Archive for August, 2012


Kanashimi no Belladonna – “The Sorrow of Belladonna”

August 30, 2012

I’m having a crack at James Joyce’s Ulysses at the moment, aware that the germs of many ideas which were to flourish in Finnegans Wake emerged in this earlier book.  Perhaps prompted by Stephen Dedalus musing on “Reading two pages apiece of seven books every night” (50)*, I followed a trail inspired by this short sentence on the next page: “About the nature of women he read in Michelet” (51), anticipating some clue about Joyce’s portrayal of the primary female characters in these two novels, Molly Bloom, Anna Livia Plurabelle and Issy.

If you use the internet as a means to explore anything then digression becomes the name of the game (just as it seems in the Wake) and the unexpected discoveries that result.  Jules Michelet wrote La Sorcière in 1862, a book in which medieval witchcraft is portrayed as an act of popular rebellion against the oppression of feudalism and the Roman Catholic Church, a rebellion that took the form of a secret religion inspired by paganism and fairy beliefs, organised by women (  Published in English in 1863 as Satanism and Witchcraft, it is a major source of the picture of an essentialised femininity which animates the masculine fantasies of writers like Robert Graves, the surrealists (and Joyce) as well as the ‘goddess spirituality’ of eco-feminism and some strands of modern paganism:

“Nature makes them Sorceresses,” – the genius peculiar to woman and her temperament.  She is born a creature of Enchantment.  In virtue of regularly recurring periods of exaltation, she is a Sibyl; in virtue of love, a Magician.  By the fineness of her intuitions, the cunning of her wiles – often fantastic, often beneficent – she is a Witch, and casts spells, at least and lowest lulls pain to sleep and softens the blow of calamity.

(Satanism and Witchcraft: A Study in Medieval Superstition – Translated by A.R. Allinson, London: Tandem 1965, p.9).

This book also inspired a film that I hadn’t heard of until tonight (this full moon), Kanashimi no Belladonna (‘The Sorrow of Belladonna’), which depicts “the victimization of peasant woman Jeanne by the corrupt State and hypocritical Church of medieval France as well as her eventual rebellion against them via witchcraft (or more accurately, communion with nature)” (  Raped on her wedding night by the feudal lord and spurned by her husband, she “eventually turns away from the civilization that betrayed and abused her to nature and Dionysian ideals; she becomes a witch” (


Made in 1973 by an animation studio in Japan more noted for ‘sexploitation’ films, it is evidently pretty strong stuff, in tune it seems with the ‘sexual liberation’ of that time – erotic and psychedelic, but evidently marked by disturbing violence.  It was a commercial failure and has slipped into relative obscurity since.  Amidst the darkness, brutality and extreme sadness there are images of great beauty.  I’ll have to watch it.

*Pagination from the Penguin Classics edition of 2000.





Apis amat aram – “The bee loves the altar”*

August 24, 2012

On a blazing July day, stumbling around the lower slopes of Babadag (‘Father Mountain’) near Oludeniz in Turkey, I found this trough, fed by a stream flowing from a hole in a stone wall built across a gully.   This was about as close as I felt comfortable getting, as it was very popular with the honey bees, who were also taking the waters further downstream…

I’d already noticed rows of beehives interspersed among the pine trees and the rocks, but most of the bees seemed to be swarming around the trough and the stream, the hum of their buzzing growing louder as I approached.

All honeys have a distinctive flavour, depending on the plants that bees have been drawing nectar from.  Pine honey has a particularly deep, rich taste.  The area has seen much tourist-related development recently, with hotel and apartment complexes being built halfway up mountains on the upgraded road between Fethiye and Oludeniz.  There are worrying signs of these encroaching developments within a few hundred yards of the hives and the stream…

Babadag was formerly known as Mount Cragus, its rocks and forests the occasional residence – according to Horace – of the goddess, Diana (see This mistress of the animals would surely feel in her element among the bees…

First published in 1937 (London: George Allen & Unwin), Hilda M. Ransome’s The Sacred Bee in Ancient Times and Folklore states that the priestesses of the Great-Mother Cybele were known as Melissae, ‘bees’ (58).  Further, Porphyry says that the priestesses of Demeter “were called by the Ancients ‘Bees’ (Melissae), that Persephone herself was named by them Melitodes (honeyed), and that the Moon (Selene, afterwards identified with Artemis) was called by them a Bee” (96).

*The title comes from footnote 4 on page 262 of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.  It reads: “Apis amat aram.  Luna legit librum.  Pulla petit pascua.”  This translates as “The bee loves the altar.  The moon reads a book.  The foal seeks the pasture”.  In Latin it is yet another disguised manifestation of the feminine figure of Anna Livia Plurabelle (ALP), personification of the River Liffey (and all rivers), which flows past the mountainous bulk of Howth Head, the cranial personification of the patriarch, HCE, another ‘father mountain’ in Joyce’s book.





Who Milks the Cow on the Tor?

August 21, 2012

A recent visit to Glastonbury gave me a chance to see the image of a maid milking a cow into a pail, carved above a doorway to the last remnant of the fourteenth century church of St.Michael’s, the tower which crowns the summit of the Tor.  The depiction of what is often regarded as just a ‘mundane’, everyday activity actually conveys a wealth of associations in which ‘the mundane magic of the dairy’ has a celestial dimension, realised in traditions about the Milky Way and legends concerning a bounteous cow which gives inexhaustible supplies of milk before departing skywards or across the sea.  These themes are dealt with in more detail here:

I’m intrigued by the interpretation of this image as a depiction of St.Bridget in her role as guardian of the cows.  On the face of it it is perfectly consistent with the kaleidoscope of patterns which are recognisable when navigating the constellation formed by earthly practices and a cosmological dimension that includes rivers of milk and magical cows with their path across the sky.  Yet, something nags at me about this particular image.  The (possible) earliest reference I can find to this interpretation is on page 17 of the 1997 edition of Frances Howard-Gordon’s Glastonbury: Maker of Myths, that is assuming it repeats information found in the first, 1982 edition (Glastonbury: Gothic Image Publications) which I don’t have to hand.  Otherwise, the identification of the image with St.Bridget is asserted in The Goddess in Glastonbury, by Kathy Jones (1990 Ariadne Publications).

The legendary association of St Bridget with Glastonbury, recorded by two medieval chroniclers, as well as her association with Bride’s Mound, does give a context in which it can justifiably be proposed that the ‘milkmaid’ carving is a representation of Bridget/Brigid/Bride and, believe me, I’ve made some speculative leaps of my own with far less to go on.  Nevertheless, while the Irish saint, Brigid, has taken on the mantle of a pre-Christian goddess, I wonder how far the copious mythological material associated with her in Ireland and the Highlands and Islands of Scotland – such as her connection with the dairy – can be straightforwardly transposed to the symbolic repertoire of a medieval stonemason in Somerset.  Or am I wrong, is there a medieval text out there that unequivocally names her as Bridget?

The ‘Brigid-as-dairymaid’ carving, to the right of the door.