In a darkened room at the Museum of Preclassic Civilization in Ostuni, a diorama faithfully represents the burial of a late Stone Age pregnant woman now called the Donna of Ostuni. About 28,000 years ago, a community of hunters gave a ceremonial burial to her. The world’s oldest mother was found buried in a crouched position with her left hand placed under her head and her right hand resting on her womb, as if to protect the remains of the nine month fetus that lay within her bones. (This same protective gesture is found in Goddess statues from the Late Paleolithic, Neolithic and Bronze ages, such as the ‘Venus of Laussel”.)

The respect and devotion given to this “Earth Mother” of Ostuni is shown by a head dress covered with red ocher, made of six hundred and fifty cyclope neritea shells, alternating with canines of deer, a head dress similar to that of the Goddess of Willendorf (30,000 BC Austria); by her wrist and forearm bracelets made of pierced shells, including the cowrie, and teeth of horses and oxen; and all around the burial, remains of fauna, including a small bundle of skin near her belly containing horse teeth.

In the diorama, 3D technology creates a holographic projection of a woman representing the Donna. She speaks powerfully, as if from the living past, telling us how she lived. My Italian is scanty but I understood her to speak these  powerful words:

­Mine is th­­­­e story of a woman, the story of a young mother; this is an ancient story, the story of a group of people who lived in the arms of the earth, the generative mother who gives us life, the Great Mother of all. This is the story of a group of people who shared the territory with Her animals and plants, people who gathered and hunted, and moved when the animals moved. We lived in kinship with everything around us. I was responsible for the whole group, organizing our lives. This is a story of the wellbeing of a people. Without the words of written language, we understood our sacred place in the whole. My body, holding the body of my baby who would never see light, was buried in the earth, a symbol of the journey of life and the journey of death.

The Donna of Ostuni whooshes me back
28,000 years
to her home and sepulcher,
the cave where she lived her long 20 years
in relation with the animals
in relation with the plants,
in relation with all the relations.
Can we even conceive
being separate from nothing?

Our view of bootstraps, of self,
our sense of individuality,
our seeing a being as a unit apart or by itself,
would be to the Donna of Ostuni,
not just madly perilous,
but blind, unintelligent, unreasoned—
which quantum physics now concedes.

While on an Ancestor Pilgrimage
to find my Grandmother’s birthplace
and seek her father’s grave,
I encounter the Donna,
who suddenly transforms my Grandmother
into a forebear so near to me in time
that I feel her shoulders brush against mine.

I walk in Grandma’s footsteps,
I drink from a spring where she lived,
I find the very spot, where in 1889
her family photograph was posed.
I lavish my attention
on the broken places in the family stories.
(In a small Puglia town long ago,
were they, as northern Italians, shunned?
When the family emigrated,
why did my Grandma’s father stay?
Where did he die and where is he buried?
Did my Grandma ever see him again?)

The mysteries do not get solved
but after a time the potsherds
feel fitted together again, as if,
because a descendant
bestowed her attention,
restoration worked itself.

The Donna of Ostuni smiles
to hear me, across millennium,
puzzling out details
of individual ancestor lives.
She calls my spirit to comprehend
what was known to ancestors of old.
She calls me to reach our oneness.

Dear Gone-Before Donna,
you’ve stretched my inner senses
and spun my imagining out
far past the ancestors I came to find.
With gratitude I take my place
in the timespace spiral where,
though I do not stand alone,
only I can make my link
from you, to Grandma, to me–
to many more millenia
of beholden, grateful descendants.

©Susa Silvermarie 2019




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