Women Who Run with the Wolves Review

The stories in Women Who Run with the Wolves may read like fairytales and myths but Dr Clarissa Pinkola Estés makes it clear that they are so much more. While at its core this book is a collection of stories, it is also a self-help book, a psychoanalytic breakdown of consciousness and development, and a love letter to the Wild Woman archetype. The book is intended to guide women through their cycles of growth and existence via old stories that would have been passed down from their elders in years long past. It is my opinion that these stories can be beneficial to all of us, regardless of gender identity. While there are certainly experiences unique to individual gender identities, the cycles of psychic and intuitive growth and development revealed in these stories have applications for all beings.

The introduction to the book contains many words about the importance of myths to our understanding of ourselves and of the Wild Woman but one particular quote stood out to me.

"Fairy tales, myths, and stories provide understandings which sharpen our sight so that we can pick out and pick up the the path left by the wildish nature. The instruction found in story reassures us that the path has not run out, but still leads {people} deeper, and more deeply still, into their own knowing. The tracks we are all following are those of the wild and innate instinctual Self." (p. 4)

The stories told in Women Who Run are these kind of stories. They lead us back to our Self with a capital S. The instruct us on the ways of growth, life/death/life cycles, and they way that we seek out the unconscious and intuition. Whether it is the Wild Woman, the Wild Man, or a Wild inner self that knows no gender, "it is into this fundamental, elemental, and essential relationship we were born and that in our essence we are also derived from." (p. 5) For the sake of gender inclusivity, I will be referring to this inner Self as the Wild One for the rest of this review but know that I mean the same Wild Woman that Dr. Estés writes about. Of course, this Wild One has many names in many cultures. It is Rio Abajo Rio, La Mujer Grande, Luz del abismo, La Loba, La Huesera, Ö Erdöben, Rozsomák, Na'ashjéii Asdzáá, Humana del Niebla, Amaterasu Omikami, Dakini. (p. 8) Across the world, this idea of Wild One has always existed, guiding us to our inner selves via stories and myths.

By working with these archetypes and the characters in these stories and many others, we can find instruction on how to walk through life and the many experiences that we are guaranteed to have. Each of us must find our intuition and inner knowing, must learn to hold fast and return to our true self, to recognize Life/Death/Life cycles, to deal with others patiently and lovingly. As Dr. Estés writes, these ideas were once given to us by our parents, grandparents, godparents, and other elders. They were passed down through family and cultural stories, each showing the young how to exist in the world effectively through this wonderful teacher, the myth. The following quote, taken from the afterword of the book, describes how stories can be, and are, medicine.

"... Whenever a fairy tale is told, it becomes night. No matter where the dwelling, no matter the time. no matter the season, the telling of tales causes a starry sky and a white moon to creep from the eaves and hover over the heads of the listeners. Sometimes, by the end of the tail, The chamber is filled with daybreak, often times a star shard is left behind, sometimes a ragged three of storm sky. And whatever I left behind is the bounty to work with, to use toward the soul-making..." (p. 504)

Stories have a way of changing us, helping us see truths that we inherently know but sometimes forget for a while. It is the very environment around a story, described above, that opens us up to that soul world. When we truly listen to an intentionally told tale and it is delivered by a skilled storyteller, everything else stops. We are transported to someplace completely new and yet familiar, a place where we can see ourselves in a different light. Stories are medicine. they have the power to help and heal.

Of course as a tarot reader, all of this talk about stories and archetypes draws me back to the Tarot. A tarot spread and even a single card has the potential to do for us what stories do, to help, heal, and provide a path to seeing our true selves through symbols. Major Arcana cards are present in many of the stories in Women Who Run and many other collections of myths. The archetypal figures can be seen in the characters we read about and love so much. At times, a story may embody a single archetype like Death, or the Devil. Other stories involve multiple cards, an entire line, or the whole journey itself. As I wrote about with Joseph Campbell's The Power of Myth, the stories that are told with tarot are very similar to the stories told in mythology. The goal of both practices is the same as well: to help us see our own journey through a fictional lens meant to teach and give guidance. The beauty of both modalities is that, when used correctly, they bring us back into a union with our true selves and our individual lives. These stories are not meant to exist as abstract concepts, but to be embodied, explored, laughed about, cried and bled over until both you and the stories become something new.

