(Film Review) The Book of Jane by Judith Laura

The Book of Jane, an Antero Alli Film (Vertical Pool 2013), 117 minutes. Written and Directed by Antero Alli; Cinematography by Antero Alli.  Also available as a DVD.

As this intriguing film opens, the wind blows, a raven calls, and a Crone-like woman in black coat, jeans, and dark blue cap walks with the aid of a walking stick made from a tree limb. With a backpack and attached baby doll dressed in red, the woman limps around a college campus,  We may not be sure if what she is saying is coherent, but it is poetic: “The world is a busy place, a very very busy place. The world is in the business of consuming the planet. But the planet has other plans. The world is burning. The world is burning with the business, the busy business of saving the planet. But the world is not the planet and the planet does not need saving….Gaia is calling the shots now….” The woman continues her soliloquy for a bit, and then laughs and laughs.

Possibly related to the word “Book” in its title, this film is divided into chapters. As Chapter 1, “Signs and Omens” proceeds, the woman, Jane (Luna Olcott), speaks of “Mother Rhea” and goes beneath a bridge that spans a brook. As she takes a nap, we share the first of the wonderful dream sequences in this film, this one with music from the beautiful Ad Astra by contemporary composer Marie-Anne Fischer. In Chapter 2, “The Muse and Her Artist,” we meet two blonde women in their apartment, one a few years older than the other. The younger woman reveals a portrait she has just completed and set on what could be considered an altar. The portrait shows the slightly older woman as a crowned Goddess. We are then taken back to Jane sitting on a campus bench. She prays to Morpheus as she takes pain pills and tells of her first-born and only child, Brigit. Elsewhere on the campus, we see the older of the two blonde women sitting on a bench. Jane notices her but at first passes her by to pick up a feather, which she appears to listen to. She then turns around and brings the feather to her lips before speaking to the woman on the bench, who introduces herself as Alice (Marianne Shine). Alice explains she is a professor of comparative religious studies. Jane asks for the topic of her dissertation. At first Alice tries to dodge the question by saying she is busy, but Jane persists, and Alice replies, “Ancient Goddess Mythologies: PreHellenic Era.” As the conversation continues, Alice refers to Jane as “homeless.” But Jane says that she prefers the term “nomadic.” Jane also mentions the pain she’s in is related to the fact that she “can’t shit….it’s all backed up.” Alice continues to alternate between being fascinated with and being impatient with Jane, but eventually is won over by her knowledgeable and wise remarks, which include, “Goddess never advertises.” Though clearly quite intelligent and informed, Jane speaks mostly from the heart. Alice approaches, or tries to approach, matters intellectually. To me this conversation is the start of a theme related to an issue that has interested me for some time: the intellectual approach to Goddess studies compared with the experiential approach to understanding Goddess. Is it a comparison or is it a conflict? Does the intellectual focus on Goddess studies in a university (or other setting), which, though it establishes the legitimacy of anthropology, archeology, and history of Goddess veneration, detract from our deeply experiencing Goddess? Can we have both? This theme continues, often subtly, throughout the film.

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Meet Mago Contributor, Judith Laura

J LauraJudith Laura is the award-winning author of two novels and three Goddess books, the most recent of which is Goddess Matters: the Mystical, Practical, and Controversial. You can find out more about her books on judithlaura.com/books.html. She blogs as Medusa on medusacoils.blogspot.com.

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(Review) Anthology: She Is Everywhere, Volume 3 Review by Judith Laura

REVIEW: Anthology – She Is Everywhere Vol. 3

She Is Everywhere! An Anthology of Writings in Womanist/Feminist Spirituality, Volume 3. Gathered by Mary Saracino and Mary Beth Moser (iUniverse 2012), 460 pages. Available in softcover, hardcover, and as an e-book.

She Is EverywhereShe Is Everywhere! Volume 3 combines essays of significant scholarship with poetry, fiction, and art of deep inspiration. This volume focuses on the international community of people who honor the divine or sacred as female. Its contents contain articles not only from many different nationalities, but also from a variety of cultures and religions.

