By Sarah White
In 1997 the Day of the Dead (November 2) found me entombed in a prehistoric chamber in Sardinia with a small posse of friends.
My husband Jim, our best friend Scott, and I had just spent a week in a rural farmhouse in Tuscany. Stuffed with great food, wine, and day trips, I was feeling almost too full to add on more experiences, but vacations stop for no one. We had crossed to Sardinia by ferry on Halloween night and were now visiting an old friend of Scott’s from the Italian Department at the UW—Sandro and his wife Bibi. There was a holiday to be observed.
For Italians the Day of the Dead is reserved for visiting the graveyard, then visiting the liveyard of family. But Sandro and Bibi live with her mother, so no need for family visits today. Sandro had planned a sightseeing jag that would take us to the antiquities and natural wonders of this western edge of Sardinia.
Sandro had planned a visit to a sacred well, a pre-historic village, the birthplace of revolutionary Antonio Gramschi, Roman hot springs, and the chamber tombs called Domus de Janas. Each was a miracle with its own story, but it was the last of them that I dreamed about.
“Domus de Janas” translates to Cave of the Witches. I practiced Wicca for a while and so of course I was excited to see where the Sardinian witches might have lived and worked their magic.
To find the caves, Sandro had to try every other road first. When he finally asked for directions I made a joke about men, and Bibi and I shared an international laugh. Eventually we came to a long lane between a creek bed and an escarpment. We could see square-ish holes in the bluff. Sandro parked the car and we scrambled toward them.
The Domus de Janas present as small square openings in the rock face, each with a channel cut in the middle of a front lip, perhaps so water could drain out. More than a dozen of these caves perforated that bluff.
Crouching to enter a doorway I found a little room, perhaps three feet square, and behind that one three times its footprint. None were higher than about three feet. Sardinians come in two sizes—tall seafarers and short shepherds—but not even a short Sard could stand up in a Domus de Janas. Even so, the second room was large enough for a person to comfortably lie down in, or for several to sit together. The structures were all surprisingly rectangular in plan.
Someone had recently had a cooking fire at one end of the cave I’d entered. Since sometime around 3000 BC, these caves have been inhabited. Not much is known about their early purpose; “typical pre-historic chamber tombs” is all Wikipedia has to say. Painted bones were typically found inside. But as history unfurled, live people surely followed the dead inside these caves.
“No one knows anything about the witches,” said Sandro, but I saw it all in my imagination. I filled in a storyline from what I knew of European witch history—the old women, the widows, the women with enemies, cast out of town, living on society’s edges by their wits and wisdom. I saw them making a life here with their gardens, their stream, their herbs and spells. I nodded a prayer of greeting to these women, my ancient sisters.
That night I met a witch. I dreamed of a Janas, all weathered white-ish wood, as if carved from a tree. She was squat and solid as a totem pole. Flowing hair was carved around her face, even a beard. Carved robes wrapped her broad cylindrical wooden torso. Even so, she could move.
She arrived midway through a dream that began with me at a party I had arranged, to which I had invited everyone from both my worlds—Bloomington, Indiana college days and more recently Madison. Old lovers, every friend from every world, and their acquaintances too, all were there. But I was too busy being the hostess to enjoy myself. Perturbed, I realized I had no ride home. The party had become a big irritation.
Then the Janas showed up. Moving with solid grace she glided into the party, white wood flowing. She announced I had rented this house twenty years ago, and I would have to pay the rent for all those years.
The dream continued with me shooing out the guests, finding a bus, getting headed for home, a typical frustration dream. But I woke up with the feeling of a visitation, of receiving a kind but firm reprimand.
The Jana had told me, without words: “You will pay for everything you’ve done. It may not be for years, and you may think for a while you’re getting away with something, but sooner or later the gods will collect. Better to pay as you go, or refrain from buying.”
November 2 is also the gaelic Witches’ New Year, Samhain. I began the first day of that new year, the first day of the rest of my life, with an earnest resolution to be good. Simply good.
As I revisit this memory, I thank the Janas for the reminder.