Now after all of the beautiful words of praise, I feel the need to add a disclaimer that I have already referenced a little. This book was intended for women and really solely for women. Naturally then, the language in the book is not inclusive and is geared toward women alone. That doesn't have to limit those of us who are not women as I wrote earlier. All beings can enjoy the lessons of these stories and this book because generally speaking they are applicable to all of us. Reading analysis that is not geared toward you can be challenging or triggering so I'm not suggesting you read this book if it makes you uncomfortable, but there is certainly space for anyone to learn from Women Who Run with the Wolves.

My larger problem with the book and its language was the sheer amount of body exclusivity that exists in these pages. While we do have to recognize the context, it was first published in 1992, and give some leeway to the fact that body inclusivity has been a relatively recent phenomenon in general culture, there are still major problems with sections that read as TERF (Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminism) language. Even though this is a book made exclusively for those who identify as women, not everyone in that group bleeds, has ovaries, breasts, or anything else that is part of a body with a female sex assignment. There are women who don't have those physical parts, so promoting body exclusivity only serves to alienate part of the intended audience. And of course there are also humans with those physical parts who are not women and do not align with the feminine language used in the book.

All that to say, if you are a woman who doesn't bleed (for any reason) this book is still for you, but it may be triggering at times. If you are a man, or gender non-conforming and you do bleed (or have 'female' organs) than the language in this book will certainly be difficult. I really struggle with the fact that revisions haven't been made and an updated republication is not been planned as far as I'm aware, The body exclusivity and even exclusivity of intuition to physical parts at times limits what is otherwise a powerful and eye-opening exploration of the usefulness of mythology for psychic and personal development. It is my opinion that for this book to be truly inclusive and feminist, language changes need to be made.

So, coming out of that long rant on gender inclusivity, I want to turn to the focus of the book, the stories. Every one of these fairy tales and myths deserves to be highlighted and examined but for the sake of brevity, I am going to look at a select few that truly stood out to me. Tarot cards and especially the Major Arcana were incredibly prevalent throughout the book but some of the clearest examples are in a few of these stories.

The first story in the book is one of the most important. It is La Loba, the Wolf Woman. La Loba sets up the themes of the book, the connection with wolves, the idea of singing life into what is 'dead.' In the tale, an old woman goes around collecting bones and creating skeletons from what she finds. When she completes an animal, she sings life back into it, creating muscles, tendons, flesh, skin, and finally a spirit to fill the creature all with her voice. This is the work all of us need to learn. La Loba creates life from death, resurrects what was lost and gone forever. This is our first lesson in Life/Death/Life cycles. An of course, that cycle is inherent in the three lines of the Major Arcana. We live in the first line (Magician-Chariot), we die in the second line (Strength-Temperance) and we resurrect to live again in the third line (Devil-World).

The other major aspect that stood out to me was the power of music. Music brings life and rebirth, it contains the magic of the Wolf Woman. This is a common theme in the stories. Music, song, and voice all have the power to bring us back from a dark place, to lift our spirits out of 'death.' As a musician, this is an idea that appeals to my heart and warms my soul. Music is so often magic. Our voices and ability to speak life, they are our magic. This story takes place in the world of the unconsicous. Song represents the "mythological voice", stories coming from a place between worlds. Jung called it the collective unconscious but it has had various names in various cultures over the years. It is the place we reach in the Star, free to be our true, unrestrained selves, bathing in the water of this mysterious pool. In the Star card we find healing, new life, a different and deeper understanding. La Loba teaches us that nothing within us is gone forever. We can bring back what was lost through the power of our voice and our song. We can find renewal if we commune with the Wolf Woman, La Loba.

Skeleton Woman is another Life/Death/Life story, but one that speaks to relationships as much as it speaks to an individual person. I feel that when focused on an individual, the story can be seen in the Strength card. I'll paraphrase the plot and see if you come to the same conclusion. A young fisherman goes out to catch a fish, floats into a largely avoided part of the shoreline and hooks what he thinks is a big one. It turns out to be a skeleton, one that is alive. The fisherman panics and tries to escape but the skeleton woman is caught on the line and follows (but the poor man thinks it is chasing him). When he finally reaches his dwelling and goes inside for safety, there is the Skeleton Woman, all tangled up. Eventually, he takes pity on her and untangles her then falls asleep not long after. There is trust implied by this sleep, and Skeleton Woman, seeing that she has been loved, takes out his heart and sings life back into her body. She is reborn as a woman and crawls under the blankets to sleep with the fisherman.

