The Invention of Mothers

Kathryn Nuernberger

Set chopped up his rival Osiris and scattered the pieces across the world. Isis was the first queen and the first witch. The first spell went like this:

For a year Isis roamed the earth gathering up the pieces. Then she molded the one bit that could not be found out of clay. Was it his penis? His heart? His soul? It is unclear, but with this piece she made in hand, she could breathe the words that brought her beloved back to life.

Her magic only lasted a night, but that was long enough to conceive a child who would grow up to make Set pay.

The Gertrude Bird first came into the world when a woman named Gertrude refused to feed Christ and Saint Peter. Now she is a woodpecker and makes unpleasant noises. I recognize this woodpeckered woman turned nagging bird by dissatisfied men. I recognize a version of myself and my mother and hers in such mean wizardry.

Dido was the heir to her father’s throne, but the people would only accept her brother. She smuggled away a fortune on their behalf, but they called her prostitute. She sailed across the sea to found a new city on a hill, but they would only accept her husband as leader. When she is called Dido her name means beloved and wanderer. In an older version of the story she is called Elisha and her name means creator God and fire and woman.

When she could take no more, she made a pyre and threw herself on it.

I read the picture book version of Jason and the Argonauts to my daughter on a day when she was shaken by a boy as he told her to “Shut up, Bossy.” She thinks a tale of adventure will make her feel better.

Much about motherhood is a challenge, but among its comforts is how I get to read so many things I never knew before and never knew I needed. For example, I didn’t know Jason and the Argonauts is really The Witch Medea Gets Your Golden Fleece for You, You Fucking Incompetent.

On the night of her escape with Jason and her father’s fleece, Medea chopped up her brother and strew the parts of him around the forest so their father would be stopped by grief and the duty to gather the pieces of his son back up.

I can’t read this scene without wondering what that brother did to her, what her father did. The book says Hera cursed her to love Jason. But how many times have I read the word seduced when what happened was raped? Read loved but understood imprisoned? I think a curse from Hera meant escape from an abusive situation by any means necessary.

In search of Dido’s Carthage I stumbled on the story of Furra, a medieval queen of Sidama, in present-day Ethiopia. She ruled for seven years, advising the women of her kingdom never to submit to the men. Eventually the men tricked her into riding a wild steed that tore her body apart.

There is a little poem about all the places in the countryside that are named after her, Seyoum Hameso documents in The Oromo Commentary:

Her shoulders dropped in Qorke,
her waist dropped in Hallo,
her limbs dropped in
Dassie, her genitals dropped
in Saala, her remains
dropped in Kuura.

In these places men, it is said, beat the ground in disgust. Women pour milk on the ground at the mention of her name.

She is so young, this daughter of mine—does she even remember the boy in last year’s grade who wouldn’t stop kissing her? Elbows, the tip of her ponytail, small nuisances to make her cry with fury that she couldn’t make him stop.

Beyond the sea came many more adventures resolved by Medea’s magic. She showed some daughters a spell whereby she turned an old ram into a young one after dropping it in her boiling cauldron. Do we believe the daughters when they say they only wanted to restore their father’s youth? They swore before his boiled corpse they thought surely it would work. Personally, I think of this chapter as Medea’s “Spell for a Good Cover Story Which She’ll Give to Any Woman Who Asks.”

It’s true I pretty much never believe a white man assaulted by a woman didn’t have it coming. “What did you do?” I ask such a man as I have so often been asked. “It takes two to fight,” I parrot. Maybe he should have walked away and hidden in a bathroom stall to cry like the rest of us.

When she asked the teacher to make that boy stop kissing her, the teacher said it was sweet, he had a crush. That was when I told my daughter she should push this child as hard as she could and tell him to kiss the dirt instead. But already she was too afraid.

Another of Medea’s clever deeds was to feed raw meat to the Witch of the Woods and her hounds so the Argonauts could pass safely. The men ran in terror past the crone crouched and devouring, her face blood-stained with gluttony, while our sorceress lingered to say goodbye with affection to a woman we realize is her friend and sister in the craft. If any moment in this story can be made real, I want this friendship with the woman who will grow up to become Baba Yaga in her house of sweets to be the one.

