Friday, October 30, 2015

Death Comes to All: An Elder Tale

Image by Arallyn.
Halloween is almost upon us, so I'm choosing to tell an eerie elder tale.

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.
Not knowing what else to do, she bent at the waist until her skull reached her pelvis.

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.
She then looked back at her other bones, which scrambled off her pallet and joined her skull. Finally, she strolled resolutely out of the village and buried herself deep in the sea.

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.


The Magic Forest: An Elder Tale from Croatia
Hats for Sale: An Elder Tale from Japan
The Wise Merchant: An Elder Tale with Jewish Roots


  1. I majored in cultural anthropology (and I lived briefly in Wichita in the 1970's - took two night courses at WSU). This brought back memories of studying how various cultures treated their elderly - some with honor, some leaving them out to starve when they were no longer productive to the tribe. Now that I am 62 and a caregiver to an 87 year old mother in law, I now see how our society treats the elderly - it is eye opening.

    1. So cool that you majored in cultural anthropology. (I'm waving at Wichita and WSU for you in your absence.) My 14 yo daughter interpreted this as a cautionary tale when I asked her the moral. She said, "Feed old people or they will haunt you." I read it as "Find the personal strength to get through frailty of advanced age because you can't count on others to help you." But I suppose there are a lot of ways to make meaning of this story.

  2. I love the idea of aging with grace, but you know, it doesn't always happen that way. In a way, this was an inspirational read for me.

    1. I have been finger wagging younger people about caring for older adults, and it just does NOTHING but make them recoil from me. I am trying to see how I can develop a lot of personal strength now in order to meet more of my own needs (spiritual and emotional) as I age. And I'm trying to sit at the feet of women 30 or 40 years older than I am and learn from them (while there are still a number of women around who are that much older than I am). All my best to you (and to me and to all) as time marches us into advanced age (if we are lucky enough to live that long).

  3. I know this has little to do with this, but the other day I saw a photo of myself taken under bright lights and noticed the multitude of lines on my neck, my double chin and the lines around my eyes. I was horrified. The comfort of light in my bathroom is not true. I was so upset about how I looked. Then I realized something you said. I am going to get old and never have plastic surgery of any kind. It's who I am and how I help and give to others that matter more than the lines on my face and neck. I felt vain and silly.

    I love this story, Karen, and I'm thrilled to be honored by the privilege of reading it.

    1. Cathy: Your story DOES have something to do with this post. The author of the book that contained this tale has an introduction that is almost identical to your story. She saw her aging face in very harsh light and was completely taken aback by it. This sent her on a quest to confront her aging body (and the fact that we all die) and to make peace with it. She started working on the book as a result. Wow. You are right in sync with Thomas!

  4. Your tale is timely because this week, I buried my 93-year-old mother. She was all bones, less than 80 pounds. Right before she died, she came "alive" in a way I've never seen her before. Her last moments gave me much to think about and admire.

    1. Oh, hugs to you Brenda. That's a tough thing, but it sounds as though there was some beauty and tenderness amid the pain and difficulty. Bless you, bless all who love your mother, and bless her.

  5. Such a very interesting tale. It is true, how we begin to look at these tales in a different light as we age.

  6. Wow, this story kind of gave me chills. It can be very hard to come to terms with our aging bodies but I'm trying to just be grateful for my health and the fact that I AM lucky enough to grow old.

  7. Wow! You hit the nail on the head. Most of us as we age (I'm 74) are not as afraid of death as we are of becoming old and frail. I have ( Ihope) my own solution, which I will probably post in the next week or two. There is plenty to think about here. Thanks for presenting it so well.

  8. Stop in from Rambling with Am. Not much goes on here for Halloween. It been raining.
    If you have time to stop on in

  9. Such tales fascinate me. There's much to consider. I abhor the idea of becoming old and frail though it will surely happen. (Now I just hope my head doesn't fall off and roll in the path of my grandson.)

  10. At this very moment, I'm helping my 90 year old mother get ready for bed as she's spending the night at my house. It's difficult to watch her as I know I'll soon, well not too soon, be in her shoes.