Last week my good friend, Robin Moore, came over to the house to share a meal with Nancy and I. As his contribution to the meal, he offered to bring a story to read to us while we enjoyed our ice cream and cookies for dessert. He had been working all week on creating a digital book of short stories from his early years as a writer and oral storyteller. He chose to share with us a retelling of the story, Selekana and The River Spirit, from Botswana in South Africa
I recognize that I am prejudiced, but our backyard is a wonderful place for reading a mythic tale. The colored lights on the porch and the white lights in the magnolia tree provided the dramatic back light as dusk settled over our Clemens Road community. Robin took out his I-Pad and reading glasses. Supported by the blue-white light of his little machine, Robin set to the task of reading to transport us to another time and place. It was magic. Here is the beginning of his story.
SELEKANA AND THE RIVER SPIRIT
From the moment she was born, Selekana had everything a Bantu girl could want: she and her family lived on the edge of the African plain, at the headwaters of a reed-filled river.
The girls played apart from the boys, building small brush huts on the outskirts of the village. There, they made their secret girlhood songs and wove their reedy carrying baskets and roasted sweet-tasting roots in earthen pits filled with hot coals. But most important of all, in this sheltered place by the river, far from the eyes of boys and parents, this was the place where the girls made their necklaces.
Because the weather was hot, ornamentation was more important than clothing and the girls went to great lengths to decorate themselves. They would plait their hair and paint their arms and shoulders with intricate designs. They would fashion bracelets and anklets from the stems of fragrant herbs. They would weave colorful belts from strips of bark dyed red and green. But for sheer beauty and power, there was nothing that was as essential to a Bantu girl as a good necklace.
Selekana’s necklace was fashioned from a row of delicate fish teeth, strung on a strand of twisted sinew. She had found the skeleton of the fish one morning while walking along the river and had made her necklace that very afternoon. It suited her perfectly, resting lightly on her collarbones, gleaming in the sunlight during the day and sparkling when she swam in the shallows of the river on moonlit nights.
The other girls admired her necklace and, as much as they liked their own, they all wanted one like her’s. Selekana was not a stingy person. She took her friends to the spot where she found the skeleton of the tiny fish. And they spent many hours wading in the clear water, searching for a treasure like the one she had found. But no one ever found a fish like hers, with bones as small and fine as a cat’s whiskers. It seemed that she had the only one.
Sometimes, pretending they were only joking, her friends would try to persuade her to trade her necklace for one of theirs. Sometimes they offered her a hat full of necklaces, hung with colored shells and wooden beads and brightly-colored feathers, in exchange for her simple strand of teeth. But she always refused.
There were two girls who were very jealous of her. One day, they thought of a way to trick Selekana. “If she will not let us have her necklace,” one of the girls said, “then she will not have it either.” They went to a place by the river where they knew she would be walking. Crouching behind the bushes, the girls took off their necklaces and buried them in the sand. Then, when the saw the young girl coming their way, they emerged from the thicket and began walking toward her.
“Hello, Selekana!” one of the girl’s shouted. Her voice carried merrily over the rush of the river.
Selekana cocked her head. She looked at the girls’ graceful necks. Something was missing.
“What happened to your necklaces?” she asked.
“Oh,” the first girl said, “Haven’t you heard? The elders are telling everyone that the rains are coming, swelling the river. The waters will rise and flood the village if we don’t do something to calm the spirit of the river.”
Selekana wrinkled her brow. This was the first she had heard about the elders’ warning. She knew that the river, like every other feature in the landscape, had a spirit. She also knew that sometimes the old people would speak to the waters, asking for the blessings of good fishing or plentiful rains. But this was the first time she had ever heard of the destructive power of the river.
“What does that have to do with your necklaces?” she asked.
The jealous girls pretended to be sad. “It was a terrible sacrifice,” the second girl said,” but what could we do? We had to obey. We threw our necklaces into the river. The elders say that every girl must do this.”
Selekana’s hand instinctively went to her throat. She touched the small teeth with her fingers.
