blog description

Old women talk about old things: history, myth, magic and their
checkered pasts, about what changes and what does not.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Crone Ripples

Early spring morning; north river branch

Seeking peace; connecting with mobile river spirits
Warm sunshine, cool mist rising
Breathing in quiet beauty; listening wide and deep
Turtle -splash, water gurgling
Graceful swoop of Kingfisher
Attention captured/ seized/ devoured
Across the rippling water six tender birdlings meander
Chasing breakfast morsels
Flashing by in innocent delight
Moving as exotic river creature,
 Slipping through the fluid currents
 Dark dangers in the shadows
…. Breath catches fierce and painful
Where is their mother?
Who guards their vulnerable way?
 What protects them in their searching?
Gentle sunshine, light mist rising
Death in its cold beauty must not reach them.
 Not now.
Not here.
 Not in this perfect moment

Friday, May 23, 2014


Child with smallpox courtesy of CDC/James Hicks

Variolation is a form of inoculating a person with the smallpox virus in an effort to minimize the severity of the disease. I first became intrigued by the concept when I was watching a movie about John Adams, the second president of the United States. To my surprise, I discovered the scene depicting Abigail Adams purposely having her children infected with smallpox had really taken place. But John and Abigail Adams lived during the 18th century. What about the 17th?

The technique predates vaccination as we know it, and apparently has its origin in 8th-century India. Records indicate that China used variolation by the 10th century. In the West, Lady Mary Wortley Montague is credited for bringing it to England in 1721 after witnessing the practice being used by a doctor in Constantinople.

Again, I thought this would be a plot point that I would have to bypass since The Dreaming: Walks Through Mist is 17th-century Virginia. Then, I did a little more reading. In Massachusetts, Cotton Mather had heard about variolation from a slave in 1706. The slave, from western Africa, had been inoculated as a child which according to him was common practice there. This gave me the lead I needed as the slave would have grown up during the 17th century.

According to medical historians, variolation made its way to Egypt during the 13th century. It is unknown exactly when the form of inoculation came about in North and western Africa, but it was definitely known by the late-17th century and most likely earlier.

With this knowledge, I reasoned, why couldn't I write such a scene? The circumstances were very similar in 17th-century Virginia as Massachusetts. Because my scene takes place during mid-century, the Africans were usually indentured servants, rather than lifelong slaves, but the knowledge could have been available. Even during the 18th century in the colonies, variolation was often thought of as African black magic, therefore frequently discredited among the medical community.

The technique consists of collecting the virus with a lancet from a pustule of an infected person and transferring it under the skin in the arm or leg of the person without the disease. Unlike modern vaccination, this procedure gives the non-infected person an active case of smallpox. However, with the use of variolation, the person, hopefully, contracted a milder form.

Death resulted in 2-3% of the cases where variolation was used. Whereas, the normal fatality rate was 20-30% with much higher percentages for children and Native Americans. Most survivors were left with disfiguring scars, while blindness and limb deformities were less common complications.

The obvious disadvantage to variolation was that people infected through this method could spread the natural severe form of the virus to others. In a time before routine vaccination, the risks seemed to far outweigh the consequences.

Kim Murphy

Friday, May 16, 2014

Listen to the Trees

The concept of a divine World Tree or Tree of Life, the mythic bridge between the worlds of god and human, is entwined with the veneration of trees. As an embodiment of the universe, the roots of the World tree inhabit the underground, the deep knowledge of earth. The trunk unites the roots with the upper celestial canopy. The products given by each tree were considered a physical manifestation of divine providence.                                       C. Austin ,Footprints, Web.

A few weeks ago a television show,  on National Geographic or Nature or some channel like that,  revealed research into plant communication.  Most of it was about the scents and colors that plants use to signal pollinators or hide from enemies. But one plant actually kills a rival plant by chemistry and root aggression. It is being planted in western states to combat an invasive non-native species.

More interesting to me was the proof that trees communicate  and use the same tools to nurture their offspring.  Yes, they send extra nutrients to their baby trees. Astounding, amazing, exciting; it is like finding long-lost sisters and brothers all around me. There is a fungus that grows symbiotically with the tree’s root system. This is a pathway for transmitting energy or signals of some kind to neighboring trees. I have added tree roots to the catalog of things I love - the WHOLE tree and every part.

This makes sense to me. In grade school we learned that trees draw some of their nutrition but particularly their water from underground. What  makes even greater sense to me comes from my experiences  with “energy work.”  In classes on metaphysical practices, invariably we ground ourselves deep in the earth first. We feel ourselves pushing roots deep into the soil, the rock, the core of planet Earth. Then we lift our arms to the sky and push our hands into a sea of oxygen, vapor, star-power, so we become a conduit, a connection to the entirety of life force.

