Updated: Sep 15, 2019
"She is waiting for the signal of deep feeling, that one tear that says. "I admit the wound."
This admission feeds the Life/Death/Life nature, causes the bond to be made and the deep knowing in a man to begin...... When a man cries the tear, he has come upon his pain, and he knows it when he touches it. He sees how his life has been lived protectively because of the wound. He sees what of life he has missed because of it. He sees how he hamstrings his love for life, for himself, and for another....It is a love that comes upon him, a love he has always carried within him but has never acknowledged before. The tear comes. She drinks. Now something else will develop and be reborn within him, something he can give to her: a vast oceanic heart." ~ Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women Who Run with the Wolves
The story of Skeleton Woman is tragic, beautiful and restorative. I can't cut and paste the whole story here, it's too long, so I have accepted that I will probably do a terrible job of giving you the 'Coles Notes' of the story - but I will do my best. To help, I will draw directly from the book in a few places, so that you can feel a little more of it. Skeleton Woman is an old Inuit story in the ice and snow that Estes got from a woman named Mary Uukalat:
As the story goes there was a young woman that made her father very angry and to punish her he dragged her to the cliffs and threw her into the sea where she remained for years. The fish ate her flesh, soon there was only a skeleton left. One day a fisherman accidentally caught her in the ribs with his hook. As she struggled to get free she got tangled up even more. He was very excited about the catch on the end of his line. He reached back to get his net as he pulled her up from the sea. As he turned back to scoop her up he cried out as 'his heart fell into his knees and his eyes hid in terror at the back of his head.' In a panic he knocked her off the edge of his kayak and paddled like a demon to shore. He did not realize she was still tangled in his fishing line and thought she was chasing him. "Her breath rolled over the water in clouds of steam, and her arms flailed out..." He wailed as he came a shore and leapt out of his kayak.
Grabbing his fishing rod he started running for home, Skeleton Woman bumped right along behind him. He ran over the tundra, over dead grasses, over meat laid out to dry and as Skeleton Woman was dragged across the terrain, she grabbed some of the frozen fish, for she had not eaten in a very long. The fisherman reached his snow house and dove in, finally he was safe.
Imagine his surprise when he lit his whale oil lamp and there she was, all crumpled on the snow floor.... "One heal 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 a mother to her child, began to untangle her from the fishing line."
He worked into the night until all her bones were set straight and dressed her in furs to keep her warm and used some of his hair to light a little more fire. She did not move for fear that he would take her out and return her over the cliff, this time breaking her bones to pieces forever.
The fisher man became drowsy and was soon dreaming. As he dreamt a tear formed in his eye. In these stories a dream that causes a tear is either a dream of sadness or longing. Skeleton Woman saw this tear and was overtaken with thirst. She clanked over and drank his tear, which was like a river. She drank until her years long thirst was gone.
Now lying beside him she reached into him, took his heart and banged on it like a drum. She banged and sang for flesh to come back to her bones, she drummed and drummed and sang until all her flesh came back onto her body. Her legs, breasts, the divide between her legs, her hair and eyes and her hands. Then she sang all of the mans clothes off and gently crept into bed with him, returning his heart back to him.
"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." (Estes, 1992, p134)
Beautiful. We all want to be Skeleton Woman, we want someone to untangle us and keep us warm. We want that kind of love to fill us up so we have enough love and strength to give back in a way that can bring another's heart into greater life.
To be able to heal our history, by bringing all our flesh back to us and then have a heart that beats even stronger, is a glorious thought.
On the flip side, Skeleton Woman is also the Life/Death/Life cycle, she is Lady Death herself. We have forgotten to teach ourselves about the crucial role she is meant to play in our happiness here on earth. That teaching got lost long ago when one-god religions joined the party. We have forgotten because it's easier to forget - the way she has been grossly misrepresented in our current society is to blame for this. It's also easier to control people if they don't know her. If you know Lady Death and you understand the Life/Death/Life Cycle and transformation, then no one can use Hell to scare you into certain behaviour and conformity. It is a tragedy that we only have half the story left in our culture. We portray her only as death, something we see as an enemy now instead of an integral part of life. We throw her off the cliff on a regular basis. We don't know how much life follows her - how life always comes after death in the fiercest way. If you are willing to sit with her, after she has scared the crap out of you, deep understanding will come. If you can sit, stay and untangle, seeking to understand, then you stumble upon an ancient knowing: you learn that she sings flesh back onto bones, that she sees your longing fall from your eyes and can use those tears to bring your heart out of hiding.
