On a July day, in 2021, I was in Geel, with a fellow offspring of a witch that did not get burned in the 17th century, to “dig up some bones”. That’s what we call our project to look for the sites of local ancient stories. Geel is a town in the Campine (Kempen) which is known for the pioneering de-institutionalized method of care for the mentally ill. This practice is based on the positive effects that placement in a host family gives the patient, most importantly access to family life that would otherwise have been denied. The legendary 7th-century Saint Dymphna, who had fled to the Geel area from Ireland, is usually credited with this type of care. The earliest Geel infirmary and the model where patients go into town, interact with the community during the day, and return to the hospital at night to sleep, date from the 13th century. The practice still still there, and she is still the town’s patron saint and celebrated. Her name means poetess.
Many of us have lost the deep knowledge of our places and communities that our ancestors once had, and as a result, we no longer feel that we are part of them, no longer feel that it is our job to guard and protect them. I want to guard that knowledge, and I knew it meant digging out that knowledge too, from under all those layers of history. Or what I learned from Sharon Blackie:
Get to know the history and the stories of the place and the people.
Get to know the ecology and geology, and get to know the landscape.
Embrace the weather with all its vagaries, for a place cannot be separated from its weather.
Walk your streets and slow paths, explore your forests, and always, always keep your senses open to the little beauties.
In the early 2020s, I decided, I would search for myths and legends of women, and particularly those that had taken root in Belgium, and female landscapes. Or as I said to some friends, I am digging. By digging I mean that I am at ease asking people questions about landscapes and local folklore, open to stories, folklore, memories and trivia. I would search in the memories of landscapes for ancient knowledge that can bring wisdom to these ecological, social and psychological crises.
Reconcilation with local female saints
I shared my mission to old stories about women and female landscapes on my Instagram. Older Flemish women began to know my interest and shared me stories or invitations to “little adventures in the wilderness of Flanders. In January 2021, I went with one of them to a forest with a statue of Mary. Lots of mud. The forest -Silsombos- was named after a female hermitess -seemingly- but no one we met could give us more details about her. But they knew stories of near-rape and drowning. It reminded me of the energy and stories of the Epping Forest in London, UK, where I participated in a guided forest bath in February 2020. There I learned about the Black Madam, a dark maria statue, standing in the middle of a forest, by a stream.
A story had found me. A story that could give me opinion. Only I saw it then. Sharon Blackie and other role models also spent years digging for stories.
Yet I felt it was harder for me….
… because the Flemish landscape is even more fragmented and it’s small. I felt like they were buried under layers of capitalism, industrialization, the inquisition of the Catholic Church. And I think I was also resistant to the stories of local saints because of the damage they had done.
I had my problems with the Catholic Church, and avoided the stories of local female saints for as long as possible. Yet I had to admit that after that walk to the Black Madam, the Catholic women’s stories became enticing again. I became fascinated (again) with Marian statues in forests, and connected to linden trees, because I know there are pre-Christian layers underneath. Especially in the Kempen region, there is Marian worship and many “tree chapels. Just visiting and documenting them feels like an ecofeminist act. But I was going to do something more with it. I just didn’t know what yet. I would cease my rebellion against the church and embrace it. And so I got to know Amelberga, Dimpna and other women better.
The story of Dimpna is at least 650 years old, but still relevant today. It is about refugees, incest, madness and sanity. After her mad and grieving father decided to marry her, she – and her priest- flees Ireland and ends up in Flanders. They dedicate their lives to care work, until her father finds her and kills her. A wonder happens in the grave, and since then there is a pilgrimage that lead to these method of home-care.
My friend is doing her master in psychology and focusing on positive health. Our intention of the day was to reflect what we can learn from Dimpna, and what is special about Geel, the soil, the ecosystem, the plants that it was the fertile ground for such a method.
To the employee of the tourism department we asked if there is a plant that is special to Geel. Like, for example, the peasant wormwood in Diest. Or a plant associated with Dimpna. We both happened to have the same book with us (compendium of ritual plants in Europe), because such a trip seemed to me (and apparently her too) an ideal opportunity to bring this 1350 page counting book along. The staff member could not quickly come up with a plant. But we could already see that grain gin was being sold. And in this book we read this:
There used to be a custom of weighing oneself against diseases, especially dropsy, falling sickness and other nervous ailments. This ancient custom rests on the Bible.”
For example, as much grain was offered to a local saint as the disease weighed, in the hope of a cure. Also in the St-Dympha chapel in Geel where, according to a report in 1688, “… the sotten are weighed up in a link with grain.” In the 18th century this custom was no longer allowed by the Church, but it still happened in Belgium. The custom was gradually replaced by the offering of grain, whether or not in a stocking or hat. However, this was not giving me so much inspiration.
A well in a hamlet outside Geel
Our next stop was Zammel, a hamlet outside Geel. I had found in a book there was a chapel, next to a well. There is something about water sources and feminine sacred power. The place spoke to us. The well was covered. There was a beautiful linden tree. You find easily a linden tree to any religious place where a female saint or Maria is honored. According to this book, some sacred places, like this and the abbeye in Tongerlo, could be connected with a straight line. A leyline. I do not know what to expect by sitting there. You visit these places and just see what happens, which inspiration entangles you there.
a LINDEN TREE IN TONGERLO
The truth was that I had already written two stories inspired by Dimpna. What did I need to know more? We closed the day at the abbeye of Tongerlo, where you can find a statue of Dimpna in the entrance get. This statue is mentioned in my published short story “The Linden Tree in Tongerlo“.
Before this visit, I wrote also a retelling where I introduced Dimpna as the first official forest therapy guide. Since forest bathing would also have a preventive effect against burnouts and other mental illnesses, I thought this practice would definitely suit her. I organised a forest bath and even introduced her story to the participants:
I am still working and processing this rewilded story of Dimpna, as part of a collection of 20-30 of short stories inspired by Flemish landscapes and folktales, and female power. I feel I dug enough up on her, but I keep returning to Dimpna. One story is already published, the second is on paper, but just for me. I have used it in oral storytelling, and still it keeps growing. Even now I am not sure if it is already time to write a blog about Dimpna and what this search for her and the ecosystem around me has taught me so far.
A year later:
And I know I will learn more.
- Sharon Blackie (2016). If women rose rooted.
- Sophie Strand (2021). My Saint is a weed.