Today I’ll tell you two Inuit stories, from the depths of the cold seas, all the way to the warmth of a little house in the tundra where a love was born. The first story is about Sedna, and the second, about Skeleton Woman. In her book Women Who Run With the Wolves, Jungian psychoanalyst Clarissa Pinkola Estes beautifully portrays the phases of love in long-term relationships with the latter story. In some ways sometimes, love is a Skeleton Woman. I love her telling of the story, though I’ll tell you a version of my own, but to tell it, I have to begin telling you about Sedna first.
The Story of Sedna.
There are many versions of it in Inuit myth, but the story I was told, which I’ll tell to you as well dear reader, I learned from a woman who lived with the Natives for many years. Sedna was a beautiful young woman and once 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.
Sedna by Susan Seddon Boulet
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.”
Drumming Sedna by Bart Hanna
The Story of Skeleton Woman.
(Based on the story told by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who was told that story by a woman named Mary Uukalat.)
Sedna wasn’t the only girl thrown off into the freezing seas. There was a young girl once who apparently made her father angry one day, so to punish her, he dragged her to the cliffs, and threw her into the waters. She remained there at the bottom of the sea for years; the fish ate her and soon was only a frail skeleton left of her once beautiful body.
Until one day a fisherman caught her into his net, and the more she tried to free herself, the more tangled she became.
At first the fisherman was ecstatic because the weight of the net made him assume that he had caught a big fish! But when he pulled the net all the way into his kayak, he saw the bones of the skeleton and screamed in horror, praying to Sedna to save him. His heart fell into his knees and his eyes hid in terror at the back of his head. In panic he knocked her off the edge of his kayak and started paddling to the shore like a crazy demon. But what he didn’t realize was that she was still tangled in the net, dragging behind him. At shore, he started running, and she behind him still. He ran faster and faster fearing she was chasing him, because he’d hea little cracks as she dragged across the tundra.
When he reached his little snow house, finally at peace and happy, imagine his horror when he lit the oil lamp, and saw her all tangled in the net, like a little snow ball. One heal over her shoulder, one knee inside her rib cage, one foot over her elbow. A little time passed as he watched her, and he could not say later what it was, perhaps the firelight softened her gentle feminine features, or maybe it was the fact that he was a lonely man. But as if suddenly, a feeling of some kindness came into his breathing. Slowly he reached out his hands and, using words softly like a mother to her child, he began to untangle her from the fishing net.
All night he stayed up, untangling her, until all her bones were laid gently on the floor, where he even laid some fur in between them as if to keep her warm. He even used some of his own hair to keep the fire burning longer. The entire time, the poor girl didn’t move, didn’t show him any signs she still had life inside her, for she feared he’d throw her over a cliff like her father once did, but that this time, her bones will be broken forever and she’ll never be able to return again.
At one point, the man fell asleep and started dreaming. A tear formed and came from his eye. We never know why these tears come to us in dreams – sometimes it is because of sadness, and sometimes it is because of love’s longing. But as the tear made its way like a river across the man’s cheek, the girl raised herself above him. Gently, as he once touched her too, she touched his cheek to drink the tear. She drank until all her many years’ long of thirst were soothed. Now lying beside him, she reached her hands, pinned them to his chest, and she took his heart. She started drumming on his heart, with a rhythm of kindness, tenderness and love. And the more she drummed and hummed and sang, the more flesh wrapped around her bones. Her divide between her legs, her breasts, her lips, her hair, her eyes, her hands and legs and arms. There she was, the beautiful young girl she once was.
She sang some more, and drummed some more, and she sang the man’s clothes off his body. Then she gently slipped into his bed, skin against skin, returning the great drum, his heart, back 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 that she and the fisherman went away and were consistently well fed by the creatures she had known in her life under the water. The people say that it is true and that is all they know.”
Love is a Skeleton Woman.
This story is so rich in symbolism and meaning that I’d need a whole essay to share my thoughts and feelings about it. Of course Estes has an amazing chapter all dedicated to it, and the transformation of life-death-life that takes place for every lover in the relationship as it shifts through its various phases. So if you are interested, I highly recommend her book Women Who Run With the Wolves where she talks in length about the story, and shares many other stories and wisdoms too.
