I call her Wild Woman, for those very words, wild and woman, create the fairy-tale knock at the door of the deep female psyche. Wild Woman, Wise Woman, Holy Woman. They share the same heartbeat. ~ Estés
A few years ago while engaged in public speaking training, one of my assignments was to memorize a fairytale and deliver it to an audience. I chose the story of La Loba, contained in the book Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype by Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés. I read the book and loved it but the process of memorizing the story and delivering it in public had an unexpected, empowering effect that taught me something about the potency of story and myth. The story began to live inside of me. Driving down the freeway, the words would surface like an internal recording and I arrived at my destination infused with a new sense of confidence. I entered into the world of the mythical old bone woman, La Loba. I “sifted and crawled through the montanas, and the arroyos, looking for wolf bones.” I “assembled the skeleton . . . and when the last bone was in place and the beautiful white sculpture was laid out before [me, I was the one who] sat the by the fire and thought about what song [I] would sing” (Estés). And when the wolf came to life, leaped up and ran down the canyon, I was the laughing woman who ran free towards the horizon.
La Loba was my own story of soul retrieval, of searching for my spiritual truth in the metaphorical desert. It was my own story of transformation, empowerment and arriving into a new landscape, free from mental bondage.
In my opinion, Women Who Run With the Wolves can be called a sacred text in women’s spirituality and women’s psychology. In Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest, Carol Christ (1980) frames the definition of sacred texts in women’s spirituality:
The new stories that women tell each other in conversations with each other, in consciousness raising, and in fiction, poetry, and other literary forms are key sources for discovering the shape of women’s spiritual quest. Indeed, as Naomi Goldenberg has said, fiction and poetry written by women may come to be viewed as “sacred texts” of a new spiritual consciousness. (p. 12)
With Women Who Run With the Wolves, Dr. Estés presented a ground-breaking body of work introducing the concept of the Wild Woman archetype that supports the liberation of women’s psyche, creativity and spirituality. The Wild Woman represents the instinctual nature in a woman that feeds her creativity and her interior soul life. In her audio book, The Dangerous Old Woman, Dr. Estés focused on the Wise Woman archetype, and in her latest book, Untie the Strong Woman, she presented the Holy Woman. Dr. Estés uses myth and story combined with archetypal psychological analysis through a feminist lens. This paper examines a selection of the stories used by Dr. Estés as she presents the Wild Woman, the Wise Woman and the Holy Woman. Insights from the field of women’s psychology will be examined to reveal the success of her storytelling method and archetypal analysis which has resonated with millions of women worldwide with a very positive impact on women’s spirituality.
The Power of Story
Dr. Estés is a Jungian psychoanalyst, poet and cantadora: a storyteller and keeper of stories.
Women Who Run With the Wolves was a successful sound recording for three years prior to its publication as a book in 1992. Since then over one million copies of the book have been sold, it has been translated into thirty languages and it spent one hundred and forty five weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (Estés 2011). The dramatic success of this work alone underscores its potency as a relevant, important text in the women’s spirituality movement.
Part of the appeal of the book Women Who Runs With the Wolves is that it contains myriad stories that women may have heard before as fairytales, however the stories are now brought back to life, revealing new information. Doors are opened for the reader (and listener) to enter into a deeper level where wisdom and metaphor reveal a vast new world beyond the surface. A woman can relate to aspects in each story that resonate with her life events. Dr. Estés (2011) definition of the way she uses archetype is: “my understandings of the root carriers of archetype [are] all our ethnic people’s practices and oral traditions” (357).