“Of course,” the first girl said, “I don’t think it would matter if you kept yours, Selekana. Everyone knows it is the finest necklace in the village. It would be a shame to throw it away.”
Selekana felt her eyes clouding with tears. She knew what she had to do. She could not refuse, not when the fate of the village was at stake; not when the other girls had made their sacrifices so willingly.
Maybe someday she would find another Fish, just as delicate and beautiful, Selekana told herself. Maybe the spirit of the river would smile on her. Then she would make another necklace.
Without another word, Selekana stepped to the edge of the river, untied her necklace and cast it into the water. It landed with a tiny splash and sank out of sight. Suddenly, Selekana heard the girls laughing. She felt empty and sad, but she didn’t know why. Then, as she watched, the two girls ran to the bushes, dug up their necklaces and put them back on. Selekana just stood and watched. They did not even stop to talk with her. They just ran off in the direction of the village, laughing to themselves.
Selekana turned to the river. “My necklace!” she said. She kept repeating the words over and over to herself as she waded into the shallows, searching the river bottom, holding to the slim chance that the strand of her tiny necklace might have caught on a stick or on the stem of a river reed. She waded further, the water closing around her legs.
Selekana did not know how deep the water would be. She had often played in the shallows. But the girls were told that they should never swim in the main channel of the river. The current was strong there. And, some said, there were treacherous things in the water, things that could grab a girl-child by the legs and drag her down. But she wasn’t thinking about any of that now. All she wanted was to find her necklace. When the water rose to her waist, she could no longer wade. So she dove and swam, letting the current take her. She sank down to a place where the water was cool and green. Underwater, beneath the riffling of the rapids, she heard a sound. It was the beautiful singing of a woman’s voice. Peering ahead, she was astonished to see an old woman, far below, sitting on the bottom of the river.
With the exception of her face and her hands, the old woman was entirely covered by her hair. It would have taken a dozen lifetimes for a mortal woman to grow hair of that length. But The River Spirit had been there since the dawn of time and had lived in the depths, cool and quiet, while her long strands waved back and forth in the current.
Selekana could tell that the enchanting song was coming from the Spirit’s lips. To her amazement, she found that she could breathe underwater and did not have to struggle for breath.
As if she were swimming through a dream, the girl settled down on the river bottom beside the old woman.
“Why have you come?” The spirit said. Small bubbles rose from her wrinkled
“I lost my necklace!” Selekana cried. Her voice sounded strange to her, gurgling and far-away.
“If you want your necklace back,” the old one said, “then you must help me.”
With her thin hands, the old woman swept back the hair from her arms and shoulders and legs. Selekana was horrified to see that the woman’s pale skin was covered with open, yellowed sores.
“Lick clean my wounds,” she commanded.
Selekana did as she was asked. She was a kind girl and would not refuse the request of an elder, especially one with so many wounds. She swam about the old one, using her tongue to lick each and every sore clean.
When she had finished, the old woman reached into the billows of hair and fished around with her long fingers. A moment later, Selekana could see the old woman’s throat. Around her withered neck was a necklace, more magnificent that the one Selekana had lost. It was made from fine points of light, strung on a silvery thread.
“This is your new necklace,” the old one said. She cried out with joy. The old woman smiled and tied the wonderful necklace around the girl’s neck. It settled into place, just where it should be.
Just then, something passed overhead, sending a dark shadow rolling across the river bottom. Looking up, the girl could see that it was a huge river snake, swimming along the surface, turning its head side to side, looking for food.
“Quickly,” the old woman said, “Hide yourself underneath my hair”. Selekana did as she was told. From the cover of the old one’s tresses, she watched until the danger was past. “Now,” the Spirit said, “you may return. Return to your village and live just as you did before.”
Selekana swam up through the water and broke through the surface of the river. She waded up into the shallows. When she looked behind her, she couldn’t see the old woman. All she saw was the rush of the current and the swaying of the reeds at the river’s edge……………………………………..
