L I V I N G ... M Y T H S
Native American myths in brief

Lakota creation Jicarilla Apache emergence Navajo emergence

Changing Woman

The Voice, the Flood and the Turtle (Caddo) Rabbit Boy (White River Sioux)
Arrow Boy (Cheyenne) White Buffalo Woman (Plains) Orphan Boy and the Elk Dogs (Blackfoot)
The Medicine Grizzly Bear (Pawnee) Stone Boy (Brule Sioux) The Powerful Boy (Seneca)
The Foolish Girls (Ojibway) Son of Light Fights Man-Eagle (Hopi) Glooskap and the Water Monster - Algonquin
Monster-Slayer and Born of Water Visit the Sun (Navajo) Coyote Steals the Sun and Moon (Hopi) The Girl who was the Ring (Pawnee)
The Severed Head (Cheyenne) The Daughter of the Sun (Cherokee) The Spirit Wife (Zuni)

Lakota creation

Inyan - Rock - is shapeless and omnipresent, and his spirit is Wakan Tanka: the Great Mystery. Han, Darkness, also exists. Inyan longs to exercise his powers, or his compassion, so he creates another being - as part of himself in order to keep control of his powers. This being is Mother Earth, or Maka. But in doing so he sacrifices his blood, which becomes the waters, and he shrivels up and becomes hard, losing his power. The water cannot retain the power, and goes into the making of Skan, the sky. Maka, meanwhile, complains to Inyan that all is cold and dark, so he creates Anp, the red light. This is not enough for her, so he creates Wi, the sun.

Maka now wants to be separate, not part of her creator. Inyan can only appeal to Skan, in his role as supreme judge. Skan rules that Maka must stay bound up with Inyan - which is why rocks are bound up with soil. In another version, Inyan loses all his power when he makes Maka, and she taunts him with his impotence, so that he appeals to Skan. Skan then banishes Han, Darkness, and creates Anp to light the world. When Maka complains that she is still cold, Skan creates Wi, the Sun. Maka now complains that she is too hot. Skan therefore orders Han and Anp to follow each other round the world, thus creating day and night.

To the Lakota the most significant thing is Inyan's self-sacrifice in making the world. It is interesting that the prime mover of the universe is motivated by a desire to interact, and has to create a dynamic deity to continue creation. Duality, represented by day and night, is considered essential to this creation. Skan, Father Sky, resembles Zeus, and even creates for himself a daughter, the beautiful Wohpe, patron of beauty, harmony and pleasure - very like the Greek Aphrodite, daughter of Zeus: harmony springs from judgement. This myth is also interesting in relation to scientific accounts of the beginnings of the universe - the Big Bang.

The Jicarilla Apache emergence

In the beginning there is nothing but water. All living things are in the underworld. Everything can talk to everything else. Humans and other daylight creatures want more light; nocturnal animals want darkness. They play a game to decide, and daylight wins out. The Sun peeps through a hole into the upper world and is able to tell the people about it. They build four mounds to help them reach it. In each of the four directions they pile up fruits of a particular colour. These grow into mountains, but they stop short of the upper world.

The people try making ladders of feathers but they break. Four buffalo offer their right horns as ladder rungs and the climb up and people emerge. They tie the Sun and Moon with spider thread to stop them escaping. Four storms blow the waters away and the people circle around their emergence hole until they eventually settle in one place.

This has similarities with Genesis, and with several other Native American myths in which a tribe emerges from the earth, or from underwater. This suggests an emergence from the primal state of unconsciousness, into conscious individuality. There is also the idea of dualism in the gaming for light and dark, and the familiar motif of self-sacrifice in the buffalo giving up their horns.

The Navajo emergence

The Navajo have a large body of myths to do with their origins. These myths have a particular power and significance because they are used in conjunction with sand paintings in healing rituals still carried out today. The Navajo first world is dark and barren. There are insects, and a Black God, the Navajo Fire God, a dark masculine force within the feminine - like the black dot of yang within the light (yang) side of the yin-yang symbol. There are also First Man and First Woman, and Salt Woman, who may be an earlier version of Changing Woman (who becomes important in the Blessingway myth and ceremony).

The earliest beings ascend into the second world, possibly driven by the Fire God's anger, or by adultery. The people are well received by the Swallow people in the second world, but again have to move on. In the second world, First Man has a struggle with the Cat People, who are tricksters. A being named Begochidi creates a pair of twins, male and female, and allows the Fire God to kill them to become transmitters of life.

