The Dark of the Woods: Rites of Passage Tales

by Terri Windling

"In the mid–path of my life, I woke to find myself in a dark wood," writes Dante, in The Divine Comedy, beginning a quest that will lead to transformation and redemption. A journey through the dark of the woods is a motif common to fairy tales:young heroes set off through the perilous forest in order to reach their destiny, or they find themselves abandoned there, cast off and left for dead. The road is long and treacherous, prowled by wolves, ghosts, and wizards — but helpers also appear along the way, good fairies and animal guides,often cloaked in unlikely disguises. The hero’s task is to tell friend from foe, and to keep walking steadily onward. In older myths, the dark road leads downward into the Underworld, where Persephone is carried off by Hades, much against her will, while Ishtar descends of her own accord to beat at the gates of Hell.This road of darkness lies to the West, according to Native American myth, and each of us must travel it at some point in our lives. The western road is one of trials, ordeals, disasters and abrupt life changes — yet a road to be honored, nevertheless, as the road on which wisdom is gained. James Hillman, whose theory of "archetypal psychology" drawsextensively on Greco–Roman myth, echoes this belief when he argues that darkness is vital at certain periods of life, questioning our modern tendency to equate mental health with happiness. It is in the Underworld, he reminds us, that seeds germinate and prepare for spring. Myths of descent and rebirth connect the soul’s cycles to those of nature.

My own life, due to a long period of illness, has lately been following nature’s cycles: autumn’s decay, winter’s hibernation, the slow greening of spring. Having spent many months in the muffled Underworld that is part of a physical disability, myths of descent, resurrection, and rites–of–passage have a particular resonance for me right now — yet I began this article on rites–of–passage talesalmost a year ago, before I was aware that my own road was about to lead sharply downward. Myths have a way of doing this, whispering at edge of consciousness in the stage of life when they’re needed most. This is one of the most important roles such stories fulfilled in ancient societies, aiding in times of darkness, change, and to mark periods of transformation. In an earlier time, a medicine man, shaman, or herb–wife consulted whenmy illness first appeared might have sat me down and told a story similar to this one, from the mountains of northern Mexico:

There was a young girl who married an old, old man, who used her ill. He worked her hard, beat her, starved her, and cast her off when she gave him no children, leaving her in the desert with no food, or water, or shelter. The young wife hid in the meager shade of rocks by day when the sun was fierce. By night she walked, crying, for she could not find her way home. The nights were cold.Wolves prowled the hills and carrion birds followed after her. She was hungry, thirsty, weary, and she walked till she could go no further. Lying down by a wide, dry wash, she wrapped herself in her long white skirt. She said, "Let La Huesera (the Bone Woman) take me, for I am spent." She died. Wild animals ate her flesh. Her spirit watched over the white, white bones and knew neither sorrow nor fear.

The bones lay in that secret place until the moon was full once more. And then La Huesera came and put them all in her woven sack. The old woman took the bones up to her cave high in the mountaintops, then laid them out beside her fire. She sat and smoked. She smoked and thought. She smoked and she thought for a long, long time, and then she began to sing. "Flesh to bone! Flesh to bone! Flesh to bone!" the Bone Woman sang, and before too long the bones knit back together, covered in flesh. Where the girl had once been red and rough, now she was soft and smooth and plump.Her skin was as gold as daylight and her hair as black as night. La Huesera sang and sang. She blew a puff of tobacco smoke. The young woman’s eyes flew opened and she sat up and looked around her.

The cave was empty. The ashes were cold. The old Bone Woman had disappeared. All that was left were tobacco seeds and she put them in her pocket. She left the cave and started for home, following the rising sun. She knew she’d find her village walking this way, and so she did. She came upon her dwelling at last. The place was dark, deserted now. "That old man has died, that poor wife has died, come away from that place," the people said, for they did not recognize the lovely young woman who came to them out of the west.They gave her a name, a fine set of clothes, a new dwelling place, a goat, and a hen. They taught her human speech, for she had forgotten all that she knew. She planted La Huesera’s seeds and tended the new plants carefully. In time, she married, and gave her young husband many gold–skinned daughters and black–haired sons, and her children’s children’s children still grow tobacco in that village today.

"Curing" © 1995 by Fernando Olivera

There are different versions of this basic story found in cultures the world over, particularly among the oral tales associated with healing rites. In the literal way we approach old folk– and fairy–tales in our modern world, it might seem just a simple "where–tobacco–comes–from" story or even a Cinderella variant: a mistreated girl is made beautiful, marries, and lives happily ever after. (I can picture the Disney version, complete with a singing–and–dancing La Huesera.)I have no abusive husband, and certainly didn’t come through a year of illness with sudden supernatural beauty. So why would this tale apply to my recent journey through the dark woods of illness? Let’s look at the tale again, as an ancient curandera (healer) might look. It doesn’t really matter how the girl came to find herself in the desert — the Mexican equivalent of the mythic greenwood — for any life change or calamity can trigger events that lead into the dark. (Hansel & Gretel’s parents abandon them there, Beauty takes her father’s place in it,Donkeyskin chooses the dark unknown to escape a more dreadful fate.) The point is that she’s there, alone, walking by night, miserable, in extremis, removed from the normal rhythms of life . . .and thus ripe for transformation. It is in the darkest hour of need that the guardian figures in folktales appear, waiting by the side of the road as the hero stumbles by. In this case, our guide waits long indeed — she waits until the hero is dead. (It is notable that as the young woman surrenders to her fate, all fear and sorrow leave her.)Like folktale crones who are fairies in disguise, La Huesera, scavenger of bones, is salvation cloaked in an unlikely form. The old woman carries the bones to a cave in the west, the place of the dead. Dead to her old life, if not to the world, the girl’s spirit lingers, watches, and waits. Her patience is rewarded as her broken body is fashioned anew.

This "ritual death" is similar to shamanic initiation rites found in tribal cultures around the world. The initiate, in a state of trance, journeys into the spirit world — where his body dies, is shorn of flesh, and the bones are picked over by spirits who are then persuaded, if all goes well, to sew them all back together again. (If the ceremonial procedure fails, the initiate can die in this trance–state.) In this story, too, the young woman can be seen as a shamanic initiate. She lies down wrapped in long white cloth, the color of initiation.She leaves her body, returns to it, and finally becomes "twice–born," emerging from the cave (the womb of the Mother Earth) with a sacred gift for her people. When she returns to her village, she is literally a new woman. She is given a new name, a new dwelling, and must learn to speak all over again. This, too, is common in initiation ceremonies found the world over. In one West African tribe, for instance, the initiate drinks a sacred brew which causes him to lose consciousness, whereupon he is taken into a special place deep in the jungle. When he wakes,he has forgotten his past, and must be taught to speak, walk, and feed himself. Returning to the tribe, he comes with a new name and new role to play.