The following notes ponder the difficulty, perhaps my difficulty, in coming to terms with our fast evolving map of the solar system. Although this is the first in a series of posts on astrology and animism, you don’t need to be an astrologer to read it. There’s no technical stuff here, and its not just about astrological appropriations of Sedna. Some neo-Pagans have also been incorporating her into their practice as a goddess, or manifestation of the Goddess. As an astrologer I’ve felt uncomfortable about this, partly because of a sense that my 20th century perspective is about to be unravelled, and partly out of political concern about whose stories are now being written into our lives.
There’s a recurrent astrological tradition that (i) because the discovery and naming of planets is fated, the official names are ‘right’, and that (ii) new ‘planets’ (including asteroids, planetoids, KBO’s, TNO’s etc) show themselves for a spiritual-evolutionary purpose, the nature of which is suggested by concurrent events on earth. I’ve long been interested in this in relation to Pluto, but for some reason have been avoiding the other Transneptunians who have been making themselves known to us in recent years, so I suppose I owe them an apology!
So, back to Sedna.
In a much quoted interview conducted in 1921, Naalungiaq, an Inuit elder, reportedly described Sedna as “the most feared of all spirits, the most powerful, and the one who more than any other controls the destinies of men”. Various stories depict her as a watery being who can change the Sila -a fluid term evoking not just ‘air’, but, amongst other things, the breath or substance of life- increase winds, unleash a blizzard, and when offended by improper human conduct, make animals disappear so that people go hungry. When hunters were unable to catch sufficient food, an angakkuq -the term is loosely, and according to some Inuit commentators inappropriately, rendered as ‘shaman’- would make a perilous descent in order to placate her, and then facilitate a communal ‘confession’ of any breaches of her rules and cultural prohibitions, not least those proscribing disrespect towards the ‘spirits’ of sea creatures killed in the hunt, and those requiring that food be shared. In a chapter entitled Making Carbon Confessions to Sedna, Timothy Leduc reviews the apocalyptic changes threatening Arctic ecosystems. Having been urged by his Inuit interlocutor to approach ‘the environment’ and ‘wildlife’ as sentient beings deserving of his respect, he argues that Westerners urgently need to adopt a similar orientation towards the rest of nature.
The co-existence of widely differing stories about Sedna attests to a responsive tradition reflecting changing local circumstances. Leduc relates a version in which a young woman called Nuliajuk angered her father by refusing all suitors, and having sex with a handsome man who turned into a dog. She then gave birth to hybrid children. Her father, tiring of the dog-husband’s continual requests for food, arranged an accident in order to drown him. When he next brought food to his daughter, she set her dog-children on him, and he was killed. With starvation looming, she sent her children away, and was then tricked into marrying another handsome man, who promised her a life of comfort, but turned out to be a sea-bird who lived on a desolate rocky cliff and only ate fish. Hearing Nuliajuk’s cries of anguish, the father returned to life, and set out to sea to rescue her. He managed to get her on to his kayak, but the furious sea-bird kept diving at them, and caused the Sila to become stormy and the sea turbulent. This was so terrifying that the father pushed Nuliajuk overboard in an attempt to calm the sea-bird and the elements. She managed to cling to the side of the kayak, so he cut her fingers off at the first knuckle, and pieces of her fingers turned into ringed seals. Somehow she still managed to hang on, so he cut her hand at the second knuckle joint, and these pieces swam off as bearded seals. All the other parts of her hands became whales, walruses, fish, and other sea creatures, and she sank to the bottom of the sea where she became ‘both creation and creator’.(1)
In another version, Sedna’s handsome masked suitor was revealed as a spirit in the form of a fulmar who took her off to a wild foreboding land where she soon became unhappy. When her parents set out to rescue her, the angry fulmar raised a ferocious storm. Her mother, who had shamanistic powers, managed to subdue the monstrous bird spirit, but not before the young men rowing the boat had panicked and threw Sedna into the water. When she hung on, one of them brought his oar crashing down on her knuckles, then the others followed suit as her tormented father watched helplessly. As she sank to the bottom of the sea, her finger tips became the whales, walruses, fishes, and seals, that would feed her people abundantly. But if the Inuit failed to propitiate the souls of the seals, Sedna could cause the hunt to fail. When this happened the shamans of old had to go down to her house of stone and whale bones and appease her by combing her tangled hair.