Driven up to the third world, the beings meet the evil Snake People. Begochidi creates the rivers (male and female), as well as animals and birds, and plant life. All speak one language.

In the fourth world the union between man and nature is broken. Four mountains (still sacred to the Navajo) are created, as well as the hogan, the Navajo home which represents the universe in miniature. The sexes become segregated and go mad with mutual desire and are obliged to come back together. There is also a Flood, like that of the Old Testament, caused by Coyote's theft of Water Monster's baby.

The Navajo emergence myth is similar to that of the Hopi in many ways (but different in others). It symbolizes the growing child's separation from the mother, psychologically, and from Mother Earth, culturally. Light and order emerge out of chaos, but at the cost of psychic unity with nature. There is also much to explore relating to human sexuality.

The coyote remains an important symbol in Navajo culture today, which can be seen in many Navajo jewelry pieces, art and weaving designs.

Changing Woman - Navajo

Changing Woman is the goddess created at the start of the fourth (present) world. She matures quickly, is impregated by the Sun and gives birth to warrior twins, Monster Slayer and Child of the Water. They travel to their father to gain the power to rid the world of monsters. Changing Woman gives corn and animals to the humans. Later she is persuaded by her sons to move to an island in the west, induced by the promise of a wonderful house, and great power over creation, and finally by the threat of war.

This myth is very important in Navajo healing, through the Blessingway ceremony, mostly performed in songs. Changing Woman is a culture goddess who gives blessings to the Navajo. The sons are of a worldwide mythical tradition of divine twins, usually symbolizing a split in the psyche. Changing Woman's removal to the island may relate to a move in the direction of patriarchy. The west is where the Sun goes down.

The Voice, the Flood and the Turtle - Caddo

A chief's wife gives birth to four little monsters. The elders urge killing them, but their mother insists that they will be fine young men one day. Instead, they grow huge and start to kill and eat people. A prophet hears a voice telling him to set up a hollow reed and plant it in the ground. He does so, and the voice tells him that there will be a great flood. The man and his wife must climb inside the hollow reed. The sign will be a cloud of birds. Then it rains for days and the earth is flooded. The voice sends Turtle to destroy the monsters by undermining them. The flood subsides and the human couple emerge. The world is repopulated with plants and animals, and finally with sacred corn. They never hear the voice again.

This has obvious links with the myth of Noah and the Flood, and with Utnapishtim in the Akkadian epic of Gilgamesh. It also underlines the idea that even small children can grow into monsters - and in fact are already monstrous in their desires and will to destroy. (Freud talks about infant rage in this way; it is later overlayed with conscience.) On the other hand we have the familiar North American motif of the Turtle who saves the world. Significantly the turtle is amphibious: it is at home on land and in water - in the conscious and the unconscious.

Rabbit Boy - White River Sioux

A rabbit plays ball with a blood clot he finds lying around. The constant movement creates a little boy, who grows up with the rabbits. Eventually the rabbits tell him that he's a human and ought to go and live with humans. He goes off to a human village - the only one in existence at that time - and a beautiful girl falls in love with him. Meanwhile he has a vision of wrestling with the Sun. The villagers want Rabbit Boy to marry the girl, but then the evil trickster Iktome turns some of them against him. They tie him up and butcher him and put his meat in a pot. But a storm comes and Rabbit Boy sings his death song to the Sun and is resurrected. Iktome tries the same thing and dies.

This is a tale about human beings stemming from nature but having the potential to ascend to spirit, represented by the Sun. It is also about jealousy, trickery and immortality. The myth may have been influenced by the Christian myth, but the similarity may stem from the collective unconscious. There are also similarities between Rabbit Boy and the Egyptian Osiris, and between Iktome and Osiris' murderer, Seth. In Native American myths, Iktome is generally a rather nastier trickster than Coyote.

Arrow Boy - Cheyenne

A woman is pregnant for four years and finally gives birth to a boy with supernatural powers. He demonstrates how he can have his head pulled off and then restore it, be turned to a heap of bones and come back to life, etc. The boy has an altercation with a chief, whom he kills. The warriors pursue him, but he kicks over a cooking pot onto a fire and rises up in the smoke. The warriors spy him far off, but no matter how fast they go they can never get any closer (rather as in the Celtic tale in which Arthur first sees Gwladys, and a similar tale of the Buddha). The boy appears before them in various guises on a mountain-top before disappearing into a magical entrance in its side. Inside the mountain he meets a group of wise old men who instruct him for four years and give him a sacred arrow bundle. He goes back to his tribe and becomes their prophet and counsellor, and saves them from famine, magically restoring the buffalo.

