"In the mid-path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood," wrote Dante in The Divine Comedy, marking the start of a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. Likewise, a journey through the dark of the woods is a common motif in fairy tales: young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny; or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The road is long and treacherous, prowled by ghosts, ghouls, wicked witches, wolves, and the more malign sorts of faeries....but helpers also appear on the path: wise crones, good faeries, and animal guides, often cloaked in unlikely disguise. The hero's task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward.
In older myths, the dark road leads downward into the Underworld, where Persephone is carried off by Hades, much against her will, and Ishtar descends of her own accord to beat at the gates of Hell. This road of darkness lies to the West, according to Native American myth, and each of us must travel it at some point in our lives. The western road is one of trials, ordeals, disasters and abrupt life changes -- yet a road to be honored, nevertheless, as the road on which wisdom is gained. James Hillman, whose theory of "archetypal psychology" drew extensively on Greco-Roman myth, echoed this belief when he argued that darkness is vital at certain periods of life, questioning our modern tendency to equate mental health with happiness. It is in the Underworld, he reminds us, that seeds germinate and prepare for spring. Myths of descent and rebirth connect the soul's cycles to those of nature.
Having spent significant periods of my life in the muffled Underworld of physical disability, tales of the dark wood and myths of descent have a particular resonance for me, of course; but all of us enter the deep dark forest at some point in life or another, and such stories have much to tell us of how to find our way through; not unscathed, but transformed.
In an earlier age, a medicine man, shaman, or herb-wife consulted when my health problems first resurfaced this summer might have told me a story like this one, from the northern mountains of Mexico:
There was a young girl who married an old, old man, who used her ill. He worked her hard, beat her, starved her, and cast her off when she gave him no children, leaving her in the desert with no food, or water, or shelter. The young wife hid in the meager shade of rocks by day when the sun was fierce. By night she walked, crying, for she could not find her way home. The nights were cold. Wolves prowled the hills and carrion birds followed after her. She was hungry, thirsty, weary, and she walked till she could go no further. Lying down by a wide, dry wash, she wrapped herself in her long white skirt. She said, "Let La Huesera (the Bone Woman) take me, for I am spent." She died. Wild animals ate her flesh. Her spirit watched over the white, white bones and knew neither sorrow nor fear.
The bones lay in that secret place until the moon was full once more. And then La Huesera came and put them all in her woven sack. The old woman took the bones up to her cave high in the mountaintops, then laid them out beside her fire. She sat and smoked. She smoked and thought. She smoked and she thought for a long, long time, and then she began to sing.
"Flesh to bone! Flesh to bone! Flesh to bone!" the Bone Woman sang, and before too long the bones knit back together, covered in flesh. Where the girl had once been red and rough, now she was soft and smooth and plump. Her skin was as gold as daylight and her hair as black as night. La Huesera sang and sang. She blew a puff of tobacco smoke. The young woman's eyes flew opened and she sat up and looked around her.
The cave was empty. The ashes were cold. The old Bone Woman had disappeared. All that was left were tobacco seeds and she put them in her pocket.
She left the cave and started for home, following the rising sun. She knew she'd find her village walking this way, and so she did. She came upon her dwelling at last. The place was dark, deserted now. "That old man has died, that poor wife has died, come away from that place," the people said, for they did not recognize the lovely young woman who came to them out of the west. They gave her a name, a fine set of clothes, a new dwelling place, a goat, and a hen. They taught her human speech, for she had forgotten all that she knew. She planted La Huesera's seeds and tended the new plants carefully. In time, she married, and gave her young husband many gold–skinned daughters and black–haired sons, and her children's children's children still grow tobacco in that village today.
There are different versions of this basic story found in cultures the world over, particularly among the oral tales associated with healing rites. In the literal way we approach old folk and fairy tales in our modern world, it might seem just a simple "where tobacco comes from" story, or even a Cinderella variant: a mistreated girl is made beautiful, marries, and lives happily ever after. (I can picture the Disney version, complete with a singing-and-dancing La Huesera.) My gentle husband is not an abusive one, and I certainly didn't come through a summer of illness with sudden supernatural beauty. So why would this tale apply to my recent journey through the dark woods of illness?
Let's look at the tale again, as an ancient curandera (healer) might look.
