Body Symbolism: “From the Bones”


Margarita Méndez
Caracas, Venezuela
Sociedad Venezolana de Analistas Junguianos

Body Symbolism This movement workshop began with an easy warm-up directed towards awareness of the bones in the body structure. Participants were invited to experience movements that “open the windows of the body” to the bones imagery. Experiential work was amplified by theoretical, clinical, cultural and mythological perspectives. A video background showed different images of the bones to inspire the awareness of their inner meaning.

We explored body movements that feel as if they originate in the bones, in contrast to those that start in the muscles. And although in reality there is no such thing as a separation between muscles and bones in movement, we can see that when movement begins in, and is directed by, the bones, it becomes a subtle experience, an experience turned inward, while movements that focus mainly on the muscles seem more related to the ego complex.

We searched throught these two qualities of movement as our path to active and/or creative imagination. Both allow the expression of emotions and both support movement via the body. We approached the bones from an embodied symbolic perspective. As we explored the actual and imaginal nature of the bones, the multi-sensory image served as a mediator, allowing the transition between opposites, such as to be opened or closed.

After moving back and forth between such opposites, we focused increasingly on the everlasting symbolism of the bones, their chronic aspect as well as the procreative promise that they bring.

The bones can take us to a world inhabited by all that is imperishable within ourselves. Movements that begin in the bones are more fluid and effortless and can open a door to the imaginative world that we explored.

I will now amplify some of the images I have encountered “from the bones:”

Bones make up the basic structure of our body, and when we say “bone of contention” it means the subject, or essence, of a dispute, or the heart of the matter. Seen from a symbolic point of view, bones develop in two main directions: bones as structure of the body, its essential, permanent element; and on the other hand, bones as recipients of marrow, as the shell is to the nut. (Chevalier, 1982, p. 565) As Jorge Luis Borges explains in “Two English Poems” (1934):

I offer you the kernel of myself that I have saved, somehow – the central heart that deals not in words, traffics not with dreams and is untouched by time, by joy, by adversities.

Elíade found that in many archaic cultures there existed the belief that animals could be reborn from their bones; thus, it was forbidden to break the bones of those animals whose meat had just been eaten. When this ritual was respected, the animal could be brought back to life, to be hunted once again. The explanation of a possible resurrection of the bones is found in the marrow, and that is why for some societies the most important soul resided in the bones.

Bones evoke death and also immortality. The bones are synonymous of death or old age, and they also evoke immortality when they remain after death occurs and the flesh decomposes. (ARAS, 1996, p. vii) They are the sole thing remaining of very ancient burials, as confirmation of a first consciousness of Being.

After burning the body of a dead person, the Yanomami, an ethnic group in the Colombo-Venezuelan Amazon, pulverize the charred bones, and add them to a broth they drink during a ritual meal, aiming to reabsorb the vital essence of the relative: his/her soul, which is found in the bones.

A profound stratum of the consciousness of man is similar to that which is most resistant in our body, the bones, and which, in the same manner as the soul, seems to be immortal as it has the capacity to be born again, as seen in Ezekiel 37:1-14.

We can observe the perpetual quality of the bones in the human pelvis that the Venezuelan goddess María Lionza is holding up high, raising it to the sky in a reverential gesture. The ancient goddess of nature appears as the Lady of Beasts, riding an American tapir (Capriles, 2004), a docile, but not tame nocturnal, solitary animal. We see her represented as a naked, luscious woman, whose skin we presume smooth and soft, with tumescent flesh, like that which was once contained by the pelvis. Here we begin to perceive the symbolism of the pelvis as a container of life; thus, we attempt to rescue the idea of the symbol from what has been considered a lesser role in relation to the archetype. The body houses the soul while it inhabits it, and we can assume that the body and its parts take on a symbolic character that goes beyond the specific function for which the organs evolved.

Since its ethnic origins, María Lionza has turned with time, and through a process of religious syncretism, into a propitious element for racial integration in Venezuela, by means of a popular, multifaceted cult; all men, without distinction, are beholden to her. Once again the Great Mother claims for herself all the domains that belong to her; thus, María Lionza governs over the mysteries of pleasure and fertility, as her bones represent the feminine vessel, container of life.

