Sealskin, Soulskin – The Tale
During a time that once was, is now gone forever, and will come back again soon, there is day after day of white sky, white snow ... and all the tiny specks in the distance are people or dogs or bear. Here, nothing thrives for the asking. The winds blow hard so the people have come to wear their parkas and mamleks, boots, sideways on purpose now. Here, words freeze in the open air, and whole sentences must be broken from the speaker’s lips and thawed at the fire so people can see what has been said. Here, the people live in the white and abundant hair of old Annuluk, the old grandmother, the old sorceress who is Earth herself.
And it was in this land that there lived a man ... a man so lonely that over the years, tears had carved great chasms into his cheeks. He tried to smile and be happy. He hunted. He trapped and he slept well. But he wished for human company. Sometimes out in the shallows in his kayak when a seal came near he remembered the old stories about how seals were once human, and the only reminder of that time was their eyes, which were capable of portraying those looks, those wise and wild and loving looks. And sometimes then he felt such a pang of loneliness that tears coursed down the well-used cracks in his face.
One night he hunted past dark but found nothing. As the moon rose in the sky and the ice floes glistened, he came to a great spotted rock in the sea, and it appeared to his keen eye that upon that old rock there was movement of the most graceful kind.He paddled slow and deep to be closer, and there atop the mighty rock danced a small group of women,naked as the first day they lay upon their mothers’ bellies. Well, he was a lonely man, with no human friends but in memory—and he stayed and watched. The women were like beings made of moon milk, and their skin shimmered with little silver dots like those on the salmon in springtime, and the women’s feet and hands were long and graceful.So beautiful were they that the man sat stunned in his boat, the water lapping, taking him closer and closer to the rock.
He could hear the magnificent women laughing ... at least they seemed to laugh, or was it the water laughing at the edge of the rock? The man was confused, for he was so dazzled. But somehow the loneliness that had weighed on his chest like wet hide was lifted away, and almost without thinking, as though he was meant, he jumped up onto the rock and stole one of the seal skins laying there. He hid behind an outcropping and he pushed the sealskin into his qutnguq, parka.
Soon, one of the women called in a voice that was the most beautiful he’d ever heard...like the whales calling at dawn...or no, may be it was more like the newborn wolves tumbling down in the spring... or but, well no, it was something better than that, but it did not matter because ... what were the women doing now? Why, they were putting on their sealskins, and one by one the seal women were slipping into thesea, yelping and crying happily. Except for one. The tallest of them searched high and searched low for her sealskin, but it was nowhere to be found.
The man felt emboldened—by what, he did not know. He stepped from the rock, appealing to her, “Woman... be...my... wife. I am... a lonely...man.” “Oh, I cannot be your wife,” she said, “for I am of the other, the ones who live temeqvanek, beneath.” “Be ... my... wife,” insisted the man. “In seven summers, I will return your sealskin to you, and you may stay or you may go as you wish.” The young seal woman looked long into his face with eyes that but for her trae origins seemed human.
Reluctantly shesaid, “I will go with you. After seven summers, it shall be decided. ”So in time they had a child, whom they named Ooruk.And the child was lithe and fat. In winter the mother told Ooruk tales of the creatures that lived beneath the sea while the father whittled a bear or a wolf in whitestone with his long knife. When his mother carried the child Ooruk to bed, she pointed out through the smoke hole to the clouds and all their shapes. Except instead of recounting the shapes of raven and bear and wolf, she recounted the stories of walrus, whale, seal, and salmon .. for those were the creatures she knew. But as time went on, her flesh began to dry out. First it flaked, then it cracked. The skin of her eyelids began to peel. The hairs of her head began to drop to the ground. She became naluaq,palest white. Her plumpness began to wither. She tried to conceal her limp. Each day her eyes, without her willing it so, became more dull. She began to put out her hand in order to find her way, for her sight was darkening.
And so it went until one night when the child Ooruk was awakened by shouting and sat upright in his sleeping skins. He heard a roar like a bear that was his father berating his mother. He heard a crying like silver rung on stone that was his mother. “You hid my sealskin seven long years ago, and now the eighth winter comes. I want what I am made of returned to me,”cried the seal woman. “ And you,woman, would leave me if I gave it to you,” boomed the husband. “I do not know what I would do. I only know I must have what I belong to.” “And you would leave me wifeless, and the boy motherless. You are bad.” And with that her husband tore the hide flap of the door aside and disappeared into the night. The boy loved his mother much. He feared losing her and so cried himself to sleep ... only to be awakened by the wind.A strange wind...it seemed to call to him, “Oooruk, Oooruuuuk.
