The Skeleton Woman: the Victim, the Rescuer and Archetype Alchemy

Warning: this post starts out all serious-like and gets more quirky later on.


Over the past few months I have been very slowly reading, re-reading and digesting Women Who Run With the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola  Estés. I think if I had picked this book up earlier in my life it would have gone over my head or I would have gotten frustrated with it but this is just the right time. For me the Jungian archetypes combined with mythology weave a transformative spell powerful enough to shift old patterns and resolve deep traumas. The following is my re-interpretation of one of the stories  Estés tells.

This is the story of the skeleton woman, an Inuit legend:

 A long time ago she was thrown from a cliff by her father.  No one remembers exactly why, but she was plunged into the ocean and there she remained, tangled in seaweed, her hair floating, her flesh being eaten away by the creatures of the sea.  One day a fisherman, unaware that the area was said to be haunted, came along in his little boat.  His hook caught hold in her diaphragm.  Thinking that he had hooked a really big one he began to tug.  The ocean rippled and seethed and, after a long struggle, the skeleton woman was freed.  The fisherman did not see her terrifying skeletal form rise up from the water, he had turned away to fetch his net, but the shock when he turned back around! He began to paddle frantically away, unaware that she was tangled in his line, and all the way home she followed him, right into his snow house. It wasn’t until he lit his oil lamp that he saw her, and while still terrified, something softened in him; perhaps it was the lamp light, perhaps his own loneliness.  He began to untangle her and as he did he sang a lulling song. She didn’t dare move.  When the work was done he covered her in furs and, exhausted, went straight to bed. In his sleep he cried a solitary tear of loneliness and the skeleton woman was overcome with the thirst of it.  She drank of the tear, of the oceans of loneliness, and quenched her thirst, then she reached into the fisherman’s rib-cage and took out his heart.  She drummed the heart and drummed flesh back over her bones, creating herself anew, then she slipped into bed beside him.  In the morning they went away; some say they went back to the ocean and were fed by the creatures of the sea that the skeleton woman had known.


This is a story of transformation (Pluto/Scoprio), of relationship (Libra/Venus) and of healing (Chiron/Virgo).  This is the story of the victim, flung from the cliffs by her father, and the unwitting rescuer.  The victim is an archetype I have been working with a lot lately.  It is hard to think of myself as a victim because I don’t want to be weak, but I’m trying to process childhood trauma and what else can a traumatised child be but a victim? According to Carolyn Myss everyone has four key archetypes: The child, the victim, the prostitute and the saboteur and each is a guardian of something.  The child is the guardian of innocence while the victim is the guardian of healthy boundaries.  This story explores and re-negotiates boundaries between two aspects of the self allowing for healthier boundaries with the outside world.  I also have quite a strong rescuer complex, so I can relate to this story both externally in terms of relationship, as the author does, and internally with my own rescuer animus.

I have become so aware of the skeleton woman at the bottom of the cliff; the innocent, yet terrifying, wounded, victimised part of my psyche.  I am less aware of the fisherman.  I don’t have much idea of what a healthy animus looks like having few male role-models in my life.  My father was someone I was once a year in my childhood and my step-father might as well have thrown me off a cliff psychologically.  So I was thinking about the key attributes a healthy male-part-of-my-psyche might have: strength, compassion, health and presence (as in: actually there).  I also think he might look like Johnny Depp. Just saying.

So I went through a deep meditative exercise; on one level I looked at the things going on in my life externally at the moment (which are private – don’t be nosy), on a second level I imagined the plain old victim and rescuer archetypes sitting down at a table in the house of my psyche and on a third level, I played out the skeleton woman story with Johnny Depp cast as the fisherman.  I think it would make a great screen-play.

I could feel my inner skeleton woman, lurking in the depths, corroded by fear (or fish?), alone, abandoned  afraid and utterly terrifying.  I watched see the rather attractive fisherman approach, he thinks he’s hooked a big one – just as most people do right at the start of a relationship with their elaborate infatuative fantasies.  The tussle that proceeds is largely carried out unconsciously – under the water – and it isn’t until the struggle is over that Depp realises he has bitten off more than he can chew.  His excitement about the fish was just the tip of the iceberg of ‘Ahhhh!’ and he runs screaming.