Initially we all look for that diamond to catch, the fish in our net, the animal in our hunt. It’s an accidental finding of a great treasure. It’s exciting. It’s unknown and anything unknown is mysterious, tempting and seductive, and it wraps our entire body in a dream. But once caught, once it gives itself to us, we face the reality that we need to give back in exchange. And here is where modern relationships fail – people refuse to give back and share a space of honesty and real intimacy. We all have imperfections, we will always have misunderstandings, we will have many struggles too. There will always be challenges, so I suppose the question should be: Who do you choose to face the challenges with? And I suppose everyone will hurt us too – so who is worth being hurt for? Because then, we’ll need to forgive them also, if we want to continue forward.
We’ll always have parts of us, and of our partners, that will go away and we’ll grieve. The parts of us that never became, the dreams that never happened, the disappointments, betrayals, losses, failures, and pains. We’ll mourn for these parts. All these parts harden us. In these hardening conditions, when we feel stripped down to our bones, barely holding on, we need someone to show us a softening – so that our skin comes back, so that we come back. We need compassion. We need tenderness. We need forgiveness – we need to forgive ourselves over and over and over again, no matter how many times we forget, fall and fail. We need support. We need understanding. We need patience too. Because it may take some time.
This is the symbolism of the skeleton also, in my opinion. The skeleton is the structure that holds us, and we need it to be of strong support, especially in our vulnerable times, so that we can be held by it, raised by it, supported by it. What makes it strong? It’s all that I already mentioned – compassion, tenderness, patience, forgiveness, devotion, trust – these are all the untanglings needed to love.
The inability to untangle the Skeleton Woman is what causes many relationships to fail. To love, we must be strong in spirit and wise from experience. The fear of many in relationships is that things will change – there will be a kind of death of a phase, and we don’t want that. Well, things will change. But in that change is already something else rebirthing itself – there is another life ready to be formed. Skeleton Woman is an opportunity, an invitation for a new deepening.
If it is truly love we are making, we must be willing to untangle some bones. We must be willing to touch and hold the parts that are not-so beautiful. And when putting the pieces together, we must be gentle, because if it is a tiny little bone out of its place, the whole will be disturbed. We must protect our movements through life, because we are all unique in our paths – and yet we must pay attention to the little limps along the phases and cycles and structures of our love. In simple words – we must attention to our lover and learn their unique movements. Love and attention mean the same thing in their essence.
Often times, we give to another what we need, and not what they need. We must be willing to re-explore and re-discover and even re-learn about one another, because we all change, our inners worlds change too. No matter how many years we’ve lived together under the same roof, we’ll never know another person completely. There will always be wild parts, unknown, in our partners, just like in ourseves too. And we must be willing to kiss them, and hold them, not in the way we always did, but in the way they need to be, right now.
And after we untangle some stuff, we then need to tangle ourselves, in another way, in a good and lasting way. True love, sacred love, true intimacy, require a kind of tangling, where divisions dissolve, and we become one.
The man gives his whole heart to her. He surrenders his tear also. He cries for her. He cries for himself also. And in his deep compassion and empathy, she nourishes her soul – she soothes all these deep pains and injustices that she suffered. She finds her way, in the way of water, from the depth of aloneness and loneliness and abandonment, to the warm skin of his body. The kindness of rhythm of his heartbeat gives her life back. And in the exchange, they can now both understand each other more truly and more deeply. There is sleep of trust. A state of innocence, purity and openness. He is no longer afraid – for all he sees and finally understands is that she may seem scary not because she is bad but because she was sad, and the pain robbed her skin of warmth.
When trust pulls us, love begins to thrive. And we come into the deep knowing, that whatever will be will be. And we need to fall into this sleep of trust, where in the purity of its waters, fears will be washed away, and tears will become the release needed to birth a new life again. In relationships, we can’t solve the same problems with the same thinking or solutions. We need a different perspective and a new way; we need to allow a process of change within us and get a bit creative. His tears also symbolize that he is facing his own fears and wounds, rather than projecting them onto her, which will allow for great self awareness, emotional intelligence and a deepening of their mutual understanding.
