By the standards of my Celtic ancestors, I’m a crone.
I’m beyond my childbearing years. I have an aunt–or dare I say, grandmother–relationship with the children in my life. I’m constantly either explaining something to the little girl next door like how squirrels carry food up the tree to their young, or I’m showing her exactly how much water the plants need, or I’m helping her learn her numbers and letters. I’m explaining political and historical events that I lived through to adults young enough to be my children. I’m trading gardening tips with the woman next door. I’m reminiscing about life before the Internet with other people my age.
I’m trying to share my knowledge of folklore and mythology with others and I’m still learning myself, and that is where I believe the 21st century “crone” differs from the crone of old.
Last night, I was thinking about The Crone, looking at my altar, and thinking that my Crone isn’t Crone-ish at all. She’s a young woman of indeterminate age, she wears a headscarf and generic “peasant” clothes, and she carries a tray. I put a miniature bowl of fruit on it and an overflowing basket of the same fruit beside her. I think that the fruits are pomegranates, which figure heavily in mythology. Eve’s apple was likely originally a pomegranate, the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. What is The Crone’s greatest power? Her knowledge and the fact that she no longer menstruates and she holds the magic of menstruation within her. In the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, kidnaps Persephone and she knows that if she eats any food in the Underworld, she may never escape.
In some versions of the myth, Hades tricks Persephone into eating five or six pomegranate seeds. In other versions, she succumbs to hunger and voluntarily eats the pomegranate seeds. She is then required to spend that many months out of every year in the Underworld with Hades, and her mother, Demeter, grieving, lets crops die until Persephone returns in the spring. In this myth, Hecate is usually considered The Crone. She uses her magic (when all the male gods have lied to Demeter or flat-out refused to get involved) to discover what has happened to Persephone.
So The Crone is a woman who helps women and children, who has various types of practical knowledge gained from her life (and passed down from her ancestresses) and who is the go-to advisor when one needs superior magical knowledge. Nowadays our heroes–and they are almost always heroes–go to a wise old wizard when they need help saving the world. The Crone is a bit more down to earth.
She’s also frequently portrayed as a malevolent sorceress (Snow White’s evil stepmother) bent on punishing The Maiden (Snow White) just for existing. The missing element in these stories is always The Mother. The Mother is dead, usually in childbirth, The Maiden is under the protection of her father, and The Crone is unable to come to terms with her change in station. In fairy tales like Snow White or Sleeping Beauty, The Crone is jealous because she no longer possesses the youthful beauty and childbearing ability of The Maiden and attempts to prevent The Maiden from becoming The Mother she lacks.
This is a bastardization of what pagans believed and what pagans and Wiccans believe today. Fairy tales convey a lot of truth. They tell us what life was like for young girls and women hundreds of years ago. Women frequently died in childbirth, men took second wives as stepmothers for their children and to warm their own beds, and any additional children (unless they were boys and the husbands had no sons) may have been regarded as burdens at worst or simply disregarded in terms of inheritance and their place at the family table at best. This is why so many fairy tales about young men often involve the youngest son of several sons striking out on his own to earn his fortune.
But back to The Crone. What is her place in our society?
We are living much longer, more active lives than people did, oh, 500 years ago. We women in middle age are often still sexually active. We’re often divorced, or perhaps we never married. We’re in the workforce, trying to not to become redundant, or we’re trying to get back in the workforce after a divorce. We have adult children, and stepchildren, and nieces and nephews, and the kids next door, and an awful lot of us are raising or helping to raise our grandchildren. We’re trying to turn passions and hobbies into second careers. We’re often dismissed as useless because we’re no longer thirty-five, because our hair is going white, because we don’t feel a need to fight for a place in the world of men. We have our own world that revolves around our families, especially our older family members who may have Alzheimer’s and/or dementia, and our young family members who need so much guidance in this world, and our female friends, and our art and/or our studies, and animals, and plants, and the planet.
And I started writing this post with the intent of suggesting we start calling The Crone by a different title, The Wise Woman, I changed my mind. Because The Crone she has always been and The Crone we will always be. It is, of course, every woman’s choice, but it seems to me that holding the title is a form of our power.
And let us honor our ancestresses, directly related, related, or famous or unknown women who made us who we are.
I ran this post through Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar check and found this (unheeded) suggestion amusing.