The Caillech Bh’arra

Ireland 2006060

The Caillech Bh’arra
It had rained the morning I visited Cladragh Cemetery, near Enniskillen, Northern Ireland. But the sun had come out, and now the earth let off waves of steam into the warm sunshine. Visible through the mist, the ground was a mossy, undulating sea of ancient burial sites, gravestones all tilting at odd angles. Off to one side, two moss-covered stone statues stood guard from under an incongruous little green and white striped awning.
At about four feet, the larger of the pair was a two-sided figure, the two sides thought to be male and female. Its blank, ancient faces stared out enigmatically over the faint outline of stiff arms crossed downward over their chests. Below the waist were the suggestions of genitals. Mottled in color, the figure’s sandy beige stone was almost covered by white and green moss, and its badly eroded features were barely discernable.
Standing perhaps a foot shorter, the smaller figure was equally moss covered and even more eroded. Believed carved at the latest in the eighth century, with her protruding tongue and only one eye, the figure is thought to be a carving of the Divine Hag, known variously as the “Caillech Bh’arra” or “Badhbha,” a powerful goddess in the Irish tradition.
The early people of this place believed in both male and female deities; each deity had his or her dominion, and people dedicated their requests for assistance to whichever might seem more likely or able to help. These ancient Irish perceived a need for help at all the comings and goings to and from this world and prayed to their gods and goddesses for safe deliveries and peaceful ends. The Caillech Bh’arra, said to usher the comings and goings of this world, was humans’ companion especially at birth.
On this day, at the Caillech Bh’arra’s wide stone base, a hollowed out depression was filled with perhaps twenty or thirty coins, many of which had lain there long enough to pick up a mossy patina. A few coins sparkled silver and copper in the sunlight. Visitors had no doubt come to ask the Divine Hag to help them conceive or bring a child to term. The coins were their offerings, and the metallic sparkles betrayed relatively recent origins for some of them.
The Caillech Bh’arra is related to the Sheela-Ma Gigs, statues of goddesses with engorged female genitals once common in pre-Christian Ireland, but in the past few centuries seen as an embarrassment. Remnants of an ancient people who were proud of the female’s life-giving nature, most of the Sheela-Ma Gigs were either cleaned up and named a saint or destroyed long ago; their carving considered lewd and associated with sinful activity. Whatever Caillech Bh’arra’s past, though, she managed to escape destruction and was never Christianized. So she sits under her tent with her two-sided cousin, looking out over the shifting stones, waiting for supplicants as she has for centuries.
Shut out of any meaningful connection to their Christian churches, some local women seem to have found comfort in the old ways. I wondered if the women who had brought her those coins had been blessed with healthy children. I thanked her for them, just in case.

(except from memoir in progress)

the Janus figure

Lives of the Saints

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Female sainthood, I learned from the book-
Lives of the Saints- I was given as a child,
involved primarily not having sex.
Martyrdom was another oft-repeated
approach to eternal glory, especially
via cut-off breasts or death by giant
frying pan. Good works, a definite
plus, but not a winner. The trifecta?
Need I delineate the obvious?
Good works, martyrdom and virginity.

Any two out of three might seem worthy
of attention, but lack of virginity
was almost a non-starter, widows who
gave all their worldly goods to the Church
and remained chaste henceforth,
being a notable exception.

Saintly men could live long and prosperous
lives, and now wear opulent robes in their
stained glass or mosaicked homes in our
churches. They stand proudly with their weighty
books and shepherd’s crooks, tall triangular
hats, swords and other symbols of power
and influence, while female saints carry
their own arrows or are licked by flames.

Sainted men too, at times, were horribly
tortured and martyred, but their sexual
activity was seldom noted. Female saints
were virgins virgins virgins.

St. Basil beat back the Arian heresy.
St. Ladislas beat back the Huns.
Catherine of Alexandria beat back men,
insisting on staying a virgin, for which
the emperor who desired her had her stripped,
flogged, and placed on a cart-wheel, her limbs
stretched out along the spokes. The wheel
was made to slowly revolve, and her bones
broken with blows of an iron bar.

And how to forget the story of Saint
Christina, Virgin and Martyr, who
destroyed her pagan father’s golden idols,
for which he had her whipped with rods
and thrown into a dungeon, her body torn
by iron hooks, fastened to a rack and
roasted above a fire. She was seized, a
heavy stone tied about her neck, then
was thrown into the lake of Bolsena.
Saved by an angel, she outlived her father,
who died, it was written, of spite. Later,
a judge had her thrown into a burning
furnace, where she remained, unhurt, for five
days. By the power of Christ she overcame
the serpents among which she was next thrown.
But then her tongue was cut out, and afterwards,
being pierced with arrows, she gained
the martyr’s crown at Tyro. Her battered
relics are now at Palermo in Sicily.

I am a ten year old girl, reading my Lives
Of the Saints in bed before sleep. This is the
life I should aspire to. I flip off the light
and consider my alternatives.

No School Vouchers

Elementary School Kids Group

The Supreme Court of Colorado recently ruled against the state’s Douglas County school voucher system, saying that to allow money collected by the government through taxes, to be used to support a religiously affiliated school constituted a violation of the separation of church and state, which is expressly prohibited by the Colorado State Constitution.

I applaud Court’s decision, and I encourage the other states to reconsider whether to continue with voucher systems except for the most difficult circumstances.

School vouchers are, in effect, a way to allow tax dollars to pay the private school tuition of a student otherwise eligible to attend a public school. There are 14 states plus the District of Columbia as well as the Douglas County School District in Colorado with school voucher programs, with varying strings attached to when and where such vouchers may be used. Eight states offer vouchers to special needs students, four states plus D.C. offer them to low income students or students from failing schools, and two offer them to certain rural students. Louisiana and Ohio have programs for both low income and special needs students.  Beyond certain special needs like these, I believe there is no place for vouchers.

