Friday, April 18, 2014

Book Review: Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother's Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul, by Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Untie the Strong Woman: Blessed Mother's Immaculate Love for the Wild Soul
Clarissa Pinkola Estes
Trade Paperback, 374 pages
Sounds True
Sept. 1, 2013 (first published Jan. 1, 2011)
Christianity, Feminism, Mythology, Nonfiction, Philosophy, Poetry, Religion, Social Justice, Spirituality

Book Synopsis:  "There is a promise Holy Mother makes to us," proclaims Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, "that any soul needing comfort, vision, or strength can cry out to her, and Blessed Mother will immediately arrive with veils flying. She will place us under her mantle for refuge, and give us the warmth of her most compassionate touch, and strong guidance about how to go by the soul's lights." Untie the Strong Woman is Dr. Estes's invitation to come together under the shelter of The Mother-whether she appears to us as the Madonna, Our Lady of Guadalupe, or any one of her countless incarnations. This unforgettable collection of stories, prayers, and blessings includes: "The Drunkard and the Lady"- a story of unexpected miracles that arise from the mud and soil, "Guadalupe is a Girl Gang Leader in Heaven"- a poem of resistance and hope, "The Shirt of Arrows"- a love that is invincible no matter how many times we are wounded, "The Black Madonna"- she who stands at the juncture between two worlds and protects us as we enter the dark places.

Why does the face of Our Lady appear in the most humble and unexpected places? Why does she burst forth into every culture no matter how hard authority tries to suppress her? It is because no bonds can prevent her from returning to those who need her most. With Untie the Strong Woman, Dr. Estes invites you to encounter the force of Immaculate Love, "So that your memory of Her is renewed, or that the knowledge of her miraculous, fierce, enduring ways is drawn into your heart for the very first time."

 My Review

Before discovering this beautiful, moving work, I had only heard of Dr.  Estes through her previous masterpiece, Women Who Run With The Wolves, which I must admit I have yet to read, although I do own it.

The present book is a loving tribute to Mary, the mother of Jesus, but it goes beyond that, for Dr. Estes connects the Blessed Mother to the Divine Feminine.  Thus, she is really the Great Mother Goddess, prevalent in all human cultures throughout the centuries, and known by many names.

It's really fascinating to see how much this love of God as Mother has come to the surface in recent years.  Although I share the author's religion -- Catholicism -- I'm not completely comfortable with Estes's take on this, since the Virgin Mary has never been a goddess.  She was born a human being, just like the rest of us, except that she was chosen to be the mother of the Messiah.  Still, I can't help but be drawn to this book, because somehow, it speaks deeply to me.  I suppose there's just something in the human soul that yearns for a mother's nurturing, fierce love.  And that's just how Estes pictures Mary, and the Divine Mother -- as a fierce, yet tender warrior, always ready to protect her children.

At the beginning of each chapter, there are photographs of the author's own collage artwork, done in honor of Our Lady, and as a memento of prayers answered.  The cover of the book depicts Our Lady of Guadalupe, done in the beautiful style of Mexican muralist George Yepes.
It was this beautiful cover that initially attracted me to this wonderful, profoundly spiritual, yet profoundly earthy, book.  The woman on this cover is a tender, yet strong, warrior mother.  She is of her people, a woman of great moral courage, of strength in the face of injustice.   She has suffered, and triumphed.  She is holy, and loving, and proud, and she will never be defeated, never be completely blotted from human history.  The author emphasizes this point many times throughout the book.

It wasn't just the cover that attracted me, though; when I picked up the book, which I found in a Barnes & Noble store I visited recently, and opened it, the most delicious book smell wafted from its pages.  I don't know what kind of paper has been used for this treasure, but it has certainly helped me love this book!  From the moment I first saw it standing proudly on a bookshelf, I felt it calling to me.  Grabbing it, I went straight to the snack section of the store, quickly found an empty table, and proceeded to get lost in the wonderfully-scented pages, that were filled with gentle eloquence.

