The wise old woman archetype often portrays wisdom and cleverness in folktales. In the “Old Woman and the Giant,” a Philippines folktale, an old woman finds herself lost near a giant’s cave. A giant threatens to eat her unless she can make a louder noise than he can. This giant may have been the Manangilaw who was thought to have lived in Bicol. With a vicious looking face, deep voice, body covered in black hair and big feet; he makes a frightening image. The old woman replies that she is too skinny and bony to eat (children often say this in stories too). She says that if he lets her go, she will return with her daughter. Together they may be able to make more noise. Later, the old woman and her daughter make their way back to the cave, drum and a gong in hand. Their noise causes the giant to flee. He runs into his cave and immediately falls into a hole. The wise old woman prevails yet again!
Crone is "a phase in which you can be more authentic, more capable of making a difference in your family and in the greater world. Life gives you experience, and when you draw from it, that's true wisdom. By the time a woman is in her crone years, she is in an amazing position to be an influence. To change things for the better, to bring what she knows into a situation, to be able to say, 'Enough is enough.' You don't have to just go along with things, which is often a part of the middle years. You're often something of a loose cannon."
Jean Shinoda Bolen
Monday, October 30, 2017
Tuesday, July 25, 2017
I’ve long been fascinated by the transformation stories of beautiful young women turning into a hags or monsters. Greek mythology is filled with such stories (for example, Arachne, Medusa and Lamia). In the folktale “SnowWhite,” the wicked queen continually transforms herself into the hag. Beauty vs aging? Beauty vs the monster? It’s a constant theme in stories. Good and evil is so clearly defined in these ancient tales, or so it seems. But is it really? Is there no story to be told by the hags and female monsters? What happens when the wise woman archetype becomes Baba Yaga?
I decided to find out. One way to connect more deeply to the character of the wise woman archetype is by dialoguing with her directly. We can do this simply by journaling or daydreaming an imaginary conversation. Storytellers often engage in this practice to get more fully into character. (A lovely example, is Liz Warren’s discussion with the Irish Cailleach. A video is embedded in this article. Please watch!).
After some reflection, my choice was clear. I wanted to have a conversation with Medusa, who was once a beautiful young woman but transformed into the most hideous and dangerous of Greek mythological monsters (and the subject of many scholarly articles to boot). And so, I bravely entered into a state of active imagination to speak with Medusa.
My conversation with Medusa…
I take my notebook up to the ancient temple. Found on the top of a hill with few columns still standing, Medusa is sitting on a marble bench waiting. I look out over the panorama – the ruins and the sea, the blue sky up above. I take a deep breath and begin.
Kathy: Thank you for taking the time to see me today.
Medusa: It’s good to be remembered.
Kathy: Oh, you are still remembered.
Medusa: That was “their” story. The story of the Romans. It was not factual. It was merely the Facebook version. I appreciate having the time to set the record straight.
Kathy: (Sitting down on the ground beneath her.) It’s nice to see you resplendent in all your natural glory, tunic white and flowing, your hair truly alive with grace and movement. You know I once created a hat with 100 rubber snakes on it for a friend who wanted to become you.
Medusa: Ah yes, I recall that. You did a nice job, I thought, although snakes that don’t move are disgusting.
Kathy: I’d like to talk to you woman to woman if that’s alright. I’m here to listen and record your version of what happened. It’s time your story is told and as a storyteller, I may feel inclined to tell it.
Medusa: Alright, let’s look at what “they” say.
Kathy: Who are “they”? Remember much time has passed and much has been forgotten.
Medusa: “They” are the men who kept the stories, storytellers some; but priests, others. They kept the stories until the male scribes wrote them down. There were women who told the stories too but their stories were not recorded. They were mostly illiterate when the writing was done.
My version? Let’s see. THEY said that I fell in love with Poseidon and abandoned my duties as a priestess to marry him. Kind of a sweet story, isn’t it? At least until Athena gets mad and curses me in some jealous rage and I become a monster! Oh, then there is the version of the story in which Poseidon raped me. Athena’s actions don’t make much sense in that version. Why punish me when it’s not my fault?