In alphabetical order by last name of contributor, this volume includes: Laura Amazzone, “The Fijian Kava Ceremony: An Ancient Menstrual Ritual?”; Michele Arista, “A Midrash of Rosary Prayers”; Gael Belden, “Soror Mystica: New Myth for a Changing Earth”; Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum, “Story, gifts, standpoint, and methodologies of feminist cultural history”; Nancy Caronia, “Underworld”; Giana Cicchelli, “Journey to the Center,” “In the Name of Jesus,” and “Resounding Response”; Joanna Clapps-Herman, “Psychic Arrangements” and “Potions, Lotions and Solutions”; Lori Coon, “The Dark Goddess”; Randy P. Conner, “Of Diana, Witches, and Fairies”; Nancy Cosgriff, “Hecate” and “Browned Beauty”; Elizabeth Cunningham, “Hymn to Ma of Ephesus” and “Ave Matres”; Max Dashu, “The Meanings of ‘Goddess’”; Leslene della-Madre, “The Luminous Dark Mother”; Chickie Farella, “I Love You Mom: Do Me a Favor… Don’t Tell Nobody”; Catlyn Fendler, “The Black Madonna and the Labyrinth”; Jean Feraca, “Crossing the Great Divide,” “Mater Dolorosa,” and “Nursing My Child Through His First Illness”; Annie Finch, “Goddess,” “Moon From the Porch,” and “Eve”; Mischa Geracoulis, “Secret Hair”; Tricia Grame, “Beyond The Symbol, VIII” and “Isis”; Mama Donna Henes, “Terra Mater” and “Holy Yoni”; Sheila Marie Hennessy, “Lilith” and “Contemplate Creation”; Theresa Gale Henson, “Finding Ixchel” and “Enough”; Helen Hye-Sook Hwang, “Making the Gyonocentric [sic] Case: Mago, the Great Goddess of East Asia, and Her Tradition Magoism”; Nané Ariadne Jordan, “A Poetics of the Placenta: Placental cosmology as gift and sacred economy”; Anne Key, “The Stuff of Life: Clay Figurines and Priestesses in Mesoamerica”; Lê Pham Lê, “The Fairy and the Dragon,” “Hát River,” and “Journey to Langbian Mountain”; Glenys Livingstone, “Spelling and Re-Creating Her”; Yvonne M. Lucia, “Black Madonna Cradles the Earth”; Lindy Lyman: “Mother and Daughter/The Forest”; Anne Key, “The Stuff of Life: Clay Figurines and Priestesses in Mesoamerica”; MamaCoAtl, “It is My Heart Who Reminds Me”; Nicole Margiasso-Tran, “Healing Wells and Sacred Fire”; Kathy Martone, “Rebirth” and “Gathering Forces”; Harita Meenee, “Orphic Mysteries and Goddess(es) of Nature: Greek Hymns Honoring the Divine Feminine”; Etoyla McKee, “Garden Okra”; Judy Millyard-Maselli, “Connected”; Mary Beth Moser, “The Motherline: Laundry, Lunedi, and Women’s Lineage”; Andrea Nicki, “Vagina Dentata”; Malgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, “Saint Sara-La-Kali: The Romani Black Madonna”; Luciana Percovich, “Momolina Marconi: An Italian Passionate Scholar of the Goddess”; Shelley R. Reed, “The Red Mother of the Salish Mountains”; Sandy Miranda Robinett, “Sardegnan Nuraghe”; Lydia Ruyle: Three Goddess Icon Spirit Banners: Crow Mother, Isis, Palden Lhamo”; Bridget Saracino, “Unfamiliar,” “Anubis,” and “Strawberry Lullaby”; Mary Saracino, “The Tarantata,” “Holy Mary,” and “Sicily”; Lisa Sarasohn, “Lisa & Zeb-un-Nissa” Kristin Shilling, “Puberty,” “The China Line,” and “Tendrils”; Elisabeth Sikie, “Descent,” “Tantra With Beloved,”and “Song to Demeter”; David Hatfield Sparks, “The Birth of Xochiquetzal at 948 Noe St.”; Solace Wales, “Messages from the Black Madonna”; Claudia von Werlhof, “The Interconnectedness of All Being: A New Spirituality for a New Civilization.”