And it is the surrender of his tear, that pulls her closer to him, building her trust in him because she now sees that this is a safe space for her, through all the ways he cared for her before. As in many tales, tears call things to us, and it is tears that keep the evil away because through crying we soften ourselves and practice more self compassion. In the Handless Maiden, the only reason why the devil can’t take the maiden’s soul is because she starts crying – and this water cleanses and purifies her, it keeps her in tenderness, it shows she has feelings, and deep wells of vision and perspective, despite the violence and injustice thrown upon her.
In a way, the fisherman’s heart breaks in the story – it breaks open. And the humility in this, the compassion in this, make tears fall, and love comes upon him. It is a love that he always had within himself, but like many of us, we sometimes forget about it.
The later phases of love are portrayed by the drumming of the heart, and the singing. All creation begins with sound – sound or a word, said loud, whispered, or even intensely thought. These mystical ways of creations is what initiates the changes of our life. This is why it is so important to be mindful of what we speak and listen to. There is also the dance of body and soul. The singing off the clothes of the one we love is a common folk motif in many cultures – and this was known as calling their soul towards you for a deeper connection. We speak ourselves and our lovers into existence, love itself becomes a prayer. A devotion of taking them in our soul, and caring for them the way we would for all parts of ourselves. Some days they’ll feel like all bones, and we’ll help take care of them; other days, we’ll need the more caring putting ourselves together. Even the old parts, the skeleton parts, require to be made love to. We can be being together, dancing our natures together.
A lot of women may think that men don’t want to know us but that’s not always true. So when a man asks to know you, to know your parts, all of them, open to him, tell him. Tell him not just because – tell him because his soul asked you to.
The giving of our body becomes the last phase in this story of love, so don’t hurry to share your bed with a lover. Make a little soul singing before that. Connect emotionally, spiritually, mentally. This is why soulmate connections are so powerful and undeniable – because it’s a soul to soul love, it transcends the physical, and lasts lifetimes. In this tale, there is certainly a mating between the mortal and immortal, between body and soul – and the drumming and singing off the clothes are what symbolize that. It is a call for a soul love, called by our human heart and human hands.
Sleep of trust, surrender of tear, untangle to love, and then tangle to love. Soul-sized is the land of our heart. With a kindness of rhythm, we walk and explore the unique physical, emotional and spiritual wild lands of love, and of each other. In each relationship, a soul will be born, and will grow. And if the two learn the patient art of love, and of honouring, no matter what they hunt, or what hunts them, it’d be of blessing and of great treasure, nourishing them along the way, across the tundra, seas, and in the small snow houses, for the rest of their days, and then after again.
And I imagine, that each time a maiden from the bottom of the ocean is loved by a real man, in the warmth inside a house far into the tundra, Sedna exhales in peace, rises in more love and in more forgiveness, and even more animals are born and untangled in her long hair.
The photographed sculptures today are by Inuit artist Bart Hanna, and if you love photography, Inuit photographers you can check out are: Niore Iqalukjuak, Caroline Blechert (who also creates jewellery), Aimo Kooniloosie Paniloo, David Kilabuk, and Robert Kautuk.
The painting above is by the contemporary Inuit painter and printmaker Germaine Arnatauyck. Born near Igloolik, Nunavut in 1946, Arnatauyck was raised in a traditional hunting camp, and her art is mainly inspired by Inuit myth, particularly women’s stories. “I never questioned being an artist,” she says. “I guess I was lucky. It seemed I knew exactly what I wanted to be.”
I also wanted to share with you the beautiful blog tea & bannock which is a collective blog by Indigenous women photographers. The women share many interesting stories along with their art. It’s inspiring, honest, and just really, really beautiful. The creators are Tenille K Campbell, who is Dené and Métis, and grew up on English River First Nation, located in Northern Saskatchewan, and Joi T Archand from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation. I especially loved what Tenille writes on her intention for starting the blog, “I want a place where we lift each other up, hold each other up, and support one another.”
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Cover art by Susan Seddon Boulet.