Tag Archives: ancient stories

Isis/Sophia in Egypt

I waken to a world of sunlight so strong that I need dark glasses and sun hat for the short walk to breakfast in the Mena House Hotel in Cairo. I pass the sun-soaked turquoise pool that sits like a small lake surrounded by palm trees, flowers in brilliant reds and yellows. I climb the marble stairs to the dining room, find breakfast spread out in silver bowls: pomegranate seeds, grapefruit, yogurt, abundance of muffins, breads, sweet rolls, coffee in silver urns on a long linen-covered

 

Immediately afterwards, we gather in one of the hotel’s elegant meeting rooms.
An Egyptian man, perhaps in his early fifties, stands at the front of the room. With shy pride he welcomes us to his country. “I am Mohamed Nazmy”, he says “and my company, Quest Travel, is making the arrangements for your time in Egypt. I know what it is you seek. I have been in communication with your teacher Dr. Jean Houston for several months, preplanning as much as we could, waiting for the time to be right for this sacred journey. My company guides only people like you who seek the spiritual heart of Egypt. But this,” and suddenly his shyness dissipates as a smile like a rising sun irradiates his face, “this will be our greatest challenge, and our deepest joy. Samei, though young, is an experienced and learned travel guide. He will go with you everywhere your journey takes you. I will accompany you when possible, and shall be in constant communication with Samei.

“I do not need to tell you that some of the places you will enter are dangerous, some carefully guarded. As far as possible, I am making arrangements for your group to have private visits inside the tombs, temples and pyramids to allow for the teaching and rituals that are part of your journey.” He pauses, then adds, “the only solitary visit I cannot arrange is to the Valley of the Kings where each day this month, the number of tourists will exceed ten thousand.” With a gracious wish for a safe and blessed journey, he concludes his talk, turns to speak quietly with Jean.

 

We return to the chairs at the front of the room and Jean introduces the guest who has come to speak to us this morning. “You’ve seen him on the Discovery Channel and on National Geographic Programs. He’s Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, passionate about receiving, rescuing, restoring and retaining its ancient treasures. His ongoing archaeological work has earned him world-wide recognition and we can thank Mohamed, his close friend, for arranging this presentation by Dr. Zahi Hawass.”

 

“They call me the Indiana Jones of Egypt,” Dr. Hawass says, with a boyish grin. “They even say I wear an Indiana Jones hat, but the truth is that Indiana Jones wears a Zahi Hawass hat.”

With a power point he takes us with him as he is lowered by a rope into cavernous depths. “What did I find there?” he asks. “Not the wonderful things of Howard Carter’s experience in the tomb of King Tut, but the dung of centuries.”

These days, he’s working with a grant to study DNA from ancient mummies, seeking to trace relationships among King Tut, Hatshepsut, Nefertiti. He’s also excavating in the Valley of the Kings and seeking the burial site of Anthony and Cleopatra. He radiates joy and the passion of his commitment to work he loves. “With passion, any job can be the best in the world,” Dr. Hawass says.

 

“Egypt is a state of being that exists eternally in archetypal reality.” Dr. Hawass has gone, and Jean Houston is speaking to us now. “It is a quality of the psyche, of the intelligence, existing on the space/time continuum. Five thousand years ago, the essence of possibility entered into time”.

 

The magic has begun. I breathe in these words, not fully understanding, but knowing at a deep level their truth. This will be a journey of discovery even more enticing than those of Dr. Hawass.

 

“When in the thirteenth century St. Francis of Assisi visited Egypt, he sat with the Sultan in silence for hours before the Sphinx. At last Francis said, I know the answer. It is love.

“Now you are here as archaeologists of Egypt’s ancient spirit. We shall visit powerful sites, seeking matrix points for a world civilization, a world spirit. As the Ancient Egyptians dreamed a world, we shall, by use of imagination, bring forth a new reality that wants to emerge. We shall collect the broken pieces of our world and gather them into wholeness, as did Isis with the broken body of Osiris.

