This is part of my folklore + myth series “The Story Threads” where we look at various tales, lore and myth, remembering the wisdoms they hold, and how they can whisper us into more love, more light, more insight in our every day lives. Previously, we’ve discussed The Snow Queen, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Snow White, Skeleton Woman, Bluebeard, Beauty and the Beast, Rapunzel, Gift of the Magi, and Wild Marriage

Sometimes silence condenses itself into the smallest object, to feel itself like a pearl perhaps. But pearls hold many years of wisdom. They hold the knowledge and voices from the primordial. And when we remember the stories, we are ultimately unveiling our own inner wisdom. We ultimately, whisper our own selves into the remembering.

The Story of Sedna.

There are many versions of Sedna in Inuit myth, but the story I was told, and which I’ll tell you now dear reader, I learned from a healer woman who lived with the Indigenous for many years. It is a beautiful story, carrying within itself many wisdoms, particularly ones of compassion and forgiveness, amidst the turbulence and coldness of the seas.

Sedna was a beautiful young woman and one day she was tricked to marry a sea-bird who had disguised himself as the perfect man suitor. He took her into his kingdom, and there she lived in coldness and sadness. One day her father came to visit her and she seized an opportunity to escape with him. She hid in his kayak and they padded away, but the bird came after them in intense anger and rage, turning the seas into horrific storms, for she had broken the marriage vows. Fearful and wanting to save his own life, the father pushed his daughter off the boat, so that the angry bird has mercy on him. As Sedna tried to hold on to the boat, with the tips of her fingers, her father took a knife and cut them off. With each stab of her fingers, her blood flowed into the waters and sea animals emerged from it, such as whales and seals. At last, Sedna sinked into the bottom of the freezing waters but the animals follow her. She’s lived there ever since and transformed as, what most people call, a Goddess – a protector and nurturer of sea creatures. Fishermen still pray to her in the Northern seas and waters, so that she sends them whales and seals to hunt, and that she protects them on their voyages because sometimes she is still angry at the injustices against her and they believe those lost at sea are her doing.

Art by Antony Galbraith.

Sedna itself is a name attached to her by the anthropologist Franz Boas, an anglicised form of “Sanna”, which means “down there” in Inuktitut. In many European traditions and myth, the names “down below” referred to those deities or Gods/Goddesses of the underworlds, who were greatly feared and weren’t considered as particularly “good”.

Other versions of her name are Uinigumasuittuq, which translates to “she doesn’t ever want to take a husband”, and Arnakapfaluk, “Big Bad Woman”. In these narratives, she is portrayed as someone who was responsible for her own demise because she rejected so many other husbands and she finally got what she deserved. But that’s not the story I was told.

Regardless of the story, she is very respected by the Inuit, for some it is because they fear her, and for others it is because they cherish her; but one thing remains, and it is that fishermen still pray to her today. 

To get back to her good graces, they would summon a shaman, known as an angakok, who would shapeshift into a sea creature, travel into the different afterworld, go into the depths of the sea and brush her long tangled hair. The more gently and patiently he brushed, the more gentle she too became, and all the seals and fish were released from her hair, the seas calmed, and the fishermen were able to feed their families. 

With such tenderness and compassion, her pain from the violence and betrayal she had suffered was relieved, and her traumas were soothed. And in return, she showed mercy too for the fishermen – it was her intention to build harmony and respect between animals and men. And in her heart and soul, all she ever needed was some understanding, support and love.

The story of Sedna is a woven reminder of the compassion and resilience that we need towards ourselves, and others also. When we feel cut off from parts of ourselves, when we’ve lost our sense of belonging, it is important to acknowledge our power within. And for Sedna, it was precisely through her cut fingers that pain was released and cleansed in the waters, and new life was born. 

Sedna by Inuit artist Bart Hanna

What Sedna shows us is all the parts of us that still feel betrayed, angered and abandoned, hidden from us in the corners of our psyche. Yet what we need to remember is that no matter how many negative thoughts and feelings we might have – we are still loved and needed by those who love us in our life, and anything can be cleansed and released like the waves.

