is the same with the huge pile of kindling bundles which enable us to bake loaves and cook meals all year without ever needing any Russian gas.
The weave is complex: it is not just the connections between a man and a woman which are strengthened by these gifts of handiwork, but the links with neighbours. Plato
said: "The world is a blessed god". Abandoning the work of hands, we have abandoned this god, and the bonds of the heart that kept us all together have become threadbare and frayed. The reciprocity of body was what
grew reciprocity of spirit amongst humans in their home place, and amongst us humans and our non-human relations. These are things that I could never have imagined before I came to live here.
Franco Del Moro tells the story of how he once saw a sand quarry in Liguria and how, meditating on this experience, he realised that the process he'd observed was a
good metaphor for what has happened to human relationships. A conveyor belt took the rocks through three machines: the first broke huge rocks into smaller stones, the second ground the stones into gravel and the
third reduced the gravel to fine sand. Likewise, in recent centuries, we in the industrialised part of the world have seen our tribes fall away, then the extended family lose its cohesion and finally the small,
nuclear family break down because the couple by itself cannot hold everything together. Now we are all single and it is only at this point that we realise the personality of the single person tends to disintegrate
and the reason for this is that each of us needs our tribe around us in order to be fully human. Without the tribe, we are washed away like the sand by the sea waves. Del Moro holds out this hope, however: "the
more the sand is washed away, the more we see the huge underlying rock…and to tell the truth, some large slabs of rock are already visible now, hiding the huge bedrock below like the tip of an
iceberg." It is not surprising that the earth itself was what brought these thoughts to mind: we are terrestrial creatures, after all.
"I had such a strange dream last night: someone came to tell me that a present had arrived for me and it was an enormous gorilla! I had to go and pick it up, but
they told me to go carefully because the gorilla was waiting near a poison factory." My friend Paola told me this dream while we were drinking coffee one early morning before we went to feed the hens and milk the
sheep. Astonished, I replied, "Right, now here's my dream: I was back in Rome and a huge truck manoeuvred into the tiny piazza behind the Quirinale palace where I lived. Then the driver got out and
shouted up to me "Signorina, come down, there's an orang-utan here for you!" And I was so delighted, even though I didn't know how I was going to get it out of the crate."
We looked at each other in amazement and tried to work out what this shared dream meant. But its source only became clear a few hours later, when Paola had to run up to
the neighbour's and phone all over Gubbio looking for me until she rang the bar I was in: "Etain, quick, come home, the bees have swarmed. I don't know how to catch them!"
I came home to find the swarm hanging on a low branch of an oak tree. Those bees must have been getting ready to leave the hive the previous night and their group
decision had penetrated our human dreams. It's true that a swarm is rather like a gift, but for Paola, who was afraid of the bees, it was a dangerous gift and sure enough, there is a sense in which a hive is
also a "poison factory". That red, hairy orang-utan was a very good image for the collective "animal" of a swarm and I think we perceived the bee's decision to fly as something quasi-human and that's why we
both dreamt of a great ape. My problem was to get the orang-utan out of the container because I was the one who had to recapture the swarm. This nocturnal message straight from the insect world made a deep
impression on me: it was one of the first times I experienced that place where "the parts of the world dream together".
This year, at Easter, it was our friend Jesse who told me his dream. "Oh, I feel exhausted this morning. In my dream, I spent the whole night whitewashing the donkeys'
stable with Sara Bianchi (White)…and the donkeys were standing in the doorway looking fed up, as if to say "When can we come in?"
I was still thinking about Jesse's dream when he reappeared in the kitchen, yelling, "Hey! The baby donkey's born! I opened the stable door and there he was –
already on his feet! He's got a white splash on his forehead!" We all ran down to look. It was a beautiful female foal. "We've had so many little donkeys," said Martin when Jesse told him about his dream, "but
none of them ever had a white mark like this one!" We named the donkey Bianca and perhaps it was the first time Jesse felt included in the intimate life of "all our relations". We are used to thinking of dreams as
unreal, but perhaps they show us what is still hidden from view.
The ties of a community come from their exchanges: the word community comes from the Latin word for with, cum and the word for gift, munus. A community is
a group of people who share gifts. Rosa lends us the tractor and we repair her water pump; Ivo gives me his old woodstove hot-plate and we take him up a pecorino cheese, I send some bran to Serenella and she sends
me some polenta past its sell-by date for the hens. And sometimes the gifts are intangible but real and important nevertheless: stories, reflections, dreams.