“And just as Hatshepsut restored the ruined temple of Hathor and created ceremonies of the Feasts of Light, we shall inaugurate ceremonies on behalf of our Temple of Earth.”

I listen intently, believing this to be possible, seeing it as absolutely achievable. It doesn’t occur to me then that a personal descent into cavernous inner places holding dung and wonderful things in equal measure, will be required of me.

“For today, you may be tourists”. Jean is saying now. “Samei will take you to a papyrus factory, then to some of the shops. After supper we’ll see the Egyptian Museum. Enjoy Cairo!”

In the papyrus factory store, we watch the process as papyrus stems are soaked, then soaped and placed under pressure to create paper. Young Muslim women wearing hijabs smilingly show us around the room’s collection of illustrated papyri.

 

Hampered by my lack of Arabic (I am able thus far only to say “Shokran”, “thank you,”) I manage to convey to one of the young women that I am seeking a painting of Isis. After some searching, some reading of identifying hieroglyphs, the young store clerk smiles brilliantly, places a richly-painted papyrus of Isis in my hands. I take in the rich midnight blue of her robe, the throne-shaped silver crown on her head, the breadth of wing span in silver and gold beneath her arms, the mystery of the many-hued hieroglyphs of bird, snake, woman, throne, carefully arranged above beside and below her. I hand it back to the young woman who carefully rolls it, inserts it into a cardboard tube, then returns it to me. I am in awe at this beautiful treasure I now carry.

image of goddess Isis

Isis, with whom I began my journey two months earlier in a darkened room at my community’s retreat centre. ( to be continued)

from Called to Egypt on the Back of the Wind by Anne Kathleen McLaughlin Borealis Press 2013  (http://borealispress.com)

Sophia in Egypt

(Continued from last week…)

After the rapture of sunrise, she goes indoors, makes coffee, hurries to her room, climbs back into the book.

She is once again in the story circle. She arranges herself on the cushion, smiles at her guide already seated beside her, and turns again to the storyteller.
Ra, the firstborn, burns with jealousy.
He decrees that no child may come forth
from the womb of Nut on any day of his year.
The Sky writhes in torment,
her full belly unable to release life.
In her womb, Isis and Osiris become lovers,
Seth rages, Horus, the twice-born,
and their dark sister Nephthys wait.
Wise Thoth challenges Ra to a game of checkers.
Skillfully, the moon wins bits of light
until he has five days.
On each of these days, Mother Sky gives birth.

The guide gestures towards another room. “It is the place before time and beyond time. Go inside and look at your life as it was before your birth, and as it is now.”

The woman goes inside, allows herself to be taken into no time. The formless loneliness that fills her has been with her all her life. It has led her to seek love in many places, led her to become one of a community of women. In this timeless realm, she finds herself in the womb of Nut, waiting to be reborn. It is a comfort, though she cannot think why it should be.

 

From far away a bell startles her, breaks into her thoughts, and she finds herself again in the community residence. The light suggests early evening, time for supper with the others who live here. She has no idea what she will say should they ask her how she spent the afternoon.

 

That night the woman dreams she is held in an embrace of love more tender than any she has known. She wakens glad, eats a hurried breakfast and steps back into the book.

Isis and Osiris travel across Egypt giving gifts.
Osiris teaches the secrets of the Nile,
the taming of cattle, the planting of seed,
the guiding of the plough.
At night he plays his reed pipe,
enchanting the people with the songs of Mother Sky.
Isis teaches the women the moon’s cycles,
the shapes of the stars,
the rhythms of the seasons.
She dances with them under the moon’s soft light.
In Ra’s light, she teaches them to weave,
to transform flax to thread, thread to linen.
She gives them the song of the wheel.
She loves them into beauty.

 

When they are alone again, the guide tells her it is time to learn the secret lore of the ancient Egyptians. She teaches her the skill of placing her spirit, her Ka, in an imaginary way in a tree or a bird, then looking back at the self through wise eyes.

