A girl leaps out of her tree perch to warn a pregnant doe that a hunter is drawing his bow against her. For this act of defending the mother deer, who should never be hunted, her uncle beats her. And so this novel drops us into the world of East Anglia in the year 598, in the wake of the Saxon invasions and enslavement of some of the British population. In this world, the old folkmoot councils are threatened by the rising power of the thanes, a hierarchy of lords under the new Saxon kings. And these lords are eroding women’s power at a rapid pace.
The spirited girl Meg is a thrall enslaved to a Saxon family. Her mother, the healer Seren, is devoted to Breejsh, a local form of the ancient Celtic goddess Brigit / Brigindo. Her power is constantly curbed by bondage and its constant work load; she has no freedom to roam the land communing with its spirits. Mother and daughter undergo daily indignities at the hands of the settler farm family who hold them in thralldom, with slaps and hard words from the women and the threat of rape from the men. The mistress forbids their religious expression and even their language. Seren hisses a warning: “Don’t let the Angles hear you speak in British; we’ll all get beaten.”
Meanwhile, the Saxon women find themselves disregarded and sidelined by the machinations of husbands and fathers. Young Ursel is in danger of being used as a chess piece by her uncle, as he jockeys to raise his own status by pleasing the powerful thane. Kedric didn’t want to look bad by not having meat to feast his lord with, and so he beat his niece. Now he wants to arrange her marriage, child as she is. And he allows the thane to requisition most of the family’s food supply to feed men building military ramparts. Old elder Edith sees all this, but will she have the power to intervene?
Into this tangle arrives Hilda the Bard, a homeless storyteller with her own harrowing story. Hilda has kept an eye out, in all her wanderings, for an apprentice capable of carrying on her cultural legacy. She is determined to awaken the women to their loss of power in the feudal patriarchy now coming into being. Hilda attempts to unite them against a backdrop of unfolding conflicts, using stories about earlier times to model self-respect and what mutual solidarity could do to change things. She teaches by indirection while dodging the ever-present threat of being thrown out on her ear. Her stories in this book follow a widespread medieval style of stories-within-a-story.
The book vividly and realistically presents the life-ways of eastern England, its landscape, the farm work, and women’s indispensible contribution to the community’s survival. The planting spells are loosely modeled on survivals of Anglo-Saxon chants, and true to their spirit. The women are shown calling on the Mere-Wife (goddess of the marshes) to help a woman in childbirth. “She protects with her tusks and blue scaly hide.” The story doesn’t shy away from the harsh reality of infant mortality, but it also highlights how wisewomen like the healer Wendreda aided women:
“Then she told me — there was a time when women came together around the time of birth, to sing the baby out, to stroke and smooth the mother’s back, to wash her with sweet herbs and dance with her, and hold her firmly. Babies can slide out with wonder in their eyes, she said, not bawling. Mothers can give birth and feel their strength. Keenbur, this is how we will help you, when your time comes.” 
But the author does not over-idealize the relations between women, least of all the ethnic and class divisions. Seren has to constantly hold her tongue in the face of insult: “‘slave’! The word tasted of bile and carried the crunch of breaking bone in the sound of it.”  But the mistress Oswynne herself admits that she was exchanged like a gift between men. Hilda draws the women out about the unspoken slights and wrongs that they suffer, and about their fears. At one point, Elder Edith recounts how a clan mother long gone stood up to the men and demanded they listen to the women: “Women get a voice.”  The question is, can the women restore the old ways of council — and will enslaved people have a voice in the council?
Rachel O’Leary brings her experience in herbal lore and breastfeeding counseling to the story. Her intimate knowledge of the landscape — its waterways, deer, birds and plants — is expressed with poetic eloquence. She has done her research and it shows, but never to the detriment of this engaging story about women on the cusp of christianization, and her recreation of the old festivals.
Some of the stories draw on authentic medieval precedents, such as the What Women Want tale, here presented as The Rowanberry Dress. (This kind of renovation and improvisation on old tales follows a long medieval tradition.) The author also integrates the old theme of women as “peace-weavers” with her study of conflict resolution and the revival of council practices of respect and dialogue:
“We get everyone together first for a blessing, so they know it’s important. Everyone gets heard. We listen together, root to root. We ask questions to burrow underneath the words and get to the hurt places, and down further to find the needs. Chew all that over, without shouting or name-calling. Then we start putting together ideas for a path out of the swamp — not a punishment, but a way we can all live together again.”
Many cultural gems are embedded in the text, like the elders withdrawing “to deem our Doom.” This is a reminder of an extremely ancient Indo-European concept, which originally meant “law, judgment, decree, fate,” not “downfall” as in modern English. The word doom is related to Themis, the archaic Greek goddess of divine law and justice, she “of good counsel.” But that is just me geeking out; you don’t need to know this stuff to enjoy the novel.
The cover painting by Katherine Soutar could not be more perfect. It captures the essence of the book: the wise eyes of the old storyteller, her unity with the swan and the fen spirits of heathen England.
I highly recommend this book. It is not a fantasy, but a clear-eyed recreation of a lost cultural world, which does not attempt to gloss over oppression, but never loses sight of what is precious in that heathen heritage. The book is replete with insight, and characters who ask things like, “Who will speak for the wild?”
I can’t wait to read the next installment in The Storytellers Trilogy. The book is published by Bog Oak Press (2019) and is available through the usual outlets.
Max Dashu is the author of Witches and Pagans: Women in European Folk Religion, an ethnohistorical sourcebook published by Veleda Press. She founded the Suppressed Histories Archives in 1970, and is known for her visual talks on global women’s history. Her two videos are Woman Shaman: the Ancients (2013) and Women’s Power in Global Perspective (2008).
3 thoughts on “The Swan-Bone Flute by Rachel O’Leary: Reviewed by Max Dashu”
Sometimes the Goddess comes first in these books and the material world doesn’t feel real. Sounds like this one goes the other way, from the ground up. Wonderful!
This sounds like a great novel–I will definitely be reading it.
This sounds like a good book! Thanks for the post. Max, I miss our visits and the wonderful conversations we always had about art, books, history, and–most of all–goddesses. Bright blessings to all your work.