One morning Jesse came and told me another of his dreams. "Last night I saw Luigi! He was walking up the hill and I walked alongside him and we talked together."
Luigi lived in this valley for many years; we had a son together who was only three years old when his father died. He was a great teacher of country ways and every so often, at long intervals, I see him in my
dreams again too. Many old friends who visit here knew him, but he died more than twenty years ago and Jesse only arrived two years back. "What did you talk about?" I asked. "I can't remember," replied Jesse, "I was
just left with the impression that he was feeling good and that I felt completely at ease talking to him. We were walking in the direction of Rosa's house. It felt like a privilege to meet him."
That day it was the Feast of the Cross. Every year on the morning of May 1st , the people in this valley celebrate this very local event together. Two or three old farming families do the organising and everyone contributes something for the meal in money or food; and a deer and a pig are slaughtered. Mass is held on the open field above Rita and Tito's house where a wooden cross was erected many years ago, supposedly to save us from hailstorms. After the mass, everyone staggers back across the uneven plough and there's a big feast. A lot of people only come to the meal because by now the old Catholic families are a minority, but I go to the mass because it is held in the open air and also because I know Rosa likes to go and now that Antonio is dead, she won't venture there alone. We drink coffee in her comforting, bare kitchen in the morning sunlight and then gradually I persuade her to put on her Sunday clothes and we walk up through her olive grove to Rita's house where the priest is waiting.
As we walked slowly up the path, Rosa stopped and said: "Last night I dreamt of poor Luigi! In all these years, I've never dreamt of him!" Rosa is famous as a dreamer
of dreams. "He seemed younger and he was all dressed up, with nice clothes and a gold watch. He came from the direction of your house; I was at the window and he called up to me, so I went down and we walked up
here together. I asked him how he was and he said he was just fine!"
During mass, I thought about Luigi's quiet journey through the valley, in and out of the dreams of the living, and suddenly I saw how important the ties with the people
who share a place and a history with really us are. If I did not have the kind of relationship with Jesse and with Rosa in which we tell each other our dreams as well as our news, Luigi would have come walking
through the valley and I would have known nothing about it. The night of those two dreams was the night of the thirtieth of April, the eve of Beltane, the Celtic feast of fire and fertility. The eve of
Beltane and the eve of Samhain, the Feast of the Dead, were said to be the only two nights in the year when the door between the worlds stands open and the Living and the Dead can speak to each other.
Reciprocal work, the exchange of gifts and the passing on of stories, moving alongside people and animals in a place is the outer aspect of the earth's dreaming. The
dream we dream together is the soul of the physical place we share, the inner dimension of our everyday life.
"The world may very properly be called a fable, since bodies and the corporeal possessions which it contains, are apparent, but souls and intellects are occult and
invisible." said Sallustio seventeen centuries ago in an attempt to explain the divine nature of myths and this vision of his reminds me of the "magic valley" that American Indian activist John Trudell speaks
of: both talk of the invisible dimension of our individual, daily lives. We need to bring into the light of day the real intermeshing of lives that we glimpse in our dreams. The world continues to exist because
of the food web and if we don't establish a personal relationship with the plants, the animals and the other humans - a relationship which acknowledges the hidden aspect of those other selves - I think we suffer a
kind of detachment from reality.
"There was a deep, dark forest, and in a clearing in that forest stood a little hut on chicken's legs; in the hut lived Baba Yaga, the witch; she let nobody into her
hut and she devoured people as if they were chickens."
The hen whose eggs had just hatched had finally left her nest and was standing with her wings spread wide to cover all her new chickens. I could see all the little
chicken feet showing beneath her feathers and she was staring at me with the savage, pitiless eye that even the tamest hen still has. She had sat on the eggs in a well-hidden place, under the long grass in the
disused greenhouse and I had only noticed her silent presence there a few days before. Standing on the wall now with her babies, she was just at my eye-level, so that instead of looking down on her, we faced
each other as equals.
And that rare moment of equality suddenly unveiled a truth for me: that cold and pitiless eye belonged to Baba Yaga!
