From "Women Who Run With the Wolves," the Story of Skeleton Woman.
The Inuit story of Skeleton Woman is all about making friends with the dark side, and in the process transforming ourselves.
Women Who Run With the Wolves
Clarissa Pinkola Estes, in her must-read, remarkable book Women Who Run With the Wolves, relates the Inuit story of Skeleton Woman. In the book she prefaces the story with the following remarks: "Skeleton Woman is a haunting 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 the psychic sinew of endurance, a union which prevails through bounty and austerity, through the most complicated and the 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."
The story of Skeleton Woman
"She had done something of which her father disapproved, although no one remembered any longer 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 fishermen 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 got a really 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 up 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.
"'Aggggggghhhh!' 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 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 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 his 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 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 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 form 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.
"The 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."
In modern society, particularly in the West, couples get together and expect to live 'happily ever after,' but it doesn't work that way. In every relationship, sooner or later - most often sooner - we come face to face with Skeleton Woman, the dark side, and we must embrace it, like the fisherman in the story did, before we can move beyond it, before we can transform. We must understand that life itself embodies a constant unfolding of cycles of Life/Death/Life. Estes writes..."one must face and develop a relationship with the Life/Death/Life nature. When we have that, we are no longer bumbling along fishing for fantasies, but are made wise about the necessary deaths and startling births that create true relationship. When we face Skeleton Woman we learn that passion is not something to go 'get' but rather something generated in cycles and given out. It is Skeleton Woman who demonstrates that a shared living together through all increase and decrease, through all endings and beginnings, is what creates an unparalleled love of devotion."
In astrology Skeleton Woman is met through the sign Scorpio and the planet Pluto. We all have this sign and planet somewhere in our birth charts, which means that none of us can escape the necessity to travel the road which takes us into the darkness so that we can emerge to the light.
Quotes from Women Who Run With the Wolves, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, 1992, Ballantine Books, pps. 131-134.
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