Compelled to comprehend the enslavement of women, I studied witches, medieval history, feminism, Celts, serfdom, cults of Mary, industrial revolution, science, spirituality, human rights, Abrahamic religions, shamanism, Marie de France, marriage, genital mutilation, torture, and rape. The subject was so broad I couldn’t wrestle understanding from it. I narrowed the focus to a matrilineal history, interweaving this unsettling saga into my family story. Weird customs and eccentric record-keeping muddied evidence of my mother’s grandmother so I started my search with my first grandmother born on this continent.
Grandfather Bernado Sena married Grandmother Tomasa Gonzalace on February 8, 1705 in La Villa Real de la Santa Fé, capital of the “Kingdom of New Mexico”. Had I known this sooner I might have followed the Gonzalace family but while I ferreting out my my matrilineal tribe abuela Dorotea Maria Sena, born in 1844, showed up. I thought I’d easily follow a trail of Senas to Mexico, leap the Atlantic to Spain, and land amidst a gaggle of relatives. It sucks being a romantic sometimes—there is no el Camino de los Adoquines Amarillos (Yellow Brick Road) to the land of female ancestors. Two years into the research I unearthed fabulous stories, unknown worlds, marvelous histories, but no Senas.
In a moment of “I’m finished” frustration I began reading A.S. Byatt’s Possession. The story reminded my pal Jacque of my odyssey; I hoped for diversion. Then, on page 496, I read “where the nine terrible virgins lived who were called the Seines or Sénas or Sènes….” Dang. There they are.
Around 43 AD Roman geographer Pomponius Mela wrote of these priestesses living on an island he called Sena and placed in the English Channel; most historians believe he referred to l’Île de Sein. By calling them terrible virgins he meant they were sovereign–unmarried–and therefore potentially dangerous; tales survive of them brewing the Druid potion of knowledge, calming storms by displaying their vulvas, healing all illness, and shape-shifting at will. This is also perhaps the Armorican Other World, equivalent to Avalon, where women consecrated the dead and released the souls of those brought via an unmanned boat from the mainland.
l’Île de Sein sits seven miles west of Pont du Raz, the edge of Armorica, ancient historical land that became Brittany and is now a department of France. The old people on l’Île still speak Breton, part of the Celt language branch that includes Welsh and Cornish. Everyone else speaks French and the young ones learn English and Spanish as well. The island is tiny, about a mile and a half long and three-quarters of a mile wide in some places at low tide; it balances five or six feet above the Atlantic. The Talkers, two menhirs, document human attention to the island at least in the Neolithic Age. [Menhir(s) and dolmen(s) are Breton words commonly used to designate the upright and horizontal megalithic stones forming Stonehenge, Avebury, and Carnac.] Knowing whether the priestesses existed is not important to the Îlenes. They are practical people whose island is threatened by rising sea levels and lack of potable water; whose children must thrive in this technological world; and who must develop tourism to survive the loss of traditional fishing. Theirs is not my story to relate.
The Senas were part of the continental Celts about whom I knew little and that was wrong. Celts—a great stew of ancestors which includes Irish, Manx, Scots Welsh, Breton, and some Iberian peoples—have been passionately debated since the Greeks squabbled about them in 6th century BC. A hundred tribes march to the tunes of fifty chiefs; bewildering decrees change calendars at a whim; nations consume tribes like truffles; musings become someone’s facts. Lakes, rivers, landscapes, forests may or may not have existed—reality and myth so intertwined they are one and the same. The Bretons form a little pocket of historical chaos that maddens with its speculative inconclusiveness and scholarly disagreement. I waded into this mêlée unprepared for the astonishing mess.
How to trace pagan holy women in the catacombs of this turbulent history recorded mostly by argumentative Christian intellectuals? A shamanic image of a lighthouse outlined on cliffs of a speck of land, flashing across a thousand miles of thrashing ocean served as beacon throughout my unknowing—there was a Sena priestess light blinking in the midst of all that goodly analyzation.
Scholars believe Celtic women were equal at law and that they served as bards. Celtic women are known to have fostered children, educating them in nation-to-nation diplomacy and other worldly skills. Druidesses taught techniques of fighting using two-wheeled chariots on an island south of l’Île, perhaps. The priestesses on Sena crop up, veiled sometimes, clearly on occasion; usually the story is similar to Mela’s, but subtle additions appear. Infertility prayers include a reference to The Talkers, two menhirs on the island, which hints at wise woman traditions. Endless clues on this chimera quest.