This has similarities to the Christ myth - persecution, death and resurrection, then return to become saviour. The boy goes into the mountain (for which read Mother Earth, or his own unconscious) to find knowledge and power. This power is represented by the sacred arrow bundle - a talismanic cult object like the sacred pipe of the Sioux. Arrows kill buffalo, thus giving life to the tribe.

White Buffalo Woman - Plains (especially Sioux)

In this important myth, two braves out hunting see a figure approaching from a distance. It turns out to be a beautiful woman in white buckskin. One brave recognizes her sacredness and warns the other against trying to have his way with her. None the less the foolhardy brave approaches the woman. He and the woman are enveloped in a white cloud, and when it lifts, all that is left of the brave is a pile of bones with snakes writhing among them. The woman comes to the brave's village and presents them with a sacred pipe. She shows them the all-important ceremony of the pipe. She also tells them of six other rites that will be made known to the tribe in time. Then she goes away, turning into a red and brown buffalo calf, then a white buffalo, then finally a black buffalo.

This is a major myth in which a culture hero(ine) presents a code by which to live. The brave who dies represents desire - not just sexual, but all material desire. The ceremony of the pipe is about the Native American belief that there must be an exchange of energy between humanity and the world of spirit, and that this is symbolically achieved by the offering of tobacco to the Directions, and to the Great Spirit. The smoke rising up ascends to the spirit world. The White Buffalo Calf Woman has more recently been associated with the Virgin Mary. Contemporary Lakota make much of a prophecy involving the birth of four white buffalo. So far three have been born.

Orphan Boy and the Elk Dogs - Blackfoot

There are two orphan children. The sister is adopted, but the boy - who is deaf and seems stupid - is scorned and abandoned by the tribe. He follows the tribe and gets his hearing back. He is then adopted by a kind old chief - Good Running - who takes pity on him. The boy wants to do something great, and Good Running reluctantly suggests that he could try to fetch back Elk Dogs (horses) for the tribe. No one else has succeeded.

The boy meets a man at a pond, who says he can't help, then a monstrous man at a lake, who says likewise. Finally he meets a dazzlingly dressed boy by a lake who offers to take him to meet his grandfather beneath the lake. Bravely the orphan boy plunges in after his guide, and finds he can breathe and does not get wet. He is shown how to ride Elk Dogs, and by glimpsing the grandfather's feets (hooves), he earns three wishes. He takes the old man's magical belt and robe, and half the Elk Dogs, back to his tribe.

This is partly an explanatory myth - how the Blackfoot came to have horses. But it also ties in with other myths (e.g. Celtic) in which a great prize is earned by diving into a lake - which represents the unconscious as well as the spirit world. Adrian Bailey has pointed out, in his book The Caves of the Sun, that horses are often linked to water in myths.

The Medicine Grizzly Bear - Pawnee

A poor boy and a chief's son are friends. The poor boy becomes so miserable that he goes off into the woods not caring whether he lives or dies. There he discovers a grizzly bear lodge in a cave. The mother bear warns him against her husband, and tells him that if the husband returns the boy must snatch up their cub and hold him close come what may - otherwise he will be eaten. The father bear returns and rears up savagely, threatening the boy - who hugs the cub close to him until the bear calms down and says, 'Now you are my son.' The bear gives the boy great magical powers to be used in battle and in healing (e.g. he can suck out bullets). He also kills his own cub and gives the boy the skin to wear into battle as a talisman. (The cub doesn't mind as he will now be a spirit.)

The boy goes and does great deeds and gains respect in his tribe. The bear comes to him in a dream and tells him not to marry the chief's daughter until he has done another great deed in battle. He does this and then the bear comes in a dream and says he can marry now. However, the poor boy wishes to do something for his friend the chief's son first. The poor boy takes the chief's son to a cliff and dangles him over it, where he leaves him feeding buffalo meat to the birds for four days. During this time he goes to sleep (or into a trance) and receives powers from each of the animals. In fact the poor boy acknowledges that the chief'' son is now more powerful than him. They become chiefs in their own right. Eventually the poor boy, now a man, passes his power on to his son and dies.