I took a step back, even lowered my eyes for a moment, because with amazement I saw standing before me that old witch who flies at night in a mortar and steals the milk
out of cows' udders, shears the sheep naked, spoils brides at their very weddings, turns bridegrooms into wolves…and eats newborn babies.
The way the hen stood, with her wings arched defensively in motherly pride, held such dignity that I had a sudden flash of insight: here was the source of the
hut where the old witch Baba Yaga lives, she of the Slavonic fairy tales, the hut on chicken's legs which spins like a spindle and dances, moving magically from place to place in the forest. As I remembered the
description of the hut, I also recalled its secret: the hut is Baba Yaga! To approach her means getting past the fence made of human arm- and leg-bones and posts surmounted by human skulls with burning eyes, through
the bony gate with its keyhole of sharp human teeth.
I stared back at the hen, shaped like a little hut with no door, and in her austere look I saw how my bodily life and the survival of my children might depend on her.
Behind Baba Yaga, back and back in time, millennia after millennia, I could see the Bird-Headed Goddess, the Lady of the Beasts, holder of Life and Death.
If I were not living here in Europe in the third millennium, with the agricultural outlet nearby and I were not able to buy hens if mine failed to produce more chicks,
what would I do? If I lived in a part of the world with no money economy, if I had lived a hundred or a thousand years ago in a remote Russian village and my few hens had failed to hatch babies? Or if there were a
famine and I couldn't scatter corn for the hens every morning? If I were pregnant with a sixth child? Then the truth of the matter would be clear and the hen's pitiless eye would indeed be revealed as the implacable
eye of the Goddess of Life and Death.
Success in hatching hens' eggs is not an easy matter: all may go well, but sometimes the eggs are not fertile, sometimes the hen unaccountably gets up and deserts the
nest halfway through. Sometimes the chicks hatch out but then all sorts of unhappy accidents befall them: they fall from high places, drown in puddles, get stepped on and squashed by bigger animals, eaten by
hedgehogs or foxes.
I once read a tender-hearted description of my friend Gessica's first broody hen, after Gessica had abandoned her studies at the University of Urbino and taken up
country life. "Tony lent me a broody hen and from many kindly neighbours I collected seventeen eggs and then the magic began. She sat on those eggs for twenty-one days, hardly eating or drinking at all, so
still it seemed as though she had poured all the passion of her heart into immobility: then the great day…the first little piping voices and my hands getting pecked because I couldn't contain my curiosity. I
wanted to see the chicks and the mother hen didn't like it. The hatching of my first chicks was an amazing experience: I had never seen such a loving mother. I watched them for hours at a time. They
imitated everything their mother did and she took them to where the best food was in the pastures…she watched out for them and when one got left behind and cried, she'd run straight away to see what the matter
Yes, sometimes it all works like magic. Sometimes a hen disappears and comes home to the hen-house three weeks later with fifteen chicks and never loses a single
one. But anyone who keeps chickens knows how difficult it is to move a broody hen to a quieter place. She might like the idea or she might not. Sometimes a hen chooses a place and then all the other hens come
and lay in her nest and nobody knows which are the original eggs and which are the fresh eggs and maybe only one chick hatches. I had a hen this year who hatched out nineteen chicks. Most of them were
yellow-brown like her but three of them were black and when she got off the nest, she gazed sharply at these three and then pecked them to death: they were the wrong colour. I ought to have taken the other
chicks away but I left them to their mother and she was so unmotherly that, out of all those babies, not one survived her lack of care. Then again, I had three hens this year who sat on a nest of eggs together
and then raised twelve chicks with no losses, looking after them as if they were a co-operative. Here is the drama: the mother is the best hope of life but she can also be death to her offspring; in any case,
it is she who decides and it is not easy to intervene in the matter.
This uncertainty has always been part of human life as it is part of the lives of all beings and the present-day, artificial security for the few of us at the cost of
misery for many has made us forget the Bird-Headed Goddess. But she of the cruel eye still hovers over our world. Here in this part of the country, up until just a few years ago, it was the custom for all the
neighbouring women to bring a hen as a gift to a new mother. It was a present of Life, in times when there really might not be enough protein available to keep a newborn baby alive. It was a gift of eggs or
chicken soup to make good milk and ward off ever-present Death.