 

The woman places her thought in a mountain she has loved, and imagines the mountain gazing at her, seeing her power for movement and speech, for singing and dancing, for growth and change, gifts the mountain does not possess. Through that ancient gaze, the woman sees how wasteful she is of her immense possibilities, her capacity for fulness of life, how she is always seeking and discontent. It seems the mountain looks on her with compassion, and says, “Just rest for awhile and enjoy the beauty.”

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The woman learns to make simple hieroglyphs, pictures that carry levels of meaning. She shapes a message: I alone in nature sense the Holy. The Holy embraces me with love. Again alone beside a tree I weep for loss. The Holy returns. A bird sings. I know I am not alone in nature. The woman smiles at the childish drawings that have just told her the story of her life.

When they next return to the room of storytelling, the luminous days of the reign of Isis and Osiris are ending.

Seth rages at the lovers.
From gold and precious gems, he crafts a coffin
and tricks Osiris into lying in it.
He seals the coffin and hurls it into the Nile.
Isis cuts her hair, disguises herself as a beggar
and sets out to search for her husband.
In the far land of Byblos,
the coffin has been caught in a tamarisk tree.
Magically, the tree grows around it.
So great is this wonder that the King
takes it as a pillar for his great hall.
Weary and worn, no longer beautiful,
Isis comes at last to the King’s Hall.
She enters by the back door,
asks to be a servant,
to care for the children of the King.
Her love wins her the release of the coffin
from the pillar of tamarisk.

 

A touch on her arm from her guide and they leave the story room. “Today you must find the places in your story where you have been seeking a lost beloved,” she tells her. “I’m going to take you into a larger room where you may walk, dance if you like, and let the memories return. Don’t be afraid.”

The woman is neither afraid nor expectant. In her long search for understanding, she has often visited the place of memory. But the memory that comes is one buried in the dust of forgetfulness.

She is a high school student, perhaps thirteen. On her way home from school, she has come to pray in the large stone Church. It is cool and quiet here. She likes it. Sometimes she walks around the Church praying at each of the carved scenes that tell the story of the sufferings and death of Jesus. She likes to think of how much he must love her, to go through all that for her.

Mary

 

But today she happens to look at the marble statue of the Virgin Mary. That word virgin sounds as cold to her as the marble from which the image was carved. She shivers a bit and looks away. On the bench beside her, someone has left a prayer book. She glances at an open page, sees the words, “I am your mother, Mary”. If the marble statue had broken open to show her a beating human heart, the effect would not have been any more powerful.

Sophia in the Easter Mystery

Through the cold, quiet night time of the grave underground,
The earth concentrated on him with complete longing
Until his sleep could recall the dark from beyond
To enfold memory lost in the requiem of mind.
The moon stirs a wave of brightening in the stone.
He rises clothed in the young colours of dawn.
John O’Donohue “Resurrection”

The Easter Mystery of life-death-life is at the heart of the universe, at the heart of life on our planet, in the deep heart of our own lives. From its birth out of the womb of a dying star, through its daily cycle of day/dusk/ night/dawn, its yearly cycle of summer/autumn/ winter/spring, the earth teaches us to live within the paschal mystery.

 Ancient peoples understood this mystery. Through their careful observations they constructed buildings such as the mound in Newgrange Ireland where a tiny lintel receives the first rays of dawn only on the winter solstice.

The ancients wove their understanding of life/death/life into their mythologies: the Egyptian story of Osiris, whose severed body was put together piece by piece by his wife Isis, then reawakened; the Sumerians tell of the great queen Inanna who descended to the underworld to visit her sister Erishkigal. There she was stripped of all her royal robes and insignia, and murdered by her sister who then hung her lifeless body on hook. Three days later, Inanna was restored to life, all her honour returned to her.

The people of Jesus’ time would have known these and other great myths of the ancient Near East. What was so stunningly different in the Jesus story was that the mystery of life-death-life was incarnated in a historical person. The Resurrection of Jesus is at the heart of the Christian faith. As Paul wrote, “If Christ be not risen then our faith is in vain”.