We have not just scorned her in our relationships with each other but in all dimensions of life itself. We have become afraid of death, so much so that a massive part of our economy exists because of the money we spend to not have to know her. To keep her away from us. Somehow through the centuries we allowed ourselves to forget that death and life are two inseparable parts of a whole. When we separated them, we separated ourselves. We are divided now too. We do not know how to love our dark, so we don't know how to digest the shadow so that our light can be in charge. We don't know how easy it should be to let go of something because we have lost the natural expectation of the new life that will come in its place. Death has become an end to be feared. Only when you make a choice to start to get to know and untangle her do you get a glimpse of how much wisdom, for winning at life, we lost when we collectively threw Lady Death off the cliff.
"we have been erroneously been trained to accept a broken form of one of the most profound and basic aspects of the wild nature. We have been taught that death is always follow by more death." (Estes, 1992, p135)
Within the population of singledom, what happens a lot is that when we have inevitably hooked her, most often in a new relationship, we hightail it out of there when the first death comes. If it was truly Skeleton Woman coming to teach you something, then you most likely got that nigglely feeling of loss, even though you are sure that it should be over. Your ego would be the most sure it should be over - because it is our ego that likes to take a surface event, turn it into an offence in order to protect itself from being exposed - because exposure always makes the ego less relevant. Our ego often holds the 'trickster' archetype for us. If this has happened to you, and you got the nigglely feeling, then that was probably your deeper self grieving the loss of the life that was supposed to surface and come back, after a natural death had been allowed. Hold on a sec though - this doesn't mean that you have lost 'the one', so don't freak out. I have never really believed in 'the one' anyway, I find that concept confusing and exhausting. BUT if you have known that feeling, then, yes, something got missed; an opportunity for growth, an aspect of life you maybe haven't seen yet. I have felt this before. Most of us have. When on the surface it looks good, but underneath it feels off and you can't fathom what it is, then she could be there, just underneath. If the fear of the feeling of her presence grows and manifests into an event of self-defense (you walk away) but you still feel like something is off - if you feel like you may have lost something but don't know what - she was there.
We have lost the knowing of the new life that is always waiting to come so we resist the death, we have no patience for her. No patience for the refining of love, no patience to bear with the embers that must smoulder for a while, that must rest. No patience to wait for Skeleton Woman to bring more kindling for the fire, to revivify the heart of the relationship, once she herself, has her flesh back. If I was gonna make up my own modern day archetype, I might call the person who has the hardest time with this, an unknowing player. It's the guy that can't make up his mind or goes back and forth between being sure and not being sure. The one that sticks around for life but skips town when death is on the way. It's the woman that can't hold space when a man is processing a death, takes it the wrong way and then hurts him in a way that makes sure he will leave - because she doesn't have the guts to run away herself. It's easier for her ego to alienate him so that she can blame him. (Ouch, ladies, I know) I could go on, but you know what I mean. You've seen it in 5000 movies, most of the time they have a guy in the player role. I think the movies make an error though, they always set up the plot to make it look like it was a matter of the 'right' woman coming along and turning his world upside down with some kind of magical character trait. Which always makes my eyes roll.
I would challenge that paradigm: Who is to say that it isn't just matter of the him getting to the point in his life where he is ready to untangle Skeleton Woman and, for that reason, a woman who is knowing in these ways picks up on that resonance, is attracted to him and inspires him...? I am musing here, not making a statement, but it is a question worth pondering. I am overly suspicious of every social and cultural paradigm that arose in the last two thousand years, I admit it and I can't help it. It goes back to what Einstein said, which I quoted in Part 1: "The same level of thinking that created the problem will not solve the problem." I am constantly looking for a better question that could change the level of thinking.
The couples that make it through a few of these cycles and manage to learn how to allow this process into their lives are the usually the ones that end up happy and together for a long time.
I think my friend Brooke has one of these marriages. In her language she said "We have both changed a lot since we were young, we let ourselves and the other evolve - and we kept each other updated on what was going with ourselves. I think that helped a lot."