A triadic shape entrenched between the iliac crests of the pelvis – that Maria Lionza is holding – at the base of the spine, is found the sacrum, the only bone in all the body to be called ‘sacred’. Apparently this distinction is owed to the belief that it was the seat of the seed of life: the semen. The world of the father as well as the mother is present in these bones. Bones are the structure and shape of the body; their disposition determines how we look, what our build is like, how we walk, and the angle of the gaze. But at times, this very vital, necessary structure may turn excessively rigid and cause chronic ailments.

When we say ‘chronic’ we refer to long-lasting or frequent illnesses that persist for a long time. Thus, the term ‘chronic illness’, means a long-lasting ailment ruled by cronos, ‘time’.

It is not only due to a simple game of words that since ancient times the God Cronos has been identified with cronos (‘time’ in Greek) as Cronos, the God, armed with his implacable sickle, cuts and destroys his own creations, acting in the same manner as Cronos, time. (Chevalier, 1982, p. 257)

It is difficult to undergo an experience of the soul via the body without being conscious of those aspects of the limitations capable of nurturing the creativity that Cronos can bring along with him. He is old, lame and has problems with his bones.

In the book Symbola aurae, of medieval alchemy, there is an ancient engraving in which we see Saturn, with one leg mutilated, leaning on a crutch.

We talked of Cronos/Saturn as a God that rules over what is chronic, but now we see him watering the flowers of the sun and the moon that multiply in the garden of love. The God waters a small tree with flowers of the sun in a garden of fantastic, larger trees that appear to have been cared for by him. Next to him there is a well-dressed man, perhaps an alchemist. The man is looking in the other direction while pointing at the old man, as though he is showing Saturn’s action to a third party. The garden of love alludes to the promised and indestructible land of the alchemists, where the rich soil of the garden of the philosophers makes possible the endless germination of gold and silver. (Fabricius, 1989, p. 179)

In this representation of the old God we see the possibility of experiencing the transformation of potentially self-destructive, chronic forces, personified by him, into creative possibilities. Destruction has taken its toll in this painful process with the mutilation of the thigh and the foot, the support of the body. In spite of his lameness, Cronos takes care of the garden, and the flowers of the sun and the moon begin to bloom in an extraordinary manner, as the old man waters them in the garden of love.

This image is the opposite of the one in which we see Cronos devouring his children (a metaphor for the elimination of our own creative aspects) previously mentioned. Here, the alchemical image presents us the possibilities of our own creative aspects in the garden, where opposites bloom. These flowers are the image of that which could grow within us, and of our creative solar and lunar possibilities. Thus, we can embrace that which is ‘chronic’, and accept the depression that it brings, with abundant humidity, instead of sterile dryness, if we water the flowers in the garden, and support our limitations on crutches.

In psychotherapy, it is necessary for the therapist to be open to the experience of vulnerability in him/herself in order to allow the analysis to progress, for “a powerful ego in the psychotherapist will not allow the unconscious to arise”. (López-Pedraza, 2000) The therapist’s consciousness of his own chronicity, weaknesses and symbolic crutches, play an invaluable role in creating situations that allow the psyche to emerge. The humble acceptance of crutches may be an appropriate image for compensating destructive aspects of the shadow with a certain degree of autonomy, and for achieving some symmetry in the consciousness with ‘that’ weakness that we cannot deny when we are using crutches. Adolph Guggenbhül-Graig in his book “Eros on crutches” gives us invaluable perspectives of these matters.

When the weight of gravity does not fall correctly on our natural support – the bones – and we cannot sustain large loads, chronic ailments related to the skeletal muscular structure appear. They point out to us our limitations and the need for crutches, crutches for the soul that require the support that only the force of earth provides.

The Catalan painter Salvador Dalí, creator of surrealism, often used crutches in paintings in which flaccid limbs were being held up by them, they might represent an extreme emotional sensibility that coexisted with bountiful artistic activity.

As seen in this great artist, creative potentials require a surrender to frailty that is propitious to open up to the natural flow of the images of the unconscious. That was the path we intended to explore in the Body Symbolism Workshop, which led from the rich bones’ symbolism to finally submitting this energy to discover a personal and intimate dance.

When allowing the natural flow of images in imagination appear, we did not follow a preconceived method but searched for movements rooted in the emotions that came deep “from the bones”.


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