Sedna: a widely distributed and beloved Inuit legend (with interpretations which demonstrate Jungian principles and their relevance to Jungian therapy)
This compilation begins with a version of the legend from Sedna of Labrador (www.hvgb.net) and ends with a version from Glen Welker (www.indigenouspeople.net). The two versions are marked in the text.
(Sedna of Labrador’s version begins here.)
Sedna was a beautiful Inuit girl who lived with her father. She was very vain and thought she was too beautiful to marry just anyone. Time and time again she turned down hunters who came to her camp wishing to marry her.
Finally one day her father said to her “Sedna, we have no food and we will go hungry soon. You need a husband to take care of you, so the next hunter who comes to ask your hand in marriage, you must marry him.” Sedna ignored her father and kept brushing her hair as she looked at her reflection in the water.
Woman brushing her hair. Hashiguchi Goyo, 1920.
Every detail of the legend has been conserved through generations of retelling because, as Jung showed, it has symbolic meaning. We will stay close to the details of each image and interpret the meaning of the details. A symbolic meaning which is central to the story is represented again and again through a series of different images. The story-teller held that meaning unconsciously in mind, causing the unconscious to throw up a series of apparently unrelated images, each of which symbolized that meaning. By interpreting the details and finding the same meaning repeated in otherwise unrelated images we can check the accuracy of our interpretation.
Sedna admired her own beauty too much (was too narcissistic) to marry an ordinary man. This disturbance in her relationships led to trouble. Normally we have what Jung called collective rituals (dating, marriage, children, religious ceremonies) in which, without realizing it, we engage with the unconscious. These rituals are collective because they have been created by the community for everyone. They are average rituals – one size fits all – not specifically responsive to any individual. They promote a generalized enlivenment but not the specific enlivenment – different from any other’s – which we must find if we are to become more individual. Jung showed that collective rituals protect us from the full, dangerous power of the unconscious. But they did not work for Sedna.
Sedna admired her own beauty, evidence of narcissistic injury (her sense of self was weak and she compensated by overvaluing her looks). We all suffer from some degree of narcissistic injury because that is the human condition. But narcissism is also constructive: Sedna saw her own value and imagined special, wonderful things for herself.
Beauty includes relationship in the sense that the parts of what is beautiful – whether it be a person’s face, natural scenery, or a work of art – are in relationship to the whole. Contrasts of color, form, or intensity, for example, relate the parts to the whole. Beauty also leads to relationship by attracting us and inspiring us to relate.
To take pleasure in beauty is not work but play, play with imagination, symbolism and soul. To take pleasure in one’s own beauty suggests a playful, symbolic relationship with one’s own soul, that is, with the unconscious (Jung understood the soul – anima or animus – as a representative of the unconscious). The unconscious cannot be engaged directly, but only playfully and creatively, as one engages a child.
In psychoanalytic language this is a leading edge interpretation because it recognizes the constructive purpose of Sedna’s narcissistic self-absorption. A leading edge interpretation helps a patient to see the unconscious potential to which a symptom points. It builds self-esteem and helps the patient to integrate new energy.
Repetitions in the second paragraph support our interpretation. Her father’s interest in literal food emphasizes, by contrast, Sedna’s interest in symbolic nourishment. Her father’s desire for a literal marriage emphasizes, by contrast, Sedna’s desire for a symbolic marriage. Symbolic marriage is an inner marriage with the anima or animus by which consciousness is enriched.
Eskimo Man: Noatak. Edward Curtis, 1929, old-picture.com.
We look for polarities in the story because these represent psychological tensions. The polarity between father and daughter expresses the theme of the whole story: that success in the literal world (hunting, literal mariage) depends upon attention to the symbolic world. I do better in my job and my relationships if I work on my relationship to my inner self.
Soon her father saw another hunter approaching their camp. The man was dressed elegantly in furs and appeared to be well-to-do even though his face was hidden. Sedna’s father spoke to the man. “If you wish to seek a wife I have a beautiful daughter . She can cook and sew and I know she will make a good wife.”
Our interpretation is confirmed by repetition. The father was too impressed by the stranger’s furs to try to see the stranger’s face, which would have revealed more about him.
Also Sedna’s father valued her for her external beauty and her conventional skills, not for her unique inner being. The implication is that this caused her narcissistic injury. If I appreciate my son or daughter’s inner being then my son or daughter may flourish; if I do not appreciate my child’s inner being (or if I intrude upon it with excessive attention) then my child may be injured.
Under great protest, Sedna was placed aboard of the hunter’s kayak and journeyed to her new home. Soon they arrived at an island. Sedna looked around. She could see nothing. No sod hut, no tent, just bare rocks and a cliff. The hunter stood before Sedna and, as he pulled down his hood, he let out an evil laugh. Sedna’s husband was not a man as she had thought but a raven in disguise. She screamed and tried to run, but the bird dragged her to a clearing on the cliff.
Sedna’s new home was a few tufts of animal hair and feathers strewn about on the hard, cold rock. The only food she had to eat was fish. Her husband, the raven, brought raw fish to her after a day of flying off in search of food.