In our lifetime, the explosion of new science shows us the life/death/mystery at the heart of the universe. Like exploding stars, our lives are continuously being rebirthed into a deeper more joyous existence. By allowing the death within ourselves of old habits, old mindsets and narrow ideas of who or what we may be, we open ourselves to the possibility of new life being birthed within us. As Jesus told his friends, “You will do what I do. You will do even greater things”.

“Resurrection is about being pulsed into new patterns  appropriate to our new time and place,” Jean Houston writes in Godseed. For this to happen, we need to open in our deep core to “the Heart of existence and the Love that knows no limits. It is to allow for the Glory of Love to have its way with us, to encounter and surrender to That which is forever seeking us, and from this to conceive the Godseed.”

“The need for resurrection has increased in our time,” Jean continues. “We are living at the very edge of history, at a time when the whole planet is heading toward a global passion play, a planetary crucifixion.” Yet “the longing with which we yearn for God is the same longing with which God yearns for us…. the strength of that mutual longing can give us the evolutionary passion to roll away the stone, the stumbling blocks that keep us sealed away and dead to the renewal of life”. (Godseed pp.129-130)

The yearly miracle of Spring awakens within us the confidence and joy that this same rebirth is ours to accept and to live. We know our call to green our lives, our times, our planet:

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age (Dylan Thomas)

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Where in my life do I most experience the need for a rebirth?
What old habits and beliefs would I have to let die in order for this new life to be born?
How does knowing that the longing with which (I) yearn for God is the same longing with which God yearns for (me) make my life more joyful?
What would a resurrected life look like, feel like, for me? for those with whom my life is woven? for our planet?

May Sophia, the feminine presence of Sacred Wisdom, gently guide us through the death of what no longer serves us into the joy of the rebirth for which our hearts yearn.

The Wooing of Etain Part Five

The Storyteller has taken us to the moment when Etain, in her new life as daughter of Etar, has become the bride of the High King of Ireland, Eochaid. Today, as she continues the tale, there is a mischievous glint in her eyes, showing she is aware of the questions stirring within us.

What has happened to Midir? Will no one tell Etain of her former life, her former love?

Now the Storyteller continues:

The Great Feast of Tara was held with all splendour, and the people of Ireland rejoiced. The King had two brothers, and Anguba, the younger of them, saw Etain at the Feast and he gazed on her continually, and such gazing is a sign of love. His heart reproached him, and he tried not to love his brother’s wife, but to no avail, and that his honour should not be stained, he ate no food, fell into a decline, and was near to death.

It was the time of the Royal Circuit, and Eochaid, despite his grief and deep distress, was forced to leave Tara. He left his brother in the care of Etain, and bade her attend him, and if he should die, to see that his grave be dug, his lamentations made and his cattle slain.

Every day Etain came to the house where Anguba lay sick, and spoke with him, to comfort him, and his sickness was eased, for as long as she stayed with him, he would be gazing at her. Etain pondered on the matter, and one day she asked him the cause of his sickness.
“It is for love of you,” Anguba said, and Etain answered:
“Pity, indeed, that you have been so long without telling it. Had we but known, you would have been healed a while ago.”

“Even this day I could be whole again,” Anguba said, “if you are willing.”
“ I am willing indeed,” Etain replied, and every day she came to his House and she bathed his head, and carved his meat, and after thrice nine days Anguba was healed of his sickness and he said to Etain:
“And when shall I have from you what is still lacking to cure me?”
“Tomorrow,” Etain said, “but not in the King’s House shall he be shamed. Tomorrow, on the hill above the Court, I will wait for you.”

Etain kept the tryst, but at the hour of meeting a magic sleep overcame Anguba, and he did not waken till the third hour of the next day. When Etain returned to the house, she found the King’s brother sorrowful and distraught.
“That I should have tryst with you, and then fall asleep,” he said.

Twice they made tryst, and each time Anguba slept, and on the third night a man was waiting on the hill above the Court.
“Who are you?” Etain said. “It was not you I came to meet. My tryst with Anguba is not for sin or hurt, but that one who is worthy to be King should be healed of his sickness.”