The truth is that I was a beautiful young woman. Beauty is desired, of course, but it often comes at a high price. Lust, jealousy, too much attention to the external, you might say. But there was more to me than mere beauty. I wanted to commit my life to honoring Athena. I promised to remain celibate so my duties to her could be fulfilled. But those gods! They were always trolling around. The three brothers were despicable. Beautiful women were their play things. You see it again and again. In the stories of course, the women were always overcome by their charm. Really! If you believe that I have some land in Delphi to sell you.
Let’s see, Zeus, he was a pig. He defiled Alcmene, Hercules’ mother, by pretending to be her husband. Then there was Hades and Persephone. Some are saying she wasn’t raped. What a sacrilege! Anyone who knows Persephone knows she was raped. No one could truly believe that the beautiful daughter of Demeter could ever willingly agree to be the wife of that slime bucket! But I digress. We were all raped and so many more women both in my day and in yours. Some remembered in stories. Some forgotten and some retold as “alternate facts.” Some found justice but many more suffered in silence. Mine is the story of the former.
Kathy: I’m truly sorry. If this is too difficult to discuss, we can stop here.
Medusa: No, it’s time the truth is told. I will continue. And so, I was raped. I will not go into the details. It is the stuff of nightmares and poetry, and I prefer not to relive it in words. Afterwards, I tried to find refuge in the temple, but I was defiled. Athena was livid! Not just at me, of course. She was beyond angry at Poseidon. She could rant and rave all she wanted but there was nothing to be done with Poseidon. He was just too powerful and none of the other gods would come to her rescue. Athena certainly understood for she was raped or almost raped by her brother Hephaestus. When his semen dropped from her leg a snake was born. Snakes in the old days represented rebirth, transformation, immortality, and healing. Interesting, isn’t it? We’ll get back to that later.
Well, Athena had an anger but she couldn’t address it directly and so she placed it on me. It was safer for her that way. Oh, she had much to say to me. She said, “I should have stopped it. I shouldn’t have been so beautiful. I should have fought back. I should have cried out louder. I should… I should… I should.” When I think back on it now it seems she punished me, just as a mother whose child breaks a cookie jar. The child is small and not to blame, but the mother punishes her nonetheless. Such was my fate.
Kathy: A very dire one it was and certainly not deserved.
Medusa: Now the story gets difficult. I think it is one that many women can understand. Athena banished me from the temple. I was no longer a virgin so I could not remain. But did she curse me? No, she did something far worse. She allows me to see myself through her eyes.
Kathy: And how did she see you?
Medusa: Defiled. As a woman with no worth and no value. There was no place for me in the temple and no place for me in the world. And so that is how I saw myself.
Kathy: So Athena did not transform you into a monster?
Medusa: No. I did that myself. She saw me that way and so that is how I saw myself and who I became. She was more than a mother to me. She was the most important goddess of all! After that, I went searching the world to find a new life and a new home, but all I saw were women suffering. Women who were raped. Women who were poor. Women who were beaten and abused. Women who were cursed and spat upon. But that wasn’t all. I saw children who were suffering. I saw oppression. I saw tyranny. I saw greed and vice. I saw men dying needlessly in battle. So much suffering, so many atrocities. I saw them all. They became a part of me. I was transformed. Just like the snake, I was born and died and reborn into my current form.
Kathy: You did all this yourself?
Medusa: Yes, I did. There was no way I could cry out and express what happened to me. There was no one on Olympus who would help. No one on the earth who could help. No one to help any who were suffering. I held their stories tightly in my heart. Remember, I still had the power of the priestess within me. All my suffering and all the suffering in the world was transmuted. It became rage. It wasn’t the rage of a Hindu goddess. It wasn’t the rage that expressed itself like a hurricane or a wildfire. This was the righteous rage of justice: a cold, white rage, more powerful than any force of nature. I didn’t go around the world wiping out civilizations. I was a singular force for I became the face of Truth. It was my mission to embody this truth. All those Greek philosophers jabbering on about Truth and Beauty. All I can say is, this wasn’t pretty.