Because of this uncertainty, there were and are magical practices to learn for helping the success of a brooding hen along. "When you put the eggs under a hen,
said Rosa, "you must put an odd number of them. The girl who puts them into the nest should be a virgin and while she does it, she must pray to Saint Catherine. In my house, it was always my job because I was
the baby of the family. And if you want your chicks good and lively, don't have them hatch at New Moon or they'll be poorly…"
And why does Baba Yaga's hut turns round and round?
When a hen is sitting, she turns slowly in an endless circle. You never see her move, but each time you look at her, she's facing in a different direction. And
it's not only the hen who's circling: underneath her warm body, she's turning the eggs over and over too. If she didn't do that, the chicks would be born twisted, underdeveloped on one side. That's why people who
hatch hen eggs in incubators have to keep turning the eggs by hand every day.
Last year we realised, by chance, that this sitting circles around the clock as well. Towards Eastertime, we had a hen who decided to come and lay her egg in the middle
of the spring flowers in the window box outside the kitchen. She was a very pretty little black hen and she looked good in amongst the red and yellow primroses and she bore the nerve-wracking presence of people
going in and out of the door bravely. So we discovered that it's not true that a hen lays an egg a day: at the start, Pasqualina laid her egg very early in the morning, but her laying time slipped round the
clock by something under an hour each day. After about two weeks, by which time she was laying the egg in the evening, Pasqualina disappeared from the window-box: she now laid her egg at night. Then, two weeks
later, there she was again amongst the flowers at dawn, the minute she got out of the hen-house. Just like the moon and the menstrual cycle, she had a cycle that was not quite diurnal but a little over the 24 hours.
Without that brave little hen, we'd never have known! The egg itself cycles around the day and the night.
And so I understood why it was that Baba Yaga's hut revolves on its axis in that mysterious and menacing way, why it never stays in the same place yet is always said to
be at the heart of the forest. This turning is the cycle of life, the cosmic cycle, fortune's wheel: sometimes all the chicks hatch out and sometimes, inexplicably, they all die. And as the chicks live or die, so
the vixen's cubs, and my own children, live or die.
That's why sometimes Baba Yaga smiles on Ivan and helps him, letting him take a colt from her herd of magic horses, that's why she helps Vasalisa, who comes
fearful and trembling to ask for a light for her cold hearth and yet sometimes when she turns her head to look at us with her cold eye, her hooked nose, her hair standing on end, we see the blood of babies foaming
at her mouth. Like Mother Nature, like the Bird-Headed Goddess, she has no favourites amongst the beings who inhabit this world and if you desire her benevolence, you have to show her you have your wits about
you, you need courage, you need to know the right answers to Baba Yaga's questions.
The innocent who breaks one of the rules of the wild world, who wanders off the path, who abuses her hospitality, finishes in the clutches of the terrible witch's bony
hands. "What do you want?" screams the witch and when Vasalisa asks for a burning brand with which to light her fire, Baba Yaga replies, "And why should I give you fire?" and Vasalisa says, "Because I ask it."
"You are lucky. That is the right answer!" says the witch. She orders Vasalisa to work for her unless she wants to be eaten. The first day, Vasalisa has to
wash and sweep and cook for Baba Yaga. The witch eats all the food and leaves only a crust and a drop of water for Vasalisa. Next, Vasalisa has to sort the good from the mouldy grain in a huge pile of wheat and the
day after that, she has to sift the dust from a pile of poppy seed. All these impossible tasks Vasalisa does with the help of the magic doll that her dying mother had given her.
So now Vasalisa has imitated Nature's own work, the endless round of cleaning, renewing and regenerating: she has dealt with life and death in the tasks of the grain
and the poppy seed and she has survived on very little, limiting her needs. "We grow strong, on less", says the poet Gary Snyder. And now Baba Yaga says that she is ready to answer if Vasalisa has more
questions to put to her, although she warns the girl that too much knowledge is dangerous. And so Vasalisa asks Baba Yaga who the three riders were whom she saw entering the hut, the white, the red and the
black, and Baba Yaga replies, "They are my day, my sun and my night". They are the cycles of physical life to which we humans, like all the other beings, have to submit.
But when Vasalisa resists the temptation to question her further, Baba Yaga says to her, "You are wiser than your years!" Tradition has it that Baba Yaga ages a year
every time someone asks her a question and that is why she becomes angry. Here we might reflect on our scientific game of torturing nature in pursuit of more and more knowledge: perhaps the great mystery of
life requires our respect?