And the stranger revealed himself to her, and told her his name.
“I am Midir of Bri Leith, and I have loved you for a thousand years. You were daughter to Aylill, Fairy King of Mag Inish, and I was your lover and your husband. I paid a great bride-price for you.”
He was tall and fair, and his purple mantle fell in five soft folds around him, and in it was the golden brooch of Bri Leith, that reached to his shoulder on either side. His bright yellow hair was held back from his brow by a fillet of gold, and the radiance of desire was in his eyes.

“Tell me,” said Etain, “what parted us?”
“The sorcery of Fuamnach divided us, one from the other,” said Midir, and approached her. “It was I who put love for you in Anguba’s heart, so that he was sick with longing and near to dying. It was I who took from him all carnal desire and covered him with sleep that your honour might not suffer.”

Etain was silent, and turned away from him.

“Etain,” he said, “will you come with me to the wondrous land where harmony is?

Hair is like the crown of the primrose there, and the body smooth and white as snow.
There is neither mine nor thine,
White are teeth there, and dark the brows.
A delight to the eye is the number of our hosts.”

But Etain would not look at him.

“A wondrous land is the land I tell of,” Midir said.
“Warm sweet streams flow though the land,
the choice of mead and wine,
stately folk, without blemish,
conception is without sin, without lust,
We see everyone on every side,
And no one seeth us.”
But still she stood apart.

“Will you come with me if the King, your husband, bids you?”

“Willingly,” Etain answered, and they looked into each other’s eyes.

When she returned to the house she found Anguba and he was whole
again, and healed of the cause of his sickness.
“We are well met,” he said, “for now I am healed, and your honour has not suffered.”
“It is well,” said Etain, and they rejoiced together.

When Eochaid returned from his journeying, he gave thanks to Etain for her care of Anguba, his brother, and for all she had done to tend him. There was feasting in the great hall of Tara, and Etain poured the wine for Eochaid, her husband, and for Anguba, his brother, for it is written, “the pouring of wine was a special gift of hers.

Opening to the Wisdom of the Story

The young woman has created three gifts of incomparable beauty with which to bargain. Now she sets out for the Sidhean:

By late morning, she has found the doorway in the hillside, although it is almost entirely hidden by overhanging boughs. She finds a hiding place nearby in a cluster of hazelnut bushes, and waits. And waits. And waits.

By late afternoon, her patience is rewarded. A tall woman whose pointed ears and eyes set slantwise in her narrow face mark her clearly as one of the Sidh, is hurrying along towards the hidden door. A latecomer.

The young woman stands quickly, noiselessly. She holds the harp under her arm, slides the cloak around her shoulders to conceal the harp, steps forward directly into the path of the faery woman.

At first there is shock, then anger on the faery’s face. “How dare you, a mortal woman, to come to this place?”

But the young woman is standing just where the sun’s light can catch the glints of gold in the embroidery on the bottom of the cloak. Slowly she turns, casting a spell of loveliness that sucks the very breath out of the Sidh woman.

It takes only a moment for the bargain to be struck.
“Very well. Give me the cloak and you may enter the Sidhean.”

But the young woman is wise. “No. Allow me inside and then you may have the cloak.”

And such is the splendour of the faery woman as she preens herself in the white cloak that no one even notices the mortal woman who enters the great hall of meeting at her side. At the front of the hall, the newly-elected King of the Sidh sits on a great throne carved from a mighty oak tree entirely.

The mortal woman lifts her harp, moves closer to the throne, plays a few notes of such unbearable sweetness that the whole assembly is struck silent.

The King at last speaks to her. “You have a fine harp there, mortal woman, but it wants tuning. Bring it here to me, and I shall tune it for you.”

“No,” she replies. “I have tuned it myself and it suits me well.” She begins to play a melody of such love and longing for her son that the king himself, seated on his throne, weeps.

“Bring that harp here, mortal woman. I should like to buy it.”

