(Essay 1) Red Poppies Among the Ruins by Mary Saracino

Under the alchemy of sea and sky, my bones began to listen. The warm wind tickled my ear lobes, kissed my cheek, bidding me to cede to the desire of memory. You have been here before, it told me and my bones sighed, recalling the taste of the salty air, the scent of pink roses in full bloom. Sardegna.

Mother, my heart called out, I know you were here, I can feel you.

My cells knew this island of granite and basalt mountains, primeval oak forests, cork trees, olive groves, hillsides teeming with wooly sheep. My spirit recognized its shimmering turquoise waters, its cerulean canopy of morning sky, though my earthly eyes had never before gazed upon Sardegna. I came to the island on a pilgrimage, seeking the lost, buried treasure of my soul’s most ancient longing. I came to explore ruins of the Dea Madre, the God Mother, artifacts of the Divine One, the Dark Mother, who sailed with ancient voyagers from oldest Africa 50,000 years before. These journeyers from the Motherland were seekers, too, searching for what I do not know. Perhaps like any traveler, they had grown weary of life in their native lands and sought new sights, new sounds, new smells, new ways of encountering the world. With them they brought their most cherished traditions and customs: reverence for the Divine Mother, the Earth and all its creatures, a capacity for living in peace and a sacred understanding of social equality.

Red poppies at Tharros
Red poppies at Tharros

I wandered among the Punic ruins at Tharros, near the cape of San Marco, on Sardegna’s western shore, seeking messages from these and other ancient ones. In the 9th Century BCE, Carthaginians arrived from North Africa to settle on this stretch of rocky land and build a prosperous, vibrant city. They established an outpost around 850 BCE on the lip of this promontory. At the height of its glory, Tharros was one of the most important cities in the Mediterranean serving both as a maritime stronghold and a bustling trade center.

To one side of the promontory, the wild sea is untamed. The ancients named it mare vivo, living sea; the other, calmer side, they christened mare morto, the dead sea, and chose to moor their ships in its harbor. From this juxtaposition of vivo and morto, Tharros rose, perched between life and death, teeming with women and men, children and animals, living, breathing, loving, dying.

Rich in culture and commerce, Tharros was highly civilized and developed, complete with streets, residential neighborhoods, artisan shops, iron-work foundries, temples, a sewage system, meeting areas, a shopping district, and two necropoli (grave sites). Among the ruins, one can still envision the city’s open sanctuary and its monumental temple (most likely built in honor of Tanit, a Dark Mother female divinity with ancient ties to African Isis).

In the 3rd century BCE, the Romans conquered Tharros and subjugated its people, although the city continued to prosper under Roman occupation. Working with the urban design already in place, the Romans adapted existing structures, applying quintessentially Roman touches such as thermal baths—with dressing rooms, saunas and hot and cold water pools, aqueduct pipes to carry water to buildings, and stone roads. The memory of the Divine Female lingered as well, in Roman temples built to honor the goddesses Demeter and her daughter, Core (Persephone).

In the 8th and 9th centuries CE, Saracen raids (reported to have been a near daily occurrence) forced many inhabitants of Tharros to leave, contributing to the town’s eventual decline. Malarial epidemics in the marshy sections of the peninsula proved, ultimately, to be disastrous as well. In the 11th century CE, attempts to resettle the city were futile. This once shining gem on the cape of San Marco was to remain a shadowy memory, its past glory forever humbled and overrun by scarlet poppies, yellow broom, and violet wildflowers.

Still, some timeless essence whispered to me as I strolled along Tharros’ cardo maximus (stone alleys) among the crumbling foundations of this once impressive city, among what used to be its houses, temples, public baths, and shops. It was unmistakable—the life-pulse of the inhabitants who once populated these now-vacant streets, the din and chatter of artisans crafting coral jewelry or fashioning iron tools, industrious traders plying their wares, seafarers bringing goods from places far away. Perhaps, centuries before, my soles touched this earth, the dusty soil lodged between my toes. I may have stopped to loosen my sandal, ease the chafing against my skin, or to greet a neighbor, Salve. In my ears lingered the sound of children laughing, men’s voices rising from the village center, women singing at the sacred well. Which home was mine, I wondered as I walked along among the ruins dotted with red poppies.

The North African Carthaginians were not the first immigrants to the island. As early as 1100 BCE, Canaanites had sailed directly from their near East homeland (from what is modern-day Palestine and Syria) to trade and co-mingle with the Nuraghi, Sardegna’s original inhabitants whose culture thrived on the island from 1800-500 BCE. The peaceful Canaanite seafarers anchored their lives to this new land and, sometimes, put to rest their wandering ways. Along with their ships’ cargo they carried the rites of their Mother God Tanit, and her values of justice with compassion.

Some archeological evidence suggests that the Canaanites in these entrepost settlements co-existed in harmony with the Nuraghi, blending their ways and customs with that of the early Sardegnans, who had developed their own prosperous culture and society. Indeed, the two peoples shared many common values, not the least of which were social equality, a community- oriented ethos, and belief in a female deity.