There are many short, as well as longer, chapters in the book, in which Estes vividly details, in her unique, lyrical style, the many facets of the Divine Mother.  She writes at length about Our Lady of Guadalupe, and in one of the more touching chapters, "The Drunkard and the Lady", tells the story of a drunk with stone mason skills who helps her build a shrine to Guadalupe, under the title of "La Conquista" ("The Conquest").  Long before he had finished the shrine, the man had stopped drinking -- completely.  

Another beautiful, yet poignant chapter, "Our Lady Behind the Wall", tells the story of the mural at Our Lady of Guadalupe Parish in North Denver.  This mural, which depicts the Lady with the Indian saint, Juan Diego, has been hidden behind a wall for several years now. 

Yet another chapter, "Massacre of the Dreamers: the Maiz Mother" ('maiz' means 'corn') tells the sad legend of the wholesale massacre of Moctezuma's dreamers, by Moctezuma himself, in a vain attempt to stop the prophetic dreams about the brutal colonization of the Americas.  The Corn Mother was then known as "Xilonen".

There's also a chapter dedicated to the Black Madonna, as well as another on "The Marys of Mother Africa".  In the chapter on the Black Madonna, she tells of how her Swabian grandmother, Katerin, rescued blackened pieces of wood that were left after fires burned down, calling them her Black Madonnas, because they had an uncanny resemblance to the overall shape of Our Lady.  These she would plant in her vegetable and wheat fields, which would then flourish.

Perhaps the most difficult chapter for me to read was the one titled, "Post-Abortion Compassion: 'The Children She Got That She Did Not Get'".  This line in the title comes from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem, "The Mother".  Dr. Estes had a chance encounter with the poet, as she was flying to Chicago's O'Hare Airport once, and the two of them discussed the poem, in which Brooks regretfully alluded to her own abortions.

In another chapter, Estes relates the Good Friday ritual of "Pesame" ("I am sorry" is an approximate translation), in which a statue of the Madonna is brought down from an alcove in the church, and placed outside the altar rail, in the church's nave.  The congregation then slowly comes forward, to either tenderly touch the statue, or to place a warm shawl over her head, or a cup of water at her feet.  All the people come to the church in silence, and sit with her in silence, to console her for the death of her Son.  I had never heard of such a ritual before; it's obviously part of Mexican Catholic spirituality.  I found it very moving and beautiful.

Another chapter tells of the tradition of "La Posada" ("The Inn"), in which, every Christmas, a family portraying the Holy Family goes from house to house, being turned away, until at last they come to the designated house where they will be welcomed with open arms.  Along the way, they sometimes meet up with folks who, moved with compassion, forget that they are supposed to turn away the travelers, and eagerly ask them to come in, to the amused consternation of the participants.     

There are many stories throughout this book, which is a wonderful combination of things -- memoir, history, spirituality, philosophy, and poetry written by the author, which she weaves into several chapters.  In a style that is unique, tender, and full of rich metaphors, Estes pulls the reader along, delving into the recesses of the heart and soul, as she touches the sacred and brings it to life, inspiring us to marvel, to ponder, to enter into the mystery ourselves.

Estes ties the story of the Great Mother with the stories of all those who suffer and struggle for justice -- from her own Mexican ancestors, to women in Africa still enduring abuse, to the Russians who finally were able to tear down the Berlin Wall, to those who were killed during the Holocaust.  She tells these tales simply, with no vindictive rage, but with the firm stance of one who presents these horrors to the reader, one who serves as witness.  And the Great Mother grieves....