“The harp is not for sale,” she says, now playing another darker melody, one in which she pours forth her love for her dead husband as well as for her lost son.

The King can stand no more. He gestures to his servants, whispers something, sends them out of the room. They return, each carrying a great oak barrel. These they empty in front of the mortal woman, one filled with gold pieces, the other with precious jewels: rubies, emeralds, garnets, diamonds, amethysts, sapphires.

But the mortal woman does not even glance down at what is heaped before her. She holds the King’s gaze steadily. “You have here a mortal bairn. Him and him only will I accept in exchange for my harp.”

The King gasps. He has plans for that bairn… then the harp once more sings, and he has no strength to resist. He gives the order to a servant who vanishes, returning in a moment, carrying a baby about one year old, whose eyes are the blue of the night skies, whose hair flames like the setting sun. The bairn has eyes only for his mother, reaching out his arms to her. She allows a servant to take the harp from her hands as she reaches out to receive her child.

At once the harp begins to sing in the hands of the King and such is the sweetness of the music that no one even notices the mortal woman as she walks out of the Sidhean, clutching her child to her heart.

There is always a moment of complete stillness after the Storyteller ends her tale. The stillness allows the story to settle in our hearts, allows us time to notice what it has brought us, for every story holds a gift. Every telling of a tale, no matter how often we may have heard it, brings a fresh gift.
As the silence deepens, I see that you have been touched by this story. I wait longer, giving you time to absorb it, to sense the gift it brings you…….

I see that she is turning her gaze to you. She asks you now:

What gift has the story brought to you?

Take time to answer her questions. I’ll sit near and listen.

What does it teach about the desires of our heart, our deep longings?
What are the lessons related to time, finding the right moment, the long waiting for that moment?
Where do we seek for the resources we need to barter for our heart’s desire?
Who might help us on our journey as we seek?
What does the story say about persons or places or treasures that invite us to be satisfied with something less than our deep heart’s longing?
How might your life change, from this moment, if you choose to honour the deepest longing of your heart?

When I see that the Storyteller has finished her questioning of you, I ask her the question that has been stirring inside me since hearing this story again.
“So many women fear and distrust their own desires, even fear their own bodies in which these desires dwell. What would you say to them?”

Women need to know that they are profoundly loved, that every last part of their being is held in love. My friend, Symeon the New Theologian, from the tenth century of this present era, has words to reflect upon, to take in. 

…let yourself receive the one
who is opening to you so deeply
For if we genuinely love him,
we wake up inside Christ’s body…………
and everything that is hurt, everything
that seemed to us dark, harsh, shameful,
maimed, ugly, irreparably
damaged, is in him transformed
and recognized as whole, as lovely,
and radiant in His light
we awaken as the Beloved
in every last part of our body.

Remember these words always. Waken as the Beloved each day. Live as the Beloved. See that this will change everything.
When you return, I’ll tell you a story of the deep homeplace where the Beloved dwells within you.

Suddenly she is gone. I see the surprise on your face, but that is her way. We’ll return now to the upper world the way we came. We’ll come back another day for another story.

References: “The Stolen Bairn and the Sidh” is adapted from Kathleen Ragan “Fearless Girls, Wise Women and Beloved Sisters”  W.W. Norton and Company, New York, London, 1998

“We Awaken in Christ’s Body” by Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022) translation Stephen Mitchell in “The Enlightened Heart” Harper and Row, New York 1989

On Tara Hill in the Well of the Storyteller

The Storyteller continues her tale. We wonder whether Elspeth’s heart which speaks of dread, of grief, tells true.

As soon as the morning light awakens them both, the younger woman cries out in longing and despair. “My bairn! My bairn! Are the men returned yet? Have they found him?”

Before Elspeth can answer, Michael comes in the door. His expression of defeat, of sorrow, is all the answer she needs. “We looked everywhere. Along the cliff path and in the fields to either side all the way to where the high hills rise. We questioned every passer-by and stopped at each croft to ask. But none has seen a bairn or heard of one being found.” Slowly he raises his head, looks directly into the eyes of the young woman as he gathers courage. His voice is as gentle now as if he were speaking to a tiny child. “You’ve had a bad fall and a shock. Are you certain you didn’t just dream of a bairn?”

