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The Power of Stories

(From: ‘Earth People’ Volume 2 Number 5)

Now Playing: 'Love Her Madly'
By: The Doors

There are many types of stories, Dreamtime stories, Fairy stories, Horror stories, and Mythological stories just to name a few. However when one looks at all these stories one begins to realise that all of them are trying to do the same thing, they are trying to express the workings of the human unconscious psyche, who’s language is symbolism and metaphors.

The first storytellers were actually the shamans, the first humans who through visions or dreams had an understanding of the basic processes of the psyche. As with all the deep understandings of life, and these truths about the stages that the psyche goes through during a lifetime, they are only expressed in symbolic form. Once one begins to discover the keys to these symbols one understands more about the unconscious workings of the human psyche, and thus understands life. As a result of this understanding one finds that life takes on new and vibrant experiences, and both the good or uplifting experiences and the painful depressive ones become ecstatic.

I recently came across a book that was such a best seller that I found three people, with whom I have contact, who own a copy of the book. It was obviously a best seller because it was dubbed as a book to empower women, and this it can do. But although it is talking to women about the female psyche, I found it described the psyche of all humans. As I read through ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, I found it described in great detail some of the psychic transformations I had been through myself. Therefore the ‘Wild Woman’ archetype that she speaks about is not only contained in female’s psyches, but also in males’. It is the most basic of psychic phenomenon. It is our connection to Mother Earth, who can teach us about the cycles of life, death, and rebirth.

I realised that there are only three ways to come to an understanding of these matters. The first, and traditional way, is when the story itself is told with the depth and conviction of the ancient and traditional storytellers. In this case the story speaks directly to the soul, which understands fully. This, in my opinion, is the best way, however there are two problems here. Firstly, today the stories have been so washed down, changed and rearranged that only the bones of the stories are left, and in some cases the bones have almost gone too. And secondly, the conviction of the telling has been reduced to entertainment to compete with television, or so seriously told that “You just have to believe”. As some of you may realise I do not believe in belief, I believe in experience. As Joseph Campbell has said:

“People say that what we are seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we are really seeking. I think what we are seeking is an experience of being alive, so that life’s experiences on the physical plain will have resonances within our innermost being and reality, so that we feel the rapture of being alive.”

The second way is very long-winded and complex, and relies on the gifted people like Clarissa, Joseph Campbell, and the one from whom both have learnt much, Carl Jung, to discuss, in detail, the symbolism of the stories. This way speaks to the conscious mind, and as I have noticed with people who have read Clarissa’s book, they don’t always fully appreciate the connotations to life’s experiences. Or maybe they see it as another interesting book. If they truly understood the connotations, they would not be seeking help from people like myself; they would be out helping others learn how to live life.

This brings me to the third way of understanding life; and it is through the experiences of life, which is very painful at times. This way is through trial and error, or trials and revelations.

But the ultimate way of understanding, which is the way that I finally understood, is through all the different ways. However as my own experience shows, my society was not giving me any of the first two ways. And it was only when my trials had got so painful that I wanted out, that I started searching, as so many are today, for the answers to life’s questions.

So I would like to try and give you a brief account of a story that I found in Clarissa Pinkola Estes’s book ‘Women Who Run With The Wolves’. Clarissa gives a very in-depth break down of the symbology, but I will try to give you the main points. The story is a story about love, the union of male and female, not only of an actual male with an actual female, but also the inner male and female within all of us. It is a story about facing, the Life/Death/Life nature of love, the life giving, life taking away, and life renewing power of Mother Earth. This story is from the old Inuit of the circumpolar region, and it is called:

'Skeleton Woman'

A fisherman had accidentally strayed into a bay that all others knew was haunted. His 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!” 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 the great weight on the end of his hook, the sea was stirred to 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 got tangled in the line.

The hunter turned to collect 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 hide in terror on the back of his head. “Agh!” he screamed, and knocked her off the prow with his oar and began paddling like a demon toward the shore. And not realising she was tangled in his line, he was frightened all the more for she appeared to stand on her toes while chasing him all the way to shore. No matter which way he zigged his kayak, she stayed right behind, and her arms flailed out as though to snatch him down into the depths.

“Aggghhh!” 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.

Finally, the man reached his snow-house and dived right into the tunnel and on hands and knees scrambled his way to the interior. Panting and sobbing he lay there in the dark, his heart a drum, a mighty drum. Safe at last, oh so 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 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.

