Advent Calendar of Witches, Day 21, Rhiannon

It is very popular to accuse independent women of wanting to murder babies. Such charges were levied against Medea, who I wrote about here, and  Walpurga Hausmännin, who I wrote about here. Agnes Sampson was one of many midwives castigated as a witch for her ability to give women choices about their bodies and alleviate their fear and pain. Other allegedly heartless, careless, or monstrous mothers included Angela de la Barthe and Agnes Waterhouse.

Every morning for as long as I have been a mother I go into a room for a few hours, locking my child out, so I can read and write. Sometimes I have a felt a little monstrous in how I guard and demand those private hours. Sometimes, when she was very small, my daughter banged at the door like someone who couldn’t believe what a monster her mother was. Like a lot of people trying to work from home while my child goes to school from home, trying to make life seem normal and hopeful even as we grieve and miss and yearn, I sometimes feel like a very monstrous person. My own eye is on the stake as I wonder about my crimes.

This is a hard year to be approaching the longest night. So I offer as a balm the story of the fairy queen Rhiannon. It starts with a rough bit of treachery — as she slept her enemies smeared her in the blood and surrounded her with the bones of a dog. They hid away her child and accused her of eating him. For this she was turned into a horse. Sometimes literally, sometimes the story goes that she was punished for seven years at the gate of her castle wearing, like a horse, a bridle and bit, until her son, freed by the Horse Lord from captivity at last returned home. And of course he was first recognized, instantly, by his mother.

She is best known, though, for having brought into this world the Alder Rhiannon, those three magical birds who sing so beautifully they not only send the living to sleep but also raise the dead. There are many ways to imagine that song, but I always hear it in the key of my grandmother humming one of her little made-up tunes as she holds my newborn sister in her arms.

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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