Hel. Spelt with one “l”. This is not a place. In Norse mythology, she is both a being and a goddess. She was considered a goddess of life and death. Literally so, as well as metaphorically. Some have said she was half skeleton/half person, others that she was half dead/half alive, others yet that she was half black/half white. Most of the other deities found it difficult to look at her and be around her. So, she is given the task of attending to the souls of the dead and a place to do this. Not all of the dead though, only those who do not die in battle. The deaths that were seen as dishonourable. It seems that there was only honour to be had by dying in battle. This must have made for some fearsome enemies. That aside, the way Clarissa Pinkola Estes tells it, the dead are brought to Hel by sin-eaters who have eaten the dead and “incubate”[i] them in their bellies. These sin-eaters could be spirits, souls, people or other animals. They are “carrion-eaters”[ii], like crows or other corvids, other beings we are wary of. Hel receives these incubated dead and shows them “how to live backward. they become younger and younger until they are ready to be reborn and re-released back into life.”[iii]So, the goddess of death is also the goddess of life. She transforms, and the sin-eaters bring her the souls to transform.
Sin-eating was a practice carried out fairly regularly from the Middle Ages up until the late 1800s. If someone died suddenly and there wasn’t the chance for them to confess their sins, a sin-eater would be asked to attend. They would eat a piece of bread that had been passed over or lain on the deceased’s chest and drink ale or water that had been passed over the body. Sometimes they were also paid a small amount too.
In this way, sin-eaters took on the sins of the deceased as their own, and allowing the dead person to rest in peace. This appears to me to be a sort of voluntary societal scapegoating process. Scapegoating being that which you do not like in yourself being dissociated from and then found in others at a community or individual level. Most people gave those who ate sins a wide berth at other times. Sin-eaters were usually relegated to outcast status. They were mostly poor and disenfranchised people, those whose only meal for the day might be the one taken with a dead person’s sins. Or maybe they were paid to go away. Maybe this is survival if you’re on the “outside” anyway. Maybe these situations were merely practical necessity. Or is the idea of “choosing” the role meaningless in these situations? However, for every rule set down it often breaks itself, and the last known sin-eater, who died in 1906, was Richard Munslow, a farmer who chose to take up the role locally after he lost three of his children in an outbreak of whooping cough. Maybe he felt the need to attend to soul-lives.
Some say that one of the dis-eases of the western world/industrial growth society is that we do not attend to the needs of our souls, be that collectively or individually. Some commentators say that we have lost our souls, that we are technologically savvy but morally bankrupt. I work on a behavioural change programme for men who are, or have been, abusive or violent to their women partners to modify their ways. We assist them in having relationships based on equality and non-abusive choices of behaviour. Men walk through our door often hanging onto certainties about life, women and the justifications for their behaviour. One strong theme is that they only acted to protect their children or in self-defence, even though their carefully constructed stories will usually contain a clue that this is not totally (or sometimes any of) the case. They walk in holding tightly and with both hands onto the illusion of being able to control all life, those close around them and situations, shit-scared that if they take a finger off for a second they will lose this and themselves with it. Some know somewhere, even if it’s below their surface, that what they are doing isn’t really working for them anymore. Sure, on one level it gets them what they want in an immediate and physical sense: obedience; nurturing; the last word; a sense of being the centre of their world; being right; a sense of order or literal order to their world. But they know that something is misfiring or missing, even if they don’t know what. On some level or for some of the time, usually after they’ve been violent or abusive in a way that is obvious to them, they feel bad for what they have done, even if they can’t identify it as such just yet or hold onto the resolve never to do it again. Often the men who come to us are depressed, some to the point of suicidal thoughts. Some seek distraction from their “self” in drink or drugs or gambling or constant gaming or building a Walter Mitty life for themselves. Whilst I am sure that not all men who abuse feel bad about it, these are probably the ones we never see – at all or more than once or twice. But some get it – the ones who keep walking through the door and understand about the need to keep walking through the door bringing their destructive lives for us to break down and incubate.