Common Raven (Corvus Corax): Saffey Sound, Seward Peninsula, Alaska, Glen Tepke, 2007.
Sedna married a black evil bird. Birds suggest ideas because they occupy the sky or spirit world and move easily, fast and far. Sedna seemed possessed by ideas. There was no human or animal warmth and no tent to contain her (no container for her inner liveliness). Her world was barren, windswept and cold but she could see far into the distance from her cliff-top perch (her mind was far-reaching.) This is how life becomes if I am possessed by the unbalanced power of the intellect. I lose down-to-earth, bodily feeling and become isolated, verbose, cold. The bird controlled her ruthlessly as my mind controls me ruthlessly. Jung called this animus possession.
The Raven was an unconscious spirit. Any part of the psyche which functions unconsciously tends to be destructive because it is autonomous, not integrated with the whole person. Ideas become destructive when they dominate and are not balanced by human feelings. So unbalanced technology is destroying our planet. Consciousness is more than intellectual understanding: it encompasses the whole, including person, feeling and values.
Why did this happen to Sedna? In the logic of dreams and legends, temporal sequence conveys cause-and-effect: because her father failed to see her inner self, her self esteem was injured and she was seized by her mind. To be ‘in my head’ is to be grandiose: my powers of perception and understanding transcend human limits (the Hubble telescope sees into the farthest reaches of the universe).
Hubble. Photo: NASA
Such grandiosity serves to defend against narcissistic injury. My inner self has been devalued and I feel fundamentally worthless, like a worm. I compensate with a fantasy of god-like power. My self esteem is then split between these opposite poles.
Sedna was very unhappy and miserable. She cried and cried and called her father’s name. Through the howling arctic winds Sedna’s father could hear his daughter’s cries. He felt guilty for what he had done as he knew she was sad. Sedna’s father decided it was time to rescue his daughter. He loaded up his kayak and paddled for days through the frigid arctic waters to his Sedna’s home.
Inuit seal hunter with atlatl lashed to kayak. Edward S. Curtis, ca. 1929. old-picture.com.
This interpretation is confirmed by repetition. Sedna had feelings which evoked feelings in her father. Her feelings sought to reintegrate her being – she cried for her father. Her father began to care about her feelings, not just about externals. Her father’s love might have saved Sedna from further injury.
When he arrived Sedna was standing on the shore. Sedna hugged her father then quickly climbed into his kayak and paddled away. After many hours of travel Sedna turned and saw a black speck far off into the distance. She felt the fear well up inside of her for she knew the speck was her angry husband flying in search of her.
There is much emphasis on feeling: hugs, fear, anger. A repeated image of tension between feeling and ideas (the raven).
The big black raven swooped down upon the kayak bobbing on the ocean. Sedna’s father took his paddle and struck at the raven but missed as the bird continued to harass them. Finally the raven swooped down near the kayak and flapped his wing upon the ocean. A vicious storm began to brew. The calm arctic ocean soon became a raging torrent tossing the tiny kayak to and fro. Sedna’s father became very frightened. He grabbed Sedna and threw her over the side of the kayak into the ocean. “Here, he screamed, here is your precious wife, please do not hurt me, take her.”
The raven created the wind. In Germanic myth a raven was Odin’s bird and the wind symbolized Odin. The wind/Odin is another symbol of the animus, unconscious yang, the threatening male spirit which arises in a woman’s psyche and may catalyse development.
What does it mean that the father – who represents conventional consciousness – was attacked by the unconscious spirit? We know already that the father was preoccupied with externals. Again, temporal sequence represents cause-and-effect: because it was superficial, consciousness was attacked. The secret purpose was to deepen consciousness. The more I deny the depths the more fiercely they attack, insisting that I relate to them.
Storm. Photo: source unknown
This interpretation is confirmed by what happened next: the whole ocean, that is, the whole unconscious psyche, became viciously destructive, threatened to drown the father (transform him completely). He threw Sedna to the sea, acknowledging – here is your precious wife – that the sea and the raven were one. He sacrificed Sedna to the unconscious. What does this mean?
The unconscious cannot be conquered and must be respected; if I don’t relate to it, it will inevitably devour me. The father sacrificed his own feminine potential (potential for relatedness); that is, he sought to relate to the unconscious. By his terrible sacrifice he acknowledged the might of the unconscious.
When an artist devotes his or her years to art, the artist may sacrifice human relatedness (with partner, children, friends) in order to forge an individual relationship to the unconscious. The unconscious sometimes violates human values with dreadful demands.
At the collective level the sacrifice is more symbolic, less literal. We go to church or temple each week and give offerings hoping that the unconscious will not demand more.
Sedna screamed and struggled as her body began go numb in the icy arctic waters. She swam to the kayak and reached up, her fingers grasping the side of the boat. Her father, terrified by the raging storm, thought only of himself as he grabbed the paddle and began to pound against Sedna’s fingers. Sedna screamed for her father to stop but to no avail. Her frozen fingers cracked and fell into the ocean. Affected by her ghastly husband’s powers Sedna’s fingers, while sinking to the bottom, turned into seals.
