Untangling Suffering: Sedna, Creatrix Under the Sea
The story of Sedna, Inuit sea goddess, has a number of variations- usual for myths, of course. Some versions focus on social conditioning; Sedna the mortal young woman judged as vain, idly combing her hair, insulting suitors with rejection, and rebelling against her traditional role as wife. But that social perspective is not how I roll; I am going to interpret her story here in terms of the alchemical masculine and feminine that resides in all of us.
Sedna’s fate was pretty harsh, for sure. I am quoting a version that involves her marriage to a storm petrel, subsequent maiming, and death at the bottom of the sea. Mortal Sedna was, of course, transformed into an immortal; the great creatrix who births the sea mammals upon which the peoples of the Arctic rely for their survival. My overarching point here is the ways in which Sedna’s transformation story informs us about the creative process. In particular, the truth that our wounds and consequent inner suffering can be catalytic for creative expression and for discovering destiny, our soul-deep service to “the world”.
The suffering-to-creativity-and-service story happens because, unless we get pretty darned uncomfortable, humans won’t descend into the deeper layers of experience. Particularly in a very mundane society, we are not motivated to inquire into “what lies beneath”. And we don’t get much more “beneath” than the bottom of the sea, do we? There are surely humans born of some innate and undaunted proclivity to deep self inquiry. But still, and perhaps typically, these introverting souls will often end up with at least one type of major wounding; social, psychological, spiritual, physical.
As Rumi put it, the wound is the place the light enters you. And just like Sedna, this trouble or sacred wound can then fuel a lifetime of service, most typically in the areas of the healing arts and the expressive arts. The arts as in dance, music, poetry, story, graphics, landscaping, weaving, etc., bring up to view, to the surface, different aspects of experience found in the depths. Such previously unseen and unfelt, or perhaps long lost, treasures dear to heart and soul connect us beyond our upperworld habits, and open us to unconsidered possibilities.
Expressive arts inspired from the abyss invite other humans to drop down, to look deeper. A song, a story, a dance, a painting, invites the audience to consider that life experience is always created in the “eye”, the individual Beingness, of the beholder. Thus artistic expressions point to the beauty and power of the inner ecologies that lie beneath our striving to stay on top.
In this regard art has the power to heal, since when we make our soul depths conscious, we are made more whole; that’s what the word ‘heal’ means. Sedna’s story is not only instructive concerning the expressive arts. It’s also about the art of healing, and thus the healing arts. When we discover our human complexity, we begin to inhabit the world in a more inclusive fashion. We are less resistant to what is, and more appreciative of what has been and will be. We can share our healing/wholeness through a lifetime of artful interactions with others.
It’s a cliché, perhaps, that in my culture the sensitive artistic type is likely to want to do drugs and wear black clothes and skulls- especially in adolescence. I certainly did. These behaviors express a desire to go deeper, into the yin void, however unconscious the desire usually is in such a mundane society as mine. As Sedna discovered, much is found in the depths, including death, or rather Death.
Death with a capital D is the archetypally feminine mortality that is perhaps the greatest key to Gaia’s creative powers. For though my culture opposes Death, strives to sweep Death under the rug, all life here depends on Death’s profound might. For the embodied, from bacteria to whale, everything hinges upon death’s constant presence. All mortal beings die that others may live. Many who hold the skull close are, on some level, expressing and appreciating this profound truth.
Like any adolescent innately geared towards deeper wisdom, Sedna as a young woman is the sort who’s not going along with the upper world program of marrying off and making babies. Not yet, anyway. She suspects something’s missing, and she’s going to get herself into some good old-fashioned transformational suffering. In the descent to her soul depths and the death of her old conditioned self, she discovers her creative superpowers. Her transformational story is a universal one, found in myth and alchemical story worldwide. The most well known in my culture is that of Persephone, the maiden who was pulled into the underworld by dark masculine energies.
Enough of telling you what I am going to tell you. I am quoting a version from a collection called Spirits, Heroes and Hunters From North American Indian Mythology, text by Marion Wood, Illustrations by John Sibbik. Sibbick’s illustrations are wonderful. Wood titles the tale Sedna, the witch under the sea. Sedna lives by the sea with her father, in this one; the lack of a mother presence alerts the symbolist that the story focuses on Sedna’s relationship with the inner masculine. Sedna “was very beautiful and many men came to court her, bringing gifts to win her favour. But Sedna was very proud and haughty and would have none of them.”
When we see a symbolic tale that begins with an exceptionally beautiful man or woman, as in Snow White or the myth of Narcissus, we know that we are talking about innate gifts of the creative sort. Beauty is ruled by love; by Venus in European classical culture. And the classical arts are inextricable from the archetype of beauty. Of course there are nowadays those who create ugly or traumatic art, inharmonious and upsetting. But if a person bothers with a subject to the extent that they strive to somehow represent it, they must be at least wanting to find the beauty of it. Something in the artist’s psyche knows beauty lurks, perhaps on the other side of obvious ugliness.
