Women and the Global Imagination: Reimagining the Myth of Sedna

by Hila Ratzabi

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on the theme of Women and the Global Imagination. We were so struck by the portfolio that we wanted to continue dialog surronding this theme. The Prairie Schooner blog seemed like a good place to do that. Today we bring you a post by Hila Ratzabi that explores the theme of Women and the Global Imagination by delving into mythology, specifically, the story of the Inuit goddess Sedna, and how her story remains relevant today. We hope you enjoy reading. To read more on this theme, visit our store and buy or Winter 2014 issue (print or ebook), or become a subscriber to Prairie Schooner today. To take part in the dialog, follow and interact with us on Twitter.

Inuit Goddess, Eco-Feminist Icon: Reimagining the Myth of Sedna

Like the rabbit hole in Alice in Wonderland, Google can often lead us to strange and exciting discoveries (if we’re lucky and don’t get lost in the thicket). When I’m in curiosity mode, I often scan science news headlines on Twitter. One day (about two years ago) I went from gazing at pretty photographs of planets on the Scientific American website to hopping from link to link after reading a reference to Sedna, a planetary object way out in our solar system, named for a certain Inuit goddess. I couldn’t have known then that this moment would lead to something of an obsession, that I would find a feminist heroine hidden deep in the Internet, thousands of years into the past, and way up north (at the bottom of the icy Arctic ocean).

The myth of Sedna was first translated and introduced to a Western audience by anthropologist Franz Boas, in his work The Central Eskimo (1888). The legend exists in a variety of forms across different Inuit tribes, and in many versions Sedna has other names. In most iterations of the myth the character of Sedna is a young woman who refuses to marry any of the suitors presented before her. She is finally tricked into marrying a guy wearing fancy fur clothes (a sign that he is a wealthy, successful hunter), his face obscured by a hood. Her husband brings her to the top of a cliff where he reveals himself to be Raven. He feeds her raw fish and makes her sleep on uncomfortable walrus hide. Sedna is not impressed. She begins to wail for help; her father hears her and comes to her rescue. They flee by kayak, but Raven chases. He sends a spirit of the sea to create a storm that tosses the kayak with dangerous waves. In terror, Sedna’s father throws his daughter to the sea, hoping to appease the spirit. Sedna grabs onto the kayak to save herself, but her father takes an ax and chops off her fingers. Sedna sinks to the bottom of the sea, and her fingers become seals, walruses, and whales. In this moment of trauma, she is transformed into a goddess; her legs morph into a whale’s tail and she goes on to reside at the bottom of the sea ruling over the people on land.

Sedna is a symbol of the harshness of life in the Arctic. Western explorers, scientists, and anthropologists have marveled at how life in general, and humans in particular, found the tenacity and ingenuity to survive in this severe climate for thousands of years. Traditionally, among Inuit tribes, Sedna was believed to control the food supply. If men experienced difficulty in finding seals to hunt, the explanation was that Sedna was holding the seals back, in punishment for some breach of taboo. Survival depended on hunting sea mammals, which were used for food, clothing, boats, weapons, and oil for heat and light. So it’s no surprise that scarcity of animals to hunt became intertwined with a myth that highlights the kind of desperation endemic to survival in extreme conditions.

But how did I get so intertwined with this myth? What began as pure fascination gradually became deeper and scarier, as Sedna’s presence began to connect in my mind to current events I was trying to make sense of. Toward the end of 2012, I found myself writing in response to Hurricane Sandy, which I’d managed to wait out for three days in my apartment in Philadelphia. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the experience of anticipating the hurricane, preparing for it, sitting through it, watching its destruction sweep across the east coast as I was glued to the TV (that miraculously remained functional throughout the storm) sparked something in me. It was a deep sense of terror that made me begin to look more closely at climate change. Climate change became the scene of a horrific accident from which I couldn’t look away.

