Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 11, Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen knew all the plant medicines, all the minerals, all the tender words you could whisper over a body in pain. In ecstatic trances she saw the face of the divine spread over the world. Despite the obvious similarities and the fact she was summoned to an inquisition, Hildegard von Bingen was not a witch, she was a canonized saint. Her epiphanic hallucinations are gathered into one text, Scivias, which would later inspire the Heresy of the Free Spirit. Her remedies for ailments (collected from Persian translations in her convent library and folklore from the fields beyond the cloister garden walls) are kept in the Physica.

The Physica reads like one of the more beautiful spell books I’ve seen. It inspired many of the poems in RUE. I go on and on and on about Hildegard von Bingen’s writings in The Witch of Eye, I love them so much. But here are a few of my favorite of her lines:

“Whoever is plagued by wrong dreams should have betony leaves close by when going to sleep.”

“If anyone have a headache, and his head is buzzing as if he were deaf, let him eat often of cloves, and they will ameliorate the buzzing in his head.”

“If any have a weak and sad heart, let him cook mullein with meat or fish … and it will strengthen his heart and make it merry.”

“If a man have any rotten flesh in him, then boil this herb [vervain] in water, lay a linen cloth on his wounds, and when the water has been pressed out lay on the vervain too. Do this until all the rottenness is gone.”

“If a man is forgetful and would be cured of it, let him crush out the juice of the stinging nettle, and add some olive oil, and when he goes to bed, let him anoint his chest and temples with it and do this often, and his forgetfulness will be alleviated.”

“Lavender wine will provide a person with pure knowledge and a clear understanding.”

She explained her visions as an arrival of light, rooted in the green of the soul, which glows as the leaves glow after a rain when the sun is bright and every droplet becomes a convex mirror. “Then the greenness of the earth and the grasses thrives with the greatest vigor,” she says. “For the air is still cold and the sun is already warm. The plants suck the green life force as strongly as a lamb sucks its milk.”

“However fennel is eaten, it makes men merry, and gives them a pleasant warmth, and makes them sweat well, and causes good digestion.”

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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