Rider Waite Smith image of Strength

While I left out some details, I feel that we can still clearly see Strength in this story. At times, we unknowingly hook a part of ourselves that is scarier than we were prepared for. At first we may try and run from it, but it will always follow us around and show up where we are. It takes compassion and gently untangling the knotted bones with love to reunite these two aspects of the psyche. This is Strength, this is how we face the lion of our inner self and desires. Compassion and love for self as well as others is the lesson of this powerful card.

Of course, we can also see Skeleton Woman as a story of how to progress deeper in a relationship. All of us have baggage, some skeletons in our closet (or deep in the lake) that we don't show to others right away. When the hidden, shadow self is revealed there are many who will run from confronting it. It is not their partner the runner fears, it is fear of going deeper into the relationship. By changing course and showing love to this oft ignored part of their partner's psyche, one that the partner likely feels insecure about, depth and union is achieved. Whether we look at Skeleton Woman as a singular person or a relationship, it has much to teach us on the value of showing love and compassion. Softening our heart to what we fear reveals that there is a chance for new life within all people. Love is the vessel of healing, music and song actually create the rebirth (like in La Loba).

Sealskin, Soulskin is one of my favorite stories in the book. It tells the tale of a Selkie (a sometimes seal, sometimes human creature) who has her seal suit stolen by a lonely fisherman. He agrees to give it back if she comes to be his wife for 7 years. She complies and gives birth to a son but after 7 years the fisherman refuses to return the suit. It is their child who finds the suit and sets her free, coming to live with her underwater with the other Selkies for 7 yeas (noticing a pattern?). Once he returns to the land, he becomes a musician and storyteller who channels the messages of the ocean depths through music and myth (once again music in a central role!). The surface story seems to reveal a woman trapped in a bad marriage and escaping to become who true self but there is more to it than just that (although if that resonates, use the story to inspire your own exodus if you need it to).

The deeper story, the story told through the surface symbolism, is one of return to our true selves. All of us step away from union with our inner Self, our true Self, from time to time in order to go out into the world. We can't be constantly communing with our inner being if we want to effectively function with family, work, fun, etc. Sometimes we need to sunbathe and enjoy life, that is part of human existence after all. But the ego, represented by the fisherman, wants to participate in the deeper soul life and takes the suit. It cannot swim deep in the waters of the unconscious like the seal, it only fishes at the surface (what a good analogy in the story). It is this theft that starts the whole story, the theft is an imitation of sorts. As the story progresses the Selkie in her female form grows less and less healthy because she is removed from a part of herself. We all need to return to this inner place, to our Wild Self, from time to time for replenishment of the soul. This is why we move through the Major Arcana many times in a single life. We constantly must journey back into the inner depths and walk through the initiations in order to regain our wholeness.

My favorite part of the story is that it is the young child who saves the day, who acts as a middle ground between the soul and the ego (the Selkie and fisherman). The child returns the suit to the mother, goes to live with her for a time, and returns to the upper world while constantly going back to speak to the seals (soul). As we journey through the Major Arcana, our goal should be to have a small child like this, one who can move deftly through the inner revelations of Tower and Star and back through the wildness of the Moon into the clarity of the Sun and awakening of Judgement. There is a part of ourselves that can journey back into the soul and bring revelation to the conscious mind. Call it intuition, psychic ability, inner knowing, or anything else. Sealskin, Soulskin certainly contains a message of returning to one's inner self, but on a greater level, it reveals to us the way to haver a healthy balance of inner and outer. The must be a part of us that goes in between ego and soul, carrying the wisdom back to us in stories and songs. This is why myth and music are medicine. They can reveal to us the truths of inner self in a way the ego can comprehend.