And in fact beautiful Sedna is going to encounter some ugliness. Her father is concerned about survival in a hunting culture, for he is aging, with no sons. He is frustrated by her refusal to marry; “‘Now that I am old, I need a son-in-law to help me with the hunting.’ Sedna only shrugged carelessly and turned away, brushing her long dark hair and humming.” Sedna is a woman who does not prioritize mundane matters like food source. We could say she’s a typical dyed-in-the-wool artistic type like myself.
She is also virginal in the old sense of the word. She is satisfied with her own company, in other words. She doesn’t feel a desire to partner with the masculine. She doesn’t need anyone else to make her happy; the hair combing signifies she can smooth her psyche on her own. She hums to herself; in other words, she creates her own preferred harmonious vibrational experience. We can imagine this humming and hair combing as any form of calming meditation, but it might just be a way of life that supports balance and self confidence. A natural ability to psychospiritual balance is a common characteristic of virginal nature goddesses.
In that, Sedna is a born healer. She prizes and supports beauty and equilibrium in her daily life. As a young woman, she is balanced in some unusual regard, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. She is connected to soul, or she would not know what soothes her. And that is a beautiful gift indeed.
Though all the versions of the story I have read make a fuss about her being haughty and proud, that’s more of the social conditioning stuff. It’s true that the very gifted type of person is often viewed as proud, by those who are not gifted. This is all too obvious in the arena of physical beauty. That’s why myths use that trope of the beautiful one to describe the big picture lesson about gifts, for everyone who doesn’t live under a rock has encountered the social dynamics around the beautiful or handsome one.
The fact that people project pride onto the physically beautiful, is a huge life lesson. Again, these stories use beauty as a teaching tool. We are all gifted, but some gifts are more dramatic and/or obvious than others. The self identified nongifted sort have no idea what it’s like to be quite obviously gifted. If they did, their envy would cease, for obvious giftedness is a challenge, a trial, not a solution, as the envious believe. Marilyn Monroe’s tragic life is a case in point.
If we replace Sedna’s hair combing with what I am doing now, for example, with using my symbolic interpretation superpower, then of course she’s going to be ignoring requests for marriage and subsequent family. Because once she’s in that socially conditioned babymaking boat, she won’t be having the time and space for honing and expressing her artistic gifts, for years! If she were exceptionally gifted in the area of athletics, as virgin goddess Artemis is, she might never get a chance to develop her gifts before her children are not a priority.
Sedna may be feeling copacetic now, living without interruptions to her preferred vibration, previous to the challenges of sexual partnering. But Sedna’s going to go to the dark side in the way that lots of beautiful young women do; through an abusive meeting with the masculine. Her father finally loses it, and tells her “The very next man who comes here… you shall marry! Next time I will make you! You will not refuse again!” Zeus collaborates with Hades concerning Persephone's “abduction” as well. Sedna must experience the opposite of masculine support, for the less support she has, the farther she falls into the abyss of suffering.
And with that, a man appears on the shore in a kayak. He’s dressed in rich furs and seems tall and handsome. His face is, however, hidden by a hood and goggles: Death in masculine form. Dad drags his daughter down to the water, yelling “‘Do you seek a wife? Here is my daughter Sedna! She is young and beautiful, and can cook and sew. She will make you an excellent wife.’”
I am sure the fact that she’s basically a man’s possession from the perspective of this version, is not lost on a member of my culture. There are few societies on the planet that avoid that social behavior, though I can’t know if it’s typical for the Inuit, or was. I am pretty sure handing one’s daughter over to a complete stranger is not usual, though. And of course that’s part of the reason for only child Sedna’s abject refusal to marry; the acquiring of her sacred wound requires getting her into a serious level of trouble.
The hooded fellow lies; he’s representing an inner trickster aspect. He says he has a splendid house and “‘If you marry me, you will sleep on soft bearskins and eat only the finest food.’ ‘Well, if I must take a husband, I suppose I must’, she thought. ‘He seems kind and not too ugly. I could do worse.’”
And off they go! “For many miles they travelled across the ice-cold sea.” In other words, the shadow trickster lives far from the upperlands, from the place of human society, from the experience of the ego and the personality. Our wounds are not always accessible in their depths by the functional personality, no matter how many times we tell their stories. Telling the story over and over is more like the ship that sails upon the ocean of our suffering, hoping to remain on the surface.
And the man’s home is the opposite of the promised. It’s a rocky island in the mists; “Nothing grew on its stony shores and seabirds swooped about the cliffs, filling the air with their wild, mournful cries.” This place is the opposite of Venusian beauty. The man is revealed to be ugly, squat, and red-eyed; in fact, he is really a black storm petrel. There are no furs, just a pile of sticks, and the only food this husband can bring is fish. He fishes by day and turns into a man at night.
