I have been thinking alot about bones lately.
A couple of years ago I was introduced to the myth of skeleton woman. This is a myth of the Inuit people, but (as usual) there are versions from around the world. It is the story of a woman who either because of a misdeed or an accident has fallen into the ocean and had all of her flesh and tissue eaten away leaving nothing but her skeleton. After many years, an unsuspecting fisherman hooks her. When he hauls in his line, he doesn’t realize that he has also hauled in skeleton woman, and is horrified when he turns around and finds her in his boat. He flees in terror, unaware that he is actually connected to her with his fishing line. He runs and runs to escape her – but she is always just behind him. Finally he dives into his own house believing that he has at last escaped her.
He sits in the dark recovering from his fright as his heart beats like a drum. When he finally lights a fire she is sitting right across from him! She is tangled in his net, her bones all in a tangle too. Suddenly he no longer fears her, but actually feels compassion for her and begins to untangle her from the net, gently placing her bones in the proper order and cooing softly to her. He wraps her up in a warm blanket, lies down beside her and goes to sleep. As he sleeps a tear escapes from his eye – and skeleton woman drinks from it, slaking her thirst as if drinking from a river. She then takes his heart out of his chest and beats on it as if it were a drum. She sings, and as she sings the flesh returns to her bones, skin covers her and thick black hair grows from her hard skull. Finally she returns the hunters heart to his breast and gets under his blanket with him.
It is a beautiful myth of regeneration, and, according to Mircea Eliade, echoes the coming-of-age ritual where initiates, after extensive fasting, privation, and meditation, see themselves as skeletons entirely divested of muscle and tissue and then name every bone in a sacred language. The re-fleshing of the bones finalizes their transformation from children to adults. This reduction to a skeleton is characteristic, and the ancient symbol of hunting peoples: bones as the final root of life; the mold from which flesh continually rises.
This ancient hunter/gatherer myth has been somewhat superceded by the agricultural myth of the seed falling into the ground to die and be re-born, and the idea of the earth as a womb from which we can be re-born – but there are remnants of it even in Christianity. In the words of Ezekial:
"The hand of the Lord was upon me, and brought me forth in the spirit of the Lord: and set me down in the midst of a plain that was full of bones. And he led me about through them on every side: now they were very many upon the face of the plain, and they were exceeding dry. And he said to me: Son of man, dost thou think these bones shall live? And I answered: O Lord God, thou knowest. And he said to me: Prophesy concerning these bones; and say to them: Ye dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus saith the Lord God to these bones: Behold, I will send spirit into you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you, and will cause flesh to grow over you, and will cover you with skin: and I will give you spirit and you shall live, and you shall know that I am the Lord."
In Mexican culture apparently these older traditions have been superimposed on Christianity, and Mary is sometimes seen as a skeleton. This is not considered gruesome or morbid, but a symbol of her regenerative power. It harks back to an ancient Aztec festival dedicated to a goddess called Mictecacihuatl whose role was to watch over the bones of the dead
For me it also symbolizes my hunt for the roots of things. I have a philosophical and spiritual desire to strip away, to find the reality at the core of things.
So all of this combined with a desire to get back to sketching lead me to start drawing animal skulls. Again I have chosen animals that are especially significant in Irish mythology – though perhaps not surprisingly they are also the same animals that are significant in other cultures: deer, stag, boar, bear, horse, fox, wolf, rabbit, owl, eagle, crow…
I started with sketches on paper but am now moving to enamel. Graphite (just simple pencil) can be fired into a coat of enamel retaining all of its characteristics except it’s fragility! Once fired the drawing will last forever, and never fade. Rather than try to make this a really unified series, I am approaching each skull in a different way – sometimes making jewelry, sometimes framed pieces, sometimes on a white background, sometimes on bone or eggshell…
I have to build up several layers of enamel on both sides of a piece of copper, and then stone it down to give it a ‘bite’ that will take the graphite. The piece is then fired a final time to fix the drawing in place. Too much heat will cause the graphite to sink into the enamel and be lost, so I have to be careful…