Singing flesh onto bones is an archetypal motif. It’s about self resurrection. This is more than just resurrecting old hobbies or carving out “me time.” It’s about bringing back the force that makes you alive, and connected, and free, and creative, in a way that allows you to contribute to the world without conforming to it.
Recently, I decided to travel as a lifestyle. I let my lease expire and made plans to house sit for a couple in California, who were going to Holland for a few weeks. Then I left my home in Kentucky and drove across the country.
When I was in Reno, the woman who owned the home called to tell me that her mother had a stroke, and she had to cancel her trip. There went the roof I’d scheduled to have over my head.
My first reaction was panic. I was in Reno, alone, with only a few meager possessions in my SUV, and no place to stay.
Then I remembered that I’m resourceful and employed (I’m a writer, so I’m mobile), and I just had to get creative.
That was how I found myself living in the woods in California for all of April, sleeping in my SUV and making tea on a little propane tank camp stove.
As a 30-yr-old woman, you can only spend so many nights sleeping in your car, using public showers, and eating gas station beef jerky before you start to ask yourself what the hell you’re doing.
Soon, my question answered itself, as I began to write my stalled, long-ignored novel—by hand with a flashlight in the back of my SUV, wrapped in blankets and refusing to slurp my tea because I didn’t want to go out in the dark and make the short hike to the campsite’s communal bathrooms.
It wasn’t that I’d had writers block before my month-long camping trip. I don’t believe in writer’s block. But I do believe in distraction and procrastination. Those are very real. Out in the woods, where it got dark at 8:30 pm and my access to electricity was sketchy at best, there was simply nothing else to do . . . except what mattered. So I fell back into step with who I used to be, and with what mattered to me. It was a kind of self resurrection.
This is not actually me.
Joseph Campbell and Clarissa Pinkola Estes both share stories about women singing over bones and bringing something that was dead back to life.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes wrote “Women Who Run with the Wolves.” It’s about the wild woman archetype.
She opens with a story about “La Loba,” an undomesticated woman who lives in the wilderness, gathering the bones of dead wolves. When she has a whole skeleton, she assembles it on the ground in the moonlight, and she looks at it for awhile. She thinks about what song she’s going to sing. When she’s sure, she puts a blanket over the skeleton, and begins to sing. After awhile, she lifts up the blanket, and sees some tendons and muscles on the bones: not done yet. She lowers the blanket and continues singing. When she checks again, she sees the full body of the wolf covered in thick gray fur, with glassy eyes that are still empty. Closer, but still not there yet. She lowers the blanket and continues singing. The next time she lifts the blanket to check, the wolf’s ribcage is moving up and down, up and down, up and down—and suddenly the wolf leaps up and runs away. La Loba claps her hands a single time and crows with delight.
She’s brought back something that was wild and free and dead.
This motif of singing life onto bones is an archetype. It shows up in another story, shared by Joseph Campbell in “The Power of Myth.” (This is a shortened version, but you can read the whole thing here. Click the link and scroll almost halfway down the page.)
A young woman carelessly makes a promise to a herd of buffalo: if they will sacrifice themselves to keep her people alive through the winter, she’ll marry one of them. So the buffalo throw themselves off a cliff—which she really hadn’t expected—and then she has to marry the buffalo shaman. Yikes.
Her father tracks her down, but the buffalo tramples him to death. Just so she really gets the point that she can’t go home.
The girl is, understandably, upset. She wails and weeps, and the buffalo shaman says to her, “Look: if you can bring you father back to life, you can go home with him.”
So the girl finds a single bone from her father’s back, and she covers it with a blanket, thinks about what song to sing . . . and then she begins to sing and dance. After awhile, she lifts the blanket. Her father’s skeleton is fully formed. She lowers the blanket and continues singing. When she checks again, there are red muscles and ropey white tendons. She lowers the blanket and continues singing. When she checks again, his body is fully formed. The next time, he stands up, wraps the blanket around himself, and folds his daughter in a hug.
The buffalo shaman is pretty surprised. He’s like, “Why don’t you do this for my family, too? Remember—my family who are dead at the bottom of the cliff?”
And she says, “Ohh . . . yeah, I didn’t think about that.”
And that’s the origin of the Blackfoot tribe’s Buffalo Dance. The buffalo gave their lives for the tribe, and the tribe would dance and bring them back to life every year. So the tribe was sustained by a single sacred herd.
These two stories are about different things—the La Loba story is about an untamed, raw woman singing something wild (symbolically, the wolf represents the wild feminine) back to life. The Buffalo Maiden is about a girl who uses her powers of resurrection to bring back her father—her protective masculine aspect, which looks out for her safety and the safety of her people. But the stories share the skeleton-resurrection motif.
In archetypal symbology, the bones represent an aspect of something that cannot be destroyed. But it is dead. These are parts of ourselves where the strong muscles and working tendons have been scraped away. It was once vibrant, but it no longer even moves.
The women in these stories first had to search for the bones—so it’s not always easy to remember the core aspects of ourselves that may have died over the years. We have to dig them up. We have to reassemble the skeletons, look at them for awhile, and remember what we once were.
Sometimes the bones we find tell us we have to remember how to be wild and free—completely ourselves. Other times, we have to remember how to preserve our own safety, and the safety of those we love (like the Buffalo Maiden). Sometimes the bones remind us of a passion we’ve let die, like painting or dancing. If you can find your own bones, and can sit with them long enough to dream, you’ll know what song you need to sing—what you need to bring back to life.
The women think for awhile about what to bring back, and then they begin to sing.
They each have to look under the blanket several times before their resurrection is complete. This is not “insta-resurrection.” It teaches us that, if something important within us has died or withered away, that doesn’t mean it’s gone. They had to sing and sing and sing. They had to use the creative power of their words, and not stop using them when they didn’t see immediate progress.
Any founder of a start-up can tell you what this means.
For me, I went to the woods and realized I’d lost all the meat and fat and tendons of me—everything that made me work. It was a sad thing to realize. How had this happened? When had I started trying to fit in so much that I lost my ability to express myself, and thereby, my ability to be creative and to connect genuinely with others? (If we can’t genuinely express ourselves, any connections we forge with others will be based on false ground.)
So I thought for awhile about what I should sing. And then I started to sing, and I didn’t stop for a month. After that, I had the first draft of my novel. I also had something more important—my self expression.
Singing flesh onto your bones is about more than just resurrecting old hobbies or carving out “me time.”
It’s about bringing back the force that makes you alive, and connected, and free, and creative, in a way that allows you to contribute to the world without conforming to it.
L. Marrick is an author, ghostwriter, and suitcase entrepreneur—which is a hipster way of saying she travels and works from her laptop. Her blog, LMarrick.com, is where she writes about history and myth. Her memoir, “Working Girl: 132 Somewhat Moral Values I Learned from a Sex Worker,” tells about when she answered a shady classified ad and wound up working as a sex worker’s personal assistant.
© L. Marrick 2015. The content of this article, except for quoted or linked source materials, is protected by copyright. Please contact the author at the above links to request usage.