The anthology contains fiction by Mary Saracino and poetry by Lori Coon, Elizabeth Cunningham, Annie Finch, Jean Feraca, Lê Pham Lê, MamaCoAtl, Judy Millyard-Maselli, Andrea Nicki, and Elisabeth Sikie. Art includes front cover “Black Madonna Cradles the Earth” by Yvonne M. Lucia and back cover “Contemplate Creation” by Sheila Marie Hennessy; interior art by Mary Beth Moser and Nicole Margiasso-Tran; original artwork by Tricia Grame, Lori Coon, Lydia Ruyle, Malgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba, Kathy Martone, Theresa Gale Henson, Shelley R. Reed, Sandy Miranda Robinett, Chris Gordoni, Nané Adriadne Jordan, Lindy Lyman, Sheila Marie Hennessy, and Harita Meenee. A List of Illustrations at the beginning of the Table of Contents gives more information on the original media of the artwork.

An unusual statement on the copyright page explains the use of “gathered,” rather than “edited.”

The gatherers/editors of this anthology do not wish to define an author or define an author’s work by trying to make the text of this anthology consistent in style, grammar, punctuation, etc.

One of the challenges in reviewing anthologies is that usually the contributions are diverse in subject matter, approach, and style, while the number of contributions makes it impractical to review each one. This anthology is no exception. Yet I will try to give you an idea of the variety, breadth, and depth of its contents.

The opening essay, ” Healing Wells and Sacred Fire: A Pilgrimage to Brigit’s Land,” by Nicole Margiasso-Tran, is a personal story of the author’s journey to Kildare, Ireland, to celebrate the Pagan holiday Brigit/Imbolc and the Catholic Saints Day for St. Brigid with a community of nuns named “Solas Bhride,”which translated from the Celtic into English means “Brigit’s Light (or Flame).” The author also describes visiting Goddess Brigit’s holy places.
This is followed by Max Dashu’s global, scholarly, and for me, inspirational, essay, ” The Meanings of ‘Goddess’.” Dashu looks at a large number of female deities from a wide variety of cultures and historical periods, including the present. Pointing out the difficulties that some academics (including some feminist academics) and others have with the word and concepts associated with “Goddess,” Dashu asserts a wonderfully strong socio-political stance, stating:

The Goddess movement recognizes the political uses of male-supremacist religion, and undermines its dominionist foundations. We challenge theologies that make females stand for the “inferior” material realm, reduce us to sex, decree our submission to male privilege. We repudiate hierarchy of all kinds, including the demonization of matter, of bodies, of darkness in patriarchal religion. We recognize how the twisted ideas of diabolism not only degraded women in the witch hunts, and inculcated hateful ideas about human sexuality, but at the same time demonized dark peoples and indigenous religions.

In addition to “Goddess,” Dashu discusses the use of the word “Mother,” writing that, in many cultures,”Mother” is synonymous with “Goddess”; that in such cultures “Mother is a truly expansive concept, and a divine one.” She also also discusses the roles of ritual and metaphor.

Leslene della-Madre‘s essay,”The Luminous Dark Mother,” was sparked by her interest in “the true origins and beginnings of the spiritual life of humankind.” Della-Madre equates “Dark Mother” with “Great Mother,” and describes her own journeys to find out more about “the African Dark Mother and her relationship to the dark matter of the Universe” (which she also calls the “yoni-verse”). She goes on to relate the Dark Mother to several other scientific theories and discoveries, including for instance, multiple universes, as well as to social and political issues.

Anthology series founder Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum’s contribution to this volume, “Story, gifts, standpoint, and methodologies of feminist cultural history,” begins with her explanation about why she doesn’t like capitalization: primarily because it denotes hierarchy. From her usage in this essay, I conclude that this applies to adjectives denoting proper nouns (e.g. chinese food), but not to nouns (e.g. China). This is consistent with capitalization in Romance languages (e.g. French, Spanish, Italian). I’ve also observed that there are languages, such as those in what is today commonly called the Middle East, which don’t capitalize anything. It is unclear to me whether non-capitalization correlates with egalitarianism. OTOH, I like experimentation in language, so why not give it try? Birnbaum moves on to an “Author’s Note” about her transitioning from teaching in the Women’s Spirituality program at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) to another phase of her life…