And out of bed he climbed, so hastily that he put his parka on upside down and pulled his mukluks only halfway up. Hearing his name called over and over, he dashed out into the starry, starry night. “Ooooooomuuuk.” The child ran out to the cliff overlooking the water, and there, far out in the windy sea, was a huge shaggy silver seal... its head was enormous, its whiskers drooped to its chest, its eyes were deep yellow.“Ooooooomuuuk.” The boy scrambled down the cliff and stumbled at the bottom over a stone—no, a bundle—that had rolled out of a cleft in the rock. The boy's hair lashed at his face like a thousand reins of ice.“Oooooooruuuuk.”
The boy scratched open the bundle and shook it out—it was his mother's sealskin. Oh, and he could smell her all through it. And as he hugged the sealskin to his face and inhaled her scent, her soul slammed through him like a sudden summer wind.“Ohhh,” he cried with pain and joy, and lifted the skin again to his face and again her soul passed through his. “Ohhh,”he cried again, for he was being filled with the unending love of his mother. And the old silver seal way out ... sank slowly beneath the water. The boy climbed the cliff and ran toward home with the sealskin flying behind him, and into the house he fell.
His mother swept him and the skin up and closed her eyes in gratitude for the safety of both. She pulled on her sealskin.“Oh, mother, no!”cried the child.She scooped up the child, tucked him under her arm, and half ran and half stumbled toward the roaring sea. “Oh, mother!No! Don’t leave me!” Ooruk cried. And at once you could tell she wanted to stay with her child,she wanted to,but something called her, something older than she, older than he, older than time. “Oh, mother, no,no, no,” cried the child. She turned to him with a look of dreadful love in her eyes.She took the boy’s face inher hands, and breathed her sweet breath into his lungs, once, twice, three times. Then, with him under her arm like a precious bundle, she dove into the sea, down, and down, and down, and still deeper down, and the seal woman and her child breathed easily underwater. And they swam deep and strong till they entered the underwater cove of seals where all manner of creatures were dining and singing, dancing and speaking, and the great silver seal that had called to Ooruk from the night sea embraced the child and called him grandson. “Howfare you up there, daughter?” asked the great silver seal. The seal woman looked away and said, “I hurt a human ...a man who gave his all to have me. But I cannot return to him, for I shall be a prisoner if I do.” “And the boy?’ asked the old seal. “My grandchild?’ He said it so proudly his voice shook. “He must go back,father. He cannot stay. His time is not yet to be herewith us.” And she wept. And together they wept.
And so some days and nights passed, seven to be exact, during which time the luster came back to the seal woman’s hair and eyes. She turned a beautiful dark color,her sight was restored, her body regained its plumpness,and she swam uncrippled. Yet it came time to return the boy to land. On that night,the old grandfather seal and the boy’s beautiful mother swam with the child between them. Back they went, back up and up and up to the topside world.There they gently placed Ooruk on the stony shore in the moonlight. His mother assured him, “I am always with you. Only touch what I have touched, my firesticks, my ulu, knife, my stone carvings of otters and seal, and I will breathe into your lungs a wind for the singing of your songs.”
The old silver seal and his daughter kissed the child many times; At last they tore themselves away and swam out to sea, and with one last look at the boy, they disappeared beneath the waters. And Ooruk, because it was not his time, stayed. As time went on, he grew to be a mighty drummer and singer and a maker of stories, and it was said this all came to be because as a child he had survived being carried out to sea by the great seal spirits. Now, in the gray mists of morning, sometimes he can still be seen, with his kayak tethered, kneeling upon a certain rock in the sea, seeming to speak to a certain female seal who often comes near the shore. Though many have tried to hunt her, time after time they have failed. She is known as Tanqigcaq, the bright one, the holy one, and it is said that though she be a seal, her eyes are capable of portraying those human looks, those wise and wild and loving looks.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes PhD - The Analysis
The seal is one of the most beautiful of all symbols for the wild soul. Like the instinctual nature of women, seals are peculiar creatures who have evolved and adapted over eons. “Sealskin, Soulskin” contains a retrograde motif. Sometimes we call such tales “backward stories.”
In many fairytales, a human is enchanted and turned into an animal. But here we have the opposite: a creature led into a human life. The story produces an insight into the structure of the female psyche. The seal maiden, like the wildish nature in women’s psyches, is a mystical combination that is creatural and at the same time able to live among humans in a resourceful manner. The pelt in this story is not so much an article as the representation of a feeling state and a state of being—one that is cohesive, soulful, and of the wildish female nature.