It doesn't really matter how the girl came to find herself in the desert -- the Mexican equivalent of the mythic greenwood -- for any life change or calamity can trigger events that lead into the dark: Hansel & Gretel's parents abandon them there, Beauty takes her father's place in it, Donkeyskin chooses the dark unknown to escape a more dreadful fate. The point is that our hero is there, alone, walking by night, miserable, in extremis, removed from the normal rhythms of life...and thus ripe for transformation. It is in the darkest hour of need that the guardian figures in folk tales appear, waiting by the side of the road as the hero stumbles by. In this case, our guide waits long indeed -- she waits until the hero is dead. (It is notable that as the young woman surrenders to her fate, all fear and sorrow leave her.) Like the hideous crones who are faery godmothers in disguise, La Huesera, scavenger of bones, is salvation cloaked in an unlikely form. The old woman carries the bones to a cave in the west, the place of the dead. Dead to her old life, if not to the world, the girl's spirit lingers, watches, and waits. Her patience is rewarded as her broken body is fashioned anew.
This "ritual death" is similar to shamanic initiation rites found in tribal cultures around the world. The initiates, in a state of trance, journey into the spirit world -- where their bodies die and are shorn of flesh, the bones picked over by spirits who are then persuaded, if all goes well, to sew them back together, better than new. (If the ceremonial procedure fails, however, an initiate can die in the trance state.) In this story, the young woman can be seen in the role of shamanic initiate. She lies down wrapped in long white cloth, the color of initiation. She leaves her body, returns to it, and finally becomes "twice-born," emerging from the cave (the womb of the Mother Earth) with a sacred gift for her people.
When she returns to her village, she is literally a new woman. She is given a new name, a new dwelling, and must learn to speak all over again. This, too, is common in initiation ceremonies found the world over. In one West African tribe, for instance, young male initiates drink a sacred brew which cause them to lose consciousness, whereupon they are taken into a special place deep in the jungle. When they wake, they have forgotten their past and must be taught to speak, walk, and feed themselves. They return to the tribe with new names and new roles, transformed from boys into men.
The safe return from the jungle, the forest, the spirit world, or the land of death often marks, in traditional tales, a time of new beginnings: new marriage, new life, and a new season of plenty and prosperity enriched not only by earthly treasures but those carried back from the Netherworld. Thomas the Rhymer, in the old Scottish ballad, returns to the human world after seven years in the woodlands of Faerie bearing the gift of prophesy, the "tongue that will not lie." Merlin returns from his time of exile and madness in the forests of Wales with magical knowledge and the ability to speak with the animals. Odin hangs in a death-like trance for ten days from the world-tree Yggdrasil, and comes back with the secret of runes from the dark land of Niflheim.
The hero of our story has also survived a great ordeal, a rite-of-passage from a barren life into one of great fecundity -- symbolized not only by marriage and children, but also by the precious tobacco seeds she brings for her people. To a modern audience, tobacco might seem a strange gift to appear in a healing tale since we now associate the plant with addiction, cancer, and death. Yet tobacco was once a sacred plant used only for ritual purpose and prayer -- particularly as old, ceremonial strains had hallucinogenic properties. (Some tribal elders say that it's casual use for non-religious purposes is what makes it so harmful today.)
Rites-of-passage stories like the one above were cherished in pre-literate societies not only for their entertainment value, but also as mythic tools to prepare young men and women for life's ordeals. A wealth of such stories can be found marking each major transition in the human life cycle: puberty, marriage, childbirth, menopause, death. Other rites-of-passage, less predictable but equally transformative, include times of sudden change and calamity such as illness and injury, the loss of one's home, the death of a loved one, etc. These are the times when we wake, like Dante, to find ourselves in a deep, dark wood -- an image that in Jungian psychology represents an inward journey. Rites-of–passage tales point to the hidden roads that lead out of the dark again -- and remind us that at the end of the journey we're not the same person as when we started. Ascending from the Netherworld (that grey landscape of illness, grief, depression, or despair), we are "twice-born" in our return to life, carrying seeds: new wisdom, ideas, creativity and fecundity of spirit.
This post first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2015, followed by three follow-up posts on illness beginning here.
Credits: The poem in the picture captions is "Otherwise" by Jane Kenyon, who was born in Michigan in 1947 and died of leukemia at the age of 48. The poem comes from her collection of the same title (Grey Wolf Press, 1996); all rights reserved by the author's estate. The drawings above are by Arthur Rackham (1867-1939) and Helen Stratton (1867-1961).