“In many shamanic societies, if you came to a medicine person complaining of being disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, they would ask one of four questions: "When did you stop dancing? When did you stop singing? When did you stop being enchanted by stories? When did you stop being comforted by the sweet territory of silence?”
These days there seems to be much sorrow in the world. Not only are there the on-going conflicts and the acts of ecocide which our race is committing, we all experience loss in our personal lives. Loss of ideals, loss of dreams and of course the loss of loved ones. It can be too much to bear.
And there is the crux. For the sorrow we feel when we experience loss is not meant to be a burden carried for the rest of our days. It is not meant to be held, or buried away. But western society does not know what to do with grief. Many of us have lost touch with the old wisdom which can still be found in some of the earliest stories and tales.
In the Inuit story of Raven and the Whale, we are witness one of the first deaths in the world.
A long time ago, at the very beginning of all things, Raven made the world. But although he created the world and all its beings, there was also mystery, and Raven did not know everything there was to know.
Raven, who was both a god and and bird and a man, was curious about everything, and he decided to stay on the earth so he could learn as much as he could. One day, as he was paddling his kayak on the sea, Raven saw a huge whale.
“I wonder what it is like inside a whale” he thought. So he paddled up close to the Whale, and when the whale yawned he paddled inside the whales mouth. Tying his kayak to one of the whale's teeth, Raven set off to explore the inside of the whale.
The whale closed its mouth and it became very dark inside, and Raven could hear a sound like a vast drum. He walked onwards until, deep inside the whale, he saw an amazing sight.
A beautiful girl was dancing. She had slender limbs and shining hair, and there were strings attached to her hands and feet and knees and elbows which ran to the heart of the whale. Raven saw her and fell in love.
“I am Raven, creator of the world. Will you come with me out into the world and be my wife?”
But the beautiful maiden smiled and shook her head. “Dear Raven, I cannot leave this whale for I am its Soul. But if you would stay here with me, that would make me happy.”
So Raven shrugged off his feathers and sat down and watched the girl dancing. When she twirled and leapt the Whale would twist and leap above the waves. When she moved slowly and smoothly the Whale dived and swam through the ocean depths. Soon her eyes closed and she moved so slowly that the Whale seemed to sleep on the surface.
Raven watched her and wished she was his wife. And he forgot what she had said. He pulled on his feathers, and wrapped his strong wings around her. Snap, snap, snap! went the strings which attached the girl to the Whale's heart. And Raven took the girl out of the Whale and flew with her into the sky.
Far below him he saw the whale twisting and writhing in the Sea, until the waves washed the Whale onto the shore. The Whale was dead and in his arms he saw the beautiful girl become smaller and fainter until she was gone.
Raven realised then that everything that is alive has a soul, and that everything that is alive will also die. He was filled with such sorrow that he flew down to the beach next to the body of the whale. He wept and wept for weeks. Then Raven started to dance. He danced and danced for months. Then Raven began to sing. He sang and sang and sang until his heart calmed. Only then did he fly back up into the sky.
He promised that the humans and the animals would always return to this world as long as we cared for one another and understood that everything in this world lives and dies, and everyone human and animal has a heart and a soul. The Raven God's tears were the first tears ever cried. His dance and song of grief and healing was the first song and dance ever made.
Of the many teachings within this tale, there is one on sorrow. Raven does not bury his sorrow. Instead he finds his own way of giving it expression. He does not seek to direct it or control it. He weeps, dances and sings until his heart is lightened and healed. It takes as long as it takes.
Not all of us find it easy to express ourselves through song, or dance. But we can speak our sorrow to another, or to somewhere in nature. We can move and allow grief the freedom to move through us. Or we can write, or draw, or paint, or craft. There are countless ways to give sorrow expression, until eventually our hearts are calmed and healed.
One of the roles of the community shaman or medicine woman, was that of sacred witness. For those times when someone was stricken with grief, the community would often grieve with them, aided and witnessed by the shaman. Today we may not have the same degree of community support, but there are still medicine people who can help us find ways to express the grief so many of us still carry, as well as bringing medicine to our souls when needed.
If you are feeling disheartened, dispirited, or depressed, please seek out not only professional medical advice, but also consider seeking medicine for your soul. Healing at this deepest level is like the subtle shift from winter into spring and helps us to remember the truth of who we really are.
If you would like to talk about anything in this article, please get in touch.
Art by Natalie Reid and Eden Spivak