On Cosmology and Compost

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…

9 thoughts on “On Cosmology and Compost

  1. Thankyou for sharing this. I particularly like the part about the ‘eaters of the dead’ living backward, becoming younger until they are reborn. This reflects some of the thoughts I have been having lately about the reciprocity between the worlds, the living and the dead, degeneration and regeneration. Sometimes to live something must die… I am glad you have found a way to release your sadness. Best of luck moving on x

  2. Apologies, on a first read I thought it was the eaters of the dead who lived backward but I see now they convey the dead to Hel’s realm and she teaches them to live backward to be reborn. I see the Hounds of Annwn of example of eaters of the dead, bearing souls back to the Otherworld. If this is one of the ‘secrets’ of the Otherworld perhaps this is why it is often called the world of the ‘ever-young’?

    • An interesting perspective. I have only just begun to explore these mysteries – in fact, I had almost forgotten the story about how Hel teaches the dead to live backwards so that they can be reborn; it was only by chance that I looked up the reference for the story, and kept reading… synchronicity :) I remember T.H. White’s Merlin also lived backwards through time; it was the source of his foresight.
      The world of the ever-young is such an interesting title… I always had trouble with the idea that we would become souls caught forever at a perfect age after death – but looking at it another way, I suppose the world beyond life is not just the end of everything, but also where everything begins.

  3. Pingback: Cwn Annwn | From Peneverdant

  4. i just LOVE this… so much in your post and the Estes stuff, and (being obsessed with the story of Bluebeard) it has given me some thoughts about my work (and societal healing) and how this relates, which i’m trying to put into words… any further reading you suggest?

    • I always totally recommend anything by Estes – I picked up my old copy of Women Who Run With The Wolves in Treadwells, and Christina Oakley-Harrington said, “this book changed my life, and it will change yours.”
      On the Bluebeard theme, if you like Joanna Newsom’s music, you’ll love her song, Go Long (you’ll either love it or hate it!).
      I’d love to hear your thoughts on societal healing and how it all relates to your work – whatever you’re able to share, and wherever the thoughts take you :)

      • Ta – i have women who run too. i want to know more about hel and the sin-eaters though… think the wolves has the most in it.. can’t find much else on that… will check out the song. I went to see a version of Bluebeard by Cat Weatherill – spinetinglingly fab and v recommended. re healing – when i’ve written em you’ll be the first to know!

      • I thought you might already have it! As for Hel, I’m still learning, and a lot of what I’ve written is UPG. But she does keep appearing in the margins of stories like these, when I think I’m reading about something else. She reminds me of the deep, shared foundations underlying. From what I know, she mostly appears in the Eddas, and in some Norse folktales as a result. When I find some good sources, I’ll be sure to pass them on!

  5. Pingback: modern sin-eaters? | breathing fire into who we are

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