Inland, beyond the coastline, among the island’s numerous hills and woodlands, rise remnants of nearly 8,000 Nuraghi round, stone buildings. The people crafted these structures from basalt quarried miles from their villages and carried to each site by mule or by human labor. They burdened themselves with one-thousand-pound rocks to construct their sanctuaries near the spring that beckoned, the spring that would ease their thirst, quench their souls, bless their meals, invigorate and sustain their lives. An egalitarian, matrilineal society, the Nuraghi peoples used these massive rocks, as well, to build round stone huts for meeting rooms, their hollowed centers encircled with basalt benches, resting places for the men and women who gathered to discuss the needs of the villagers, decide on how best to proceed for the good of the many.

The men worked side by side with intention, crafting the Nuraghi by hand and with communal effort to create home, shelter, sacred spaces. Through their matrifocal culture, the women carried the memory of the Mother, that Divine Dea, Giver of Life, Midwife of Death. They instilled Her lineage in the blood of their children, their children’s children, the daughters and sons of centuries to come who would carry the light forward.

Back further in time, down the meandering byways of memory, before the impulse to haul rocks and shape environment compelled the building of villages, hillside caves opened their stony mouths to cradle the island’s Neolithic people, protecting them from the rains, the fierce winds, the scorching sun. In these times, before written words marked their stories, the wild, untamed soul of humans mirrored nature. All that was necessary was taught by heart, etched upon dank cave walls, recited by tongues familiar with survival, accustomed to the sacred litany of cultural continuation. Many such cave-repositories can be found throughout Sardegna.

At the necropolis of Montessu, in the southwestern region of the island, I spiraled into the Neolithic ages and sensed the echoes of prehistoric voices. Montessu is one of the largest of many ancient necropoli carved out of stone by pre-Nuraghic Sardegnans, dating from 3,500 BCE. This massive site spans two square kilometers and contains more than 40 inter-linked tombs. Peoples of the Ozieri culture settled the area to farm and hunt. To house their dead, they built hypogeums, “cities of the dead.” The entryways of these monumental sanctuaries stand two meters high and two meters wide, diametrically facing a natural rock amphitheater. Renowned for their typology, size and the intricate ways they replicate houses, these graveyards of prehistory incorporated windows, doors, and rooms uniting interior and exterior ritual spaces. The people placed foodstuffs inside in tribute to their dead, to feed their souls as they made their way to the world beyond this one.

Domus de janas the locals now call Montessu and other ancient burial places like it, the tombs of the fairies. Tiny female creatures are said to inhabit these ‘houses,’ many of which are adorned with bas-reliefs of petroglyphs, potent symbols that archeologists associate with veneration of the Dea Madre (Mother God): the spiral, the ochre-red pubic “V”, the sacred horns, broken lines, concentric circles.

Inside, these domus de janas, these stone womb fairy habitats, the air is chilly, yet vibrant with energy. Carved out of rock, these sanctuaries were places where Neolithic women and men lived, places in which they buried their dead, returning to the womb of the Earth those they loved most. Ochre red spirals etched with prehistoric tools tattoo the coarse walls of now-silent tombs to mark the spot, the cave-place where human form returned to spirit. My eyes beheld an embossed female figure, round-bellied, full-breasted, carved into the exterior arc of the doorway, red “V”s pointing, like uterine arrows, toward home. In these rock tomb-wombs, portals to rebirth in the nether-realms beyond seeing, the lamentation of loved ones hovers still, wailing loss, heaving their sorrow into the echoes of time and space.

At Montessu, the dead walk among the living and the Sardegna air is perfumed with rosemary, juniper, and honeysuckle, awakening an urge in me to inhale deeply. I sucked breath from the sky and filled my lungs, exhaling what was false, releasing it into the abyss of forgetfulness. I want to remember everything.

Read more of Mary Saracino’s work.

“Red Poppies Among the Ruins,” was originally published at Trivia: Voices of Feminism, Issue 6, September 2007/ http://www.triviavoices.net/current/saracino.html

Author’s Notes

I wrote “Red Poppies Among the Ruins” in 2004 a few weeks after I had returned from a two-week Dark Mother Study tour of Sardegna, led by Lucia Chiavola Birnbaum. Our group had traveled throughout the island visiting sites sacred to the Dea Madre (Mother God). We immersed ourselves in Sardegnan culture and learned more about the ways in which that island is imbued with Her memory. I was to discover that God the Mother resides not only in the island’s rocks, rivers and trees but also in the hearts and consciousness of its people. For the final few days of the tour, our travel group stayed in Rome. We arrived in that city a few days after George W. Bush had come and gone. The war in Iraq had been going on for a little more than a year by then, and from the multitude of rainbow-colored peace banners and spray-painted graffiti we saw throughout Rome, it was clear that the US involvement in Iraq did not enjoy popular support. The juxtaposition of the visceral connection I had felt to the Dea Madre on Sardegna and the anti-war sentiment I encountered in Rome reaffirmed my belief that the Dark Mother’s values of justice with compassion, equality and transformation are alive and well on the planet—even if the world’s political leaders fail to heed the clarion call for peace.

About the author

Mary Saracino, author of The Singing of Swans (Pearlsong Press 2006), offers Writing and the Art of Healing classes and teaches workshops on the Divine Feminine. The Singing of Swans was named a 2007 Lambda Literary Award Finalist in the Spirituality category. Mary is also the author of No Matter What, Finding Grace, and Voices of the Soft-bellied Warrior. Her work has appeared in a variety of anthologies and journals, both online and in print. For more information about Mary visit www.marysaracino.com. To learn more about The Singing of Swans, visit www.pearlsong.com.