Other variations have the bird as a Raven or a Petrel, and say that her fingers froze and fell off rather than being cut. Some versions are very different, but all are said to revolve around conflict between the father and daughter over marriage, and the father sacrificing her to the sea, and in all versions parts of her dismembered fingers metamorphose into sea creatures.(2)
Sedna first came to my attention in 2004 when her name was given to an extremely distant icy planetoid. It seems to me that the rush to appropriate her stories (often by people with much less political sensibility than Timothy Leduc), albeit in order to help us address both the ecological crisis precipitated by Western/late capitalist/patriarchal cultures, and the accompanying pandemic of personal alienation and distress, illustrates some key issues for those of us grappling with contemporary animisms, astrologies, and neo/Paganisms.
For Westerners, cultural appropriation, from the latin appopriare –to make one’s own, has long been so much part of our ‘lifeway’ that it still tends to go un-noticed and un-remarked upon. Although making other people’s stories ‘one’s own’ may sometimes be legitimate where there is careful dialogue, respectful relationship, and reciprocity, my concern here is with the habit of disregarding the cultural context from which stories emerge, and in particular the profound impact of colonialism.
Much as the name of the Sumerian underworld goddess Ereshkigal meant ‘Lady of the Great Place Below’, and the ancient Greek underworld god Hades was obliquely referred to as ‘the unseen one’, or Pluto (‘wealth’ or ‘riches’), the name Sedna -which is apparently related to the Inuktitut sanna, meaning ‘down there’- is a descriptive term used in order to avoid mentioning the proper name of someone feared or respected. Sedna, who has many other names, is thus often referred to (for instance) as ‘the one down’ in deep waters, or as the Sea-woman, Woman of the Waves, Sea Mother, or Mother of all Sea Mammals. Inuit traditions are emphatic about the power of naming, and Inuktitut names are notoriously difficult for outsiders to ‘pin down’, both because they vary according to changing attributes and context, and for reasons of protection and concealment. Moreover, the Inuit only began producing visual images of Sedna in colonial times. A young angakkug who was only persuaded to draw images of her in the 1920’s after being paid a large amount of money, evidently found the experience quite harrowing. Although tradition demanded great caution and representational humility, those images are still frequently reproduced.(3)
Now, in the wake of the naming of the planetoid, we have astrological websites discussing the ‘Sedna archetype’ and ‘Sedna energy’, listing keywords for the new planet/oid’s significations (‘gold digger’ is one that comes up!), and linking her story with victim blaming nostrums from the psy-disciplines (those who have been victimised should ‘let go attachment to dysfunction’). A feeling of entitlement is woven into Western astrology’s globalising discourse. In similar vein, Pagan sites urge us to venerate Sedna by, for example, bringing a comb to an altar draped with a fish-net (on a Monday or Wednesday night), adopting a pet goldfish (I’m not making this up), and embracing our inner selves, especially the difficult bits. Much of this material seems barely interested in Inuit realities, only vaguely relevant to Sedna, – and all too often reduces a drama about communitarian accountability to the terms of individual psychology.
Most Westerners can, surely, have little idea about the intended significance of various elements in these stories, particularly if they dramatise questions that are sensitive, private, and/or painful for their communities of origin. I can, however, see why Westerners might want to embrace such vivid naratives. They do speak to us, albeit across a cultural/historical chasm, about gender, power, and ecological ethics. There do seem to be human commonalities that widely differing cultures express in strikingly similar ways -the association of dogs with underworld powers, for example. In this case the angakkug is confronted by a dog barring his way to Sedna’s underwater abode, who is surely a distant relative of Cerberus.