Her look at him holds strength like steel. “My bairn lives. I shall go now to find him.”
She has gained strength with her night’s sleep, and once she has eaten the bowl of porridge Elspeth prepares for her, nothing can prevent her leaving.

Still, Elspeth begs, “Please. Stay here with us. You have no one. We will be your family.”

But the young woman looks at her and at Michael. “Thank you both for your kindness. I must find my child. When I have him once more in my arms, I shall return to you.”

What shall I tell you of the days and nights that followed? She walks the dusty roads until darkness and exhaustion draw her to a hayrick or beneath a tree to sleep a few hours. Asking. Asking. Everyone she meets. Knocking on the door of every croft. “Have you seen a bairn? A baby boy? Close on a year old? Eyes the blue of night skies, hair like the flame of the setting sun?”

On the evening of the seventh day, weary beyond telling, she comes upon a small band of gypsies cooking their evening meal of rabbit stew over an open fire.

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The sadness in the eyes of the young woman touches their hearts. She is soon seated among them, offered a bowl of stew while one of the young gypsy girls bathes her swollen bleeding feet in a basin of cool spring water.

When the woman has recovered herself, she tells them her story, asks her question, “Have you seen a bairn…?”

The gypsies assure her they have only their own dark-eyed babies.
“But do not despair,” says the oldest man. “In seven days’ time, we leave for a great encampment of our people high in the hills. At that gathering will be an ancient crone, blessed with the sight. If anyone can know where your bairn is to be found, it will be she herself. Stay here for the week to rest; travel with us to speak with her.”

This morsel of hope brings back the colour to her cheeks. As the gypsy men take out their violins to play the sweet sad songs of their race, her heart begins to warm, to beat in rhythm to their music.

At the end of the seven days, made strong with music and rest, with fire and friendship and plentiful food, she sets off with the gypsies. On the third day, they reach the great encampment. As soon as her new friends have set up their camp, one of the young lads is instructed to lead her to where the ancient one always makes her fire.

An old old woman is sitting very still on a bench beside an open fire. The young woman sees her milky eyes and realizes with a shock that the crone is blind. But, sensing her presence, the ancient one, in a voice of surprising youth and sweetness, invites the younger woman to sit by her side on the bench. She lifts the young woman’s nearest hand into her own gnarled ones and holds it in silence. Then she asks, “What great sorrow brings you here?”

The young woman’s story pours forth like a rain-fed spring as the old one listens. The crone rises, feels for a clay pot that stands near the bench, withdraws from it a handful of herbs. These she tosses on the fire and the young woman sees that the cailleach is not completely blind, for she is peering intently now at shapes in the rising smoke. After a time, she returns to the younger one’s side, takes her hand once more in her own, breathes deeply and says, “Prepare yourself for great sorrow. Your bairn has been taken by the Sidh folk. They have taken him into their gathering, the Sidhean, where they are electing the new king to rule them for the next hundred years. What goes into the Sidhean does not come out.”

The young woman feels the blood leave her heart. “But the gypsies who brought me here promised me that you had great powers. Surely you can recover my child.”

“Yes. I have great powers. But my powers go back only as far as the dawn of humankind. The power of the Sidh folk is far more ancient than mine. I cannot undo what they have done.”

“Then give me some of your herbs that I may die, for I have nothing left to live for.”

At these words, the old one grasps her hand more firmly. “There may yet be a way. Allow me to think on this while the encampment lasts. Come to me in seven days’ time and I may have thought of something.”

All week, the young woman waits. Hope plays upon the strings of her heart as the gypsies’ bows play upon their violins. But between the notes and beneath the strings, grief and terror clutch at her.

