women holding hands in a circular mandala
Goddess and Scholar
by Dawn Work-MaKinne


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Samhain 2003, Vol 3-1
MatriFocus, a Cross-Quarterly Web Magazine for Goddess Women Near & Far
Schlern MassifSeeking the Goose-Girl

Who knew there was a German-speaking province of Italy? I didn't, before this year, when my spouse was appointed to the faculty of a new music festival in northern Italy. We were near Bolzano (the German name is Bozen,) an area of the Austrian South Tyrol that has only belonged to Italy since the end of World War I. The population in our village was mainly of Germanic ancestry, and everyone was bilingual in German and Italian. The area still looks and feels very Germanic, with Alps, picturesque cottages and villages, hidden ski areas, and cows.

Since my Ph.D. work in Women's Studies in Religion is focusing on the Germanic Goddesses, I had great plans for study during my trip. In fact, I did learn a great deal. But luckily, before I had packed all of my heavy tomes filled with footnotes, I was advised by one of the wisest of my teachers to go there with a heart open to learning from the land instead of from books.

There was once upon a time a very old woman, who lived with her flock of geese in a waste place among the mountains, and there had a little house. The waste was surrounded by a large forest, and every morning the old woman took her crutch and hobbled into it.

The books stayed home. Instead, I took only a copy of a Brothers' Grimm fairy tale, "The Goose-Girl at the Well," and a head full of questions. If the goose-girl had been from this area, where would she have lived? Where in the woods would she have gotten lost? Where does the old hag live? Where did the Count go, following the old hag and carrying her pack? Where is the well, where is the castle? What would the land tell me about this story?

The following is a portion of a piece I created from my journal. Ph.D. students are supposed to become familiar with the theory, methodology and epistemology of their chosen fields. As you can tell by the length of the words used in the last sentence, this work tends to be rather intellectual, and very non-embodied. Methodology in religion tends to consist of textual criticism, hermeneutics, and other tongue-twisting ways of thinking about sacred texts. I had an opportunity to read the land as my text, to place my story in the natural world, to hear the rhythms of the German language in my ears.

What would happen if in all fields of study the body became part of what is knowable and known and worth knowing? What if all methodologies were embodied, so that what is known through the body is valued equally with what is known through the mind?

*** Today I wandered alone up the steep path and into the forest for the first time. The woods here are sun-dappled, filled with pine or fir trees and bird song. There are clearings and meadows here and there, and long stretches with no meadows or views at all. In one meadow, I saw a wee hag's hut inside a fenced enclosure. There are many heavily forested areas that could hide the holy spring and the small house that is not what it seems to be. Deep in the woods I deliberately step off the path for a moment, taking a shortcut across the woods. The ground is soft and springy with moss and pinecones and needles. I saw a giant stone, with a diameter probably twice as tall as I am. One could climb into the stone through a slit that is open to the sky -- like a cross-section of a vagina and womb. The entry had been barred with sticks.

The Count could have been walking along a path such as I was, meeting people only rarely. What we would call a "path" or "trail" in the States functions as a drivable road in this high country. I walked almost all the way to Seis am Schlern, and passed little turnoffs to St. Konstantin and St. Anton, before I realized I wasn't on the right trail. It's easy to picture folks walking between these villages. It's a bit harder to fathom folks who live in this area wandering off and getting lost. Every little ways along the road is a turnoff to a village, a marked trail, a guest-house or a private home.

Die Hexenstuhle, "the Witches' Chairs"I was out looking for Die Hexenstühle, the Witches' Chairs, giant and ancient stone seats hidden deep in the forest. People nowadays don't know if the seats are natural stone formations or if they were human-wrought by some prehistoric makers of mythic furniture. It's all part of the mystery, I guess. The Witches' Chairs are part of the tourist industry now, yet another example of the valley's long history with Die Hexen (the witches.) Die Hexen have become the tourism mascots for the whole region, and are often seen on their brooms hanging in shops and restaurants, or smiling brightly on maps and brochures.

The story reveals that it took the Count three days to wander out of the woods after having met the old hag. What is the German term for Faerie, or "away" as Patricia Monaghan calls it? (Later my friend Claudia will tell me that the word is Anderwelt, literally, "Otherworld.") Certain things in the tales alert you to your entrance into the Anderwelt -- the woods, being lost, an old woman, a well, a hut, three trees, or perhaps three of anything. We know that we'd rather not meet this particular old woman on this particular path. We know she's uncanny, and we avoid her when we can.

