2016-06-30

Excerpted with permission from "Confessions of a Pagan Nun" by Kate Horsley, published by Shambhala.

This historical novel is set in Ireland at the dawn of its Christian era, and tells the story of Gwynneve, a woman who struggles to reconcile the influence of Christianity with her pagan past. After losing her mother and before she converts and becomes a nun, she trains with a druidic teacher, Giannon.


Giannon's home was a configuration of branches, stones, and mud. A dome and a shed of these materials leaned against one another like old drunken warriors at a banquet. All around these structures was a variety of grasses, blossoms, and bushes that I had never seen before. Drying herbs, jars on tethers, and staffs of yew and oak hung on the sides of his dwelling so that it reminded me of Giannon himself when he traveled beneath a tangle of druidic accessories. The clearing with its gardens and dwelling was empty of human life, though a ragged gray wolf scampered into the woods from there. Some might say that the wolf was hungry and weak, for the past winter had been fiercely cold.

I entered the dwelling and found the inside also strung with dried plants, jars, and staffs. There were shelves on which a chaos of boxes and jars sat along with feathers and scrolls and dust. The only furnishings were a table, a small bench, and a bed made of straw covered with the skins of bear and fox. More scrolls, codices, and tablets sat upon these furnishings, as though the originals had multiplied in some orgy when their master was away.

I well understood Eve's determination to awaken some desire in Adam, even if it be desire for forbidden fruit.

I walked carefully though this strange chamber, afraid that all of Giannon's belongings and the dwelling itself were capable of collapsing into a dusty pile of rubble. And I believed that a druid's dwelling could likely be set with spells from which I would emerge transformed into a beetle or bee. I waited for Giannon outside, until the world grew dim and I could see wolves running along the tree line beyond the small clearing in which Giannon's home nested.

Finally I saw Giannon approach as a moving and dark form emerging from the trees. I stood, so I would not startle him, and he nodded and entered his dwelling without speaking my name. I waited to follow him, and when I did, I found him in his bed and a wax candle lit upon the table. I lay down beside him. That night we warmed each other but did not become husband and wife. And in the morning when I awoke he was laboring devotedly in his garden. As I watched him there, bending to disappear into the reeds and emerging again as from a lake of grasses, I felt cold, for he had no words nor glances for me. I remembered and grieved the death of my mother as though is had occurred the night before. I was a child, with a child's fear of loneliness.

I was old enough then to be a mother myself but had used the ways now outlawed by the Church of keeping a child from growing in my womb. These ways have been banished and so violently punished that the knowledge is lost to most women and unspoken by those who remember. The Christians say that a man must choose his wife and plant his seed in her and know that what he sows is his and not another man's or the result of a covenant between a woman and a demon. These are the new laws. But then I was a pagan, and I had not wanted any child but Giannon's and thought it right to create a human being from my own desire. Then I was pagan and believed that the only demons who could plant a seed in a woman's womb were the men who drank ale and mistook their daughters for their wives. May God forgive me for my ignorance.

For many weeks I slept beside Giannon and worked beside him at the table, learning new marks. But though he held my hand in both of his to keep me close, though he touched my face to show his affection for it, and though he laughed with me, he did not lie on me or push himself against me. I spoke with him about my sorrow and longing for my mother; I told him that I had had two husbands before him. There was no secret that I did not tell and that he did not understand. And he began the process of showing me every skill that he knew, holding no secret to his bosom, having no jealousy concerning his powers. Our heads were close over manuscripts by candlelight until the morning star appeared and we stretched our backs before having a short and deep sleep in a still embrace beneath the skins.


One night I asked if he did not want to have me as his wife. This I whispered into his ear as we lay together in a darkness so thick that we could not see each other. He finally asked if I wanted to be his wife, and I told him the truth--that that desire had become larger than any other. I tasted the skin of his shoulders and lightly bit his neck. Instead of turning to me with passion, he made noises of agitation, as though an insect had gotten beneath his clothing. He moved away from me, and a sorrow that I have never known before or since spread through me like blood dropped into a cup of water. I could not move and believed that Giannon the druid had performed a spell that was killing me. I spent that night in the darkness outside, cold to the core of my body.

After this night of dark aloneness, I went into the woods many times to perform rituals with the aim of getting help from the fertile powers of nature in waking Giannon's lust. These were days of great restlessness, and I well understood Eve's determination to awaken some desire in Adam, even if it be desire for forbidden fruit. After I had been with Giannon for four months, I told him that I wanted his child, and then he parted my legs and made me his wife. On this night I believed that his soul had entered mine and created an intimacy with roots so deep that I would never be cold or thirsty or hungry again. I was unable to tell the difference between his pleasure and mine. And when we rested, I wanted to stay always beside him and say more things than we had said, revealing more and probing our histories and ambitions together for many different lifetimes. I believed then in the transmigration of souls, and I vowed to live every incarnation beside Giannon. But he rose quickly from the bed, compelled to tend and nurture his garden as soon as there was light enough to distinguish one blade of grass from another. It conjures sadness in me even now to remember those days, for I had hopes that were never made solid but which always seemed sweet.