Cape Fur Seals. photo: BBC, planet-earth/images.
Sedna attempted again to swim and cling to her father’s kayak. Again he grabbed the paddle and began beating at her hands. Again Sedna’s hands, frozen by the arctic sea again cracked off. The stumps began to drift to the bottom of the sea, this time turned into the whales and other large mammals. Sedna could fight no more and began to sink herself.
When the father sacrificed to the unconscious he evoked its maternal aspect: it began to provide for conscious needs. So Sedna’s fingers and hands become seals and whales.
Sedna’s suffering makes sense on the external level but what does it mean symbolically? Why is her anguish so emphasized? The father’s sacrifice is what Jung called an ars contra naturam, a true painful sacrifice. Like Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, Sedna’s father opposed human feeling. Analysis, for example, is painful and exhausting but necessary if consciousness is to increase. There is no easy way out.
The father abused Sedna just as men abuse seals by clubbing them to death: Sedna became Mother Nature. The story portrays both child abuse and our abuse of nature. Both of these symbolize the aggression of consciousness against the unconscious. The story of the dragon fight shows such aggression from the point of view of consciousness, while Sedna’s story – from a people whose lives were more closely intertwined with nature – is more sensitive to nature’s suffering. The story asks: ‘what is the psychological effect of our aggression against the unconscious?’
(Glen Welker’s version begins here.)
But Sedna was not drowned. Instead, she became the Spirit of the Sea and Mother of the Sea Beasts. She lives still at the bottom of the sea, jealously guarding the creatures which came from her fingers. Because of her father’s cruelty, she has no love for human beings. Their wicked deeds trouble her, affecting her body with sores and infesting her hair like lice. Lacking fingers, she cannot brush her hair and it becomes tangled and matted. In revenge, she calls up storms to prevent men from hunting, or keeps the sea creatures to herself.
Sedna and seal. Davidee Amittu: Quebec, 2008. Soapstone.
Consciousness disrupts unconscious dynamics and seizes for its own use the energy of those dynamics. Shocked and injured, the unconscious may withdraw, just as an abused child withdraws and throws up fierce defenses.
If I am not sensitive to the suffering of the unconscious, then I become alienated, cut off from the source of all life. So a successful businessman may feel lonely, uncreative and unreal because he splits off his anima (his soul which could have helped him relate to the unconscious).
Sedna is now like Persephone, the queen of the underworld who spent the summer above ground and the winter below, with Hades. Sedna is an intermediary. My connection to the unconscious is at best conflicted, my loyalty is divided. The parallels between Sedna and Persephone are evidence for Jung’s claim that the collective unconscious is common to all people.
Sedna is covered with lice and sores. She is like Job and like Christ, suffering for the sins of humankind – again note the parallels with Western myth. Psychologically sin results from injured narcissism, which was what began Sedna’s trouble.
If I am not aware of my injured narcissism I cannot balance it with human values. I am possessed by it and my life becomes sterile (Sedna keeps the sea mammals to herself).
At such times shamans must travel to the land below the sea to confess men’s sins and to beg her forgiveness. Only the most powerful, who fear nothing, can undertake this journey for the way is long and dangerous, blocked by great rolling boulders, and evil spirits guard the entrance to the Sea Mother’s sealskin tent.
To sooth Sedna’s rage and pain, the shaman must first comb her hair until it hangs clean and smooth once more. Then Sedna may feel more kindly and release the whale, walrus and seal from the great pool below her lamp, so that for a time, until they forget and sin again, people may hunt freely and without fear.
A Shaman braves hardship and danger, immersing him- or herself in the unconscious to give it the attention it deserves. One way we can do this is by interpreting dreams.
The image of shamans going underwater to comb Sedna’s hair is an astute picture of the psychological situation. Because it grows out of her head Sedna’s hair represents her (unconscious) ideas; these get tangled unless consciousness intervenes, again and again, to clarify them. When thought is left to the unconscious it becomes destructive. That is what happened in Germany under the Nazis (and now, in the US?)
Hitler, Himmler at Nuremberg. September, 1938. Photo: source unknown.
Hitler’s hair was tidy (like Trump’s) but his thoughts were tangled. He believed himself to be god-like, with limitless power, which meant that he had a narcissistic injury. When narcissism is severely injured the potential for destruction is great.
In modern consciousness writers serve the function of shamans. Writers tell stories about injured narcissism, thereby helping us to maintain our connection to the unconscious. I am shocked and pained by their bad reports but I can only be real if I look at my own darkness.
It is for this reason in the north that after a hunter catches a seal he drops water into the mouth of the mammal, a gesture to thank Sedna for her kindness in allowing him to feed his family.
With an attitude of sacrifice and remembrance we can live in better relationship with the unconscious. By acknowledging the gods we remind ourselves that we are not gods but mortals who must respect human values.