By cutting off her fingers, her father took away not only her life literally, but he took away her freedom, trust, sense of belonging, and he made her completely powerless. He also took away to ability to rely on someone else, and be held in their hands when she needs help. He also took away her ability to soothe her wounds and relieve her pains.

As in other tales, such as the Handless Maiden by Brothers Grimm, without our hands, we can’t do much – we are left at the complete mercy of everyone and everything else. And we’ve all had moments of powerlessness in our life. We’ve all had moments of anger, and of rage. Of grief, of sadness, of bitterness, of regret, of guilt, of frustration. But beneath all these is pain and our need for love. The only remedy for pain is – water: compassion and tenderness towards ourselves in the moments when negative emotions and thoughts start to rise within us. And the only way to reconnect to ourselves again, is by being kind to ourselves. Yes, we all feel like crap sometimes, and we can be so self-critical, self-hating even, it’s unbelievable really. So brush your hair, or ask someone to brush it, and settle into some self kindness, compassion and tenderness. You are more loved than you know. This, I promise you.

It’s really hard to ask someone for help when we need it – we don’t want to burden anyone, etcetera. But here is something to remember: it is actually something that helps them too. Because the next time when they need help and support, they will ask us too, rather than feel hesitant or ashamed to do so. There is a story: a girl asked her mother why she asked the neighbour for some salt when they had plenty already, and the mother replied, “Because she doesn’t have much else to give, but if she needs help, I want her to feel it’s okay to ask us for something as well.”

As we already mentioned Sedna wasn’t known by some as a particularly forgiving, or even “good” deity in Intuit myth. But again, that’s not the story that I know. Either way, it makes us also think of forgiveness. And what is forgiveness really? For many years I’d wonder what it was – how to describe it. I knew that I forgive too easily sometimes, though that never meant that I’d go back to people who mistreated me. And even when I did go back, I’d have to learn my lesson, over and over. But I just never knew how to describe what forgiveness was. We read about how we are supposed to forgive, why it’s important to do it – but what does it feel like? And then one day I came across a definition which deeply resonated with me.

Forgiveness is the time when we can look back at the situation or the person and no longer have anything more to say. This is why it feels like peace. The only other thing we might feel is a kind of sadness perhaps, depending on what the situation was, regarding the person – sadness about who they are, that causes them to harm others, or sadness about the two of us, that we just couldn’t figure it out in this life. But there is an acceptance with this – not a longing or yearning for something that didn’t become. There is a presence in this “no longer having anything more to say about it”. In this presence, in this embodiment, in this moment, there is acceptance, there is a being.

Surely, in some situations we’ve never get an apology, we’ve never have a chance to speak our truth neither. But forgiveness starts when we no longer even need to. On our inside of – we’ve forgiven. Most times, we’ve forgiven ourselves, we’ve accepted that we are only human and thus, imperfect and ever learning, all of us carrying our own stuff. We’ve grieved the parts of us that never happened, the dreams that never happened, the people and relationships that we never became. And now there’s just water – waves, in and out. And we – on the beach, with a peace of who and where we are.

Sedna knows that she isn’t and wasn’t the only girl thrown into the seas, betrayed and harmed by someone who was supposed to hold her and support her and love her. Some will stay in the bottoms. But there are also those, like the maiden in the Inuit story of Skeleton Woman, who will find themselves into the loving arms of someone, a fisherman perhaps – and love will sing warmth back to skin.

And I imagine, that no matter how hurt Sedna might still sometimes feel, in the depths of her Northern seas, that each time a maiden from the bottoms of the freezing waters is raised, held and loved by a real man, in the warmth inside of a house, deep into the tundra forest, Sedna smiles. She exhales in peace, rises in more love and in more forgiveness, and even more animals are born and untangled from her long beautiful wild hair.

What Sedna knows is that love heals. And yet she also knows that we must be discerning, because not all those who say they love and care for us, truly do. The power of the feminine is that she knows who is who and what is what; she knows when to wear her armour, and for whom and when to take it off. 

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Cover art by Susan Seddon Boulet.