Giannon often traveled, and the distance between us was filled with private efforts, his tending to the news and needs of many túaths [tribes] and my studying the scrolls. Sometimes there were visitors who came, men and women of mysterious intent. When they saw me there instead of Giannon, they stayed and let their eyes wander all over the items in the dwelling. When Giannon received them, they whispered to each other and parted solemnly. Giannon did not like conversation and gave only small morsels of information about his adventures away from our home. When I asked to accompany him, he told me that I had to wait until I knew the primary stories and could present myself as an advanced apprentice. Soon I deduced that Giannon had some encounters with Christian clergy. Of these matters he was particularly secretive, but he learned Latin and brought seed to his garden which he called by their Latin names.

I did not swell, and Giannon grew agitated at the futile effort to place a child in my womb. He did praise my intelligence, and he also came to me with joyful eagerness when his work in the garden produced thriving new plants. Let me say here that I was never mistreated by Giannon, and only once do I remember a blow from his hand. It came one night when I asked him for that which he did not want to give. Anger is the sin that plagues me most and I am loathe to be shamed for my desires. When Giannon mimicked me with clever imitation of a woman's whine, I tried to strike him. He felt only the breeze of my hand as it passed his face, and in quick response he struck the side of my face. In the dark we were silent, both of us ashamed.

I never had any doubt of Giannon's respect for me, though our methods of working were not the same. I brought passion and impulse to all that I learned, or I did not learn well. He had discipline and a careful pace. After we had been together for two years, he asked me to help him transcribe laws and histories on the scrolls. He also listened with respect to my intuitions about the spirits of wild plants and animals. But he wearied quickly of conversation involving my fears and complaints. He became angry sometimes when I lay beside him or touched his face; he winced as though he were being preyed upon by an unsavory and inept predator. When he shunned me, I felt my mother's wild spirit in me and raged like a caged bear. I learned to like solitude when he loved it; but I never wandered far from a sorrow that grew in place of the child we never had. May God forgive me for my self-pity.

I did not know that the love of God is greater than the love of human, though still I wonder if humans are not the vessels from which we drink God's love.

There was one night when a storm raged between us and he said that he was not like other men. He did not have lust for women as other men did. He said powerful words, as destructive as his satires. They entered me like spirit blades because I loved the mouth from which the words came and the tongue that moved to say them. I loved the eyes and knew the soul behind them. I loved the hands that could make people and histories and beauty appear on a piece of parchment. I became full of shame that my body was too small or my features too plain to arouse him. I wished that my hair was the color of raven feathers, shining blue when sunlight flowed over it, instead of the color of rust on an old warrior's sword. I wished that I had the grace and discipline of a chieftain's daughter who rode tall horses and could not want a man as a husband before ten wanted her. I wished that I were as compelling as Mebd of Connacht, who cohabited with nine kings, who all loved her well. Then Giannon would untether his passion and grace me with it.

At that time, I did not know that the love of God is greater than the love of human, though still I wonder if humans are not the vessels from which we drink God's love. But then I am an ignorant pagan, only late in life surrendered to the new religion. And still I say, because I am weak and blasphemous, that if Giannon had given me full affection before we were roughly parted, and I had lost my shame, perhaps I would not have lain on the threshold of the Chapel of Saint Brigit and asked to be embraced by the Christian Church, allowed to share its worldly knowledge. Must we suffer, as the Greeks have said, in order to be led to a greater wisdom than the one we would have settled for?

Giannon himself encouraged me to accept the Christians and listen to their lessons. He knew well how sacred words and knowledge were to me, and he admitted that the monks knew many languages, that there were many words and lands and methods and stories in the world that the monks studied and recorded, more than any druid knew. One noon when he had been gone for many months to bury a chieftain's daughter in a túath to the west, he returned with a companion. I heard men's laughter when I was bent over a tablet, writing from memory the story of the prophetess Scathach, who trained Cuchulain to be a hero. While thinking upon her technique of severing an enemy's arm from his body, I was startled and frightened to hear men's laughter, for Giannon did not often make sounds of merriment, and he rarely welcomed company. I came out of the dwelling to see him walking up the hill to our home beside a man who had his hand on Giannon's shoulder. The two of them conversed and laughed. What made my brow gather in wonderment was that the man with him was tonsured. He was a Christian monk with merry eyes and a frame almost as small as mine, named Mongan.


I nodded a greeting, being struck mute, and prepared some porridge. Giannon had brought the ale that was given to him as payment for his part in the burial. We three sat outside, the monk and Giannon discussing the plants in the garden. The monk was young, hardly a man, but full of knowledge and skill. He had with him an editorulgatu [common Latin version of the Bible, based on a translation by Saint Jerome]. He taught me about the conversion of Brigit by Saint Patrick and told me of some of her miracles, including the conversion of water into ale. I opened my palm to him and challenged him, saying that his kind made soot out of soil and harassed the druids. I asked if his kind did not lose their senses when they cut their hair, and he asked if I did not worry that the pork I ate had been some druid in transmutation.

We made many jokes that are now dangerous, for in those times there was not so much fear of contradiction, but a love of discourse. Our talk was passionate and friendly, and we drank to Brigit until I was howling like a wolf beneath a half moon. Giannon said that I was a bean sidhe [woman of the fairies]. I do not remember clearly any other events of that night, except that Giannon did not lie beside me, and I had one aisling [mystical vision or dream] after another. Between visions of flaming candles falling into deep crevasses and rings of stone sinking into the ground, I heard the laughter of the two men. I also dreamed that Mebd brought me the severed arm of a man, and when I held his hand and kissed it, he became whole and his eyes were those of my mother.

more from beliefnet and our partners