On Tara Hill in the Well of the Storyteller

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The Hill of Tara at  Dusk

In our earlier session we arrived together in the Well of the Storyteller on Tara Hill. She is about to tell us an ancient tale of desire and longing, but first she invites us to settle in:

Lean back against the rock wall. Let it embrace you, body and spirit. Close your eyes. Relax all tension in your body. Breathe deeply. Now, I shall begin.

It is twilight on the moors as the eastern sky inhales, drawing away the day’s light, leaving a trail of rose madder and lavender on the sides of the far hills. Two of the Irish faery folk, the Sidh, now long vanished from our Isle, are walking along the path that skirts the cliff at the sea’s edge. One of them spies something ahead of her on the path and her greedy eyes glisten with the hope of gain. A bundle of clothes—perhaps finery—dropped by a traveller? She reaches down, her grasping fingers surprised by the weight. She opens the bundle, and cries out, “a bairn, a human bairn!”

The Sidh women look at one another, instantly united in one wicked resolve. “What no one is claimin’ is ours for the takin’.”

They hurry off, heedless of the cries of the baby now clutched to the finder’s thin breasts.

Almost all light has vanished as a coracle passes directly beneath the spot where the theft has just occurred. Michael and Niall are tired from their day’s fishing in the next cove, eager to be home to their families, their firesides, with the day’s catch. Niall plies the oars in the small boat, but it is Michael in the bow who spots the dark shape halfway up the side of the cliff. “Look up there, Niall. Is that someone trapped on the shelf – there, part way up the cliff?”

But Niall is weary, would rather not know, “Sure, ‘tis only a shadow, Michael. Or perhaps an animal resting.”

“Niall, how could we be sure ‘tis not some poor soul, fallen from the cliff above and injured? And how could we be going home to our own firesides, leaving someone there. Row to shore!”

Reluctantly, Niall turns the coracle towards the rocky cove and the bit of dry land that passes for shore. They secure the boat, scrabble their careful way up the cliff face, reaching for secure hand-holds, testing their weight on each jutting ledge with a tentative foot. When they reach the wide ledge where they’d spotted the shapes, they find a woman.

“Is she dead, Michael?” Niall’s whisper is filled with dread.

“No, but fainted or perhaps knocked unconscious by her fall. Here, take my cloak. Help me wrap her for the trip down to the boat.”

With tenderness, the two men make their careful way downwards, lay the still-unconscious woman in the bottom of their coracle. By the time they reach the cove near their own village, full darkness has risen to extinguish all outer light. The woman has not stirred.

Guided by the firelight that shines through the open window of Michael’s croft, they make their way to the door where Michael’s wife Elspeth, in one swift movement, lifts the woman into her arms and places her gently on the hearth rug beside the fire. “Quick, Michael, ladle some soup from the cauldron above the fire. Try to get her to swallow a little of it.”

The heat of the fire and the few drops of hot soup bring the woman to full wakefulness. She looks at Michael and his wife, and then around the small room as her eyes widen in terror. “My bairn! Where is my wee bairn?”

Elspeth looks at her husband. He shakes his head. “Prepare yourself for great sorrow,” she says to the younger woman. “There was no bairn with you when my husband and his friend found you.”

“You’d fallen from the cliff above,” Michael adds. “You might have died.”

But the young woman takes no comfort in her own survival. “My baby! He is all I have, for his father is dead. I placed him beside a gorse bush on the path, and went to find water for us both.” And already she has begun to stand as she says, “I must go to find him.”

Michael places a firm hand on her shoulder, preventing her from rising. “You’ll find nothing in this black night. Rest now, and at first light, Niall and I will call the men of village together to organize a proper search. We’ll walk back along the road that meets the cliff path. We’ll find your bairn. Never fear.”

But when he sees the anguish on the woman’s face, Michael reads her thought. How could a bairn survive alone at night? There are animals…

“I’ll get Niall and two lanterns. We’ll go now.”

Elspeth gives the woman more soup, laced with something to make her sleep, murmuring assurances that soon she’ll be holding her baby in her arms. But Elspeth hears another song deep in her own heart, a song of dread, of grief.

to be continued……