"Who gave you this wisdom?" asks the witch. "My mother's blessing" replies Vasalisa. At these words, Baba Yaga, enraged, screams: "Blessings? We'll have no
blessings here!" and throws Vasalisa out of the hut, pushing a fencepost with a burning skull into the girl's hand to light her hearth at home. And when the girl tries to thank her, she yells: "Be off with
you!" We don't have to thank Nature for survival; each of us earns it with our own behaviour, finding our own wild way through the forest, asking others for what we need. That's why Vasalisa's answer to Baba
Yaga's first question was the right one: we get from life what we ask of it.
The Baba Yaga stories allow us to get closer to the Great Goddess, the Old Wild Mother, so we can see for ourselves the details of the practice of the wild, how
we should behave along the path through the real world.
Baba Yaga's horror for blessings is wild nature's huge laugh at the human desire for special favours. The Witch-Goddess is bird, snake, frog, toad, turtle,
mouse, crab, fox, bee, mare, goat, tree and stone, and all beings, human and non-human, are equal in the web of life.
Baba Yaga's forest is also know as the "world of the living dead". We can hear in this title how close Baba Yaga is to the old European Goddess of Death and this has
been confirmed by scholars of Slavonic mythology. Our good friend Jesse, the night before he left the farm to go and live with his beloved in Sweden, dreamt that he wandered around Etruscan tombs that were
filled with heaps of human bones. He went inside one of these dark tombs and found himself surrounded by heaps of gold and inestimable treasures. His eye fell upon a rock engraved with the Egyptian ankh, set with
precious stones, a symbol of the union of man and woman. He longed to possess it, but hesitated because he knew it was priceless. Then a woman's voice spoke out of the darkness : "Everything you see here is yours,
take whatever you want." The Dead hold many treasures and offer them to us, the living, for the brief moment in which we are here to enjoy the earth's resources. They are the gifts of our ancestors and it
is up to us to make good use of them during our lives. But soon enough we will be food for someone else. Food for the belly and for the heart, we will have to offer ourselves as resources for other lives;
in this sense we are all the living Dead.
Marija Gimbutas in her study of the Neolithic European Goddess, says: "The goddesses inherited from Old Europe, such as Greek Athena, Hera, Artemis, Hekate; Roman
Minerva and Diana, Irish Morrígan and Brigit; Baltic Laima and Ragana; Russian Baba Yaga , Basque Mari and others, are not "Venuses" bringing fertility and prosperity; as we shall see, they are much more. These
life-givers and death-dealers are "queens" or "ladies" and as such they remained in individual creeds for a very long time in spite of their official dethronement."
The Italian country gift of a hen to a new mother is an echo of a very ancient European tradition. Up until halfway through the nineteenth century, in Lithuania and
Lettonia, women performed a ritual for a birth during the sauna. The ceremony was conducted by the grandmother and only women were present. The central act was the sacrifice of a hen, killed with a wooden ladle and
offered to the Goddess Laima: the participants knelt down together and shared the meat. This recalls the sacrifice of a duck in old Ireland on the Feast of Imbolc at the beginning of February, a propitiatory
offering to Brigit.
Before the introduction into Europe of hens, those descendents of the noble little red jungle fowl from southern Asia, aquatic birds were the main food resource
of the Paleolithic and from 27.000 BCE on, we find engravings and sculptured figures of geese, ducks, cranes and swans in bone, ivory and on rocks, some of them with anthropomorphic features. Gimbutas says: "The
symbols of water-expanses, streams and rain – zig-zags, wavy or serpentine bands, net, checkerboard – and of waterfowl…are associated with the Goddess in the form of a woman/waterbird hybrid." The
iconography of the Goddess as death-dealer shows us images of the Goddess with vulture, falcon and owl attributes. Paintings dating from the 7th millennium in Çatal Hūyūk represent vultures with broom-like wings swooping down to attack human figures, but already in the Upper Paleolithic we find a red painting of a vulture on the walls of a cave near Castillo in Spain. "The principal images of death that can be detected in prehistory and which still play a part in folk beliefs are: the vulture, owl, cuckoo/hawk, dove, boar, the white lady and her hound and the dry bone." In many images of the Goddess, her hands are depicted as bird's feet, with three fingers.
