Sin and Death: Rewriting Herstory

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These are provocative words, sin and death, laid at the feet of women by the church fathers for millennia, internalized by women for time out of mind.

I have been looking for a different story about women all my life.

The lesson of original sin in the story of Adam and Eve that I learned in Sunday school was the seed of my sedition. Education was highly valued in my family, so I couldn’t understand why Eve got in trouble for wanting knowledge. My grandmother, who managed the church’s instruction for children, deferred my question to the rector, but his answer was so opaque I turned away, disappointed, a ten-year-old heretic in the making.

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This was one of the memories I wandered in during the writing of “Ancient Herstory.” When I was invited to write about the honor of having my book, The First Writing, chosen to be exhibited in the Bodleian Library last summer, I pondered what to write. I had already shared the frolic of attending the artist reception in England, and later my reflections on the exclusivity of Oxford’s ivory towers. I had rarely told much about the spiritual path that led me to make my first artist book, for I was in the precincts of the goddess, whose groves were burned long ago by the followers of the one god.

But now I found myself waxing nostalgic about my little book’s conception story. I had never written about her creation. Recently I had read an article about a scribe who was trained as a sofer, allowing him to write the sacred texts of the Torah. Perhaps I too could include the spiritual inspiration that had resulted in my book twenty years ago. So after documenting my craft training, I took the plunge.

My sincere thanks to the Friends of Calligraphy and the editor of Alphabet, Carl Rohrs, for stewarding this story to completion. A kind and listening heart was what I needed to pull some of these problematic ideas forth. Making an artist book is an exercise in concealing and revealing, as posited by one of my teachers long ago. But writing a personal work of memory, using many words, needed a different approach. Questions were posed and dilemmas about provocative language resolved with grace and honesty. Wanting to write about religion in the pages of a calligraphy journal was a tricky proposition, and yet it was the soil from which my little book sprang. Calligraphy itself has long been associated with the church I left behind; it was there that I saw my first beautiful lettering and illumination in sacred works. I honor that early influence while also wanting to tell a different origin story for the writing we all love to create, in whatever form.

I have uploaded a somewhat abridged version of “Ancient Herstory” to my Library. I pruned some details about my calligraphy training, and there are a few extra photos for website readers.

To mark Women’s History Month, I share “Ancient Herstory” here with you, because:

The entrenched narrative that we have always been a hostile, aggressive people committing terrorist acts against one another is fondly recounted by a culture that can’t see any other perspective … we might consider another story about the advent of writing, one that perhaps a woman is telling.

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If you have enjoyed this post or my article, I’d love to hear from you.



“whose groves were burned” – Deuteronomy 7:5, among other sources

“From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.” – Book of Sirach (alternately called Ecclesiasticus or sometimes Ben Sira), 25:24

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