Have you noticed how the initiatory event in myths and fairytales about women is so often an act of dismemberment? Let’s look at a few. Sedna, whose father throws her in the sea because she does not match up to his requirements of her, and then chops off her fingers when she clings to the side of his boat. The Handless Maiden, who loses her hands because of a bargain her father made with the devil. Or in other versions of the tale, she cuts off her own hands in order to avoid the sexual advances of her father and brothers.
Then there’s poor Karen, in Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘The Red Shoes’. She wore a pair of red shoes to church, and for that sin the shoes were made to stick fast to her feet so that she had no choice but to dance uncontrollably to the point of exhaustion, until eventually her feet had to be cut off by an executioner (who made sure, though, to teach her a nice ‘criminals’ psalm’ afterwards. To make sure that she got to heaven, and all. Bless). The selkie in the old Scottish and Irish tales, whose husband steals and then confiscates her skin.
Initiation, of course, is a prelude to transformation, and dismemberment is usually a prelude to re-memberment. In most of the stories, these women piece themselves together one way or another. Sedna’s fingers are transformed into all the creatures of the sea. The Handless Maiden spends time alone in the forest, and her hands regrow. The selkie finds her skin. Poor Karen, on the other hand, only gets to die and go to heaven, but that’s Hans Christian Andersen’s determinedly patriarchal notion of morality for you. I suspect a woman would tell the story differently, but it was rare in those days that women got to tell their own stories; the men owned all the stories, and some of them think they still do today.
Me, I’m a little tired of many of the stories that men have told about us all down the ages. Eve, Pandora – the stories in which women are responsible for all the sins of the world. I’m tired of stories about women being used for the ends of men. Leave my stories alone. I’d like to re-member myself, thank you very much; I’d like to re-member my own stories. I’ll choose my own shoes. Red, if I like.
It’s the women’s stories I want to hear now. I’m tired of men telling me what stories about women mean; we are the only ones who know what we mean. I’m tired of all their stories that tell me who to be, how to behave, who to love (‘Love me! Love me!’) or, increasingly, how to love. Love has many faces, and I’ll tell you how I’m going to love, and who. (And I’ll tell you who I’m not going to love, and happily be damned for it, if you like.) I’m going to love like the women in my stories – like the Cailleach, for example, in my ancestral Scottish and Irish traditions. I’m going to love like that old woman who made the world, who danced her way across winter mountains with her blackthorn stick, driving her beloved herd of wild deer ahead of her. I’m going to love like the women in those stories which run deep in my DNA. I’m going to love fiercely, and well. You want to know how the Cailleach loves, when she turns away the hunting men who are slaughtering too many of her deer? When she protects the wild things she loves, turning back the axes which cut down the forest, tricking the priests and saints who want to steal away her wild, elemental power? She loves with a ferocity that brooks no abuse. There’s a burning fire in her heart that will not love murder, that will not tolerate the rape of the natural world, that will not allow the rich, earthy, ancient power of women to be boiled down and dished up all milk-white and saccharine. That one – she doesn’t do sermons, platitudes, homilies. She’s had enough of the preacher man. Hers is the love which faces down the hunter. Turns him back. Says no. Refuses. Guards. Protects. Love has many faces, and that’s the way I’ll love. The women of my native lands still know how to love like that. With a fierce love, a love which knows when to hold up its hands and say enough. Not in my name. Not ever again in my name.
I’m re-membering my own stories now.