Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Skeleton Woman

Lately I have been thinking a great deal about my father, and about  meanings of a healing dream I had recently about him. I'm certain it has to do with re-reading Woman That Run With The Wolves and the poignant themes of the stories relating to relationship with self, others, life and death.

Over the years I have had many  powerful experiences with receiving messages through my dreams that helped me through either difficult relationships or even the death of those I love. 

Relationship and death seem to be a central theme in many of my dreams. Perhaps because I have had a lot of personal experience with death in my own life.

Remembering the book, Love and Will, I read many years ago, by Rollo May, said  that sex was once the taboo topic, but now it is death. I have always found this to be true. Death has become far removed from our lives and most people push death away, or flee from it, in one way or another.

In the ancient tale of the, " Skeleton Woman" I am reading now, I am some what conflicted, uncomfortable and yet fascinated with it's deep meaning and imagery which explores what it is to understand the Life/Death/Life Nature of Love. This story Clarissa Pinkola Estes shares was given to her by Mary Uukalat in a five line poem, in an old Inuit setting.

I am anxious to see what images I express in my painting and interpret the meaning of what I think is the most powerful story in this book. Here is what Clarissa writes about the Life/Death/ Life Nature of Love.

"Wolves are good at relationships. Anyone who has observed wolves sees how deeply they bond. Mates are most often for life. Even though they clash, even though there is dissension, their bonds carry them over and through harsh winters, plentiful springs, long walks, new offspring, old predators, tribal dances, and group sings. The relational needs of humans are no different.

While the instinctual lives of wolves include loyalty and lifelong bonds of trust and devotion, humans sometimes have trouble with these matters. If we were to use archetypal terms to describe what determines the strong bonds among wolves, we might surmise that the integrity of their relationships is derived from their submission to the ancient Life/Death/Life nature.

The ancient Life/Death/Life nature is a cycle of animation, development, decline, and death that is always followed by reanimation. This cycle affects all physical life and all facets of psychological life. Everything—the sun, the novas, and the moon, as well as the affairs of humans and those of the tiniest creatures, like cells and atoms—has this fluttering, then faltering, then fluttering again.

Unlike humans, wolves do not deem the ups and downs of life, energy, power, food, opportunity as startling or punitive. The peaks and valleys just are, and wolves ride them as efficiently, as fluidly, as possible. The instinctual nature has the miraculous ability to live through all positive boon, all negative consequence, and still maintain relationship to self, to another.

Among wolves, the Life/Death/Life cycles of nature and fate are met with grace and wit and the endurance to stay tight with one’s mate and to live long and well as can be. But in order for humans to live and give loyalty in this most fit manner, one has to go up against the very thing one fears most. There is no way around it, as well shall see. One must sleep with Lady Death.

Skeleton Woman is a hunting story about love. In stories from the north, love is not a romantic tryst between two lovers. Stories from the circumpolar regions describe love as a union of two beings whose strength together enables one or both to enter into communication with the soul-world and to participate in fate as a dance with life and death.

To understand this story, we have to see that there, in one of the harshest environs and one of the most stressed hunting cultures in the world, love does not mean a flirtation or a pursuit for simple ego pleasure, but a visible bond composed of psychic sinew of endurance, a union which prevails through bounty and austerity, through the most complicated and most simple days and nights. The union of two beings is seen as “angakok” magic in itself, as a relationship through which “the powers that be” become known to both individuals.

But there are requirements for this kind of union. In order to create this enduring love, one invites a third partner to the union. The third partner is Skeleton Woman. She is also called Lady Death, and as such, she is the Life/Death/Life nature in one of her many guises. In this form, Lady Death is not a disease, but a deity.

In a relationship she has the role of the oracle who knows when it is time for cycles to begin and end. As such, she is the wildish aspect of relationship, the one of whom men are most terrified… and sometimes women also, for when faith in the transformative has been lost, the natural cycles of increase and attrition are feared as well.

To create enduring love, Skeleton Woman must be admitted to the relationship and be embraced by both lovers. Here, in this old Inuit story, are the psychic stages for mastery of that embrace. This story was given to me by Mary Uukalat. Let us peer at the images which rise from the smoke of this story. "

Here is the story of, " Skeleton Woman".

" She had done something of which her father disapproved, although no one any longer remembered what it was. But her father had dragged her to the cliffs and thrown her over and into the sea. There, the fish ate her flesh away and plucked out her eyes. As she lay under the sea, her skeleton turned over and over in the currents.

One day a fisherman came fishing, well, in truth many came to this bay once. But this fisherman had drifted far from his home place and did not know that the local fisherman stayed away, saying this inlet was haunted.

The fisherman's hook drifted down through the water, and caught of all places, in the bones of Skeleton Woman's rib cage. The fisherman thought, "Oh, now I've really got a big one! Now I really have one!" In his mind he was thinking of how many people this great fish would feed, how long it would last, how long he might be free from the chore of hunting. And as he struggled with this great weight on the end of the hook, the sea was stirred to a thrashing froth, and his kayak bucked and shook, for she who was beneath struggled to disentangle herself. And the more she struggled, the more she tangled in the line. No matter what she did, she was inexorably dragged upward, tugged up by the bones of her own ribs.

The hunter had turned to scoop up his net, so he did not see her bald head rise above the waves, he did not see the little coral creatures glinting in the orbs of her skull, he did not see the crustaceans on her old ivory teeth. When he turned back with his net, her entire body, such as it was, had come to the surface and was hanging from the tip of his kayak by her long front teeth.

