(Review) by Mary Saracino of The Everyday Spirituality of Women in the Italian Alps: A Trentino American Woman’s Search for Spiritual Agency, Folk Wisdom, and Ancestral Values by Mary Beth Moser

MaryBeth Moser_Everyday Spirituality_ImageMary Beth Moser’s doctoral dissertation, The Everyday Spirituality of Women in the Italian Alps: A Trentino American Woman’s Search for Spiritual Agency, Folk Wisdom, and Ancestral Values, takes readers on a wonderful adventure to uncover women’s ancient ways of knowing and being in the world.

While it explores the cultural and spiritual traditions of Trentino—a region in northern Italy that is the motherland of Moser’s grandmothers—the truths that it unearths transcend location and contribute to the ongoing effort to reclaim the story of women’s culture and spiritual agency across time and space.

Moser’s thought-provoking and engaging exploration earned the 2014 Kore Award for best dissertation from the Association for the Study of Women and Mythology.  The study is at once scholarly and personal.

Moser acknowledges that while she has been well educated (she holds a BS, an MA, and a PhD) her ancestral culture has been lost to her.

…it is the wisdom of the Trentino folk culture that I seek. I did not learn about the influence of lunar cycles, how to gather wild herbs and plants for food and medicine, or about female folk characters that embody the mystery of life… (p. 35).

Early in the volume, she honors her motherline:

I know I am the daughter of Lena, granddaughter of Edvige, great granddaughter of Felicita, and great great granddaughter of Margerita. It is these women who beckon me to retrieve my cultural heritage with a focus on folk women’s culture (p. 31).

She notes the synchronicity that led her to write this book:

On the eve of February 2, 2007, the midway point on the solar cycle of the year between the longest night and the spring equinox, I opened El Meledri, the periodical from the village of my maternal grandmother in northern Italy, named for a river that borders the village. Inside there is a photo of three women: my great grandmother, at the center, and her two oldest daughters, Emma and Erminia, on either side. Their eyes seem to look straight into mine across the ages and say, ‘We have been waiting for you’ (p. 31).

Moser conducted extensive field work in Trentino and the surrounding area visiting archeological sites, rock art sites, museums and churches; she talked with local experts and she also interviewed her relatives (those who lived in northern Italy and those who lived in the US).  Like many children and grandchildren of immigrants, she wanted to know more about her people’s homeland—and to perhaps shed some light on why her grandparents had left Italy. But, as a feminist and a scholar drawn to women’s spirituality, she also wanted to know more about the cultural legacy (lineage)—both current and subaltern—that had been lost (or nearly lost) in the transition from the ancestral motherland to her family’s new life in America. And, all that had been lost in the transition from a matriarchal worldview to a patriarchal worldview.

The Everyday Spirituality of Women in the Italian Alps offers an overview of the archeology and cultural history of Trentino, including the region’s folk stories, fairy tales, and women’s spiritual legacy. The stories it contains will resonate with anyone interested in women’s spirituality and women’s cultural herstory.

Moser consciously addresses the spiritual agency of folk women—thereby emphasizing the experiences of “the people of everyday village life, rather than the elite” (p. 2).  She defines spiritual as “that which gives life meaning” (p. 2); she defines agency as “the capacity to act or to exert power or influence” (p. 2).

She excavates ancient information about folk women’s embodied relationship with nature and the enduring cycles of life. She explores women’s everyday spirituality—as manifested in rituals, food, medicine, and stories—from the fifth millennium BCE to the present.

Moser adeptly covers a broad array of topics related to goddesses, ancestresses, women’s rituals, witches, plant medicine, and more—ranging from the Gaban “Venus” and the petroglyphs at Valle Camonica (a UNESCO World Heritage Site that contains over 300,000 engravings on 2,500 rock surfaces)to the Anguane (women of the waters, who embody everyday female spiritual agency and link female power with the forces of nature) and the Ladies of the Winter (Winter Goddesses) , vulva symbols, cupmarks, and rocks of fertility.

The folk stories she includes communicate respect for the sacred, respect for the wild (in nature and in ourselves), compassion for others, the importance of generosity and self-respect, the need to care for children, the importance of keeping one’s word, being honest, faithful, true to the knowledge that we are all connected.

She notes:

The Nature Beings of the folk stories communicate the non-commoditized value of the wild and the gift of nature. Being in nature, particularly wild nature, offers healing resonance that some part of us, from the long memory of our existence, knows (p. 358).

As a feminist cultural historian, Moser views everyday acts—like cooking, doing the laundry, preparing and administering medicinal remedies to tend to the sick, raising children, building and sustaining nurturing relationships with other humans, as well as with animals and plants—as rituals of renewal and transformation; she names women as both midwives and mourners who embody the sacred continuity of life and death. As oracular sibyls, women see into the future; as grandmothers and wise women they remember the past, protect sacred knowledge, and pass on values to the next generation.

Moser sheds light on how values—including sharing and caring, honoring the ancestors, respecting elders, caring for children, protecting nature, and keeping one’s word—are transmitted through women’s folk traditions, and how those embodied spiritual values enable humans to stay in tune with the cycles of nature and the cycles of life (with a special focus on lunar and menstrual cycles). She addresses the female representation of divinity and female rituals and delineates how those iconographic representations show the interconnection between nature, the cosmos, and women’s bodies.

Several chapters focus on folk women as keepers of the cycles of life, protectors of the source of life, creators of cloth and of clothes made from spun fiber (and the transformative nature of spinning). She writes about women as creators of food; she addresses the role of food in folk traditions and stories (food as medicine, as sustenance, as a conveyor of cultural values). She writes about women as makers of medicine and, thus, as contributors to restoring harmony and balance. She teaches us about the power of plants, and their many uses for healing, harming, protection, and gaining special knowledge. To gain a better understanding of their medicinal properties, Moser even took a course on plant medicine on island off the coast of Washington State where she lives.

The final chapters address the ways in which folk women rose up against injustice and the ways in which the old, wise women were  valued and honored in folk stories—and how in doing so the values and practices they upheld were passed forward.

Through it all Moser casts a keen eye, discerning how women’s spiritual and temporal agency was suppressed, negated, stolen.

She ends the volume with a poem, “The Rising,” which she says, “…rose up, unbidden, in the course of studying the folk stories of [her] ancestral homeland” (p. 366).

Ultimately, this fine book affirms/reaffirms the long thread of women’s cultural memory from ancient times to the present.  The knowledge and insights it contains are timely; a clarion call for each of us to remember what has been submerged (but not completely lost!) so that the Earth and all of her inhabitants may live sustainably, harmoniously, and in balance.

The Everyday Spirituality of Women in the Italian Alps: A Trentino American Woman’s Search for Spiritual Agency, Folk Wisdom, and Ancestral Values is available for purchase through ProQuest/UMI scholarly publications: http://gradworks.umi.com/35/60/3560748.html

Read Meet Mago Contributor Mary Saracino and Meet Mago Contributor Mary Beth Moser.

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