Collectively we have lost the deep knowing that right behind the death that is approaching, is life. Having lost that knowing, we then also slowly lost our fundamental trust in life. We didn't even notice it slip away. Not consciously anyway. When you refuse to know death you cannot fully know life. They are one and the same. It keeps you from being truly happy.
So how does that play into healing and relationships? Well.....
I already commented on relationships and the healing vehicles that I believe they are meant to be in Part 3, Into-Me-See. I moved just a paragraph and a quote from it over here so we can keep going:
When two people come together and form a relationship, it's because there is a resonance. On a less conscious level we are attracted to the triggers that exist in someone else that we need to loosen what holds us back and be free. It's what attracts people to one another on a very deep and subtle level. When you just HAVE to know someone and are willing to go outside your comfort zone to know them, that is a big indicator that they have both pleasant and unpleasant gifts, lessons and insights for you. We all have keys to unlock each other’s potential, we need each other to be mirrors - to mirror back to us our own brokenness, our own self-doubt, the traumas that have crippled us on the inside, the paradigms that operate and control so much more of our lives than we know. We have what each other needs to heal. We also have the capability to mirror back to each other our best parts, the magical creatures we are, our innate qualities and the enormous ability to love that we have - which is also healing because affirmation and a witness can heal all kinds of things. It goes both ways.
It is Skeleton Woman that raises these wounds up to be ended, to be digested and decomposed so they can be transformed and transmuted into fertile soil for new life.
And here's the quotes I left for you in Part 3 as breadcrumbs to lead you here to Part 5
“Skeleton woman is always thrown over the cliff when one or both lovers cannot stand her or understand her. She is thrown over the cliff when we misapprehend the use of transformative cycles: when things must die and be replaced by others.... Throwing the Life/Death/Life nature over the cliff always causes the woman lover, and the soulful force in men, to become a skeleton, bereft of a genuine love or nourishment.”…
“It goes something like this: two people begin a dance to see if they would care to love one another. Suddenly, Skeleton Woman is accidentally hooked. Something in the relationship begins to diminishing and slides into entropy. Often the painful pleasure of sexual excitement is abating, or one sees the other’s frail, injured underside, or sees the other as “not quite trophy material,” and that’s when the bald and yellow-toothed girl rises to the surface…. This is the time when there is real opportunity to show courage and to know love. To love means to stay with. It means to emerge from a fantasy world into a world where sustainable love I possible, face to face, bones to bones… to stay when every cell says ‘run!’”...“ (Estes, 1992, p 141)
To be clear, I am not saying that every time you go on a few dates with someone and you're feeling 'nope, not interested' that you are avoiding Skeleton Women. Sometimes you're just not into them. That's a thing and it's obviously valid. Or if the person is rude to waitstaff and it gives you a 'no' feeling, that's not Lady Death, that's a red flag. Or, if someone makes you doubt your reality, calls you names and everything is always your fault, that's not Skeleton Woman, that's abuse. Let us not confuse the two.
It's when there is a muddling, a sense of you know not what, or a strange feeling of loss that is not really logical. That's usually her. For people in a relationship or a marriage, it's that feeling of a resolution to a fight that is not complete. It's the same thing you fight over all the time. Lady death is waiting to be allowed in to kill that thing off so you can grow more together. Those feelings, single or not single, usually mean that you missed something. However, you don't have to stress about that either. Skeleton Woman will meet you anytime, anywhere, with anyone. She just really wants you to finally love her enough to kiss her back as you slide into death, so that she can drum your heart up into a greater level of bliss.
"What Dies? Illusion dies, expectations die, greed for having it all, for wanting to have all be beautiful only, all this dies. Because love always causes a descent into the Death nature, we can see why it takes abundant self-power and soulfulness to make that commitment. When one commits to love, one also commits to the revivification of Skeleton Woman and all her teachings." (Estes, 1992, p145)
For a little empathy, I feel that it would be important to mention something about 'booking it.'
As Estes makes very clear, running from Lady Death is not bad. Running is how it is meant to happen. We are supposed to run. This is the stuff of archetypes. The hero is supposed to book it and Lady Death is supposed to run after him. He is supposed to dive into his hut where he thinks he is safe and she is supposed to follow him in so that he can take a moment, feel something, find his deepest tear and admit the wound. It is the only way she can raise his heart's beat to the next level.
