The Singing of Swans
by Mary Saracino


Pearlsong Press, 2006. ISBN 1597190063.
Reviewed by Linda Wisniewski
Posted on 04/09/2007

Fiction: Spirituality

Mary Saracino's novel, The Singing of Swans, is so chock full of goddess lore I am tempted to keep it for a reference book. The author has crammed her story with well-researched information about the Dark Mother, Cybele, or Demeter, who she calls "humankind's first deity, and our most ancient memory."

The story begins with Ziza, a woman who flies through the roof of her house on a night in September, 1575 and meets with other "keepers of the blood ways," shamans, healers, herbalists and astral travelers. They are the Benandanti, and four times a year they leave their bodies to battle the Malandanti, their arch enemies, thus ensuring a bountiful harvest.

In the second chapter, we meet Madalene Ross, a workaholic software specialist in Minneapolis who smokes, drinks and is troubled by strange dreams of old women chanting and holding handfuls of herbs.

Soon she is stalked by a homeless woman who appears out of nowhere and tells Maddie "Your Mother wants to talk to you." And then Madalene finds a note that says "Go to the Lake" written in her own handwriting.

In her closet, in a box her deceased mother saved for her, Maddie finds a notebook labeled "Rossolino Family Tree" and a small figure of the Virgin Mother with dark skin. Still troubled by disturbing dreams of women healers, Madalene suddenly loses her job in a corporate downsizing. She gives in to an overwhelming desire to travel to Pergusa, Italy, in search of her family's roots.

Meanwhile, the author takes us back to the women of the Benandanti as they struggle through the years. The leaders of the Catholic Church try to demolish their traditions and force them to conform to church teachings. Some of their tactics are violent, but the women persevere. In secret, they keep their worship of the Dark Mother alive. She is called the Black Madonna by all who join them, accepting her as the virgin mother of Jesus, which the church allows. But in secret, they worship her as the Divine She, a deity in her own right.

I first learned about the Black Madonna as a child, when I saw a painting of her in my Polish Catholic church. I was told that in the original painting in Czestochowa, Poland, her skin was blackened in a fire. Imagine my surprise and joy to discover, as an adult woman, that her image is older than the Church and can be found throughout the world. Most recently, I visited another Black Madonna in a four-hundred-year old church in Puerto Rico, and was told her skin was darkened by the sun.

Back in the present time, Madalene arrives in Pergusa and finds the lake is dying from pollution. She meets an eco-feminist working to save the lake. In a dream, she meets Ziza and the other ancient women, learns about the long tradition of the Dark Mother and talks with her own mother, who urges her to use her intuition, which she has always ignored, as well as her brain.

Madalene realizes what she needs is to reclaim her self, in all its complexity, just as others are reclaiming Lake Pergusa. For me, she is a stand-in for women as a whole, throughout history, especially in times of patriarchy. Saracino is realistic in her portrayal of the violence of women's struggle for personal power and self-determination in ancient times. We would do well to remember this and realize that even today, voiceless women suffer at the hands of male-dominated societies around the world, a story we don't often see on the evening news.

Without being heavy-handed or taking political sides, Saracino educates the reader about women's spirituality, herbalism and Italian culture and traditions, while keeping us turning the pages, rooting for Madalene and following her adventures to the conclusion.

Mary Saracino is the author of the novels No Matter What and Finding Grace and the memoir Voices of the Soft-bellied Warrior.

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