The Story of Skeleton Woman, the Life/Death/Life Cycle
as Metaphor for Transformational Painting
There are many versions of Skeleton Woman, this is the condensed Inuit story told by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Jungian analyst, poet and story teller. I roughly follow her breakdown of the story to illustrate how the story is rich in various parallels in life, is a metaphor of creative process and how it particularly relates to Transformational Painting.
In the Inuit story of Skeleton Woman, a young woman is thrown into the Arctic Sea by her father, and eventually is turned into a tangled mess of bones. It is significant that no one remembers why she was discarded into the icy depths, only that she offended her father.
In time, she is hooked by a fisherman’s line. He thinks that he has caught a great fish. When he turns back with his net and sees her mossy bald skull rising from the water attached to his fishing pole he is terrified and paddles like a demon for his life. Clutching his pole the whole way he hears her at his heels. He hits land at a dead run until, at last, he reaches his village. When he dives into his snow house he breathes a sigh of relief thinking that he has been saved, but as he lights his whale oil lamp he sees that she has come home with him
Slowly he recovers from his fright and, in the soft light, our fisherman reaches over and begins to set her bones in order. Singing as he works, he finishes by wrapping her in warm furs. Completed, he then crawls into his own sleeping furs for an exhausted sleep. In the depth of night Skeleton Woman arises and crawls close to him to drink the one glistening tear of his longing, thus satisfying her thirst of many years. She then reaches into his chest taking the drum of his heart to sing on her flesh. After calling forth “all the other things a women needs” she returns his heart, undresses him and joins him in his furs to spend the night together, “as men and women do”. Thus joined it is said that they lived prosperously and happily together until the end of their days.
In the story, as in the creative process, you cannot go from finding accidental treasure to love making in one fell swoop. You cannot go from beginning a painting to a finished piece by skipping the chase, the untangling, the tear or the fleshing out through heart as in the story. In our contemporary culture we are bombarded with stories of the magical union where a couple meet and go straight to bed and thus all is complete. We have come to expect fast-fix, from food to medicine to information and we expect satisfaction as soon as we engage. We have carried this expectation over to love and art making. Transformational Painting offers a way to reestablish that essential path of development and provide an avenue to reclaim the other kind of satisfaction that is received from fully engaging in the process.
The Call. The treasure we receive from creative process is equal to our willingness to enter into the depths of the psyche. The portal into our essence demands curiosity and wonderment and a release of the unfolding images of our deeper being. Like the fisherman in the story, we are unaware that we do not know. Also like him, we are hungry for relationship to our creative self but may not recognize it. So we search for a way to catch the big fish. We coast for a while and think that we can play around, unaware of the profound journey that awaits us. There may even be a ticket in our fist at this very moment, but we cannot know the scope of the journey nor the price it will entail. If this is more enticing than frightening you may be a candidate yourself.
Answer to the Call. If all parts of the story are indeed us, the fisherman must answer the call as well as the Skeleton Woman. He puts her bones in order out of compassion and covers her in furs. He trusts her as he falls asleep letting his deep tear of feeling escape and begin the transformation to meet her in lovemaking. She makes the agreement too, as she is being dredged up from the depths of the ocean floor to create an existence bigger than everyday life. That is what art is about. It is the soul that answers the call. The poet David Whyte defines this as “the largest conversation (relationship) a person is capable of having with the world.” Our Skeleton Woman story tells us how to have that conversation. She is the Life/Death/Life force beginning as disused and misused and resurrected again by answering the call. Creativity is set free when we make her ally, lover, and teacher. She will guide us through our wounds if we give ourselves wholeheartedly and begin our own life/death/life or creation/destruction/creation cycle.
The Vertical Alignment. Poets as artists help us to understand creative process and even more so Transformational Painting. Deena Metzger, poet and author, contrasts poem and story, describing poem as a penetration into the essence of something. A poem expresses the inexpressible adventure deeply. While, she says, story and prose, spreads out, wanting to speak to the mind, to the intellect. The horizontal gathers information, technique, momentum, while the vertical is outside of time, it changes our life as participant. Jane Hirshfield, Poet Laureate, tells us poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being. Poetry creates a vertical experience, an evocative and in depth exploration that is mirrored in the methods used during Transformational Painting.
