Introduction to Our Lady of the Dark Country

Women of America, of Europe, women of my blood and mothers of my ancestors, women of all the lands of this Earth: the words in this book are needles. Thread them where they need to go: through your body, through your life, into the ground as roots. They have come from a true place in me, from the place where forgotten stories have been buried, and I give them to you in these pages gladly.

Women of America, of Europe, women of my blood and mothers of my ancestors, women of all the lands of this Earth: the words in this book are needles. Thread them where they need to go: through your body, through your life, into the ground as roots. They have come from a true place in me, from the place where forgotten stories have been buried, and I give them to you in these pages gladly.

We have come to an epistemic crossroads, a crisis of the “real.” I will not be able to win an argument with an archaeologist, an academic, a business man, or possibly even an old friend, by trying to state facts about the indigenous feminine traditions of Europe, about the Neolithic, about the work of Marija Gimbutas, about war, about peace, about menstruation, about sexuality, about freedom, about truth, about the heart, about the reality of magic, because facts have become a slippery thing and it seems that these days what matters is who fears what, and who gains what, and not What Is True. A fact is not What Is True. A fact is only an arrow that points toward who has the power and what story they want to tell.

A dozen times a week, sometimes a day, I want to write angry essays, immaculate in articulation and bombproof in argument, essays that are swords, cutting through two thousand years of tyrannical, imperialistic, misogynistic, life-denying narratives—the ones that are presently calling climate change a “pagan” notion, the ones that allow big oil and big gun lobbies to persist even in the face of the deadliest public mass shootings in history and a planet on the brink of devastating environmental chaos, the ones that enable the exploitation of just about everything and everybody remotely exploitable and objectifiable—but if I write angry essays like I am beginning to do here I will be dismissed by many as an angry feminist. Hysterical. It’s just her womb talking.

Well, actually, it is, and I’m proud to say it. I’m bleeding today. My womb is shedding like a snake. It is windy outside and just started to rain, loud and sweet on the roof. It is dusk. There’s a cake of quince, saffron and almond flour baking in the oven, and wood pigeons roosting in the bay trees, and I am indeed an angry woman writing but it is time, women of my blood, women of America, women of this Earth, that we were not ashamed. That we no longer believed anybody who told us our bodies and the wisdom of our bodies was not true. It is time we were proud and not embarrassed to say “I am bleeding today.” It used to be that a woman bleeding was sought for what she knew, for what she thought, because she was closest to something bigger. A moon, a tide. It is time we started at the very snake-center of our bodies and saw again the birthright of our strength, our power, and of a knowing that is older and vaster by far than the life-destroying cultural story we are currently living in.

You don’t have to know all the details about what happened, and who did what, and why—the series of Bronze Age invasions from the Russian steppe, the rise of the Roman Empire and a fanatical Christian state often in utter opposition to Christ’s originally radical, open, wild-hearted teachings, the Inquisition and witch burning times, the colonization of the “New World” and onward—and how all of it is still embedded in the legacies we enact today, to feel what is beneath, in the dark country of our bodies, out of sight. All you have to do is begin at the center of yourself and listen. Earth’s language and the language of the living world will speak directly to you there, and tell you What Is True.

I want to pause here and make it clear that this book, though deeply feminine, is for all genders. And I want to make sure you know I am not disparaging men here as such, but only an aggressive manifestation of masculinity called patriarchy. I have been blessed in my life with strong, caring men. I was raised by a wonderful father, with a wonderful brother, kind and protective uncles, two loving grandfathers. Some of my most cherished teachers have been men, and some of my loveliest friends. I am a woman who loves men deeply, and so it matters very much to me that men feel welcome in this conversation, and loved.

The violent objectification inherent in extreme patriarchy affects men as much as it does women. Differently, but terribly too. As I heard Lyla June Johnston (the Diné and Tsétsêhéstâhese poet, musician and activist) say in an interview last spring, the witch hunts damaged the men of Europe as much as the women. She described how the witch hunts broke them too, for there is no faster way to destroy a man’s spirit (besides enslaving him or sending him to the trenches of a senseless war) than to take away and kill the women he loves—mother, wife, daughter, sister—and leave him with the horrific belief that it was his fault, that he didn’t do enough, that he could have done more. That he failed them. So while this book may appeal more to those who identify as “women,” it is not only for women. I write these words for all, in celebration of what the feminine might look like untrammeled and in balance with the masculine—in the past, in the present, and in the future.

