Sedna, legend tells, was a beautiful girl who lived by the sea. Although many courted her, she would not leave her widowed father, and refused them all. But one day, a raven disguised as a handsome man came to her. He promised her a better life - and best of all, he promised he would also provide for her father. And so, full of hope, Sedna left with him.
But he took her instead to a desolate island, where she was cold and hungry. When her father came at last to visit, he grew very angry. Taking Sedna into his kayak, he paddled into the open sea, but Raven caused a terrible storm to arise. And Sedna's terrified father, in desperation, hoping to save his own life, cast his daughter from the boat.
Sedna clung to the side of the kayak, and would not let go, until her father cut off her hands with his knife. Then Sedna's hands and fingers fell into the sea, becoming the the fishes, the seals, and the whales. And handless Sedna sank to the bottom of the ocean, where she lives still in a house of bones.
"Sedna is cold and naked,"Grey Eagle, a Native American ceremonial storyteller and world-wide scholar of indigenious mythologies, wrote in 2004, "She is covered with a tangle of hair she can't comb out. And all the broken taboos and sins against nature of the people fall through the water, to collect on Sedna's body. When the accumulation is too great, Sedna sobs in pain. And all the sea creatures leave the shore, to gather by her door to comfort her.The people know then it's time to gather and publicly confess their broken taboos.
This is how they do it: The men, remembering Sedna’s father, do a dance of contrition. Slowly dancing, they sing of their remorse for sins done by man to women, to earth, and to her children. And all the people send Sedna their prayers. Their shaman purifies herself to take the dangerous journey to the underwater world where Sedna lives.
When she finds Sedna, she gathers fine sand to cleanse the filth from Sedna’s body. She sings while tenderly picking the crabs from Sedna’s hair. And she offers Sedna the confessions and prayers of the people, their promises to change their life stories. So Sedna is comforted, and asks Creator to forgive them for the ways they have become out of balance.
Her sobbing is no longer heard in the waves, and the animals end their vigil, returning to offer themselves again as food. She is generous, and forgiving. Knowing this of Sedna, the Inuit are inspired to return Her gift by making better life stories, and treating their relations with love and respect."1
For the Inuit there must be rites of reciprocity with the Great Mother when they become out of balance. As She suffers, so must they. And so they dance, purify and pray, to restore the balance between the above world and the below world, between men and women, between themselves and Creator.
Katherine Josten, founder of the Global Art Project, danced the role of Sedna in a ritual theatre event called RESTORING THE BALANCE in Tucson, Arizona, in 2004. Cast members were amazed to learn, during rehearsals, that a new planet beyond Pluto had just been discovered, and astronomers chose to name it Sedna. A s Katherine prepared, she observed that the myth of Sedna is profoundly relevant to the transformation in human understanding that is occuring as we evolve into a global humanity:
"The integration of male and female must occur in order to bring balance to the earth and human consciousness. The two aren't apart. It is necessary for a dialogue to occur so the pain of both male and female may be brought to light and transmuted. Raven and Sedna’s father were acting out of fear, which means out of their own pain. Both their pain and Sedna’s pain must be brought to light for true transmutation to occur."
Transmutation is an alchemical word that concerns the process by which the old "dense matter", the "materia" is burned way, changed, dissolved, in order to create something new and more refined - lead into gold.
To the Inuit, like most indigenous people, the Earth is alive, and we are all interconnected with the Earth/Ocean Mother, each other, and with all of our non-human "relations". Their cosmology does not include dominion over nature - rather, we are, to them, in an intricate web of inmmanent relationships, and rites that renew the balance toward harmonious, and empathic, relationship must be continually renewed.
"We have heard this sacred story together", Grey Eagle wrote. "And now we can close with: That’s the way it was, and that’s the way it is."
A Personal Interpretation
"To love, we touch the not-so-lovely bony woman, untangling the sense of this (life/death/life) nature for ourselves…It is not enough to haul the unconcious to the surface, not even enough to accidentally drag her home. Untangling the mystery of the Skeleton Woman begins to break the spell — that is, the fear that one will be consumed, made dead forever." Clarissa Pinkola Estes
As winter approached, the time of descent into the dark time of the year urged me to make a personal descent into the underworld, to understand the ways my own shadow side was playing itself out. I struggled with a lack of purpose in my life, and felt "A Rainbow of Goddesses", a ritual created by Macha Nightmare in 2001, offered me a perfect opportunity to dive deep.