Kathy: How did you do it?
Medusa: Here is where “they” really got it wrong. As I said, over time I became transformed. I was healed, only not as you might expect. My hair became serpents, my skin scaly, my voice strong and clear. I stood erect. My stride was confident. My eyes, however, were the most dangerous of all, for they were the windows of what I held within. Some called me a monster. Some saw me that way. I don’t think so. I see myself more like Lady Liberty or the Scales of Justice. I was a powerful symbol of what can never be forgotten. Can I ask, how do you see me?
Kathy: When I see you I am taken by your beautiful face. Your hair is alive. You seem more earth goddess than monster to me. When I look into your eyes, I do see great wisdom. And yet there is also a sadness that touches me deeply and rekindles something in my heart.
Medusa: Ah, yes! That is exactly why you can look at me at all.
Kathy: I must admit that I am quite relieved that I have not yet been turned to stone.
Medusa: (Laughing) Highly unlikely that would happen. That only happens to those who are too proud to truly look into my eyes and see the suffering of the world. If you can face me and see nothing, feel nothing of what I have experienced, feel nothing of what the world has experienced, your heart is stone. Then you are turned into stone. This happened mostly to young men, those seeking to find their place in the world of warriors. They were sons of kings - arrogant, entitled, blind to the needs of others. If you wish, simply think of it as a metaphor. You’ll find it less distressing.
Kathy: Yes! It reminds me a bit of the story of Lot’s wife in the Bible. “Don’t look back” on the evil, you might say, or you’ll be turned into a pillar of salt.
(They both laugh.)
By this time, it seems as if you had built up quite a reputation. Did that help your cause?
Medusa: One might think so, but it was quite the opposite. As my reputation grew, the fear increased among the powerful. My true story was forgotten and I became the “OTHER.” I was seen merely as the monster. Not long after that Perseus came along. His grandfather hoped that I would defeat him. I would have too, except that Perseus was aided by those in Olympus. This included Athena, who like all in power, wanted to retain the status quo. You know what happened next, the severing of my head from my body. Then there was the obligatory photo shoot of Perseus holding my head in his hand like some trophy. A symbol of male triumph? No! It was just another act of carnage. My body was discarded as rubbish, believed even then to be the cause of most men’s downfall. But my head! Even when chopped off, my power remained. Actually, my power grew. I was silent but not silenced.
Perseus used me as an unwilling weapon. He never guessed why a single glance could turn his adversary into stone. Athena understood, of course, as much as any goddess was capable. She was the goddess of wisdom after all. On her shield, I became a powerful weapon for a righteous battle, and a reminder of the suffering we both experienced. She went on to win the city of Athens from Poseidon. I like to think my head gave her the confidence to do so.
Kathy: That is quite the tale. Tell me, what do you think of all the art in which you are portrayed?
Medusa: (Laughs long and hardy.) It’s all very male, don’t you think, my dear? Imagine a woman powerful enough to turn men into stone. I must be one frightening bitch, right? No ordinary woman could or would do what I did, or so they think. Best to keep you girls silenced and in your place. No white cold rage building up in you, is there? Of course not! What would happen then? Truth could no longer be contained. It would be seen in all its hideous forms.
So how am I portrayed? As the monster’s head, held up by Perseus, Michelangelo’s perfect representation of virility and manhood. That’s alright with me. Who do they remember, after all, Perseus or Medusa? (Continues laughing)
Kathy: Well, looking at it that way, I would say you won.
Medusa: Yes, I think so. “Truth is not beauty,” Frank Zappa once said. He was right of course. Truth is not beauty but it is a damn site more important.
For those who are interested in experiencing active imagination, please check out Robert Johnson’s book Inner Work.