Some readers might be put off by the fact that the book has a heavy Catholic influence, while more traditional Christians might object, as I do, to the idea of the Virgin Mary being divine.  But then, the concept of the Divine Mother is something universal, something that speaks to a very deep yearning within the human heart, so I would say that everyone and anyone can read this book.  There's something about the idea of God the Mother that is, quite simply, immensely appealing, in spite of its controversy.  This book is sure to charm and ensnare the unsuspecting reader, whatever their views on the Divine Feminine.  Totally fascinating in its grand scope, it's sure to become a spiritual classic!


 About the Author

 Clarissa Pinkola Estes

 An American poet, Jungian psychoanalyst and post-trauma specialist who was raised in now nearly vanished oral and ethnic traditions. She is a first-generation American who grew up in a rural village, population 600, near the Great Lakes. Of Mexican mestiza and majority Magyar and minority Swabian tribal heritages, she comes from immigrant and refugee families who could not read or write, or who did so haltingly. Much of her writing is influenced by her family people who were farmers, shepherds, hopsmeisters, wheelwrights, weavers, orchardists, tailors, cabinet makers, lacemakers, knitters, and horsemen and horsewomen from the Old Countries.

Online Links



  1. Superb posy Maria.

    The entire concept of female divinity and how it relates to the Virgin Mary is a concept that is so intwined into history and culture that I could not even begin to comment upon it in a post comment. It is not without controversy and I do know that some Christians and Christian belief systems vigorously disagree with this view.

    Though of course I would disagree with some of what Clarissa Pinkola Estes has to say, I think that I would really enjoy this book.

    1. Hey, Brian!

      Oh, thank you!! Yes, the entire concept is indeed controversial -- very much so. I have read online articles written by Protestants, for example, that criticize it heavily, pointing out that the statues of the Virgin and Child were adopted into Christianity from Egyptian mythology, because there are statues of the goddess Isis and her child Horus, that look very similar to those of Mary and little Jesus.

      I myself am not comfortable with Estes's obvious identification of Mary with the Divine Feminine. Mary was a human being, as I pointed out in this review. In fact, I was at first hesitant to give the book five stars, because of my discomfort with the whole concept. I might go back and give it four stars, instead.

      As well as my online research, I have first-hand experience of the Protestant mind; several years ago, I started attending a non-denominational Christian church. They were clearly fundamentalists in outlook. I found their emphasis on Jesus very refreshing. Although Catholics do pray to Jesus, they also rely on the intercession of Mary and the saints. Because of my experiences in that church, I lost most, if not all, of my reverence for Mary.

      I stopped attending that church after about two years, partially because I intensely disagreed with their view, based on a literal interpretation of the Bible, that women cannot be pastors, or hold any type of leadership position in a church. Of course, I also disagree with the Catholic Church's position of barring women from the priesthood. So I suppose I should become an Episcopalian, since that denomination does allow women to become priests. At the moment, I'm just a free-floating Christian, I guess. Lol. It's just that I have many theological points to sort out.

      You can imagine my surprise when I saw how attracted I was to this book! I literally could not put it down, when I picked it up at the store. I promptly bought it!

      I guess I would conclude that, while I cannot accept that the Virgin Mary is in any way divine, I still like the concept of the Divine Feminine, of God the Mother. I'd just like to find some way to incorporate that into the traditional Christian belief. Estes wrote about Mary because there's actually no other person in Christian revelation or history that comes close to embodying the concept of God the Mother. Some Gnostic sects have attributed feminine characteristics to the Holy Spirit, while others say that God's Wisdom, which they refer to as Sophia, is the feminine side of God.

      In short, in spite of my discomfort with the controversial nature of this book, and my lack of firm conviction regarding the true nature of the Divine Feminine, I find the whole concept extremely appealing, since I do think there has been an overemphasis in Western civilization on God as male, along with the predominance of patriarchal values to the near exclusion of matriarchal ones.

      Thank you for your thought-provoking comment!! As you can see, it started an entire 'dissertation'!! Lol,

  2. Indeed there is so much to ponder on this topic!

    I will just say that I think that you did the right thing giving the book such a high rating even though you disagreed with the basic, ultimate conclusions of this author. Personally there are lots of thinkers who are intellectually stimulating and groundbreaking whose fundamental beliefs conflict with mine who I love for various reasons.