I believe we are walking around with the European witch trials still burning in our blood, and it is time to turn and look. There are lies still branded in our culture and the story of what it means to be a woman in the West, put there by the ancestral memory of breast ripper and hot rod and iron maiden and shackle and pyre, put there by forced marriage and forced silence, corset and shame. No manner of rhetoric would save you if the men of the Inquisition wanted you dead. To be born of a woman’s body is to be soiled, they said. This is our original sin, they said. You must spend your whole life atoning, paving your path to elsewhere, away from Earth. To be a woman who practiced the old indigenous ways of Europe, who knew her power and the power of earthfast stone and holy spring, bird and knot and hare and womb, a woman who was a priest in her own right, a doctor, a seer—this was to be a direct threat to entrenched systems of domination. Some women were carried to “trial” in baskets, so their feet wouldn’t touch the ground, because the inquisitors feared that they would get power from the Earth that way.

The eminent Lithuanian archaeologist Marija Gimbutas provides a fascinating, and to me very frustrating, case study. After enjoying great esteem among her male colleagues for many years of work on Bronze Age Proto-Indo-European culture in the 1950’s and 60’s, she began to point out that there were an awful lot of female-shaped figurines in the ancient substratum of sites across southern, eastern, and central Europe long before said Indo-Europeans arrived. She went on to suggest, based on decades of study not only of ancient Neolithic cultures but also the folklore of eastern Europe, that they might have had religious value, possibly as representatives of goddesses in a matrilineal clan culture.

She noticed what she thought were many small temples and a remarkable lack of weaponry or ornate burial mounds with kings in them, having dug most of the sites herself and read the reports for the rest in one of the eleven languages she was fluent in and her male colleagues were not. As if this wasn’t apparently bad enough (using the word “goddess” and “matriarchy” seems to immediately make the academic community uncomfortable) women who weren’t academics got excited about her work in the 1970’s because they felt she was uncovering at last a feminine heritage that was empowering, a new narrative that honored women’s bodies, women’s ways, and returned to them a millennia-long tradition of goddess worship across the ancient western world.

As far as many of Gimbutas’ colleagues were concerned, this was the equivalent of digging her own scholarly grave and burying her academic reputation alive, although her work was no less thorough, thoughtful, or well-researched than before. But she had begun to adopt a more interdisciplinary approach, weaving in her knowledge of folklore and linguistics to interpret the figurines she was uncovering, and probably a bit of imagination and intuition too. A more feminine way, maybe, but still founded upon thirty years of study and thought.

I’d be curious to know if the reaction would have been the same had she noted a remarkable number of male figurines, and suggested the worship of predominantly male gods. I have little doubt that there would have been no academic outcry. But a goddess is a very different thing than a god. Today, her work is much beloved among feminists and goddess followers, but generally dismissed by the academic community, and while we can laugh it off as a big loss to them, I think it’s actually quite chilling.

An essay by a man who’d clearly not read all of Gimbutas’ work and certainly hadn’t thought very much about it is the only one included in the best contemporary volume on Old European culture. In his piece he dismisses all of Gimbutas’ conclusions with a writerly sneer and says not much of anything else besides that they might have been sex objects, pornographic in some way, maybe dolls or maybe just female bodies but, come on people—you can feel his sarcasm between the lines—let’s not be ridiculous here, let’s not be fanciful, sacred? Religious? Wide-hipped female figurines with possible snake heads, how could they be sacred or religiously important in any significant way? Let’s not get worked up about this, that’s just what the women want them to be and they can’t be right because, well

And here we come at last to the terrible crux of the problem, and my diatribe. They cannot be goddesses or ancestral women with central significance to the cultures they were found buried within because—because—

It’s subconscious at this point, deeply so. You can see the trend. Why should we be so outrageously embarrassed when a woman suggests matrilineal goddess-worship that we won’t even consider it a real possibility?

Because it upsets the entire narrative of academia, of “progress,” of what we think we mean when we say “civilization.”

Because it takes us straight back to the woman beneath the apple tree speaking to the snake in the garden. Whatever she knew, whatever the snake was telling her, they’ve been trying to silence for at least the last two thousand years. And we’ve been trying to silence her in ourselves.

But I think something is changing now. I see it in the news, and it I feel it in the air, and in the center of myself, and in the ground.

People of heart, Earth’s snakes are speaking. It is time we listen for the truth they tell us through the centers of ourselves. People of heart, we make a spiral around this planet. It is time to tell the old stories that have damaged us differently. To go beneath what we’ve been told and into the dark country, as Ursula K. Le Guin called it, into the Earth, where the other side of those stories is hidden, the truth that was carried all along in the roots of the trees despite thousands of years of war.

In this book I offer stories of that place, from the dark country that was never truly conquered or secondary, no matter what they told us. The place that was always the beginning, the center, the root. The place the snakes and dragons went when they had been called monster, and evil, and finally just a fantasy, one too many times.

The rain is falling harder now. The bishop pines roar with wind. Soon the owls will be calling. The house smells of quince and almond cake.

Come in. There are doorways, very near, that the dragons will walk through if we listen, and thread, and have the courage to stand up in our bodies and call them home.


Sylvia V. Linsteadt

Sylvia V. Linsteadt is a novelist, poet, scholar of ancient history, animal tracker, and artist.

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