They may not call it their soul but I have a sense that it is their internal life that is calling them to account, their emotions, their matter, their sense of honour. I would call this a soul. So maybe our process as workers is to do the carrion eaters’ task. To gently break them down. To take the certainties and assumptions and take them apart. To bring the souls to Hel.
When we do and she takes them backwards, on their journey of growing younger. I think this is the process of unlearning. Most of what we offer to the men is exactly this. To let go of the false certainty of those damaging assumptions they’ve learnt and now hang onto and, if we’re lucky, to trust a little more in the healthiness of a little chaos now and then (well, as much as a control freak can). We hope to get in between their ribs and poke around a bit. Shake the damaging and limiting beliefs. We try to help them unravel those assumptions, those false securities they are gripping onto. Trying to peel off the layers like those of an onion. To help them unlearn the destructive behaviours and take out that “toxic waste”[iv] of their attitudes to women and femaleness. We attempt to help them unlearn all that toxicity about women and the forms of masculinity they have fallen for. We push a reset button in getting them to see that it is not only their view that matters and in setting up a (re)beginning to care for and about others. There is an aspect of this work that is like a less intense version of parenting, a re-parenting if you will, but this is not to suggest that the cause of their behaviour is in bad parenting for a minute. Unless you consider parenting as a process done not just by parents but by society generally too. It is more the process that we as workers do that I am referring to.
These men have trampled all over the boundaries others have tried to put in place. Sometimes this is their partners’ and children’s. Sometimes it is more generally. We take on their appalling scapegoating of their partner. Usually she (and all women to a greater or lesser extent depending on the man) embodies everything they would hate about themselves or find problematic in a world where “male” attributes rule. Or much more accurately, in a society where some human attributes have been labelled “good” and “male” and others “bad” and “female”. Whilst, in a strange circular way, we offer to eat their sins and scapegoat ourselves for a while for them.
We take their fingers, prized firmly on life, gripping their women, their soul, their children. We gently encourage them not to stranglehold others. Peel off the whitened knuckles and loosen the grip. Try to lead them to a place where they can start to find soul, diversity, emotional strength (rather than physical strength with emotional brittleness). A place where they can just “be” and sit. Then let others “be” and be able to sit with that.
So, what about ourselves as workers? Can we take on too much sin-food? I have certainly found myself in this situation. Stomach extended. Bloated from the taking on of too many meals. Eating too much sin. I have learnt that the trick is actually to try not to take on those person’s sins as your own. Maybe, sin-eaters never did. It was thought by others that they did. And certainly it is said by some that, if the sin-eater spoke, they spoke about absorbing the sins as their own. The very idea of eating sin, as we have it recorded, was to take in that person’s sins into you with the food. But we don’t know what the sin-eaters really made of this. This seems to me to be a very Christian-based thought, the idea of a Jesus-like sacrifice of one’s self. I wonder if this struck the people then? The irony of Jesus being outcast in his time but now revered, and how sin-eaters were in their time. But if we hark back to an earlier time, there were other roles in a society that acted as a similar bridge between the living and the dead. Healer types, especially what we might refer to now as “shamans”, although they might not have literally been called this back then.
When we believed in souls in this way, probably pre-Christian times, the shaman acted out of a societal belief that not all illnesses where physical in origin. A shaman, also usually living on the fringes of a society in some way, would be called upon to link the world of unseen and seen. S/he would reach into the other world(s), often through trance, and seek out answers from the spirits to bring back to heal those afflicted. This was less about taking on sins and more about a kind of channelling. Maybe, in our work with the men, that’s what we need to learn to do. To reach into the mess of misogyny, violence and abuse. To take those sins but to let them flow through us, using our skills to listen to the soul behind the immediate sins. To enter into the narrative of that man’s life of deadness. To creep in, observe and then seek out answers that work for that situation. To transform the illness of the soul, the hatred, anger, self-righteousness, depression, shame, sense of failure. To do this by reaching in and offering solution. But for this work to mostly work through us. To pass through. Not to hang onto their sins as our own. To believe in the “possibility of possibilities”[v], as one of my colleagues says, and which applies to the men in the gourps as well as those of us running them. We become a kind of conduit and not a resting place. But we are still ourselves and we still put of our “selves” into the work. I do not mean a process with absence of our character or our personal humanity.