In an article titled “A Life Made by Hand” on the Sounds True website, Dr. Estés (n.d.) explains how stories work on the deeper level of the psyche:
Stories instantaneously bypass the ego. The ego cannot absorb the entire pith of story. The ego hears the story as a form of entertainment. While the ego is kept happy, thinking it is being entertained, the soul and the spirit are listening deeply. The flow of images in stories is medicine—similar medicine to listening to the ocean or gazing at sunrises. No direct interaction has occurred—the ocean did not jump into your body and fill you. But there is something about seeing, hearing, and smelling the ocean that has bypassed the ego, and straightened out many things that were in disarray within the psyche. Some people are remedied by thunderstorms, some by music, some by the voice of a person they love. Story has the same kind of influence. It flows where it is needed, and applies itself there—like an antibiotic that finds the source of the infection and concentrates there. The story helps to make that part of the psyche clear and strong again. (“A Life Made By Hand” section, para. 18)
There is a thirst for stories that offer transformational information. I found this each time I told the La Loba story in a public setting when the response I received was overwhelmingly positive, and not only from women. In his book The Healing Art of Storytelling, Richard Stone (1996) laments the state of storytelling in our culture:
Just as clear-cutting an old-growth forest leads to a phenomenon called deforestation – the stripping of the landscape of more than just trees – our culture has been devastated by the loss of storytelling as a tool for communicating, passing on values, learning, and, most important, healing. I call if destorification. Its effect is as devastating as its ecological cousin’s . . . The loss of story has depleted our culture of time-honored heroes and wisdom, robbing us of our deep connection to our ancestors and ancient guiding myths. (p. 9,13)
It is no wonder then that Women Who Run With the Wolves struck a deep chord in the “destorified” culture when it was released. As Dr. Estés (2004) says, “the soul needs stories . . . There is a hearing capacity in the psyche. It loves to listen to all manner of nourishing, startling, and challenging dramatic patterns – the very ones found in tales” (p.xxxi).
Jungian Analyst Marion Woodman (1992) places stories and storytelling in a primary position for women’s path to wholeness. In her book Leaving My Father’s House: A Journey to Conscious Femininity, she writes:
Storytellers are important individuals in a culture. They take us into a world where we are no longer chopped into the piecemeal facts of life . . . Without stories, we lack the cosmos that keeps us in touch with the universal reality. Since stories reflect our inner lives, women need to tell stories of what it means to be a woman . (p. 5)
Dr. Estés (1992) examines the psychological lives of women, linking the themes contained in the stories with real life issues for women and advocating for women’s empowerment and creative freedom. She says that “women’s flagging vitality can be restored by extensive ‘psychic-archaeological digs’ into the ruins of the female underworld” (p. 1). Estés describes the failure of traditional psychology as it relates to women’s lives:
[Traditional] psychological theory too soon runs out for the creative, the gifted, the deep woman. Traditional psychology is often spare or entirely silent about deeper issues important to women: the archetypal, the intuitive, the sexual and cyclical, the ages of women, a woman’s way, a woman’s knowing, her creative fire . . . A woman’s issues of soul cannot be treated by carving her into a more acceptable form as defined by an unconscious culture, nor can she be bent into a more intellectually acceptable shape by those who claim to be the sole bearers of consciousness. No, that is what has already caused millions of women who began as strong and natural powers to become outsiders in their own cultures. (p. 4)
When I read these words, my body gives a deep sigh of relief. Having felt like an outsider for many years, my soul recognizes the truth and wisdom in her statement. At last, someone who knows a woman’s experience and can articulate it, is speaking to me. Dr. Estés expresses what has been true for many women – a lack of authentic validation of their psychological lives, a silencing of their gifts, and their desire for creative freedom that is self-determined and not dictated by patriarchal society.
Dr. Estés’ critique of psychological theory as it relates to women is echoed by Marion Woodman (1992):
“For centuries, men have projected their inner image of femininity, raising it to a consciousness that left women who accepted the projection separated from their own reality. They became artifacts rather than people” (p. 1).
With the arrival of sacred texts such as Women Who Run With the Wolves, we women have sources that no longer negate our reality, but instead inform, support and encourage it!
The Wild Woman
Who is this Wild Woman? Dr. Estés (1992) describes her as the instinctive nature that resides within us, the one who creates with passion and abandon, the one who hears the impulses that arise from the soul and acts on them. She is accessed by our strong intuition, in acts of creation, in childbirth, lovemaking, time in nature and she gives us joy and connection to the lifeforce.