    1. Hi, again, Brian!

      Oh, definitely there is! In spite of its controversial nature, one has to wonder how God, who is totally omniscient and all-powerful, could ever be conceived as exclusively male. Of course, God is really beyond gender. However, Genesis states that He created us in His image. The human species is both male and female. Therefore, perhaps Genesis has been mistranslated, and should really read that God created us in Their image..... Oh, I need to do some research on this!!

      Well, now that you mention the rating.....I did take away one star. I might put it back, though. I don't know....but i certainly couldn't give this book less than 4 stars! In spite of my basic disagreement with the author, it's just too MAGNIFICENT to receive less than four stars. I might very well return the rating to 5 stars.

      I totally agree with you that there are thinkers who are indeed intellectually stimulating, even if one doesn't agree with all their views. That was the case here. I did lower the rating because I felt that Estes should know better than to classify the mother of Jesus as a goddess. But then, in Catholic spirituality, she's sometimes treated as exactly that. Of course, this bothers me quite a bit, especially since I've had some Protestant influence on my previously all-Catholic theological views.

      Maybe I'll return that one star. I don't know. What I do know is that this is a totally fascinating, moving, profound book, one that I know I'll be re-reading in the future!

      Thanks for commenting again!! : )

  3. Wow! What an amazing review! I can really tell how much this book connected with you will all the details you end up describing.

    This book reminds me of another book I read back in college as well as the many articles I studied (I majored in Chicano/Latino studies and minored in Women's Studies). I love reading about La Virgen and how she is tied with all the female deities from different cultures. And yes, I can see how Mary is also the goddess in all of us.

    Also, this book has such a gor geous cover! AY! I know I shouldn't judge a book by its cover but I want it just because of it.

    1. Ooops...typo! Dang this phone!

    2. Hi, Vonnie!

      So sorry I didn't reply until now......I really hadn't seen this comment. I don't know how I missed it!

      Thank you so much for the compliment! Yes, this book touched me very deeply. Although, as I stated in the review, I'm not comfortable with the idea of the Virgin Mary being divine, I did connect with the book, because the concept of the Great Mother is such a beautiful, spiritually nurturing one.

      The subjects you majored and minored in when you went to college are totally fascinating ones! The university I went to didn't have anything like that.....I would have loved to have taken some courses on these subjects! I majored in Art, and almost majored in English Literature, at one point.

      The cover of this book is what first attracted my attention. Of course, as an Art major, I'm a very visual person! And this particular cover is just exquisite!! I ended up taking the book home with me. A few days after that, I bought some plastic laminate, and laminated the book. I do that with all of my "extra special" books.

      Thank you so much for the great comment!! : )

    3. Laminate a book? Hmmm...I don't know how I feel about that. It doesn't look like the plastic covers on library books, right?

      Yes, I am lucky to live in a state where Chican@ and Latin@ Studies is offered in college. I have learned so much about Latino history in the U.S. especially in Southern California. I haven't really done much with my bachelor but this major did help me understand the people I encounter everyday in my life.

    4. Can I suggest a book to you? Try reading Who Cooked the Last Supper? by Rosalind Miles. It's a fascinating book about women's history in the world. It even talked about the formation of religion and talked about the female deity. It's a short book (my complaint since it's supposed to be the HISTORY of women around the world). I would like to get your view on it.

    5. Hi, Vonnie!

      Yes, chica, I like to laminate my favorite books! I buy plastic laminate in rolls, at Amazon. This protects paperbacks. As for hardcover books, I like buy Mylar sleeves for the dust jackets.

      I've never heard of the book you mention, but will definitely look it up! It sounds interesting, even if it is a little short, as you say.

      Thanks for all the comments!! Love it!! : )


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