Clarissa Pinkola Estes,
Women Who Run With the Wolves:
Myths & Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype

(Ballantine, 1992; 1997)

I bought this book the first time years ago, when it was still a hot item on the New York Times bestseller list, because I needed a little light reading to keep me awake at my night job. That is not what I got. Women Who Run With the Wolves is a very in-depth study of the stronger side of women, their intuitive nature and the struggle with oppression and suppression so many endure. Drawing on her background as a Jungian analyst, poet and cantadora, Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes analyzes the fairy tales and folklore from around the world that show this "wild woman" archetype, whether triumphant or conquered. This is serious stuff, very scholarly. Although I finished reading it the first time, I did not add it to my "keepers" pile because I never thought I would want to re-read such a weighty and philosophical tome.

An odd thing happened, though. While reading other books, I would notice certain phrases from Estes' writing running through my head. Some of the concepts presented seemed relevant to difficult life situations I was facing, and I found myself wishing that I had it for reference. When I recently found a copy at a used book sale, I pounced right on it. I have since re-read it, and found it to be wiser, warmer and much easier to digest the second time around.

Throughout the book, women are compared with wolves. Like wolves, Estes argues, wild women (by which she means strong women who are in touch with their intuitive nature, not the beer-drinking honky-tonk wild women of country songs) have been falsely maligned and unjustly persecuted. Yet like wolves, wild women are playful, intuitive, family-oriented, brave and enduring. When the instinctive inner self is disrupted, the symptoms include "feeling extraordinarily dry, fatigued, frail, depressed, confused, gagged, muzzled, unaroused. Feeling frightened, halt or weak, without inspiration, without animation, without soulfulness, without meaning, shame-bearing, chronically fuming, volatile, stuck, uncreative, compressed, crazed."

Never fear! Throughout the book, Estes gives examples of how to restore and develop this inner self, by learning to follow instinctual promptings, to recognize "leg traps, cages, and poison bait" as the wolf-based title of one chapter proclaims, and to celebrate the true self. The idea that folktales are life lessons thinly disguised as entertainment is certainly not new, but I have rarely seen it presented more plausibly or thoroughly than I this book. Using classic European tales, Mexican and Indian legends, stories from the Navajo and Inuit and Japanese Zen masters, the author traces the ancient wisdom of our foremothers, like a wolf following a scent.

This book is about women and aimed primarily at a female audience, but men will find it interesting too, for it combines many good stories, fascinating glimpses into the female psyche and a great deal of insight into world culture as it is and has been. It reads like a strange combination of poetry and doctoral thesis; lyrical, beautiful and flowing in parts, but academically dry and ponderous in others.

The secret to success with this book that has so much to say, and so many hidden truths, is that you must read it slowly. Take the time to re-read sections, dwell upon the ideas, and you will gain much. Light reading? No. Worth it? Yes.

[ by April Chase ]
Rambles: 10 August 2002

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