She also explains that this essay is the “first” chapter of her forthcoming book. Birnbaum, whose ancestry is European Mediterranean, or more specifically, Sicilian, sees feminist cultural history as beginning “in 100,000 BCE in Africa.” Her current research focuses on relating this to areas now called Italy, France, and Spain. She then takes up, as an example of steps backward, the important issue of lack of publishers’ openness to work of spiritual feminist scholars, writing of her own experience with her earlier work that included:

the many rejections at the end of the 1990s of my manuscript dark mother, african origins and grandmothers by white male editors in the United States, including two cases of acceptance by women editors at university presses subsequently reversed by white male editors.

Birnbaum then goes into detail about her academic background, affiliations, and awards. The essay concludes with a look at the significance of what she understands to be her African-Sicilian ancestry.

At the beginning of her essay, “Lisa & Zeb-un-Nissa,” Lisa Sarasohn writes:

She may be everywhere, but if she wants to tag me with clear directive, she’ll snag me at the library or in a book store… The books she chooses for me tip off the shelf, into my hands.

After telling us how the book by a 17th century Sufi poet came to her and giving details on its physical construction, Sarasohn shows us some of Zeb-un-Nissa’s poems and gives examples of how she, Sarasohn, recrafted them. She explains the ghazal form of poetry, which Zeb-un-Nissa ordered into a diwan, a series of groups of ghazals “ordered according to their rhyme.” This clearly and beautifully written essay makes what might be new material for some easily understandable. It is likely to be a particular favorite of those who love books and poetry.

In her scholarly essay about East Asian religion, Helen Hye-Sook Hwang writes that she coined the term “Magoism” to refer to “the organic structure that relates” diverse sources and materials from the ancient “gynocentric cultural and historical context of East Asia, which venerates Mago as supreme divine.” Magoism, she says, is both monotheistic and polytheistic. “Mago is the Great Goddess in her multiple manifestations.” The essay continues with a detailed description of Magoism.

Lydia Ruyle, whose many Goddess icon banners fly or have flown at libraries and other institutions and at conferences and celebrations, contributes the art and explanations for three of them: Crow Mother, the Hopi Mother of all katsinas (spirits); Isis, Great Mother of Egypt whose worship extends to many other areas, shown in this banner with her son Horus; and Palden Lhamo, “fierce protectress of Tibet and the Dalai Lama.” Ruyle writes:

The only thanka, prayer flag, which the Dalai Lama took with him when he fled the Chinese takeover of Tibet in 1959, was Palden Lhamo. Since then, she travels with him wherever he goes.

Malgorzata Oleszkiewicz-Peralba’s essay about “Saint Sara-La-Kali” begins with two quotes, regarding the relationship of blackness with light or radiance. Oleszkiewicz-Peralba then goes on to discuss the “black madonna” honored by many Romani (sometimes called Roma or the Rom, and sometimes called “gypsies,” a term generally considered incorrect by the Rom). The author says that Sara-La-Kali is “possibly a blend of the Catholic Virgin Mary and the Indian goddess Kali/Durga/Sara, and describes the yearly celebration of Sara-La-Kali in the French town of Les Saintes Maries de la Mer. She relates the possibly historical but at this point unverifiable story of Mary Magdalene arriving with family and friends by boat to southern France, discusses the role of the Cathars, and the long intermingling of Egyptian and French deity worship, takes a look at various theories and legends about the identity of the human Sara, and includes details of the Romani migration from India to Persia in 250-650 CE, and then through Europe, including 600 years of slavery in Romania. She notes that today, Sara-La-Kali’s “cult” persists not only in Europe but also in the Americas and Australia. The author describes the relationship of Sara-La-Kali to other goddesses who are nurturing, protectors of childbirth, and often located in grottos, caves, near or in the sea or other bodies of water. There are several photos the author took while visiting sites in France.

This essay is followed by a group of meditations by Solace Wales, inspired by visits to Black Madonna sites.

