Our next story takes us to the cold north, near the sea, where an Inuit widower lived with his beautiful daughter, Sedna. Among the most beautiful maidens in the land, the young men perpetually sought Sedn’s hand in marriage, and were continuously rejected. Most versions of the story (and there are several) say simply that Sedna was proud. This is difficult for me to accept. Looking from Sedna’s perspective, any woman could think of a host of reasons she might want nothing to do with the men of her community. Whatever the reason, Sedna continued to reject the men. Until one day, with the warming winds of spring, a handsome stranger arrived. He wooed Sedna and her father, telling them tales of his beautiful home across the sea, where Sedna could live in luxury, surrounded by soft, warm furs, and be amply provided for by his exceptional hunting skills.
Encouraged by her father to begin her life as a woman, Sedna accepted the handsome stranger and went with him to his home across the sea. Upon arriving, Sedna realized she had been sorely deceived. Her lover had transformed from his human skin, which had been a disguise, into his true form, that of a seabird. His home was not the luxurious fur covered mansion he had described. Rather, it was a fetid nest of protruding twigs and bones that jabbed at the skin. The bird-man was not a skilled hunter and provided only meager, probably regurgitated, fish. In addition, none of the bird-people wanted anything to do with Sedna. They teased her and rejected her, and so her loneliness compounded the discomfort of the nest and the pain of deception. Having nowhere to go and no way to return to her homeland, Sedna spent the winter hungry and alone.
When the winds again began to warm, Sedna’s father set out in his boat to visit his daughter. Realizing he had been swindled, the widower father murdered the bird-man in a violent rage. He took Sedna back to his boat and they set course for home. At the same time, the bird-man’s fellows, the other birds, discovered their brother’s corpse and understood what must have happened. Flapping their wings violently over the water, the birds caused the winds to cloud the sky and the sea to swell in a vicious storm. The boat tipped and turned. The widower father became scared and cowardly and decided to sacrifice his daughter by throwing her overboard in attempt to appease the indignant sea birds.
Sedna fought her way through the waves and managed to grab the boat’s edge. Clinging to life as she clutched the boat, she tried to climb aboard the boat. Still hoping to save himself, the father cut Sedna’s clinging fingers, one at a time, joint by joint. As her fingers fell into the salty water, her nails became fishbone and the flesh around them grew into fish. Still fighting for her life, Sedna threw her palms over the boat’s edge, holding on with her wrists. Still, her father cut. As her hands fell away they transformed into seals and walruses. Again, Sedna fought her way back to the boat, finally throwing her forearms over the boat’s edge. As the widower father cut her forearms they grew into whales and swam away. From her blood sprouted more sea creatures. At last, after a fatal blow to the eye with the boat’s oar, Sedna herself fell to the bottom of the sea, to Adlivun, the underworld of the sea, where she now resides in a house made of whalebone and sea rocks.
Those who have glimpsed Sedna say she lives as a mermaid, the head and torso of a woman, with fins instead of legs. The goddess and ruler of the sea creatures, it is Sedna who determines if the sea hunters will be successful in their hunts. If the community acts immorally or loses its way, Sedna may withhold the creatures that feed the people until a shaman makes the treacherous journey to visit her underwater home. The shaman must travel through Adlivun, the land of the dead. As the shaman nears Sedna’s whalebone home, “There was also an abyss, in which an ice wheel turned slowly and perpetually; then a caldron full of boiling seals blocked the way; finally, the horrible dog stood before Sedna’s door, guarding the knife-thin passageway to her home.” Once the shaman reaches the goddess, he massages her aching limbs and gently brushes and braids her long tangled hair. This journey to Sedna is considered one of the most dangerous a shaman can undertake. But should the shaman prove worthy, the goddess will be willing to forgive her people for their mistakes and allow the seals and sea creatures to once again be found by the hunters to feed the hungry people.
The story of Sedna has much to teach us. Practically, it is told that grandmothers warn the children of The Woman Who Lives Under The Sea (one of the many names attributed to Sedna in her various stories), so that they will stay away from the dangerous places. Metaphorically, one lesson from Sedna’s story is about abuse. Carolina De Robertis offers this interpretation: “No, I wanted to say, he didn’t cut off her hands because he didn’t have to, he had cut them off long before, with years of keeping all authority in his own palms, all the rules and all the power and all the answers emanating from him and no one else. And if you don’t understand that, if you’ve never been in such a family, then you can’t know the way the mind shackles itself and amputates its own limbs so adeptly that you never think to miss them, never think that you had anything so obscene as choice.”
Additionally, the story of Sedna teaches us that we must sometimes journey as the shaman journeys, deep into our psyche, our shadow side, to confront and lovingly soothe the aches and pains we acquire through trauma. Through this compassion, our wounds may transform and flourish into life-saving nourishment. I leave you with this central Arctic song that is said to refer to Sedna, the Half-Woman Half-Fish goddess:
That woman down there beneath the sea,
She wants to hide the seals from us.
These hunters in the dance house,
They cannot mend matters.
They cannot mend matters.
Into the spirit world
Will go I,
Where no humans dwell.
Set matters right will I.
Set matters right will I.