Inuit woman wearing fur parks. Nome?, Alaska. 1903-1915..
Photo: Lomen Brothers, Nome, Alaska. Glenbow [Museum] Archives ND-1-116, Calgary, Alberta.
The tale in brief
A mother lived with her daughter. A second mother lived with her youngest son who was ill. There was no husband in either home. The second mother's 'secret enemy' had killed her elder sons (he had made a fox bring the sons to him). The daughter went naked to the second mother's house, watched at night and captured the fox. The fox directed her to the secret enemy. Still naked, she confronted the secret enemy. He died of shame. The daughter healed the son, married him, and prospered with many children.
The synopsis reveals that this tale resembles a Hungarian story, Pretty maid Ibronka:
Because Ibronka had no beau she flirted with a young man. Then she watched at night and saw he was the devil. She opposed his control, married a prince, and prospered with children. The devil died of frustration.
Each tale amplifies the other, that is, each reveals further aspects of the other's meaning. In both tales the heroine (yin) was first alienated from a man (yang), then saw and conquered man's destructive or unconscious aspect and married his fertilizing aspect.
Thus, in broad strokes, the Inuit tale is about the unfolding of yin through its conflict and reconciliation with yang. By looking at the details of the story we will find more specific meanings.
Because both tales are naive rather than literary, they are "dreams" of their culture, that is creative reveries, sharpened and preserved by the community through retelling. In such tales each character represents not a human but an archetype. An archetype is an organizing possibility which, being essentially mathematical, is universal and eternal. Each story explores ways in which organizing possibilities may interact.
A visual example of such exploration is the yin-yang symbol, two comma-shaped figures combined, top-to-tail, to form a disk.
Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate.
From the Compendium of Diagrams (detail), 1623 Zhang Huang (1527-1608) Woodblock-printed book; ink on paper
Photo: © The University of Chicago Library, East Asian Collection
The image says much: it shows that yin and yang are complimentary, that their meeting is dynamic, and that they make a whole when they join.
That is the meaning of every love story and, in part, the meaning of our Inuit tale. Love stories hold endless fascination for us, not because they are endlessly different but because, again and again, they illustrate the archetypal dynamic of yin and yang.
As I showed in an accessible paper in the Journal of Biological Theory (M.I.T. Press) our biological complexity organizes itself according to a limited number of mathematical principles (each is an archetype) and so too does our psychological complexity, including consciousness.
Unlike an archetype, we mortals are complex and nuanced and require compromise. But, whether we are conscious of it or not, our lives are structured by archetypes. By retelling an archetypal story we gain energy and courage.
An archetype is like a nuclear furnace. It is an elementary principle from which we are made. As we face it, it continuously generates psychological energy. It is because an archetype generates so much energy that individuation - the conscious facing of archetypes - enlivens the personality.
A religious symbol is also archetypal. To question whether a religious story is "true" is to miss the point. It is true in the sense that mathematics is true: a religious symbol represents an elementary principle of which everything in the universe is an expression.
This Inuit story is important both for women and for men because it explores individuation, the development of consciousness, from the viewpoint of the feminine. It shows how the heroine's journey differs from the hero's.
The complete tale, interpreted
Yin and yang unbalanced
Two cousins lived in the village of Uñi´sak. One had five sons, the other had a single daughter. Then the sons of the former began to die, and only the youngest one remained alive; and even he began to suffer. Then his mother sent to her sister-in-law, and said,
"My last son is suffering. Please send your daughter to cheer him up. He feels quite ill."
Both families were ruled by yin (the mothers and the daughter) while yang was absent, which means, symbolically, that it had not yet differentiated itself from the collective unconscious. The collective unconscious is maternal because it is the mother of all things: in the beginning it encompasses yang as well as yin.
In a related African story, Dirawiic who married a Lion :
A young daughter escaped her incestuous brother and led her peers into the wilderness where they lived for years without men. They were threatened by a lion but the heroine's younger sister frustrated him until the heroine tamed him. Then the girls returned home and married.
In the African story yin was first separated from yang to protect its development. Like Dirawiic, the Inuit girl was a leader. This amplification helps us to see that the girl living alone with her mother, with no men in sight, refers to developing strength which is independent of men.