So the Bird Goddess loomed, numinous, in the European mind in our very remote past because these birds signified life to us in the most basic sense: they were the food
that allowed us to survive. It was a natural step to the Bird Goddess as the guardian of the family and clan and later, in historic times, of the city, like the Goddess Athena of Athens, with her bird and serpent
Paolo Rumiz recounts how the mountain peoples of the Italian Apennines sacrificed their children in certain years because the land was insufficient to feed them all.
"This was the atrocious "Sacred Spring" of the Italic peoples. In later centuries, the ritual became more humane and the excess population was expelled rather than killed. Whole armies of young people
would leave their place of birth in the designated springtime, bearing an emblem of their totemic animal: Hirpus /Wild Boar, Picus /Woodpecker, Luk/ Wolf. They were the forefathers of those who
peopled our Apennines: the Irpini, the Piceni and the Lucani.
Many Italic groups had bird totems and in the seven Bronze Tablets of Gubbio, which date back to a period between the 1st and 3rd centuries BC, there is a codified aves anseriates procedure:
the ritual observation of bird flight for the omens before the commencement of religious ceremonies. The paths of birds across the sky were still a magical guide for humans through the labyrinthal uncertainties of
life. "This ceremony shall be preceded by the observation of the birds: the green woodpecker and the crow from the West, or the woodpecker and the magpie from the East… sacrificial messages for me, for the
city of Iguvium, in this celestial temple."
Gimbutas reminds us that "Through history and prehistory, (the Life-giver) appeared as a bird-woman, bird or woman. As a waterbird, she was a nourisher of humanity and
an increaser of material goods. She was the guardian of the well-being of the family and from Paleolithic times must have been considered to be the ancestress and progenitrix of the family or clan. That she was
a household deity as early as the Upper Paleolithic is suggested by findings in Mal'ta, central Siberia, where Bird Goddess figurines have been found along the inside edges of the circular, mammoth-bone
dwellings." And here, from the other side of the world, is a description of the "Mother of Animals" seen by Usi Kamarambi, a Kandoshi shaman: "Her body was covered in feathers, feathers of animals, birds,
and her feet were like a persons, and so were her fingers, but she had very long nails."
For the European peoples who watched the departure of the birds on their yearly migrations south with apprehension in their hearts at the coming of winter and hardship,
at winter with its death and its heaps of bones, the Goddess must have had a devouring, bird-of-prey aspect. Here is Baba Yaga's beak-like nose, her terrible hunger, her devouring of infants, her cunning, her sudden
flying over our heads. "Oh. What has Baba Yaga found here? Is it a stew? A roast? A nice blood-pudding? Oh, yes, all three! Tender and meaty, sweet and juicy. Ah, what a meal I'll make of you! The fat will run down my chin and I'll crack your bones with my iron teeth to suck the marrow!"
The return to Europe of the migratory birds in spring signalled the renewed abundance of food, the resurrection of life, the returning warmth and fertility of the
world. And here is Baba Yaga sailing in on the warm breeze, returning home to answer all our questions. She gives us light for our hearth, she shows us the path through the forest that leads home, she teaches
us the ways of the wild world. Crabby and reluctant, she nevertheless rewards the skills that have allowed us to survive another deathly winter of scarcity and offers us answers to the mysteries of the deep forest.
Bear is her husband and the story of the Woman Who Married a Bear is a world wide tale, an ancient myth about the ties of the heart that link the human and the non-human worlds.
Soaring over the mammoth huts, the Bird-headed Goddess reaches the place where we are now: we fail to look up and see her, but she is still hovering right over our
I open the Gubbio telephone directory at the beginning of this new millenium and the Bird families are all still here: Passeri, Merli, Piccioni, Picchi, Cardellini,
Colombi, Capponi, Frenguelletti, Galli, Cicogni, Fagiani, Ghiandoni and Uccellani. (Sparrows, Blackbirds, Pigeons, Woodpeckers, Goldfinches, Doves, Capons, Finches, Cockerels, Storks, Pheasants, Jays and the Bird-Men). If I look at family names in nearby cities, here too are the Pettirossi,
Corvi, Falchi, Grifoni, Rondini, Rapace, Palombo (Robins, Ravens, Falcons, Griffons, Swallows, Hawk and Ring-dove) all still under the protection of the Bird Goddess.
All this came from the gaze of a small hen on a spring morning?
