(Poem) The Pythian Oracle and Epilepsy by Susan Hawthorne

Medusa with her snakes. Photo: Renate Klein, Gela Museum, Sicily, 2013 ©.

The language in my tongue


My tongue has blossomed in my mouth

It is filled with language

It spreads like a big red balloon

With language caught inside


A language that can’t distinguish one thing from another

A language that does not care for past or future

A language tense with the present


The language in my tongue dissolves all history

It dissolves all expectation of the future

The language in my tongue is a big red balloon


There’s a language in my body too

A language in the arch of my back

A language in the froth from my mouth

A language in my clenched fist

A language in the cry from my lungs

There’s a language in my bleeding tongue


The language in my body and in my tongue

is the language they spoke in Delphi.

The language of the seizure that dispels time,

that defies death, that returns the orator

to the world of light, that single point that

draws me back from the inertia, the gravity

field of a hole so black, nothing exists

and nothing matters


[Author’s Note: Epilepsy is an illness that has drawn a lot of shame in the past, but when I discovered in my early twenties that there was also a magical element I became intrigued and read up on some of the mythic histories. The first I found out about was its association with the Pythian oracles and prophecies. The thing about an epileptic seizure is that the person appears either to be about to die or is even regarded as dead. So when she returns to consciousness she is regarded as having travelled to the underworld. This was taken either as a positive in societies that did not fear death or a major negative in those that did. In societies holding the latter view (eg Christian), people with epilepsy were regarded as being possessed by demons. In societies that don’t fear death a person returning from a seizure might be regarded as bringing prophecies, new knowledge, access to arcane languages and the like. Medusa captures the light and dark aspects and once patriarchy is in place Medusa and all women are regarded as terrifying, in the same way in which those of us with epilepsy are regarded as terrifying (or have been).

‘The language in my tongue’ is from my book Bird and other writings on epilepsy, Spinifex Press, North Melbourne 1999.]

Meet Mago Contributor, Susan Hawthorne.

Susan Hawthorne is a poet and novelist and has been engaging with myth and prehistory for many decades. She has published nine collections of poetry including Cow (2011) and Lupa and Lamb which draw respectively on the traditions of South Asia and the Mediterranean. Her first novel, The Falling Woman was published in 1992 and she is currently working on another novel, Dark Matters due out in 2017. She has degrees in philosophy, Ancient Greek, Sanskrit, Women’s Studies and Political Science.

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