If this sounds ridiculous, laugh – please! Laughing is very good for you. If you sneer or judge, you hurt only yourself. Instead, I invite you to stand very still and see if you feel  a very subtle tingling in your hands and feet. Or take a yoga class. Do a sun salutation. You will definitely feel something amazing in the balance at your core. Or join me in sometimes hugging trees, but certainly sitting on their roots and having a conversation -- with the trees.

I have been thinking about trees a lot. Druids knew trees as holy, so I started poking around for information about them on the internet. It seems every author knows of trees that were sacred and held specific properties in the early Celtic religion. The different sites just can’t agree on all the important trees, except for three: the Oak, the Ash, and the Hawthorn. Then there is the Alder, the Elder, Apple trees, Rowan trees!  I could spend days reading websites that have zodiacs, symbolic meanings, fairy lore and spells associated with trees. One time of the year bring Holly in, but get it out of the house before Candlemas! Planting a hawthorn by your door will protect your house from evil – but don’t let its nasty little fairies inside. One site gives symbolic information for 20 species of trees or shrubs. Stones actually replaced particularly sacred trees according to one source. All of them discuss the Ogham alphabet, which is attributed to symbols for specific trees. An entire history of Celtic civilization is written in trees!  

Finally, there is Yggdrasil. The World Tree. So far I have found three individuals willing to admit the name is Norse, but there is one legend of a comparable tree in Celtic belief. It is the symbol of the unity around us, a bridge between the worlds, or the sun salutation of these other living beings, our companions – the trees. 

 I was unable to find information about the artist who created this. I apologize to him or her and welcome a correction.

Friday, May 9, 2014


COSI FAN TUTTE is the final Mozart-Da Ponte collaboration/masterpiece. I had the pleasure of hearing/seeing it recently at the Met at the Movies series.  “So do they all” is a loose translation of the title, an opera which has been variously described as a battle of sexes and/or as a libel upon the fidelity of women. 
A brief outline of the story is as follows: an elderly cynic, Don Alfonso, bets his two idealistic, romantic young friends that their ladies will betray them at the first opportunity, and he arranges a 24 hour masquerade in order to demonstrate this. The young men pretend to have been summoned for military service and then take their leave amid tearful scenes. Then, costumed with wigs and moustaches and odd eastern garments, they re-appear, pretending to be old friends of Don Alfonso, in town for a visit. The “foreigners” claim to have fallen for the ladies at first sight and press their suit by all sorts of extravagant means. After much grandstanding, emotional blackmail and many comic situations, the ladies capitulate and agree to marry the “foreigners”. (An added complication here is that the ladies have, more or less by accident,  switched partners.) When the truth is revealed, Alfonso wins his bet and the couples are left “sadder and wiser”.

At every intermission during performance, the singers discussed the lack of "political correctness" in the text.  I had hopes for greater insight from the artists, but the only explanations offered were of the apologetic variety, mostly in regard to “historical context”. While this is, to some extent, true—after all, 18th Century “sexual morality” i.e. the double standard combined with a lot of woman bashing--I believe there’s more depth to COSI, then and now, than initially meets the eye.

I studied all of Mozart’s operas as I worked on “Mozart’s Wife”.  COSI seemed, after some research, to have biographical elements. Mozart and Constanze were close friends with Jacob Lange, an actor, and his wife Aloysia, a prima donna, who also happened to be Constanze’s older sister. In fact, Mozart had wooed Aloysia, but when she eloped with the then more successful and famous Lange, he’d settled for Constanze.  This in part mirrors the situation in the opera, where Fiordiligi and Dorabella are sisters.
Did Mozart see himself as the gentle, plain Fernando, and Lange as the dashing, witty, self-regarding Guglielmo? When, in the course of the deception, the couples switch partners, we have a classic foursome—along with all the inherent problems and conflicting loyalties of such an arrangement.

  As I structured my novel around known events, what is known about Mozart's circumstances while he created these operas offered me insight. There is one character in Cosi I haven’t yet mentioned, the maid, Despina, who is an 18th Century archetype, a clever, scheming servant. Mozart clearly demonstrates great affection for and understanding of servants in all his operas, perhaps because his own status and ability to make a living rested upon the whims of the rich. He knew what it was like to be at the mercy of privileged, arrogant, and worst of all, mediocre, men.

In COSI the men “prove” that women are unfaithful—and certainly they are, after much trickery and manipulation.  Both sides in the battle of sexes are presented, even if the mouthpiece for pro-woman view, Despina, is “low” character.  Contrast:

Women’s faithfulness is like the Arabian phoenix,

Everybody says it exists, but no one knows where it is… (Don Alfonso, the cynic)

Gorgeous Danielle di Niese as Despina

So you really hold out hopes that men and soldiers can be faithful? (she laughs)

Every one of them is made from the same old stuff…those crocodile tears, those deceitful words,

Those charming lies…all they want from us is to take their pleasure;

and then they despise us, and deny their affection.