To catch the meaning of these augural messages, maybe I need to let go of our scornful common sense and the contemporary, utilitarian worldview and look at things with
different eyes. The anthropologist Richard Nelson talks about the Koyukon, a native people who live on the Arctic Circle, and their relationship with the animal world. "For the Koyukon, no animal is just that
and nothing more. Even the least imposing of creatures, those that seem insignificant from the lofty perspective of humanity, has dimensions of being that extend far beyond the realm and power of the senses. It
is not a world where humans may become too proud, for nothing that lives is truly humble, regardless of how it may appear."
The Koyukon obviously feel the world they live in is a conscious entity, full of powers which grant wellbeing only to those who deserve it by showing respect for the
other forms of life. "Each animal knows way more than you do. We always heard that from the old people when they told us never to bother anything we unless we really needed it."
The Kichwa people of the Amazon have the same concept. Akushti Butuna Karijuna says: "Our knowledge is different. We get it from the animals, from the birds, for
example. The bird of the Kichwa people is the yellow-fronted parrot. It is from this bird that we originated". And a man of the Shawi tribe, present at this conversation with the anthropologist Jeremy Narby,
adds: "When we see peccaries (wild pigs), we see animals. But in their world, they are not animals, they too are humans beings and they can speak to one another."
At the moment when my eyes met the hen's, her knowing "way more" was instantly apparent to me, and I saw how the physical world and the world of the imagination, the mondo
immaginalis, are so woven together that no thread can be pulled out of the weave without dangerously unravelling both those worlds.
The thinker Henry Corbin considered that the way in which a real meeting with another being happens is through a gnostic act: the interiorization of the world, a
transformative movement. For Corbin, these meetings take place in the mondo immaginalis, the world of the soul and the world of the dead, a place of holy reciprocity. Only love allows one being to know
Our contemporary world has tried to do away with the deep maps of the places where we live our everyday lives and with all the other dimensions of the "lower"
creatures, and so we humans have lost our bearings. By removing the subjectivity of the rest of creation, we have ruined our selves: the ancestor is lost and we have no sheltering wings over us.
The poetess Mariangela Gualtieri laments:
There was no more respect for the small for the nothing
for the very small things.
There was no more respect for the slow things, the soft things,
until one day, until later
the heart grew harder and harder.
There was no more and I don't know why there was no more
but there surely was no more respect, respect for the child
and for the ancestor
and the child is broken, the ancestor is mad, the child
is lifeless, the ancestor is tied to a bed,
the child is a poor little man, the ancestor is simple.
What is that "way more" that the animals know and that we have forgotten? It is this – they know that they are the powerful earth itself. Only the children
remember now how important the animals are for this knowledge they hold and every time someone comes to the farm and watches their child running towards the little donkey, they say "He just loves animals!" I
reply that this is a universal and essential tie and it is not natural to lose it, its loss means madness.
If we want to survive in the forest, we need to trust our senses and grant the other beings the same interiority as we feel in ourselves. In amongst the thickets,
every bush, lichen, moss, mushroom, every grasshopper, porcupine, squirrel, lizard and wild boar hold their own story, their own feelings and desires, their many dimensions, their knowing "much more" and we can't
wander through the forest deaf to their voices - "as though" warns David Abram, " a toad or a cottonwood were a fixed and finished entity, waiting to be figured out by us, rather than an enigmatic presence with
whom we have been drawn into a living relationship". The meeting with the other, is, in this sense, exactly that – a coming towards each other from both directions: the living being before us will grant us
subjectivity if we reciprocate.
Vladimir Propp suggests that Baba Yaga's hut is connected to the izbushkii, the hut where initiation rituals took place and where the neophyte was symbolically
eaten by the ogre before emerging as an adult. Every initiation requires the child to understand that there are terrifying natural forces which have to be faced, but we have forgotten that these powers are real. If
we sit back thoughtlessly with our comfortable abundance of food and energy, life reminds us of these powers, unleashing human feelings too violent and turbulent for us to manage, springing upon us disease and
death. If we want to walk safely through the forest, we have to understand that all the other beings share the inner life we claim as ours alone; we have to remember that Baba Yaga helps everyone and eats
Literacy came later to Russia than to western Europe and this meant that the fairy tales from that part of the world stayed closer to the oral tradition so that their
pre-Christian elements were better preserved. Our stories tend to split the nature of the Old Goddess into the wicked witch and the good fairy, whereas Baba Yaga has kept her deep and complex nature as life-giver
and death-dealer: she chooses to use her powers for good or for evil according to how the wheel of fortune revolves but also according to how the wild being approaches her.