Meanwhile the rescuer archetype (also Depp like) has swaggered in towards the table and is facing the victim, his other half.  The victim looks sullen  she is young, her eyes are sunken and downcast: hopeless, helpless, pathetic. They don’t know what they’re getting themselves into but there is a sickening anticipation – excitement and fear.  They are each other’s compliment, opposite, other-half.  They are like yin and yang and out of balance it’s just a weird grey mess.  I don’t know why the rescuer archetype is so frightened of her.  Maybe it’s the responsibility of the life-saver over the saved life, maybe he’s just afraid of commitment, maybe it’s that weird fishy smell.  The victim archetype is terrifying because she is terrified, because fear has eaten away all the nice juicy fleshy parts of her and all that is left is the skeleton in her closet, the hidden terror of not being good enough or of being bad.

Somewhere along the line both Depps see something worth saving and the untangling process begins.  For the archetypes at the table, this is a process of working out fear and the beginnings of the mingling of the two opposites. As Estés states, every step of the process is important – you cant’s skip the untangling and jump straight into bed with your handsome rescuer – that is fantasy – it’s not sensible at all.  Untangling isn’t just foreplay either, it’s painful it’s facing up to the past and becoming more self aware and it’s being exposed to someone else – that is what intimacy will do to you.  Untangling is being vulnerable and still and allowing the rescuer archetype to do his work – the story in relationships is usually different, there is usually much more re-tangling and holding onto the line, there is a fear of being exposed and being vulnerable and holds the process back.  Untangling, like childbirth, is a surrendering process.  After the work is done and the baby is born, she is wrapped, as the skeleton woman is wrapped in furs.  It is time for rest.  That is how you can tell your own untangling is done, the victim is quiet.  She stops sobbing at the table and pleading, she is still and calm, her anguish is gone but she is thirsty.

The drinking of the tear is the first active thing the skeleton woman does (in my version of the story, anyway).   She is helping herself, finally.  The victim is no-longer pathetic and helpless. She is asking for what she needs or taking it when she finds it.  She is quenched, emotionally by the loneliness of her rescuer – she has found the black spot in his white half of the ying-yang.  She has found herself in him, just as he saw something worth saving in the lamp-light.  This gives her the strength to take his heart and heal herself – for we all must save ourselves in the end – even the victim.  She is now an active agent, re-building her body, letting go of her fear.  The victim at the table has grown, she is glowing, she is aware of her past but no-longer trapped in it.  The movement, the drumming the dance of this is important.  Movement and healing are always related.  She dances herself into beauty, into confidence.  She has taken back what her father stripped from her.  Then it’s time for bed.

The mingling of the two archetypes is also a dance – a partner dance.  It is the ying and yang fish swimming together around and around, it is the coming together of the two disparate fragments of the same whole, the completion of the journey of healing and the creation of new freedom.  The two archetypes can now leave hand-in-hand and return to the waters of the subconscious where they are fed by the same fish that used to eat away at the skeleton woman and evade the fisherman.


Anatomy of the Shadow

It’s the trick of the mind that makes you think there’s someone hiding in the darkness, the monster under your bed, the stranger’s footsteps echoing too close behind in the street at night…

Collectively it’s the enemy, the criminals we want to lock up, the rapists, sadists, murderers. It’s the incest inflictors, child abductors, perpetrators, pedophiles, predators. It’s the tragedies, the atrocities of war, the suicide-bombers, fanatics and shopping-mall shooters. It’s the foreigners, the Other, the people who look different: strange eyes, unusual skin colour, funny accents.  The shadow might be feminism, if you’re threatened by the idea of strong women or of equality. It might be gay people, they might disgust you if you’re afraid of your own queerness, of the queerness of being human.  It might be right-wing politics or bible-bashing gay-hating church groups. It might be drugs if you’re too scared to understand them.  The shadow is in fairy tales: the bad guy, super-villains  the evil step-mother, the dark sorcerer. In Disney he often has darker skin, she is ugly and wears dark clothes, he has a foreign accent. The shadow is always powerful and yet somehow defeated by sheer naive innocence, by love, by faith. If only it were that simple.

