Re-membering women’s stories

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.

26 thoughts on “Re-membering women’s stories

  1. So very inspiring. Thank you. Your work (and your course that I’m doing currently) are going to influence my art so much. I already love myth, but this is pointing me in the right direction!

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  2. Hello Sharon. i’m also tired of men telling me what stories about women mean. i’m equally tired of men telling me what stories about men mean. i ache for all of Earth’s stories in all their myriad voices before they perish due to man-unkind, re-membering, embracing and melding with them, as many as i’m able to. btw: i am a man. Thank you Sharon.

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    1. For sure, we need all the stories, all the voices. And I hope it’s clear (from the wider context of my articles on this blog, like yesterday’s, for example) that asserting the need for women to have their own voices doesn’t have to be a denial of men’s voices! Thank you for reading.

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  3. Have begun reading If Women Rose Rooted, which is a powerful and eloquent testament and testimony to the way story evolves and how it needs to revolve to more balanced tellings. We need to turn around to find our way ahead, as you say not to deny the voices of men, but to assert ours have as much value, rather than no value. We need to be able to walk forward carefully together not one ahead and the other behind. We share the world with men, but they need to be educated that our voice and that of nature/the natural is as important as theirs of the manufactured. Our stories must be organic, arising from the rich and fertile ground of our being, not plucked from the air. There are men too whose stories grow from rich ground, earthed, and we need to honour that in them as much as we honour it in and from ourselves.

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    1. I absolutely agree. And as you’ll discover by the end of If Women Rose Rooted, that’s exactly what I’m suggesting 🙂 (And replacing a patriarchy with a matriarchy would just bring a new set of problems.) But we have to accept this: there are many good men with whom we can work. But there are many, many abusers too. We have to reclaim our stories from them before we can do anything else. We have to reclaim ourselves, re-member ourselves, in order to be able to work together with those good men on an equal footing. We have to find ourselves first, or what we offer is fragmented, unrooted.

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      1. Yes, finding ourselves is crucial. That has been my journey for many years now and continues to be so, for there is so much to take back. I use the term anamnesis — it is about unforgetting who we are, what our place is in the world, what we have to offer. And that does mean a huge re-claiming project, collectively and individually. It is ironic that what we are doing is about both rootedness and freedom, placement and movement.

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      2. This is powerfully beautiful (and beautifully powerful). May I add to your comment here that there are abusive women too. People altogether are a rather sorry bunch – which is to say, full of pain, fear, shame, and confusion. We each have to find ourselves, and in my experience it’s hard to do that without connection, love, inspiration, challenge, perspective, with others. Thank goodness for stories, which help to bridge the space between us, help us understand or at least consider each other a little better although we are all tricksy in our own way. And if all the stories are men’s stories, or translated by men, then real connection can never happen. I am so grateful for you writing about this and sharing the old women stories. Please keep sharing. They are so very important and inspiring.

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        1. Yes, of course. Again, there are no blacks and whites here. Just as declaring that women should have a voice doesn’t mean that men should not, neither does drawing attention to abusive men mean that women can’t be abusive too. (However, let’s always remember the big difference in both incidence and scale.) And yes to more stories, told in all the diverse voices of the world!

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  4. Thank you for your voice, Sharon. Your book is the best one I read this year, which propelled me in my spirituality. Talk about the right thing at the right time. Thank you also for putting me in touch with my Matron Goddess, who I have been seeking for the last few years. Blessings!

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  5. Thank you for this, Sharon. Some (not all) women here in US are facing thoughts/questions like these anew as the results of our election sink in. What does this mean for us? we ask. It is but one of the many threads that bear examination, of course, but I worry that this might signal the coming of a collective dismemberment . . . of women’s sense of and control of their own bodies, and of the Earth herself with respect to climate change. We may need to dig deep into ourselves to muster renewed strength.

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  6. Thank you for the timely reminder, years ago I began writing a story re-imaginings the stories of Eve and Pandora. You have inspired me to return to it and start telling new stories

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  7. She loves with a ferocity that brooks no abuse. Yes, yes, yes. It’s funny, this is the second piece I have read this morning about how we need to expand our understanding of love so it’s not sappy but fierce. Yes. I am also tired of men’s stories and trying to make them work for us, or looking at our stories through the lens of patriarchy. Great post!

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    1. Thank you! I’m so very tired of being told I have to love and be nice when actually it’s perfectly possible to love and be fierce. We’re fierce because what we love is threatened. And that’s all right and proper. Whatever it takes to protect what matters … Thanks for reading.

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  8. Dear Sharon,

    I like the balance of your writings, as always.

    I finally begun to write my own story, re-membering myself and digging deeper into the roots: the blood of my ancestors is talking fiercely now more than ever and it feels right. Women stories have to be told by women, shared and spread by all. There is no other way. Merci à toi!

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  9. Thank you for the medicine of your writing, Sharon. As a woman in the US coming to terms with the new changed world I am living in — the thought of a woman who loves with a ferocity that brooks no abuse — is medicine. And that “burning fire in her heart that will not love murder, that will not tolerate the rape of the natural world…” YES! Thank you.

    And thank you too for the reminder about dismemberment and re-memeberment.

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  10. Thanks, Sharon. It’s not only possible, but sometimes essential to love and be fierce. My heart is with the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, standing for what’s right and good and essential, protecting the live-giving waters for the Lakota, for indigenous people everywhere, for all those who live downstream and all those who are determined to push back against the money blindness of corporations.

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    1. Yes, exactly. Sometimes you have to take a stand to protect what you love and sometimes that means a physical stand. The people at Standing Rock are much to be admired for fiercely protecting what they love.

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