Sappho, the poet from Lesbos (630-570 BCE), was considered one of the greatest poets of her time—one of her epithets was “the tenth Muse.” I discovered the poems of Sappho in my thirties and was utterly captivated. I had newly embarked on a relationship with a woman and Sappho’s love poetry (though by no means exclusively lesbian) supported the expression of eros between women. Yet even more than that, Sappho’s poems supported an erotic relationship between self and world—a relationship that included ritual as a form of intimacy. I’m not a Greek scholar—I experience Sappho’s poems in translation. Yet the translations I read back then were a revelation: a world in which women lived in circle with one another.
Since I began writing for FAR in July 2012, I have written about Mary Magdalen, or excerpted a passage from one of my novels, near or on her July 22 Feast Day. For why I made the controversial choice to depict her as a prostitute, see last year’s post. The below excerpt is from The Passion of Mary Magdalen. I made this selection in remembrance of all the refugees in the world today. In this passage, Judith, a Jewish widow whose family was driven from the land by tax collectors, returns to the place where Maeve (my fictional Celtic Magdalen) and her friends have recently founded a Temple to Isis on the outskirts of Magdala. Maeve has just invited Judith to join them. (Edited for brevity.)
She stared at me, her eyes full of anger and longing.
“I will not be a slave and a whore where I was once a wife, the one who made the challah bread, who said the Sabbath prayers over it. This was our place, my husband’s and mine. We brought the best we had to the temple, the finest oil and wine, the unblemished kid—”
“Goats? You kept goats? You know how to make cheese?”
She sat quietly for a moment before she answered. “How can I live here with you?” she wondered. “I don’t understand.”
There is an old Jewish custom to use a red thread, tied around a bedpost or a child’s wrist, to keep away demons. In particular, the red thread is said to keep away Lilith, the female demon who steals children. Women still give away red threads at the Western Wall in Jerusalem as a segulah, or protection amulet. Feminist poet Alicia Ostriker reclaims this symbol as a reminder of the umbilical cord, the connection between a human childbearer and a child, and an intimation of the cosmic interconnectedness of all things. She writes:
the disturbing red thread invisible yet warm travels between earth and heaven, vibrates through starless void…
does it carry the pulse of our prayers like a bulge in a snake
dozing, like a stream of hungry, bloody hope, do all the red threads join
form a web
Alicia Ostriker, The Volcano Sequence (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2002), p.11-12.