To help with the grasping of all this, his hut, or snowhouse, can be anything we run to. It can be a total abandonment into the sunset. It can be "I just need space." It can be radio silence for a week or two and then a sudden return for another round. It can be a return to a former relationship where things were a little more numb and a little less like death. Albiet also a little less like life. When I say 'numb' I am talking about the relationship that is easy to run back to for those of us that don't want to face Skeleton Woman - it's a relationship where there was an unconscious deal that neither party would allow Skeleton Woman in at all. It makes for a low-to-no passion relationship, but for some, at some stages of life, the perceived safety is a trade off worth making. Sadly, it does not lend itself towards joy and evolution towards new and even better life. That's a thing to not be taken lightly.
And here is something else, which, to be honest, I have not noticed in this story before. I have read it many times but it only caught me now. This is def a thing and it may provide some solidarity and allay some angst that some of you have about this. I noticed this because this has been me, more than once and possibly more recently then I care to think about. Jury is out on that though. In the past, when this happened, when I was willing and could feel the other "taking space," I booked it too. lol. ugh. I'm such a human. I am having so many moments in these writings where I find myself profoundly annoyed with my own human-ness and the frailties that come with that. Good thing I figured out vulnerability, owning it and transforming it in Part 2, or I'd be a mess.
Anyway. Here's exactly what Estes says about it - because I don't think I can really say anything better than she can. (and that's why I keep telling everyone to get the book, it's amazing, there are a bazillion archetypes and beautiful stories in it.)
"For modern lovers the idea of "taking space" is like the fisherman's little snowhouse, where he thinks he is safe. Sometimes this fear of confronting the death nature is distorted into "begging off," trying to keep only the pleasurable sides of the relationship going without dealing with Skeleton Woman. That will never work.
It causes lovers who are not "taking space" immense anxiety, for they themselves are willing to meet Skeleton Woman. They have primed themselves, they have reinforced themselves, they are attempting to keep their fears balance. And now, just as they are ready to untangle this mystery, just as one or the other is about to drum on the heart and sing up a life together, one lover cries "not yet, not yet" or 'No, not ever." (Estes, 1992, p145)
So that's also a thing. It can be deeply disappointing. Much like my own inability, after over 30 years of trying, to not spell disappointing without two s's the first time. haha.
If the language of Archetypes doesn't work for you, this language, from Ecclesiastes 3, might resonate better:
There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing, a time to search and a time to give up, a time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time to love and a time to hate,
a time for war and a time for peace.
The reason we got stuck in a Life/Death equation instead of holding on to the Life/Death/Life Cycle, is because we looked at the above verses as separate occasions instead of a cycle. Look at the beginning and the end. It begins with Born (Life) ends with Peace (Life,) with all kinds of life and death in the middle. Life/Death/Life. Not Life/Death. It's not one or the other, it's hills and valleys that never end. We have forgotten that we live life on a Sinusoidal Curve. The problem is that if we don't see it as a natural cycle, we spend most of the time in the bottom: in the despair (the loss of hope.) I always tell my clients to think of our lives and timelines as a 'slinky' unraveled. It's like so many circles of our life all together, if you stretch it out, you see the hills and the valleys. When we resist the descent into the valley (Skeleton Woman,) we lose momentum that would otherwise slingshot us out of that same valley, faster. We stagnate in the valley because we put the brakes on all the way down the hill, thereby losing all momentum.
When that happens it takes a phenomenal amount of energy to climb back out. If we had embraced Newton’s third law, (Part 1) if we had surrendered to the Life/Death/Life cycle as we descended, the momentum of the free fall would slam us into the murky depths with enough force to help us not get stuck in it: we would allow the feelings and the grief and the sadness to move, to be felt and released, and then the momentum would push us right back out and up - to the next mountain peak of elation. Instead, we so often get lost in the murkiness, stumble upon quicksand that we were never meant to touch and get stuck. That’s where the impact begins to manifest into physiological and mental symptoms in our bodies. We begin to suffer, our hormones become unbalance, our serotonin drops, cortisol goes up, we might go to the doctor and get a chemical to help us not feel the murkiness and alleviate the symptoms. We might find an herb for depression or a 'natural chemical' to elevate our mood. We keeping doing this because it is not actually natural for us to suffer – there is still something left in our DNA that knows it is not our natural state. Over the centuries we have been separated from the knowing and the wisdom that can show us the way out by a simple shift in perception.