The shadow is always on the news, sometimes as a person, a religion, a regime, sometimes as a tornado, an earthquake, a hurricane, a cyclone, a volcano, a flood. It unites us in our shared enemy, reassuring us that we are right, alright, okay. All we need to do is rescue our kind, lock up the bad guys, recover from the trauma. Maybe we can lobby for legislation change: harsher sentences, ban something in case our young are captured by it.  The shadow is in “rape culture”, it is violent culture, and yet we refuse to see the connection between socially acceptable violence and rape. Rape is sexual violence. Violence is abuse of power. How much more obvious does the connection need to be. Those violent video-games and movies are just playing out the same tired dance with the shadow because we are still too afraid to face it.

The shadow is the hardest thing to face, both in society and in ourselves. We don’t want criminals to be human, we don’t want them to be vulnerable, to be victims of circumstance, to have dreams or loving mothers; we want them to be vile, irredeemable, evil. We don’t want the evil step-mother, the warlock or the super-villain to be generous, to be kind, to shed a tear. When they do it’s always too late. They must be sacrificed, presumably at their own sword. We want to believe that evil devours itself in the end so that we don’t have to face it ourselves.  We want things to be simple, not complicated. We don’t want to see their humanity because, more than anything, we don’t want to see them in ourselves.  But really, we are the villains as well as the heroes, we all have the potential to do horrendous things, we have all had moments of frightening ourselves in rage – out of pain, fear, jealousy – of fearing our own potential to inflict harm and of inflicting harm deliberately. Even the monster under the bed is part of us, part of our minds. Unless we face this in ourselves personally and publicly, we will forever be walking faster and faster down the street at night, running from our own shadow.

Personally, my shadow is my guilt – of doing something wrong, having done wrong. It’s my shame of being wrong, not good enough.  In my childhood it was personified by my step-father, and he in-turn (or first) projected his shadow onto me. I was never good enough, spoilt, selfish brat, little shit, stupid, lazy, all the things I was called as a kid, the judgements I fear, naive, foolish, weak, victim, and deeper still: evil, malicious, defective.  It’s everything I’ve ever done ‘wrong’, every nasty urge I’ve ever had., every lie, every deception.  It lurks behind every bath-pearl stolen from a pharmacy when I was twelve, every bill or coin snatched from the purses and wallets of relatives when I was 13, every drop of spirits pinched from mum’s liquor cabinet when I was 15 and every biscuit taken from the kitchen at night when I was 8. I can feel it rotting inside me like the crumbs left in my bed: sneaking, devious, filthy, part of me. It’s every fear, terror, insecurity, being shamed-out, bad, dumb, losing control, being powerless.  It hides in my difference and in my sameness.

My shadow has hindered me, forced me to stick to the safe path, to protect myself, to find my tribe and stick closely to people who understand me, who agree with me, who I can relate to.  It has taught me to avoid situations that make me uncomfortable – like groups of macho men and male dominated spaces; mechanics workshops, some music stores.  It has taught me to moderate my behavior to suit the people I am talking to, so I don’t swing into full feminist critique in front of the bigoted dad of a friend. I can sniff out danger. My mother always taught me to avoid creepy men and I am not at all attracted to predators, but this shadow has made it difficult for me to trust men in general. Some of the most dangerous people I have known have been women and were once close friends.  I have learnt to cut these people out of my life. Some things are too scary to face and impossible to change.  I will keep delving into my shadow, walking through the dark, swimming through unconsciousness because I’m too scared not to. As Carl Jung said, “When an inner situation is not made conscious it appears outside of you as fate.” I don’t wast to take that risk. I don’t know what’s luring in the murky depths, but I’d certainly rather deal with it internally than allow it to manifest externally.