In the second Inuit family the spirit of yang (spirit means attitudes, beliefs, habits, knowledge, skills, symbolic images, everything which moves us) was overburdened and unconscious: the father was missing, there were five vulnerable sons, and there was a secret male enemy. When an archetype is unconscious it tends to function destructively. The family's consciousness was ruled by yin (the mother) but yin's future potential was lacking (there was no daughter).
In dream logic, that which precedes is the cause of that which follows: thus the imbalance of yin and yang seem to have caused the sickness of all the sons. Then we are told that the son's mother thought a girl would cheer him up. This is a repetition (the same idea represented by a different image) which supports that interpretation. The girl's function would be to restore the balance of yin and yang.
The other woman said to her daughter, "They have sent for you. You may go after the meal."
"No," said the girl, "Let me go at once!"
The mother said, "Then at least put on your clothes."
"Why should I? It is not a long way."
The girl's mother stood for conventional behavior but the daughter had individual ideas, that she should go right away and naked, fully displaying the feminine. Within an Inuit dwelling nakedness was the convention because clothing was designed for the extreme cold but to go naked to visit another family would transform the convention. This is another repetition: her nakedness suggests that yin would help the sick boy.
The meeting of yin and yang furthers individuation which (individuation) is always in tension with conventional development. For this reason romance is charged, private, and often secret. The girl, however, cheerfully upended convention. Shameless, she would shame the secret enemy. By making yin more conscious, she would make yang more conscious also.
She put on only her boots ...
She had her feet on the ground. Her decision to go naked was not a whim or aberration but a choice grounded in the earth (feminine instinct). This detail is another repetition which accentuates both her nakedness and her feminine power.
... and, being quite naked, went out of the sleeping-room and crossed over to the other cousin's house. She entered the sleeping-room. The suffering boy was stretched out upon the skins, moaning. He could neither eat nor drink.
Night came, and they lay down to sleep.
The second family went to sleep but the girl stayed awake. No detail is without meaning. The girl worked in the night-time like a shaman. She develops consciousness by exploring the unconscious.
A new line, made of a thong-seal hide, was lying near the entrance. The girl picked it up, made a noose in the shape of a lasso, and crouched near the entrance, watching. She was quite naked, and had on only her boots, as before.
The girl became a huntress with a weapon. Like Artemis of Greek myth (Diana of Roman myth) she claimed her own unconventional access to phallic power. Diana is shown hunting naked with hounds while the Inuit girl, as we will see, was aided in her hunt by a fox.
Diana the Huntress,
Masters of Fontainebleau. 1550-60. Oil on canvas, 192 x 133 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris
The Inuit girl's weapon also represents the power of yin because it is an enclosing loop. It thus integrates yin and yang, another detail which repeats an overall theme of this story. Artemis' weapon, however, was all yang and her story expresses more yang than yin.
The raven and the fox
The sun had set, and it was quite dark. Then she heard a rustling-sound from the direction of sunset. She listened attentively, and heard some wary steps. She peered into the darkness, and at last noticed a form. It was a Raven. He approached noiselessly. Behind the house were some scraps of food. He picked at them, and crept slowly to the entrance. The girl threw the lasso over him, and caught him.
Edmonton, British Columbia, Donna's River Valley
"Ah, ah, ah! Let me alone! I have done nothing."
"And why do you steal in here in the night-time, without giving notice to the master of the house?"
"I am looking for food, gathering meat-scraps and even excrements. Let me go!"
"All right!" She let him go, and he flew away.
She forced a confrontation: she asked the Raven questions and acted upon its responses. This is like listening to a dream and acting upon its message: she was relating like a shaman to the unconscious.
She watched on, the lasso in hand, quite naked. Then from the direction of midnight she heard a rustling-noise approaching guardedly. It was a Fox creeping toward the house. As soon as she approached, the suffering boy moaned louder. The Fox stopped, and put her nose close to the ground. She listened, and then said,
"This time I shall probably carry him away."
Alaskan red fox
The Fox approached nearer, and the girl threw the lasso and caught her. "Qa, qa, qa!"
"And why are you stealing in here in the night-time? The master of the house knows nothing about you. It is you, probably, who have taken away those boys."
"Why, yes, I did it."
"Then I shall kill you."
"Why will you kill me?
"Why, you scoundrel, you make all the people mourn. You source of trouble!"
"Oh, it is not my fault. This neighbor of yours induces me to do it, and pays me for it."
