Skeleton Woman & the Life-Death-Life Cycle of Relationships

This is a great story (told by Clarissa Pinkola Estes in Women Who Run With the Wolves) that holds some profound wisdom for those of us engaged with relationship in modern times.

Pinkola Estes talks a lot about the wildish nature of Woman and how it has been neglected and driven underground:

‘We have seen the feminine instinctive nature looted, driven back and overbuilt.’

This manifests within women as an inability to trust the wildish instinct and to allow its full expression in our everyday lives. Indeed it seems to me that much of our modern culture through advertising and the media is designed to create a mistrust of our bodies and our own native, indigenous instinctual wisdom. In short, women need to learn to listen to themselves and trust their instinct to navigate their way through life and relationships.

Wolves seem to choose a mate and stay with them for the duration of their life: they live as pack animals with instinctual natures that include loyalty and lifelong bonds of trust and devotion, where as humans seem to have trouble with these issues more often than not.

“The instinctual nature has the miraculous ability to live through all positive boon, all negative consequence and still maintain a relationship to self, to another.”

The Story of Skeleton Woman comes from the circumpolar regions where life is tough and love is seen as a ‘union of two beings whose strength together enables one or both to enter into communication with the soul world…’

“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.”

However there are requirements for this kind of union described above: in order to create an enduring love one must invite skeleton woman into the equation, otherwise known as Lady Death. This can be exceedingly challenging especially when faith in the transformative nature of life has been lost, because this leads to fear of the natural cycles of increase and attrition (erosion or wearing away).

One day a fisherman went fishing in a cove that the locals avoided saying it was haunted, his line caught and he started to reel it in thinking ‘ooh, I must have a really big one’, and he had his eye on all the mouths this great fish would feed and how he might be free for a while from the chore of hunting.

And as he struggled with the great weight on the end of his line, the sea started foaming a frothing as he had inadvertently caught the hook in the ribs of Skeleton Woman. Soon she rose above the surface of sea, for much as she struggled to free herself she just got more entangled in the line. When he turned from fiddling with his nets he saw her bony skull with little coral creatures glinting in her eye sockets. He screamed as his heart fell down into his feet and began paddling like a madman trying to escape, but the faster and harder he paddled the faster she seemed to chase him for she was inexorably entangled in his line.

He raced for the shore and jumped out running all the way up the cliff still clutching his fishing stick, and of course she kept up as she was being dragged behind. When he finally reached his snow house he scrambled inside and lay there panting, thinking he was finally free, giving thanks to all bountiful Sedna.

Imagine how surprised he was when he finally lit an oil lamp to discover this almost inhuman tangle of bones tumbled and entangled on his floor… in the fire light he felt some kindness come over him and worked to untangle skeleton woman and put all her bones in the order that any human’s should be, and finally dressing her in furs to keep her warm. He settled down to sleep for the night, and whilst he was asleep a tear fell from his eye, (they say that the dreamer is having a dream of sadness or longing when this happens) and as she watched this Skeleton Woman became suddenly soo thirsty she crawled over to him whilst he was sleeping and put her mouth to his tear, and drank and drank until ‘her many long years thirst was slaked’.

Whilst lying there beside him, she reached inside and took out the mighty drum of his heart, and sitting up banged on both sides of it singing the flesh onto her bones. And when she had everything she needed she snuggled down into bed with him, and they awoke entangled together in each other’s arms in the morning, in a ‘good and lasting way’.

“To create an enduring love, Skeleton Woman must be admitted into the relationship and embraced by both lovers.”

The weight of our cultural media seems bent on giving us the ‘quick fix’ or the solution to our problems as fast as possible; in such a worldview it is not encouraged to take the time and sit down to ‘untangle the bones’, we are encouraged instead to look elsewhere, ‘find another relationship’ etc. Clarissa maintains that it is the ‘inability to face and untangle skeleton woman that causes many love relationships to fail.’

The Life-Death-Life cycle nature applies to all aspects of physical and psychological life. It is a cycle of animation, development, decline and death. We see it reflected in the seasonal cycle. It is no wonder humans can have trouble with commitment if they perceive nothing beyond the life-death stanzas. Our cultural milieu doesn’t reflect the reality of life after death: death is always incubating new life; whereas culturally we are taught urgency and urged to buy now, get immediately, no need to wait.

When I remember the context of the life-death-life cycle of relationships it puts a completely different frame on whatever issues I may be experiencing in both my psychological lifecycle and my relationship cycles.

Acknowledgement: All quotes as well as the story of Skeleton Woman are taken from the Book Women who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Forgiveness is the Key to Happiness
  • http://wordpressacademy.org Marc

    Very interesting post Rachel, thanks for sharing!