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.

The Skeleton Woman saw the tear glisten in the firelight, and she suddenly became 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 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!” 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 awoke, wrapped one around the other, tangled 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 water. The people say that it is true and that is all they know.

Untangling the symbolism

Clarissa begins by saying:

“Inability to face and untangle the Skeleton Woman is what causes many love relationships to fail. To love, one must not only be strong, but wise. Strength comes from the spirit. Wisdom comes from Skeleton Woman.

“As we see in the tale, if one wishes to be fed for life, 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…”

There is basically seven parts to this story. The first is The Accidental Finding of Treasure, where our Life/Death/Life nature is accidentally pulled up from the unconscious while we are looking for some excitement. Or discovering another person as a spiritual treasure, even though one may not realise what one has found.

The next stage is The Chase and the Hiding, which happens when we see what we really have. This is the scary stage when we run as fast and as far as we can, but this nature is caught up in our lives. Our ego is never ready for this moment, but our soul is. We must bring her home. In outer relationships Clarissa says:

“It is a time when thoughts are all jumbled together, when one makes a desperate dive for shelter, and the heart beats, not from cherishing and being cherished as much as from abject terror. To be trapped by Lady Death! Ai! The horror of meeting the Life/Death/Life force, face-to-face! Double Ai!"

In the third stage we must have the courage, patients and persistence to Untangle Skeleton Woman, and find out all about this nature that is within us all, and that is within the other. When we care for the not so beautiful, we are rewarded. She is the inner voice (soul), not the ego (mind). This is when we learn and should ask ourselves; “What should I let die today? And what should live?”

The fourth stage is The Sleep of Trust. This is the sleep of rebirth, not of the unconscious. This is the innocence of being free of hurt, looking through the eyes of the knowing and loving spirit, not through the eyes of the whipped dog, or an angry, wounded human.

The next stage is the Giving a Tear. This is the tear of passion and compassion after finding the treasure, the fearful chase, and the untangling. This is admitting to the wounds. Uniting and letting the heart break open, not break down. Here Clarissa says that this is the time of sharing both future dreams and past sadness, these being the beginning of healing the archaic wounds with regard to love.

This admission feeds the Life/Death/Life nature, causes the bond to be made and the deep knowing in a man to begin. We all have made the mistake of thinking someone else can be our healer, our thriller, or our filling. It takes a long time to find it is not so, mostly because we put the wound outside ourselves instead of ministering to it within.

The next stage is the beginning of the later phases of love, within and without. This stage is the Heart as Drum and Singing up the Flesh. This is the singing up of new life. When Skeleton Woman sings flesh onto her bones, the one whose heart is used feels filled with life and creation. Here Clarissa shows her understanding of shamanism thus:

“It is told that the skin or body of a drum determines who and what will be called into being. Some drums are believed to be journeying drums transporting the drummer and the listener (also called the “passengers” in story telling tradition) to various and sundry places. Other kinds of drums are powerful in other ways.”

“Drums made of human bone call the dead. Drums made of hide of certain animals are good for calling the animal spirits. Drums with bells attached call child-spirits and weather. Drums that are low in voice call the spirits who can hear that tone. Drums high in voice call spirits who can hear that tone, and so on.

“A drum made of heart will call the spirits that are concerned with the human heart. The heart symbolises essence. The heart is one of the few organs humans (and animals) must have to live.”

The seventh and last stage is The Dance of Body and Soul. This is the dance of unity; when we are bursting with life and joy; dancing with bliss, life, and yes death. When we can ride the cycles of Life/Death/Life with the passion and compassion of a spiritual and love warrior.

Regarding an actual relationship Clarissa says this:

“Sometimes the one who is running from the Life/Death/Life nature insists on thinking of love as a boon only. Yet love in its fullest form is a series of deaths and rebirths. We let go of one phase, one aspect of love, and enter another. Passion dies and is brought back. Pain is chased away and surfaces another time. To love means to embrace and at the same time withstand many, many endings, and many, many beginnings – all in the same relationship.”

All I can say after that is that I now really do love life, and I hope that this understanding of the depth and meaning of stories can do the same for you.

Remember the fifth principle of shamanism:
 Love is to be happy with – what ever you have or whatever you are.


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