I have read versions where Sedna is badly abused by the petrel-husband, who is an evil magician. She begins to cry for deliverance, when the petrel-husband is gone, and somehow her father hears her call in his heart. Father takes off in search of her, following the call, and finds her on the bleak island. “When he saw his daughter’s misery, he was stricken with remorse. ‘Oh my poor child’, he cried, ‘I did not mean you to suffer such a fate! Surely you have been punished enough! Let us return home at once.’”
There’s that punitive note again, and again, I pretty much ignore that as a theme. It is worth noting that punishment, like death, is an essential part of the dualistic dimensions, and that it’s a big aspect of our personality conditioning. In that respect, punishment can be a very important subject in our self inquiry. Our sacred wounds may not originate in obvious punishment from parents and other humans. But subsequent suffering is always experienced as some kind of punishment.
I mean, most of us don’t want to get hurt, and we pretty much spend our days avoiding it. If something is desired, it’s not actually punishment. That’s how suffering, including innate fear of death, tricks us into the underworld; we are avoiding it. When we label events simplistically as fearful and painful, as bad, we naturally create the condition of suffering. Shallow interpretations of painful events become part of our self identity, our conditioned personality. In our resistance to their reoccurence we experience some form of fear.
The personality hopes to stay safe from a reoccurrence of the wound, by remembering and recounting the story, as our defense mechanism interprets it, of course.
Back to Sedna, father and daughter paddle away from the petrel’s nest as quickly as possible. But this inner masculine punishing figure symbolized by the petrel isn’t fooled. The petrel quickly finds them, angry at the apparent stealing of his wife. Sedna’s inner work is just beginning; the survival level marriage with a nasty guy is the sacred wound, and now it’s time for fear and suffering, the wounding’s aftermath.
The petrel raises a literal storm, and Sedna and her father are caught in it, a vortex of waves they can’t escape. For this reason I like the use of the storm petrel in the story; some versions use other black birds. The whirlpool of overwhelming powerlessness and fear the storm represents is all too familiar for many of us, however dimly remembered, and its existential core is fear of death. Survival is indeed reliant on struggling in some sense against death, right?
Assisted by the initiating masculine, Sedna’s going to lose that struggle. Dad, scared out of his mind, throws his daughter under the bus- or over the bow. It’s a poignant truth that, in a society of zombies and the generally walking wounded, our parents usually do, in some sense. In a damaging society, their fears compelled them to damage us; and as parents we damage our children somehow. It’s the proverbial sins of the fathers and mothers, or family karma, or fate, or whatever. Call it what you will. But it’s also the sacred wound; so thanks, Mom and Dad. It’s up to us to make some gold from our story-lead. Nobody else can do it.
Sedna struggles to get back in the boat, struggles to survive. In the losing of the archetypally masculine battle, in the heavy transpersonal arms of Death, feminine creative power is unleashed; “Screaming in terror, Sedna clung to the kayak, but her father, maddened with fear, struck at her hands with his paddle, and the first joints of her fingers, frozen with cold, broke off like icicles and fell into the sea. As they bobbed away, they changed miraculously into seals, diving and twisting in the waves.
Again Sedna clung to the kayak, pleading for her life, but again her father tried to release her grasp, this time cutting off the second joints of her fingers. These, too, fell into the sea and became the first walrus. With her bleeding stumps, Sedna made one last despairing attempt to seize hold of the kayak, but her father had no pity and struck off the remaining joints, which took the form of whales and followed the seals and walrus down into the depths of the ocean.”
Sedna lies as though dead for a time (that bit is not in the Wood version). When she begins to awaken from this chrysalis phase, she is no longer mortal; she is immortal. When we go through our deep transformational experiences, we access more of our immortality, right? For it’s only the body and the personality that are mortal.
When she wakes, Sedna is astonished to see that her hands now magically express sea animals, which feed and heal the people of the land. This is her creative expression, her healing power, her destiny, her service. The hands in general symbolize power of expression and manifestation. The unity aspect of the sacred feminine is also in the way Sedna can be depicted as shaped like a seal. Her fingers gone, she now has flippers. Nature-based stories often add such details to tie in the feminine element of oneness; our human existence as a subset of Gaia’s- or in this case Sedna’s.
Like many top shelf alchemical tales, this one does not stop with a simple exploration of feminine archetype. It’s not always good in the ‘hood once goddess Sedna’s down there, out of sight and out of mind, magically producing bounty for good little boys and girls. For Sedna, once mortal, is also tied to human doings, as is the case for our beautiful planet. Due to her sacred wound, her unity nature is sometimes affected by her own inner separating masculine air and fire element experiences of possessiveness, anger, and revenge. “Legend says she lives still at the bottom of the sea, jealously guarding the creatures which come from her fingers. Because of her father’s cruelty, she has no love for human beings. Their wicked deeds trouble her, affecting her body with sores and infesting her hair like lice. Lacking fingers, she cannot brush her hair and it becomes tangled and matted. In revenge, she calls up storms to prevent men from hunting, or keeps the sea creatures to herself.”
