Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 10, Dorothea of Cappadocia

Dorothea of Cappadocia was a brilliant philosopher who proved difficult to execute and nearly impossible to shut up. According to the legends she was tortured for the witchcraft of refusing to marry a powerful man. And then tortured for the witchcraft of returning from the tub of boiling oil unharmed. And subsequently for surviving unmarked for nine days in a deep prison without food or drink. For saying she was fed on the succor of God’s angels. For being fairer and brighter to look upon than ever before. For the descent of a multitude of angels and the sound of the demon fiends in the air wailing, “O Dorothy why dost thou destroy us and torment us so sore?” she was hanged on the gibbet and rent with hooks of iron. And on and on they went, inflicting terrible but ineffectual anguish on her.

You’d think they would have considered the miracles of her resistance and resilience, but no, they were unmoved. To understand the actions of the judges, it is helpful to remember Dorothea’s crime was never that she displayed too little of her power.

Near the end of her trial, she gave a very long speech about the nature of her steadfast faith. The judge asked, “How long wilt thou drag us along with thy witchcraft?” I like to imagine how she might have turned to the inquisitor to say, “Excuse me, I’m speaking.” Instead she answered, “I am ready to suffer for my lord, my spouse, in whose gardeyne full delicious I have gaderd rosis and apples.”  Then she bowed her head and the man cut it off.

She bowed her head, but not before a child with star-filled eyes came to her carrying a basket with three roses and three apples. And not before she sent that boy to find Theophilus, who had mocked her as she was dragged to the scaffolding by asking for roses and apples from her spouse’s garden even though it was midwinter.

The site of those roses changed his heart. For preaching of Dorothy’s miracle in the streets, Theophilus was cut into small pieces and fed to the birds.

I could say so much more about the intersection of roses and magic, about how this legend was twisted into propaganda by a church trying to justify the horrors of the Crusades, about certain questions I have about the nature of beauty and the ideas of justice. You could fill a book with what I have to say about that. But in this short space, I’ll close by simply noting how much I like the way a dying girl flipped off an asshole and it got called a miracle. And that the asshole then had a change of heart.

Published by Kathryn Nuernberger

Kathryn Nuernberger's latest books are THE WITCH OF EYE (Sarabande), an essay collection about witches and witch trials coming out in February 2021, and RUE (BOA, 2020), a collection of poems about plants historically used for birth control and pissed off feelings about patriarchal bullshit. The End of Pink (BOA 2016) won the James Laughlin Prize from the Academy of American Poets. Her collection of lyric essays is Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past (The Ohio State University Press, 2017). A recipient of fellowships from the NEA, American Antiquarian Society, Bakken Museum of Electricity in Life, H. J. Andrews Research Forest, She teaches in the creative writing program at University of Minnesota. Recent work appears in 32 Poems, Cincinnati Review, Copper Nickel, Gulf Coast, Paris Review, The Southern Review, and Waxwing.

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