If we return to the image of the sin-eaters incubating the dead, we do not incubate them forever. Maybe this is what we offer. We offer to let parts of that person they were so sure about break down. We take the certainties about “how men should be” and the assumptions of “how women are” and aim to disintegrate them. Dismantle them. Eat them. We take their sins: the absolute sense of right; the brittle displays of power; the manipulation. We put them in the acids of our stomach. It is a slow process but not really a gentle one. Stomach acids are very strong. But it shouldn’t hurt. It is not destruction for its own sake. It is not a tearing down. We are “draining them of their powers”[vi]because their powers are destructive. But our process is not solely one of conquering or defeating. It’s not about taking into tiny pieces and leaving it like that. Whether you see this process as digestion or incubation, it is still a process of transformation. Even a process of alchemy perhaps. The process has to improve relationships. It has to have compassion. A re-birth. ”The destructive force is not just vanquished, in this tale; it is broken down, assimilated to the point that it enriches. The “irredeemable” detritus of a difficult life, or a life not well-lived, is broken down by these symbolic eaters of the dead to form the soil for new psychic growth. A long, painful process; one we don’t discuss much, in our culture.”[vii] To borrow ideas in the same blog post, things have to die, even in a small way, to make the conditions for renewal and life. You can’t hang onto the idea of your partner as a useless mother and violent drunk and then treat her respectfully. The old ideas have to die to make room for new ones. They cannot both co-exist. Just as dead things put back in the land act as compost for other things to live off. Just as cells in our bodies die off over time, so that new ones can replace them. “Death is more than just the end of life; it is the process by which life is possible”[viii]. As such, change is a form of death and death a form of change. I once blurted out in a group that, surely, change and death were the only certainties in life, to the accompanying sound of several men taking sharp intakes of breath and nearly clutching their chests. And this is so relevant for the groups we run, although there probably is a more subtle way to get this message across.
So. It isn’t just the work of us, the sin-eaters. We take the men to Hel. And it probably is their idea of hell when they are first with us. All that sitting in a group with those men, those other ones that beat women up. Speaking about what they find intolerable in themselves or shameful or personal in front of a load of other men. Getting all touchy feely. Yuk. Who needs this? And it’s no accident that Hel, the goddess to whom we take the men, is a woman. With most of the world fixated on one male god, where they are religious, and “male” values where they are not, we have forgotten the balance of the world. We have forgotten that, once, we honoured women as deity as well as men. The legacy we’ve inherited has considered men to be in charge – whether it be of country or home. We looked up to the sky and labelled it Go(o)d (male of course). We forgot that the Earth bore our weight and that women bore us. We got scared of death, emotion and matter (the material nature of who we are). We looked to logic/reason, the mind and worshipped these things at the expense of what we were now scared of. We labelled all the bad things as women, Black people or lesbians and gay men (once we knew what that was). As a society we valued only what was now labelled “male” and “white”. What we feared in ourselves we scapegoated onto others and then we hated them and tried to keep them down. In some ways, there’s a twisted logic to what abusive men do. It’s really only the logical conclusion of the hatred of what we have labelled “feminine”, embodied physically by women. They just take it a step further than most men do.
So, Hel, a woman goddess, is whom they need to face. It is no accident that she is a she. They need to reconnect in a positive way to that which they think is “other”, “evil”, “feminine” or “scary”. It’s not as simple as getting-in-touch-with-your feminine-side. I find that crassly underestimating what we (all) need to do. It is something more. It’s not just accepting these things in themselves but in others. In women. In children. But it’s also about giving up some of that power they wield over others. It’s about knowing that being a man gives you a whole lot of privilege and you have to stop yourself from exerting it and question what it is every day. Start the work of breaking it down for themselves. Get more humility. They can no longer let the predator in them roam freely but have to curtail its excesses. They have to capture their destructive thoughts before they lead to harmful behaviour and dismantle them. They have to learn how to eat their own sins. And before they get too big, unmanageable and abusive.
