The story of Bluebeard, as Clarissa Pinkola Estés tells it, ends with cormorants and raptors, eaters of the dead, breaking down the body of the monstrous man until every trace of him has been returned into the earth. The destructive force is not just vanquished, in this tale; it is broken down, assimilated to the point that it enriches. The “irredeemable” detritus of a difficult life, or a life not well-lived, is broken down by these symbolic eaters of the dead to form the soil for new psychic growth. A long, painful process; one we don’t discuss much, in our culture. It isn’t pretty, but it is sacred.
They are her creatures, these eaters of the dead; but who is she?
She is the all-receiving earth.
Not the universe itself; she has her limits. She is a force vast beyond human comprehension – a giantess indeed, an endless cycle which encompasses all existences on earth – but nothing more. This perception, I suppose, is what roots my spiritual worldview in the ground of poly/henotheism. I believe even that if my body were returned to a different earth, in a distant place on this same planet, she would receive me with another face. I have heard – and not always understood – the different voices of the land while travelling the world, acknowledging the limits of my ability to understand, formed by time and experience. Here, I hear her clearly; she is Hel.
Estés tells another story about the eaters of the dead: how the dead are carried in the bellies of these creatures to Hel, to her realm, where she shows them how to live backwards: “they become younger and younger until they are ready to be reborn and re-released back into life.”
Like many writers of a pagan sensibility, Estés makes great use of natural cycles as allegories for psychological experience. The carrion birds in her tale are “sin-eaters,” processes by which the toxic waste of difficult experiences are broken down, transformed and released back into life.
In our minds we die over and over, constantly reborn to new understandings, new ideas, new ways of feeling and being in the world. Even our bodies break down and form new expressions of themselves, cell by cell, over a lifetime. Death is more than just the end of life; it is the process by which life is possible.
All these thoughts were on my mind this morning, as I walked the sandstone trails to the sacred place where I first felt her presence. For years, I have carried this burden of sadness, unsure of where to put it down, unwilling to entrust it to the earth – it seems so toxic. But what is toxic to the living may be beneficial to the soil. The earth transforms. I am ready to trust her, to place my heart in the hands of her relentless cycles of release; this year, at last, I am ready to set down this burden and learn to walk on through life without it. And it may take a while…