When a woman is in this state, she feels entirely in and of herself instead of out of herself and wondering if she is doing right, acting right, thinking well. Though this state of being “in one’s self’ is one she occasionally loses touch with,the time she has previously spent there sustains her while she is about her work in the world. The return to the wildish state periodically is what replenishes her psychic reserves for her projects,family, relationships, and creative life in the topside world.
Eventually every woman who stays away from her soul-home for too long, tires. This is as it should be. Then she seeks her skin again in order to revive her sense of self and soul, in order to restore her deep-eyed and oceanic knowing. This great cycle of going and returning, going and returning, is reflexive within the instinctual nature of women and is innate to all women for all their lives, from throughout girlhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, through being a lover, through motherhood, through being a craftswoman, a wisdom-holder, an elder woman,and beyond.
These phases are not necessarily chronological, for mid-age women are often newborn, old women are intense lovers, and little girls know a good deal about cronish enchantment. Over and over we lose this sense of feeling we are wholly in our skins by means already named as well as through extended duress. Those who toil too long without respite are also at risk. The soul-skin vanishes when we fail to pay attention to what we are really doing, and particularly its cost to us. We lose the soulskin by becoming too involved with ego, by being too exacting, perfectionistic, or unnecessarily martyred, or driven by a blind ambition,or by being dissatisfied—about self,family, community, culture,world—and not saying or doing anything about it, or by pretending we are an unending source for others, or by not doing all we can to help ourselves. Oh, there are as many ways to lose the soulskin as there are women in the world.
The only way to hold on to this essential soulskin is to retain an exquisitely pristine consciousness about its value and uses. But, since no one can consistently maintain acute consciousness, no one can keep the soulskin absolutely every moment day and night. But we can keep the theft of it to a bare minimum. We can develop that ojo agudo, the shrewd eye that watches the conditions all around and guards our psychic territory accordingly.
The “Sealskin,Soulskin” story, however,is about an instance of what we might call aggravated theft. This big theft can, with consciousness, be mediated in the future if we will pay attention to our cycles and the call to take leave and return home. Every creature on earth returns to home. It is ironic that we have made wildlife refuges for ibis, pelican, egret, wolf, crane, deer, mouse, moose, and bear, but not for ourselves in the places where we live day after day. We understand that the loss of habitat is the most disastrous event that can occur to a free creature. We fervently point out how other creatures’ natural territories have become surrounded by cities,ranches, highways, noise,and other dissonance, as though we are not surrounded by the same, as though we are not affected also. We know that for creatures to live on, they must at least from time to time have a home place, a place where they feel both protected and free.We traditionally compensate for loss of a more serene habitat by taking a vacation or a holiday, which is supposed to be the giving of pleasure to oneself, except a vacation is often anything but We can compensate our workaday dissonance by cutting down on the things we do that cause us to tense our deltoids and trapezii into painful knots. And all this is very good, but for the soul-self-psyche,vacation is not the same as refuge. “Time out”or “time off”is not the same as returning to home. Calmness is not the same as solitude.
We can contain this loss of soul by keeping close to the pelt to begin with. For instance, I see in the talented women in my practice that soulskin theft can come through relationships that are not in their rightful skins themselves, and some relationships are downright poisonous. It takes will and force to overcome these relationships, but it can be done, especially if, as in the story, one will awaken to the voice calling from home, calling one back to the coreself where one’s immediate wisdom is whole and accessible.
From there, a woman can decide with clear-seeing what it is she must have, and what it is she wants to do.The aggravated theft of the sealskin also occurs far more subtly through the theft of a woman’s resources and of her time. The world is lonely for comfort, and for the hips and breasts of women. It calls out in a thousand-handed, million-voiced way, waving to us, plucking and pulling at us, asking for our attention. Sometimes it seems that everywhere we turn there is a someone or a some-tiling of the world that needs, wants, wishes. Some of the people, issues, and things of the world are appealing and charming; others may be demanding and angry; and yet others seem so heartrendingly helpless that, against our wills, our empathy overflows, our milk runs down our bellies. But unless it is a life-and-death matter, take the time, make the time, to “put on the brass brassiere.”Stop running the milk train. Do the work of turning toward home. Though we see that the skin can be lost through a devastating and wrong love, it may also be lost in a right and deepest love. It is not exactly the rightness of a person or thing or its wrongness that causes the theft of our soulskins, it is the cost of these things to us. It is what it costs us in time,energy, observation, attention,hovering, prompting, instructing, teaching, training. These motions of psyche are like cash withdrawals from the psychic savings account.
