Autumn is the wildest season in the timber. Winds rise. Leaves and dust and pollen take to the air. Black raspberry canes root wherever gravity leads them. Paths that were clear become thickets. Fallen logs bar trails. Leaves land in my hair, and burrs cling to my socks. Barred owls call in the afternoon; great horned owls hoot before dawn. Geese go over, honking. This is the flying moon, when branches are stripped bare and witches sweep the sky.
Italian legends tell of a witch who walks in the woods and along the roadsides, muttering to herself. Sometimes she stops a stranger to hitch a ride or bum a cigarette. You might meet her in the market, mumbling as she glares at the produce. If you are rude to her you will be cheated, but if you are kind you might return home to find a basket of apples by your door.
She was once a goddess or a nymph. Her name is Feronia, from the Latin word for wild, savage, feral. In Rome she accepted the thank-offerings of freed slaves. Outside the city, in her temple at Terracina, fleeing slaves could find sanctuary. She lives in the woods and gives shelter to wild things. She rewards generosity and punishes cruelty. When autumn briars tangle the forest paths, Feronia is guarding the wilderness.
A friend of mine is a lifelong fan of Marvel comics and graphic novels. He prefers myths that are inked in broad, clear strokes, expressing plain, universal truths. I’m more of a poetry fan; I like peeling back layers of the onion to reveal more layers of ambiguity and maybe even meaning. I like my myths gnarled and leafy and branching out in unexpected directions. He prefers statuary: unambiguous, beautiful and stately. We’ve often looked at each other with great curiosity and slight understanding, but really, we’re aware that we are not at odds. If he had not asked me to research the Roman Goddess Libertas, I would never have discovered Feronia.
Libertas and Feronia back each other on the same coin, like spirit and matter, each only a breath, an idea, away from the other. Like Castor and Polydeuces, the brothers of Helen and Clytemnestra, one is immortal and pure, the other mortal and holy. Like Romulus, who founded a city, and Remus, son of a she-wolf running free on the mountainsides, they are twins in immortality and sacred mortality.
My woods are not pristine. My wilderness has been violated many times. The feral landscape has reclaimed that violation. The timber is full of ticks and mosquitoes, burrs, poison ivy and devil’s darning needles. Feronia walks here, muttering to herself, cursing and blessing as she wills. Her footsteps rustle the leaves at my back. I thank her for my freedom when I meet her. More often, I mutter to myself and shuffle on my way. Sometimes I almost glimpse my own shadow.