Who will be the arbiter of what is taught in these schools? I’ve read about an orthodox school in upstate New York where the girls and the boys must be taught separately. Should that be paid for with taxpayer dollars? The Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints teach that women should not be highly educated and should be subservient to their husbands. In their schools, the girls must wear long dresses and are discouraged from attending beyond a relatively young age. Is this acceptable? Most religious incursions are more subtle, but where do we draw the line? Should our tax dollars be used in schools that teach that evolution is wrong? Should our tax dollars be used in schools where god plays a frequent part in classroom discussions? What if a fundamentalist sect teaches that the races shouldn’t mingle?

We all use our pocketbooks to encourage activities which we believe beneficial or or to discourage activities we deem unwise. The New York Times reported recently that three United States churches with millions of members were considering resolutions to divest from companies deemed supportive of Israeli occupation in the Palestinian territories, or to boycott products made in Israeli settlements. The United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church the Mennonites. Advocates of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement seek to pressure Israel economically over the Palestinian issue. They are free, of course to follow their conscience. It is their money and they may do with it what they wish.

A school voucher system is a dangerous precedent. We collect taxes to support public schools. If people choose to send their children to a private, religious school, that is their choice. I do not believe it is wise to encourage this kind of self imposed segregation from the rest of the world; it results in a lack of trust and empathy for people who are different and, most importantly, the schools likely  promulgate belief systems that are counter to the cultural norm.

Let them do so at their own expense. The rest of us should not have to help pay for it.

Jerome, Paula and Women in Christianity

Jerome, paula and Eust._3zu2

A month or so ago, I saw a stained glass window displayed in a museum. The glass image depicted St. Jerome, who is credited with the creation of the Vulgate, a late fourth-century Latin translation of the Bible. In 382, Jerome was commissioned by Pope Damasus I to revise the Latin biblical texts then in use by the Church, going back to the Hebrew and Greek versions to restore lost sections and repair errors that had crept into the Latin version then in use. The final format of the text Jerome produced used the Latin which was spoken at the time, called the vulgate. The Catholic Church made this version its official Latin Bible at the Council of Trent (1545–63).

Or so the official story goes.

Yet a woman named Paula was key to this translation effort. It is said that the work was done at her suggestion. She was a wealthy and educated woman, a widow, and she provided the financial resources needed to pursue the undertaking. Jerome’s knowledge of Hebrew was not strong. Paula, who had been educated in Greek and was better at Hebrew than Jerome, edited Jerome’s manuscripts, did much of the translation herself, and then she and her daughter Eustochium also copied the work for circulation, a laborious task in the days before printing. A writer named Palladius, a contemporary of Jerome, believed that Jerome actually got in Paula’s way on the project: “For though she was able to surpass all, having great abilities, he hindered her by his jealousy, having induced her to serve his own plan.”

St. Jerome shows up in a multitude of stained glass windows and mosaics holding a thick book, representing his great work. But Paula and Eustochium don’t get books in windows. At the tombs of St. Paula and her daughter Eustochium, they are described as holy women who left Rome and made a pilgrimage to Bethlehem with Jerome c.485 and later settled there, while St. Jerome is described as a church father. We don’t see the three of them depicted as an intellectual team. In a rare painting of the three, it looks like Jerome is lecturing to the women, priest to congregants. Most histories of this period barely mention Paula and Eustochium.

In fact, Jerome’s enemies – inspired, perhaps, by Jerome’s hedonistic youth – did the customary slander about a boss and female subordinate, characterizing his close relationship with Paula as an amorous one. These rumors even made their way into Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the foundation for the prologue to The Wife of Bath’s Tale, from which we can assume that the slanderous version of things was the one that was retold.

(How little we have changed over the years! Even today, when a woman succeeds in business, there is still almost always gossip that she “slept her way to the top.” )

And here we are in the 21st Century and the Catholic Church still encourages women to donate money for various causes, as well as to serve as nuns and teachers. Yet women are denied any position of authority in the Church. In fact, the Women Religious are harassed by Papal investigators and told to mind their P’s and Q’s. Even the new, beloved Francis has reiterated his decision that women will not be eligible to become priests.

And the Church wonders why women have been dropping out in droves.

(My thanks to Wikipedia and Google for aiding me in my research for this blog. While I had read about much of this over the years, my facts were fuzzy and I needed images.)

September 30 is the feast of St. Jerome.

Fearless

I’m in a back alley in Detroit, a hot day,
gravel in my back, skinned palms and knees.
– a pair of boxers standing over me,
I’m four, and my six year old sister says,
“They can tell you’re afraid.”

There’s all that noise and fur and huge,
pointed teeth, saliva dripping, and I’m back
with the wolf in the fairy tale who eats Grandma
and would eat Red as well, if she weren’t saved
by the woodsman – Jesus of the woods. Axe in hand,
he chops the wolf open and delivers Grandma,
who howls at her release from the dark unknown.

At least that’s how it goes in our children’s version
of the tale, where we ignore the physics of
digestion, of prey torn limb from limb. There,
Grandma returns to us rearranging her bonnet
and smoothing her apron, delivered from her brush-in
with wolves unscathed but knowing.
She’s seen the dark and will not speak of it again.

And Grandma now sits by the fire, one hand on the ax,
watching the woodsman grow teeth,
noticing how Red flutters when he approaches her.
his tongue licks his lips. He grins, flashes
those pointed canines. “When do I get some dinner?”
he demands, and Grandma’s hand tightens its grip.
She is midwife. She is savior. She is fearless.