Nietzsche’s Archetypes : Camel, Lion, Child

Osho Zen Tarot: rebirth card.

In Zen you are coming from nowhere and you are going to nowhere. You are just now, here, neither coming nor going. Everything passes by you; your consciousness reflects it but it does not get identified. When a lion roars in front of a mirror, do you think the mirror roars? Or when the lion is gone and a child comes dancing, the mirror completely forgets about the lion and starts dancing with the child–do you think the mirror dances with the child? The mirror does nothing, it simply reflects. Your consciousness is only a mirror. Neither do you come, nor do you go. Things come and go. You become young, you become old; you are alive, you are dead. All these states are simply reflections in an eternal pool of consciousness.

Osho Osho Live Zen, Volume, 2 Chapter 16

In Zarathustra, Nietzsche describes the archetype of the camel as the typical state of unconsciousness pertaining to the general population. The camel does not strive, except for trying to fit in or keep up with the Joneses. The camel is comfortable with mediocrity and unsettled by the unusual. The camel follows the herd and does not question authority. Nietzsche was unapologetically scathing of camels. Carolyn Myss relates this archetype to what she refers to as the tribal level of consciousness.

The lion wants to do anything but follow the herd. It wants to fight and win. The lion seeks power and acknowledgment. The lion must always be right. Nietzsche’s lion fights the dragon. Myss relates the lion to the libel of the individual, the cult of which is prevalent in contemporary Western society.

The child symbolises awareness, rebirth, awakened consciousness. The child is innocent, not naive. The child forgives and let’s go because it is completely in the moment. It does not need to win, it simply is. The child is Nietzsche’s ubermensch and Myss’s level of the symbolic. From this level of consciousness we are able to step away from the drama of the tribe or individual and see the forest for the trees; we are able to recognise patterns across cultures, time and space, to rise above the herd and drop the fixations of ego. This is the level that archetypes work on, on which folk tales and mythology function; it is the level on which astrology, as a symbolic languages, resides.

The card in the image above also explores these archetypes, as follows:


This card depicts the evolution of consciousness as it is described by Friedrich Nietzsche in his book, Thus Spake Zarathustra. He speaks of the three levels of Camel, Lion and Child. The camel is sleepy, dull, self-satisfied. He lives in delusion, thinking he’s a mountain peak, but really he is so concerned with others’ opinions that he hardly has any energy of his own. Emerging from the camel is the lion. When we realize we’ve been missing life, we start saying no to the demands of others. We move out of the crowd, alone and proud, roaring our truth. But this is not the end. Finally the child emerges, neither acquiescent nor rebellious, but innocent and spontaneous and true to his own being. Whatever the space you’re in right now–sleepy and depressed, or roaring and rebellious–be aware that it will evolve into something new if you allow it. It is a time of growth and change.

The Predator Archetype


Image by Matt Mahurin

He is an opportunist, he watches women and he waits. He sees them, not as complete human beings, but as human-objects, as trophies, as a vehicle to boost his own sense of self. He watches the girl in the forest with the red hood and basket; he drives the roads at night, checking the sidewalk for vulnerable flesh. He sits outside the school and watches the kids who walk home alone. He lurks in the shadows of the parking lot at midnight. He stands by the bar taking stock of the drunkest women then focuses on his prey; he edges up behind her… 

Not long ago I had a conversation with a friend, in which she confided her various unwanted sexual experiences. She didn’t use the word ‘rape’ to describe any of them; she acknowledged her own complicity, albeit often under the affects of alcohol.  This brought up the topic of the predator archetype.  Stereotypically, the predator is a continuous threat for women, especially if they haven’t yet realised it, and for men, although they too can be preyed on, the threat of being accused of being a sexual predator is a terrifyingly real concern.  This archetype isn’t necessarily sexual and it isn’t exclusively male, but this is a prevalent theme.