This tale reflects the Native American attitude to animals and their powers, and the relationship between the natural and spirit worlds. Each animal corresponds to an archeytpe, with particular powers. The grizzly is especially associated with healing. The dangling chief's son has a shamanic experience, contacting inner guides. It is also interesting that the boy defers marriage until he has completed his spiritual/magical apprenticeship.

The story also resembles others worldwide in that the poor boy seems to have no father, yet goes off and finds one - in the bear. This discovery of the male principle, with its risks and rewards, is very much initiatory. Moreover, heroes in many myths descend into caves, which has been linked to the sun's descent into night, and winter. Adrian Bailey (see above), noting that bears hibernate in caves, and were the focus of ancient cults, has suggested that bears are solar symbols.

Stone Boy - Brule Sioux

A girl and her five brothers live together and travel in search of food. While they camp in a strangely menacing ravine, one by one all five brothers go off hunting and fail to return. Desolate, the girl swallows a pebble to kill herself. However, after a few days she finds herself becoming happy and gives birth to Stone Boy. Stone Boy grows fast and is perfectly formed. He makes his own bow and arrow and goes looking for his lost uncles. He finds an old woman who has killed all his uncles and put them in five bundles. While giving her a back massage he jumps on her and kills her, and then invents the sweatlodge to revive his uncles.

Stone Boy relates to the Sioux creator god Inyan. The five brothers may represent the Five Directions (Four, plus Centre). By killing a negative anima figure he restores the Directions - makes the land whole. This relates to the myths worldwide where the hero has to kill a devouring or destructive female figure. It also relates to making oneself whole.

The Powerful Boy - Seneca

A mother dies in labour and the father puts the tiny baby in a hollow tree to die. The baby's brother is lonely, and finds and rescues the baby. The baby is enormously strong and starts felling trees with a club. The father tells the pair not to go north, because it's dangerous; but they do, killing all the frogs they find. He tells them not to go west; but they do, killing the Thunder Being's babies. Next the tiny boy heads north alone and meets the giant Stone Coat, who challenges him to an eating contest and tries to trick him. Once again, the tiny boy is victorious. The boy disobeys his father yet again and goes south-west, where he finds a man with a big head gambling for lives. Finally, the boy goes east to a land where everyone plays ball, winning the land for his father, who becomes its chief.

This tale is about the omnipotent infant - whose power stems from the fact that he is not yet separated from the universe, not yet self-conscious. This is described by Freud, and developed by his successors (e.g. Winnicott). It also relates to tales of prodigious feats achieved by young heroes - such as Hercules with the serpents, or Hermes stealing cattle.

The Foolish Girls - Ojibway

Two girls want to sleep with stars, convinced that they will be red-hot lovers. They go to sleep and find their wish has come true: they have gone to the spirit world and have star husbands. But one complains that she has sex too often, the other that she has it too rarely. So they decide to escape. They see their village through a hole in the sky (which in the spirit world is beneath them), and make a rope to lower down. They make their escape but it is too short and they are stuck in an eagle's nest.

They call on a bear, a buffalo, a coyote and then a wolverine to get them down, tempting them with the offer of a good time. Wolverine gets them down. Unfortunately, Wolverine always makes love to them and then carries them back up the tree to the eagle's nest. Then Wolverine Woman comes along and they tell her that if she gets them down she can have the 'handsome' Wolverine Man. Wolverine Man comes back, and doesn't notice the difference until dawn. Wolverine Man and Wolverine Woman are shocked to find how ugly the other is, but decide they'd better stay together because no one else would have them!

This is in part a tale about birth and reincarnation, the rope being the umbilical cord, and about the separation and interchange between earth and spirit world. Marrying the stars is like death, and the homesickness for their village is what causes the girls to 'reincarnate'. On another level, the story is about sexual desire and compatibility. There are interesting variations on this story among other tribes.

Son of Light Fights Man-Eagle - Hopi

Man-Eagle is a huge monster who lays the land to waste and ravishes all the women. When he steals the wife of Son of Light, the hero goes in pursuit, and meets the Pinon Maidens, Spider Woman and Mole, who all volunteer to help him. Spider Woman tells the Pinon Maidens to make a copy of Man-Eagle's impenetrable flint-arrowhead shirt. She sprinkles sacred corn pollen on it, then turns herself into a tiny spider and crawls up on Son of Light's right ear. Then Mole burrows a tunnel up through the mountain on which Man-Eagle lives, so that Son of Light can reach him without being seen. However, they emerge way below Man-Eagle's home, so they call on a spotted eagle, then a hawk, then a grey hawk, and finally a red hawk, to take them there.