We as workers are like the body of a cauldron and in this way delineate the boundaries of the group. We hold the space in a way to enable the men to change, to meet Hel. But the heady mix in it – the brew, the potion, the concoction – that’s where the change brews or melds. Certain ingredients are picked that will go or “work” together, as when cooking a meal or brewing a potion. What is chosen is not random, although you may never be exactly sure how the dish will turn out. In the mix that is the brewing cauldron of the group, the ingredients may change form. Then, over time, the ingredients make something different. Something that mixes together as a whole, not just different things randomly introduced, that remain. The creation becomes more than the sum of its ingredients. Just as the men’s stories become more than haphazardly assigned parts. If it works, the process sees the creation of something new that works, that hangs together, that is coherent. We might see that keeping everything the same or static is now less important. We might see men drop the brittle carapace or subtle , or not so subtle, stereotypical views of women (which can be Madonna or whore in nature), mixed with their own sense of right, or with the blueprint for destruction of self and others that is the dominant form of masculinity (to paraphrase Utah Phillips).
As workers, do we then take on something from what we “eat” from the men. No food is without nourishment, except most fast food, but this is slow cooking. Most group facilitators I speak to seem to get an amount of personal growth in these cauldrons of transformation. In this case it might be insight into human emotions or, at worst, a lesson in how not to behave in relating to others. A way to check ourselves. It may be a lesson in how to try to drop the human need to control. And a reminder of the consequences of doing this. Or the hopelessness and frustration and damage of acting this way in the world. We can all take the nourishment we need.
But, when we eat, we don’t take all the stuff from the food on board. We take what we need for energy. We digest it and then “waste” some. If we didn’t we’d get bloated and just fatter and fatter. Shitting what we don’t require is part of a necessary digesting process. So maybe that’s the key to working with these men. Don’t let the assumptions stick. Don’t let the “shit” they say stick to your insides. There are no nutrients there and it’s not ours to own. Especially as a woman facilitator. We also need to let go of the men’s resentment, the misogyny, the assumptions about women. It’s not ours – we don’t need to hold into it. There’s so much about letting go in this work, all through the programme and, most obviously, at the end of it. If you are pregnant, you have to give birth at some point. You can’t hang onto the baby inside you forever. The baby has our fingerprints on her/him but it becomes its own being. We let her/him go. First out of our bodies, then out of our homes. Eighteen years later or so, if you’re lucky. Just as we let the men go after the programme. And of course we’ll be there for support if they need us, but not every week once they leave home and we’ll no longer be doing their dirty washing. And we have to let go too. As much as I’d like some of them on a group for the rest of their lives, I have to let go. It is impractical and impossible not to.
Then, at the end of the programme, the men we see have hopefully travelled backwards enough to be reborn. In this case, he is unlikely to be a new person, that would be an unrealistic goal, but he may feel lighter, younger, no longer depressed. He may feel that their formerly broken parts are on the way to becoming integrated. He may get a renewed chance at life, though. He might get to rekindle a relationship. A second chance. Maybe make amends. He may start the road to being a safer partner, a better father. Even if the couple is no longer together, he may understand the need for respectful co-parenting and be able to be a good dad rather than someone who just “has” to see “his” children. He may see how he needs to behave with future partners, and lose the once cynic of all women and how-bad-we-all-are. He lets others breathe around him, gives them space to be themselves, takes steps back when he needs to rather than wading in with his opinion or his might. When the men get it, they also realise that this is not the end for them but the beginning of a long journey and one that takes constant effort. For us, our eating of their sin is over. We’ve encouraged them to grow their positives and curtail their negatives. But we haven’t taken everything away, we’ve left that person in tact hoping to have changed some of their abusive behaviours. We have hopefully inspired them, not to tell a different story, but to tell their story differently.
[i] Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women who Run with the Wolves.
[ii] Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women who Run with the Wolves.
[iii] Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women who Run with the Wolves.
[vi] Clarissa Pinkola Estes, Women who Run with the Wolves.