To read the rest of this story and more like it, please look for: Running With The Caribou: Twelve Traditional Tales From The Natural World
by Robin Moore
After our entertainment and dessert, we sat enjoying the last light of day and talking about the experience. I commented on the pleasure of the experience. Robin is equally engaging as a reader and as an extemporaneous teller of tales. At some point I commented on the fact that many of his stories from the early years of his career are built around strong female characters. His first published book was, The Bread Sister of Sinking Creek. Robin immediately responded, not unaware of my interest in the ideas of Carl Jung, that it was part of the work to approach his anima. I responded that I share the same history in my story making.
So what is this business about anima? I cannot answer as a trained Jungian analyst, but I can offer a lay person’s understanding. Jung proposed that there are primal energies that influence our lives. These energies are unconscious, but not unknowable. Jung called them archetypeS. The anima is one of these archetypes. In particular, it is the unconscious, feminine energy that influences the lives of males. It is often expressed as the energy to feel and express our feelings, to be intuitive in our decision making, and to be subjective as opposed to objective in our response to life. The anima can have both positive and negative influences on our lives. The critical thing about all archetypes is not that we master or control them, but that we understand their influences on our lives. The practical value for understanding your anima is clearly stated in this quote from the Jungian therapist, Marie-Louise von Franz:
“What does the role of the anima as guide to the inner world mean in practical terms? This positive function occurs when a man takes seriously the feelings, moods, expectations, and fantasies sent by his anima and when he fixes them in some form –for example, in writing, painting, sculpture, musical composition, or dancing. When he works at this patiently and slowly, other more deeply unconscious material wells up from the depths and connects with the earlier material. After a fantasy has been fixed in some specific form, it must be examined both intellectually and ethically, with an evaluating feeling reaction. And it is essential to regard it as being absolutely real; there must be no lurking doubt that this is ‘only a fantasy’. If this is practiced with devotion over a long period, the process of individuation gradually becomes the single reality and can unfold in its true form”.
Robin and I both intuitively began to explore our animas as young men by creating stories that focus on female characters. At the time for me –in the early 1970’s –I was aware of the women’s liberation movement and I was trying to present in my stories an equal representation of female and male characters. That is what I thought about at the time; but looking back now, I think I was more importantly exploring my own anima in the manner suggested by von Franz.
This exploration continues in my dream life even to the present. Last night, after working on this writing yesterday morning, I had the following dream:
I am in a dark forest. I know I am the one who is cursed to die in this story. There is an evil princess coming through the woods. I know she is the one who will kill me, or the one who has put a curse on me. A child appears to me. It is a male child. He tells me that I can escape the evil princess by lying down and he will cover me with leaves and dirt to hide me from her view as she passes. I do as he tells me, and he covers me with dirt and dead leaves.
The evil princess comes along the path in the forest. She is accompanied by another child who is female. As they pass, I have a hard time remaining perfectly still. I have a great urge to move, to breath, to show my life to the evil princess. The evil princess becomes aware of presence. I cannot endure hiding like a coward to escape evil and my curse. I wipe away the mask of dirt and dead leaves to face the evil before me. I come to life again.
I will not pretend to be a psychotherapist, but I cannot help being a storyteller. I know a fairytale when I see it! I know an evil witch when I see her; and I understand the lost child who concocts some deception to escape the powers of evil in the forest. Sometimes our deceptions work, and sometimes we have to face the evil and take our chances. Unlike the traditional fairytale, my dream did not have a happy ending. In fact, it did not end…and maybe that is good for me and the ongoing adventure that I call my life.
I will end this reflection on the anima by sharing one more dream that I had two night ago. This dream lacks a plot. It is more a visual message from the unconscious. In this dream, I am a laborer who makes objects of metal, in this case gold. I am pouring molten gold into a square form. My image is of a brilliant, square bar of golden metal. For this dream, I will venture a therapeutic observation: Jung considered four sided objects to be symbols of wholeness, the goal of the individuation process.