The Shadow. As in ritual initiation there is a spectrum as we paint. It runs from discomfort with the mysteries of not knowing to abject fear. It is good to acknowledge fear, confusion and a sense of overwhelming as it comes up in the process. In the story, Skeleton Woman is the shadow that looms up threatening to engulf us, precisely because we have ignored it. The shadow is that part that we have disowned and project on to others. Look at he world news and you will get a picture of your own shadow, it cannot be any other way. Your views and reactions to the stories are revealing of your own shadows. We all have witnessed toxins, wars, exiles and power intrigues which are reflections of ourselves.
The shadow plays an important part in the art making process as we construct a more subtle relationship to ego. We need a mature ego to hold our identity as we experiment, innovate and proceed with a willingness to fail. An ego with an agenda, either inflated or deflated, cannot be relied upon for sage advice. We must get to know our knee jerk reactions, our insecurities and our desires. We need to be clear in, not our goals, but our intentions. The soul craft that we are involved with in Transformational Painting does not find sustaining gratification in the sold sign of a red dot. There is something deeper we are wanting. The shadow is slippery territory and if mindfulness is not built into the creative process we cannot cultivate soul in painting.
The Chase. The chase is an integral part of the process. In our story the fisherman inadvertently causes the chase, but both are seeking new life. The chase is unconscious. It has to do with our attitudes through movement in time and space. How do we grocery shop, cross town, make love? What is our relationship to how our body moves through daily life? Are we chasing or being chased by life, or perhaps, alternating back and forth between the two. Can we turn off that dynamic suddenly when we start to paint? No, the emotional essence that is called forth in painting must be cultivated through our desires and fears in everyday life. The chase then shifts to a new exploration with the awareness of a greater container which creates context and meaning of soul.
Organizing of the Bones. If we don’t fully respond to the call then we can’t organize the resources we will need for the journey, deep compassion for ourselves, and humility in the process. That is the only way that Skeleton Woman’s bones can be organized, and the life/creative cycle can begin again. I In fairytales there is often a seemingly impossible task, like separating the white pebbles from the black in a mountain of stones. The solution requires a special state of mind, special assistance where one sees the soul structure of things, and not just the worldly everyday structure. Thomas Berry refers to soul as “the primary organizing, sustaining and guiding principle of a living being.” We need to participate in the sustaining structure of life which soul cultivation provides. Through this restructuring of our approach we have set the stage for successful exploration of our painting.
Sleep as rebirth. The fisherman is being transformed in his sleep just as the Skeleton Woman was in her time in the underworld. At this stage in creative process we too must surrender our innocence to be renewed. Sleep in fairy tales represents trusting in the deeper meaning. Things change in sleep. We can rest assured that things take care of themselves; we do not have to track and translate anything. Sleep is a practice for death, the place of no time, dreamtime. It is a return to innocence or to the deepest level of being. In the process it is a turning off of the conscious mind to be present in another way and allowing all that has accumulated behind the scenes to emerge for our exploration upon awakening. In Transformational Painting we allow for this product of sleep by suspending that everyday mind with mindfulness not mindlessness.
We cannot fall into sleep on demand but must release unto it. This stage of the story calls for letting go to what may be for both the Skeleton Woman and the fisherman. Slumber is bound up with innocence and acceptance; it requires trust to sleep in someone’s presence. It is the same in love, without surrender there is holding back and being held back. In our invocation and meditation in painting circles we call forth this sacred place of resource and cultivate it as an important aspect of the creative process. And every time we paint we must surrender anew.
Surrender. True essence of who we are is what is required for Transformational Painting to be transformational. The Latin word intimus means about one’s nature. To be undefended is to be vulnerable and intimate. We can only remain when we work with an open heart. We are asked to let go of mental ideas of what we want to create and draw from deeper experience. Only then will the painting paint itself, not in a trite or secondhand way but with personal power. As the fisherman begins to trust in who he is and who she may be, he invites a genuine exchange. We ask the same of our process-we are giving and receiving.