In the external world the predator is threatening and dangerous. Internally, this archetype is treacherous.  Clarissa Pinkola Estés talks about this archetype through the story of Bluebeard, the rich man with the unnervingly blue beard who seduces the youngest of three sisters into becoming his wife, against her older sisters’ better judgement. She is given all the keys to the castle and is allowed to use all but one. Of course, she must try it, who could resist opening Pandora’s box? Unlocking the horror of the grotesque corpses of Bluebeard’s previously murdered wives, she cannot hide, and rather than becoming a victim screaming and pleading to be spared she simply asks for time to make her peace with God, which turns out to be just time enough for her brothers to ride in and kill Bluebeard, saving her.

Estés considers the brothers to be the healthy male animus, the rescuers. The older sisters who do not trust Bluebeard represent intuition, the protagonist in this story is at first the naïve child and then the victim, and as for Bluebeard, he is the saboteur of the psyche. Bluebeard is a shadow archetype. I don’t know if this archetype can actually be killed, but shedding light on the shadow is the natural metaphor for dissolving it.

People of all genders possess the predator archetype.  Sometimes it seduces us into a false sense of security, letting us stray into perilous situations; sometimes it takes the reigns of our personality, manipulating and preying on the weaknesses of other people. Sometimes it runs rampant in sexual fantasies.  Sometimes the fear of being prey confines us to our comfort zones or contributes to obsessive-compulsive patterns.

Astrologically, the predator relates to the powerful shadow side of Scorpio and Pluto.  That is not to say that people with strong Scorpio influence are always predators, the sign is deep and complex, and everyone has Pluto and some Scorpio in their natal chart, it is more a question of where, what and how it manifests. The planets relating to sexuality: Mars and Venus (Pluto relates to sex but is in a sign for so long it is generational) in Scorpio could reflect an archetype with the tendency to exploit power or be exploited sexually.  Saturn is often considered to represent the Shadow in Jungian astrology, perhaps an afflicted Saturn could represent the predator manifesting internally or externally in a strong way. The unconsciousness of Pisces and delusions of Neptune are also relevant to this archetype.

Estés warns that young women are often unaware of the predator and so they fall, time and time again, into his trap, like Barbarella, never doubting or fighting until it is too late.  The friend who confided in me said she felt like she was one of those women, but she has learnt her lesson now. Growing up, I was always warned about creepy, dangerous men. My mother’s anxious fears have taken up residence in me to the point where I have been predominantly safe. I am terrified of the predator, never attracted to him. Perhaps it is the opposite extreme, where I have trouble feeling comfortable around men who do not feel totally ‘safe’ to me.

The predator archetype is everywhere in mainstream Western culture. Sometimes he is constructed as sexy, he is Edward Cullen or Christian Grey. Sometimes he is perverted, ugly and sleazy, he is the serial killer, the rapist.  The predator is the mascot for rape culture. Sometimes his behavior is socially sanctioned, sometimes it’s condemned. It is important to talk about him because it begins to shed some light.

The predator archetype part two

Archetypes and Transformation

Archetypes and Transformation


“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.” 
― C.G. Jung

Archetypes are the personalities within the personality. They are universal characters that pop up in various forms all over the world: the child, the clown, the victim, the rescuer, the predator, the hag… They are characters in films; they are characters inside us.

When we start to work with archetypes we open ourselves up for transformation. Each archetype we meet consciously has the potential to heal it’s broken twin within ourselves.

If you are a woman who has trouble in relationships with men it is likely you have a distorted, unhealthy animus, the male part of self. Likewise for men, their anima may be damaged or undeveloped. It is likely that, growing up, we didn’t have enough good relationships around us or opposite sex role models. Consciously thinking about, writing about, and creating a healthy animus or anima can help to restore balance to the psyche.

There are infinite possibilities for growth and healing with archetypes. Ask yourself: what reoccurring problems am I facing? What archetypes are involved? Are they damaged or distorted? Where did this come from in my childhood? What would this archetype be like if it was healthy?