Sedna would be my companion. The legend I know tells of a vain and beautiful girl who lived with her father, rejecting all suitors. A raven in the guise of a human being slipped into her village, enticing her with tales of riches beyond her wildest imagination. Seduced into accompanying him, she flew away with him, but when they landed on a barren rock cliff, she realized his deception. She was forced to live in this hostile place until her father heard her calling in her misery.
He came to rescue her, but as they paddled away in his kayak, Raven viciously attacked them. Fearing for his life, her father threw Sedna into the water. Overcome with fear, he hacked away her fingers and hands as clung still to the sides of the boat. And so Sedna's hands became the fishes, seals, and whales, her companions as she fell to the depths of the sea.
When I was six years old a boating accident killed my brother. Unable to swim, I sank toward the bottom of the lake. Slimy plants reached for my legs, and as I recoiled in horror I was oriented toward the surface, and rescued by a stranger. Now, I made preparations to enact Sedan with a rapport born from that wound. Lee Henrickson danced the part of Sedna the previous year, and wrote the words to which Sedna danced.
Now, a year later, Lee was preparing to leave for Alaska, to marry a man she met after last year's event. I decided to be very clear about shaping my own intent in working with Sedna, this underworld Goddess. I counted on the work revealing to me what aspect of myself I needed to face - what my depression was hiding, what steps I needed to take. I made changes in the script to grapple with my own relationship with Sedna. Choreographer Merrylen Sacks spent several sessions with me as we explored movements that might evoke Sedna's spirit.
Behind a mask, age and beauty are irrelevant. When I danced the story of Sedna in a 2001 performance, I could feel myself become Sedna, feel her anguish, her shock at the cowardice of her father. The shame it evoked, and the need to confront her part in how the tragedy played out came to the surface. I reflected on the meaning of Sedna's gift, and of her transformation. Her desire for mercy, Her need to have a role in the reciprocity of life.
During the performance, the mask frightened children - even some adults pulled back. I was reminded of people's response to the homeless, to those who are scarred. I understood that people weren't reacting to Sedna's true identity, but were responding to a mask that hide her core self. As Sedna, I identified with her experience, remembering times I had been perceived superficially, and all the ways color, appearance, economics, race, and gender deny our inner being.
The recollection imprinted on my heart the conviction of a light-filled identity infinitely more fundamental. But most important, I was overcome with shame at the realization I had also given away my own power many times. I felt humiliated at my lack of discipline and self-confidence, my own failures to accomplish my goals. Behind the mask, I wept.Sedna's potential had not yet found a form to express itself. Living with the bird man, the raven, was the beginning of Her transformative descent and awakening.
But her life force was strong, and her descent fueled Her desire to find a way to participate in life. Sedna's suffering is also about actualization. So many people have creative and healing power they are unable to realize: not for lack of capacity, but because of beliefs, habits, and attitudes they hold about themselves.
My personal version of the bird man, the false husband, was my first marriage. It was a destructive time that left me with responsibilities for the lives of five small children. Through the mask of Sedna I begged people in the audience to touch the broken stumps of my limbs; I begged them not to despise those who make mistakes. I implored them to engage, to heal her. The fear, rejection and betrayal impelled Sedna to face the "what is" of Her existence. It prevented her from being blind to her true situation.
Everyone will ultimately lose their innocence, be betrayed. How we grow from these experiences is what matters. Behind the mask my own courage to face certain personal truths arose. One was admitting the frequent invisibility of a person's true capacities to the outside world. I accepted my own invisibility as an older woman, and my sense of having an incomplete destiny, as the truth of my own "here and now". I felt Sedna truly inhabited me, she felt seen; understood, she was willing to be revealed. And I was willing to come to terms with my own situation.
Sedna evolved through sacrifice and suffering. She created of Her very being, her hands and her fingers, what was needed by the community - the food to sustain the lives of her people. For myself, lifting veils of denial provided me with the self-acceptance that grants new freedom. Sedna's double-sided mask, half-skeleton and half-human, gives her the aspect of resurrection.
Sedna did not lose Her capacity to participate in life. Instead, She transformed.