Were I ever going to advise a daughter that boys will be boys, it would be in the face of what was done to Talos. Talos, a man of stone and fire, stood at the shore doing his job stopping people who should be stopped. It seems clear to me that Jason should be stopped. But Medea tricked the monster into letting her unplug the nail that held in his ichorous fire. He dies in her arms, floating in the sea, asking when she was going to fill him back up with the immortality she promised. How tenderly she cradles him as she is killing him. Then I remember he was a volcano man who wanted immortality on top of that. Typical.

There was a boy my mother encouraged me to hit. Years passed before he forced me to the edge of my own courage. It’s true what the principal said to me in the office after sending him back to class, that he was smaller than the other boys and treated by them with cruelty. It is also true that when my mother was asked to pay for the glasses I broke in a bloody smear across his face she said the only part of this that made her sorry was that it had taken me so long.

She’d promised me and I think she really believed that one good fight would be enough, but I had to hit him again a year later. And then came another boy and others after that.

Gertrude Bell, 1868-1926, was an intrepid linguist, mapmaker, diplomat, and spy. She is credited as essential to the British problem of taking over Persia, making her the iconic embodiment of the white feminist problem. She was known as Khatun, “the Uncrowned Queen of Iraq.”

What to make of her death by sleeping pill overdose?

From Bell’s notebooks: “There is a moment, too, when one is newly arrived in the East, when one is conscious of the world shrinking at one end and growing at the other till all the perspective of life is changed.”

I’m afraid sometimes I’m becoming a Medea who can’t find the limits of her own vengeance. Who would destroy everything, including her own joy, to see the world made so fair a woman can commit any atrocity a Jason can. And I think of how a Khatun may prefer to hide her face in the lie that she has no power over the moral responsibility of knowing exactly how much she is capable of.

On the day my daughter shed those hot tears, I had been in an important meeting. There is not much about it that I can tell you. I will say only that my HR rep began by noting he thought at first I was one of the undergraduates. I was 36, had a child, a PhD and four books to my name. Shall I tell you how long my skirt was or how demurely my hair pulled back? Because I checked these things before and after, as this life has taught me to do. The man chuckled like it was some kind of compliment to call a grown woman “cute” in front of the university’s Threat Assessment Team and that giant binder of Title IX policies at the center of the table. The hour ended in bitterness and resentment on all sides.

I have these dog-eared pages with one version of the tragedy after another. I have my Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde and my Essential Essays of Adrienne Rich. I have a dried-out highlighter. I have anger and anger to spare. And so I have decided to follow my fury off the island and across the seas through whatever current it charts. As an experiment in living with something besides fear and the sound of my own misplaced apologies.

What does a child who pushed another child deserve? Not a bloody nose and the taste of his own tears. But it seems sometimes the world only gives us everything, or nothing.

You will never get me to believe Medea killed her children and showed their corpses to cheating Jason just to make him grieve. I don’t care how many times you put Euripides on a stage. I don’t believe it in part because Medea isn’t real so I don’t have to, but also because there are many versions of the story, some recorded and some lost in the mist of a long oral tradition, each its own work of art or propaganda for whichever city state in whatever geopolitical crisis a writer found themselves in. There were times and places when Medea’s story had no end at all, just island after island. Sometimes she is powerful, sometimes angry, often happy, fighting maybe or victorious or eating a hunk of meat with her sister beside a warm fire crackling forth ephemeral constellations, a hibiscus flower in her hair like a girl, a sword at her waist like a queen. For as many nights as the children can stay awake to listen.

Rhiannon was a fairy queen, also wrongly accused of eating her child. She fell asleep and woke smeared in the blood and surrounded by the bones of a dog. For this she was turned into a horse. Sometimes literally, sometimes the story goes that she was punished for seven years at the gate of her castle wearing, like a horse, a bridle and bit, until her son, freed by the Horse Lord from captivity at last returned home, where he was recognized instantly by his mother.

She is best known, though, for having brought into this world the Alder Rhiannon, those three magical birds who sing so beautifully they not only send the living to sleep but also raise the dead. When I imagine that song, it is always in the key of my grandmother, on a day when she was alive and happy, humming a little made-up tune as she holds my newborn sister in her arms.

Margaret Mee spent 24 years trying to find and then paint a moonflower, which blooms and dies in a single night.

She finally did this at age 78.

“Go home,” she said to the children who worried over her. “You can leave me. I have slept with jaguars.”