Anne Key’s essay, “The Stuff of Life: Clay Figurines and Priestesses in Mesoamerica,” examines the “gap” between the Mesoamerican artifacts and other materials she has seen at various sites in the field and Mesoamerican materials included in museum exhibits. She goes on to present what she has found to be the role of women spiritual leaders in Mesoamerica.

Laura Amazzone’s “The Fijian Kava Ceremony: An Ancient Menstrual Ritual?”explores the kava ceremony on Fiji, where the population is now predominantly Christian, but where there still remain remnants of a culture that included ancestor worship, spirit possession, and “ingestion of consciouness-altering substances,” of which kava is one. Amazzone writes that although kava is known to induce menstruation, today only men participate in the kava ceremony. She presents information and theory about whether this was always the case.

Mary Beth Moser likes to hang her laundered clothes to dry on a clothesline outdoors. “The Motherline” includes her remembrances of clotheslines past, combined with the honoring of the Goddess Tanit. There are photos of her Tanit clothesline and a sacred well she discusses in this essay.

Nané Ariadne Jordan, begins her essay, “A Poetics of the Placenta,” with a “Prelude” about her paternal grandmother. She then tells about her experience as a lay midwife/doula including the medical, symbolic, and possible ritual significance of the placenta and its possible uses after the baby is born. She also proposes a cosmology and economy based on the birth process.

Donna Henes’ essay, “Holy Yoni,” is a remarkable tour de source of sex in Goddess religions. Beginning with the metaphor of Earth as our mother, continuing through a discussion of the role of women in early “Earth-identified societies,” Henes goes on to discuss the significance of women’s primary and secondary sex characteristics in symbolism, language, architecture, ritual, and other aspects of a variety of Goddess-venerating cultures over the centuries.

Harita Meenee’s essay on “Orphic Mysteries and Goddesses” discusses the Orphic Hymns, a collection of 87 poems used in rituals of the Orphic Mysteries, in which goddesses were prominent. She speculates on the role of women in the Mysteries and then quotes the “Orphic Hymn to Nature.”

The book’s last essay, Glenys Livingstone’s “Spelling and Recreating Her,” begins:

“Goddess,” as I understand the term, is the Female Metaphor for the Great Creative Principle of the Universe. As such, She is both the Matrix and a wholistic template of Being: that is, She is whole and complete within Herself… there is no need to masculinize certain of Her qualities, though she includes qualities that have been termed “masculine.”

Livingstone defines the three aspects of Goddess as Virgin/Maiden, Mother/Creator, and Crone/Old One. She writes that they may be but are not necessarily limited by age association, and responds to those who maintain that three aspects are insufficient. She also discusses the Triple Spiral and its symbolism, as well as the symbolic and scientific role of the Moon. Livingstone then moves on to other thealogical and cosmological concepts, integrating science and thealogy as she draws from authors Thomas Berry and Brian Swimme. She also explores the meaning of body/embodiment, especially of the female body, and its relevance to the indigenous spirituality of Australia, where she lives.

The essays are footnoted or endnoted and have bibliographies.

She is Everywhere! Volume 3 is likely to be a valuable text for college courses in women’s studies, gender studies, religion, sociology, and probably some other subjects I haven’t thought of. I would also expect it to be useful in adult groups studying Goddess and other spiritual feminisms. It will also be useful to individuals studying on their own, especially those looking for material that cannot easily be found elsewhere. For more information on this book and other volumes in this anthology series, visit sheiseverywhere.net

This article was first published on Medusa Coils by Judith Laura


(Book Review) Novel About Hildegard by Mary Sharratt, reviewed by Judith Laura

Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen by Mary Sharratt, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012, 272 pages, available beginning Oct. 9 in hardcover and as an e-book.

Mary Sharratt’s fascinating historical novel, Illuminations, is written from the first person point of view of Hildegard von Bingen, a 12th century German Benedictine abbess, composer, poet, theologian, herbalist, and scientist, who recognized divinity in nature, opposed mortification of the flesh, and desired more freedom for herself and for her nuns. Ironically to some, her sainthood was made official last May by Pope Benedict XVI, who announced he will elevate her to“Doctor of the Church” on Oct. 7. The release date of this book is set to coincide with this elevation, granted to fewer than 40 saints, only 4 of whom are women.

