The Woman In Black
Recently a woman started walking and sparked a media storm. People worldwide tweeted and argued about her motivation for walking alone over 500 miles across several states; some wondered why everyone was so interested in her, oblivious to the hypocrisy of their own interest. Others speculated endlessly about the woman’s mental state, or debated about personal privacy issues. Some said she was an angel, and not a mortal human at all.
The Woman in Black has a name, and you can find it on the internet if you choose. What’s important to me is that she is more than an individual, more than a person on a quest for healing by hoofing. We are interested in her because she has sparked the memory of an archetype; she has become a legend in just a few weeks.
Let’s face it, we’d all like to chuck it and start over, and frankly, the idea of just walking off into the sunset hits a deep chord in Americans who have used this motif many times in some of our most cherished movies and stories. To be a loner, a wanderer, a mystical person. To be The Man With No Name. To be Kwai Chang Caine. To be more than just a consumer or a job-hunter. In folklore, supernatural and immortal walkers have been called The Wandering Jew and al-Khadir. The musician Tom Waits calls the walker Black Wings.
Wishin’ on a fallin’ star, waitin’ for the early train
Sorry boy, but I’ve been hit by purple rain
Oh come on Joe, you can always change your name
Thanks a lot son, just the same
– Ventura Highway by the band America
The Woman in Black was hit by purple rain.
She’s an army veteran. The military has all kinds of funny jargon; at joint commands service members from all branches may work together, wearing different uniforms of various shades of green and blue. These joint commands are called purple commands because of the idea that you’d get purple if you blended all the blues and greens together.
Military members form very strong emotional bonds from all the joint training, travel, and extreme experiences. So during those times of inevitable separation due to relocation, deployment, or death, they sometimes cry. I call these tears shed in camaraderie purple rain, although that’s only my own word for it. (Although the singer Prince seemed to have a similar idea when he used the term in his own song Purple Rain about ten years after Ventura Highway was recorded.) It might also refer to blood spilled in a rain of bullets, or the purple heart medal worn by wounded veterans when that heart bleeds in memory of loss.
Now I can’t say for sure what the Woman In Black has experienced from her time of service, but she started walking after the death of her husband and her father.
The American slang phrase purple rain seems to come from the song Ventura Highway recorded by the band America in the 1970s, which tells the story of a troubled man named Joe who feels an extreme urge to travel, to get away. The narrator of the song suggests to Joe that he could change his name instead of leaving town; some have interpreted this to mean that Joe is in some kind of trouble with the law and needs to hide his identity. I don’t agree.
Traditionally, to change one’s name means to change one’s fate. (This still holds true in Judaism, where a rabbi may elect to re-name a seriously ill person in order to cause the person to recover). In magical traditions, to know someone’s true name is to gain control over their life. Nominative determinism is today’s scientific term for this relationship between a name and fate. (Studies have shown that a person’s name does have an effect on their future success, their choice of career, their self-esteem, and the way other people judge them. This is why Norma Jean became Marilyn Monroe).
It could be that the Joe of the song is a soldier who has returned from war and is being encouraged by a friend to forget his traumatic experiences and return to civilian life by shedding his military “name” for his civilian one. No longer Sergeant Joe but Mr. Joe. Only Joe knows that won’t work.
The song Ventura Highway, to me, has a lot to do with Fate, which was once called Fortuna, or Fortune. Ventura is Spanish for Fortune, and is cognate to the English word venture, which is an undertaking that is more than just a physical journey. Adventure means to move towards one’s destiny, and the character in the song definitely seems smitten by a need to find his fate by wandering in search of it. He doesn’t want to just change his name. That’s not dynamic enough to meet his need. So his fate lies on the highway, and he must wander out to meet it.
I Wonder as I Wander
I imagine the Woman in Black is walking to clear her mind, achieve a spiritual goal, and heal her pain and loss. Wandering can do that, and has, for many people throughout history. It can change your fate, create a new destiny, renew you from within. It can even bond you with the immortals.