When she is suppressed we may feel depressed, without spark or joy, tired, powerless and worthless, to name a few of the soulless feelings I have personally experienced. Estés places her in many cultures: The Spider Woman for the Navajo, Amaterasu for the Japanese and Dakini for the Tibetans. She says:
The comprehension of the Wild Woman nature is not a religion but a practice. It is a psychology in its truest sense . . a knowing of the soul. Without her, woman are without ears to hear her soultalk or to register the chiming of their own inner rhythms. (p. 8)
In La Loba, the first story contained in Women Who Run With the Wolves, the simple actions of an old woman in the desert collecting wolf bones, becomes the spiritual quest of a woman embarking on a passage of self-determination and a return to her instinctive self:
We all begin as a bundle of bones lost somewhere in a desert, a dismantled skeleton that lies under the sand. It is our work to recover the parts. It is a painstaking process best done when the shadows are just right, for it takes much looking. La Loba indicates what we are to look for – the indestructible life force, the bones. The old one, The One Who Knows, is within us. She thrives in the deepest soul-psyche of women, the ancient and vital wild Self. (Estés, 1992, p.26)
Many women relate to this notion of a fragmented life and a desire for wholeness. When La Loba resonated deeply with me, I questioned my successful career in the corporate world and its demands on my creative energy at the same time that I grieved the loss of my mother. Disillusioned with the outer world that no longer nourished me, I turned inward for sustenance, finding that time alone in nature helped me to gather strength and renewed self-worth. The notion of the old bone woman in the desert as described by Dr. Estés, was a powerful symbol – a guide for my inner journey.
I imagined her helping me to recover the parts of myself diluted and gone underground in the world of career and modern society. As Marion Woodman says: “In finding our own story, we assemble all the parts of ourselves” (p. 7). The La Loba story gave me some context to help me to move beyond the disparate parts of my story and towards healing.
Further insight into women’s quest for wholeness and self-determination comes from psychologist Judith Duerk (1989) in her book Circle of Stones: Woman’s Journey to Herself:
A woman, searching for her self, must descend to her own depths . . . into a damp, echoing cavern, to sit and wait for that of her self which cannot be met in the upper world. To discover who she is, a woman must trust the places of darkness where she can meet her own deepest nature and give it voice . . . weaving the threads of her life into a fabric to be named and given. (p. 21)
Duerk uses metaphors of caves, threads and fabric where Estés uses the desert and the bone collector to arrive at similar themes: that women enter into a place away from the distractions of the world to find the missing parts of themselves.
Dr. Estés links the old bone woman, La Loba with the knowledge kept in women’s wombs:
For women, the Bone Woman home place, contains direct knowing about seedlings, root stock, the seed corn of the world. In Mexico, women are said to carry the light of life. This light is located, not in a woman’s heart, not behind her eyes, but en los ovarios, in her ovaries, where all the seed stock is laid down before she is even born . . . When La Loba sings, she sings from the knowing of los ovarios, a knowing from deep within the body, deep within the mind, deep within the soul . . . So when something is lost, we must go to the old woman who always lives in the out-of-the-way-pelvis. She lives out there, half in and half out of the creative fire. This is a perfect place for women to live, right next to the fertile huevos, their eggs, their female seeds. (p. 32)
Dr. Estés beautifully calls women back to the seat of their sacred feminine bodies. She captures the potency contained in the ovaries and wombs: the apex of creative fire – the conception place for where it all starts, the birthplace of babies, ideas, inventions and all manner of creative projects. Invoking the Wild Woman is a return to living and creating through our wombs.
“The Red Shoes” is another story contained in Woman Who Run With the Wolves. Estés uses this well known fairy tale as a teaching on what she characterizes as “feral women” who fall into “leg-traps” that can be obstacles and distractions for women, and places where they have lost their good instincts.
If you have ever been captured, if you have ever endured hambre del alma, a starvation of the soul, if you have ever been trapped, and especially if you have a drive to create, it is likely that you have been or are a feral woman. The feral woman is usually extremely hungry for something soulful, and often will taken any poison disguised on a pointed stick, believing it to be the thing for which her soul hungers . . . In order to avoid these snares and enticements that are tripped by a woman’s time spent in capture and famine, we must be able to see them in advance and sidestep them. We have to redevelop to see them with insight and caution. (Estés, 1992, p. 231)
“The Red Shoes” centers around a little orphan girl who makes herself a set of red shoes. This represents the inventive, creative passion of women. The girl is then adopted by an old woman who throws the shoes away. The girl harkens after a new fancy pair of red shoes that she is forbidden to buy and wear. Nevertheless, she obtains the new red shoes that lead her into uncontrollable dancing and the eventual loss of her feet – her grounding in the world.