"Agh!" cried the man, and his heart fell into his knees, his eyes hid in terror on the back of his head, and his ears blazed bright red. "Agh!" he screamed, and knocked her off the prow with his oar and began paddling like a demon toward shoreline. And not realizing she was tangled in his line, he was frightened all the more for she appeared to stand upon her toes while chasing him all the way to shore. No matter which way he zigged his kayak, she stayed right behind, and her breath rolled over the water in clouds of steam, and her arms flailed out as though to snatch him down into the depths.

"Agh!" he wailed as he ran aground. In one leap he was out of his kayak, clutching his fishing stick and running, and the coral white corpse of skeleton woman, still snagged in the fishing line, bumpety-bumped behind right after him. Over the rocks he ran, and she followed. Over the frozen tundra he ran, and she kept right up. Over the meat laid out to dry he ran, cracking it to pieces as his mukluks bore down.

Throughout it all she kept right up, in fact, she grabbed some of the frozen fish as she was dragged behind. This she began to eat, for she had not gorged in a long, long time. Finally, the man reached his snowhouse and dove right into the tunnel and on hands and knees scrabbled his way into the interior. Panting and sobbing he lay there in the dark, his heart a drum, a mighty drum. Safe at last, oh so safe, yes, safe thank the Gods, Raven, yes, thank Raven, yes, and all bountiful Sedna, safe... at...last.

Imagine when he lit his whale oil lamp, there she - it - lay in a tumble upon his snow floor, one heel over her shoulder, one knee inside her rib cage, one foot over her elbow. He could not say later what it was, perhaps the firelight softened her features, or the fact that he was a lonely man... but a feeling of some kindness came into his breathing, and slowly he reached out his grimy hands and using words softly like a mother to child, began to untangle her from the fishing line.

"Oh, na, na, na." First he untangled the toes, then the ankles. "Oh, na, na, na." On and on he worked into the night, until dressing her in furs to keep her warm, Skeleton Woman's bones were all in the order a human's should be.

He felt into his leather cuffs for his flint and used some of his hair to light a little more fire. He gazed at her from time to time as he oiled the precious wood of his fishing stick and rewound the gut line. And she in the furs uttered not a word - she did not dare - lest this hunter take her out and throw her down to the rocks and break her bones to pieces utterly.

The man became drowsy, slid under his sleeping skins, and soon was dreaming. And sometimes as humans sleep, you know, a tear escapes from the dreamer's eye; we never know what sort of dream causes this, but we know it is either a dream of sadness or longing. And this is what happened to the man.

Skeleton Woman saw the tear glisten in the firelight and she became suddenly soooo thirsty. She tinkled and clanked and crawled over to the sleeping man and put her mouth to his tear. The single tear was like a river and she drank and drank and drank until her many-years-long thirst was slaked.

While lying beside him, she reached inside the sleeping man and took out his heart, the mighty drum. She sat up and banged on both sides of it:Bom Bomm!.....Bom Bomm!

As she drummed, she began to sing out "Flesh, flesh, flesh! Flesh, Flesh, Flesh!" And the more she sang, the more her body filled out with flesh. She sang for hair and good eyes and nice fat hands. She sang the divide between her legs, and breasts long enough to wrap for warmth, and all the things a woman needs.

And when she was all done, she also sang the sleeping man's clothes off and crept into his bed with him, skin against skin. She returned the great drum, his heart, to his body, and that is how they awakened, wrapped one around the other, tangled from their night, in another way now, a good and lasting way.

The people who cannot remember how she came to her first ill fortune say she and the fisherman went away and were consistently well fed by the creatures she had known in her life under water. The people say that it is true and that is all they know."


Indigene said...

I lost my younger sister in June and now my Mother in the next weeks. The stories of the "Grandmothers" which I call books, like these (WomenWhoRunWithWolves)help me transition through this stage of life. I'm glad there are others who can relate to these stories and are having a similar journey. I too, look forward to where this journey will take us. Blessings to you!

Unknown said...


Thank you so very much for sharing your comment. It means a lot to me.

I am very heartened to hear of you deep loss. I hope you are at least a little comforted to know I certainly empathize as I too lost my father nine years ago and then lost my big brother two months following. My mother was gone in 1995.

Yes these kind of books are very strengthening and life changing.

Also I have learned not to ever underestimate how your words or actions can help another, just as you, by sharing your experience, strengthens, gives hope and helps me.

It's not a coincidence we have connected here, of this I am certain.

Today I commented on the writer, Mara Purl's post about this very thing, as she also understands the wisdom of the grandmothers, and how very important it is for women to help one another, especially us Crones, helping the younger women...of course I am only referring to myself as an certainly am one! LOL

Blessings to you Indigene


Indigene said...

Catherine, I'm not a grandmother yet, but being 52 puts me in that Crone stage...:) Thanks for responding, I happened to come back and saw your response. I've added you to my Google Reader and will become a follower. I'm glad I found you. Please feel free to visit me too! :)

Unknown said...


Thank you for getting back to me.

Ok well you know I wasn't so keen on that Crone word until I really began to understand it's deeper meaning. I wear it now with much pride and celebration. Seems others are a little uncomfortable with me calling myself a Crone, because they don't understand what I mean. They think I'm calling myself an old hag bag and a witch I think!

Yes, I will definitely be visiting and following your blog as well!

Great to meet and connect with you Indigene!