There are so many more stories that I want to highlight, but my final one will be Crescent Moon Bear. It is the tale that sticks with me the longest after finishing Women Who Run each time I read it. It contains a leitmotif I am intimately familiar with because it embodies the whole Major Arcana, and focuses the journey on themes of patience, love, and forgiveness. Crescent Moon Bear tells the story of a woman whose husband returns from war full of rage (PTSD perhaps?). She goes to a healer for help who sends her up the mountain to get a single white hair from a crescent moon bear (I recently discovered that they are real creatures!). She slowly makes her way up the mountain, thanking and dismissing distractions before finally reaching the bear and patiently feeding it until she builds up the courage to ask for a hair. She stands in the face of its dangerous anger and hunger and receives the hair. When she returns down the mountain and shows the healer the hair, the healer lets her enjoy her victory for a moment before throwing the hair in the fire and telling her, "go home with your new understandings and proceed the same way with your husband." The goal of the journey was not the physical hair but the lesson of patience and forgiveness in the face of explosive, powerful emotions.

We see the Major Arcana in her entire journey. She sets of the mountain innocent and unaware of her true purpose, just like the Fool. She faces many tests along the way, thanking all of them for allowing her to journey on. Reaching the bear brings more tests including a willingness to face the bear and possibly die. By this point we have reached somewhere around Death, Devil, and Tower. The situation seems quite dangerous but by moving forward with love, she advances through these challenges, receives the hair, and returns back down the mountain (Star, Moon, Sun). It is not until the hair is thrown into the fire and the true lesson is revealed that we reach Judgement, the awareness of the shift in understanding within us. Rachel Pollack always says that Judgement is not the actual shift in consciousness but the awakening to a shift that has already happened. By taking this lesson back to her husband, she steps into the World.

We also see how to approach any emotion that we feel is too much for us. Patience and compassion are our answers. It is by slowly working our way to face the root of the emotion that we can find what it is truly is. By lovingly feeding and nurturing what we feel instead of judging it or trying to control it, we can face the Crescent Moon Bear. By taking this symbolic lesson into physical existence, no feeling we encounter will be too much for us. I am very much reminded of the Buddhist practice of radical acceptance (read Tara Brach's book titled Radical Acceptance for more on this). Accepting all feelings that we encounter and showing them love instead of ignoring, repressing, or attempting to control them makes existence much smoother. Crescent Moon Bear impacts me so much because it tells a story of the practices that have shifted my own life, have helped me to come into a much more aligned relationship with myself and my emotions. All of these stories contain lessons we can learn from and if these few have peaked your interest, there are many more powerful myths and tales in the book.

In exploring these stories, I found connections to the work of Joseph Campbell. Of course, my goal with these two reviews (and the next one) is to look into different views on mythology. One common theme was the variety of cultures their stories are drawn from. The stories in Women Who Run are taken from across the world, many from the childhood of Dr. Estés and her ancestors and family, many others from people she met in her travels. All of these stories carried common leitmotifs, showing the development of humans in Life/Death/Life cycles, the need to go inwards to connect with the Self, that dedication to a path pays off. This is what we see in Joseph Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces as well. Cultures and societies may have their individual stories, but the themes that run through them are ultimately the same. The messages of healing, pursuing of ideals, and spiritual work exist everywhere you look, in the myths and stories of peoples all over the world. The value of this, to me, is that no matter who we are, what we look like, where we come from, the human experience is a common one. We may have different cultures, different external experiences, different obstacles in our way, but we are all doing the same inner work. There is a common thread in the stories we tell, a shared human experience of being a physical being with a spiritual awareness. My dream is that we can tell stories that unite us not divide us. That we can create myths for all of humanity, ones that join us together in communion with divine and with each other. Perhaps I dream too big, but if anything can unite people, it is stories.

I have really struggled to find a way to end this review. There is so much in this book, how does one even begin to wrap up writing about it when I didn't even cover half of the amazing contents. So instead of trying to come up with striking prose to encourage you to go read this book, I will let the final words of the afteword inspire you. "I hope you go out and let stories, that is life, happen to you, and that you will work with these stories from your life - your life - not someone else's life - water them with your blood and tears and your laughter till they bloom, till you yourself burst into bloom. That is the work. The only work."

©2020 by The Mythic Landscape