Author of four previous novels, the most recent of which is Daughters of the Witching HillSharratt begins Illuminations with a prologue set in the year 1177 when Hildegard is 79. She and her nuns are burying on hallowed ground a runaway monk whom the archbishop has declared an apostate. As Hildegard awaits a decision on whether the burial will result in her being punished by the Church, she is visited by a young monk who apparently hasn’t heard of the controversial burial because it occurred while he was traveling to visit Hildegard. The purpose of his journey is to interview the abbess so he can write her vita. He asks her such questions as “…is it true that you bade your nuns to wear tiaras?” and “….Did I correctly understand that God appears to you as a woman?”

Hildegard ponders how to respond to the monk’s questions as the prologue ends and, in Part I (“The Tithe”), the novel flashes back to Hildegard, age 5, the 10th child of a noble, but not very wealthy, family. Hildegard plays with her dolls, her older sisters, and her brother Rorich, suffers various illnesses, and begins to have visions. In Hildegard’s voice, here is the first one described in the novel:
“A shadow passing overhead made me glance up to see an orb come floating out of the sunlight. A ball of spun gold, yet clear as glass. Inside grew a tree adorned with fruits as dazzling as rubies. The tree breathed in and out, as a living creature would.”

Hildegard reaches for the orb, but “like a bubble, it burst.” After she asks her nursemaid Walburga and her mother where the orb has gone, Hildegard overhears them asking each other whether she is “mad, or simply bad?” Hildegard prays for the to visions stop, but they  persist and some are prophetic. When she is 8, her mother explains that consistent with the custom of tithing 10 percent of one’s income to the Church, she is donating Hildegard, the 10th child, to the Church. This will be accomplished by Hildegard’s accompanying a young noblewoman of a wealthier family, the beautiful but troubled Jutta von Sponheim, to a monastery where they will be “anchorites,” walled into a small area called an anchorage beneath the monastery and given to understand that they will never be allowed to leave. In return for this “donation,” the Sponheims give Hildegard’s mother dowries for two of her other daughters.

After the rite of anchorage on All Souls Eve, Hildegard compares her situation of being hidden away both to “being sealed in a tomb” and to that of “women in the glittering harems of the East.” As Jutta, who is a few years older than Hildegard, sinks deeper into starvation and other forms of masochism, Hildegard daydreams about escaping, possibly with the help of her brother. And she continues to have visions, which she keeps secret. The first night in the anchorage she sees a golden pulsing orb containing “a face like Walburga’s but not Walburga’s. A face bathed in tenderness, the Mother of my deepest longing….” who tells her, “….When the time is ripe, I will set you free….”

During Advent, Hildegard remembers Walburga’s stories about the customs of her ancestors who were heathen and observed the Twelve Nights of Yuletide, “a time out of time when fate hung suspended…the Old Ones roaring across the midwinter skies: the Wild Hunter…in pursuit of his White Lady with her streaming hair and starry distaff….” As a winter storm rages outside, a vision comes to Hildegard:
“… a white cloud bursting with a light that was live, pulsing and growing until it blazed like a thousand suns. In that gleaming I saw a maiden shine in such splendor that I could hardly look at her….Her mantle, whiter than snow, glittered like a heaven full of stars. In her right hand she cradled the sun and the moon. On her breast, covering her heart, was an ivory tablet and upon that tablet I saw a man the color of sapphire. A chorus rose like birdsong on an April dawn—all of Creation calling this maiden ‘Lady’. The maiden’s own voice rose above it… I bore you from the womb before the morning star.”

The vision fades but the voice continues, telling Hildegard she is here for a purpose she does not yet understand. Then another vision, in which Hildegard is in “a greening garden so beautiful it made me cry out.” She hears the Lady’s voice again, this time whispering:
See the eternal paradise that has never fallen.” Hildegard then sees
“a great wheel with the all-embracing arms of God at its circumference, the Lady at its heart. Everything she touched greened and bloomed.”

Another vision follows on Christmas night, in which the image in the orb appears as Mother rather than Maiden; Hildegard calls this Mother, God. She speaks to Hildegard, saying,
“I am the supreme fiery force who kindles every living spark. I flame above the beauty of the fields. I shine in the waters. I burn in the sun, moon, and stars. With the airy wind, I quicken all things….”   