At the time I was also experiencing a bit of writer’s block, so I forced myself to start writing from whatever impulse I could latch onto, and fear happened to be a useful source of inspiration. The fact that the myth of Sedna originated in the Arctic, and the Arctic was (and is) experiencing the most dramatic effects of climate change, was a coincidence that ignited my imagination. As I read and wrote more and more through Sedna’s story, she became an outlet for my feelings of outrage at what has not been done and what has not been achieved in response to climate change. I viewed the trauma at the heart of Sedna’s story as both personal and ecological. I imagined her taking revenge for the transgressions of humanity (specifically those countries and corporations that contribute most to global warming). I saw parallels in the exploitation of Sedna the character, of Inuit people in particular, of indigenous people worldwide (whose resources and cultures have been decimated, over and over, by the intrusions of the West), and of the Earth itself (or herself). And as I continue to inhabit Sedna’s story in research and writing, I consider my own complicity in the use of an Inuit cultural product as a source of creative material.

But I haven’t turned away from employing Sedna in my work. I aim to investigate and glean from Sedna’s story with an attitude of loving respect for the cultures that first imagined her (and while many of the explorers who visited the Arctic were unabashed in their exploitations, Franz Boas is somewhat of an exception, in that he used his anthropological research in many ways in an attempt to dismantle racist ideologies prevalent in the nineteenth century). In my imagination, Sedna has become a contemporary eco-feminist icon; and I hope that my writing about her serves to honor the cultures that birthed her. Sedna represents the rage of the Earth responding to our callous abuse. She is a reminder that we suffer the consequences of our actions. What began for me as fear in reaction to knowledge of climate change has become an inner drive to respond, through writing and other forms of action.

This myth is a powerful reminder of the parallels between the exploitation of women and the Earth. A lecture available on YouTube entitled “Misogyny & Ecocide” (by Saba Malik, Kourtney Mitchell, and Rachel Ivey) makes that case. (The lecture is about an hour long, well argued, and pretty depressing, as one might expect; with that glowing review, I urge you to watch it.) The presenters argue that agricultural civilizations extracted resources from both the Earth and women in destructive ways; industrialization continued along that trajectory. Climate change is a result of rampant, unchecked burning of fossil fuels in the service of wealthy nations running wild on consumerism, and we are now beginning to suffer the consequences. It is easy to draw parallels between the untamed pillaging of the Earth and women that continues to this day.

I haven’t even begun to touch on the possible Freudian interpretations of Sedna’s dismemberment. In fact, I don’t really want to touch this line of thinking, as Freudian readings can become messy (but I’d love to hear from anyone going in that direction, particularly looking at Sedna in relation to other dismembered female characters in literature and myth). Beyond interpretation, I’m more interested in letting this myth manifest and lead me into areas that both terrify and console.

And there is some consolation in Sedna’s story. One of the most beautiful aspects of Sedna’s role in Inuit tradition is related to the shamanic journey. When hunting was not going well, shamans were sent to appease Sedna. The shaman would go into a trance and “travel” to Sedna’s underwater abode, a harsh and difficult journey. The shaman had to get past her guard dogs and even her father who also lives at the bottom of the sea (where he functions in his new role as greeter of the dead). To calm down the goddess, the shaman would comb her hair, which she couldn’t do for herself, being fingerless. The shaman would pick out crustaceans stuck in her hair and wash her body with fine sand, an image I find to be incredibly tender and moving. There is a sense here that we can pacify the angry goddess, even when the angry goddess is ourselves. We don’t know if it’s too late to fix the greatest damage we’ve inflicted on the Earth in the form of climate change, but some part of humanity will not give up on trying. Sometimes this fight requires active rage; sometimes it calls for a dedicated disentanglement of all those nasty critters that won’t let go of their hold on the Earth. Like Sedna’s shamans, we need precision, unwavering focus, and a sense of delicate care for the Earth entrusted in our hands.

Hila Ratzabi was selected by Adrienne Rich as a recipient of a National Writers Union Poetry Prize, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and received an Amy Award from Poets & Writers. Her poetry has been published in The Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, Narrative, Drunken Boat, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Normal School, Cortland Review, Coal Hill Review, Margie, and others. Her chapbook, The Apparatus of Visible Things (2009), is published by Finishing Line Press. She is the editor-in-chief and poetry editor of the literary journal Storyscape. She holds an MFA in Poetry Writing from Sarah Lawrence College. Her website is hilaratzabi.com.