You might as well ask a barbarian for mercy… (Despina)


In the end, Don Alfonso says that the men might as well marry their girls, because they won’t find others who are different. This is, of course, is the 18th Century Party line, which, to modern women, strongly smacks of male projection. But I think that Mozart makes it quite clear that our emotional lives, whether we are male or female, are far more difficult, with many more nuances, than anything imagined by more orthodox thinkers. As Ferrando sings:


Betrayed and scorned by her treacherous heart,

This soul of mine still adores her,

And hears only the voice of love… (Fernando)


That you can be hurt by your sweetheart, and still be madly in love is not an unusual occurrence. Mozart had been dealing with the consequences of infidelity—his, certainly, and, by this time, perhaps, with Constanze’s.  COSI's  operatic characters have  so much individuality and emotional depth, but the problems Don Alfonso creates are left unresolved.
In my opinion--and that of others over the centuries--what the couples are truly left with is an emotional mess, the outcome of which is never explored. This is an opera which could definitely use a sequel! Do the original couples reunite? Do they keep their new partners, to whom they may actually be better suited? Or, after this debacle, do they all just throw up their hands and swear off the opposite sex forever?
As one commentator noted, what about the men’s behavior? Masculine ego, a handy cover for insecurity, is as much at fault as the women’s fear of abandonment and desire for affection.  And the men, lest we forget, have all the power in a time where being someone's wife was woman's only "career" choice.

What of Don Alfonso? Does he enjoy raining on the parade of his youthful friends?  And is he a “friend”, after all, or a magus who delights in stirring up trouble? There were contemporary rumors that COSI's plot was based upon an actual and recent Viennese scandal.  If we're going to talk about "historical context", we shouldn't forget that this is the same period in which the enduringly cruel Les Liaisons Dangereuses was written.



Grappling with COSI for MOZART'S WIFE, I came up with an interchange between Stanzi and Wolfgang:

...When I remarked that Cosi was exactly the kind of nasty thing men liked to believe about women, Mozart raised a sandy eyebrow.

“You don’t think I’m like that, do you?” I persisted. For the hundredth time, I wondered if he knew about Christoph.

Mozart considered me, chin in hand. “Well, would you be able to remain virtuous if I were away on a long journey and some handsome fellow was nicely kissing the back of your neck, saying that he loved, no, adored you? That he might die if he couldn’t have you? Especially if he was handsome and a good dancer, a man who quickly learned all your little…penchants?” He accompanied this by running his fingers along the back of my neck in a way he knew I particularly liked.

It took some effort, but I managed to say, “It’s an immoral story. Nice women don’t act like that.”

At first, he didn’t answer; he just kept stroking. When I finally gave in and relaxed against him, he whispered in my ear, “Are you quite sure you’re made of such strong stuff? Something like this actually happened during the last little war. DaPonte says he knows the people involved.”

“Oh, DaPonte!” I was disbelieving, but Wolfgang didn’t defend Lorenzo. It was as if his mind was elsewhere, for he stopped his stroking and sighed.

“The real point is that they all forgive each other, that love does conquer all, in spite of the women’s weakness for romance and the men’s stupid pride. Ah, Stanzerl, don’t you see? The men are actually far worse than the women. The idiots never think for a moment when they make their bet. They frighten their poor girls and then deceive them. It’s really their pride, their inexperience, their arrogance, that almost causes the breaking of four hearts. Don’t you think the men learned a lesson, too?”



Bonabel illustration from Mozart Auf Der Reise Prague

~~Juliet Waldron
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Thursday, May 1, 2014


For May Day, I’ll post an old favorite of mine, the Maypole song as sung in the astonishing, one-of-a-kind 1973 movie, The Wicker Man. Here, children dance around the Maypole to celebrate the coming of spring, which is another of those magical pagan festivals where the veil between the worlds is thin. Like so much of the music in this movie, the tune is borrowed from an old Celtic song.

I’ve always felt this scene is pivotal, one in which the world of the conventional, pious policeman really begins to tilt. he realizes that on Summerisle, he's stepped clear out of his ordinary frame of reference. 


In the woods there grew a tree
And a fine fine tree was he…
And on that tree there was a limb
And on that limb there was a branch
And on that branch there was a nest
And in that nest there was an egg
And in that egg there was a bird
And from that bird a feather came
And of that feather was A bed…
And on that bed there was a girl
And on that girl there was a man
And from that man there was a seed
And from that seed there was a boy
And from that boy there was a man
And for that man there was a grave
From that grave there grew A tree…
In the Summerisle, Summerisle, Summerisle,
Summerisle, Summerisle wood.


This fairly sums up the old idea of reincarnation, at least, the western version. Paganism, like Physics, preaches conservation of energy. The expression of a thing may change, but the essence never disappears—especially on Summerisle, which is also the axis of the World Tree and the Back of the North Wind--the eternal green place where Gaia dwells.