This part is essential for the engagement in painting. It is not so much a labor, but a letting go into authenticity. It is the opening to release the traditional control of painting or poetry by believing and trusting in the birth/death/birth cycle. It is acknowledging our imagination, our hands and our heart. Trust is the muscle that develops as we continue to return again and again to call forth images of the psyche and then allow us to submit to whatever shows up.
Surrender is necessary for emotional presence. When our commitment to knowing and revealing ourselves is greater than the call to hide or defend, then what keeps us isolated and disconnected falls away. Surrendering the attitudes of self-defense is making space for creative encounters. Authentic emotional freedom is to no longer need validation and agreement from another to be who we are. We have such profound yearnings for closeness and yet hesitate to be closer to ourselves. Painting is a way to open to that love of self, which is the deepest core of who we are. How we love our self is how we love others. Painting is loving self, and loving the process of living.
The Tear. In myth and fairytale, the tear holds creative power. Tears heal, reunite, bring nurturance and call in spirit. It is the tear that begins skeleton woman’s transformation back to life. So in our painting it is not enough to engage with full presence, riding out the cycles of disgust and delight. Something deeper is called for here. Just as the wounded cannot be bandaged from the outside the act of external creating is not enough to fulfill the process. It is an internal engagement that truly completes the healing cycle and the painting process. We are required to put our true longing on the table, naked and raw. It is being vulnerable, not only in individual Transformational Process Painting, but also opening to the lens of the group. In painting circle there is a safety net in that we can decide how far to go, but unless we are willing to not defend our self in the face of Skeleton Woman and shed the tear, the transformation will wait for another time.
Creating through Heart. Giving your heart is the willingness to descend into the realm of feeling. The heart of the archetype of Birth/Death/Birth is the greater container of Life. We stumble on to the quest, and then the chase of blind terror begins, eventuating in clearer vision, followed by the discipline of concentration of sorting out the small self and the large self, the ego mind and the Divine. Then comes surrender to trust and developing presence. None of this is creation until the Heart is used for manifestation. Heart symbolizes essence, which enables us to love in innocence.
In Painting Circle we participate in the magical activity that converses with the psyche. In that sacred space healing, integration and innovation are birthed. Song and music are of the same timeless catalyst of image making that touch the soul and, as in the story, transcend the obvious. In the singing up the flesh, the whole of Skeleton Woman is brought into being, not just the approved or glamorized parts, but all of her. Just as in our paintings, no mental judgment or aesthetic preferences decides what shows up on the canvas. There is an entirety that is called forth in our paintings; warts, wounds, shadows and all. That is what makes them powerful and catalytic to others, as well as ourselves.
We all create, all the time, but most of us do not give enough credit to our partner in creation: Lady Death. She is working with us every step of the way, a vital element of the creative process. We cannot write without editing, nor can we create without destroying. We make space for creation choosing to delete what is not necessary any longer.
The Skeleton Woman story is an invitation to resurrect our creative self. It is the underpinnings of any creative process and an essential structure in Transformational Painting. Like other stories of journey to the underworld there is a call for radical change. Art has the potential to change ordinary life because that is, at its core, the function of art. It is one avenue to connect with the soul. It is often expressed initially with intrigue and bouts of flight and it requires developing skills of the feminine and masculine, intuitional with discernment, a practice which does not guarantee any rewards to the ego. There are qualities that are developed in the process that are more often not a part of our normal cultural values like: confusion endurance, continuing without knowing what is going on, as well as a willingness to be deeply personally intimate.
I encourage us all, like the fisherman in the story, to align the scrambled structure that supports feminine creativity and let her have her way with us, in order to initiate us into the true cycles of Life, which includes Death. Transformational Painting like many disciplines is a way to practice this. We use some of the referenced tools in the story, like drumming and singing, and others, like poetry, that align us with the story and bring them into our painting circle in preparing the vehicle for inspiration and transformation.