The issue is not about these energic cash withdrawals themselves, for these are an important part of life’s give and take.But it is being overdrawn that causes the loss ofthe skin, and the paling and dulling of one’s most acute instincts. It is lack of further deposits of energy, knowledge, acknowledgment ideas, and excitement that causes a woman to feel she is psychically dying. In the story, when the young seal woman loses her pelt she is involved in a beautiful pursuit in the business of freedom. She dances and dances, and does not pay attention to what is going on about her. When we are in our rightful wildish nature, we all feel this bright life. It is one of the signs that we are close to Wild Woman. We all enter the world in a dancing condition. We always begin with our own pelts intact.
Yet, at least till we become more conscious,we all got hrough this stage in individuation. We all swim up to the rock,dance, and don’t pay attention. It is then that the more tricksterish aspect of the psyche descends, and somewhere down the road we suddenly look for and can no longer find what belongs to us or to what we belong. Then our sense of soul is mysteriously missing, and more so, it is hidden away.And so we wander about partially dazed. It is not good to make choices when dazed, but we do.
We know poor choice occurs in various ways. One woman marries too early. Another becomes pregnant too young. Another goes with a bad mate. Another gives up her art to “have things.” Another is seduced by any number of illusions, another by promises, another by too much “being good” and not enough soul, yet another by too much airiness and not enough earthiness. And in cases where the woman goes with her soulskin half on and half gone, it is not necessarily because her choices are wrong so much as that she stays away from her soul-home too long and dries out and is rather of little use to anyone, least of all herself.There are hundreds of ways to lose one’s soulskin.
If we delve into the symbol of animal hide, we findt hat in all animals, including ourselves, piloerection—hair standing on end—occurs in response to things seen as well as to things sensed. The rising hair of the pelt sends a “chill” through the creature and rouses suspicion, caution, and other protective traits. Among the Inuit it is said that both fur and feathers have the ability to see what goes on far off in the distance, and that is why an angakok, shaman, wears many furs, many feathers, so as to have hundreds of eyes to better see into the mysteries.
The sealskin is a symbol of soul that not only provides warmth, but also provides an early warning system through its vision as well. In hunting cultures, the pelt is equal to food as the most important product for survival. It is used to make boots, to line parkas, for waterproofing to keep ice hoar away from the face and wrists. The pelt keeps little children safe and dry, protects and warms the vulnerable human belly, back, feet,hands, and head.To lose the pelt is to lose one’s protections,one’s warmth, one’s early warning system, one’s instinctive sight.
Psychologically, to be without the pelt causes a woman to pursue what she thinks she should do, rather than what she truly wishes. It causes her to follow whoever or whatever impresses her as strongest—whether it is good for her or not. Then there is much leaping and little looking. She is jocular instead of incisive, laughs things off, puts things off. She pulls back from taking the next step, from making the necessary descent and holding herself there long enough for something to happen.
So you can see that in a world that values driven women who go, go, go, the stealing of soulskins is very easy, so much so that the first theft occurs somewhere between the ages of seven and eighteen. By then, most young women have begun to dance on the rock in the sea. By then most will have reached for the soulskin but not found it where they left it. And, though this initially seems meant to cause the development of a medial structure in the psyche—that is, an ability to learn to live in the world of spirit and in the outer reality as well—too often this progression is not accomplished, nor is any of the rest of the initiatory experience, and the woman wanders through life skinless.
Though we may have tried to prevent a recurrence of theft by practically sewing ourselves into our soulskins, very few women reach the age of majority with more than a few tufts of the original pelt intact. We lay aside our skins while we dance. We learn the world, but lose our skins. We find that without our skins we begin to slowly dry away. Because most women were raised to bear these things stoically, as their mothers did before them, no one notices there is a dying going on," until one day...When we are young and our soul-lives collide with the desires and requirements of culture and the world, indeed we feel stranded far from home.
However, as adults we continue to drive ourselves even farther from home as a result of our own choices about who, what, where, and for how long. If we were never taught to return to the soul-home in childhood, we repeat the “theft and wandering around lost”pattern ad infinitum.But, even when it is our own dismal choices that have blown us off course—too far from what we need—hold faith, for within the soul is the homing device.
We all can find our way back.