That’s the tragedy of losing our connection to the cycle. That’s the mess created by our need to have a beginning and an end, as opposed to just embracing the moment, the journey. We’ve all heard this a bazillion times in one way or another, but it takes hearing it the right way, in the right moment, for it to become a truth that resonates with us as an emotion. An emotional experience can change you, a mental experience never will.
“The energy of an emotion is far more powerful than the energy of a thought.”
In the same way, all the anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications out there right now can shift our chemical and hormonal states - to try to create an artificial physical state to cope with our current perception of our reality. Sometimes there is a genuine physiological imbalance that just needs a nudge, and it works. Unfortunately, more often than not, that's not all that is going on. These pills we have created can absolutely not shift our actual reality. On a psychological level, they cannot change a toxic lifestyle, a toxic relationship, a toxic habit of negative self-talk, a toxic history of trauma and/or abuse. They cannot get at the trigger of the things we feel, they can only try to change the way our body responds to those emotions so we feel less of the ones we don’t want to feel. If that was not the truth then we wouldn't be on them for years.
And FYI - On a physical level - external chemicals cannot give you the proteins and essential fatty acids that your body needs to actually build the happy hormones and they cannot repair your microbiome/gut/brain axis - which controls so much of your mood. (This is something that makes me want to pull my hair out, collectively we are NOT going about this 'mental health crisis' the right way at all.) And to be honest, in this day and age, an artificial buffer that is finite, to get you through something is not necessarily a bad idea – the only problem is when you don't do anything about the triggers and the physical deficiencies at the same time, it becomes something that keeps you from feeling the heat for too long and you get burned. It will always be to our detriment if we never allow the power of the tear, never admit the wound, never allow Lady Death to drum us up out of the murkiness, to move us through the pain of death and back into bliss.
Okay. One more beautiful story fragment about tears and then I will sign off on Skeleton Woman, for now. There is much more of her to know, but not today.
In the tail of "The Handless Maiden" the maiden's parents are tricked into make a deal with the devil: they unconsciously trade their off-spring, their creation, for wealth and finery. They are devastated when they understand what they have done. When the devil comes to collect, it is the maiden's tears, having washed her hands clean that keep her safe. The devil cannot come near her. He demands that the father chop off her hands so that next time he may take her. The devil returns and it happens again. The maiden has cried so many tears that the stumps left on her limbs were clean and pure. The Devil cannot come near anything purified by true tears, and so he was thrown across the yard when he attempted to take her.
"Cursing in words that set small fires in the forest, he disappeared forever, for he had lost all claim to her." (Estes, 1992, p. 391)
"Tears are part of the mending of rips in the psyche where energy has leaked and leaked away. The matter is serious, but the worst does not occur - our light is not stolen - for tears make us conscious." (Estes, 1992, p. 404)
Or, in the words of one of my teachers, on repeat in this series: "Grief is the doorway back to longing." And longing, my friends, is one of the most powerful conscious forces within us that can get behind us in creating the life we want.
This is the power of the tear, the power of vulnerability and the power of grief. It is the power of the revivification that Skeleton Woman, of Ecclesiastes 3, the Life/Death/Life Cycle, wants to bring to us. And do you know what the outcome of this is? The quality of resilience. Resilience is a quality, a skill, an emotional framework that help you overcome anything. That's why Skeleton Woman really just can't wait to kill something off for you so that your life can be come deeper, more free, less suffering - so that you can learn to embrace the free fall instead of suffering, blast through the despair and rise back up to love. To learn how grab those frozen fish and nourish yourself even when it's all going to $hit, to learn to untangle and bear with - on the way down and the way back up - until the bliss comes back home... until what you are left with is a vast, resilient and oceanic heart.
That's her thing. Lady Life/Death/Life for the win.
Happy Fishing ;)
"It always starts out simple like a conversation, before I know it I'm lost in your illumination.
If you catch my eye across a crowded room, I'll fall into the atmosphere surrounding you If you pull me close just to disappear, The chances are I'd wait for you a thousand years If you light the fuse you know that I'll react. If you're reckless with your love just to take it back..... You could hurt somebody like that"
My two cents to add to that last line: you can hurt yourself like that.