Sadly, colonisation deprived many Inuit of the stories that used to guide the lives of their communities. Jay Griffiths writes passionately about her visit to communities in which young people are trapped because they are unable to negotiate the surrounding land. ‘The whites brought the clock and the Bible, alcohol and drugs, and another thing that has been perniciously dangerous – school … in two generations people lost the knowledge of the land’. Children are taught to despise their grandparent’s stories. An Inuit man tells her ‘my mother knew many songs. She was a keeper of songs for the people … but the missionaries told her to stop. They thought it was a shaman’s teaching’. The psychological effects of losing this knowledge have been disastrous. Nunavut has a suicide rate some five times the Canadian national average. ‘The elders and hunters seem by far the happiest people in the communities. They alone, having knowledge of the land, are not imprisoned’.(4) It is these people’s stories that are now being used across the former colonial heartland.
A well known historical account, recorded by Knud Rasmussen, describes the angakkuq’s journey, down through the earth, or the sea, past various obstacles, including Takanakapsaluk’s dog, to the house of the Sea Woman whose tangled hair hangs loose down one side of her face, hiding her eyes, and whose body is covered in dirt and impurity from the transgressions of humankind. The ‘shaman’ must turn her face towards her lamp and calm her by stroking the hair that she has not been able to comb for herself. He (in this account a man makes the journey) must then return and elicit communal confessions of ‘taboos’ -including hidden miscarriages, and injunctions around menstruation, as well as the mistreatment of animals.(5) Like most Western astrologers I don’t know to what extent the language of ‘sin’ and ‘confession’ used here was a Christian reframing of an entirely different kind of social ritual.
Michel Foucualt, of course, based his critique of disciplinary power -especially of medicine, psychoanalysis, psychology, and psychiatry- on the power relations encoded in the practice of the Catholic confessional. When I have a copy of the full text of Timothy Leduc’s book to hand I’ll have another look at his idea of ‘carbon confessions’. My initial response to this is that the concept of confession is problematic, but that if we are going to learn something from the Inuit stories of Sedna, and associated historical cultural practices, this might be better expressed in terms of an animist communitarian ethic of accountability. The figure of Sedna is now being read from feminist and ecological perspectives.
It seems clear to me from what we’ve learned about Pluto, that names do have a particular power -a point of agreement between Inuit tradition and Western astrology. The name chosen for Pluto turned out to be highly appropriate for the planetary theme, though many cultures have other underworld deities, of course, and some have other names for the planet that may be equally ‘right’. So, whilst we, and some Inuit (again, I don’t know) may welcome the international astronomical decision to name a celestial body after a non-Western indweller, an ancestral being concerned with the fate of a threatened bioregion, we will need to be very careful about how we bring that name into astrological discourse. Names can, of course, be appropriated for all kinds of ‘secular’ reasons. One entrepreneur has apparently used Sedna’s name for a mink farm, a food supplement, and now a brand of Vodka.
If, as is being suggested, the transneptunian being now known to us as Sedna has made herself known to humankind -near the point in her 10,500 year orbit around the Sun when she is closest to us- in order to speak to us, or through us, about collective repsonsibility in the face of climate chaos, then, ironically, grappling with the political complexities of local cultural ownership, and the not inconsiderable challenges of personal and collective pain, and reaching some kind of global concensus about her ‘meaning’ would be a necessary and urgent task. But, again ironically, if our experience of astrological Pluto is anything to go by, it may be a long time before we understand her meanings or intentions.
p.s. I hope the above bit of surface scratching might be helpful for those who have already in some way been ‘touched’ by the transneptunian Sedna! With a 10,500 year orbit my sense is that she won’t be much concerned with the daily affairs of individual humans. Watch this space.
1) Timothy B. Leduc, Climate, Culture, Change; Iniuit and Western Dialogues with a Warming North, University of Ottowa Press, 2010.
2) Janet Mancini Billson and Kyra Mancini, Inuit Women, Their Powerful Spirit in a Century of Change, Rowman Littlefield, 2007.
3 and 5) FrédéricLaugrand and Jarich Oosten, The Sea-Woman, Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic, University of Alaska Press, 2008.
4) Jay Griffiths, Wild, An Elemental Journey, Hamish Hamilton, 2006.