Using a special paste to blunt the razor-sharp rungs of the ladder leading up to Man-Eagle's house, Son of Light gains access and swaps shirts with the sleepting Man-Eagle, and finds his wife. Man-Eagle awakes and challenges the hero to a smoking contest, but Son of Light wins with Mole's help. After several other contests, including an eating contest, Son of Light reduces Man-Eagle to ashes. Strangely the story ends with Spider Woman getting Son of Light to resurrect Man-Eagle, who promises to be good.

In this tale the forces of light overcome the forces of destruction - and transform them. The hero defeats the monster-man only with help from the animal and spirit world, which tells us that we need to be in harmony with these sides of our nature. It also involves trickery - human ingenuity. The ascent carried by successive birds signifies the stages of initiation.

Glooskap and the Water Monster - Algonquin

Glooskap - creator, magician and trickster - creates all the animals, each the right size. He also creates a human village, and everyone is happy until there is a drought. They send a man upstream to find out the cause, and he is confronted by a fantastically ugly monster who refuses to let them have water, and threatene to eat the man. They get Glooskap to help them, and he fights and kills the monster, slitting open the monster's belly. A rushing river pours out of the slit and the monster is turned into a bullfrog.

This is a classic hero tale, in which the hero champions light, health, consciousness and humanity, against the destructive forces of darkness, fear and the unconscious. Water is the source of life, as well as being associated with the creative power of the unconscious. Hence the wellspring of life comes from the belly of the monster!

Monster-Slayer and Born of Water Visit the Sun - Navajo

The two sons of Changing Woman go to find their father the Sun. They receive protective charms from Spider Woman and overcome all obstacles on the route. He receives them angrily, but eventually believes they are his sons and agrees to help them.

This is an excellent example of the hero's quest - except that here there are twin heroes, as in many myths worldwide. The journey represents initiation and individuation. The challenge is for the heroes to prove themselves and thus turn the hostile father-figure into the positive one.

Coyote Steals the Sun and Moon - Hopi

Coyote teams up with Eagle to catch more game. When his hunting is still hopless, he blames it on the lack of light in the world. They find a Kachina (spirit) village where the people keep two boxes: one they open for a lot of light, the other for less. Coyote suggests that he and Eagle should steal the boxes; Eagle just wants to borrow them. Eagle puts the contents of the small box into the larger box and flies off. Coyote can't keep up, but wants to carry the box for a while so that he won't be ridiculed. Eagle lets him, but makes him promise not to open it. Of course he does, and the Sun and Moon escape, creating winter.

This is a typical Trickster tale which has echoes of both Prometheus and Pandora's box. Coyote has the particular qualities of early human development (both cultural and psychological) that make civilization possible, and yet which cause problems: rebelliousness, a desire for improvement, the will and ability to deceive, and of course curiosity.

The Girl who was the Ring - Pawnee

The title refers to the kind of ring used in a popular Plains game in which boys or men attempt to throw a stick or spear into a rolling ring. There is a points system which sometimes requires judgement as to whose stick is closest. A girl and her four brothers live in a lodge by a river. The brothers make their sister a rawhide swing which hangs in a tree. Whenever they need meat she tells them to go and cut arrows, and then they come and swing her. Soon they are surrounded by buffalo and can kill as many as they need.

One day while the brothers are away Coyote comes and asks for meat. The girl offers him dried meat, but he insists that he needs fresh. He persuades the girl to let him push her on the swing - just a little, to get a few buffalo. However, he gets carried away and pushes her too hard, and a great herd of buffalo come. One of them hooks the girl with his horn and she turns into a ring, like the kind used for the game (see above). Coyote promises the brothers to get the girl back, which he does with the help of a number of animals helpers, each of which employs its own special skill. The brothers eventually find their sister smiling, in their lodge.