These destructive human characteristics are emotions born of suffering, and their expression can wound others. We could say that, when we are suffering, it is pain that we create, for humans are always creating something. Like mortal humans, the deeper connection with Sedna’s tremendous creative Source is inextricably interwound with the entry point of the wound. The more creative power one has, the more pain one can inflict, one reason it’s challenging to be the greatly gifted one.
The shaman (angakkuq in Inuit), the healer, the one betwixt and between, can soothe the savage beast of Sedna’s suffering; At such times shamans must travel to the land below the sea to confess man’s sins and to beg her forgiveness. Only the most powerful, who fear nothing, can undertake this journey for the way is long and dangerous… To soothe Sedna’s rage and pain, the shaman must first comb her hair until it hangs clean and smooth once more. Then Sedna may release the whale, walrus and seal from the great pool below her lamp, so that for a time, until they forget and sin again, people may hunt freely and without fear.”
The whole sin thing referenced above is going to be problematic for some, but it just means separation. The nature of the masculine is separation. Anger, envy, competition, etc. are based on separation, on comparing oneself with another and/or protecting ourselves and our stuff from others. Survival is based on separation- at least in the human mind it is. Eating and getting eaten and the death therein is actually a unitive experience! That’s what we want to do with the animals, of course- eat them. They become us. And the unifying nature of the feminine keeps giving us that experience of survival through the sacrifice of one of her creations. Until, that is, we are food for the worms, or the fishes in her case.
For hunters, the balanced masculine power needed to hunt and kill can easily shift from love and respect into excessive separation. Then we hoard and compete; so and so killed a bigger walrus than I did, so and so has a better husband than I do. And separation easily shifts into the sin of greed; of making Nature Herself into a “thing” we are fighting over. The scene in the beginning, where Sedna is treated like so much meat, is one example of too much separation, or sin. In a very malecentric society, this objectifying behavior is normative, only we are hauling home expensive phones and cars in lieu of walrus meat.
The objectifying lack of respect and love for Earth Mother is what Sedna represents here. Sedna’s sores and lice nicely symbolize the result of objectifying her, rather than partnering with her. Sores are archetypally defensive, masculine fire element; aggravation, anger, eruptions of heat. Lice are parasites; and when we do not partner with Erda, we behave as parasites upon her body. We are all take and no give. Though traditional societies use ritual exchange, as in offering prayer and tobacco in exchange for Gaia’s gifts, they are really meant as gestures of love and respect, so our true relationship with Death is not forgotten. It’s love Gaia wants; for love is what unites us in creating beauty. Without love, all the gifts in the world will not heal the sin, the schism.
The shaman’s hair combing is a pretty neat metaphor. As I said in the beginning of the story, hair combing is symbolic specifically of smoothing out the psychospiritual experience. If we associate Sedna’s tangled hair with fear and suffering, we can imagine our own psychic untangling beginning with mindfulness, watching our thoughts. Hair commonly symbolizes thoughts. For example we could ask of our fearful or punishing ideas, Is that true? Or maybe, Is that important? Is it helping, or hindering my full expression of a rich and creative life journey?
In Sedna’s case, perhaps she has thoughts that she cannot survive unless she is married to a man. Maybe she feels like the Little Red Hen- if they won’t help me, then they can just make some food for themselves! Bastards! Let them suffer as I did back in the day! The possibilities for tangling ourselves up in mental fears and doubts are endless. Soon we are all worked up and back in the dark storm that characterizes our original wound.
And when Mama’s not happy, nobody’s happy, for Mom is the unified creative source of life on Earth. The shaman has to be fearless, for the shaman represents the one who has been there and back. Thus they have faced suffering, fear, Death. Here is the healer aspect that dovetails so well with expressive creativity. The one who would heal self and other on the deepest levels of fear and disconnect, must recognize and understand suffering in both its simple and complex forms. The healer develops tools, ways of lighting the darkness, such as roadmaps and solace, discernment and the ability to see the beauty in all of it.
The shaman’s comb is the light in Sedna’s darkness. And each time she moves out of her suffering back into her Creation Station, the world is more beautiful than it was before. Life flows, and life is good, for unity replaces fear and separation. She remembers her destiny, her gift. And the gift is always given unconditionally; Love and Beauty are like home grown tomatoes. Their only cost is love.
An article in Smithsonian Magazine on Inuit talking to whales: Why Scientists Are Starting to Care About Cultures That Talk To Whales