Something uncanny happened to me today. I had heard tales of a stream ("the mountain's blood") running underground all through the Schlern Massif. As I walked along the path, I heard a stream gurgling loudly right next to my feet, surely only inches away. I put my ear down to the road, and the noise was coming from under the ground. Uncanny; the Oxford English Dictionary defines uncanny as "mischievous, malicious." Its opposite "canny" is a relatively modern word, 17th century, but its root is old, old like this mountain. Ken, cunning, to know. The most uncanny thing about the hag is how unknown her realm is. Had the Count not been a stranger he would have known better than to offer to carry the old woman's pack. Or perhaps this gesture showed his willingness to be taken "away," to go on the otherworld journey.

Before I realized I was on the wrong trail for Die Hexenstühle I passed a little lake, Völser Weiher. Maybe it is fed by the mysterious spring under my feet. Although it is bigger than I picture the spring or the well in my tale, the goose-girl may have washed her skin here. Last night some of the other Americans drove up here with some Italians and swam beneath the full moon. I should ask if they saw anyone, woman, girl or bird.

The giant womb-stone could be part of this tale, too. If she shed her skin for washing in the lake, the goose-girl could retreat to the stone and sit inside it to ponder and grieve. She wouldn't be seen from the road, since the mouth of the stone faced into the woods, and she could lay her skin high atop the stone to dry. I could ask why she grieves but we all know that humans who go "away" long to return to their own world.

*** Today I am fairly certain of the path to Die Hexenstühle, and I'm canny enough not to wander alone. We start from the right village this time, charming Kastelruth, a half-hour's bus ride further up and into the valley. For awhile into our walk the path is busy enough, but after passing a picturesque alpine lodge, we don't meet another soul. For as many guidebooks as featured the Chairs, I expected a well-marked, well-traveled trail. We almost missed the tiny sign directing us onto a narrow, overgrown path that meandered steeply downward in a small meadow. Soon we were into the trees again, and a strange peace settled over me. The birds sang even more sweetly, and the forest became so quiet that we heard nothing but the music and our footsteps. A bit further along the path, though, I became uncomfortably conscious that the birds had stopped singing. The forest was silent.

Grey WoodsThe trees were as close to lodge-pole pines as makes no nevermind. All around us were tall bare trunks, steeped in a sort of pale grey light. The ground was covered with soft green moss and the path still went steeply downward. I see how the Count or the Princess could be lulled by this silent wood into just sitting down for awhile, resting in the calm quiet. All three of us would by now have come upon the Witches' Chairs, nestled in the trees right next to the path. Would they know better than I to sit on die Hexenstühle? Whether or not I know better, now that I've found them I do sit. The Chairs are surprisingly comfortable. Even though they are scaled to fit someone twice my height, the stones are a good fit for my body. I have a tall chair-back to lean against and even a rock in front to serve as footstool. I lean back, and, tempted, close my eyes.

I want to linger, but we are fortunate. Thunder calls us onward, leading us further down and finally out of the wood. The Count and the Princess were evidently not so fortunate. They were each alone, as I was not. Maybe they were already feeling lost and confused, or relaxed and dazed, before meeting die Hexe on the path. We didn't see another person, human or otherwise, on the entire Hexenstühle segment of the trail.

As we descend, long stretches of trail become actually blocked with sharp broken sticks and downed tree limbs. Why was the trail in such disrepair? We were on our way out, having passed die Hexenstühle. What would it be like to be attempting a climb toward die Hexenstühle and meet with these ragged barriers? The forest began to feel malicious, and I wanted to quicken my pace. Mother, bless me and keep me safe in this wood. I truly want to find my way out again, back to the villages and human people. Sometimes we have to hunt to find the trail blazes, which are inexplicably gone.

Bibliography
+ Monaghan, Patricia. The Red-Haired Girl from the Bog : The Landscape of Celtic Myth and Spirit. Novato, Calif.: New World Library, 2003.
+ Oxford English Dictionary on Cd-Rom Cd-Rom. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Graphics Credits
+ Schlern Massif, Die Hexenstühle, Grey Woods, photos © 2003,
Dawn Work-MaKinne. All rights reserved.

Contributors retain the copyright to their work; please do not take art or words without permission. All other graphics and reference materials are used and attributed as per the Fair Use Provision of The Copyright Act and individual terms of use.
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