In the story of Ivanushka, Baba Yaga catches a little boy whom she intends to cook in the oven and devour. The story is very similar to the Hansel and Gretel of
our tradition and last summer, a visiting Hungarian woman told me the story. Ivanushka refuses to get into the oven and in the end manages to push the witch in instead. The oven is fire and fire is death, but it is
also life! It seems that in the old days, the Russian peasants had a healing practice called perepekanie ("to re-cook"). They would put a sick child into a warm oven and pronounce over him these magic
words: "As the bread dough rises, may this child's body rise again." It's what we do in these parts with failing chicks or lambs when they need bringing back to life. In our collective imagination, we apprehend
heat both as a killer and a saviour. The elements are both for us and against us. Inside Baba Yaga's hut, in her oven, some kind of transformation always takes place, important passages of our ripening selves and it is our practice,
our skilful behaviour and correct questions, that are the key to the reply we will get from the Bird-headed Goddess, keeper of the mysteries of birth and death and of the regeneration of the life of the Cosmos.
You may reply that the engravings, the figurines, the legends of the Bird Goddess, the tales of Baba Yaga are just myths and stories. But what are stories?
The English poet Ted Hughes talks about the world's stories and points out that a phrase like "the crucifixion of Hitler" appeals to our knowledge of two important
stories of our time. That one word, crucifixion, is like a single thread and if we pull it, the whole enormous spool of the Christian story comes into view. The same happens with the word Hitler. So
we each possess many stories and each story is a whole entity. Hughes says: "It remains, like any other genuine story, irreducible, a lump of the world, like the body of a newborn child. … And every story
is still the original cauldron of wisdom, full of new visions and new life."
But what kind of reality can this story have, coming to us as it does from our most remote past in the form of cave paintings and engraved bones and rocks? Ted
Hughes, speaking of the Greek myths, says "They were tribal dreams at the highest level of inspiration and truth, caught at their highest expression and telling truthfully what happens in the place where the two
worlds intermingle." I think the swan flying across the Magdalenian bone in the Haute Garonne, the heron in the El Pendo cave, the flying geese figurines of Mal'ta in Siberia, the owl-shaped Neolithic vessels
in Rumania, the tales of Frau Holle, Baba Yaga and the witch of Hansel and Gretel, told around the fire through the millennia by numberless mothers and grandmothers, hold exactly that kind of truth.
The Algonquin native people credit their songs with the same kind of reality: "The songs themselves are beings: it is not so much that we remember a song and sing
it…it is rather that the song sings itself."
The physicist David Peat talks about inscape, a word coined by the poet Gerard Manly Hopkins to indicate the inner authenticity of individual things, as distinct from landscape, which
simply refers to scenery. Peat explains this as follows: "There is an inexhaustible nature to each human being, tree, rock, star and atom….Each encounter and each perception are fresh attempts to engage
the inner authenticity of the world. … The present is an inscape, something that is inexhaustible in its very nature. Within the present are, contained and enfolded, the orders of time. …It is from this deep well of time, from this inexhaustible inscape of the present that the mind excavates the patterns of past and future, unfolding dynamics of matter and touches the numinous field of meaning that suffuses the universe." When we have plunged our hands into the heaps of trickling grain and dug our feet deep into the sticky mud, then our story, our song, our painting on the cave wall comes from that deep well.
"Humans become aware that they have a role in the cosmic drama only when they see the magical dimension of being" says Franco Del Moro.
What we have to find in our everyday lives is the practice of delight, the gathering into our selves of the other things and beings which seem so insignificant, the
practice of taking care of "the slow and soft things" which reveal the mystery of the universe close at hand.
* * *
One of the new chicks has crept out from under the hen's wing and is staring at the world on this spring morning. As soon as I move, he disappears, melting back into
his mother's feathers. I look at the hen and I wonder if, after so many centuries, I can still find shelter under her protective, motherly wings.
"Turn your back to the forest and your face to me". If I stand in front of Baba Yaga's hut and say the magic words to make the invisible door appear, will I be allowed
back into that old, wild place where life and death embrace? Have I got the courage, the skills and the good manners that are required?