A devoted friend takes pity and flies me to Brittany. Perhaps, she thinks, I’ll get some answers and quiet down. I mostly blow the opportunity. Thinking I am carefully prepared, I land in Brest, rent a car, get lost hour upon hour, miss the ferries to l’Île, laugh often, speak rarely, eat sporadically, fall totally in love with the Bretons and Brittany. I realize that what I know about their culture is woefully inadequate and I learn nothing more of the priestesses or the Île de Sein. I return home determined to get on that beloved island.
Going to Brittany again requires intense preparation. I need money, of course, and I need to learn French. A network of support here keeps me invigorated, believing, and encouraged. I continue ferreting out possible evidence, but I focus on getting strong physically and psychologically so I can travel and be present over there. I’ve been mightily depressed, sedated, and impaired for nigh on twenty years and am personally depleted, but this desire to be in Brittany and on l’Île serves.
I create a three-foot by three-foot sheet of paper, tape it on a wall, and daily scribble my desire to see the Île de Sein in 2015. I fill up one sheet with ideas, wants, hopes, needs, and intention; I begin another. I write and publish my second book of essays and poems, Writing Myself Back Into Life, in itself an intention to well in health. Replete with some of my most gut-wrenchingly honest and difficult writing, the handmade edition of 40 copies sells out.
Though nestled in exquisite llano y montane landscape, the ranch isolates me so and I move house back to my Dixon community of friends and artists. I study, recite, read, listen, and try numerous methods to learn French, and fail. Life sends the money. I leave for Brittany on Labor Day. September 10, 2015, at 10:28 AM, Paris time, I step onto l’Île de Sein. Gosh. I’m here for 23 days. Now what?
My second night at Hotel Ar-Men I awaken to sonorous sounds of a woman in ecstasy. Her sultry sighs of pleasure–slow full intakes, great heaving exhalations–last long; I drift in and out of sleep to them. I hear her again in the afternoon and early the next morning. I’m envious and curious. So! All those tales of French lovemaking are true, eh? Her joyous music stays with me, somehow mingling with the pleasurable tingles of moist air on my skin, those swooshing kisses of warm wet wind, the way my body interacts with stones, grass, and flowers. I hear love songs everywhere.
Each day waves of ocean and wind lick my skin clean, removing calcified attitudes and limbering ligaments, working physical magic on my sand-papered nervous system. I am agile, exploratory, more actively curious. I spend hours in liminal space with nothing between me and Life. There are tide pools to witness: small brown blobs like blood clots with tentacles capture my attention. Bivalves bubble and breathe. Cormorants dive, dine, then drape huge wings to dry. A disheveled great blue heron stalwartly withstands gusts, awaiting clear sight to stab breakfast. I wander up one side of the island, down the other, over rabbit warrens, across slick seaweed, over boulders, curiously at ease, vibrant, alert.
My brain works again. Though I am more likely to answer in Spanish or German, I am pushed to listen and comprehend simple French conversation. I ask for food and water. I get directions. I speak haltingly to a woman whose father joined Charles de Gaulle in London during World War II. Dominique and Marielle applaud unexpectedly correct French and I deepen my reading comprehension. Each day the faulty synapses fire more quickly and accurately. My confidence grows. I mend.
Then the day before I leave, I sit on the north beach gulping the sensuous reality of this vital place into my memory banks. I have 3,500 photos and thousands of words describing what I’ve seen, yet suddenly I’m afraid I’ll leave without understanding why I crossed a continent and an ocean to sit on l’Île. Of course, I want to belong to this tradition of priestesses who were more than sex workers and with whom I share a name. Yes, I long to be recognized for the wisdom and knowledge of this place I have earned. And, naturally, I wish to remain cradled in the extraordinary beauty that solaces my soul.
Before that longing can become desperate, the world shifts. I’m in liminal space again, in-between, neither here nor there, embraced by and enmeshed in everything around me. I realize all those womanly orgasmic sounds I’ve been hearing are the great heaving tides of our mother ocean. The whole fabulous island filling with whispers and sighs, the sensuous soughing of sand and sea are all life–Life–breathing. And, I am fully planted in the midst of it all, synchronized with and sculpted by that from which I was born. Fire and water. The utter miracle of this planet and me on it, enmeshed in the improbable and incomprehensible splendor of being alive and belonging to all creation. I came here to learn that I am whole. So simple. So clear. So real.
Like the selkie of story, I found my skin, my pelt, carefully preserved there on the sand of l’Île de Sein and once again covered my poor naked nerve endings so long abraded by loss. I returned to my natural element of belonging. Continuing the story and living whole are my gifts back.
The work of the eyes is done. Go now and do the heart-work on the images imprisoned within you. Rainer Maria Rilke