In part this is another Coyote trickster tale, and the girl falls prey to Coyote's coaxing, as a girl might to that of a young man. But the girl and four brothers also represent the Four Directions, plus Centre (the girl), and the ring is the hoop of the universe, found elsewhere in Plains story symbolism. The idea of each animal or person using a special skill is popular in myth (and still survives, e.g. in the film The Magnificent Seven!), and refers among other things to the social necessity of making use of everyone's unique talents. The girl, as the Centre of the universe, is restored to the lodge, which itself symbolizes the universe.

The Severed Head - Cheyenne

A man who is not much good at hunting paints his wife red to protect her when he goes off each day. However, he discovers that every day she goes to the waterside where a water spirit licks the paint off her body. The man, furious, rushes to the waterside and hacks the water spirit and wife to bits. He throws the wife's limbs and head into the water, cuts out a side of her ribs, skins it, and takes it back to his children for supper, claiming it is antelope. The boy, who is younger, says, 'This tastes like Mother.' The mother's head appears, saying her children don't love her - they have eaten her. It pursues them across the prairie. The sister throws down porcupine quills, and each time a different obstacle springs up to impede the head. Finally the girl tricks the head into a ravine, which swallows it up.

The children reach a village where they hear their father blaming them for his wife's death, so they go away. However, an old dog takes pity on them and they manage to survive. The girl discovers that animals die when she looks at them. Thus they have food. She wishes for a lodge, and it appears, and when her brother enters it he becomes a man and provides for them both. She also wishes for two bears to eat her father, and they appear. Then she gets a raven to tell the villagers that they have plenty of meat. Finally she feeds her delighted father. As he leaves full and happy, she tells the bears to eat him, and they do.

On one level this is about dysfunctional family relationships! It may also relate to an adolescent girl's need to separate from her mother. It also has strong overtones of what some psychologists would call the 'bad breast' or the negative anima - in other words the destructive, devouring, vengeful aspect of the female. The girl seems to have a close relationship with the natural world, which she uses to achieve her goals. It is also interesting that there are so many Native tales about orphaned and mistreated children who somehow survive. The story also involves the worldwide motif of the magical flight and the delaying objects, as found in Jason and Medea, and in Diarmid and Grainne.

The Daughter of the Sun - Cherokee

This myth is unusual in that it depicts the Sun as female. She hates humans because they squint at her, whereas they smile at her daughter the Moon. The Sun causes a heatwave that threatens the people, and they seek the help of the Little Men - friendly spirits, who change two humans into snakes who lie in wait for the Sun but fail to kill her. This time the Little Men turn two humans into a water monster and a rattlesnake. The rattlesnake kills the daughter by accident; the water monster becomes a threat and has to be sent away. The Sun finds her daughter dead and stays indoors in her grief. Now it is always dark, so the Little Men send seven men off with a box to fetch back the Moon from the land of the dead. They must strike her with a rod as she dances past, then put her in a box and bring her back. They must not open the box. They capture the Moon, but give way to her pleas, and open it a crack, whereupon she flies out and becomes a bird. Thus humanity loses all hope of immortality. The Sun causes a great flood with her tears, but is finally appeased by music and dance.

This is a cosmological myth which has hints of both Orpheus and Pandora's box. The seven men are the seven planets. The Moon is associated with dreams and the unconscious, which are elusive - like the bird. Also cf. the Japanese tale of Ameratsu, the sun goddess who takes refuge from her wind god brother in a cave and has to be persuaded out.

The Spirit Wife - Zuni

In this Orphic myth, a young man is so bereft when his wife dies that he decides to follow her into the land of the dead. She attaches a red eagle feather to her head to that he can follow her, because spirits become invisible. He follows her for days, barely keeping up. Eventually they reach a deep ravine. She crosses effortlessly, but when he tries to clamber down one side he is in danger of falling to his death (which paradoxically might be quite helpful!), but a squirrel helps him. They come to a dark lake and she plunges in. He cannot follow, and sits despairing until an owl man takes pity on him. The owl man lead him to the owl people's cave in the mountains, and they give him sleeping medicine. When he awakes he will find his bride, but he must not toucher her until they reach their village. Sadly, when the wife falls asleep near their village, the young man cannot resist touching her, and she has to go back to the land of the dead for good.

This is very much like the Orpheus myth. It relates to the passage from life to death, and the difficulty (or impossibility) of returning to life. It is also about the limitations of human love, which depends on the physical, and which forces the descent of the spiritual. The story also explores the connection between the unconscious (cave and lake), death, and sleep. It may even be that the young man is dreaming when he tries to touch his wife.