Hildegard’s relationship with Jutta, her magistra (superior, teacher), is a very difficult one. Jutta teaches her to read and write in German and Latin and to play the psaltery, but her magistra also becomes increasingly distant as her health declines, apparently due to her fasting, along with damage to her body caused by her hair shirt and self-flagellation. A few years pass as Hildegard develops a crush on a kind young monk, Volmar, who brings her fabric for a less irritating garment to replace her hair shirt, books on herbalism, and plants for her to nurture. But alas, Volmar is smitten with Jutta, and we have an unrequited love triangle.

When she is about 15, Volmar introduces Hildegard to a female hermit of the peasant class who has come to see Jutta. Jutta has a large following as a holy woman but isn’t particularly anxious to talk with this woman. The hermit tells Hildegard that she has prophetic visions, and insists on seeing Jutta to tell her of a vision she had about her. After impudently asking Volmar for a mug of beer, the hermit at last gets her audience with Jutta. Hidden, Hildegard overhears the hermit’s prophecy, which includes her. The hermit also tells Jutta that Hildegard has visions. Hildegard, frightened that this discovery will bring punishment, retreats to her pallet and receives a vision in which a”pale blue woman, crowned in majesty”descends in a cloud, calling herself “Eclessia, the true and hidden church.” Hildegard then sees in Ecclesia’s arms, “a company of consecrated virgins,”who weren’t veiled or starving but whose hair flowed freely and wore not hair shirts, but royal garments in bright colors. One of them, beautiful with long black hair, smiles at Hildegard, saying, “Have courage and endure. One day I shall come to you.” 

When Hildegard is 17, Jutta requests and receives new oblates, ages 11 and 5. Hildegard watches as the girls undergo the ceremony of entombment on All Soul’s Eve. The wall entombing the anchorites is to be knocked down so that the new anchorites can enter. The entire group will then be re-walled in. During the brief opportunity when the wall is down, Hildegard plans to escape with the help of her brother, a priest rising in the Church hierarchy, who is present at the ceremony along with other important men of the Church.

And I’ll leave the plot there, about a third of the way into the book.

Sharratt brings to life Hildegard and the other characters in a realistic, down to earth writing style, while imparting to passages such as Hildegard’s visions an appropriate but not overwritten inspirational quality. This is the kind of writing that you don’t think about while you’re reading because it allows the story to shine. With great enthusiasm I recommend Illuminations, whether you presently know a little or a lot about Hildegard.

In the book’s Afterword, Sharratt discusses the sources she used, the discrepancies in historical accounts, and why she chose some accounts over others. She writes that she has “taken some liberties with the timeline.” In an interview provided by the publisher, Sharratt discusses some of the controversies surrounding Hildegard. Regarding the claim, made most famously by neurologist Oliver Sacks, that Hildegard’s visions were part of the migraine headache syndrome, Sharratt points out that critics of this theory counter that although Hildegard describes migraines in her medical treatise Causae et Curae, she doesn’t write that she herself had migraines (in Illuminations, Hildegard’s mother has headaches that can be interpreted as migraines). Further, the “rings” that Hildegard sees in some accounts and on which Sacks bases his claim because he says they resemble the aura preceding migraines, are from illustrations drawn by artists other than Hildegard. Sharratt says that to her “the migraine theory remains speculative.” Regarding whether Hildegard and one of her nuns, Richardis, had a lesbian relationship, Sharratt says, “I don’t believe their relationship was sexual. Hildegard made no attempt to hide her love for Richardis, I don’t believe that she thought their love was in any way shameful.” In the Afterword, Sharratt lists the music composed by Hildegard that she listened to while writing Illuminations. I’ll close by sharing with you the music of one of Hildegard’s songs, “Veridissima Virga” (“Greenest Branch”), whose unconventional first performance is described in the novel. Here it is performed in the 20th century by the musical group, Sequentia:

(This review was first published on Medusa Coils, where Judith Laura blogs as Medusa. http://medusacoils.blogspot.com/search/label/reviews)