Bearskin: A Story about the Value and Meaning of Purgatory as a Place of Healing and Rebirth
Bearskin is a very old story and as recent as today’s news. It is about a good soldier, one who knows the art and craft of war making. When the war ended, however, he is discharged. His only provision is his gun. He is ill prepared for civilian life; fighting wars was all he knew. His hard-bitten brothers refused to help him out. “You are of no use to us,” they said. “Go and make a living for yourself.” Wandering about in a state of collapse and exhaustion, with no companions except the dark shadows from the war, he wanders into a circle of trees within a laid-waste land. His only thoughts are those of his own death. Clearly, this man is in crisis. He teeters on the brink of chaos, even suicide.
Often, As is the case with our hero, in the hour of our greatest need, when we are depleted, and hope wanes, the god comes – a paraclete, a divine helper, appears. For Odysseus, the paraclete is the goddess Athene, for Psyche it is the god Pan, for Faust it is Mephistopheles, in St. John’s Gospel it is the Holy Spirit, and for our soldier it is a stately cloven-footed man wearing a green coat.
The cloven-footed, green-coated man makes our hero an offer of redemption from his current circumstances. The soldier, suspecting that his paraclete is none other than the devil himself, declares he will agree, but not at the price of his salvation. The man’s answer –“You will look to that for yourself.” The proposition involves wearing the skin from a bear, which the soldier is just about to kill, and the green coat belonging to this stately stranger. Any time the soldier is in need of money, he will find it in the pocket of the green coat. However, the soldier must wear these coats for a period of seven years, and during that time he is not to bathe or do any grooming at all. If, after seven years, the soldier, our hero, succeeds in keeping his side of the bargain, he is to meet the cloven-footed man here at this same circle of trees, and his future will be secure.
Purgatory is an archetypally formed experience structured to create the necessary and sufficient conditions for cleansing, healing and rebirth. One way to translate the circumstances set forth by the stranger, the god of this story, for our hero is this. The god, the soldier’s divine helper, creates the necessary and sufficient conditions for redemption for our hero in his own unique form of purgatory. By living inside this double-coated garment for a period of seven years where the gold resides, he establishes a place of deep introversion and incubation. In other words, the soldier, our hero, is literally in purgatory, a place for deep cleansing of soul and body. This process provides a time to slough off negative complexes, the shadow aspects of war, and negative effects of war living in the psyche of our hero.
During our seminar we will move slowly through Bearskin, and amplify the images as we go along. We will describe the value and meaning of purgatorial rites and rituals, and see how this fairy tale follows the pattern of cleansing, healing and rebirth well known to ancient and indigenous societies. Such rites of passage were practiced in the temples of the Greek gods of healing, Asklipios and Hygenieia; during the ancient Great Mother Mysteries, practiced in the sacred cave on Ida Mountain in central Crete; in shamanic based cultures, such as those described by Black Elk, Oglala Lakota holy man of the 20th Century; St. Patrick’s purgatory of ancient Ireland; and, when the conditions are right, in the practice of psychotherapy today.
There is so much wisdom in the old stories, the ones that begin, “Once upon a time,” stories that come to us from the Ages of Stone. Bearskin is one such story. What wisdom does it offer us for ourselves as individuals and for the world we find ourselves in today?
Bonnie Damron is a psychotherapist, ethnographer, storyteller, and Archetypal Pattern Analyst in private practice in the Washington, D. C. metropolitan area. During her thirty-four years in practice, she has conducted seminars on archetypal motifs in fairy tales, myths, the arts, and the writings of C. G. Jung. She also leads study tours to Crete and the Greek mainland. Dr. Damron holds a Masters of Social Work degree from Catholic University, a Doctoral Degree in American Culture Studies from the University of Maryland, and a Certificate as an Archetypal Pattern Analyst from the Assisi Institute for Archetypal Studies.