The new shoes are a metaphor for the enticements that cause distractions for women trying to find their instincts and creative life:
The loss of the handmade red shoes represents the loss of a woman’s self-designed life and passionate vitality, and the taking on of a too-tame life. This eventually leads to loss of accurate perception, which leads to excess, which lead to loss of the feet, the platform on which we stand, our basis, a deep part of our instinctual nature that supports our freedom. (Estés, 1992, p. 236)
This story could be seen as a cautionary tale for women who find themselves distracted by the excessive consumption ethos in society today. At every turn we are bombarded with advertising and promises of feeling better and looking better if only we would buy this latest fashion, this latest skin cream or undergo this new plastic surgery. These are some of the many leg-traps that exist for women.
Estés wisely addresses women who have been ensnared by traps and poisons and gives the promise that even if we have fallen down, we have it within us to re-surface, learn from our mistakes and be better for it:
Though we would never wish the poisonous red shoes and the subsequent decrease of life onto ourselves or others, there is in its fiery and destructive center a something that fuses fierceness to wisdom in the woman who has danced the cursed dance, who has lost herself and her creative life, who has driven herself to hell in a cheap (or expensive) handbasket, and yet who has somehow held on to a word, a thought, an idea until she could escape her demon through a crack in time and live to tell about it. (p. 237)
Dr. Estés does not sugar-coat the path for women traversing the hills and valleys of spiritual growth. Much of her discourse addresses the places where we run up against the obstacles, leg-traps and poisons to the soul. We need strong medicine such as the wisdom in Dr. Estés teaching stories to illustrate for us the dangers on the path up ahead.
Once the Wild Woman is unshackled and women have experienced the freedom that comes from being in touch with that creative juice and intuitive spark, they yearn to bring her back into their lives more and more.
Other feminist writers have written about the Wild Woman. According to Melissa Raphael (1997):
The wild woman is a product of the thealogy of the triple Goddess herself – particularly that of her Crone and Maiden aspect . . . it is no coincidence that one of the names for the Maiden goddess Diana of the Wild Animals was Lupa or Feronia, ‘Mother of Wolves’ . . . The wild woman is, then, an important manifestation of the Goddess/Goddess-self. Running through the feminist discourse on female wildness is a prophetic incitement for women to break patriarchal socio-religious taboos. By listening to and answering the call of the wild, women will, according to Mary Daly, contact or touch their elemental Selves, so charging or gynerizing themselves and all those other female things they touch with contagious spiritual power. These women transgress against all patriarchal moral and aesthetic norms: that is, in the act of transgressio they cross over the boundary into the freedom of the post-patriarchal state. (p. 61)
Liberation and the deep empowerment of women runs through the discourse on the Wild Woman. She is a provocative guide, ally and symbol for women’s mental, physical and psychic health.
Reclaiming her power within us gives us access to our strong powers of intuition, feeding our creativity with juicy sustenance and inspiration as we break through limitations left over from patriarchy and society. ~Copyright Kathy Stanley. With special thanks to visionary artist Gaia Orion for permission in using her beautiful art work in this post. Please visit her site at Art By Gaia.
(Next installments to follow: The Wise Woman and The Holy Woman)
Christ, Carol. (1980). Diving Deep and Surfacing: Women Writers on Spiritual Quest. 2nd Ed. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Duerk, Judith. (1989). Circle of Stones: Woman’s Journey to Herself. San Diego, CA: LuraMedia.
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. (1992). Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype.. New York, NY: Ballantine.
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. (2004). Introduction. In Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Commemorative Edition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P.
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. (2010). The Dangerous Old Woman: Myths and Stories of the Wise Woman Archetype. Available from http://www.soundstrue.com
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. (2011). Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother’s Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul. Boulder, CO: Sounds True.
Estés, Clarissa Pinkola. (n.d.) “A Life Made by Hand.” Retrieved from http://www.soundstrue.com/articles/A_Life_Made_by_Hand_with_Clarissa_Pinkola_Estés/.
Goldenberg, Naomi R. (1979). Changing of the Gods: Feminism and the End of Traditional Religions. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Raphael, Melissa. (1997). “Thealogy, Redemption and the Call of the Wild.” Feminist Theology, May 1997; vol. 5, 15: pp. 55-72.
Stone, Richard. (1996). The Healing Art of Storytelling: A Sacred Journey of Personal Discovery. New York, NY: Hyperion.
Woodman, Marion. (1992). Leaving My Father’s House: A Journey to Conscious Femininity. Boston, MA: Shambhala.