"Is that so? Nevertheless, I shall kill you."
"Oh, I will leave here and go away!"
"No, I shall kill you."
"I will pay you a large ransom. You shall be happy along with your husband. And I will kill your enemy."
"Ah, then you may go!"
Because she caught two different animals they create a contrast which has meaning. The male raven is yang, spirit, like a thought, above ground, simple and direct, equally effective in dealing with meat and shit. The female fox is yin, the unconscious. She is complex, devious, underground; she controls riches, fortune-telling, and death. She represents tricky unconscious knowledge and unconscious dynamics which can change things for good or ill.
When a dynamism operates unconsciously like the fox it has enormous power to disrupt our life and send it spinning of course. When it is made conscious it can function more as thought, like the raven; it operates more in the clear, simpler and less disruptive. Together the raven and the fox represent shamanism: shamans fly long distances like the raven and enter the underworld like the fox.
Psychoanalysis is a modern version of shamanism: it enters the unconscious and brings back knowledge to integrated it and thus expand consciousness.
The girl conversed using both phallic power and feminine receptivity. She integrated each animal's shamanism.
Mursi Shaman Woman, Ethiopia
The Fox ran away. The girl entered the sleeping-room; and her body, which was quite naked in the cold, felt warmer. She awakened the sleeping ones.
Like a shaman, she re-entered warm life after facing the underworld. She made the boy conscious.
"Get up! You have slept enough," she said.
The boy did not moan any more, and asked for food. They gave him some. She cut it into small pieces. He swallowed a morsel, then another one, and still another. So he ate five pieces of meat. She gave him some water to drink. Only then she herself ate and drank. They went to sleep. The boy also slept. In the morning they awoke, and the boy was quite well.
Now a shaman she had the power to heal.
But their neighbor came, the secret enemy.
"Ah, ah! What girl is that whom I saw last night going around quite naked, lasso in hand? She must be my secret enemy."
The girl took off her clothes and went out.
"It was I. Then I know that you also are my enemy."
He felt ashamed, and from mere shame he fell down and died.
Naked truth shamed secrecy. Because it was conscious, the feminine illuminated unconscious yang, neutralizing its destructive power. Again, like a shaman, the girl faced down a demon.
Artemis and Acteon,
Attic vase, c. 470 BC.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
In one version of the Greek myth, Artemis turned Acteon into a stag, because he saw her naked, by throwing water at him. He was then killed by his own hounds.
In the Inuit myth the girl killed the man by means of his shame at her naked truth; she was aided by his fox.
Diana and Acteon,
1518 (detail). Lucus Cranach the Elder, oil on wood.
Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, CT.
Cranach's painting shows Diana bathing and Acteon's transformation into a stag. The latter suggests, as does the story of Ibronka, the connection between yang and pan, or the devil. Thus the story of Diana and Acteon makes vivid the conflict between yin and yang.
Unlike the Inuit girl, Artemis had no love for men. Her myth emphasizes her phallic power and does not show an integration of yin and yang unless it is within Artemis's own being.
They lived on. The girl lived with the boy; and when they grew up, they married. She brought forth many children. All the people loved her. She was rich.
It is finished.
When yin became conscious of yang the personality prospered. In myths from all over the world the marriage of yin and yang is a royal marriage which integrates and fertilizes the whole kingdom (the whole personality).
Walk in the garden.
Nefertiti and Akhenaten? Relief, Armana style. New Kingdom, 18th dynasty, c. 1335 BC.
Egyptian Museum Berlin, Berlin, Germany.
Love and shamanism
Though the Inuit story does not speak of the couple's feelings, it implies that the girl loved the boy:
... She brought forth many children. All the people loved her.
But this is not only a love story but also the story of a female shaman. Since the two are juxtaposed we must ask, how does love intersect with shamanism?
Love is a mystery that seduces us from our familiar world and makes us travel, like shamans, into an unconscious (under-) world of imagination and feeling. It pulls us out of self-interest, asks us to take risks for someone or something outside ourselves. We become conscious of new resources and must integrate them. We may be destroyed if we lose our footing.
Location and photo: unknown
Thus love is a form of shamanism. This is one reason why it is necessary for emotional maturity.
Told by Ñịpe´wġi, an Asiatic Eskimo man, in the village of Uñi´sak, at Indian Point, May, 1901.