|Image by Arallyn.|
This post is part of a series on elder tales. The main character in an elder tale is an older adult who is the hero or focus of the story. Often the conflict is resolved because of their hard-won wisdom instead of some magical intervention--even if that wisdom is symbolized by a fantastical event or object.
Death Comes to All
Once upon a time, there was an older woman who lived far north among people who hunted in order to survive the long winters.
For decades, she helped her family and her tribe survive. However, she lived so many winters that she could do very little but eat small portions, observe others, and sleep on her pallet in the corner of the family lodge.
As the village moved deeper through a long, cold winter, she noticed that she was receiving fewer and fewer visitors as well as less and less food. She grew thinner and weaker. She observed that fewer fish were found in the freezing rivers, fewer caribou were found in the snowy woods, and fewer seals were found near the shores of the sea.
The old woman realized that the hungry villagers did not see the point of sacrificing food to someone who was old, weak and unproductive. She continued to waste away on her pallet until she was nothing but a skeleton.
|Photo by NCSSM.|
She than began to sing a low, vibrating chant into her core.
As she chanted deep into herself, her skull grew larger and larger until its weight snapped the skull right off the spine.
He skull then rolled off her pallet and through the village, causing people to run and scream. Some died from the very sight of this huge, rolling skull. Others ran and hid in the surrounding woods.
Finally, her own grandson confronted her. "Grandmother, stop! What are you doing?"
The old woman's skull stopped short. Her empty eyes looked long and hard at her grandson before staring at a handful of villagers who had not yet fled.
|Photo by Adina Raul.|
The people talked about this old woman for many winters following.
This story reminds me of two books that I recently read: Two Old Women (1993) by Velma Wallis and Remnant Population (2003) by Elizabeth Moon. Both of these tales create a redemption story for older women who might seem useless to younger people.
Wallis shares an Inuit legend about two old women left behind to die by their tribe in the winter. They prove to be more resourceful than even they realized. Moon writes a sci-fi story featuring an older woman who doesn't want to leave a failed colony where she labored for decades. She decides that she doesn't need her "tribe" and seeks to be completely self-reliant.
But all too often, there isn't an outward redemption for aging bodies. The resolution has more to do with an inner journey, suggested by the old woman's deep body chant. And for the younger generations, the moral of the story often is not apparent until they are the ones wasting away on a pallet.
I have taken notice more and more of dancing skeletons in art.
This is the best that I can do as a woman in my 50s to understand how I can face my own ultimate withering. I must learn to dance in the face of decay and learn to sing into the core of my very being until it's time for me to walk my bones into the sea.
The source for this tale comes from The Women We Become: Myths, Folktales, and Stories about Growing Older by Ann G. Thomas 1997. She doesn't provide a works cited page or bibliography or a country of origin, so I am not sure where she collected this tale. My feeble attempts to find the source were unsuccessful.
This post is my paraphrase of the story Thomas titles "I Have Sent Them My Death" from pp. 26-27 of her book.
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